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Ginny Mason sent a wave and grateful smile to the last of the departing well-wishers, then closed the heavy front door against the raw chill of the late January afternoon with a deep sigh of relief.
That, she thought wryly, leaning a shoulder against the doorframe as she listened to the car draw away, was the worst part of the day over. At least she hoped so.
The crematorium chapel had been full, because her stepfather Andrew Charlton was popular in the locality and well respected as an employer too, being the recently retired head of his own successful light engineering company. But only a handful of those present had accepted Rosina Charlton's invitation to return to the house for the lavish buffet she'd arranged and few had stayed for very long.
They still think of us as interlopers, Ginny told herself, pulling a face, and they probably feel that Andrew should have been buried next to his first wife after a church service.
Or, maybe, word of Mother's plans has probably got around. Today Rosina had been the wistful, gracious chatelaine, fragile in black. Last night she'd declared peevishly that she couldn't wait to sell Barrowdean House and get away from all these stuffed shirts, to somewhere with a bit of life.
'The South of France, I think.' She nodded. 'One of those really pretty villas in the hills, with a pool. So nice for the grandchildren when they come to visit,' she'd added with an arch look at her younger daughter.
'For God's sake, Ma,' Lucilla had said impatiently. 'Jonathan and I have only just got engaged. We won't be thinking of a family for absolutely ages. I want some fun too.'
Nothing new there, then, Ginny had thought to herself. Although she supposed Cilla could hardly be blamed. She was 'the pretty one', whereas Ginny, as her mother often pointed out, took after her father. Her creamy skin and neat figure did not compensate for the fact that her hair was light brown instead of blonde, and her eyes were not blue but grey. And her face could best be described as unremarkable.
Cilla on the other hand was a true golden girl, spoiled since birth by everyone.
Even Andrew had not been immune, because, when she'd returned from completing her education at an expensive establishment in Switzerland, while he might have muttered about her doing some proper training and getting a job, he'd never insisted that she become gainfully employed.
And when she'd caught the eye of Sir Malcolm and Lady Welburn's only son, and courtship had proceeded rapidly to engagement, he'd nodded in a resigned way, as if weighing up the probable cost of the wedding.
An occasion he had not lived to see, thought Ginny, her throat tightening as she remembered the tall, thin kindly man who'd provided such safety and security in their lives for the past ten years.
As she began to recover from the immediate shock of Andrew's death, she was already wondering why they hadn't been warned about his heart condition.
But, as yet, she'd had no real opportunity to grieve. Her mother and Cilla's hysterical reaction to their loss had demanded all her time and attention to begin with, and then had come the bombshell of Rosina's decision to sell Bar-rowdean and move as soon as a buyer could be found, which had knocked her sideways all over again.
There was, her mother had claimed defiantly, nothing to keep her here, because Cilla, marrying darling Jonathan, would be well taken care of.
'While you have your job at that funny little café, Virginia,' she'd added. 'I'm sure someone in the village will have a room you can rent.'
It had been on the tip of Ginny's tongue to say that the café was no longer just a job, but a prospect for the future, and accommodation might not be an issue. However, on second thoughts, she decided to keep quiet.
She moved away from the door and stood, irresolute for a moment, listening to the murmur of voices and chink of china and cutlery from the dining room, where Andrew's elderly housekeeper Mrs Pelham, and Mavis from the village were clearing away the remains of the buffet.
Which we'll probably be eating for the rest of the week, she told herself ruefully.
Mrs Pel, of course, was another problem for her to worry about. Not that the old lady was under any illusions. She knew quite well that Rosina had been trying to get rid of her ever since she'd come to live at Barrowdean House, using Mrs Pel's age and growing infirmity as her excuse. But Andrew had ignored all hints.
Apart from his personal fondness for her, he said, Mrs Pelham was part of Barrowdean, and ran the house like clockwork. When she decided to retire, she would tell him. Until then, no change would be made.
Now, of course, there was no such curb, and the housekeeper's dismissal would be high on the list of Rosina's 'things to do'.
Ginny knew she ought to lend a hand with the clearing, as she did with most of the household chores these days, out of regard for Mrs Pel's arthritis, but instead she headed for Andrew's study to make sure everything was ready for the formal reading of the will.
'What a ridiculous performance,' Rosina had said scathingly. 'When we're the sole beneficiaries.'
I hope it's that simple, thought Ginny, aware of a brief and inexplicable pang of anxiety.
However, Mr Hargreaves, the solicitor who'd always handled Andrew's affairs had been quite adamant that in this, at least, his client's wishes should be observed, and had arranged to call at five o'clock.
The study had always been Ginny's favourite room, probably because the walls were lined with books, and she'd enjoyed curling up in a chair by the fire, silent and engrossed, while Andrew worked at his desk.
She hadn't been in here since his death, and she had to brace herself to open the door, hardly believing that he would not be there to look up and smile at her.
But there was still a living presence in the room. Barney, her stepfather's five-year-old Golden Labrador was stretched out on the rug in front of the fire.
As she entered, he raised his head, and his tail beat a brief tattoo on the rug, but he didn't jump up and come over to push his muzzle into her hand. That was a privilege still reserved solely for the beloved master who would not return.
'Poor old boy,' Ginny said softly. 'Did you think I'd forgotten you? I promise I'll take you out again once this will-reading business is sorted.'
Although Barney, of course, was another problem. Her mother who disliked dogsthe mess, the smellwas already talking about sending him to the vet to be put down, and Ginny felt sick at the prospect.
She would take him herself like a shot, but until she knew for certain what her own prospects were, her hands were tied.
She added logs to the fire, switched on the lamps, made sure there were enough chairs, then walked across to draw the curtains over the French windows. As she did so, she saw the flash of car headlights approaching up the drive, and glanced at her watch, verifying that Mr Hargreaves, usually a stickler for punctuality, was in fact early.
Probably because this is undoubtedly going to be his least favourite appointment of the day, and he wants to get it over with, she thought, with a sigh.
When the doorbell rang a few minutes later, she was surprised to find Barney accompanying her across the hall, whimpering with excitement.
He must think Andrew's simply been away and has just returned, she told herself, her throat tightening again. But it's the sound of his key that he's always recognised in the past.
She tucked a hand into his collar, knowing that not everyone relished being hit amidships by a large and exuberant Labrador, and opened the door.
She began, 'Good evening,' then stopped with the words 'Mr Hargreaves' freezing on her lips.
Because the man standing in front of her was certainly not the family solicitor. For a moment, he seemed part of the darkness, his black trench coat hanging open over a charcoal grey suit, with a leather satchel on a long strap hanging from one shoulder. His hair was dark too, and glossy as a raven's wing, even if it was over-long and slightly dishevelled.
For the rest of him, he was tall, with a lean tanned face and heavy-lidded dark brown eyes. Not good-looking, was her overriding impression. Not with that thin-lipped, uncompromising mouth, nor that beak of a nose, which looked as if it had been broken at some point, and a chin that by contrast seemed to threaten to break any fist which dared approach it.
And yet he was, in some incomprehensible way, faintly familiar, and she found this disturbing.
But Barney had no reservations about the newcomer. With a whine of delight, he broke free of Ginny's suddenly slackened hold and pushed himself against the stranger's legs.
'Barney! Sit down, sir.' There was a faint quiver in her voice, but the dog obeyed, tail thumping and brown eyes gazing up in liquid adoration.
She said, 'I'm sorry. He's not usually like this withpeople he doesn't know.' Or with people he does know most of the time
The man bent and stroked the smooth golden head, gently pulling Barney's ears.
'It is not a problem.' A low-pitched voice, slightly husky, with a definite accent that was certainly not local.
As he straightened, Ginny realised she was being looked over in turn. His face betrayed nothing, but she sensed he was not impressed by what he saw.
Which makes two of us, she thought.
She took a breath. 'I'm sorry. Were we expecting you?'
'Mr Hargreaves expects me,' he said. 'He asked me to meet him here.'
'OhI see,' she said untruthfully, trying and failing to connect this tough who appeared to need a shave with the ultra-conservative firm of Hargreaves and Litton. 'In which case, you'd better come in.'
And if he turns out to be a master burglar and/or a mass murderer, she addressed Barney silently, I shall blame you.
She turned and walked back to the study, knowing without looking round that he was following her, the dog at his side.
She said, 'If you'll wait here. Would you like some coffee?'
'Thank you, but no.'
Civil, she thought, but terse. And the way he was looking round him, appraising what he saw, much as he'd done with herself, made her even more uneasy.
'Mr Hargreaves should be here at any minute,' she went on, and he responded with a silent inclination of the head, as he put down his satchel and shrugged off his trench coat. His shirt she noticed was pearl-grey, open at the neck and he wore a black tie tugged negligently loose.
Feeling she was observing altogether too much, Ginny murmured something about her mother and sister and retired.
In the drawing room, Rosina rose, smoothing her skirt. 'I presume Mr Hargreaves has arrived, and we can get this farce over and done with.'
'No, that was someone elsefrom his office apparently,' said Ginny, frowning a little as she remembered the tanned and calloused fingers that had fondled Barney. Not, she thought, the hand of someone who worked at a desk. So, who on earth
Her train of thought was interrupted as the doorbell sounded yet again. She rose but was halted by her mother.
'Stay here, Virginia. It's Mrs Pelham's job to answer the door, while she remains under this roof,' she added ominously.
Just as if she didn't know how many of the household tasks Ginny had quietly taken over in the past six months.
The drawing room door opened again to admit Mrs Pelham, back upright, but walking with the aid of a stick. 'Mr Hargreaves is here, madam. I have shown him into the study.'
Rosina nodded. 'I'll join him presently.'
She and Cilla disappeared upstairs to tidy their hair and no doubt freshen their make-up. Ginny, content that she looked neat and tidy enough in her grey skirt and cream polo-necked sweater, remembered the unexpected arrival and grabbed an extra chair on her way through the hall.
As she entered the study, she saw him deep in quiet conversation with Mr Hargreaves, who immediately broke off to come across and relieve her of her burden.
His normally calm face was creased in worry. He said quietly, 'I am so sorry for your loss, Miss Mason. I know how close you were to your stepfather. Even now, it hardly seems possible
' He paused, patted her arm and went back to the desk, placing the chair beside his own.
Then there was the sound of voices and Rosina and Cilla entered, their blonde hair in shining contrast to their black dresses.
Mr Hargreaves's unknown companion glanced round and paused, his attention totally arrested by the exquisitely melancholy vision being presented, particularly by Cilla, who was even carrying a handkerchief, and whose dress clung to every delectable contour of her exquisite figure.
Don't even think about it, Ginny advised him under her breath. Cilla prefers the smooth, safe type. You don't qualify on either count.
Rosina paused. 'What is that dog doing in here? Virginia, you know quite well that he should be in the kitchen quarters. Must I do everything myself?'
The stranger spoke. 'Why not a compromise?' He snapped his fingers, and Barney got up from the rug and ambled across to curl up under the desk, out of sight.
Which was not a thing a country solicitor's clerk should do in front of his boss, thought Ginny, startled. And that was definitely a foreign accent. So who was he?
As Rosina began an indignant, 'Well, really,' she took her mother's hand, giving it a warning squeeze and led her to the big chair by the fireplace, herself perching on its arm, hoping that her sixth sense, so often a warning of trouble ahead, was wrong in this instance.
Mr Hargreaves began in the conventional manner, dealing first with the small bequests, to the gardener, and various charities. There was also a generous pension for Margaret Jane Pelham 'in recognition of her years of devoted service', and the use of one of the village properties Andrew owned for the whole of her lifetime.
She should have been here to hear that for herself, Ginny thought wearily, but her mother had vetoed the idea.
'Now we come to the major provisions in the will,' Mr Hargreaves continued, and Rosina sat up expectantly.
'For my wife, Rosina Elaine Charlton,' he went on. 'I direct that she receive an annuity of forty thousand pounds, payable on the first of January each year, and the use of Keeper's Cottage during her lifetime, its repair and maintenance to be paid from my estate.'
'An annuitya cottage?' Rosina, her voice shaking, was on her feet. 'What are you talking about? There must be some mistake.'
'Mother.' Ginny guided her back into her chair, aware that she too was trembling. 'Let Mr Hargreaves finish.'
'Thank you, Miss Mason.' He cleared his throat, awkwardly. 'There is one final and major item.' He paused. 'All other monies and property of which I die possessed, including Barrowdean House and my shares in Charlton Engineering, I bequeath to my natural son, Andre Duchard of Terauze, France.'
There was an appalled silence. Ginny stared at the man sitting beside the solicitor, his dark face expressionless. Andre, she thought. The French version of Andrew. And, while she'd been aware of some faint familiarity, Barney Barney had known in some unfathomable way. Barney had recognised him as family.
Then: 'Natural son?' Rosina repeated, her voice rising. 'Are you telling me that Andrew has left everythingeverythingto somesome bastard? Some Frenchman none of us have heard of until now?'
'But I, madame, have heard a great deal about you,' Andre Duchard said silkily. 'I am enchanted to make your acquaintance at last.'
'Enchanted?' Rosina gave a harsh laugh. 'Enchanted to think that you've robbed me of my inheritance, no doubt.
Well, don't count your chickens. Because I intend to fight this outrage if it takes everything I've got.'