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Just a few more hours and then everyone would leave. She could do this; she had to. It was what her parents would have expected of her. She could almost hear her mother's voicewarm, faintly admonishingsaying, 'Come on, Annie, keep the flag flying high, sweetie-pie.' It had been one of her mother's favourite sayings when as a small child she had tried to duck out of anything unpleasant.
Marianne Carr drew in a deep breath and straightened her drooping shoulders. Checking her reflection in the bedroom mirror, she satisfied herself that the recent flood of tears didn't show and then left the room. On walking down the wide staircase she could see the odd person or two in the hall, but the main body of guests were in the drawing room. They were talking in the hushed tones one used at funeral receptions.
Crystal, her mother's housekeeper and friend who'd been one of the family for as long as Marianne could remember, met her at the foot of the stairs. Crystal's eyes were pink-rimmed and her voice wobbly when she said, 'Shall I tell them to come through to the dining room now? Everything's ready.'
Marianne nodded. She hugged Crystal for a moment, a catch in her voice as she murmured, 'You've been a tower of strength to me, Crystal. I couldn't have got through this without you.'
Crystal's plump chin trembled as she fought for control. 'I don't feel I have been. I still find it hard to believe they won't walk in the door, to be truthful.'
'I know. I feel the same.' It had been Crystal the police had notified the night of her parents' terrible car crash, two policemen calling at the house. Crystal had immediately phoned her and she had left her flat in London withinminutes. On the journey back to Cornwall she had been in deep shock, praying the whole time that she wouldn't be too late. Crystal had told her her father had been pronounced dead at the scene of the accident but her mother was still clinging to life.
By the time she reached the hospital her mother had been able to tell the police that her father had collapsed at the wheel and the car had ploughed off the road, wrapping itself round a tree. She had had five precious minutes with the woman who had been her best friend as well as her mother. Five minutes to last the rest of her life.
The post-mortem had revealed that her father had suffered a massive heart attack and had probably been dead before the car had hit the tree. It was generally acknowledged it was the worst of luck that he had been driving at the time.
Forcing her thoughts into neutral, Marianne realised Crystal was dabbing her eyes again. 'I'll go and announce they can come through, Crystal. OK?'
'No, no. If you can hold it together, then so can I,' Crystal protested shakily. 'I'll do it.'
The two looked at each other for a long moment, drawing from each other's strength in the midst of their grief, and then Crystal bustled off.
Marianne glanced at her watch, a present from her parents for her twenty-first six years before. One o'clock. Hopefully the assembled family and friends would all be gone by four. She heard Tom Blackthorn's voice as she reached the drawing-room door and saw him standing with a tall dark man she'd vaguely noticed earlier. Tom was her father's solicitor and friend; he'd asked to stay behind after the others had gone so he could read her parents' will to her. She knew it wasn't just that, though. He would feel it his duty to point out that a huge rambling place like Seacrest was too much for a young woman to take on, that it would make more sense to sell it.
She wouldn't listen to him. She mentally nodded to the thought. Seacrest was in her blood. It had been in her father's, and his father before him. It had been her great-great-grandfather who had built the massive stone house on the top of the cliff over one hundred and fifty years ago, and Carrs had lived in Seacrest ever since. Although she had inherited it far too soonher eyes darkened with painshe would keep her beloved house going while she had breath in her body. It was part of her, part of her parents.
'Ah, Annie.' Tom had known her since she was a baby and, as he put out a fatherly arm and drew her into his side, she had to bite back the tears. To combat the weakness she kept her spine straight and her lips clamped together. 'I'd like you to meet the son of one of your father's old friends. Rafe Steed, Marianne Carr.'
Her inward battle to remain composed and in control in spite of her grief during the funeral had rendered her almost blind and deaf throughout. Now, for the first time that day, she looked properly at the man she had noticed earlier at the church and then the graveside with Tom, seeing him as a person rather than another sombre-clothed shape among many sombre-clothed shapes.
The polite, How do you do? which had sprung to her lips was never voiced. He was tallvery talland broad with it. He wasn't smiling. Not that it was the time and place for smiles, she supposed, but there was something in the piercing blue eyes that was unnerving. After what seemed an endless moment, he said, 'Please accept the condolences of my father, Miss Carr. Ill health has prevented him making the journey from the States himself but he wanted to pay his respects.'
His voice ran over Marianne's overstretched nerves like icy water. It was deep, cold and liquid-smooth although the timbre was as hard as polished steel.
Mesmerised more by the coolness of his manner than his height and rugged good looks, Marianne said hesitantly, 'Thank you.'
She could not recall her father or mother speaking of anyone called Steed. Why had this old friend who lived on the other side of the ocean sent his son to represent him after all this time? It seemed strange. 'My father and yours were friends?' she said carefully. 'I'm sorry but I don't remember the name.'
'No reason why you should.' The big powerful body appeared relaxed but this did not detract from the energy and force it projected. 'My father and yours grew up together but my father left for America when he was in his early twenties.'
His accent was the type of lazy American drawl that was so attractive on the silver screen and even the lack of warmth couldn't negate its appeal. Marianne wondered why this stranger disliked her, because he did. It was in his manner, the set of his face and, most of all, his cold, cold eyes.
'I see.' She didn't but it didn't matter as the weight of her loss pressed down on her again. 'Please thank your father for me, won't you. I hope he is well soon.'
'My father is dying, Miss Carr, but slowly.'
The very sharply defined planes and angles of the masculine face showed no emotion as Marianne stared at him. She was completely taken aback but, before she could bring her mind to bear, Tom Blackthorn said, 'I'm sorry to hear that, Rafe. You didn't say before. We had some good times when we were youngeryour father, Annie's and myself. The Three Musketeers.'
There was a small silence when Marianne wondered if Rafe Steed was going to ignore the man at his side, his eyes still intent on her face. Then, to her relief, the rapier gaze moved and he turned to Tom.
His smile wintry, he said, 'So I understand.'
What an objectionable individual. Marianne couldn't believe anyone would come to a funeral and then be so covertly rude to the bereaved. Drawing herself up to her full height of five feet six inches, which unfortunately was still almost a foot below the son of her father's old friend which, she felt, put her at something of a disadvantage, she said as coldly as he had spoken, 'Please excuse me, Mr Steed, but I have other people to talk to.' Nice people, normal people. 'I'll see you later, Uncle Tom.'
It had always been Uncle Tom and Aunt Gillian since she was a child although they weren't related. Her mother and father had both been only children and so it had been Tom's two sons and two daughters she had looked on as cousins and, having no brothers and sisters herself, their friendship had been precious. It still was, although all but the youngest son had moved to other parts of the country.
As she made her way around the room, talking to one group of folk and then others, Marianne was uncomfortably aware of a pair of blue eyes watching her every move. Most people had plates of Crystal's delicious buffet in their hands by now but, although Tom had wandered off into the dining room, she knew Rafe Steed had not budged from his stance by the door.
'Who's the Heathcliff type Dad's been talking to?' As Marianne joined the group consisting of Tom's children and their partners and his wife, it was VictoriaTom and Gillian's youngest daughter and the only child still unattached and fancy-freewho spoke. 'He's new round here, isn't he?'
As her mother shushed her, Victoria said, 'What? You know you want to know as well.' Turning to Marianne, she added, 'Dad just said he's an old friend but Mum doesn't know him and she thought she knew all of Dad's friends.'
Marianne smiled. Victoria was the maneater of the Blackthorn sisters. A confirmed bachelor girl with a fantastic career in central government, she had announced early in life that marriage and children weren't for her; neither were permanent relationships it would seem. It was common knowledge she ate men up and spat them out and, being a tall redhead with curves in all the right places and come-to-bed blue eyes, they queued up for the privilege of having their hearts broken. And Victoria had obviously set her sights on Rafe Steed. She was so welcome.
Keeping her voice light and easy, Marianne said, 'His father was an old friend, not him. Apparently your father and mine grew up with his. His name's Steed. Rafe Steed.'
'Steed?' Gillian was a Cornish lass, unlike Marianne's mother who had moved to the district from the north of England with her family when she was a young woman. 'He must be Andrew Steed's son. Yes, I can see it now although he's a head taller than his father was, but Andrew was very good-looking, too. They've got the same black hair and blue eyes. It was a combination that used to send the girls in a tizzwazz. With your father being so fair, Annie, and Andrew being so dark they used to have the girls throwing themselves at them.'
'What about Dad?' Victoria interjected a little defensively.
'Oh, your father was always mine,' Gillian said comfortably. 'Everyone knew that.'
Victoria's gaze was on Rafe Steed again. 'He's barely taken his eyes off you, Annie. And he's got a very sexy mouth,' she added, almost to herself. 'In fact he's "very" everything.'
This time her mother really meant it and Victoria recognised the tone. 'Sorry,' she said quickly to Marianne. 'I wasn't being flippant regarding your mum and dad, Annie. You know how much I thought of them.'
'It's fine.' It was. In fact, she preferred Victoria's naturalness to the awkwardness with which most people were treating her today. 'Why don't you go across and introduce yourself?' she suggested, knowing Victoria was longing to.
'You've got the excuse he's an old friend of your father's and, furthermore, he doesn't know anyone. You'll be taking pity on him.'
'That's just what I thought.' Delighted, Victoria was off.
'That girl.' Gillian shook her head while her two sons and eldest daughter and their respective spouses smiled indulgently. 'I don't know what it is about her but she attracts the men like bees to a honeypot. He'll be taking her out for dinner tonight, you mark my words.'
Marianne said something non-committal and moved on. She didn't care if Rafe Steed took half of Cornwall out for dinner tonight; she thought he was the rudest man she had ever met. If she saw him again in the whole of her life after today it would be too soon. Victoria was utterly welcome and, thinking about it, if anyone could bring such a man to heel, Victoria could.
She purposely didn't look over the other side of the room for some time, but when she did it was to see that Rafe Steed and Victoria had been joined by the rest of Tom's family and they were all chatting and smiling. Ridiculously, Marianne felt betrayed. The feeling disappeared almost as soon as it had come but it left her with stinging eyes and a trembling mouth. Suddenly she wanted her mother so much it hurt.
Don't be stupid, she told herself silently, walking across to the french windows and gazing out over the rolling grounds which stretched down to the high stone wall separating their property from the cliff path. She was a grown woman of twenty-seven and she had lived in London for the last five years since qualifying as an occupational therapist. She had a responsible job with a top London hospital and she had long since taken charge of her life. She was grown up, not a child.
It didn't help. Right at that moment she would have given everything she owned and was for five minutes with her parents.
You've still got Seacrest and Crystal. She hugged the thought to her as she fought back the tears. And, whatever it took, she would keep both. She would find a job down here and live at home and hopefully, if they were careful, she'd manage to pay the bills a large seven-bedroomed house like Seacrest produced. They could always do bed and breakfast in the holiday season; she'd been thinking about that in the last few days since the accident. And she would take care of the grounds herself rather than have the gardener her parents had employed one day a week.
If she had to, that was, she qualified, her eyes following a seagull as it swooped and soared in the blue June sky. She had no idea if there would be any money attached to her parents' estate; she and her parents had never talked of such things. There had been no need. Her parents had still been relatively young at fifty-seven and sixty respectively, and she'd had her flat and career in London. When she had come down to Cornwall for the occasional weekend or holiday, illness and death and wills had seemed as far away as the moon.