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May Coleridge stared blankly at the man sitting behind the desk, trying to make sense of what he'd told her.
Her grandfather's will had been simplicity itself. Apart from the bequests to local charities, everything had been left to his only living relative. Her.
Inheritance tax would mop up pretty much everything but the house itself. She'd always known that would happen, but Coleridge House was the only home she'd ever known and now, because of a clause in some centuries old will, she was about to lose that too.
'I don't understand,' she said, finally admitting defeat. 'Why didn't you tell me all this when you read Grandpa's will?'
'As you're no doubt aware,' Freddie Jennings explained with maddening pomposity—as if she hadn't known him since he'd been a kid with a runny nose at kindergarten— 'my great-uncle took care of your grandfather's legal affairs until he retired. He drew up his last will after the death of your mother—'
'That was nearly thirty years ago,' she protested.
He shrugged. 'Believe me, I'm as shocked as you are.'
'I doubt that. Jennings have been the Coleridge family solicitor for generations,' she said. 'How could you not know about this?'
Freddie shifted uncomfortably in his chair. 'Some of the Coleridge archives were damaged during the floods a few years ago. It was only when I applied for probate that this particular condition of inheritance surfaced.'
May felt as if she'd stepped into quicksand and the ground that she was standing on, everything that had been certain, was disintegrating beneath her feet. She had been so sure that this was a mistake, that Freddie has got his knickers in a twist over nothing, but it wasn't nothing. It was everything.
Everything she'd known, everything she'd loved was being taken away from her…
'The last time this clause would have been relevant was when your great-grandfather died in 1944,' he continued, as if that mattered. 'Your grandfather would have been told of the condition then.'
'In 1944 my grandfather was a fourteen-year-old boy who'd just lost his father,' she snapped, momentarily losing her composure at his attempt to justify their incompetence. 'And, since he was married by the time he was twenty-three, it wouldn't have been an issue.' And by the time it had become one, the stroke that had incapacitated him had left huge holes in his memory and he hadn't been able to warn her. She swallowed as an aching lump formed in her throat, but she refused to let the tears fall. To weep. 'People got married so much younger back then,' she added.
'Back then, there wasn't any alternative.'
Her mother had been a beneficiary of the feminist movement, one of that newly liberated generation of women who'd abandoned the shackles of a patriarchal society and chosen her own path. Motherhood without the bother of a man under her feet was the way she'd put it in one of the many articles she'd written on the subject.
As for her, well, she'd had other priorities.
'You have to admit that it's outrageous, Freddie. Surely I can challenge it?'
'I'd have to take Counsel's opinion and even if you went to court there is a problem.'
'I think we are both agreed that I have a problem.'
He waited, but she shook her head. Snapping at Freddie wasn't going to help. 'Tell me.'
'There can be no doubt that this restriction on inheritance would have been explained to your grandfather on each of the occasions when he rewrote his will. After his marriage, the birth of your mother, the death of your grandmother. He could have taken steps then to have this restriction removed. He chose to let it stand.'
'Why? Why would he do that?'
Freddie shrugged. 'Maybe because it was part of family tradition. Maybe because his father had left it in place. I would have advised removal but my great-uncle, your grandfather came from a different age. They saw things differently.'
'He had three opportunities to remove the entail-ment and the Crown would argue that it was clearly his wish to let it stand. Counsel would doubtless counter that if he hadn't had a stroke, had realised the situation you were in, he would have changed it,' Freddie said in an attempt to comfort her.
'If he hadn't had a stroke I would be married to Michael Linton,' she replied. Safely married. That was what he used to say. Not like her mother…
'I'm sorry, May. The only guarantee I can give is that whichever way it went the costs would be heavy and, as you are aware, there's no money in the estate to cover them.'
'You're saying that I'd lose the house anyway,' she said dully. 'That whatever I do I lose.'
'The only people who ever win in a situation like this are the lawyers,' he admitted. 'Hopefully, you'll be able to realise enough from the sale of the house contents, once the inheritance tax is paid, to provide funds for a flat or even a small house.'
'They want inheritance tax and the house?'
'The two are entirely separate.'
She shook her head, still unable to believe this was happening. 'If it was going to some deserving charity I could live with it, but to have my home sucked into the Government coffers…' Words failed her.
'Your ancestor's will was written at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The country was at war. He was a patriot.'
'Oh, please! It was nothing but an arm twisted up the back of a philandering son. Settle down and get on with producing the next generation or I'll cut you off without a shilling.'
'Maybe. But it was added as an entailment to the estate and no one has ever challenged it. There's still just time, May. You could get married.'
'Is that an offer?'
'Unfortunately, bigamy would not satisfy the legal requirements.'
Freddie Jennings had a sense of humour? Who knew?
'You're not seeing anyone?' he asked hopefully.
She shook her head. There had only ever been one boy, man, who'd ever lit a fire in her heart, her body…
'Between nursing Grandpa and running my own business, I'm afraid there hasn't been a lot of time to "see" anyone,' she said.
'There's not even a friend who'd be prepared to go through the motions?'
'I'm all out of unattached men at the moment,' she replied. 'Well, there is Jed Atkins who does a bit for me in the garden now and then,' she said, her grip on reality beginning to slip. 'He's in his seventies, but pretty lively and I'd have to fight off the competition.'
'He's very much in demand with the ladies at the Darby and Joan club, so I'm told.'
'May…' he cautioned as she began to laugh, but the situation was unreal. How could he expect her to take it seriously? 'I think I'd better take you home.'
'I don't suppose you have any clients in urgent need of a marriage of convenience so that they can stay in the country?' she asked as he ushered her from his office, clearly afraid that she was going to become hysterical.
He needn't have worried. She was a Coleridge. Mary Louise Coleridge of Coleridge House. Brought up to serve the community, behave impeccably on all occasions, do the right thing even when your heart was breaking.
She wasn't about to become hysterical just because Freddie Jennings had told her she was about to lose everything.
'But if you are considering something along those lines,' he warned as he held the car door for her, 'please make sure he signs a pre-nuptial agreement or you're going to have to pay dearly to get rid of him.'
'Make that a lose/lose/lose situation,' she said. Then, taking a step back, 'Actually, I'd rather walk home. I need some fresh air.'
He said something but she was already walking away. She needed to be on her own. Needed to think.
Without Coleridge House, she would not only lose her home, but her livelihood. As would Harriet Robson, her grandfather's housekeeper for more than thirty years and the nearest thing to a mother she'd ever known.
She'd have to find a job. Somewhere to live. Or, of course, a husband.
She bought the early edition of the local newspaper from the stand by the park gates to look at the sits vac and property columns. What a joke. There were no jobs for a woman weeks away from her thirtieth birthday who didn't have a degree or even a typing certificate to her name. And the price of property in Maybridge was staggering. The lonely hearts column was a boom area, though, and, with a valuable house as an incentive, a husband might prove the easiest of the three to find. But, with three weeks until her birthday, even that was going to be a tough ask.
Adam Wavell looked from the sleeping infant tucked into the pink nest of her buggy to the note in his hand.
Sorry, sorry, sorry. I know I should have told you about Nancie, but you'd have shouted at me…
Shouted at her. Shouted at her! Of course he would have shouted at her, for all the good it had ever done.
'You could say that.' For the first time since he'd employed Jake Edwards as his PA, he regretted not choosing one of the equally qualified women who'd applied for the job, any one of whom would by now have been clucking and cooing over the infant. Taking charge and leaving him to get on with running his company. 'My sister is having a crisis.'
'I didn't know you had a sister.'
No. He'd worked hard to distance himself from his family.
'Saffy. She lives in France,' he said.
Maybe. It had taken only one call to discover that she'd sublet the apartment he'd leased for her months ago. Presumably she was living off the proceeds of the rent since she hadn't asked him for money. Yet.
Presumably she'd moved in with the baby's father, a relationship that she hadn't chosen to share with him and had now, presumably, hit the skids.
Her occasional phone calls could have come from anywhere and any suggestion that he was cross-examining her about what she was doing, who she was seeing only resulted in longer gaps between them. It was her life and while she seemed happy he didn't pry. At twenty-nine, she was old enough to have grown out of her wildness and settled down. Clearly, he thought as he reread the letter, he'd been fooling himself.
I've got myself into some real trouble, Adam…
Trouble. Nothing new there, then. She'd made a career of it.
Michel's family set their bloodhounds on me. They've found out all the trouble I was in as a kid, the shoplifting, the drugs and they've used it to turn him against me. He's got a court order to stop me taking Nancie out of France and he's going to take her away from me…
No. That wasn't right. She'd been clean for years… Or was he still kidding himself?
A friend smuggled us out of France but I can't hide with a baby so I'm leaving her with you…
Smuggled her out of France. Ignored a court order. Deprived a father of access to his child. Just how many felonies did that involve? All of which he was now an accessory to.
One minute he'd been sitting in his boardroom, discussing the final touches to the biggest deal in his career, the next he was having his life sabotaged—not for the first time—by his family.
I'm going to disappear for a while…
No surprise there. His little sister had made a career of running away and leaving someone else to pick up the pieces. She'd dropped out, run away, used drugs and alcohol in a desperate attempt to shut out all the bad stuff. Following the example of their useless parents. Making a bad situation worse.
He'd thought his sister had finally got herself together, was enjoying some small success as a model. Or maybe that was what he'd wanted to believe.
Don't, whatever you do, call a nanny agency. They'll want all kinds of information and, once it's on record, Nancie's daddy will be able to trace her…
Good grief, who was the father of this child? Was his sister in danger?
Guilt overwhelmed those first feelings of anger, frustration. He had to find her, somehow make this right, but, as the baby stirred, whimpered, he had a more urgent problem.
Saffy had managed to get her into his office without anyone noticing her—time for a shake-up in security— but that would have to wait. His first priority was to get the baby out of the building before she started screaming and his family history became the subject of the kind of gossip that had made his—and Saffy's—youth a misery.
'Do you want me to call an agency?' Jake asked.
'For a nanny?'
Even if Saffy's fears were nothing but unfounded neurosis, he didn't have anywhere to put a nanny. He didn't even have a separate bedroom in his apartment, only a sleeping gallery reached by a spiral staircase.
It was no place for a baby, he thought as he stared at the PS Saffy had scribbled at the end of the crumpled and tear-stained note.
Ask May. She'll help.
She'd underlined the words twice.
May. May Coleridge.
He crushed the letter in his hand.
He hadn't spoken to May Coleridge since he was eighteen. She and Saffy had been in the same class at school and, while they hadn't been friends—the likes of the Wavells had not been welcome at Coleridge House, as he'd discovered to his cost—at least not in the giggly girls, shopping, clubbing sense of the word, there had been some connection between them that he'd never been able to fathom.
But then that was probably what people had thought about him and May.
But while the thought of the untouchable Miss Coleridge changing the nappy of a Wavell baby might put a shine on his day, the woman had made an art form of treating him as if he were invisible.
Even on those social occasions when they found themselves face to face, there was no eye contact. Only icy civility.
'Is there anything I can do?'
He shook his head. There was nothing anyone could do. His family was, always had been, his problem, but it was a mess he wanted out of his office. Now.
'Follow up on the points raised at the meeting, Jake.' He looked at the crumpled sheet of paper in his hand, then folded it and stuffed it in his shirt pocket.