Married to a Mistress(5)

By: Lynne Graham

Maxie was holding her breath, her bemused gaze skimming over the faces of her companions. Polly wore an expression of blank exhaustion but Darcy, never able to hide her feelings, now looked worried sick.

In the pin-dropping silence, the solicitor began to read the will. Nancy Leeward had left her entire and extremely substantial estate evenly divided between her three goddaughters on condition that each of them married within a year and remained married for a minimum of six months. Only then would they qualify to inherit a portion of the estate. In the event of any one of them failing to meet the terms of the will, that person’s share would revert to the Crown.

By the time the older man had finished speaking, Maxie was in shock. Every scrap of colour had drained from her face. She had hoped, she had prayed that she might be released from the burden of debt that had almost destroyed her life. And now she had learnt that, like everything else over the past twenty-two years, from the death of her mother when she was a toddler to her father’s compulsive gambling addiction, nothing was going to be that easy.

A jagged laugh broke from Darcy. ‘You’ve just got to be kidding,’ she said incredulously.

‘There’s no chance of me fulfilling those conditions,’ Polly confided chokily, glancing at her swollen stomach and looking away again with open embarrassment.

‘Nor I...’ Maxie admitted flatly, her attention resting on Polly and her heart sinking for her. She should have guessed there would be no supportive male in the picture. Trusting, sweet-natured Polly had obviously been seduced and dumped.

Darcy shot Maxie an exasperated look. ‘They’ll be queuing up for you, Maxie—

‘With my colourful reputation?’

Darcy flushed. ‘All any one of us requires is a man and a wedding ring. Personally speaking, I’ll only attract either by advertising and offering a share of the proceeds as a bribe!’

‘While I am sure that that is a purely facetious comment, made, as it were, in the heat of the moment, I must point out that the discovery of any such artificial arrangement would automatically disqualify you from inheriting any part of your godmother’s estate,’ Edward Hartley asserted with extreme gravity.

‘You may say our godmother knew her own mind...but I think...well, I’d better not say what I think,’ Darcy gritted, respect for a much loved godmother evidently haltering her abrasive tongue.

Simultaneously, a shaken little laugh of reluctant appreciation was dredged from Maxie. She was not in the dark. The reasoning behind Nancy Leeward’s will was as clear as daylight to her. Within recent months their godmother had visited each one of them...and what a severe disappointment they must all have been.

She had found Maxie apparently living in sin with an older married man. She had discovered that Polly was well on the road to becoming an unmarried mother. And Darcy? Maxie’s stomach twisted with guilt. Some months after that day of cruel humiliation in the church, Darcy had given birth to a baby. Was it any wonder that the redhead had been a vehement man-hater ever since?

‘It’s such a shame that your godmother tied her estate up like that,’ Maxie’s friend, Liz, lamented the following afternoon as the two women discussed the solicitor’s letter which had bluntly demanded the immediate settlement of Leland Coulter’s loan. ‘If she hadn’t, all your problems would’ve been solved.’

‘Maybe I should have told Nancy the real reason why I was living in Leland’s house...but I couldn’t have stood her thinking that I was expecting her to buy me out of trouble. It wouldn’t have been fair to put her in that position either. She really did detest my father.’ Maxie gave a fatalistic shrug. She had suffered too many disappointments in life to waste time crying over spilt milk.

‘Well, what you need now is some good legal advice. You were only nineteen when you signed that loan agreement and you were under tremendous pressure. You were genuinely afraid for your father’s life.’ Liz’s freckled face below her mop of greying sandy hair looked hopeful. ‘Surely that has to make a difference?’

From the other side of the kitchen table, casually clad in faded jeans and a loose shirt, Maxie studied the friend who had without question taken her in off the street and freely offered her a bed for as long as she needed it. Liz Blake was the only person she trusted with her secrets. Liz, bless her heart, had never been influenced by the looks that so often made other women hostile or uneasy in Maxie’s company. Blind from birth and fiercely independent, Liz made a comfortable living as a potter and enjoyed a wide and varied social circle.

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