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By Catherine Coulter
MIRACopyright © 2005 Catherine Coulter
All right reserved.
Daphne Claire Asherwood sat cross-legged on her blue flowered beach towel, watching the tourists, mainly German, board the small motorboat tied to the dock of the Elounda Beach Hotel. They were off for a day of fishing and swimming on one of the many deserted islands off the northeastern coast of Crete.
As usual, the Greek sun was so hot she could feel her knee caps beginning to burn after only thirty minutes. Blast her fair complexion, she thought, reaching for her bottle of sun-screen. As she rubbed the thick cream into her warm flesh, she smiled ruefully at the two brief strips of bright orange nylon that covered her. Uncle Clarence would have had a seizure if he'd seen her in something so very revealing.
Uncle Clarence, dead now, and with no more control over her life. She felt little grief at his passing at ninety years of age, only an occasional expectation of hearing his voice, commanding in his querulous way for her to fetch something for him. He's a lonely old man, she'd told herself when she'd felt the familiar spurt of resentment. He really can't help that he's hateful and treats me like a housekeeper, nurse and servant, a possession to be at his beck and call at any time, day or night. I owe him because he took me in when my parents died. It was a litany that had become more difficult over the years. Now she was free of him. She sighed and carefully fastened the cap on the sunscreen. Aunt Cloe would tell her roundly to stop dwelling on those long, empty years at Asherwood. "Life," Aunt Cloe would say grandly, "life, my dear little egg, awaits you!"
Well, Daphne thought, thrusting her chin upward, I'm ready for it...I think. But how did one go about grasping life if one had no notion of what to grasp at? What was she going to do when she returned to England? I am an adult, twenty-three years old, she told herself yet again, a new litany in response to the thorny question. An adult always thinks of something. She looked down her body at the bikini and shook her head, bemused. She would never forget the look on Aunt Cloe's face when she'd emerged from the posh dressing room in an Athens department store, slinking forward, her hands furtively trying to cover herself.
"Merciful heavens!" Aunt Cloe had exclaimed. "And here I thought you a skinny little twit! Goodness, love, what a bosom! Now that I think of it, your dear mama was marvelously endowed. I shan't despair, no indeed, I shan't despair."
Despair about what? Daphne had wondered. It was true about the bosom, hidden for so many years beneath her loose jumpers and oversized windcheaters. She personally thought she looked lopsided, particularly since the rest of her was so skinny.
"No, love, not skinny," Aunt Cloe had said sharply, demolishing Daphne's tentative observation. "Fashionably svelte! Like a model, at least from the seventh or eighth rib down."
And now here she was in Greece, on the island of Crete, a place she'd dreamed for years of visiting, sitting on a beach and looking like a model, from the ribs down. Eighth rib.
Why, she groaned silently, running one hand distractedly through her long hair, did I let Aunt Cloe talk me into this? Not that Crete wasn't one of the most beautiful places Daphne had ever seen, for it was. Aunt Cloe had known for years that Daphne had spun dreams of visiting the Acropolis and the Greek isles, and particularly King Minos' palace, now partially restored, on the outskirts of the capitol of Crete, Herakleion. And, of course, Aunt Cloe knew she would simply adore the exquisite small village of St. Nicholas with all its colorful fishing boats and quaint canals. "Well, little egg," Aunt Cloe had said to her in mild exasperation when she'd dithered, "do you intend to rot here by yourself at Asherwood until you're booted out by the new viscount? It's time, my girl, to do something for yourself!" Daphne had let Aunt Cloe sweep her away from England after Uncle Clarence's funeral. I'm like a limp noodle, she told herself in silent disgust. Always bending to the stronger will. But at least Aunt Cloe wanted her to have fun.
Suddenly aware that a man was looking her way, his dark eyes resting with a good deal of interest on her bosom, she eased herself quickly into a robe and skittered from the beach. Men, she thought, another problem. What did one do with them?
Where the dickens was Aunt Cloe?
Cloe Sparks was busy making an appointment with the French hairdresser in St. Nicholas, Monsieur Etienne.
"She has looked the jeune fille for all her life, monsieur," she was explaining. "Now she is twenty-three and still looks fourteen. You know, too gamine. We must have something dramatic, scintillating, oh, something je ne sais quoi!"
"I understand, madame," Monsieur Etienne said, the veil of boredom glazing his dark eyes. These pushy English-women and their deplorable, heavy-handed French! Undoubtedly this gamine was a squat, depressingly plain girl who was probably better off just as she was. "When would you like to bring the young lady to me?" He picked up his appointment book and gave her one of his special intimate smiles.
"Tomorrow at nine o'clock," Cloe said firmly. On the taxi ride back to the Elounda Beach Hotel, Cloe chewed her lower lip, painfully chapped from the relentless Greek sun. She'd forced Daphne into this trip, whirling her willy-nilly away after the old curmudgeon's funeral to Athens, then on to Crete. She'd taken advantage of the girl's sweet biddable nature, just as the old curmudgeon had always done. But, dammit, it was for her own good. Yes, she thought, resolutely, Daphne had to have her chance. She wasn't plain, not by any means. She still had to get Daphne out of those ridiculous glasses of hers and into contacts. She drew a deep breath. One thing at a time, Cloe, she told herself. Everything was right on schedule. She had to remember, she reminded herself, to send a cable to Reggie Hucksley in London. She needed another week, at least.
Brant hugged his mother tightly. "Peace and quiet at last, lots of tender loving care, and no hassles. It's so good to be home. You look beautiful as ever, Mom." She usually teased him when he told her that, because he was her masculine counterpart in looks.
Alice Asher said nothing for a few moments, feeling an equal surge of affection for her splendid son. Thank heaven he wasn't like his father, embarrassed to show his feelings, as if that would make him less than a man. "Welcome home, Brant. It's so good to see you again. In addition to tender loving care, I've made you your favorite dinner — stuffed pork chops and homemade noodles."
"My body will think it's died and gone to heaven with a home-cooked meal, Mom." He gave her another hug and released her.
"There's lots to talk about."
Her eyes searched his face for a moment. He looked tired and, oddly enough, wary and uncertain. "Yes, I imagine there is. But first, honey, why don't you just relax for a while?"
Brant sat down and leaned back against the soft cushions of his mother's infinitely old and comfortable velvet sofa. He grabbed one of the cushions, shoved it behind his head and closed his eyes.
"It's been a hard several days I would imagine," Alice Asher said, her eyes, as brilliant a blue as her only son's, resting sympathetically on on his tired face. "I'm glad you managed to get here in secret. The press has been hounding me, too. Luckily, they haven't managed to track Lily down."
"She's cruising the Aegean, right?" Brant asked, cocking an eye open.
"Yes, this time with her husband," came the tart response.
"It is her honeymoon, Mom," Brant said, grinning at her.
"Her third! And of all things, Danny, Patricia and Keith are staying with his mother."
"Don't fret," Brant said. "I like Crusty Dusty, and so do the kids. Lord knows he's rich enough to give her whatever she wants."
"He's closer to my age than Lily's!"
"You know as well as I do that Lily needed someone like Dusty, someone older to keep her in line."
"You should hear his Texas accent!"
"I have. You're not turning into a snob, are you, Mom, just because you're now a dowager viscountess, or something? The way the nobility address each other is craziness."
Alice Asher smiled ruefully. "You're right. I'm a regular old fool, and I sound like an obnoxious mother-in-law." She sighed deeply, clasping her hands in her lap. "I wonder what your father would say to all this."
"He'd laugh, a big belly laugh, and tell them to go shove it. The ridiculous title and the moldering estate."
"Moldering?" Her fair left eyebrow shot up. "What do you know that I don't, Brant?"
He felt a surge of restlessness and bolted up from the sofa. He said over his shoulder as he strode to the bow window that looked into the beautifully landscaped front lawn of his mother's Connecticut home, "I spent several hours yesterday with my lawyer, Tom Bradan, and a solicitor — as they say — who'd come all the way from London to 'inform me of my good fortune," which is exactly what he said in that affected accent. Fellow's name is Harlow Hucksley, of all things! About my age, I'd guess, acts like a pompous nerd, and covers himself with tweed. And skinny as your azalea stems, not a muscle on him."
Alice Asher laughed, picturing Harlow Hucksley with no difficulty. Her splendid athletic son didn't think much of men who were "soft as mulch." She imagined that with his teammates he would be far more specific and excessively graphic.
"He was the jerk who spilled the beans to the press, dam — darn him."
"You gave him a tongue-lashing, I suppose." Brant turned and gave her a crooked grin. "Well, Tom did run a bit of interference for the guy. I tried to outflank him, but it didn't work. He expected me — no, he really demanded — that I fly to London and get everything squared away."
"You will go, of course," Alice said calmly.
"Why the...heck should I?" Brant said sharply. "It makes no difference to me what happens to any of it."
Alice Asher gave her son a long, thoughtful look. "I know your father never spoke much about his English relations, and neither did your grandfather, for that matter, but England is a part of your heritage, honey. You are more than half-English, you know, because I've got a drop or two in there somewhere. Remember that letter he wrote you last year? The old man knew a lot about you."
"Obnoxious," Brant said.
"Perhaps. I reread the letter, you know, after you phoned me. It was really rather pathetic."
"Mom, listen. Harlow told me very little, but I gather there are no estates, and no money. Just this moldering old house in a place called Surrey, and maybe some worthless acres surrounding it."
"The house is called Asherwood Hall, and its located in a quaint village, East Grinstead."
"And don't forget that the title had to come to me, so Harlow Hucksley says. The old coot had no choice about that. The rest of it he probably willed to me because it's worthless, and he realized that the American branch had some money and would pour it back into his tomb of a house."
"Well, son," Alice said logically, "you do have money. It really wouldn't hurt for you to at least go see the place. The season's over, after all. You are at loose ends for a while, aren't you?"
Brant shrugged. "I'm supposed to do a commercial for a sporting goods company, but not right away."
"At least it's not shaving cream!"
Brant laughed. "True. Lily told me she'd never speak to me again if I bared my face to the world covered with white sh — stuff." He shot his mother a guilty look from the corner of his eye.
"Don't feel guilty about your...lapses, dear," Alice said, rising. "I expect it'll take you a while to get yourself under control. Last year, if I remember correctly, it took about two months. As for your sister's language —" She shrugged, slanting her right shoulder just as her son did.
"Look, Mom," Brant said, fighting what he knew was now a losing battle, "maybe you should go. You could take charge of things and tell me what you think."
"Brant," she said, her blue eyes sparkling with mischief.
"I already have culture. It's time you acquired some. Roots, Brant. They are important. As a personal favor to me, honey."
"Damn," he muttered. "It's not as if I didn't have any culture, for God's sake! I have been to Europe, and I did go to college."
"Yes, dear, I know."
"I didn't have to be tutored like a lot of the athletes!"
"Yes, dear, of course."
"My degree isn't totally worthless. Communications. Maybe I'll go into announcing when I retire from football."
"Yes, dear, an admirable choice."
"Duke isn't a second-rate college."
"Of course not. You exhibited tremendous foresight. I am quite proud of you, as was your father, of course. Now, why don't you think about it for a while? I'm going to go stuff the pork chops."
He gave up the battle and said, mimicking her, "Yes, dear, an excellent idea."
Excerpted from The Aristocrat by Catherine Coulter Copyright © 2005 by Catherine Coulter. Excerpted by permission.
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