New York City
Vivienne stared at the portrait of her loud, arrogant, bombastic father and stifled the grief that had yet to ease. Captured by deft strokes of color, Sir William Christie's patented scowl glared down from above the library's austere marble fireplace. Even three weeks on from his rain-drenched funeral, the truth of his passing had yet to sink in. But there she waited in his brownstone mansion for the reading of the will.
She waited to breathe again.
Her gloved hands wouldn't stop their restless dance across a pleated ruffle at her waist. Had she repaid her debts to him when she'd been nothing but a dead Frenchwoman's brat? Had she masked her resentment when he'd held back his approval, expecting her to rise above the circumstances of her birth?
Harsh, her father. Always harsh. But never had there been a man more true to his word. He had claimed her as his daughter. The details of the bequest, however, had been kept in the strictest secrecy. Anything less than a substantial share of the estate would mean a return to England--to her husband. The rabble and grime of her childhood in the Paris slums held more appeal.
At least then she'd been cherished.
Viv pressed unsteady palms between her breasts and breathed once, and again, until her fears quieted. She needed to keep her best face in place. Instead of more fretting, she reinforced her courage with memories of those first few monstrous months after her betrothal. Wealthy Sir William's knighthood, bestowed by Her Majesty for his contributions to British rail facilities, had only permitted Viv entrée. The remainder of the steep social climb had been hers to undertake. On the cusp of marrying into the aristocracy, she had succeeded in becoming a vital, respected member of London society.
The greatest challenge of her life--a challenge met and conquered.
Whatever the will held in store for her, Viv would persevere. She believed that of herself, as had her demanding father.
The door behind her opened. She turned to find the butler ushering a tall, stoic man into the library.
"Alex," she breathed.
Only upon seeing her older half-brother did Viv realize she'd been counting the minutes until her siblings' arrivals. Their laughter and unflinching devotion had laid a bedrock of strength atop memories of her mother's love. Alex's embrace was strong and sure. When sleep had eluded Viv as a child, he had been the one to read aloud the mythological stories she loved--no matter that he examined life with the analytical detachment of a gifted scientist.
He drew back and gave her shoulders a squeeze, as if making certain she would remain standing when he let go. The library hardly seemed so gloomy with his steady support. "How are you holding up, Viv?"
"Well enough." She shrugged slightly, studying him. Five months had only just started to ease the grief of his wife Mamie's death. Weariness still tugged his lips downward and deepened the creases fanning toward his temples. "And you?"
"I've been better." He offered an tremulous smile. "But I've been worse too."
Like a verdant breeze in spring, Gareth and Gwyneth arrived next--together, of course, and as stylish and noisy as always. Chatter from Gwen. Snickered replies from Gareth. And laughter enough from both to prompt a smile from even Alex.
Aside from those final days of their father's demise and burial, Viv hadn't seen the twins since August, when Gwen had debuted as Gilda in Rigoletto. Her younger half-sister's star was on the rise in the world of opera, with Gareth there to manage her career.
Holding themselves with the matched confidence of youth, wealth and expectation, they harbored no outward doubts as to their share of the Christie estate. Neither did Alex. After all, her siblings were not bastards. Viv was, with her misbegotten origins hidden by an adoption's paper-thin veneer of respectability.
Had their father needed to disclose her true origins to his attorneys...
Gwen and the boys knew. But Viv's place in Society would be lost forever if anyone else learned the truth.
"It had to be the library," Gareth said, shaking Alex's hand before the men pulled one another into a quick embrace. "I always hated this polite dungeon."
After receiving Gareth's affectionate kiss on the cheek, Viv embraced her sister. Gwen, all sunshine and champagne bubbles, always held on a little longer and a little tighter than anyone else, so Viv closed her eyes. Comfort eased deep into her bones. "Good to see you, my dear," she whispered.
"And you, Viv. I don't know how I'd manage all of this bother without you and Jonesy to see me through," she said, using her twin's childhood nickname.
"Don't worry. All will be well."
Gareth dropped onto the nearest settee. "Are we all still gathering in Newport?"
"Packed and ready," Viv said. The Christies' palatial summer home, dubbed Calton after Sir William's birthplace, would be less hospitable at that time of year. But they'd anticipated the need to escape Manhattan Island and regroup in private, no matter the will's contents. They would protect one another as they always had, banding together beneath their father's long shadow. "Alex, is Edmund well enough to travel?"
Dressed in an elegant yet practical woolen suit, Alex appeared every inch the celebrated astronomer. But he was also the exhausted father of an infant son born prematurely. "I do hope so. His nurse is keeping him comfortable, but the croup has yet to leave him be."
Forever the first to offer comfort, Gwen followed Alex to another settee and held his hand. "Here's hoping this won't take long," she said.
"Little likelihood of that," Alex replied. "You know how Father was. Such an opportunity for grandstanding won't go unnoticed, even from beyond the grave."
Viv resisted the urge to flick her gaze back to the portrait, as if Alex's skepticism might deepen that scowl rendered in oils. Their father's severity had been just as fixed while he lived. To his last breath, his mind failing and his body succumbing to pneumonia, he'd required only a frown to reduce her to the child she'd been, plucked from a grim Parisian prison and whisked to a pristine new life. She'd long ago forgiven his sternness because of the gifts his kindness had bestowed, her family being the foremost.
Alain Delavoir, the estate's hawk-faced executor, arrived without fanfare. He settled into the leather wingback behind a massive mahogany desk, his bony frame dwarfed by furniture crafted to suit Sir William Christie's robust Scots build.
"Everyone, please have a seat," he said.
Momentarily beset by her fears, Viv swayed. Somber oxblood walls tightened. Dust and a trace of mold leached out of countless books on sober, orderly shelves. But that smell only stiffened her resolve. This was her father's domain. And she would rise to his expectations--surpassing them, if possible.
As she settled onto the dark room's third settee, she thought of her little brownstone some three miles north. The chrysanthemums were in bloom, while spring would rejuvenate her beloved lilacs. Her home. A place of refuge she'd purchased with hoarded resources. Granted, that refuge had rotting shutters and a leak in the cellar, with walls in need of paint and a roof that let in bats. But it was hers and she loved it. She hoped for money enough to maintain it properly. Nothing was more important than keeping the property that represented her independence.
"The good news is that the estate will not be subject to probate," Delavoir said, his accent a discordant hybrid of Paris and Westchester County. "The entirety of the Christie fortune has been duly allocated, or else stored in trust. My duty today is to outline the nature of these arrangements."
Alex's expression was dubious. "Father never said anything about trusts."
"Nor did he intend to," Delavoir replied. "He'd hoped discretion would minimize speculation and protect share prices."
"While keeping us in the dark," Gareth said with a grimace. "No surprises thus far."
"Jonesy, he probably had his reasons." Not only the most empathetic, Gwen was, inevitably, the most stalwart defender of their father's actions. Thus she and her twin maintained staunchly opposing natures. "No use second guessing them now."
"Of course he had reasons." Grinning, Gareth ticked them off his fingers. "Reexamining our reprehensible life choices, admitting he was right all along, and thanking him for the lesson learned."
Viv laughed behind her gloved hand. Even Alex smiled. Much of the tension dissipated, lifted by shared mirth. Yes, they would persevere. She believed that with all her heart.
A tall man barged past the sputtering butler and strode into the library. Cigar smoke swirled around him like a sickly fog.
Viv's stomach twisted. Dear God, he came.
Miles Warren Durham, 9th Viscount Bancroft. The man she'd married to please her father. The man she'd fled to save her dignity.
Ribs straining, her heart was trying to escape the confines of her body. The moment he would look her in the eye dangled between them like the blade of a guillotine. It would be lurking there in his languid gaze--the confrontation they'd delayed for over a year.
Without acknowledging anyone, Miles strode to the sideboard and opened a decanter with sloppy haste. As if by some dark magic, he didn't spill a drop of liquor on the plush Turkish carpet.
The sight of him stripped Viv of the hope that time might blunt her response. He remained just as imposing, in possession of height, brawn, and negligent grace. Coffee-colored hair curled just at the edge of his collar. And his face. She'd always been a fool for his face, especially freshly shaven as he was just then. All symmetrical and strong, his chin, nose, forehead had been crafted from the very best of his aristocratic forebears.
Seeing him again left her lightheaded, just as recalling the Saunders' gala still lit a fire in her chest. Miles had conjured such rough pleasure on their last night together. A swift heaviness settled in her breasts and between her legs, which she tried to ease by sitting straighter, by clamping her knees so tightly that bone ground against bone. Memories made her blood bubble and roll, tingling under skin that had yet to forget his touch.
But the following week, after discovering the real reason behind that passionate seduction, she'd departed for New York.
Unable to look at her siblings, Viv feared what she would see on their faces. Confusion, maybe, or disapproval. Outright pity. She had weathered such censure in London by adopting a placid, tolerant demeanor, but that falsity never felt right when facing her family. She'd hoped Miles wouldn't bother to come--too intent on debauchery to make the tedious transatlantic crossing--just as she prayed he wouldn't choose that moment to lay bare their private war.
"Don't let me interrupt." He collapsed beside Viv and draped an arm around her shoulders. Cigar ash flicked onto one of her cream-colored kid gloves. Yet he remained perfectly at ease and perfectly groomed. A blue-and-white silk ascot hugged his throat as he swallowed scotch. His highborn English accent slurred around sloppy consonants, but his actions spoke of clear-headed antagonism. "Let's have done with this."
Miles' warm breath slid along her nape. Viv hated herself for shivering, for aching, for indulging him with even an ounce of her attention. He'd always been so unpredictable. Temptingly reckless. But she could only apologize for his behavior so many times. The esteem he'd squandered with each fresh disappointment tempered her desire. How could she give herself into the keeping of a man she did not respect? A man who disdained his title and squandered the wealth her family had worked so hard to attain?
Never again. She found strength in those words. Never again. The mantra throbbed in her mind as she shrugged from under Miles' hold, one as casual as it was meant to intimidate.
Delevoir adjusted his monocle and cleared his throat. His blatant impatience drew Viv back to the gravity of what he would reveal. The will. Her future. A chance to be free of the dangerous man at her side.
Retrieving a document from his patent folio case, Delavoir said, "The majority of Sir William's liquid assets have been endowed to Crittenford, the academy for immigrant children he founded some years ago. As for the remainder of Christie Holdings Limited, the railroads and the newspapers, he relinquished his own shares back to their respective companies."
Viv's fingertips turned to ice. Puzzlement slid toward sick understanding. Even Miles perked up at the news. "Of all the bloody cheek," he said, grinning. "He's entitled it all away."
Gwen had gone white. Her chin trembled. "But...he wouldn't!"
"He has," Delavoir said firmly.
Miles snickered before returning to the sideboard. "Then I believe I shall refill my Hennessey before we're all turned out."
"And what remains for us?" Alex asked.
"You are to be offered managerial positions, each with a different subsidiary company. These companies were acquired through the years by by Sir William. For some reason or another, all are on the brink of collapse."
Delavoir produced four folios. When Viv saw her name emblazoned on the topmost one, she stifled a relieved smile. No matter her father's intentions, she hadn't been left out. He'd kept his word, just as she knew he would.
"If, at the end of a two-year contract, the company you've managed is worth more than its value upon Sir William's death, you will be awarded a substantial bonus and the option to purchase a controlling interest in your enterprise. In the meantime, the businesses will remain property of the shareholders."
Gwen's hand fluttered up to her throat. "We would be...employees?"
"Precisely," Delavoir said.
"Father always did want us to take after him," Gareth said sardonically. "Now he gets to make sure that happens."
No easy smiles anymore. Only then did Viv notice the dark circles beneath his eyes--eyes the same deep hazel shared by four children born to three different women.
"What if we decide to refuse this offer of employment?" Alex asked.
Delavoir tapped the folios with skeletal fingers. "Then your proposed contract is nullified, and your inheritance will be a single payment of 500 dollars."
Viv's voice wavered a little when she asked, "And if we fail?"
"Again, a single payment of 500 dollars," Delavoir said. "Nothing more."
Goosebumps pocked her skin. She had learned a great deal about her father's enterprises--far more than the others, who had indulged in the license of legitimacy by rebelling in little ways. But to run a whole company!
With her head listing toward Alex's shoulder, Gwen looked as ill as Viv felt. But even Alex, the calm, stalwart center of their family, drummed his fingers along the armrest. Gareth shook his head with a rueful chuckle, as if to say, "I told you so."
Only Miles appeared amused, leaning carelessly against the sideboard. His slipshod posture contrasted with his perfectly tied ascot and the sharp line of his dark gray suit. The smirk marring his fine mouth would've been more appropriate for telling a bawdy story. The afternoon had turned nightmarish but Viv's husband retained a detached humor she dearly resented. And envied.
"I'd have thought at least one of you would inquire after the reward," he said with a slight sneer. He skewered Delavoir with an expression that attested to generations of power. "So tell us, man. What is the bonus?"
"One million dollars."
"Each?" Alex asked, mouth agape.
"Potentially, yes." Delavoir picked up the topmost folio. "Lady Bancroft, would you care to know the details of your position?"
Viv's brain was still grappling with that sum. One million dollars. "Yes, I would."
Miles returned to sit beside her. With a half-smile on the only lips she'd ever kissed, he seemed almost...eager. Her muscles twitched with the need to take his hand and draw from his unexpected strength. She'd yearned for exactly that across two years of marriage, only to be refused and, eventually, disillusioned. Physical pleasure entertained him, but the unruly viscount had never sought more, never offered more. The trial of adoring two selfish men--her father and her husband--had taught Viv that some mountains weren't meant to be scaled.
She firmed her spine and faced Delavoir. If she would do this, she'd do it alone.
"Vivienne, Viscountess Bancroft," he began, "adopted daughter of Sir William Christie and the late Mrs. Catrin Jones Christie."
Gripping the armrest, she offered silent thanks for another gratifying reprieve. Even in death, her father had kept the façade of her adoption in place. She was a Christie. And she'd prove it. If her father believed her as capable and deserving as her half-siblings, she would not fail him.
"You will manage the Christie Diamond Brokerage House in Kimberley, Cape Colony."
"Cape Colony?" Her mind blanked. She swallowed past a dry lump. "Where is that?"
Miles laughed--a thin, malicious sound. He leaned back and puffed once on his cigar, meeting Viv's gaze for the first time. Through a sallow cloud of smoke, his earthen brown eyes blazed with a sharp intensity that made her tremble.
"My dear lady," he said, "you are bound for the south of Africa."
©2011 Carrie Lofty. Uncorrected copy. For review purposes only. Any other use violates copyright law.