Скачать fb2
A Convenient Wedding

A Convenient Wedding

Аннотация

    It was a grand white wedding that would make the society pages the world over-handsome British aristocrat Jarvis Larne was marrying beautiful American oil heiress Meryl Witners. But behind the lavish ceremony, their vows were a sham. Marrying for convenience had been the only way Jarvis could save his estate-and that had hurt his pride. But after the wedding came the wedding night-which exceeded both their expectations! Was their society wedding set to become a marriage for real?


Lucy Gordon A Convenient Wedding

    © 2002

CHAPTER ONE

    MERYL WINTERS had driven cheerfully and confidently in many of the world’s great cities, but New York was her home town, and something in its air gave her driving an extra edge.
    As soon as the banks were open she swung her cheeky red sports car out of Broadway, into Wall Street, screeched to a halt, ignoring a ‘No Parking’ sign, and jumped out. Tossing the keys to the doorman, she swept on into the head office of the Lomax Grierson Bank. The doorman had just scrambled into the car when a traffic cop approached with an expression of doom. ‘You can’t book this car,’ the doorman protested, aghast. ‘It belongs to Miss Winters.’
    The traffic cop hastily backed off.
    Inside the bank Meryl strode on through the marble halls, knowing that all eyes were on her. She’d been an object of curiosity since she was fifteen and her father’s death had left her fabulously wealthy. Since growing up she’d also attracted attention because she was five feet ten inches in stockings, with a pencil-slim frame that any model would have killed for, racehorse legs, huge green eyes and long black hair. Heads turned. Male heads. That was fine by her. Masculine admiration was one of the great pleasures of her life.
    But right now nothing was further from her thoughts. She was in a scorching temper and someone was going to die. Looking neither to the right or the left, she continued on up as far as the Chairman’s office.
    The secretary was new, and didn’t recognise her, but she was instinctively in awe of this blazingly self-confident young woman. ‘Er-Mr Rivers is very busy,’ she ventured. ‘Do you have an appointment?’
    ‘Why should I need an appointment?’ Meryl asked in surprise. ‘He’s my godfather, as well as my trustee. Besides-I have something to say to him.’
    ‘Yes, but you can’t-’ She found herself talking to empty air. Meryl didn’t recognise the word ‘can’t’.
    She flung the door open and stopped on the threshold, surveying the man inside. ‘So there you are,’ she purred.
    Lawrence Rivers, a large, greying man with a jowly face, rose from behind his desk and smiled with implacable geniality. ‘Meryl, my dear-what a delightful surprise.’
    Meryl raised one elegant black eyebrow. ‘You’re surprised that your outrageous letter brought me here? I don’t think so. Larry, how often do I have to tell you not to interfere in my private affairs?’
    ‘And how often do I have to tell you that the disposal of a large sum of money isn’t your private affair?’ he retorted.
    ‘I’m twenty-four years old and-’
    ‘And until you’re twenty-seven I can prevent you tossing money away as though it was going out of fashion. Your father knew what he was doing when he made that will.’
    ‘Dad was under your influence or he wouldn’t have thought of it,’ she flung back.
    ‘True. Craddock Winters knew everything about oil wells and machinery, and nothing about anything else, including his daughter. You were headstrong at fifteen and you haven’t grown any better. When you tell me you want to waste ten million dollars on a man of no account like Benedict Steen I know I was right to protect you.’
    ‘Benedict is not a man of no account-’
    ‘Well, I know what I think of a man who spends his life making frocks,’ Larry Rivers declared complacently.
    ‘He does not “make frocks”,’ Meryl said indignantly. ‘He designs high fashion, and he needs a backer to put him at the very top of the tree. It wouldn’t be a waste of money; it would be an astute business investment.’
    ‘Ten million dollars on a dress shop?’ Larry demanded. ‘You call that an astute business investment?’
    ‘It’s not a dress shop. Benedict needs proper premises-’
    ‘Surely he already has somewhere?’
    ‘Yes, a back room down a side street,’ she replied. ‘I want to see him in a decent place, in central Manhattan, where he can show a big collection and attract international clients.’
    ‘Ten million dollars,’ Larry repeated slowly, trying to get through to her.
    ‘He needs to take the collection to Paris, Milan, London and New York,’ Meryl explained. ‘He needs staff. He needs to advertise in the top fashion magazines. It all costs money.’
    ‘Ten million dollars!’
    Meryl shrugged. ‘I like doing things properly.’
    ‘And when would you get it back?’
    ‘Who cares about getting it back?’ Meryl asked expansively.
    ‘Aha! Now we have the truth. So much for an astute business investment!’
    ‘OK, it’ll be fun. What’s wrong with that? I can afford it, can’t I?’
    ‘You wouldn’t be able to afford it for long if I let you be manipulated by a plausible charmer like Benedict Steen. I can see why you’re crazy about him. He’s handsome-if you like those kind of flashy looks-’
    Meryl breathed fire. ‘Larry, I’ve told you till I’m blue in the face-I am not in love with Benedict. And may I remind you that he has a wife?’
    ‘A wife he’s in the process of divorcing. I dread to awaken one morning and find your engagement announced in the New York Times.’
    ‘Well, if I married him-not that I want to-at least you’d have to hand over my money,’ Meryl pointed out. ‘In fact, you’ll have to do that whoever I marry.’
    ‘Do you have a bridegroom in mind?’
    ‘No, but anyone will do. Larry, I’m warning you, I want my money freed from your shackles. And if I don’t get it I swear I’ll marry the next bachelor I see. Do I make myself plain?’
    ‘Certainly my dear. Now let me make myself plain. You will not-repeat not get me to release ten million dollars for this harebrained scheme. And that’s my final word on the subject.’
    Meryl looked at him with smouldering eyes for a long moment, but, reading no relenting in his face, snapped, ‘You haven’t heard the last of this,’ before storming from the room.
    If Larry had seen Meryl an hour later, standing half-dressed in Benedict’s work-room in a basement off Seventh Avenue, while he fitted a dress on her, addressing her occasionally as ‘darling’, he would have felt his worst fears confirmed. But Larry wasn’t a perceptive man, and he wouldn’t have noticed that Benedict touched her with the impersonal hands of a doctor, and his endearments were mechanical. He called every woman ‘darling’, especially the two devoted, elderly seam-stresses who made up his garments.
    Meryl had been his goddess and benefactor since they were both fourteen, and had met at her expensive boarding school, where he’d been the gardener’s son, and she’d saved him from bullies. Thereafter she’d protected him and he’d run her forbidden errands into the nearby village.
    ‘You might as well talk to a brick wall,’ she sighed now. ‘I keep telling Larry that I’m not in love with you, so why won’t he believe me?’
    ‘Perhaps he’s heard of my lady-killing charm?’ Benedict suggested, turning her slightly. ‘Lift your arm, darling, I want to pin you just here.’
    Meryl did so, smiling as she watched him work and saw the beautiful creation coming to life. She’d calmed down by now and her sense of fun, never far in abeyance, had returned.
    Her mother had died when she was six, after which she’d been raised by her father, a self-made oilman, who’d prized her and showered her with indulgences while seldom having much time to spend with her. His death had left her fabulously rich but alone in every way that counted.
    She knew the value of her looks and her wealth, but she might have grown up ignorant of all other values but for a naturally warm heart. She had a temper, but an impish sense of the absurd was constantly undermining it, and if she possessed one charm greater than her beauty it was her ability to laugh at herself. Nobody knew where that gift came from for her mother had been a gentle melancholy lady, and her father had been too busy making money to laugh. It had grown out of her own nature, and it occurred to nobody that it might be a defence. Why should the beautiful, privileged Meryl Winters need defences?
    After her explosion at the bank she’d stormed off to see Benedict and they’d been wrathful together, until she’d repeated Larry’s remark about ‘making frocks’. Then Benedict had produced an explosion of his own, which had reduced Meryl to laughter.
    Now she was asking teasingly, ‘How’s your lady-killing charm working on Amanda these days?’
    ‘Don’t mention that woman,’ Benedict snapped. ‘The worst mistake of my life was to marry her, and my best decision was to leave her.’
    ‘Says who? She threw you out. I heard your neighbours were kept awake by you banging on the door pleading to be let in.’
    ‘Lies. All lies.’
    ‘And don’t forget you called her from my apartment with your speech of reconciliation all worked out, and she slammed the phone down as soon as she heard your voice.’
    ‘Don’t upset me when I’m pinning,’ he begged. ‘There could be an accident.’
    ‘Not if you want my ten million dollars.’
    ‘Well, I’m not going to get it, am I?’ he reminded her peevishly. ‘Not until you’re twenty-seven. And not even then if Larry Rivers has anything to do with it.’
    ‘He won’t. Absolute control passes to me on my twenty-seventh birthday-unless I marry first. Then I get it on my wedding day. But I’m blowed if I’m waiting another three years. I’m fed up with Larry controlling my life.’
    ‘He hardly controls it. You’ve got that apartment on Central Park, another one in Los Angeles, you spend a fortune on clothes and cars, and he pays the bills without question.’
    ‘But if I want a lump sum he can block me. I’m going to change that, even if I have to do as I said and haul someone in off the street to marry them.’
    ‘You’ve got men pursuing you by the dozen. Won’t one of them do?’
    ‘No, it should be someone right outside my normal life, who’ll serve his purpose and then vanish.’
    Benedict laughed. ‘Then why not advertise?’
    The next moment he wished he’d held his tongue, for Meryl whirled around on him, her eyes shining. ‘Benedict, you’re a genius. That’s exactly what I’ll do.’
    ‘There’s something wrong with this whisky of yours,’ Ferdy Ashton observed, studying the bottom of his tumbler.
    Jarvis, Lord Larne, raised his head from the desk where he was working. ‘Something wrong with it?’ he asked, frowning.
    ‘It keeps disappearing,’ Ferdy complained. ‘I could swear this glass was full a moment ago. So was the bottle. And look at them now.’
    Jarvis’s rather stern face softened into a grin. ‘You’ve got my special vanishing whisky,’ he said. ‘It always seems to be around when you’re here.’
    ‘Well, it’s certainly vanished now.’
    ‘You know where it’s kept.’
    Ferdy looked around him at the library of Larne Castle as though expecting a fresh bottle to present itself for inspection. Behind the thick brocade curtains a window rattled slightly in the night wind. It was tightly shut, or at least as tightly as could be managed, but there wasn’t a window in the building that didn’t let in a draught. The place was eight hundred years old and urgently in need of repairs to help it withstand the gales. Its inhabitants protected themselves as best they could with heavy drapes and roaring fires. There was one in the grate this minute, casting a red glow over the two Alsatians stretched out on a shabby rug before it.
    Nearby sat their master, also shabby despite his ancient, aristocratic title. From his appearance Lord Larne might have been one of his own tenants. His dark brown hair looked as if it needed a cut, and its shaggy disarray somehow typified him. His corduroy trousers were old and darned, as though in continual use for hard country work, which, in fact, they were. The sweater Jarvis wore over them had started life in an expensive shop, but it too had come down in the world.
    He was a tall, powerfully built man, massive about the shoulders but lean in the face, with dark eyes that easily grew fierce over a nose with a faint hook. That nose told the story of the awesome Larne temper that he let rip only occasionally, often at the stupidity of the world, especially when it threatened his ancient heritage.
    But with anyone who had his affection the fierceness vanished, replaced by an all-forgiving tolerance. With Ferdy Ashton tolerance was often tinged with exasperation, but the fondness never wavered, which baffled observers.
    Just what the serious, puritanical Jarvis saw in the irresponsible Ferdy nobody could fathom. He was as willowy slender as Jarvis was bull massive, his voice as light and reedy as Jarvis’s was deep and resonant. Their friendship had started at school and they were the same age, but Ferdy’s boyish looks and manner made him seem younger.
    He was an artist, when he bothered to be anything. He had talent, which he was too lazy to use, treated life as a joke, never troubled about tomorrow, and would probably be shot by an enraged husband before he was fifty. No worries troubled his brain, and perhaps that was the secret of his attraction for the permanently troubled Jarvis.
    ‘Not a drop of whisky in the place,’ he mourned now. ‘You’re a hard man, Jarvis Larne.’
    ‘I’m a poor one; I know that.’
    A young woman with handsome features and an air of disapproval spoke from the library steps. ‘You’d be less poor if you didn’t let spongers soak up your whisky and live rent-free in your cottages.’
    Ferdy surveyed her cynically. ‘If that’s meant for me, sister dear, I’ll thank you to keep your observations to yourself. Jarvis and I settled the rent of my cottage long ago.’
    ‘I know you settled it, but when did you last actually pay it?’
    ‘Don’t split hairs. I pay for my cottage and my drink, not in cash, but in the pleasure of my company.’
    Sarah Ashton made a noise that was perilously close to a snort. ‘I’d like to see Jarvis pay his bills with the pleasure of your company-such as it is,’ she remarked acidly.
    ‘Leave him alone, Sarah,’ Jarvis advised amiably. ‘You know he’s incorrigible.’
    ‘He wouldn’t be if you didn’t encourage him.’
    ‘Yes, I would,’ Ferdy said at once. ‘I was born incorrigible.’ He went to the drinks cabinet, considered its sparse contents, and returned to his seat empty-handed. On his way he caught his heel in the shabby carpet and almost fell into the chair. He grasped the arms to steady himself, and heard a dismal wrenching sound as the threadbare material tore. ‘I’ve made a hole in your chair,’ he announced with an air of discovery.
    Jarvis shrugged. ‘I doubt I’ll notice it among the others.’
    ‘You know what you could do with, Jarvis lad?’
    ‘A new chair, probably.’
    ‘A rich wife.’
    Jarvis’s grin returned. ‘To be sure, they’re going begging, aren’t they?’
    ‘As a matter of fact they are.’ Ferdy picked up the newspaper which he’d been reading a moment earlier. ‘See here,’ he said, jabbing with his finger at an advertisement.
    Jarvis took the paper and read, “‘Wanted-one fortune-hunter to marry heiress: Millionairess seeks nominal husband in order to gain control of her own fortune. Generous terms to the right man”.’
    He tossed the paper back to Ferdy. ‘Someone’s idea of a practical joke,’ he growled. ‘Either that or a journalist. If you think I’m going to offer myself up to ridicule you’ve taken leave of your senses.’
    ‘But suppose it’s for real? Why pass up the chance?’
    ‘Because for one thing I’ve nothing to offer a millionairess-’
    ‘Nonsense,’ Ferdy ribbed him. ‘You’re a fine upstanding fellow and the answer to any maiden’s prayer.’
    ‘And you’re incurably vulgar,’ Jarvis said without rancour.
    ‘I agree,’ Sarah added acidly.
    ‘And for another,’ Jarvis continued, ‘the last thing I’d ever do would be to offer myself to a rich woman in a meaningless marriage simply to get my hands on her money.’
    ‘Quite right,’ Sarah announced. She descended from the steps and pointed to a large portrait over the fire. It showed an elderly man with a belligerent face that bore a notable resemblance to Jarvis’s own, standing very upright, in the splendour of a general’s dress uniform. ‘What would your grandfather have said?’ she demanded. ‘I’ll tell you. He’d have reminded you of the Larne family motto-“Let invaders tremble”. Then he’d have shown this woman the door.’
    ‘But he’d have tumbled her in the hay first,’ her brother said wickedly.
    ‘Ferdy!’ she snapped.
    ‘Well, it’s true. He was a terrible man for the women. Father told me there was hardly a family in these parts that didn’t have a little Larne bast-’
    ‘That’s enough. You’re shocking Sarah.’ Jarvis grinned.
    She took up the paper. ‘If this isn’t a journalist but a real woman she must be lacking in all sense of decency.’
    ‘She’s certainly not a woman I’d ever care to meet,’ Jarvis agreed.
    ‘You’re a puritan,’ Ferdy rebuked him.
    Jarvis nodded. ‘I’m afraid you’re right. Don’t worry. I’ll save the estate, but I’ll do it on my own.’
    ‘How?’ Ferdy demanded.
    Jarvis sighed.
    A few minutes later Sarah requested a private conversation with Jarvis, who courteously left the room with her. Ferdy could heard the hum of their voices through the door. ‘So what’s this little chat about, eh, Sarah?’ he murmured. ‘Some earnest advice about nothing? Whatever excuse you’ve found, you’re wasting your time. You’ve given Jarvis a hundred chances to propose to you, and he’s taken none of them. You’re like a sister to him, I’m glad to say. It wouldn’t suit me at all to have you the mistress here.’
    He surveyed his empty glass with a sigh. Then a wicked smile spread over his face. He crossed over to the desk, quickly purloined a couple of sheets of estate notepaper, and was sitting by the fire again when the other two returned.
    ‘Where exactly is Yorkshire?’ Meryl asked Benedict as they shared a bottle of champagne.
    ‘In England. That’s all I know. Why?’
    She chuckled. ‘It’s where my prospective husband lives.’
    ‘You actually had a reply?’
    ‘It came this morning.’ She yawned and leaned back against the leather arm of Benedict’s huge sofa. She was lying lengthways on it while he sat sprawled at the other end.
    ‘No kidding!’ he said. ‘Who?’
    ‘Jarvis Larne. A lord, no less. He lives in Larne Castle in Yorkshire.’
    Benedict took the letter from her and scanned it hilariously. ‘He’s very upfront about his poverty,’ he noted. ‘Castle falling down, cracks everywhere, whisky running out-heiress urgently required.’
    ‘It’s a joke. I bet he doesn’t exist at all.’
    ‘He does,’ Benedict said unexpectedly. ‘I’ve seen the name in a book of English peerages I bought in case I ever get any titled customers. It’s on that table.’ She gave it to him and he began flicking through the pages. ‘Here we are. Viscount Larne of Larne Castle. Hmm! Quite a pedigree.’
    He began to read aloud, “‘Jarvis, Lord Larne, twenty-second viscount, age thirty-three, inherited the title when he was twenty-one.” Hey, fancy being a lord at twenty-one. All that droit de seigneur.’
    ‘What?’
    ‘The ancient feudal right of the lord to have any virgin on the estate.’
    ‘You made that up!’
    ‘No way. It’s the tradition. It goes back centuries. That’s why half the estate workers look alike. When you give him a son you won’t be able to tell him from the others.’
    ‘Don’t be silly. Of course I’m not going to marry him. I put that advertisement in because I was mad at Larry, but I’ve cooled down now.’
    ‘Goodbye ten million dollars,’ Benedict sighed.
    ‘Nope, I’ve sorted that,’ Meryl announced triumphantly. ‘I’m getting a bank loan. The Lomax Grierson isn’t the only bank in New York. Any one of the others will be glad of my business. I’d have done it before but it seemed so silly when I didn’t need to.’
    ‘Bless you. Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?’
    ‘I was waiting for the call to confirm it, but that’s just a formality. When the phone rings-you’ve got it!’
    Right on cue her mobile shrilled and she seized it up, giving Benedict a delighted wink. But then he saw her smile fade, replaced with a look of outrage. When she spoke it was through tight lips.
    ‘You said there’d be no problem-what’s Larry Rivers got to do with anything? He doesn’t run your bank-yes, I know he’s my trustee but-legal action?’
    By the time she hung up Benedict had a tolerably exact idea of what had happened. ‘I guess Larry’s tentacles spread further than we thought,’ he sighed.
    ‘He actually dared warn them off-’ Meryl seethed. ‘Well, there are other banks-’
    ‘Which he will also have warned off,’ Benedict pointed out.
    ‘He threatened them with law suits,’ Meryl fumed. ‘Oh, I could-’
    The mobile rang again. Benedict got quickly out of the way.
    ‘Larry,’ Meryl said sulphurously, ‘I’m warning you-’
    ‘Warn away if it amuses you, my dear,’ came her godfather’s complacent voice down the line. ‘Try your wiles elsewhere if you like wasting your time. Then tell Benedict Steen that he won’t get a cent out of you for the next three years. Bye.’
    He hung up.
    ‘Oh, won’t he?’ Meryl breathed. ‘Right! That’s it! Benedict, how do I get to Yorkshire?’
    He stared. ‘You mean tomorrow?’
    ‘I mean today!’
    What on earth was she doing?
    And why hadn’t her guardian angel made sure there wasn’t a flight until next morning, thus giving her a night to see sense?
    But the angel must have been off duty, because there had been a flight at nine that very evening to Manchester. Before she knew it she was on her way.
    A belated attack of conscience had made Benedict try to argue her out of it.
    ‘You don’t know anything about this place. It’s isolated up there and you’ll be on the edge of the North Sea-gales and-and things.’
    ‘Stop fussing like an old hen and find me a hotel at Manchester Airport. I’ll need a room if we land at three-thirty in the morning.’
    ‘England is five hours ahead of us. It’ll be eight-thirty.’
    ‘Not in here,’ she said, pointing to herself. ‘For me it’ll be the early hours.’
    She was glad of her decision when she landed and could zonk out on a comfortable bed. But after only a couple of hours she awoke feeling fine, and a shower followed by a hearty breakfast completed her recovery.
    She was humming as she dressed in Benedict’s latest creation, an elegant olive-green trouser suit in a silk mo-hair blend, with a tawny sweater and matching silk scarf.
    ‘I suppose I should have called Lord Larne first,’ she mused, putting the finishing touches to her make-up. ‘Well, I would have done if I really meant to marry him. As it is, I just had a temper tantrum, and serves me right! Oh, Larry, the things you make me do! This is all your fault!’
    Briefly she thought of catching the next flight home, but outside her window the day was glorious, and an adventure beckoned.
    At the car rental firm she picked up an open-topped red sports two-seater that reminded her of her beloved car back home. A few minutes getting used to having the steering wheel on the left, and the traffic on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and she was away on the hundred and twenty miles to Larne.
    Driving carefully, she reached York without mishap, and went for meal in an oak-beamed restaurant. As she ate she studied her map, noting that the castle was on a small island just off the coast. But the road travelled straight across the water, so obviously there was a bridge.
    She read Lord Larne’s letter again and was charmed by its light-hearted air. He spoke of poverty but with a humorous touch that suggested he might be pleasant to know.
    It was getting late when she restarted her journey. By the time she’d reached open country the light was already fading and there was a nip in the air.
    The map informed her that she’d reached North York Moor. Luckily there was a clearly marked road across it, and twenty miles would bring her to the coast and the bridge to Larne Castle.
    As she headed across the moor the sun vanished and black clouds began to scud across the sky. The road had no lighting, and she soon had to switch on her headlamps. Outside their glowing circle the bleak land stretched away for miles. She was totally isolated, and beginning to feel a tad dismayed. All around her the earth grew blacker and the wind gusted strongly. The light sports car didn’t hold the road well, and the rain was getting heavy now. She stopped and got out to try to put up the top. It stuck.
    She became chillingly aware of her isolation in this bleak place, with no sign of life in any direction. Not a light. Nothing. It was like being the last person left alive on earth.
    But this was an adventure, right? A headless horseman might come galloping past. Just now even a headless horseman would be welcome company.
    ‘So what the heck if I’m alone?’ she demanded of the starless sky.
    Incurable honesty made her add. ‘And lost. And confused.’
    She abandoned the attempt to raise the top and got back into the car. There wasn’t much further to go. But ‘adventure’ was definitely fraying at the edges.
    ‘How do I get myself into these situations?’ she muttered. ‘Oh, well, it can’t be far now. All I need is a friendly local to direct me.’
    Right on cue a torch gleamed just up ahead, and soon she discerned the outline of a very tall man. In the headlamps’ glare she could make out that he was wearing faded, muddy trousers and a leather-patched jacket that had seen better days. Here was the ‘local’ she’d wanted, except that he definitely wasn’t friendly. He planted himself rudely in her path and waited for her to stop.
    Muttering dire curses, Meryl braked. The car responded sluggishly and the gap between her and the stranger narrowed with alarming speed.
    ‘Move!’ she shrieked, swerving madly and missing him by a whisker. He hadn’t budged.
    She vaulted out of the car and placed herself in front of him, furious, terrified and soaked by the downpour. ‘Have you got a death wish?’ she yelled. ‘What’s the idea of just standing in front of me?’
    ‘The idea was that you should stop,’ he yelled back against the wind.
    ‘I tried to. It’s an unfamiliar car. I only hired it this morning.’
    ‘And you didn’t check the damned brakes.’
    ‘I did check the brakes. They worked perfectly at the airport.’
    ‘Then I guess the firm saw you coming.’
    She breathed hard. ‘I’ll pass over your rudeness, but I do want to know why you just stood in my path when you must have seen I was having trouble stopping. Why didn’t you get out of the way?’
    ‘That’s what the world usually does for you, is it? I didn’t move because then you might have driven on, and the road’s under water. I may consider you a total idiot for driving out here in that thing you jokingly call a car, and not dressing properly for these parts, but I don’t want you to drown because I didn’t warn you. Where are you going anyway?’
    ‘Is that any of your concern?’ she demanded, fighting the crick in her neck. It was infuriating to have to argue with a man so much taller than herself. Meryl could look most men in the eye, but she had to peer right up as this man loomed over her. He was built for looming, too, powerful about the shoulders, with a harsh face and eyes that flashed disagreeably over a slightly hooked nose. He would have been impressive at any time, but from this angle it was like arguing with an enraged bull.
    ‘It’s my concern if you drive into the sea,’ he snapped. ‘That road doesn’t lead anywhere.’
    ‘According to the map it leads to Larne Castle.’
    ‘Well, you can’t go there, so-’
    ‘Who says I can’t?’
    He made a tearing movement at his hair which the rain was plastering to his skull. ‘It’s not open to tourists,’ he yelled over the storm.
    ‘I am not a tourist!’
    ‘Then why are you turning up out of the blue?’
    ‘Who says I’m out of the blue?’
    ‘I know this-nobody is expecting you.’
    ‘Oh, yes, they are-well, in a sort of way-maybe not today exactly-hell! Why am I telling you? I am going to Larne Castle.’
    ‘How? Swim?’
    ‘Over the bridge.’
    The grinding of his teeth was audible even above the storm. ‘Will you listen to me? There is no-’
    ‘I’ll show you. The map’s just over here in my-why are there two Alsatians sitting in my car?’
    ‘Out!’ the man yelled and the two vast animals obediently jumped out.
    ‘That’s it!’ Meryl seethed. ‘I’m getting out of here before I start seeing things-if I’m not seeing them already.’
    ‘Fine. Turn back.’
    ‘Don’t give me orders. I’m continuing my journey, and if you stand in front of me again I shall drive over you.’
    She thought she heard him mutter, ‘On your own head be it,’ but she couldn’t be certain because she was already speeding on her way.

CHAPTER TWO

    MERYL put her foot down. This was one journey she wanted to get finished, fast.
    The man had seemed strangely familiar with the castle and its concerns, and it briefly crossed her mind that he might be Lord Larne himself, but she dismissed the thought. That ill-tempered curmudgeon had never written the letter that had charmed her. Probably a family retainer.
    She could see where she was going now, the shore lights, and far beyond them the lights of some huge building that must surely be Larne Castle. Straight ahead for the bridge. She squinted, trying to detect the start of the railings. With her attention thus occupied she didn’t realise how far she’d driven until she found herself surrounded by water.
    ‘I’m in the sea,’ she said, aghast. ‘Where’s the bridge?’
    But there was no bridge, only a causeway, fast vanishing under the incoming tide. With horror she saw that the shore was fifty yards behind her. The waves were swelling strongly, and a sickening lurch warned her that her little car wasn’t built for this.
    She couldn’t go back. It would have meant trying to turn the vehicle and she didn’t know if the causeway was wide enough. Besides, retreat wasn’t in her nature. She must get ahead as fast as possible. The water had covered the road by only a few inches, and she could just about discern it.
    But it grew harder and harder to hold her course. She slammed her foot down, trying to force her way through, but the next moment a huge wave lifted her off the ground, sweeping her sideways, and suddenly she was right off the causeway and sinking.
    She tore at her seat belt and just managed to get it open as the car went down. Then she was free, dog paddling like crazy, with no idea where she was.
    ‘Here! Over here!’
    The voice came from behind her, and she struggled around to see the man who’d stopped her back on the road. He was waving the torch to attract her attention.
    ‘It’s not too deep,’ he yelled. ‘You should be able to touch down, a beanpole like you.’
    She managed to feel the ground with the tips of her toes, but then another wave tore at her, pulling her out to deeper water. She went down, struggling madly, came up gasping and tried to cry out. But water filled her mouth as she went down again. The man had vanished from the causeway. Rage filled her. He’d left her to drown.
    ‘Where are you?’ His voice came from nearby.
    ‘Here!’ she screamed as the current yanked her further out to sea.
    But then-oh, the relief as something that felt like a steel hawser went around her waist, holding her steady against the worst the water could do!
    ‘It’s all right. I’ve got you,’ said a voice she recognised.
    Now she could make out details of him. Before diving in he’d yanked off his heavy overcoat and sweater. Through the thin, sodden shirt she could feel shoulders like cliffs, the swell of taut muscles beneath her hands, the hardness of a heavy torso against her body.
    ‘Just keep hold of me,’ he snapped. ‘I’m not releasing you until we’re on land.’
    ‘Suits me,’ she gasped.
    ‘But if you’d listened to me in the first place-’
    ‘Must we talk about that now?’
    ‘No,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘Later will be better, and I have plenty to say.’
    They’d reached the causeway, where he put her hands firmly onto the stones and told her not to move. She couldn’t have moved in any case. She was half frozen. When he’d climbed up he leaned down, reaching out his hand to grasp hers. She seized it with relief and he hauled her up. She achieved a toehold but slipped back almost at once, and felt a powerful arm shoot out and around her waist.
    ‘Grab me around the neck,’ he yelled.
    She did so and felt herself once more drawn against his body, tense with effort. He lifted her until her feet were clear, and then set her down. Her heart was pounding with fear, excitement and sheer annoyance at being rescued by this man of all people. She could never account for the first words that came out of her mouth.
    ‘Who are you calling a beanpole?’
    ‘Quit yakking and get in.’ He indicated his own vehicle. It was old and shabby but very heavy, and it was holding its ground against the surging water.
    ‘I’ve got papers on the front seat,’ he said. ‘You get in the back.’
    ‘With them?’ She indicated the two Alsatians occupying the rear.
    ‘They won’t mind.’
    She climbed gingerly in and sat squashed up against the two dogs, who welcomed her with delighted yelps and licks.
    ‘Thank you for rescuing me,’ she said through gritted teeth.
    ‘Wouldn’t have been necessary if you had any sense,’ he observed.
    ‘You might have told me there was no bridge.’
    ‘I tried, but you wouldn’t listen. There’s just the causeway and it’s only above water at low tide. Luckily I was coming this way in any case, so I knew I’d be there to rescue you from your own foolishness.’
    ‘You’re going to the castle?’
    ‘Right.’
    ‘You know Jarvis Larne?’
    He gave a brief flickering glance over his shoulder before returning his attention to the road. ‘Is it him you’ve come to see?’
    ‘Yes, and I wish I hadn’t. I didn’t mean to turn up like this.’
    ‘You sound as if you’ve come a long way.’
    ‘I’m American,’ she said, answering the implied question. ‘From New York.’
    ‘That’s quite a distance to see a man who isn’t expecting you. What’s your business with him?’
    His familiarity irked her enough to make her snap, ‘I’m thinking of marrying him, actually.’
    The stunned quality of his silence was very satisfying. It was nice to have found something that would shut him up.
    ‘Would you mind saying that again?’ he said at last.
    ‘It’s a long story,’ she said, wishing she’d held her tongue. It wouldn’t do for this tale to reach Jarvis Larne before she did. ‘What I’ve just told you is in confidence.’
    ‘You wouldn’t want your engagement announced prematurely,’ he agreed.
    ‘Yes, and there are-things to be settled-’ she said delicately.
    ‘You mean you haven’t proposed to him yet?’
    To her annoyance she felt herself reddening. ‘I mean no such thing!’ she said crossly.
    ‘You have proposed to him. Did he accept?’
    ‘I’m not going to discuss this with you.’
    ‘No, it would be better to discuss it with him, wouldn’t it? After all, he might turn you down.’
    ‘He can’t afford to,’ Meryl said before she could stop herself, and regretted the words instantly.
    ‘Really? Then you’re probably right not to let him know you’re coming. Why bother with courtesy if you don’t have to?’
    ‘Now look-!’
    ‘We’d better leave this for the moment.’
    His assumption of authority irked her but she was shivering too much to make a point of it. To her relief they had nearly arrived, and she could just make out the huge bulk of the castle rearing over them. The car was laboriously climbing a steep road that ended in front of a large wooden door. It opened, and an elderly woman came out.
    ‘Hannah!’ the man called. ‘Will you look after this lady before she freezes to death?’
    Meryl got stiffly out of the vehicle and went gladly to where the light and warmth welcomed her.
    ‘Come you in,’ Hannah called, standing back to let her pass, and shutting the front door behind her.
    To Meryl’s dismay the warmth turned out to be largely illusory. The castle was just about warmer inside than out, and that was all that could be said.
    ‘You need a fire,’ Hannah said, understanding. ‘And you must get out of those wet clothes.’
    She showed Meryl into a room lined with old books, where a log fire burned in an old-fashioned grate. Shivering, she hurried into its blessed circle, and stood with her hands held out to the flames until Hannah reappeared with a bathrobe and some towels.
    ‘Quick, before you get pneumonia,’ she urged.
    Thankfully Meryl threw off her drenched clothes and vigorously scrubbed herself dry while Hannah held the bathrobe up to the fire. Hannah took a hand towel and began to rub her hair, clucking sympathetically.
    ‘What on earth were you thinking to come here in a storm at this hour?’ she murmured.
    ‘I was thinking of marrying Lord Larne,’ Meryl said through chattering teeth.
    ‘What was that?’ Hannah sounded startled. ‘He’s never told any of us he was getting married.’
    ‘Perhaps he just thought it was private.’
    ‘Not for him,’ Hannah said at once. ‘There are too many people depending on him. If he could find a pot of gold, we’d all rejoice.’ She darted Meryl a sharp look. ‘Would you be a pot of gold, by any chance?’
    Meryl chuckled, liking the old woman’s frankness. ‘I might be,’ she said. ‘But don’t count on the marriage. It’s starting to look like one of my crazier ideas.’ She gave a rueful sigh. ‘I’m afraid I have a lot of those.’
    Hannah didn’t answer. She was examining the discarded clothes, noting their luxurious quality. ‘I’ll take these to dry,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘You stay by the fire until your room is ready.’
    She hurried out and Meryl huddled before the flames, feeling herself thaw out blissfully. The bathrobe was made for someone much larger and could almost have wrapped twice around her slim figure. She tightened the belt, but still had to clutch the edges together at the front.
    The room seemed to be a library. Everywhere she saw signs of one-time grandeur declined to shabbiness. The carpet was threadbare, but no more so than the heavy curtains, battling with small success, to shield the rattling windows.
    ‘He really needs me,’ she murmured. ‘Maybe we can do business. If only I hadn’t arrived like this! Me! A damsel in distress, for Pete’s sake! Rescued from peril like some Victorian heroine. I’ll never live it down.’
    She looked up quickly as the door opened. It was her rescuer, wearing fresh clothes and with his hair rubbed until it was almost dry. She saw now that it was dark brown, shaggy and needed a cut. With him were the two dogs, who made straight for Meryl.
    ‘Good evening,’ she said with as much dignity as she could muster, fending off Alsatians with one hand and holding the robe with the other. ‘You know who I am, but-’
    ‘I’m Jarvis Larne,’ he said.
    Her head whirled. ‘You? Lord Larne? You can’t be!’
    It was more wishful thinking than conviction, and Meryl could have bitten off her tongue the moment the words were out. But it was too late now. The man’s sardonic face showed that he could follow her thoughts.
    ‘Why can’t I be? Because I don’t stand to attention for you? Just who did you think you were talking to back there? The bailiff?’
    This was too close for comfort. ‘Certainly not,’ she said with dignity. ‘I never dreamed you could be Lord Larne because you’re so different to your letter.’
    ‘What letter?’
    ‘The one you wrote in answer to my advertisement.’
    ‘Advertisement?’
    ‘Oh, look! That ad was foolish, I admit, but don’t deny that you answered it. Now I’ve seen this place I can understand why.’
    ‘Wait a minute,’ he said, peering at her more closely. ‘Are you the woman who was looking for a fortune-hunter?’
    ‘Yes,’ she admitted defensively. ‘It might have been better put, but-’
    ‘And you think I’m the answer to your prayers?’
    ‘No,’ she said with spirit, ‘just the answer to my ad. My prayers are for something quite different.’
    ‘Then why bother with me?’
    ‘You wrote to me.’
    ‘I never wrote to you.’
    She pounced on her purse, thankful that this, at least, she’d managed to save from the waves. Pulling out the letter, she thrust it at him. Watching his face as he read the contents, she saw disbelief change to outrage.
    ‘I’ll kill him,’ he said at last. ‘I will personally wring his stupid neck, and then I’ll boot his rear from here to kingdom come.’
    ‘Who?’
    ‘Ferdy Ashton. I recognise his writing and his turn of phrase.’
    A cold hand was beginning to clutch Meryl’s stomach. There was something horribly convincing about his exasperation. She’d come all this way-
    ‘Are you telling me someone else wrote this in your name?’ she demanded. ‘I don’t believe it. Nobody would do such a stupid thing.’
    ‘Then you don’t know Ferdy,’ Jarvis Larne said bitterly. ‘There’s nothing that idiot wouldn’t get up to. I told him I wanted nothing to do with it-or with you.’
    ‘For a man who needs money as badly as you do, you’re very high-handed.’
    ‘My need for money is my business and certainly none of yours. I don’t believe a word of this nonsense. You’re a journalist, aren’t you? Well, you’ll not get a story out of me. I don’t like you. I don’t want you here, and the sooner you’re gone the better I’ll be pleased.’
    ‘A journalist? Me?’ He was briefly taken aback by the fierceness of her outrage, but his face remained unyielding. ‘My name,’ she said emphatically, ‘is Meryl Winters.’
    ‘So?’
    ‘My father was Craddock Winters.’
    He still looked blank. ‘Of whom the world says-?’
    ‘He drilled a few oil wells.’
    ‘And that made him rich enough for his daughter to act like a headless chicken?’
    ‘Yes!’
    ‘All right, we’ll assume that I believe you. I’m not saying I do, but let’s pretend. Why find a husband this way? I’d have thought the world was full of fortune-hunters without having to advertise your desperation. And you don’t look too bad.’
    Meryl stared at him, almost beyond speech. ‘Not too bad?’
    ‘OK, you’re passable-for a man whose taste runs to brunettes. Mine doesn’t, and even if it did you’re the last woman I’d want.’
    She breathed hard. ‘I was not proposing a love match-’
    ‘Luckily for both of us-’
    ‘It’s a serious business proposition.’
    Jarvis Larne snorted. ‘And I’m Santa Claus.’
    ‘I said business and I meant business. Nothing else would persuade me even to consider marriage to a man who has all the charm of a scrubbing brush. Unfortunately I need you almost as much as you appear to need me-’
    ‘I do not need you, madam!’
    ‘Let me finish. Under my father’s will I don’t get full control of my money until I’m twenty-seven, which is nearly three years away. Unless I marry. Then I get it on my wedding day. But until then I’m stuck.’
    ‘Sounds like somebody knew you pretty well,’ Jarvis Larne said grimly. ‘If you were my daughter I’d make you wait until you were fifty, and even then I doubt you’d have learned common sense.’
    ‘Now look-’
    ‘You look. You’ve got cuckoos in your head. So you got an answer to this stupid ad. You couldn’t telephone? Or find a way to check up? Oh no! You jump on the first plane and come to a place you know nothing about, to throw yourself into the arms of a man you also know nothing about.’
    ‘I had no intention of throwing myself into your arms or anyone else’s,’ Meryl said, speaking with difficulty. ‘What is on offer is my cash in return for the use of your name. Just that. No extras, because you don’t appeal to me-’
    ‘Well, you’ll excuse me if I don’t shoot myself-’
    ‘As for knowing nothing about you-I thought I did know something. The man who wrote this letter is charming, which rules you out, I see that now.’
    ‘Nobody has ever called me charming,’ he agreed. ‘It’s been very useful in keeping me safe from silly women.’
    She regarded him with her head tilted. ‘You wouldn’t find my dowry silly. It would mend the holes in this place. Do you have any other way of mending them?’
    ‘That does not concern you,’ he said in a dangerous voice.
    Meryl didn’t answer at once. It was typical of her that, at the height of the row, her temper faded and she began to see that this had a funny side.
    ‘Please don’t be nervous,’ she told him sweetly. ‘I promise you I have no designs on your virtue.’
    That infuriated him, she was glad to note. ‘Don’t push me too far, madam.’
    ‘Let’s get to the bottom line. I need your name; you need my money.’
    ‘What I need is your absence,’ he retorted through gritted teeth. ‘Preferably at once, but it’ll have to wait until tomorrow.’
    ‘And then I’m supposed to leave? How? In my drowned car?’
    ‘We’ll find it when the tide’s out.’ He became suddenly very interested in the contents of his desk.
    ‘When I’ve got it back I’ll decide what to do. And would you please have the decency to look at me while I’m talking to you?’
    ‘It’s for the sake of decency that I’m not looking at you,’ he growled, keeping his gaze averted.
    Glancing down, she saw that the belt had become untied, and the bathrobe had sagged open, so that her nakedness was completely revealed. She was briefly too nonplussed to move, and in that moment Jarvis, thinking it safe, turned his gaze back to her. He looked away again almost at once, but in the split second she met his eyes she saw a flash of reaction. Meryl hastily retied the belt, feeling dizzy.
    So he thought she was only passable, did he? She knew differently now.
    He began talking, still with his face averted.
    ‘It serves you right for acting without thinking,’ he said unsympathetically. ‘The sooner this nonsense is over, the better.’
    ‘It’s all right, you can look now.’
    He did so. ‘Hannah will see you to your room, and take you up some supper.’
    ‘You mean you’re not inviting me to eat with you?’
    He regarded her. ‘Wearing that?’
    ‘Aren’t there some clothes I could borrow?’
    ‘You’ve already got my robe. What else can I offer you?’
    She folded her arms and regarded him challengingly. ‘Lord Larne, anyone would think you didn’t want me to dine with you.’
    ‘You amaze me.’
    ‘Well?’
    ‘I was being polite about it. I still think there’s something fishy about you-’
    She gave a choke of laughter. ‘After that swim I should think there is.’
    Her unexpected humour disconcerted him, but he recovered. ‘I don’t trust you and I won’t spend another moment talking to you.’ He raised his voice to call, ‘Hannah, you can come in now.’
    The door opened so quickly that it was clear Hannah had been eavesdropping and that her employer accepted it as normal.
    ‘Please take Miss Winters to the Green Room, make sure she’s warm and well fed.’
    ‘Like I’m a horse,’ Meryl observed.
    ‘Miss Winters, if I was to give my honest opinion about what you are we’d be here all night and one of us would be arrested for murder. Let’s both quit while we’re ahead.’
    He strode out, without waiting for her reply.
    Hannah produced a pair of slippers. ‘They’re Jarvis’s,’ she said. ‘You could have had mine but I’m afraid-’ She paused delicately.
    ‘I’ve got big feet,’ Meryl said without rancour. ‘It comes with being built like a beanpole-as a certain person described me tonight.’
    ‘It’s just until your own things are dried out. I’ll show you to your room.’
    Lord Larne’s slippers were three sizes too large, forcing Meryl to walk without flexing her feet. Crossing the great hall she caught a glimpse of herself in a long mirror and realised that between the huge robe and the floppy footwear she was waddling like a duck in a duvet.
    Adventure.
    Then her attention was claimed by her surroundings. Stone walls covered with shields and weapons arranged in circles, paintings of battles, suits of armour: the English Middle Ages came to life all around her as she turned and turned in dazed circles.
    ‘I’ll show you over the place tomorrow,’ Hannah said as she gently urged her up the vast curving staircase.
    ‘He’s going to throw me out tomorrow,’ Meryl informed her cheerfully. ‘Either that or murder me in my bed. I don’t think he’s quite decided.’
    ‘Are you going to let him throw you out?’
    ‘Certainly not. I might decide to leave, but if he thinks I’m going at his command, he’s got another think coming.’
    ‘That’s what I thought,’ Hannah said, sounding pleased.
    They were passing down a poorly lit stone corridor, Meryl moving slowly as she looked about her. ‘These walls are so old,’ she said in wonder, ‘and battered.’
    She paused to run her fingertips over the rough grey stone, and stopped suddenly when she came to a panel inlaid in the wall. Some words were carved into it, and she read with difficulty.
    Out of the gale, across the water,
    Came one night a rich man’s daughter.
    Eyes like jade, hair of ebony,
    To marry the lord and save the family.
    Meryl stood quite still in the dark corridor, listening to the wind that tore at the castle with powerful fingers and made the windows rattle.
    ‘How long has this been written here?’ she asked at last in a voice that sounded strange to her own ears.
    ‘Oh, hundreds of years,’ Hannah said. ‘It was written after the fifth viscount married a French heiress. The lord’s minstrel made a song of it and sang it at their wedding, and then someone wrote it up here.’
    ‘And she had “eyes of jade and hair of ebony”?’
    ‘Well, they say her eyes were greenish,’ Hannah admitted, ‘but her hair was more a dark brown. You can see her in the Picture Gallery. He said ebony because it was the closest he could get to family.’
    ‘So it really happened?’ Meryl asked. It was absurd and superstitious to be so relieved, but for a moment she’d felt as though eyes were peering at her out of the darkness. ‘It’s about the past, not the future?’
    Hannah didn’t seem to hear the question, for she strode on, calling, ‘Your room’s just along here.’
    Meryl hurried and caught up as Hannah threw open the door to a large apartment with a wooden floor on which a few scattered rugs tried unsuccessfully to look adequate. The tall windows were shielded by heavy curtains of dark red brocade, and in the centre of the room stood a four-poster bed, also with dark red curtains.
    ‘A real four-poster!’ Meryl exclaimed with delight. ‘But I would have thought the curtains would be green. After all, it’s called the Green Room, and I can’t see anything green in it.’
    ‘Probably the last curtains were green,’ Hannah said vaguely.
    ‘That must have been a hundred years ago, then. These look as if they’d fall apart if I touch them.’
    ‘They’re sturdy enough, and they’re grand for keeping out the draughts.’
    The warmth of the coal fire didn’t seem to reach this part of the room. Meryl shivered and went closer to the grate. ‘I suppose you don’t have such a thing as central heating?’
    ‘In a place this size?’ Hannah exclaimed. ‘When I think of what that would cost-and him not having a penny to bless himself with! But there, I suppose central heating is what you’re used to, isn’t it?’
    Meryl nodded. ‘It is a bit chilly,’ she said.
    ‘Never mind,’ Hannah told her consolingly. ‘You’ll soon get used to it.’
    She went out, leaving Meryl aghast. Get used to it? No way!
    Soon Hannah returned with supper and a nightdress of thick flannel, patterned with huge roses.
    ‘One of my own,’ Hannah confided. ‘It’ll keep you nice and warm tonight. And so will these.’ She produced a pair of thick socks. ‘They’re the master’s,’ she said. ‘But what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. We all sleep in socks until summer, and sometimes even then. Now sit down and I’ll give you the tray.’
    The meal was solid and comforting, with a bottle of wine to wash it down.
    ‘Did he put arsenic in it?’ Meryl asked, tasting the red liquid with care.
    ‘As if I told him!’ Hannah said. ‘What I do in my kitchen is my affair.’
    ‘But he’s the “mighty lord”. Aren’t you supposed to “serve and obey” him?’
    Hannah gave a snort that showed what she thought of that notion, beefed up the fire, announced that she’d return later, and marched out.
    The excitements of the day, plus jet lag, were beginning to catch up with Meryl. It was cosy here by the fire, and tempting to look into the heart of the red glow, feeling the comfortable warmth enfold her, and let her thoughts drift.
    They began to float through her mind in an unbroken stream, so that the dark moor blended into her first confrontation with Jarvis Larne, barring her way, being thoroughly rude to her-but then he too slipped away and she was in the icy water, struggling from the car to be hauled out of the water by a man who lifted her as if she was a feather. And the hardness of his broad chest had felt good.
    None of the men she knew made her feel good. They were focused, self-conscious, measuring every word, dressed in elegant suits. They charmed her and were pleasant company, but there wasn’t one she would have gone to with her problems.
    But why should she? She was the fabulously wealthy Meryl Winters, who bought whatever she wanted and had no problems.
    After a while she yawned and stretched, thinking how inviting the big four-poster looked. She unhooked the curtains and drew them about the bed, discovering that they did indeed shut out the draughts. Perhaps there was something to be said for medieval life, after all.
    But she changed her mind when she climbed onto the medieval mattress, which seemed to be stuffed with medieval turnips.
    This must be where they put their guests when they don’t want them to come back, she thought. It would be the first thing to change-if I was going to stay here.

CHAPTER THREE

    SHE awoke to semi-darkness. Then she drew back the curtains to reveal a room where the light was fighting to get through the cracks. Bounding out of bed, she pulled back the window curtains and the sun flooded in.
    The storm had passed, and before her lay the glory of an English spring morning. Her room faced the land, and there was the causeway, a barely visible ribbon under several feet of water. To her left was a small town with a harbour where several masted boats bobbed on glinting water. Across the causeway she could see the road she’d travelled the night before, leading far inland, back onto green moors, and then further on to where the land rose and became darker.
    Entranced, Meryl opened the tall windows and stepped out into the bright morning light. From this little balcony she could look further around her at the sea, which moved gently after the storm of the previous night.
    Suddenly she found herself standing totally still, and holding her breath as though she was waiting for something to happen. A peace seemed to settle over her as she listened to the blessed quiet. Not silence, because she could hear the call of sea birds and the soft plash of the waves, but those sounds seemed, mysteriously, to be only a part of the peace. Above her the sky was a deep blue, cloudless, except for a few white puffs.
    Like rabbits’ tails, she thought with a smile.
    Once the smile started it couldn’t stop, spreading until it took her over completely. She raised her head, closing her eyes to feel the warmth on her face, and taking deep breaths of the freshest air she’d ever known.
    She showered in the antiquated bathroom, to a symphony of clanks from the plumbing, and emerged just as Hannah came bustling in with her suit, that had survived its ordeal thanks to skilled care. She also brought a pot of coffee.
    ‘We normally have tea, but I made coffee for you especially-you being an American.’
    Her tone suggested that she was dealing with an alien and exotic species, and Meryl hid a smile.
    ‘Thank you, Hannah, this coffee is lovely,’ she said after a few sips. This was erring slightly on the side of generosity, but she felt tact would serve her better than candour.
    ‘When you’re ready come down to breakfast. It’s in the Morning Room, next door but one to the Library, where you were last night.’ She eyed Meryl’s slim figure. ‘You poor soul, you look starved. Never mind. I’ll feed you up.’
    Nothing since her arrival had unnerved Meryl quite as much as this threat. It was with some caution that she descended the stairway a few minutes later and made her way to the Morning Room, wondering if Jarvis Larne would greet her with a vat of boiling oil perched on the door.
    But nothing happened as she carefully pushed open the door and peered inside. At first she thought the room was empty, but then a voice said,
    ‘Hello, there? Are you inspecting your domain?’
    By the window stood a very slender young man, of medium height. His voice was light and his blue eyes looked as though they laughed a lot. He was regarding Meryl’s entrance quizzically.
    ‘My domain?’ she asked, regarding him askance.
    ‘It will be if you become Lady Larne.’
    ‘What makes you think-?’ Light dawned. ‘Ferdy,’ she said. ‘Ferdy Ashton.’
    His impish face brightened. ‘Fame at last.’
    She came to stand with him in the window. ‘You’d better get out of here before Lord Larne murders you-or I do. How dare you write me that letter!’
    ‘I had to. Jarvis was being difficult about it.’
    ‘When I’ve finished with you, you’ll know the meaning of “difficult”.’
    He looked hurt. ‘I just wanted to help my friend out of trouble. He needs money badly, and you have it. It’s really very simple.’
    ‘Except that he and I took an instant dislike to each other. You never thought of that, did you?’
    ‘I know he’s not an easy man, but I didn’t think you’d just turn up without warning. I was going to manage it carefully so that you’d take to each other.’
    ‘You’d have to be a magician for that. It was a disaster.’
    ‘So I’ve heard. Jarvis called me first thing this morning and spoke his mind very plainly. He wants my blood.’
    ‘He can join the queue. I want your blood.’
    ‘Ah, now, that’s a different prospect.’ His eyes twinkled. ‘You’re welcome.’
    ‘And stop trying to charm me. It doesn’t work.’
    But she was lying.
    He knew it, and she knew he knew it. Charm paid his passage through life, and in her eyes it was a fair currency. There weren’t enough charming people in the world, and trying to be cross with this one was like trying to reprove a sunny-tempered child.
    ‘The rage he was in, I’m surprised he waited until this morning,’ she reflected.
    ‘He didn’t. He called last night, but I was out, so he left a message that nearly burned up my answering machine, and he called me again early this morning, ordering me to get myself over here, fast.’
    ‘How did you get here while it’s still high tide?’
    He laughed. ‘It isn’t still high tide. It’s high tide again. I have a little boat that I keep tied up on the shore. My sister, Sarah, insisted on coming with me. She’s gone in search of Jarvis. I warn you, she has designs on him.’
    ‘You mean she’s in love with him?’ Meryl asked, dismayed. ‘In that case maybe I should back off.’
    ‘Forget it. Jarvis has known Sarah most of his life, and if he’d wanted to marry her he’d have done it by now. But their only link is horses. He loves riding. She owns a riding stable, does a bit of breeding. The trouble is, she’s fixated on bloodlines, in people as well as horses. The Ashtons are “good family”.’
    ‘I’m glad you told me,’ she said, amused.
    ‘Yes, you’d never have known that I’m “the Honourable Ferdinand” would you?’
    ‘I wouldn’t have called you honourable in a million years.’
    He grinned. ‘Well, I’m officially honourable. The Ashtons have married the Larnes before, and now Sarah thinks nobody else has any right to him. But love? No way. Just watch out in case she poisons your tea.’
    ‘If he doesn’t do it first.’
    ‘He improves on acquaintance.’
    ‘So I should hope,’ she said darkly.
    ‘You don’t think you might get to like him?’
    ‘Not if I live to be a hundred!’
    ‘That’s funny. He said the same thing about you.’
    ‘I don’t know why I’m even talking to you,’ she said, exasperated. ‘If I’d drowned it would have been your fault.’
    ‘But you didn’t. It was fate bringing you to us so that you could marry Jarvis, hand over impossible amounts of cash and save this place from falling down. Do you have impossible amounts of cash, by the way?’
    ‘Totally impossible,’ she assured him.
    ‘I thought so. I looked you up. You really are Craddock Winters’s daughter, aren’t you? Oil wells, etc.’
    ‘But he doesn’t believe that. He thinks I’m a journalist.’
    ‘Not any more. I’ve put him right. Jarvis needs a great deal of money, quickly.’
    ‘But if he doesn’t want to take mine, we’re no further forward,’ she pointed out. ‘And you still have to persuade me to waste even five minutes on a man who dislikes me almost as much as I dislike him. It’s a small point, but I thought I’d mention it.’
    ‘You’re right,’ he agreed solemnly. ‘One should always pinpoint the problems at the start. Then we can proceed to Stage Two-solving them.’
    ‘Don’t build your hopes up, Ferdy. As soon as my car’s been located and I’ve recovered my stuff I’m-’
    She’d meant to say ‘I’m out of here,’ but she was standing by the French door with the sun on her face and the words died. All the sensations that had assailed her on the balcony returned with greater force. Moving automatically, she pushed open the door and found herself in the garden.
    Here everything grew in profusion. Someone had tried to create a kind of order, but in a desultory fashion, so that there was none of the precision neatness that could make a garden appear soulless. Again there was the blessed sense of peace, and the realisation that she had never known it before today.
    She began to wander along a path, slightly overgrown but passable. It twisted and turned and she followed it eagerly, stopping once or twice to look at the trees laden with blossoms. After the previous night’s storm everything was dripping. A large drop of water went down her neck, but she only laughed.
    Ferdy trotted after her, a few feet away, watching her every move.
    ‘It ought to be better kept than this,’ he said, ‘but it’s a big job. And I’ve got plans.’
    ‘You’re the gardener?’
    ‘I do a bit, to make up to Jarvis for falling behind with my rent. I live in one of his cottages, inland.’
    ‘Do you do anybody else’s gardening?’
    ‘No, I’m a painter by trade. I just potter about this place to save him having to pay a gardener.’
    ‘And he doesn’t mind you getting behind with the rent? That doesn’t sound like the charmer I met.’
    ‘We were at school together. I probably know him better than anyone.’
    ‘And you thought he’d take to the idea of a strange woman?’
    ‘Not right away. He’s a very proud man. But if you’d only-ah, well, never mind. You blew it, but I forgive you.’
    ‘I-? You have an almighty cheek, do you know that?’
    ‘I’m famed for it.’
    They squabbled amiably as he showed her around the rest of the garden. It was impossible to be seriously annoyed with him, and the bright spring morning made her feel too good for annoyance anyway. She told him about her running argument with Larry Rivers, and Ferdy was highly entertained.
    ‘I think I’d like you to be Lady Larne,’ he said at last.
    ‘Thus saving your rent-free cottage?’ she supplied, reading him without trouble.
    ‘Exactly,’ he said, unashamed. ‘Don’t be in a hurry to leave. Give us a chance. You might like us. And Larne is beautiful.’
    ‘Yes, it is,’ she said slowly. ‘Last night it tried to kill me. This morning-it’s amazing. I can’t believe it’s the same place.’
    ‘It’s got more moods than you can think of. Stay at least a few days.’
    She listened to the quiet again. It was made up of soft sounds, like birdsong and the muted roar of the sea. And if she went back? Noise, the smell of gasoline, fighting. Ferdy was shrewd enough to say nothing, watching her intently.
    At last she gave a sigh, like someone reluctantly leaving a dream. ‘You’re forgetting,’ she said, ‘that my “fiancé” is about to boot me out.’
    ‘But that’ll take time,’ Ferdy said. ‘You can’t leave until your car is found.’
    They smiled like conspirators, and Ferdy drew her arm through his.
    ‘Let’s go in to breakfast,’ he said.
    As they neared the house Meryl saw Jarvis waiting for them, and had a slight shock. Coming upon him unexpectedly, without time to hoist her prejudices into place, she realised that there really was something to be said for him after all. It wasn’t his height, or the width of his shoulders. It wasn’t even the proud set of his head, or his air of authority; nor the way he was looking at her, like a man willing to admire but keeping his powder dry.
    It was none of these, and all of them. And then it was something extra that would have made him stand out in any group of men. If they’d met at any other time she knew she would have found him interesting.
    He approached and spoke with formal courtesy. ‘Miss Winters, I hope you slept well last night.’
    ‘Fine, thank you,’ she said, stretching the truth a bit. This wasn’t the moment to mention turnips.
    ‘I must say,’ he continued, ‘you look better in those clothes than what you were wearing when we last met.’
    Into her mind there flashed the memory of her own moment of nakedness the night before. Quickly she raised her eyes to his face, and heard his swift intake of breath as he read her involuntary message. ‘You mean-your bathrobe,’ she said.
    ‘Of course,’ he said curtly. ‘I’m sorry it was too large-’
    It was the wrong thing to say. The memory was there between them again. He stepped back as though scorched.
    A woman appeared and Jarvis hastened to introduce her as Sarah Ashton. Meryl judged Sarah to be in her late twenties, with fair hair and a fine aristocratic face, not pretty but handsome. Ferdy had said she ‘had designs’ on Jarvis, and certainly she was looking at Meryl with blatant dislike. But she greeted her politely and stood aside to let her pass into the room. Then she took the place at table next to Jarvis and closest to the teapot.
    ‘Perhaps you would prefer coffee?’ she asked of Meryl.
    ‘I like English tea.’
    ‘Oh, really? Do you drink it very much in America?’
    Meryl’s lips twitched. ‘Well, America isn’t on the moon, you know.’
    Sarah presided over breakfast, assuming the role of lady of the house, terrifyingly gracious to Meryl, treating her like any casual visitor. If Meryl had been easily intimidated she would have gone down before this onslaught, but she had a determination that matched Sarah’s any day.
    She soon sensed that Jarvis was uneasy, and it puzzled her that he shouldn’t have regained his poise. An English lord must surely be enough of a man of the world to cope, even with this situation. She addressed a pleasant remark to him. He answered politely but didn’t follow through, and Sarah steamed in to take over.
    It was taking all Jarvis’s self-control to feign indifference. As Meryl had expected, a night’s sleep had restored his temper and he’d been prepared to meet her in a moderately friendly spirit. He would help find her car, and send her on her way with no hard feelings.
    That was before he’d talked to Ferdy.
    The discovery that this woman was as wealthy as she claimed had appalled him. If he became friendly now she really would think him a fortune-hunter, switching on his smiles for the sake of her money. He groaned inwardly as he recalled some of the things he’d said last night.
    He’d watched her with Ferdy in the garden, deep in animated conversation. There was something magnificent about her. And he’d called her passably pretty. How her green eyes had glittered with indignation.
    There could be no peace with such a woman, and no man in his right mind would want her around, disrupting his life. But she was splendid, like fire. And as dangerous.
    He had tried not to dwell on the memory of her nakedness, but now he abandoned virtue and dwelt on it with pleasure. How could a woman be so slim and yet so beautifully rounded at the same time? Long, elegant thighs, delicately flared hips, a waist so tiny that his hands could almost have met around it-
    ‘I beg your pardon?’ he said hastily, realising that Sarah had spoken to him.
    ‘Do you want some more toast, Jarvis?’
    ‘No,’ he said hurriedly. ‘No, thank you.’
    Sarah continued to steer the conversation magisterially, inviting Meryl to talk about herself, her family background. After Ferdy’s words about bloodlines she thought she could see where this was leading, and decided to have a little fun of her own.
    ‘Daddy was Craddock Winters-’
    ‘Of oil well fame,’ Ferdy put in.
    ‘But nobody knows about his family,’ Meryl continued serenely. ‘He was born in a shack because that was all his daddy could afford-at least, the man we think was his daddy, but his mom was a very popular lady and-’
    ‘You’re overdoing it,’ Ferdy muttered.
    ‘Am I?’
    ‘Yes,’ Jarvis added, but he hid his mouth behind his hand.
    Only Sarah, with no sense of irony, ploughed on. ‘That must have made your youth very difficult. Unfortunate ancestors can be so hard to live down.’
    ‘Oh, no,’ Meryl said, her voice becoming more theatrically twangy by the moment. ‘Because by the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper we were rich. Of course we were still common as muck, but when you’re rich nobody calls you that. Leastways, not to your face. ’Course, when they talk to their friends they can say you’re a vulgar, jumped-up little so-and-so with no breedin’ or style.’
    Jarvis’s head shot up. ‘I never said-’
    He drew a sharp breath as he saw the fool’s trap she’d lured him into. Meryl’s eyes were challenging, filled with laughter.
    ‘Would you like some more tea?’ he asked tersely.
    ‘Thank you, yes.’
    Ferdy leaned close to Meryl’s ear. ‘Where did you get that accent?’
    ‘From TV,’ she informed him in her normal voice.
    As breakfast was coming to an end Sarah played what should have been her master card. ‘Miss Winters, we all owe you an apology. What my brother did was disgraceful. We both feel that, don’t we, Jarvis?’
    ‘Disgraceful,’ Jarvis echoed.
    Meryl couldn’t resist. ‘Really?’ Her voice suggested unplumbed depths of innocence. ‘Whatever did he do?’
    Sarah stared, wrong-footed. ‘Why, he-you mean, you don’t know-?’
    For a moment an appalling vista of explanations opened up before them all. Jarvis glanced from one woman to the other and his lips twitched, but he kept his own counsel.
    ‘Of course she does,’ Ferdy grinned. ‘It’s all right, sis. I’ve made my peace. Meryl’s a very forgiving lady.’
    ‘For your sake, I hope so.’ Sarah made a partial recovery and addressed Meryl. ‘You must be very annoyed at having wasted your time.’
    ‘Who says I’ve wasted it? I’ve never been in these parts before, and I’m going to have a fine time looking around.’
    ‘We’ve got to recover the car,’ Ferdy pointed out.
    ‘And then I have to explain myself to the hire company,’ Meryl said.
    ‘I wonder how you’ll do that,’ Jarvis murmured.
    ‘With great difficulty,’ she came back at him. ‘They’ll probably say something about silly women. I’ll just have to put up with it.’
    She was looking directly at him, and suddenly a grin broke over his face. It was a young, hilarious grin, inviting her to share his amusement. It hinted at the man he might have been if care hadn’t bowed him down too early, and seemed mysteriously to be linked with every other aspect of Larne that was subtly creeping into her heart.
    ‘Well, I’m sure we’re all grateful for your forbearance,’ Sarah declared, taking charge again. ‘It can’t have made a pleasant welcome for you, but I’m afraid you fell foul of the Larne family motto-Let invaders tremble.’
    ‘Is that what I am?’ Meryl asked hilariously. ‘Me? In that case, perhaps I should move into a hotel.’
    It was a bluff. Hell would freeze over before she left a place that was proving more interesting by the minute. She was still watching Jarvis, feeling something start to sing inside her.
    He pulled himself together with an effort. ‘I hope you’ll feel able to accept my hospitality as long as you need it.’
    ‘Why, how nice of you to ask! And so unexpected. I do hope I’m not putting you out.’
    ‘Not at all,’ Jarvis assured her.
    She knew he’d understood her bluff, but was too much of an English gentleman to call it. The first round to her. As she prepared to go he rose to his feet with old-world courtesy, and Meryl could have sworn she surprised a look of reluctant appreciation in his eyes.
    Ferdy was a charming companion, even if she did know he had an axe to grind. He conveyed her to the shore in his little boat, powered by an outboard motor, tied it up and led her to where he’d parked his car.
    Once they’d driven along the coast to Whitby, locating her own vehicle was no problem. Everyone knew of the red sports car that had appeared as the water fell, trapped between some rocks, and vanished as the water rose again. It was a simple matter to arrange for a local firm to rescue it at the next low tide.
    ‘In the meantime, all my clothes are down there with it,’ she sighed.
    An afternoon in the local shops took care of that. To Meryl, used to having everything made for her, it came as an eye-opener how much she liked the chic, sexy garments she found in this little place.
    ‘I’d have had to pay ten times as much for this in New York,’ she said, parading before Ferdy in a deep red woollen dress. ‘And I love it.’
    She’d meant to buy only the bare essentials until she could get back into Benedict’s care, but she came away loaded with parcels. By that time the day was advanced and she called the castle to let Hannah know she wouldn’t be there for a meal. Then Ferdy took her to dinner and they had a long talk.
    Late in the evening he ferried her across the water, carried her bags to the door, kissed her cheek, and went away, whistling. Hannah met her with the news that she’d left out ‘a little snack’ in the Library.
    The Library lights were off except for one standard lamp and the fire. She chose a chair by the hearth, sitting cautiously lest the fragile brocade be further damaged. It was here Jarvis found her a few minutes later, followed by his dogs. He set down a bottle of wine and two glasses on a low table, and dropped to his knees to build up the fire. In his old darned trousers, and a shirt open at the throat, he seemed to glow with the fire, a healthy, vibrant countryman who’d spent his day in the open.
    When he’d finished arranging logs he remained sitting on the floor, filling the glasses with wine.
    ‘Did you find your car?’ he asked.
    ‘Yes, but it’s wedged between some rocks and it’s going to take a crane to lift it out. They’ll do it tomorrow. In the meantime I had to buy some new things. I shall be glad to get out of this suit.’
    ‘It must be difficult wearing the same clothes two days running,’ he agreed.
    ‘Oh, stop that! We did all our fighting last night. Quit treating me like an enemy you had to repel.’
    Not an enemy, but a danger, he thought. The greatest danger Larne had ever faced. The next moment she did something even more threatening.
    ‘Look, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘This was all my fault-well, no, part of it was Ferdy’s fault. Anyway, it wasn’t yours. I suppose it was a bit much to descend without warning and expect you to cope.’
    That nettled him. ‘I can cope with whatever gets thrown at me.’
    ‘Really? Most people say I’m too much for anyone to cope with.’
    ‘You flatter yourself,’ he said ironically.
    ‘That’s unkind when I’ve apologised.’
    He grinned reluctantly. ‘You know how to cut the ground out from under a man’s feet.’ Whatever he’d expected, it wasn’t an apology.
    Meryl uncovered the snack, which turned out to be chicken and salad and trifle. The dogs promptly gave her their full attention.
    ‘What are their names?’
    ‘Rusty and Jacko. They’re pests. I don’t know why I bother to keep them.’
    ‘Because you’re crazy about them,’ Meryl said.
    He grunted. ‘Yes, that must be it.’
    Rusty had been watching her carefully. Suddenly he dived for the plate and seized the chicken piece up in his mouth before she could stop him.
    ‘No,’ she cried in horror, terrified of the chicken bones that could splinter and choke him. ‘Give it to me. Bad dog.’
    A tug of war ensued with neither side winning. At last, with the determination of despair, Meryl thrust her fingers right into his mouth. ‘Give it to me.’ Rusty made a sound that wasn’t exactly a growl, more like a soft rumble of protest. ‘Give it to me. Ouch!’
    With a huge effort she managed to retrieve the chicken and blew on her fingers where Rusty’s protest had caught them.
    ‘Did he bite you?’ Jarvis asked, frowning.
    ‘No, just a little nip, and he didn’t mean it. Didn’t even break the skin.’
    ‘Let me see.’ He took her slender hand between his big strong ones and studied it closely. At last he gave a grunt of satisfaction and returned it to her. ‘You’re lucky. They’re the gentlest dogs alive, but even I wouldn’t put my hand in their mouths when they’re eating.’
    ‘I suppose it was stupid, but I once saw a dog choke to death on splintered chicken bones, and it’s something I never want to see again.’
    ‘When was that?’
    ‘When I was a little girl. I had a spaniel called Potts that I was crazy about. Nobody ever warned me about chicken, so I fed him some and he died right there in my arms.’
    ‘What about your parents?’
    ‘My mom was dead by then.’
    ‘Your father?’
    ‘Well, Dad was kind of busy. When he did come home, we didn’t talk about Potts. In fact-’ She fell silent.
    ‘What?’ Jarvis asked.
    ‘I’ve just remembered-Dad came in one evening and went straight to his study to work. He said, “I hope that dog of your hasn’t been in here again.” But Potts had been dead for three weeks. He’d just forgotten.’
    ‘Maybe he didn’t know-if he was away a lot-’
    ‘He was home when it happened. When I cried he’d said, “Daddy’ll buy you another dog”, and I threw a terrible tantrum because there could never be another dog and he didn’t understand. Whatever it was, he thought you could always “buy another”.’
    Jarvis was watching her face, noticing its softer lines in the firelight. ‘Did you remind him that Potts was dead?’ he asked at last.
    Meryl shrugged. ‘No chance. He was gone before I could answer.’ She turned to the dogs and crooned lovingly, ‘You stupid, stupid creatures!’ She fondled their heads and kissed them. ‘They’re getting grey. How old are they?’
    ‘Ten. I had their sire, and his before him.’
    ‘Then don’t you have any of their offspring lined up to take their place?’
    He shrugged. ‘As you say, some dogs can’t be replaced.’
    He refilled her glass and they sipped wine together for a moment, neither wanting to break the silence.
    Her hair was damp from sea spray and she pulled it down about her shoulders to dry by the fire. It was very long and black and-he had to admit-very beautiful.
    Eyes like jade, hair of ebony…
    He shut the thought off, impatient with himself for even remembering the legend and the stone inscription. But it was hard not to remember it when Hannah was doing her best to remind him.
    And not only Hannah. Somehow the news had spread to his estate on the mainland, and wherever he’d gone today he’d received eager, enquiring looks from his tenants and employees.
    Meryl was looking at the portrait over the fire. ‘Who’s that?’
    ‘My grandfather. He was an army general.’
    ‘He looks like he’d have been fun to know.’
    ‘His men didn’t find him fun. He was a terror.’
    ‘But I’m not a man,’ Meryl pointed out. ‘I’ll bet he was a devil with women. You can see it in his eyes.’
    Jarvis was about to protest at this superficial character reading when he recalled Ferdy saying, ‘He was a terrible man for the women,’ on the very day they’d first discussed Meryl Winters, and agreed that the general would have sent her away-but only after tumbling her in the hay.
    Now Jarvis wished he hadn’t thought of that, because if ever a woman was made to be tumbled it was this one.
    Lord Larne could take his pleasure wherever it pleased him. Over the centuries some Larnes had pleased themselves more than others. The present holder had an innate reserve and caution that made him pass up most of his chances, although he had far more than his title going for him. He had the well set up looks of a man in his prime, and a powerful masculine vitality that made women study him with interest. Just occasionally there was something else to mark him out as General Larne’s grandson, a look of the devil, a hint that if he let down his guard…
    But he never did. He couldn’t afford to.
    And with this woman, above all, he couldn’t afford to. For a moment he knew something like regret, but he silenced it. He had to keep his head.

CHAPTER FOUR

    MERYL yawned and stretched, leaning back against the chair, then relaxing in an attitude of languid grace. ‘Sarah not here?’ she asked innocently.
    ‘No, she went home earlier.’
    ‘That’s a relief,’ she murmured. ‘I’m so afraid of her.’
    He gave a crack of laughter. ‘I reckon you can take care of yourself OK.’
    ‘Reckon I can.’
    ‘Sarah’s an old friend, and very protective of Larne and its ways. I’m afraid she sees you as an invader.’
    Meryl tossed a little grenade at him. ‘No more than you do.’
    He winced. ‘Let’s forget that. Little though you might believe it, Larne also has a tradition of hospitality.’
    ‘Always assuming that you can tell the difference between guests and invaders.’
    ‘That can be a problem. The castle was built to ward off invasion. The threat was from the north. There was a whole string of castles constructed along the north coast, and Larne was one of them.’
    ‘But why was it built out in the sea?’
    ‘It wasn’t. In those days this was part of the land, but it’s been eroded.’
    ‘You ought to fortify that causeway,’ Meryl mused, ‘before it vanishes altogether.’
    ‘Yes,’ he said in a voice that was suddenly distant.
    She gave him a puzzled look, then illumination dawned. ‘Did I just become an invader again?’
    He groaned at himself. ‘I’m sorry.’
    ‘Well, it wasn’t much of an invasion if you had to rescue me from drowning,’ Meryl pointed out. Suddenly she began to laugh.
    ‘What is it?’
    ‘I was just thinking of what I must have looked like,’ she choked. ‘Coming to storm the castle and having to be rescued like a drowned rat.’
    She lay back and crowed with laughter while he regarded her, fascinated. There was a glow about her that seemed to fill the room, and warmed it more than any fire. For a moment he shed caution and simply delighted in her.
    ‘Perhaps you should have just left me in the sea,’ Meryl said at last. ‘Then you’d have been quite safe.’
    ‘I doubt it,’ he said wryly. ‘You’d simply have risen from your watery grave to haunt me.’
    ‘Probably would,’ she agreed. ‘Serve you right. Anyway, I think I’ll risk being repelled again. Aren’t there organisations that could help you-give grants to preserve the heritage?’
    ‘Yes, there are, but the kind of money I’d need is beyond them.’ He made a gesture to dismiss the subject, then said, with meaning, ‘I hope Ferdy entertained you well today.’
    ‘Sure, he’s great. He took me to eat in this little restaurant near the ruined abbey, and pointed out the place where Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. No kidding. Tomorrow he’s going to show me the churchyard, and all the places where it really happened.’
    ‘It didn’t really happen. It’s fiction.’
    ‘I know that. But you know what I mean.’
    ‘Yes, I do. You see England as a kind of glorified theme park. Dracula on the one hand and a medieval castle on the other. What else did you talk about?’
    ‘What do you mean?’
    ‘You know perfectly well what I mean,’ he said, growing distant again. ‘Do I have any secrets left or did Ferdy reveal them all?’
    In truth, he had virtually no secrets left. Ferdy was a blabbermouth, but a kindly blabbermouth who’d wanted to do the best for his friend.
    ‘None of it is Jarvis’s fault,’ he’d confided to Meryl. ‘His father and grandfather both spent money like water, and left Jarvis to clear up the mess. He can’t. It’s too big for one man. But he won’t say a word in criticism of them, even while he’s being slowly crushed to death.’
    But Meryl knew better than to repeat any of this.
    ‘He told me you’re in a bad way,’ she said cautiously, ‘but I knew that already. How much would it take to repair this place and install central heating?’
    ‘God knows! I never let myself think about it. But there’s more than the castle. There’s a whole estate out there, going deep inland: farmers who are my tenants and need help. There are a dozen schemes I could use to help them if I could afford to.’
    ‘Then it looks like I’m your best hope. So why are you so much “agin” me?’
    ‘Because you’re an invader,’ he snapped before he could stop himself. Then, ‘I’m sorry. That was rude.’
    ‘It was honest. I don’t mind that.’
    ‘Then I’ll give you another reason. You’re living in a dream world. You have no idea how much this would really cost.’
    She shrugged. ‘A few million, I suppose. Pounds, sterling.’
    ‘And you can afford that?’ he asked ironically.
    ‘I can once I’m married.’
    ‘And suppose, when you’ve paid my “price”, you turn out not to have enough money left for yourself?’
    Meryl smiled with sheer amusement. It was the smile of a rich woman and it reminded Jarvis that she’d said he ‘couldn’t afford’ to turn her down.
    ‘You let me worry about that,’ she said. ‘I know how much I’m worth and it’s enough to take care of you and Benedict.’
    ‘Benedict?’
    ‘Benedict Steen. He’s a friend of mine in New York. He designs haute couture clothes, and I plan to invest in his business to put him at the top, where he belongs.’
    Jarvis stared at her. ‘And is that going to take much?’
    ‘Ten million,’ she said serenely.
    ‘Pounds?’
    ‘Dollars.’
    With an abrupt movement Jarvis rose and went to his desk, keeping his face averted so that she shouldn’t see the sudden feeling of revulsion that had swept him. He’d known she was wealthy. Now he understood that she had enough money to march in, take over Larne and change everything to suit herself. Her invasion would be impossible to resist-unless he resisted now.
    ‘You’ve got it all worked out neatly,’ he said. ‘Too neatly. You haven’t thought it through.’
    ‘I know what I can afford.’
    As though that was the only consideration, he thought savagely.
    ‘I’m sure you do,’ he said. ‘But you don’t know what you can’t afford.’
    She shrugged, lulled into incautiousness by the wine and a feeling of well-being. ‘I’ve never found that yet.’
    ‘Well, you’ve found it now,’ he grated.
    She shook herself awake. ‘I didn’t mean-’
    ‘I know what you meant. If you’ve finished your supper I’ll escort you upstairs.’
    She sighed but didn’t try to argue further. Together they gathered up her parcels and left the Library, heading for the stairs.
    ‘Jarvis!’ It was Hannah, calling from the kitchen. ‘Can I have a word?’
    ‘I’m coming,’ he called back. ‘I’ll say goodnight now, then.’
    ‘Goodnight,’ she said, and went on up the stairs alone.
    Once in her room she hung up her new clothes, took a quick shower and donned a wispy lace and satin nightdress. It was low cut, held up by narrow lace straps, and probably not the right attire for this chilly place. But it was better than high-necked flannel, she thought.
    She was about to switch off the light when she heard heavy footsteps in the corridor outside. They stopped and there was a long pause. Then the door was flung open with a crash and Jarvis strode into the room, his hands clenched into fists, a look of anger on his face.
    ‘Hey, where do you get off marching in here without knocking?’ she demanded indignantly.
    Jarvis’s hands unclenched, but his face remained dark. ‘I came to find out who was in this room without my permission. I don’t go softly with intruders.’
    ‘Intruders be blowed! You put me in this room.’
    ‘No, I put you in the Green Room.’
    ‘This isn’t the Green Room? So that’s it! I wondered why it wasn’t green.’
    ‘This room belongs to Lady Larne,’ he said flatly. ‘You have no right to be here. Did you tell Hannah to bring you here?’
    ‘Of course not. How could I? I didn’t know there was such a place.’
    ‘Hmm!’
    ‘Don’t “hmm” me! I don’t tell lies.’
    ‘You’ll forgive my being suspicious-’
    ‘No, I won’t!’
    ‘But you’re a woman who feels entitled to go where she pleases, as she pleases. You’ve already made it clear that you think you can take over at Larne.’
    ‘I’ve done no such thing! Stop exaggerating. I just made a few suggestions.’
    ‘Apply for grants, restore the causeway-’
    ‘I have an organised mind. It thinks of things. I was only trying to help you.’
    ‘Have I asked for your help?’
    ‘Well, maybe it’s time you asked for somebody’s. And who else can help you?’
    His eyes narrowed. ‘Are you serious?’
    ‘No.’ She backed off quickly. ‘You’re not at all what I had in mind.’
    ‘And I’ll bet I know just the kind of man you were looking for. A nonentity who’d give you no trouble afterwards.’
    ‘Then we’re the same,’ she flashed, ‘because you’d agree fast enough if you thought you could get me out of your hair the next day.’
    ‘Then neither of us is going to get what they want. Oh, boy, did you take a lot for granted! Even if I’d answered your advertisement, who’s to say I’d have wanted you when we met?’
    Meryl’s answer was a smile. He’d asked the one question to which she knew the answer. He’d have wanted her, if she’d wanted him to. She knew that.
    Jarvis read the smile without difficulty, as she’d intended, and felt a stirring of unease. Her confidence in herself as a woman was like a dark, unknown force. It had no place here, yet it seemed to confront him at every turn.
    More troubling still was knowing that she was right to be confident. She should have been at a disadvantage but she’d mysteriously asserted herself with one silent gesture. Without the barrier of her money he’d have been almost uncontrollably attracted to her. And she knew it, confound her!
    He spoke with difficulty. ‘A decent woman would cover herself.’
    ‘A decent man would have left my room by now.’
    ‘You’re very sure of the power of your money,’ he said slowly.
    She smiled again. ‘Jarvis, it’s not my money that you’re looking at.’
    ‘But the money’s always there, as you well know. It’s behind everything you do. It gives you the arrogance to act as you please. One day you’ll come a cropper because of that arrogance. I just hope I’m there to see it.’
    ‘If you’re going to throw me out I don’t suppose you will be,’ Meryl retorted.
    ‘I’d almost marry you for the pleasure of seeing your face when you’ve got more trouble than you can cope with.’
    Her eyes challenged him. ‘I’ve always been able to deal with trouble.’
    ‘Oh, yes, with an army of servants running around after you,’ he said grimly. ‘But you’re on your own here, with a man who doesn’t like you.’
    ‘But you want me,’ Meryl said softly.
    ‘Then it was even more stupid of you to put yourself at my mercy.’
    ‘Jarvis, understand me. I’ve never been at any man’s mercy, and I never will be.’
    He didn’t answer, but stood there watching her, and suddenly her confidence began to slip away. This man knew how she looked naked. The memory was in his eyes, plus something else that made her realise she had her back to the fire, and her shape must show plainly through the thin material. Their battle had become a game, one that she’d thought she could easily play. But it was as he’d said. She’d walked alone into his domain with only her wits to help her. And perhaps they wouldn’t be enough.
    ‘I think you should go now,’ she said.
    ‘And if I don’t?’
    ‘Then perhaps it’s time I took myself to the Green Room,’ Meryl said decisively. The feeling of being at a disadvantage was unfamiliar, and hard to cope with. She moved past him, giving him as wide a berth as she could, but his hand shot out and grasped her bare arm.
    ‘Will you please let me go?’ she snapped.
    ‘I’d prefer not to.’
    ‘What about your honour as an English gentleman?’
    His laugh had a dangerous edge that hadn’t been there before. ‘My what? My ancestors fought and subdued this countryside by force. What they wanted they took, and if the other side didn’t like it, they shrugged. I promise you, acting like a gentleman never came into it.’
    Silence. She met his eyes, trying not to let him see how disturbed she was. Her heart was thumping with something that wasn’t fear but a kind of heady excitement.
    At last he released her, very slowly, and stepped back. He was breathing hard, and she wondered if he could tell that her pulses were racing.
    At the door he stopped and glanced back over his shoulder, not looking at her directly.
    ‘Tomorrow you leave,’ he said, and went out.
    Meryl stood motionless, looking at the closed door, feeling him still there.
    ‘I don’t think so,’ she told Jarvis Larne’s image. ‘Not now, when I’m just starting to enjoy myself.’
    She breakfasted alone next morning, Jarvis having already eaten and departed; to avoid her, she suspected.
    She still had the feeling of his presence. It had been with her all night so that she’d awoken in the early hours to the mysterious conviction that he was there in the bed, holding her. Then she’d had to remind herself that he’d only held her arm, not encircled her body as she could feel him doing now, and as he would have liked to; she was certain of it.
    It had begun as a demonstration of power, warning her to back off. But he was the one who’d backed off, because his own power had alarmed him. He’d been a whisper away from kissing her, but he hadn’t dared because he didn’t trust himself to stop.
    She could have lured him into that kiss, but she too had retreated. Cold feet? Or just the instinct that said, Not here and now? But one day. Soon. And inevitably.
    Her new wardrobe yielded up a pair of brilliant orange trousers and a loose shirt with a pattern of leaves. A scarf that matched the trousers exactly completed the set. She considered her battle attire with satisfaction.
    Hannah evidently approved also, because when she served Meryl’s breakfast in the downstairs room she gave a brief nod of complicity.
    ‘You shouldn’t have put me in Lady Larne’s room,’ Meryl said. ‘He was none too pleased.’
    ‘Oh, him!’ Hannah snorted as though her employer’s opinion was no more than a minor irritant.
    ‘I think he feels I ought to move to the Green Room.’ Meryl’s tone invited conspiracy.
    ‘Well, maybe I’ll have time to shift your things this morning,’ Hannah said. ‘But I’m awfully busy.’
    ‘I wouldn’t want to disrupt your schedule.’
    They understood each other.
    ‘Mr Ashton called to say he’ll pick you up in half an hour,’ Hannah added.
    Meryl hurried her breakfast and was soon ready. As she left the morning room she became aware that the entire household was present. Most of the castle was closed for economy’s sake, but even the little that was open took a lot of work. Hannah kept it going with the help of a married couple, Seth and Annie, too old and slow to do very much, but whom Jarvis kept on because they had nowhere else to go.
    They were all there, hovering in the hall or on the stairs. Eyes bored into Meryl as she appeared, then turned back to the open Library door, from behind which came the hum of voices.
    ‘Some of his lordship’s tenants have come to see him,’ Hannah muttered. ‘They’ve heard the news.’
    ‘What news?’
    Hannah’s look spoke volumes. Meryl went closer to the door. She could see Jarvis standing there, facing what appeared to be a deputation of five men, one of whom, a burly individual, was speaking for the others.
    ‘My missus said it was the best news she’d heard for years,’ he was saying.
    ‘Hal, I don’t know exactly what you’ve heard-’ Jarvis said awkwardly.
    ‘Why, about this heiress who turned up in the storm-enough money to save us all, that’s what they’re saying. We all knew you would manage it, one way or another.’
    ‘Hal-’
    ‘There’s plenty who’ll sleep better tonight.’
    ‘Don’t take too much for granted,’ Jarvis said gently. ‘Nothing is settled.’
    Another voice from the back of the group said, ‘We’ll just leave the details to you. Not another word until it’s sorted, eh?’
    As they neared the door Meryl moved quickly back, but she wasn’t fast enough. They saw her, leaving her no choice but to come into the room. She tried not to meet Jarvis’s eyes, but she was intensely aware of him, tense with displeasure.
    ‘I’m sorry to disturb you, Lord Larne,’ she said, speaking more calmly than she felt.
    The other five men regarded her as though she’d risen from the sea at that moment. She smiled back, and courtesy forced Jarvis’s hand.
    ‘Gentlemen, this is Miss Meryl Winters, my guest since she was stranded a couple of days ago.’
    She shook five hands as the names washed over her. The men might have come out of the same mould. Their shapes varied but they were all middle-aged, roughly dressed, with hands that looked as though they worked hard. And all bore the same air of weary stoicism, hope too long deferred and dread fended off by fragile defences.
    She felt an inner pang. This wasn’t an adventure for them. It was life or death.
    ‘I must go now and see to the rescue of my car,’ she said at last.
    ‘May I speak to you a few moments before you go, Miss Winters?’ Jarvis requested. ‘Perhaps I could join you in the garden?’
    Whatever he wanted to say to her, she didn’t want to hear it until she’d had time to think.
    ‘Would you mind very much if we put it off?’ she said hurriedly. ‘I mustn’t keep Ferdy waiting.’
    She hurried away before he could answer, but not before she’d sensed a frisson of surprise in the others. She wondered how long it had been since anyone had told Lord Larne to wait.
    As they sped across the water Ferdy said, ‘I saw the deputation on the way out. Have they been giving him a hard time?’
    ‘They told him they knew he’d manage it one way or another, and they’d leave the details to him,’ Meryl said wryly.
    Ferdy shouted with laughter. Yesterday she might have joined in, but now, for some reason the sound made her wince.
    The haulage firm had been at work since low tide, in the early hours, and the car was already safe on land, looking somewhat the worse for wear. Meryl retrieved her luggage from the trunk, where it had escaped the worst. A representative of the car hire firm was on hand to take back the vehicle with much wringing of hands.
    They had a good lunch at her expense, followed by a trip to the bank. Here matters proceeded satisfactorily. The manager, after an initial scepticism, made some calls to New York, during which his manner grew markedly more deferential. When Meryl departed she was once more ‘Miss Winters’, armed with a special emergency cheque book, and a promise that the official one would be ready next day.
    The causeway was clear when they reached the shore, and the first thing they saw was Jarvis’s elderly Jeep making its way cautiously to the end. He stopped when he saw them and Meryl went up to his window.
    ‘You mad at me?’ she asked.
    ‘Certainly not,’ he said politely. ‘But we do need that talk.’
    ‘I agree.’ Before she realised what he meant to do she darted around the front of the vehicle and hopped up into the passenger seat.
    ‘Drive on,’ she said. ‘Bye, Ferdy.’
    Ferdy had been transferring her baggage to the Jeep. He retired, grinning.
    Jarvis didn’t move. ‘I don’t think this is the best-’
    ‘Of course it is. How can we talk in the castle? The walls have ears. Here we can be private and you can tell me exactly what you think of me.’
    ‘You’re right,’ he said grimly, letting in the clutch.
    She said nothing for the first few minutes, until they’d left the built-up area behind and were swinging out onto the moors which stretched as far as the eye can see. Presently the land changed, softened into graceful undulations. Here and there she saw the glint of water as streams meandered through the gentle countryside.
    ‘Is this where I drove the other night?’ Meryl asked.
    ‘No, we’ve left the moor road.’
    ‘Can you stop a moment?’
    The old vehicle ground to a halt with an ugly sound. She slipped out, followed by the dogs who’d been on the back seat, and went to stand where she could look down into the valley. Everything seemed mysteriously perfect. The divisions in the land were made by hedges, trees or by stone walls that looked as though they had grown naturally out of their surroundings.
    Just below her she could see a flock of sheep, dotted about a field. The ewes chewed and surveyed the world, while the lambs skittered between them.
    Jarvis came to stand beside her but he didn’t speak. He was watching her.
    ‘Is all this yours?’ she asked at last, so quietly that he almost didn’t hear.
    ‘Some of it,’ he said. ‘I own some farms around here, and rent them out.’
    ‘I’ve never seen so many wild flowers,’ she mused. ‘In fact, I don’t usually see much wild anything.’
    ‘No, you’re more of a hothouse flower,’ he said, speaking without rancour.
    ‘I suppose so. The trouble with being a hothouse flower is that you lose track of the seasons.’
    ‘Here the seasons are everything. This one’s the best, when spring is just turning into early summer. The lambing’s over and the sowing is ready to start.’
    Rusty and Jacko were sniffing about in the grass, the picture of canine content. Their master threw a stick, but they ignored it and came to Meryl to have their ears fondled.
    ‘I don’t suppose there’s any money in farming, is there?’ she said thoughtfully.
    ‘Hey, how did you ever work that out?’ Jarvis still spoke amiably, almost teasing her.
    ‘I didn’t,’ she admitted. ‘It was something my father used to say.’
    What Craddock Winters had actually said was, ‘Only fools waste their time trying to get things out of the earth by growing. The way to do it is to bore in and wrench out what you want. That’s how you get rich.’
    Meryl had never thought about it enough to question his judgement, but now she realised that her father had never stood in a field in spring, listening to the silence. In fact-it dawned on her like a thunderclap-he’d hated silence almost as much as he hated his own company-and had made sure there was never any around him.
    If only he could see her now! She could just hear his scathing tones. But there was a lot he hadn’t known.
    ‘Why are you smiling?’ Jarvis asked.
    ‘Talking about my father made me remember things-he thought cities mattered, and outside cities only oil wells counted. To him the rest was unnecessary.’
    ‘Where did he think the food came from?’
    ‘From the supermarket, of course, Cellophane-packaged.’
    ‘Why, of all the-’ he began angrily. Then he saw the demure mischief in her eyes and knew an odd feeling of pleasure. ‘Of course!’ he said. ‘Forgive me, I have no sense of humour.’
    ‘Nonsense! You must have.’
    ‘I don’t often see the joke. Except right now I think it might be on me.’
    ‘But it can’t really be a joke for you, can it?’ she said, serious again.
    ‘No, it can’t. The reality is always there in the background, making jokes futile. And that’s all I’m going to say. It’s time we were getting on. I have people I need to see.’
    ‘Will I be in the way?’
    ‘If I said yes, would that stop you?’
    ‘Let’s get going.’

CHAPTER FIVE

    WHEN they were in the Jeep Jarvis began to turn it back the way they’d come.
    ‘What about the people you have to see?’ she asked.
    ‘That can wait for another day.’
    ‘You mean because I’m here. You don’t want me to see too much, do you?’
    ‘You’ve already seen too much. I didn’t ask you to come with me but you insisted, the way you’d always insist if I was mad enough to- Never mind.’
    They were approaching the village again. This time, instead of driving through, he stopped at an old timbered building whose sign proclaimed it the Running Dog. He bought himself a beer and, at Meryl’s insistence, the same for her. Then sat watching her cynically as she drank it.
    ‘It’s good,’ she said, meaning it. ‘Don’t look like that. My dad taught me to drink beer.’
    ‘This isn’t just beer,’ he said, scandalised. ‘It’s best Yorkshire bitter.’
    ‘I must have some sent back home. It’ll blow their minds.’
    ‘Back home,’ he echoed. ‘Your home’s thousands of miles away. Go back to it, Meryl. Take the beer. Take every drop in Yorkshire, but go back where you belong.’
    ‘I think someone’s trying to get your attention.’
    Jarvis looked over his shoulder and swore. ‘That’s Andrew Carver, my solicitor,’ he muttered.
    A harassed-looking middle-aged man bore down on them. ‘Jarvis, what a bit of luck. I gave up waiting for you at the office.’
    ‘I’m sorry, that was rude of me. Andrew, this is-’
    It was clear that Andrew already knew. His greeting to Meryl was effusive, and he couldn’t keep his eyes from darting to her again and again.
    ‘Just a few things-’ Carver said hurriedly.
    ‘This isn’t a good time-’ Jarvis began.
    ‘Ten minutes. I promised Bates an answer today-you remember, about that guarantee with the bank? I know what we said but it’s only to tide him over for three months-’
    ‘Let me get you a drink, Mr Carver,’ Meryl said, rising.
    She would have preferred to stay and listen, but she could sense Jarvis on hot coals, and suddenly she pitied him. He was like a man tied down with chains, forced to watch as more and more were laid on him.
    She set Carver’s drink beside him and wandered out. The pub was built near the top of a gentle slope, and from the rail she could look down at the sunlit dales, dotted with woolly sheep who seemed so still that they might have been part of the landscape.
    I belong here.
    She looked around sharply to see who’d spoken, but she was alone. The words had flashed into her head without warning, and then out again, floating away on the gentle breeze.
    Nonsense! she thought. Of course I don’t belong here. Ask Jarvis, he’ll tell you. He’ll probably shoot the messenger, too. It’s a lovely place and I’d like to stay awhile, but I don’t belong here because-because I don’t want to belong here.
    She tried to picture her fun life in New York, and her even more fun life in Los Angeles. The parties, the expensive clothes, the glitter, the adoring men.
    But the pictures wouldn’t come, and the men were hardest of all to get in focus. Who were they? What did they look like? The only face she could see was that of a tense angry man who needed her but couldn’t wait to be rid of her.
    ‘I don’t want to belong here,’ she said aloud.
    A goat, contentedly grazing nearby, gave her a disdainful look and returned to work.
    It might be destiny, but she’d always felt in charge of her own destiny, except for Larry Rivers’ unwelcome interventions. People were so eager to oblige Miss Winters.
    Except one.
    ‘OK, he’s gone.’ Jarvis had appeared behind her. She wondered how long he’d been there, watching her. ‘Ready to go?’
    ‘Let me finish my beer. This is beautiful.’
    ‘You should see it when it’s under snow.’
    ‘I’ve already seen it when it wasn’t friendly. I can’t believe that was only two days ago.’
    ‘Surely-?’ He frowned. ‘No, you’re right. It is only two days.’
    Two days and a hundred years.
    ‘By the way,’ he said as they returned to the Jeep, ‘thank you.’
    ‘Don’t tell me I’ve cracked your prejudice against me?’
    ‘Is it prejudice to say you don’t belong here?’
    There was that phrase again.
    ‘I appreciate your making yourself scarce,’ he said.
    ‘Is Carver doing a good job for you?’
    ‘I beg your pardon?’
    ‘Sure, I’m an interfering busybody, let’s take that as read. But if you’re already in such hock-and as your solicitor he must know it-why is he trying to get you in deeper?’
    ‘It’s just a guarantee, and only for three months.’
    ‘And then this Mr Bates will pay?’
    Jarvis hesitated uneasily. ‘He’s had a very rough time recently-he deserves his chance, and nobody will help him if I don’t.’
    ‘You’re really paternalistic, aren’t you? Being a father to them.’
    ‘They need help,’ he said emphatically. ‘And there’s only me.’
    ‘And when Bates can’t pay, you’re that much closer to disaster. I don’t know the details, but I don’t think it’s going to take much to tip you over.’
    ‘Miss Winters, understand once and for all, I will not marry you.’
    She sighed. ‘Boy, I must be losing my touch!’
    Silence. Then, as though the words were torn from him. ‘You know better than that.’
    She resisted the temptation to say, Yes, I do. She was learning.
    They didn’t speak for a while. The dogs nuzzled her from the rear seat and she tickled their ears, trying not to fall in love with them. It was hard.
    Above them the sky was darkening again. The glorious sunlight of a moment ago might never have been.
    ‘How can it change so fast?’ she demanded. ‘And it’s raining again. I don’t believe it.’
    ‘If you were stuck around here you’d believe it fast enough. This area is known for its rain.’
    ‘Good for farming, then.’
    ‘Excellent, but not good for a theme park. Oh, blast!’
    The engine, which had been making melancholy noises for the last mile, finally decided it wasn’t worth the effort. They came to a shuddering halt.
    With a muttered, ‘Stay here,’ Jarvis jumped out and hauled up the bonnet. Meryl followed at once.
    ‘I told you to stay where you were.’
    ‘And miss the chance of being soaked to death a second time? No way! What’s the matter?’
    Jarvis made a maddened gesture at the engine, which was steaming ominously. ‘I don’t know, but it’s always happening. Luckily there’s a garage in Little Grands.’
    ‘Didn’t we come through Little Grands on the way here? It can’t be much more than a mile ahead.’
    ‘Right. But we’re stuck here with our dead vehicle.’
    ‘Not if we push it.’
    ‘We?’
    She had to raise her voice to make herself heard above the rain. ‘Jarvis, you can either wait here with me, trying to make polite conversation, or we can move this thing to Little Grands.’
    ‘But you? Push?’
    She lost her temper. ‘Unless you fancy harnessing the dogs.’
    He didn’t argue further but went to the back of the Jeep. Meryl followed him at once, setting her shoulder to the other corner. She had just time to think, If they could see me now! before exerting all her strength and feeling the vehicle begin to move with agonising slowness.
    Inch by inch, foot by foot, they crawled along until Little Grands came into sight, although still tantalisingly far off.
    ‘We can rest for a minute,’ Jarvis said, breathing heavily.
    ‘Resting is for wimps,’ she gasped.
    ‘Fine, we’ll be wimps.’ He gave her a glowering look. ‘We haven’t all got big muscles like you.’
    She began to laugh, and choked almost at once as the rain got into her mouth.
    ‘Don’t,’ she begged, going into a coughing fit. ‘Oh, heavens!’
    ‘It’s all right.’ He thumped her on the back. She staggered and clung to him.
    ‘Fine,’ she gasped. ‘I’m OK now. Let’s get going.’
    ‘No need,’ he said, pointing down the road ahead. ‘That truck heading for us belongs to Mike, who owns the garage. What a bit of luck that he should have been coming back this way!’
    In another minute Mike was with them, whistling when he saw the engine. Meryl got into his van while Jarvis helped him set up the tow, and soon they were on their way to the village.
    ‘It’ll take me a few hours,’ Mike said when the Jeep was in his garage and he’d taken a quick glance. ‘Do you want to get a taxi home?’
    ‘No point,’ Jarvis said. ‘We’ve missed the afternoon low tide. But you should go,’ he added to Meryl. ‘I’ll call Ferdy to take you over with his boat.’
    But she shook her head, teeth chattering. ‘I just need dry clothes. If I can have my bags and somewhere to change-’
    Mike showed her across the road to a small inn called the Blue Gull, where she was able to hire a room with a minute bathroom. Mrs Helms, the plump landlady, brought her a huge mug of hot tea, which tasted better than anything in her life before, and half an hour in the shower made her feel almost human again.
    Her elegant suitcases were largely water-tight, and she found her clothes in good condition. She picked out a heavy jersey sweater and skirt set in her favorite green, and brushed out her long black hair over her shoulders. It was still damp, so she left it hanging loose and went downstairs just as Jarvis entered the front door.
    The rain was still pelting down, and in the short time it had taken him to cross the yard his hair had become soaked again. So had his jacket. Mrs Helms fussed over him, putting his jacket on a chair and giving him a towel for his hair. He rubbed vigorously and finally came up for air to find Meryl standing before him. He hadn’t noticed her before, and it gave him an unnerving feeling, as though she had appeared by magic.
    ‘Are you feeling better?’ he asked.
    ‘Fine, now I’m dry.’ She returned the mug to Mrs Helms. ‘Thank you so much for this. It saved my life.’
    Mrs Helms had a fat, cosy chuckle. ‘You looked just about drowned,’ she said.
    ‘That’s Lord Larne’s fault,’ Meryl said wickedly. ‘I think there must be a law that says I can never meet him without getting soaking wet.’
    ‘So be warned,’ Jarvis growled.
    ‘You mean, “be off”, don’t you?’
    ‘If you know what I mean, I don’t need to say it.’ But he spoke without the rancour that would once have been in his voice.
    ‘How’s the car?’
    ‘It’ll be ready in time for the next low tide.’
    ‘And that’s when?’ she asked suspiciously.
    ‘Two in the morning.’
    ‘I sure pick ’em.’
    ‘Shall I get you that taxi?’
    ‘No, but you can get me something to eat.’
    ‘I guess I owe you that. I expect you’re aching all over.’
    ‘Nothing a good, solid Yorkshire meal won’t put right.’
    ‘Ready in five minutes,’ Mrs Helms sang out. ‘I’ve put you a table near the fire.’
    It was too early in the year for visitors, so they had the place to themselves. Rusty and Jacko had come in with their master and sprawled contentedly by the fire. Meryl looked around, enchanted by the oak beams and the fact that this building was clearly several hundred years old. Then she caught Jarvis’s eyes on her and read ‘theme park’ in them. Huffed, she joined Mrs Helms in the kitchen.
    If anything this was worse, because the landlady showed her around like a royal guest. Evidently she too had heard the gossip. When she loaded a tray with more tea Meryl said, ‘I’ll take that,’ and fled.
    She found Jarvis on an old oak settle by the fire, his body sprawled in an attitude of weariness, his head fallen back against a side wing. He was asleep.
    Now she could see him with all expression stripped away Meryl realised that he looked older than thirty-three, not old in years but in strain and worry. There were two deep lines at the side of his mouth that mirrored the ones in his grandfather’s portrait, but which shouldn’t have appeared on this young man for several years. His eyes had a faint bruised appearance, as though he never slept-never dared, flashed across her mind-except, as now, in brief snatches. Then he would jerk awake with an alarmed alertness, bracing himself for the next burden to be laid on his back.
    No wonder he was grouchy, she thought, and for a moment everything was washed away except compassion for him. He was being slowly ground down by problems others had created, and he no longer knew how to reach out for help. If, indeed, he’d ever known.
    She purposely made a noise setting down the tray so that he would awaken to find her looking away from him. ‘Is there a special way I should pour your tea?’ she asked lightly as he rubbed his eyes.
    ‘Strong, with two sugars.’
    She managed to get it right and he sipped the powerful brew with a sigh of satisfaction.
    ‘I suppose you heard everything in the Library this morning?’ he said. ‘Did you have a good laugh?’
    ‘I’m not laughing. It’s frightening how much it means to them.’
    Jarvis gave her a quick glance. Frightening was the very word he’d been using to himself and it alarmed him to know how well their thoughts were in tune.
    Mrs Helms bustled in with a big meal which she served on the little table between them. She didn’t leave until Meryl had tasted some of it and pronounced it delicious.
    ‘You know why she’s hanging on your opinion?’ Jarvis demanded. ‘You see the damage you’ve caused by raising their hopes?’
    ‘I raised their hopes? Who spread the story of my arrival? Not me.’
    He sighed. ‘No. It was Hannah. I know that. She thinks it’s all so easy.’
    ‘She thinks what they all think, that you’ve been offered a chance to get everyone out of trouble. If you don’t take it, they won’t understand.’
    ‘Then I’ll have to try to make them understand that there never was such a chance. You and I met, decided we couldn’t deal together, and that was it. I seem to recall your saying that I didn’t appeal to you.’
    She looked at him, his profile sharp and uncompromising, and a tremor went through her as she remembered last night.
    ‘Will they believe that?’ she mused. ‘They think women must be falling over themselves to marry Lord Larne.’
    ‘Well, you can tell them they’re wrong, can’t you?’
    ‘That’ll reflect very badly on you. I think the idea is that you’re supposed to use your charms to persuade me.’
    It was true, he realised with an inward groan. He’d been both touched and worried by his tenants’s fear, and their confidence that he could save them. And he had no other way of doing it. That was the plain truth. Perhaps, for their sakes, it was his duty to enter this appalling arrangement.
    For it did appal him. From the day he’d become Lord Larne he’d always been in control-of his land, his people and of himself. But this woman threatened his control in every possible way.
    ‘Perhaps you ought to at least try,’ she mused. ‘After all, you owe it to them. It would be a shame if they thought Lord Larne couldn’t make it.’
    ‘You’ll go too far,’ he growled.
    She chuckled. ‘It’s funny how people are always telling me that.’
    Her hair fell forward and she swept it back, winding the long tail around and around until she could leave it in a twisted rope that immediately started to become loose again.
    ‘It’s a pity I arrived in a downpour,’ she said. ‘It reminds people of the legend so now they can’t see me as I really am.’
    ‘Yes, that must be it,’ he agreed slowly. The warmth from the fire was getting to him and he was relaxing, letting down his guard with her, against his better judgement.
    ‘Who was she in real life? Hannah said something about a French woman.’
    ‘That’s right. Marguerite de Vendanne, only child of one of the wealthiest men in France. She brought a fabulous dowry, and when her father died a year later she inherited everything.’
    ‘And “saved the family”?’ Meryl finished lightly.
    ‘Insofar as money could save it, yes. It wasn’t a happy family, although the marriage started out well. Giles Larne was handsome, and he dazzled poor Marguerite until she swore she’d marry nobody else. That was quite a stand for a young woman to take in those days, especially one who was such a catch. But she was brave and determined.’ He smiled. ‘Like you.’
    ‘Only in my case people say “stubborn as a donkey”.’
    ‘I expect her father said that about her, too. She wasn’t just rich and beautiful. She was a witch.’
    She laughed. ‘No, seriously.’
    ‘I am serious. She vanished suddenly.’
    ‘You mean she went up in a puff of smoke at the wedding?’
    ‘No, she stayed for about two years, and had a son. But then she just disappeared and nobody ever knew what became of her. There were stories. Some people said they’d seen her fly away from the top of one of the towers, so they called her a witch.’
    Actually they’d called her the enchantress, but, sitting here with this black-haired woman who’d risen from the sea to torment him with hopes and dreams, and who would disappear again at any moment, he didn’t want to think of enchantment.
    ‘The truth is more prosaic, of course,’ he went on. ‘It always is. She was the faithless one. She tired of poor old Giles pretty soon and started casting eyes at one of his stewards. The two of them vanished together. I’ll show you her portrait in the castle. She’s wearing a triple rope of pearls that were famous in their day. They vanished with her and were never heard of again, so I suppose they sold them off one by one and lived on the money. She took her maid, but left her baby son behind.’
    ‘And nobody ever spotted them?’
    ‘This was the fifteenth century. They couldn’t plaster missing persons all over the television screen. If people didn’t know what you looked like, and you had money, you could hide successfully. Giles never recovered from losing her. He took to drink and was dead in five years, leaving their son to inherit.’
    ‘What a sad story. That poor man!’
    ‘Yes, he must have thought everything was going to be wonderful, and he didn’t know what had hit him.’
    ‘You know, this food really is delicious,’ she said appreciatively. ‘These little batter cakes-’
    ‘Yorkshire puddings.’
    ‘I’d almost marry you just to have them every day.’
    Instead of rising to the bait he merely raised his eyebrows ironically. She laughed and it was allowed to drop. They ate slowly, lulled to sleepiness by the warmth after the cold and wet outside. Meryl felt herself suffused by drowsy contentment. When, she wondered, had she last been content in the whirl and bustle of a moneyed life?
    ‘Wake up!’
    ‘Eh? What?’ She opened her eyes to find Jarvis’s face very near and his hands on her shoulders, shaking her.
    ‘Wake up!’ he said gently. ‘Mrs Helms wants to close.’
    ‘Have I been asleep?’
    ‘For ages.’
    ‘I didn’t snore, did I?’
    He smiled. ‘No, you didn’t snore. I promise. But you talk in your sleep.’
    ‘What did I say?’ she demanded suspiciously.
    ‘I couldn’t follow most of it. Something about destiny.’
    She didn’t want to move. She just wanted to stay here, with her mouth dangerously close to his, trying to understand the look in his eyes.
    Except that she already did understand it. She’d seen that look before in men’s eyes. And she’d laughed and teased them, kissed them if she was in the mood or sent them away unkissed, knowing they’d be back next day.
    But this man was different. His strength of will was as great as her own, and his pride even stronger. She held her breath, knowing that he was fighting temptation, willing him to lose the battle.
    ‘Mike says the car’s ready,’ Mrs Helms said, barging in noisily.
    They pulled quickly apart, each stunned by the shock, struggling for a foothold in this new, strange world.
    ‘I’ll go up and get my things,’ Meryl muttered, not quite knowing what she said.
    She came down a few minutes later to find Jarvis gone and Mrs Helms waiting by the door. She tried to pay her, but Jarvis had settled the entire bill, which she felt was high-handed of him. She wandered over to the direction of the garage, thankful that the rain had stopped.
    ‘I’ve patched it up,’ Mike declared. ‘But it’s time to have this thing put painlessly to sleep. Drive carefully.’
    It had gone midnight as they drove home. A brilliant moon had come out, bathing the countryside in silver. By now Meryl was getting used to the way everything changed from magic to danger and back to magic again. But still the awesome beauty made her hold her breath.
    ‘I tried to pay the landlady-’ she began.
    ‘You had no right to. It was for me to settle the bill.’
    ‘Maybe for the meal, but my room-’
    ‘You wouldn’t have needed it if you hadn’t been helping me push the car.’
    ‘But you didn’t want me on this trip anyway, and I think it was for me to pay.’
    ‘I disagree.’
    ‘But you-’ She choked off the words, You can’t afford it.
    ‘Don’t say it,’ he advised.
    ‘I wasn’t going to.’
    ‘Yes, you were, and it would have got you dumped by the roadside. This is exactly why I want you out of my hair.’
    The brief moment of understanding had gone. He was on guard against her again, and doubly so because of his moment of weakness.
    ‘Look-’ she tried again.
    ‘The subject is closed.’
    ‘No way!’
    ‘The subject is closed.’
    ‘Why? Because Lord Larne says so? You’ve got a nerve.’
    His answer was to slam on the brakes and look at her with meaning. He’d do it, too, she thought. The rotten swine would dump her out here.
    ‘Have you got anything else to say?’ he asked dangerously.
    ‘Just one thing. After what you did to those brakes it would serve you right if you couldn’t start this thing again.’
    He didn’t risk answering that, but started up without trouble. Which only went to prove, she thought crossly, that the devil looked after his own.

CHAPTER SIX

    AT LAST the shore came into view, the causeway forming a silver ribbon across the water to where the castle reared up against the night sky. She wondered if she was looking at it for the last time.
    There was a strange car parked at the entrance, and Hannah came bustling to meet them as they entered.
    ‘There’s a man called Blackham been waiting for you for hours,’ she told Jarvis. ‘He says he’s not going away until he sees you.’
    ‘That’s right,’ said a voice over her shoulder. ‘I promised my client that you wouldn’t escape me.’
    He was a scrawny individual with an unhealthy colour, somewhere in his fifties. Just the sight of him was enough to make Meryl’s skin crawl.
    From his tone, Jarvis evidently shared her distaste. ‘I’m not trying to escape you, Mr Blackham.’
    ‘Oh, yeah? These figures say differently.’ He waved some sheets of paper. ‘Pay up. My client’s getting impatient.’
    Meryl glided silently into the shadows, hoping Jarvis would be less aware of her. How it must gall him to have this scene witnessed!
    ‘Your client and I had an agreement-’ Jarvis began.
    ‘He’s changed his mind,’ Blackham snapped. ‘He wants his money now, or he’s prepared to start legal action.’
    ‘You know I can’t produce that sum at a moment’s notice,’ Jarvis raged. ‘Do you think I don’t know what’s behind this? His “legal action” can topple me into bankruptcy.’
    ‘That’s nothing to do with me-’
    ‘The hell it isn’t! Your client would love to bring me down, then move in and buy Larne on the cheap. And it’s not just him, is it? There’s a consortium all ready and waiting, licking their lips-’
    Meryl was standing by the door and sensed Hannah slipping in behind her to mutter in her ear, ‘Mr Steen called to say “Larry knows everything, and is on the warpath”.’
    ‘When was this?’
    ‘Hours ago.’
    ‘Then he might be heading this way,’ Meryl breathed in horror.
    Decision time. No more games. But for Jarvis it wasn’t a game. His world was crumbling around him and only she could stop it happening. In ten minutes it would be too late.
    She had the strangest feeling of watching the scene from the sidelines. Somebody-it must have been herself-strode forward and whisked the papers from Blackham’s hands, giving a brittle laugh to indicate how trivial this situation was.
    ‘How much?’ she asked, scanning the papers. ‘Good heavens, as little as that?’
    ‘If you call twenty thousand “little”-’ Blackham snapped.
    ‘My dear man,’ Meryl said as haughtily as she could manage, ‘it’s nothing to me.’
    That’ll confirm his worst suspicions, said the inner voice.
    But there was a time to be restrained, and a time to be over the top. And this situation demanded over the top with a vengeance.
    ‘I’ve heard about you-’ Blackham began.
    ‘Then you know that I spend this kind of money on a dress.’ She took out her cheque book and scribbled. ‘Now, go away and stop bothering me.’
    He made a last effort. ‘A cheque’s no use. It can be bounced.’
    She turned on him a look of such amazement that he retreated.
    ‘No cheque of mine has ever bounced,’ she declared, blithely editing out certain incidents that had been entirely Larry’s fault. ‘But if you want a money order I’ll call the bank manager right now.’
    ‘And he’ll get out of bed?’ Blackham sneered. ‘Best friends, are you?’
    ‘Since eleven o’clock this morning,’ she confirmed sweetly.
    There was something about her total confidence that made him back down. Muttering, ‘Give it here, then,’ he snatched the cheque and strode to the door. There he turned and surveyed them sardonically.
    ‘There are several like me due in the next few days,’ he said. ‘I hope the rumours of your marriage are true.’
    Beside her Meryl was aware of Jarvis clenching his fists, controlling himself with an effort.
    ‘Get out,’ he growled.
    When they were alone he spoke to her, sounding as though the words were torn out of him. ‘Thank you.’
    ‘Well, it’s only what I owe you after nearly plunging you into disaster.’
    ‘What do you mean?’
    ‘You said it yourself, there’s a consortium waiting to bring you down over a minor debt. Why do you think they moved in right now?’
    He nodded. ‘Because you’re here.’
    ‘Right. They were afraid I could save you, so they moved in fast. If you’d gone down tonight, it would have been my fault for coming here. Don’t you see, Jarvis? Now I have to marry you, whether I want to or not.’
    ‘Well, don’t sound so damned tragic about it,’ he snapped.
    ‘You’d better say yes before they pounce again.’
    ‘I’ll pay you back every penny,’ Jarvis said furiously.
    ‘What with?’ A little imp was driving her, forcing her to make this happen. She didn’t ask herself why. She didn’t need to.
    ‘I can give you what you want,’ she reminded him. ‘This place, on a sound financial footing. And you can give me what I want.’
    He gave a bark of ironic laughter. ‘Benedict Steen.’
    ‘My freedom. My independence.’ With a beating heart she waited for him to speak.
    ‘It seems I have no choice,’ he said at last.
    How angry his eyes were! He hated being cornered. He hated the way she’d rescued him by flaunting her wealth. He almost hated her.
    ‘I’ve had more ardent proposals,’ she observed wryly.
    ‘You offered me a business deal and that’s what I’m accepting. After our wedding you’ll take possession of your inheritance, and Larne estate will get your dowry. And then you’ll go back to your real life in New York.’
    ‘Eventually. It wouldn’t do your dignity much good if I rushed away next morning, would it?’
    ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
    ‘Aw, c’mon!’ Meryl said mischievously. ‘The great Lord of Larne, with his droit de seigneur and heaven knows what else-and the day after the wedding his bride takes flight. You’d never live it down. All right, I’ll give you a practical reason. If I dash off so fast it will give Larry a weapon to try and get it annulled. Besides, I need to be here to oversee the final paperwork.’
    ‘And then you’ll leave?’
    ‘If you still want me to. You might have changed your mind.’
    ‘Don’t count on it. I’m doing my duty. Nothing more.’
    ‘You’re such a romantic,’ she complained.
    He had a horrible feeling that he was being churlish. Tonight he’d looked into the precipice and she’d pulled him back, saving not just himself but the whole of Larne and everyone who lived and worked there. For that she deserved better than what he’d offered so far.
    ‘I want to say-’ he began, smiling as best he could.
    ‘Do you have a telephone I can use? I’m not sure if my mobile works across the Atlantic.’
    ‘There’s one in your room, on the window seat, just hidden behind the curtain.’
    ‘Thanks. I’ll say goodnight, then.’
    ‘Goodnight.’
    After such a long day he’d expected to sleep at once, but he was in turmoil. When he’d given up all hope of rest he threw back the sheet and pulled on a robe. There was only one person he wanted to talk to now, because only she would understand his feeling of moving through a parallel universe.
    Meryl was still in Lady Larne’s apartment, which connected to his own by a narrow corridor, whose stone floor and walls were icy. He shivered and pulled his robe more tightly around him, glad of the light he could see under her door. But as he raised his hand to knock he was halted by the sound of her voice.
    ‘So it’s all settled,’ she was saying to somebody. ‘You’ll have the money as soon as I can fix it. When can you get over here?’
    There was a pause then she laughed softly in a way Jarvis had never heard before.
    ‘I’m longing to see you. Oh, Benedict, we have so many plans to make.’
    Jarvis went quietly back to bed.
    Meryl was up with the lark next morning. Benedict had managed to tell her roughly when Larry had left, so she knew he wouldn’t be here until the afternoon, which gave her time for what she had in mind. Seth, one of the elderly workers, ferried her across the water.
    ‘Don’t worry about collecting me,’ she told him. ‘I’ll drive back at low tide.’
    She did so, streaming across the causeway in a vehicle that brought everyone to the castle windows. Jarvis watched her arrive, unable to tear his eyes from the top of the range four-wheel-drive off-roader that could only be bought for a price that made him giddy to think of.
    ‘More practical than my last one,’ she said as she jumped down to find him waiting by the door. ‘This one is so strong and stable that I reckon you could almost drive it over at high tide.’
    ‘You’ve made a very good choice,’ he agreed gravely.
    ‘Would you check the paperwork for me?’ She handed him some papers and went inside. He followed, frowning, walking more and more slowly until at last he joined her in the library.
    ‘These papers-are in my name,’ he said uncertainly.
    ‘Yes.’ She faced him, but he seemed too stunned to say more. ‘It’s like this,’ she said at last. ‘You’ve got me ticketed as a vulgarian with more money than sense, prone to flashing her ill-gotten gains around and deluding herself that disgusting money can buy everything.’ She pressed the car keys into his hand and closed his fingers over them, enfolding him a moment between her two hands. ‘So, I thought I’d prove you right.’
    He reddened, hearing his prejudices in her mouth. But then he met her eyes and read in them something that told him she was afraid of a rebuff. Beneath the quips she was vulnerable in a way he hadn’t suspected.
    ‘Don’t be absurd,’ he said shakily. ‘I never thought-it’s perfect. It’s exactly the vehicle for this part of the world. When I drive around the estate-that is, when we-’
    ‘We is better,’ she agreed. ‘Call it my wedding gift.’
    His hand moved against hers. ‘In that case-thank you. You couldn’t have chosen better.’
    It astonished him to see the colour come flooding into her cheeks, almost as though this woman, who could buy her own way, minded what he thought.
    He was confused. The mixture of horror and relief from the night before was still with him, along with a gratitude that was genuine enough, although he had trouble with the words. All his life, finding the words had been the problem.
    He’d recognised the element of play-acting in the way she’d demolished Blackham, yet it still filled him with dread. He owed her, and if she wanted to collect it would be hard for him to refuse, even those things he still instinctively wanted to protect from her.
    Then he remembered that he would repay her by freeing her to love another man: Benedict, whom she’d called at the first chance, and to whom she’d whispered sweetly of the plans they would make.
    Fine. Nothing could be better.
    ‘Shall we celebrate with a drive?’ he suggested politely.
    ‘Love to, but better not now. I should be here when Larry arrives. He’s my trustee.’
    ‘Ah, yes, the one whose guns you hope to spike by marrying me. Is he as annoyed as you hoped?’
    ‘Don’t know. Haven’t spoken to him. But he’s on his way. I’d counted on a bit more time, but Larry went rampaging round to see Benedict and dragged everything out of him.’
    ‘So Benedict knew you were coming here?’
    Meryl chuckled. ‘He drove me to the airport. It was even his idea that I should advertise-in a sort of way.’ She was too preoccupied with her thoughts to notice the tightening of Jarvis’s expression.
    ‘Oh, blow Larry!’ she sighed. ‘Why did he have to come here now? Never mind! I can always hide behind you.’
    ‘What?’
    Her stare was an innocent as a baby’s. ‘You’re my future husband. It’s your job to protect me.’
    ‘I should like to see the man you couldn’t defeat single-handed,’ he said emphatically.
    ‘Does that include you?’
    ‘If you think your money defeats me-’
    ‘I wasn’t talking about money, as you know full well-your lordship.’
    ‘We’ve made an arrangement for our mutual benefit,’ he said slowly. ‘But you haven’t got the better of me. And you never will.’
    She laughed directly up into his face. ‘Wanna bet?’
    ‘I never bet on a certainty.’
    ‘Depends which side this certainty is on,’ she mused.
    ‘Spare me the pretence. You think you know which side it’s on.’
    ‘Just as you think that you know. I wonder which of us is right.’
    ‘We won’t be married long enough to find out,’ he said, wishing her breath didn’t fan his face in such a tantalising fashion. ‘And stop playing games with me, Miss Winters.’
    ‘If we’re going to be married, couldn’t you call me Meryl?’
    He barely heard. He was watching her face, made more enchanting than ever by the mischief that danced over it. A stray lock of hair had fallen over her forehead and he almost raised his hand to brush it away, but then he stayed himself, alarmed. How could he have forgotten the need for caution?
    ‘Meryl,’ he agreed.
    ‘You make that sound more formal than Miss Winters,’ she complained.
    ‘I’m always formal with my business partners. It works better that way.’
    He didn’t intend to smile back at her, but her own smile compelled him. For a moment her sophistication had slipped and she was a cheeky little girl, teasing him. At last he gave up the effort not to smile. He would resist her another time.
    A sound from the door made them both look around. Sarah stood there, her face tense.
    ‘I’ll see you later,’ Meryl said softly, and slipped away.
    Sarah came forward and searched Jarvis’s face. ‘Tell me it isn’t true,’ she said. ‘Ferdy told me, but I couldn’t believe you’d stoop to such a thing.’
    Jarvis tried not to let her see how this embarrassed him. Sarah was an old and dear friend who had his best interests at heart.
    ‘Does the whole world know?’ he demanded. ‘What should I do? Go bankrupt and take everyone down with me? I’ve been given a chance to save us all.’
    ‘But at such a price-’
    ‘It’s a formality, nothing more. Meryl and I each gain what we want. When the dust has settled we get a discreet divorce and never see each other again.’
    ‘That’s what she’s told you, is it?’
    ‘Sarah, my dear, what is this? Meryl has no interest in me as a man.’
    Even as he said it the memory of her teasing ‘Wanna bet?’ darted through his mind and was gone, with a mischievous flick of the tail. Luckily Sarah was too agitated to see the disturbance in his face.
    ‘Not long term, no,’ she agreed. ‘But I knew what she was like the moment we met. The way she just marched in here and expected to take over-so sure of herself-of the divine right of money-’
    ‘That’s not really fair,’ he said, forgetting how often he’d thought the same.
    ‘Oh, Jarvis, she’s spoilt, she’s used to getting her own way, yielding to every stupid impulse and assuming that someone else will pick up the pieces. Look at the way she just turned up here without warning. Never mind the inconvenience to everyone else. Never mind the risk.’
    ‘That’s true,’ he said, struck. ‘I don’t know that any risk fazes her. She nearly drowned that night, then she ended up here, all alone, no clothes, and she faced me down as if she had an army at her back.’
    ‘Whatever do you mean? No clothes?’
    He was about to make a humorous reference to the way his robe had fallen open on Meryl, but instinct warned him that Sarah wouldn’t see it as he did. Besides, he was trying to avoid that memory.
    ‘Her own were wet so she had to borrow some,’ he said lamely. ‘Come on, Sarah, try to be happy for me now that my troubles are nearly over.’
    ‘Your troubles are just beginning, if only you could see it. You think she’s just going to go away? Well, maybe she is, when she’s turned you into her poodle.’
    ‘That’ll never happen. She knows that.’
    ‘And you think she’s accepted it? Don’t you realise that she has to bring every man to heel? She won’t be satisfied until she’s bought and sold you emotionally as well as financially?’
    His face darkened. ‘If you think that could ever happen-my dear, that’s practically an insult.’ He took hold of her arms and gave her a gentle shake. ‘Trust me. I know what I’m about.’
    ‘Of course.’ She gave him a determined smile. ‘Let invaders tremble.’
    ‘That’s the spirit. You’ve always been my dear friend, Sarah. I know I can count on you.’
    ‘Now and always.’
    He gave her a fierce, brotherly hug. He wasn’t sufficiently alive to her to sense that she was exasperated with him. Nor did he see Meryl passing the door and swiftly averting her gaze from the sight of them in each other’s arms. Only Sarah noticed that.
    Larry reached them two hours later, sweeping in with a face like thunder.
    ‘I suppose I might have expected it,’ were his first words.
    ‘I suppose you might,’ Meryl observed mildly. ‘You know me.’
    ‘I know you’re not going to change now. You said you’d find a fortune-hunter and you’ve found one.’
    ‘Larry-’ Meryl said in a warning voice.
    ‘Good evening,’ Jarvis said politely, descending the stairs. ‘We haven’t met before. My name is Jarvis Larne.’
    ‘So it’s you! Well, you ought to be ashamed, that’s all I have to say. No decent man would have written that letter-’
    ‘Jarvis didn’t write it,’ Meryl broke in desperately. ‘It was his friend, Ferdy, who meant it as a joke. Jarvis knew nothing about it and tried to throw me out. He hates the idea as much as you do.’
    Larry gave a disbelieving sniff. Meryl could hardly bear to look at Jarvis, but to her relief he’d managed a grin. As they went into the library he muttered, ‘When do I ask him for your hand in marriage?’
    ‘Never, if you want to live. Look, I’m sorry-’
    ‘Don’t be. I’m rapidly developing a thick skin. I wouldn’t have missed him for worlds.’
    In the library Larry was persuaded to sit down and drink some sherry, but he refused an invitation to supper.
    ‘I have one hour,’ he declared loftily, ‘then I have to leave if I’m to catch my flight.’
    ‘You can’t come all this way for just one hour,’ Meryl protested.
    ‘One hour is enough.’ He glared at Jarvis. ‘You, sir, have you no shame?’
    ‘None at all,’ Jarvis declared more coolly than he felt. Whatever his private feelings, this was between himself and Meryl. Hell would freeze over before he explained himself to Larry Rivers.
    ‘It doesn’t worry you to take advantage of a helpless woman?’
    ‘I don’t take advantage of helpless women, but we’re talking about Meryl.’
    ‘And you think Meryl is calm and clear-headed, able to take care of herself?’ Larry demanded.
    ‘No, I think she’s harebrained, impulsive, idiotic and needs locking up. But she’s going to do what she wants, and neither you nor I can stop her.’
    ‘You could stop her!’
    ‘It’s too late for that,’ Jarvis said calmly. ‘I already owe her money.’
    ‘What?’
    ‘Well, I’m marrying her for her money, so it seemed only sensible to get my hands on it before she had time to think. Let’s see-twenty thousand last night-that’s pounds sterling, which at the current exchange rate-’
    ‘I know what the exchange rate is, thank you,’ Larry bawled.
    ‘There’s that, and-’ Jarvis glanced at Meryl ‘-whatever you paid for the car.’ To Larry, ‘How did you like my wedding present, outside?’
    ‘It didn’t take you long to get your snout in the trough,’ Larry said stiffly.
    Jarvis shrugged. ‘Start as you mean to go on. I just hope the dowry is worth it. An English title doesn’t come cheap.’
    In the deadly silence that followed this remark Larry raised his head to survey Jarvis, and something like respect dawned in his eyes. ‘I’m sure Meryl will tell you what she has in mind,’ he said.
    ‘I don’t believe in discussing finance with women,’ Jarvis declared, straight-faced.
    ‘Oi!’ Meryl said, and to her delight Jarvis winked at her.
    This was an unexpected side of him, and it made her want to know more. But for now she felt the time had come for her to take charge of the conversation.
    ‘Larry, if this is your attitude I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ve started the paperwork. I need to be signing things fairly soon. Otherwise my betrothed might jilt me.’
    Jarvis suppressed a grin. Incredibly he was enjoying himself.
    Larry glared. ‘Nobody has ever accused me of inefficiency. I have some preliminary papers here.’ He produced them from his bag. ‘I never really thought you’d listen to me. If you’re determined to do this thoroughly stupid thing, at least let’s do it properly. Of course these are just the initial papers. I’ll be back with more for the actual wedding. I take it I am invited?’
    ‘Of course. You’re giving me away.’
    Pleasure and shock warred for supremacy on Larry’s face.
    ‘Give you away? But that’s for church weddings. A nice, quiet civil ceremony is what you need.’
    ‘No way!’ Meryl declared. ‘Lord Larne’s people will expect him to marry properly in the castle chapel where his ancestors have always married.’
    Larry appeared to have difficulty finding his voice.
    ‘You seem to have completely taken leave of your senses,’ he managed at last. ‘Next thing you’ll be wanting the full works-white dress, bridesmaids, big reception, morning coats, button-holes, wedding cake-’
    ‘Certainly,’ Meryl agreed. To Jarvis she added, ‘You couldn’t marry any other way, could you?’
    ‘No, I couldn’t,’ he agreed, regarding his bride with tolerant cynicism. ‘But Mr Rivers has a point. Do you want to attract the world’s attention?’
    ‘Don’t start agreeing with me, for pity’s sake!’ Larry begged him. ‘You’ll only make her worse. It wouldn’t surprise me if she wanted that pretty boy to make her bridal gown.’
    ‘Pretty boy?’ Jarvis queried.
    ‘Benedict Steen. The one she’s doing this for.’ Hope gleamed. ‘Hasn’t she told you-?’
    ‘Yes, I have, Larry, so give up. There are no surprises for Jarvis. He knows all about my reasons.’
    ‘Then he needs his head examined. You need your head examined, and I need my head examined for aiding and abetting you. That’s all I have to say. Let me know the date. I’ll be there and-heaven help me!-I’ll give you away.’
    Jarvis ferried him across the water to where a taxi was waiting. For most of the journey Larry sat in offended silence, trying to be dignified despite the bobbing of the boat.
    At last Jarvis said quietly, ‘Forget what I said in there. None of this was my idea.’
    Larry burst out, ‘You don’t have to tell me that. I recognise her handiwork. I only wish I thought Benedict Steen was worth it. She must be madly in love to go to these lengths for him.’
    ‘Does she say she is?’ Jarvis asked, concentrating on the boat.
    ‘Of course not. She gives me some flim-flam about his being married, but that’s just their cover. The marriage is finished and he’s latched onto Meryl.’
    ‘Is he really good-looking?’ Jarvis asked indifferently.
    ‘Like a film star. Women swoon over him in flocks, like sheep.’
    ‘If Meryl was anything like other women we wouldn’t be having this conversation,’ Jarvis pointed out.
    Larry shot him a sharp look. ‘You’re not falling in love with her, I hope.’
    ‘Certainly not!’ Jarvis snapped. ‘I’m a greedy fortune-hunter, marrying her for her money. We’ve settled all that.’
    Larry had the grace to blush. ‘I suppose you might be worse,’ he conceded. As they landed, and Jarvis escorted him to the waiting cab, he added, ‘You haven’t the remotest idea what you’ve taken on. I can only say that I’m sorry for you.’

CHAPTER SEVEN

    IT HAD been an inspiration that made Meryl point out that she’d nearly brought disaster onto Jarvis and thus had a duty to him. The truth of this helped him relax in the following days.
    He showed her over the castle. It took nearly a day and brought it home to her just how huge this place was. There were four towers, three hundred rooms, counting the tiniest closets, and four floors including the dungeons.
    ‘We can’t use the dungeons these days because of the damp,’ he informed her, straight-faced. ‘It’s very inconvenient.’
    ‘You made a joke!’ she accused him.
    ‘Good grief! I believe I did.’
    He even took her out in the little sailing boat he kept in the boat house at the castle rear, where it faced the sea. Like everything else here it was shabby.
    ‘But don’t dare buy me a new one,’ he warned her. ‘I used to sail this as a boy.’
    ‘I won’t buy you a new one as long as you promise to take me out again.’
    ‘Word of a Larne.’
    This was Jarvis at his best, at his most charming, she might have said, if the idea of charm didn’t sit so oddly on him. But he smiled, and seemed happier for being relieved of financial care.
    She had the same feeling of peace and happiness she’d known before, but now it was as much to do with Larne’s master as Larne itself. She wondered what the feeling would turn into. Perhaps she would know by the end of this delightful day.
    But her hopes were ruined when the inevitable happened.
    ‘Rain!’ she cried up to the sky. ‘I don’t believe it’s raining again!’
    ‘I told you, it rains all the time here,’ he said, hurriedly wrapping her in oilskins. ‘You’ll soon get tired of it.’
    Such remarks reminded her that he still didn’t really trust her, and his agenda was to secure the safety of his estate and bid her farewell. She put it aside for another day. It was foolish to think she was in love with him, anyway. Who could be in love with a man who lived in a permanent rainstorm?
    Their trip around the estate was a triumph. Wherever they went people took Meryl to their hearts, not merely because she’d brought the good times with her, but because she exerted herself to charm them, and succeeded.
    ‘If the new Lady Larne doesn’t open our fête,’ the vicar of St Luke’s told her, ‘and judge the children’s fancy dress, everyone will be so disappointed.’
    Meryl immediately promised and wrote the date on the back of her hand.
    ‘And what do I tell them when you leave?’ Jarvis demanded when they were driving away.
    ‘Say I didn’t come up to standard so you exchanged me for Sarah,’ she said blithely.
    ‘Can you be serious?’
    ‘What for? Jarvis, don’t you feel that any minute someone’s going to prick the balloon and you’ll find yourself back in reality?’
    He nodded. That was exactly how he felt.
    With the disconcerting change of weather that was normal in this country, the rain abruptly ceased, giving way to a pallid but valiant sun. In Little Grands Jarvis bought them beer, and they sat outside at a wooden table. He watched her leaning back to enjoy the sun on her face, and thought how at home she looked, how uncannily she fitted in. But it was a game, he reminded himself. To her this was like being on the hologram deck in Star Trek, where you could vacation by slipping into another life.
    She’d agreed that it wasn’t real, and it was good to remind himself of that so that he wasn’t fooled by her air of joyous content. Otherwise he might have relaxed his guard enough to ask her where the joy came from, and how he could learn to share it.
    ‘What are you looking at?’ he asked, seeing her stare across the road.
    ‘That little shop-there’s a sweater in the window-’
    She wandered across the road to gaze in the window of Sadie’s Wools. The shop sold wool, knitting needles and patterns, but also a few knitted clothes. One of these stood alone in the bow window, a staggering creation in five different wools, four textures and six colours. Meryl regarded it with awe.
    ‘That is really-’ she breathed. ‘Really-’
    Anticipating her criticism, he bristled. ‘Let’s just leave it.’
    ‘I don’t want to leave it. You don’t see something like that every day.’
    ‘I know it probably looks very funny to you after New York, but up here we don’t go for high fashion. Life’s hard and serious. You’ve done wonderfully well today, why spoil it with a cheap laugh?’
    She dug him in the ribs. ‘You ignorant man! That thing is hand-knitted by someone with real flair and creativity. It’s wild and wacky.’
    ‘Meryl, for Pete’s sake!’
    ‘I know. Life’s hard and serious.’
    ‘Well, we don’t do wild and wacky, that’s for sure.’
    ‘You might not, but whoever created that is concealing hidden depths.’
    She went into the shop where Sadie, a smiling, elderly lady, was seated behind the counter. At Meryl’s request she fetched the sweater and helped her try it on.
    ‘I design these,’ she explained, ‘and some local women earn pin money making them.’
    ‘How much is this one?’
    ‘I’m afraid-’ Sadie’s voice sank to a whisper ‘-it is rather expensive.’
    She named a price and Meryl’s eyebrows rose. The same garment on Fifth Avenue would fetch fifty times as much. ‘I’ll take it,’ she said decisively. ‘And can you arrange for me to see some others?’
    As the sweater was packed up Jarvis was fascinated to see Meryl once more scribbling on the back of her hand.
    ‘Do you normally do that?’ he asked as they drove away with her acquisition carefully stowed on the back seat.
    ‘Of course. Then I can be sure I don’t lose it. If the rest of the knits are as good as this there’s a perfect little cottage industry here. Those women can earn far more money than they’re doing now.’
    ‘Meryl, please drop this. I know you mean well, but filling their heads with pipe dreams isn’t kind.’
    ‘Once you said it wasn’t kind to give them false hopes, but they weren’t false hopes, were they? Maybe you don’t always know what’s best for them-’
    ‘I think I have a pretty good idea what my people need.’
    ‘Your people? You mean you own them? Nobody else is allowed an opinion-including them?’
    ‘I don’t suppose anyone could stop you having an opinion-’
    ‘Just as long as nobody asks you to listen,’ she said, getting cross.
    ‘I’ll listen, but I don’t have to be convinced.’
    Her voice rose. ‘But we’re discussing fashion, about which you know sweet Fanny Adams!’
    ‘No, we’re discussing my estate, about which you know nothing at all.’ He added in a gentler voice, ‘Don’t let’s quarrel about this, Meryl. I’m truly grateful to you but-there’s a line I can’t cross.’
    ‘You mean a line you won’t let me cross, don’t you?’
    ‘Perhaps I do. The best business arrangements work with well-defined limits.’
    ‘So they do,’ she said with a sigh.
    They reached home to find a press photographer and interviewer anxiously waiting. The marriage of an English aristocrat and an American socialite oil heiress was too good a story to be passed up. Jarvis would gladly have ducked out but he’d resolved to do the thing properly, so he smiled and responded with apparent good humour.
    Nonetheless, he was glad to leave most of the talking to Meryl. In answer to ‘How did you meet?’ he could never have come up with her blithe fantasy of taking a driving holiday in the area and impulsively deciding to visit the castle.
    ‘Just one more picture,’ the photographer begged, ‘the two of you leaning against the car-could you put your hand around her waist? That’s right-draw her a little bit closer-’
    Jarvis obliged, trying to put his mind elsewhere so that he wasn’t so conscious of her slim waist under his fingers, the swell of her hips pressed against him. She was warm and soft, but he wouldn’t think of that. Nor would he let himself breathe in the scent of flowers that whispered from her, so faint and elusive that he couldn’t be quite sure…
    ‘Look into each other’s eyes,’ the photographer called.
    Turning, she had to slip her arm behind him, the hand resting against his back. Of course, he told himself, she was adept at putting on smiles for show. But in her face he saw sunshine and laughter, and a wicked gleam of mischief. Somehow the sun was in his eyes, and when the photographer called, ‘Just one kiss,’ he bent his head instinctively and laid his lips on hers.
    To Meryl the feel of his mouth was a shock. The kiss was like the man himself, firm, unyielding, intensely masculine. It invited her on and warned her off, and she felt herself helplessly accepting the invitation and ignoring the warning. She’d wanted this-only now did she know how much-and she wasn’t giving up now. It was her moment of triumph, and she was completely overcome, defeated, conquered, routed and exhilarated.
    ‘Jarvis.’ She barely knew that she spoke his name, but somehow her lips moved enticingly against his, and his own answered with purpose. His arms tightened around her, so that she had no choice but to melt against him while the world dissolved into nothing.
    For a long moment neither of them moved, while the photographer danced about gleefully getting shot after shot until he finally yelled, ‘OK, that’s lovely.’
    She felt the world come back into place, a subtly different shape.
    Jarvis lifted his head just enough to see her face and know that she was as stunned as himself. Her eyes, raised to his, were vulnerable, giving him a silent message that he wanted to hear. If they’d been alone…
    Don’t you realise that she has to bring every man to heel?
    The voice in his head was so real that he almost thought Sarah was there. Then the mist cleared and he was saying goodbye to the press as though nothing had happened. But everything had happened. Everything that mustn’t happen had happened. And it was too late to stop it.
    ‘I’ll see you inside,’ he said curtly, and strode away.
    ‘Will you be needing the car, or can I take it?’ Meryl asked next morning.
    ‘You don’t need to ask,’ Jarvis said politely. ‘You bought it.’
    ‘But if I’d used it without checking with you, you’d have thought me very rude,’ she pointed out. ‘I can’t win, can I?’
    Jarvis ran his hand through his hair. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said sincerely. ‘I don’t know what’s happened to my manners.’
    In fact, it wasn’t his manners that had deserted him, but his wits. And they’d all gone a-wandering from the moment he kissed her. He might try to deny the truth to himself, but it was hard when, as now, she reminded him that he could hurt her. And even harder when she said gently, ‘Try not to resent me so much, Jarvis.’
    ‘Nonsense,’ he said quickly. ‘Of course I don’t.’ To make amends he asked, ‘Do you want me to come with you?’
    ‘No, thank you. I’m going to meet Benedict at the airport.’
    He’d half stretched his hand out to her, but he drew it back again.
    A few minutes later she left. Jarvis summoned Andrew Carver for a meeting to discuss his changed circumstances, and in that way he managed not to follow her with his thoughts.
    If Larry Rivers caused interest, Benedict Steen was a sensation. It was late afternoon when they arrived, and as he jumped down from the heavy vehicle the sun caught his thick fair hair, giving him the look of a young Greek god. Together he and Meryl made a glorious couple as she seized his arm excitedly and they went, laughing, into the castle.
    Hannah bustled forward to offer him refreshment. Jarvis, who’d watched his arrival from an upper window, took his time about descending.
    When he finally did his duty it was to find his library strewn with the most gorgeous white fabrics, silks, satin, brocades. Hannah was gazing admiringly at Meryl, who stood wrapped in a swathe of glittering material. It had tiny flashing jewels sewn all over it, and even Jarvis, who knew ‘sweet Fanny Adams’ about fashion, could see the staggering luxury.
    ‘It would be fantastic with this to hold the veil in place,’ Benedict said, opening a black box and revealing a magnificent diamond tiara. ‘You must look like a goddess,’ he declared expansively. ‘When you walk down the aisle your diamonds will glitter, your dress will sweep out, and your veil will stream behind you-’
    Jarvis coughed. They all turned to look at him.
    ‘I’m sorry, I was detained,’ he said politely.
    Meryl tossed aside her finery. ‘Jarvis, this is my friend Benedict, who’s making my wedding dress.’
    Jarvis said what was proper, but he was studying the young man with disfavour. As Larry had said, Benedict had the looks of a film star. He was almost tall enough to look Jarvis in the eye. His shoulders were wide, his skin tanned, his mouth finely chiselled and his eyes deep blue and expressive.
    And this was the man that Meryl valued at millions, plus enduring a charade of marriage with another man. What, apart from his looks, did Benedict Steen have to make a level-headed woman-?
    But this wasn’t a level-headed woman. This was Meryl, who flew off to challenge a stranger at a moment’s notice, who nearly got herself drowned and laughed it off, who scribbled all over her hand and had windmills in her head. If anybody needed protecting, she did. But who would protect her from Benedict Steen?
    If it came to that, who would protect her from himself?
    He kept this first meeting as short as was compatible with courtesy, informed them that he would see them at dinner, and hurried away to call Ferdy and demand his presence, and Sarah’s, that evening. He didn’t feel that he could endure it alone.
    Everyone dressed for dinner, which was in the great dining room. This was Larne at its grandest, with walls covered with weapons in circular patterns, armour at every corner, the walls bearing portraits of Larne ancestors.
    Benedict was in seventh heaven. ‘Such splendour! This is what I want to convey in the dress. I saw the grand staircase in the hall. Tomorrow, Meryl, I must see you sweep down it.’
    Jarvis caught Ferdy’s hilarious expression and his lips twitched. He would have shared the joke with Sarah too, but somehow his eyes met Meryl’s instead and he realised that she too was amused at Benedict’s expense.
    She looked glorious in a gown that he would have described as ‘something floaty in green and blue’ but which was actually one of Benedict’s most delicate creations in silk chiffon. All Jarvis could say for certain was that it enhanced the colour of her eyes in a way that made him watch her closely. Sarah had to speak to him twice before he noticed her.
    It made a pleasant start to the evening, but from then on he grew more depressed. Benedict turned out to be the perfect dinner companion, able to listen to others with interest, and to talk knowledgeably on a variety of subjects. He was witty and charming, instantly at ease with Ferdy, and even making the severe Sarah laugh at his jokes.
    With Meryl his manner was theatrically flirtatious. He kissed her hand, he praised her beauty, he called her ‘goddess’. But he didn’t actually do anything to which her fiancé could object without looking absurd. Confound him!
    Then he remembered that Steen was her true fiancé. He could gather her into his arms without having to release her just when he wanted to explore further…
    ‘You’re knocking it back a bit, aren’t you?’ Ferdy muttered in his ear.
    ‘I beg your pardon?’
    ‘You don’t usually drink so much. I hope it’s going to be Seth who ferries us over tonight. I’m not sure how steady your hand is.’
    ‘Seth’s gone to bed,’ Jarvis growled. ‘You’ll have to take your chance with me.’
    ‘And leave your bride entertaining another man?’ Ferdy observed with a grin.
    ‘You can swim if you like,’ Jarvis told him in a low, savage voice.
    ‘Either way I think it’s time we were going,’ Ferdy said.
    It took Jarvis half an hour to deliver his guests on the shore and return with the boat. Meryl and Benedict were nowhere to be seen. Climbing the stairs in search of them, Jarvis heard voices coming from behind Meryl’s door, and a moment later the door opened and Benedict emerged, closing it behind him.
    ‘She had a headache and asked you to forgive her for not waiting for you,’ he said.
    ‘Certainly. Will you have a nightcap with me, Mr Steen?’
    They passed into Jarvis’s room. Benedict was still holding his empty glass, which Jarvis filled, and they sat and drank together with an appearance of comradeship, although only one of them was at ease.
    ‘Who’d have thought it would end like this, eh?’ Benedict said complacently.
    ‘Anyone who knew Meryl, I imagine. You must know her well. Why did you let her take such a risk?’
    ‘She likes risk. Thrives on it. Think how dull her life must be-all that money-no challenges.’
    Jarvis’s hand closed tightly around the neck of the bottle-it was either that or Benedict’s neck.
    ‘Doesn’t it occur to you that you should be taking care of her?’ he asked through gritted teeth.
    ‘You mean tell her what she can and can’t do? She doesn’t take kindly to people who do that. And she somehow ends up doing things her way.’
    Jarvis was about to protest when he realised that this was exactly what was happening. He had decided that he would not marry Meryl Winters. But she had decided that he would. And soon they would be married, all to suit the convenience of this insolent sponger who showed no appreciation of the woman who loved him, or the sacrifice she was making for him.
    His dislike of Benedict was so strong that he could almost taste it, and it drove the next words out of his mouth.
    ‘Since you’re going to be here for a while, Mr Steen, why don’t you invite your wife to join you?’
    Benedict’s eyes, so brilliant a moment before, went dead.
    ‘You’re very kind,’ he said in a flat voice, ‘but I’m afraid that won’t be possible.’
    ‘Why not? She’d be very welcome. Call her.’
    If he’d doubted the other man’s intentions he knew better now. At this mention of an inconvenient wife Benedict gave him a look of sheer malevolence. ‘Mrs Steen is busy arranging our divorce,’ he said flatly. ‘How about a top-up?’
    He held out his glass and Jarvis filled it. And filled it. And filled it.
    ‘Your friend drank himself legless,’ he observed to Meryl next morning. ‘I had to help him to bed.’
    ‘Poor Benedict, he doesn’t hold his drink well. Never did. Still, there’s nothing like booze for a little male bonding. I expect you two understand each other perfectly now.’
    ‘Oh, yes,’ Jarvis said grimly. ‘We do that all right.’
    Soon everyone knew that things had changed. Hannah hired an army of domestics to prepare the castle for guests. Workmen flooded in, armed with hammers and nails. It was a makeshift job for the moment. The major repairs would have to wait until after the wedding.
    Inch by inch Larne Castle resumed some of its former glory. Floors and furniture gleamed with polish, doors and windows no longer rattled. As Jarvis saw his home beginning to look loved again he found that he could relax, and even begin to think of happiness as something possible.
    A package arrived from New York which he guessed was from Larry. Knowing she was upstairs, he took it up to her. Her bedroom door was slightly ajar and he ventured to look in without knocking. The next moment he wished he hadn’t.
    Meryl stood by the window dressed only in wispy bra and panties. In the first stunned moment Jarvis took in every detail, the delicate lace of her matching underwear, and how little of it there seemed to be. He saw too the sweet curves of her slim, nearly naked figure, and how exactly it matched his haunting memories. But most of all he observed, with displeasure, that Benedict Steen was standing with his arms about her waist, carefully adjusting a tape measure.
    They looked up at him, neither of them surprised or disconcerted. Meryl smiled. ‘Benedict’s just taking final measurements for my dress,’ she said.
    ‘Perhaps, when you’re free, we could talk,’ Jarvis said frostily.
    ‘You’d better go, honey,’ Meryl said.
    ‘Are you going to be all right?’ Benedict asked, watching Jarvis’s face warily.
    ‘Don’t be silly, of course I’ll be all right,’ she said cheerfully.
    Benedict got out fast. The other two regarded each other, condemnation on one face, ironic defiance on the other.
    ‘I gather I’m not supposed to mind,’ he said.
    ‘Mind what? What is there to mind?’
    ‘That’s a very cool question. Do you make a habit of letting men into your bedroom when you’re naked?’
    ‘I’m not naked.’
    ‘As near as dammit!’
    ‘Benedict makes my clothes. He sees me wearing less than anyone else, and neither of us thinks anything of it.’ She gestured down at herself. ‘This isn’t naked-not naked as in “naked”. It’s not the same thing at all.’
    But it was exactly the same thing, he thought, watching the urgent rise and fall of her breasts, barely enclosed in the flimsy lace. He knew how they looked without even that faint protection, and the knowledge tormented him.
    ‘The distinction is hidden from me,’ he said curtly.
    ‘Benedict doesn’t see me as a woman. We’re like brother and sister. Surely you’ve seen that?’
    He hadn’t. To Jarvis it was inconceivable that any man could look on Meryl’s beauty and not be half mad with the longing to possess her.
    The full bitterness of his position burst on him. In the eyes of the world he was a lucky man, privileged to gather this rich harvest. Only he knew that he must stand by with his nose pressed against the window while another man was free to enter her room, touching her at will. Brother and sister?
    ‘What you do after our divorce is no concern of mine-’ he said stiffly.
    ‘Isn’t it a little soon to be looking forward to our divorce?’
    ‘It’s never too soon to be practical. We both know why you’re doing this. If you’re fool enough to go to these lengths for him, that’s up to you-’
    ‘For heaven’s sake-’ Half-indignant, half-amused, Meryl threw up her hands and turned away, but Jarvis grasped her arm firmly and pulled her back to him.
    ‘Understand me, Meryl, I won’t be made a fool of. I won’t have people laughing at me and saying my wife is so infatuated with another man that she can’t behave herself properly. While you’re Lady Larne you’ll behave as Lady Larne.’
    ‘Oh, really!’ Meryl said, her temper beginning to rise. ‘And what would she do? Refuse to let her dressmaker near her?’
    ‘She’d refuse to let any man near her while she was like this-except me.’
    ‘Except you,’ she whispered. ‘Except you-’
    Her anger faded. With her body pressed against his she could feel him trembling. Meeting his eyes, she saw in them the look she’d most wanted to see. It said that he wanted her-against his will, his reason, his reserve, even against his survival instinct. Everything in him was fighting her, but he was losing the battle. Just as she was.
    Her body was growing warm under his gaze. She could sense her own colour rising and wondered if he saw and understood. His fingers burned her arm and she could feel his lips again, kissing her everywhere as she wished he would.
    ‘You-ought to let me go,’ she said slowly.
    ‘Yes.’ He spoke like a man who didn’t know what he was saying, and his fingers moved, but only to tighten their grasp on her arm.
    ‘Is this what Lord Larne does,’ she whispered, ‘when he visits Lady Larne?’
    ‘I think he doesn’t visit her at all.’
    ‘Not until after the wedding?’
    ‘Not even then. He’s too sensible for that.’
    ‘Oh, Jarvis,’ she breathed, ‘don’t you ever take a holiday from being sensible?’
    ‘Never,’ he said bitterly. ‘It’s too late for me.’
    ‘I don’t believe it.’
    ‘I can’t change now. Even you can’t do that for me.’
    He released her arm and raised his hand just enough for his fingers to brush against her cheek, her lips.
    ‘We have a business arrangement,’ he murmured. ‘I think perhaps we should keep it that way. Let’s both be-sensible.’
    She didn’t believe him. At any moment he would kiss her, as she was aching for him to do. But he didn’t. Instead he pulled quickly away and hurried out of the room, leaving her desolate.

CHAPTER EIGHT

    THE night before the wedding every guest room in the castle was filled. Some, but not as many as Jarvis had expected, were taken by Meryl’s friends who’d arrived from America in the previous few days. Most were taken up by local people, Jarvis’s tenants and neighbours, whom Meryl had insisted on inviting to stay that night and the next one, so that they would have no trouble with the tides.
    It was the kind of thoughtful gesture Jarvis was coming to expect from her, and it increased his eerie feeling of watching two people. She was the warm-hearted woman who reached out to the people of Larne, eagerly seeking their acceptance. Or she was the temptress hunting his scalp before vanishing with a triumphant laugh. He would watch her, wondering which woman was the true one, and whether she knew the difference herself. Sometimes she seemed to change from one to the other with a smile, the turn of her head.
    Dinner on the last night was a cheerful meal, with everyone in good spirits. Meryl’s particular friends, Brenda and Everett Hamlin, a married couple who bred horses, were over from Long Island, and struck up an immediate bond with Sarah. Meryl found herself next to Harry, whom she’d been anxious to meet.
    Harry was the local historian, a retired university professor, who knew more about the Larne family than any man alive, including Jarvis. He was elderly and small, with a bald, bullet head and sharp, twinkling eyes.
    ‘You’re not a sentimentalist, I gather,’ he said when they’d talked for a while.
    ‘You mean, do I regard myself as the reincarnation of Marguerite?’ she said. ‘Not at all. Ferdy was going to have that ballad sung at the wedding breakfast but I’ve forbidden him on pain of having his toes stamped on. Jarvis would hate all that stuff about a “rich man’s daughter”.’
    ‘Quite right,’ Harry said approvingly. ‘I’m afraid that prickly sensibility has taken too firm a hold on him to be quite abandoned now.’
    ‘But it’s strange. I thought British titles often made this kind of marriage.’
    ‘You’re right. It’s certainly been the norm in the past, but the Larnes have always had a possessive streak, and in him it seems to be doubled. When he was nineteen he became infatuated with the daughter of one of the tenants, a feckless character who was always behind with his rent. Her name was Gina. Pretty girl, very good-natured, but with a laugh that could cut glass. Mallory Larne tolerated the relationship as long as he thought Jarvis was just fooling.’
    ‘Droit de seigneur?’ Meryl asked mischievously.
    Harry laughed. ‘Well, it’s true that you’ll see the Larne face all over the estate, but they come down from the past. I don’t think Jarvis has ever made a contribution. He’s got strict notions of what’s right and proper, and sometimes they get in the way of what’s sensible. He took it into his head to marry this girl, which caused a family bust up. Mallory took action and the girl vanished.’
    ‘What a horrible story!’ Meryl exclaimed. ‘Did Jarvis ever find out what had happened to her?’
    ‘Oh, yes. Years later he ran across her behind a bar. Mallory had bought her off and she’d used his money to get a pub. By that time she’d had three husbands and five children-or maybe the other way around, I forget. They had a chat and she admitted that she’d been getting bored with Jarvis anyway. Too serious for her. So it was a weight off his mind, but by that time it was too late. He’d fallen into the habit of expecting to be deserted, and it’s a hard habit to break.’
    ‘That’s so sad.’
    ‘Very. There’s usually a prosaic explanation, isn’t there? Marguerite, for instance, was supposed to be a witch, solely because she was never heard of again. According to old Giles she lulled him into a false sense of security by coming to his bed the night before and ‘gave him love in word and deed’, as one contemporary scribe put it. When he awoke next day, she’d gone. She probably settled down somewhere with her steward and lived on whatever the jewels brought them.’
    ‘It’s the way she left her baby behind I can’t come to terms with.’
    ‘Women of her rank didn’t see much of their children. There were nurses and wet nurses. They say Giles used to go into his nursery and weep over “his innocent child, left motherless”.’
    The evening ended early, and the guests drifted off to bed. As Jarvis headed for his room he found Meryl waiting for him in the corridor.
    ‘I have a wedding gift for you,’ she said.
    ‘But you’ve already given me one.’
    ‘The car was for the estate. This is for you. Come with me.’
    There was a fresh eagerness about her which touched him. Half smiling, he followed her into her room.
    ‘I didn’t dare wrap it, because it’s so big and I was afraid of damaging it,’ she said. ‘Close your eyes.’
    He did so, listening to the sound of something being hauled from a hiding place, until she said, ‘You can look now.’
    He opened his eyes, and what he saw made him stand in transfixed silence, for almost a minute.
    ‘Do you like it?’ she asked anxiously.
    ‘I love it,’ he said.
    Propped on a chair was a large framed picture of Rusty and Jacko. The artist had caught the dogs exactly, the colour of their coats, the way they lay, their expressions of dopey amiability.
    ‘I commissioned it from Ferdy,’ Meryl said. ‘I think he’s caught them rather well.’
    ‘He’s caught them perfectly,’ Jarvis said. He hadn’t taken his eyes from the picture, and Meryl wished he would look at her.
    ‘You talked about losing them soon,’ she reminded him, ‘and I thought-’
    ‘This will remind me of them at their best,’ he agreed.
    He did look at her then, with a smile that was kind and gentle.
    ‘It was a lovely idea, Meryl. Thank you.’
    ‘I was afraid I’d got it wrong.’
    ‘No, you didn’t get it wrong.’
    ‘Let’s take it into your room.’ She opened the door that led into the little connecting passage. But this was a mistake.
    ‘We should have gone around by the big corridor,’ she puffed as they manoeuvred carefully. ‘This passage is much too narrow.’
    ‘Yes, I’ll never know why they didn’t build it bigger.’
    They managed it at last and set the painting up over a chest of drawers between the windows, facing the bed.
    It was the first time she’d seen his room, and she looked around with interest. In some ways it was the mirror of her own, the tapestries, the four-poster bed, the oak furniture, the huge fireplace. When she looked around for individual signs of the man’s personality they were harder to find. A few books about farming and accountancy, some history. There was a photograph of a middle-aged man and woman that caught Meryl’s attention.
    ‘My parents,’ Jarvis said.
    ‘Your mother looks very sweet,’ Meryl said, studying the picture.
    ‘She was-what I remember. She died when I was ten.’
    ‘How sad. Were you with her?’
    ‘No, I was at boarding school. They didn’t tell me until I came home and by then she’d been dead for weeks.’
    Meryl’s horror held her speechless. Then she thought, Another vanishing lady. No wonder he expects it.
    ‘Did you have an aunt or somebody like that to raise you?’ she asked.
    ‘No. Just my father.’
    And after talking with Harry tonight Meryl knew the kind of man he had been: blunt, direct, even brutal, sure of his own rightness about everything. And Jarvis had grown up with only that harsh man and no softening influences. No wonder he relied so much on his dogs, she thought.
    ‘I never gave you a wedding gift,’ Jarvis said now, hesitantly. ‘I’ve been trying to think of something. You’re not an easy person to choose for. Perhaps you’d like to have this. It belonged to my mother.’
    He took a tiny box from a drawer and opened it. Inside was a ring with one diamond. It was small and not of outstanding quality. Certainly it would be thrown into the shade by her glorious tiara, and she thought she knew why he hadn’t offered it before.
    ‘I should love to have your mother’s ring,’ she said gently. ‘Will you put it on for me?’ She held out her left hand, fingers extended, and he slipped the ring on for her.
    ‘Not quite what you’re used to,’ he said wryly.
    ‘No, it isn’t. But not in the way you mean. I’m not used to people giving me things, Jarvis. Mostly people get disheartened by the fact that I can buy my own. So I end up with nothing.’ She saw the faint quirk of his mouth and said, ‘OK, nothing except more money than I can count. In other words-nothing.’ She held up her hand to see the ring. ‘Nobody’s done anything like this for me, ever.’
    ‘I’m glad you like it.’
    ‘And I’m glad you like your picture.’
    ‘I’ll have it fixed up on the wall, right in that spot, facing the bed. Then I’ll see it as soon as I awaken. You’d better go to bed now. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.’
    ‘Goodnight, Jarvis.’
    ‘Goodnight, Meryl.’
    In her room she undressed slowly, thoughtfully. Jarvis’s words about seeing the picture as soon as he awoke echoed in her head. If this had been a normal marriage she would have been the first thing he saw.
    ‘It can’t be helped,’ she told her reflection in the long mirror. ‘I’ve never yet fallen in love with a man who didn’t want me.’
    The reflection gazed back wryly, telling her there was a first time for everything.
    At the rear of Larne Castle, facing the sea, was the church, with its spire raised up tall and proud in the clear air. On the wedding morning the bells began to peal out early. Sixteen ringers had come over at low tide the night before, sleeping in chairs and couches, for the castle was packed to the roof, and eight of them had started ringing at eight that morning. After an hour they were relieved by the second eight, while they had their breakfast before returning to the fray.
    The grey stone pillars of the seven-hundred-year-old church, reared up into the high vaulted roof, their austerity broken now by wreaths of flowers. Ten women had worked all yesterday and far into the night to deck the church with the blossoms of early summer. Now it was done, and the air was heady with the soft tangy smells of life and flowering.
    Big as the church was, it could only just take the numbers that poured in next morning. High up in a loft, almost obscured by leaves, the organist played softly. The groom and best man were waiting. Jarvis kept his eyes on the far door through which he knew Meryl would arrive. The church was slightly raised above ground level, reached by five steps, and through the wide open doors he had a view of the sea stretching to the horizon, brilliant in the sunlight.
    He hadn’t seen her that morning, nor tried to. The dream had fractured suddenly, and the full impact of what he was about to do had broken over him like the waves that crashed on Larne shore. He had come to this place of solemnity to take vows that no man should take except with his whole heart. And he was doing it for money. He was a man with a strict sense of propriety. Too strict, Ferdy had often told him. No man with such a conscience could survive in this day and age. Now he was doing something so dishonest that his whole soul revolted. For money.
    But not for money alone. Meryl was there in his mind, turning her head so that her glorious hair swung free, and her face changed as he looked, one woman becoming another. He watched urgently to see if she changed back, but she vanished.
    If he could only catch her at the crucial moment where her eyes were soft and her voice gentle, and find the spell that would make her remain that way for ever! This was the true woman, the one who threatened his heart. Or maybe the true woman was the other, the glossy sophisticated one, who could put on an act that would entrance him, who’d bought and paid for him financially, and wouldn’t be content until she had him emotionally too, as Sarah had warned.
    And when she’d claimed her prey the enchantress would take wing from the top of the tower, vanish into the darkness and never be heard of again. Actually she would take wing from Manchester airport, and be heard of constantly in the glossy magazines. But in his state of morbid awareness it amounted to the same thing.
    At any moment she would appear, the diamond tiara sparkling on her head, the luxurious dress flashing with jewels, ‘a rich man’s daughter’ come to claim her kingdom-until she tired of it.
    A buzz of excitement came from near the entrance. Those who could see outside were smiling, turning to their neighbours, sending a frisson through the whole congregation. High overhead the organ pealed out ‘Here Comes The Bride’, and the next moment he saw her head and shoulders, rising slowly as she climbed the steps and stood for a moment silhouetted in the doorway as though she’d risen from the sea behind her.
    The sun blinded him, and he had to blink, trying to make out who this woman was, because she bore no relation to the predatory female of his fears. As she began to move slowly down the aisle, her hand on Larry’s arm, Jarvis squinted, not daring to feel the hope that was rising madly within him.
    No ‘rich man’s daughter’, but a wild flower whose beauty lay in grace and simplicity. Her black hair was worn loose, flowing down almost to her waist. She wore no veil, and no diamond tiara, only a spray of white flowers in her hair. More white flowers rested in her arms. Her wedding gown was made of some soft material that fell in straight lines to the floor. The effect was plain to the point of austerity, and utterly entrancing.
    Behind her trotted six little girls dressed in blue satin, also decked with flowers. They were all from the estate, and Jarvis wondered when she’d found the time to meet them, and what instinct had made her get this so right.
    He closed his eyes and opened them slowly. It was happening again, two women in one, the glossy creature blending into a sweet, gentle woman who had some secret understanding that sent her to her wedding without adornment except for the glow in her eyes.
    Meryl, her gaze fixed on Jarvis, knew that she’d astonished him, as she’d hoped. For one moment his wariness was gone as he reached for her with a hand that enfolded hers warmly, eagerly. It was almost as though he would draw her to him. But then he remembered his surroundings.
    They were to be married by the vicar of St Luke’s, the one who’d enlisted her for the fête. Two of his little daughters were among the bridesmaids, and he was smiling broadly at the task before him.
    ‘I require and charge you both, as you will answer at the day of judgement, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed…’
    The secrets of all hearts. Meryl heard the words as if for the first time. The secret that had flowered unexpectedly in her own heart was still new to her, still something to be pondered with wonder and hope, and kept hidden until the day she could dare to reveal it.
    ‘…if either of you know any impediment why ye may not lawfully be joined together in matrimony…’
    Was it an impediment that she’d browbeaten him into marriage against his will, even though she had discovered at last that this was the man her heart had chosen? Was it an impediment that he disliked and distrusted her, and would be rid of her as soon as he could?
    ‘Jarvis Adrian Michael, wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife-?’
    Now she understood why Larry had protested against this ceremony. He’d looked ahead to the solemn vows for life and known that they were the last two people who should take them.
    ‘Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour and keep her…?’
    But if Jarvis heard the irony in those words there was no sign of it in his voice as he said firmly, ‘I will.’
    ‘Meryl Alicia Jeanne, wilt thou have this man-?’
    Oh, they were terrible promises, she thought as the words swirled about her. Serve him, love, honour and keep him. But she had already performed one great service for him, and it was the source of all trouble between them.
    ‘…forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as you both shall live?’
    For as long as he’ll let me, she thought.
    She heard herself say, ‘I will.’ Then Jarvis was taking her hand in his, telling the world that she would be his wedded wife, speaking of loving and cherishing. His voice was deep, and slower than usual, as though he was lingering over the words, savouring their meaning before he uttered them. He might almost have meant them.
    It was her turn to take him as her wedded husband, ‘for richer for poorer…’ She didn’t dare look at his face as she spoke.
    She offered him her left hand, now bearing his mother’s ring. He glanced at it and gave a faint smile as he slid the wedding ring onto her finger.
    ‘With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship…’ She felt the tremor that went through him and knew that here was the unresolved question between them. He was ready to worship her with his body while his mind remained aloof and his heart was undecided. How much time did she have?
    ‘-and with all my worldly goods I thee endow-’
    She met his eyes and saw irony in them, but also warmth. He returned her smile, almost making it a private joke between them. Her hopes rose. Where there was humour there could be understanding. Where there was understanding there could be peace. And where there was peace, there could be love.
    ‘You may kiss the bride.’
    The vicar’s words broke into her thoughts. Before she had time to wonder how Jarvis would deal with this one his hands were lightly on her shoulders and he was drawing her towards him to rest his lips against hers. And such a feeling of happiness pervaded her that she gave a little gasp that he sensed.
    His own happiness had caught him by surprise. He’d been worried about this moment-performing for an audience was how he thought of it-but as soon as he held her the audience vanished. They were alone with the scent of summer all around, and it was as though her lightness of heart had communicated itself directly to him; he who had never known what it was to be light-hearted.
    He smiled at her. She smiled back and was still smiling as she and Jarvis walked the length of the aisle and out into the sunlight. Everyone who saw that smile read it differently. Sarah thought it was a smile of triumph and bit her lip. Some of the watchers thought she was enjoying a good joke from which she would soon tire. One or two of them read her correctly, and among them was Larry Rivers, who saw much that he never spoke of.
    The wedding feast might have been awkward, but wasn’t, thanks mainly to Ferdy, who kept his speech short and tactful. Everyone noticed that Jarvis couldn’t tear his eyes from his bride, and there was eager applause when he took her in his arms for the first dance.
    ‘You did everything perfectly,’ he murmured. ‘How did you realise?’
    ‘I understand far more than you think, Jarvis.’
    He smiled, not with his mouth but with his eyes, and her heart started to pound strongly. This was their wedding night. They’d never talked about how it would end, although she guessed he would keep his distance if he could. But she was too much a woman to let him keep that resolve.
    There were duty dances to be done. Jarvis took the vicar’s wife onto the floor while Meryl waltzed with Everett Hamlin, who sang Sarah’s praises.
    ‘She really knows her stuff about horses. We’ve invited her over for a visit later in the year.’
    Meryl joined in the praise, grateful for anything that would ease Sarah’s suppressed resentment. A few minutes later she was dancing with Benedict, who was struggling to keep his spirits up, and not succeeding.
    ‘Thank you for everything,’ she said. ‘I know I’ve been a trial to you, letting you finish the first dress and then changing my mind three days ago. You worked a miracle getting everything done on time.’
    ‘As long as you’re happy,’ he said, forcing a smile.
    ‘Oh, Benedict, is it as bad as that?’
    ‘I got to thinking about the day I married Amanda, how happy we were, how beautiful she looked in her wedding dress. Oh, Meryl, what am I going to do?’
    ‘Things will get better. She loves you; she’ll come back in the end.’
    ‘I don’t believe it. I’ve got nothing to look forward to.’
    ‘Except that you’re going into business in a big way. I’ll be taking a flying trip to New York to help start it up. I want to be involved in everything. It’s going to be so thrilling.’
    ‘Yes,’ he said, trying to sound cheerful. ‘Thrilling.’
    ‘Hey,’ she teased, ‘don’t tell me I did all this for nothing.’
    That made him smile. ‘Meryl, I’ll be grateful all my life for what you’ve done for me-’
    ‘Skip that,’ she said hastily. ‘You said it all on the first day. What’s your point?’
    ‘This. Don’t kid a kidder. I’m just your cover. First of all you did it to tell Larry where he got off, and recently-well, let’s just say you had another agenda.’
    ‘Is it that obvious?’
    ‘Only to me. But then, I’m in love, too.’
    ‘Shh!’ She placed her finger over her lips in the manner of a conspirator.
    ‘Look at her,’ Sarah said, glancing over her shoulder as she waltzed with Jarvis. ‘Sharing a secret joke with him at your wedding. Don’t you realise it’s you they’re laughing at?’
    ‘I don’t think so,’ Jarvis replied gravely. ‘I’m beginning to think-I might have been wrong about Meryl-maybe-’
    ‘That’s what she wants you to think.’
    ‘Hush, my dear. Don’t say anything bad about her. I don’t like to hear it.’
    She fell silent, and the party swirled on to its close.

CHAPTER NINE

    THE last guest had gone to bed, the last sounds of revelry had faded. Meryl sat in her room listening to the castle shutting down around her.
    How quiet it was. The loudest sound was the beating of her own heart; a bride waiting for her groom. Except that it wasn’t like that.
    It was a business arrangement. Jarvis would resist the temptation to come to her, no matter how he longed to yield. Today he’d briefly weakened because of the spell cast by the wedding, but that was fading, as she should have known it would. Instead, a few glances, an ardent look in his eyes, and she’d deluded herself.
    As she undressed and put out the light the euphoria of the occasion melted away like popping champagne bubbles, and the great room seemed to mock her.
    She lay for an hour, listening, her heart beating at every tiny noise. From below came the soft roar of the sea swirling at the base of the castle. Nearby there were a dozen creaks and whines in the old building. She knew them all. But the one she longed to hear was the sound of a door opening at the far end of the passage that connected their rooms, the sound that would tell her there was more to this moment than a contract fulfilled.
    He would come to her, because he wanted her. She knew that with every fibre of the body that ached for him. He would stay away because he distrusted her, because he’d spent his life fending off anyone who might get too close to him, knowing that that way lay desertion and pain. And she was the greatest threat of all.
    He would come to her room because he couldn’t stay away.
    He would stay away because he was too stubborn to concede defeat.
    ‘But so am I,’ she murmured into the darkness. ‘And I don’t mind sacrificing the first pawn, as long as I can mate the king.’
    Moving decisively now, she slipped out of bed, pulled a lacy robe on over her nakedness and noiselessly opened the door into the passage. Just a brief hesitation, while her nerve almost failed her, then her head went up and she took the first step into the darkness.
    She inched her way slowly along the narrow corridor, then paused again. Suppose he wasn’t in his room at all? Suppose he was there but snubbed her? He’d resisted temptation. It was she who’d weakened.
    As she stood there, torn with indecision, a noise from the far end made her heart beat with frantic, disbelieving hope. A quiet click, then the sound of the door easing open, then silence.
    She sensed rather than heard someone moving closer and stopping a few inches away. The heat of his body reached her, his warm breath, and finally the faint sensation of his fingertips on her face, her lips. An uncontrollable tremor went through her and her heart beat madly as his touch trailed down her neck to the swell of her breasts. Then it vanished altogether and she gasped in protest. The sudden deprivation was unbearable.
    She waited for him to caress her again, and in the silent darkness she could experience his struggle. He neither moved nor spoke, but his torment reached her in waves. Now it was her turn to reach out until her fingers brushed his face.
    It was as though a spark had set off a charge of electricity. Hands came from nowhere to seize her shoulders and pull her against him with all the urgency he’d been trying to deny. Beneath a light robe he was as naked as she, and now she could feel the power of his desire, demanding, unstoppable.
    He paused, waiting for her signal. A mortal, fallen into the hands of fairies, might have waited like that, wondering what mysterious step he was asked to take. Meryl found his hand, grasped it, began to retreat to her own room, drawing him after her, until she could close her door behind them.
    There was no moon and the mullioned windows gave very little light, but that was good. Tonight darkness would be her friend, blotting out everything except those selves that they would give to each other. The selves of the daytime, wary, fumbling, hiding suspicion beneath bright words, had withdrawn a little way, so that these two might reach out to each other in a shared secret.
    Instinct told her that he wanted to speak, but she brushed her fingers across his lips. Words must came later, or perhaps not at all. When her fingertips had left his lips her mouth followed, touching him softly at first, then more determinedly as her message became unmistakable and he answered with one of his own.
    This wasn’t like the kiss he’d given her for the cameras, when his surprise had been clear to her, or like the one earlier today, in the church, when she’d sensed the eagerness and warmth that were overtaking him, despite his resolution not to yield. He’d yielded now and was giving her the kiss he’d always wanted to give, and the one she’d always wanted to receive.
    She felt him toss away her robe and his own. No barriers between them at last, nothing to stop her exploring his masculinity and revelling in every discovery.
    They lay together on the bed, body to body. Without sight she had to rely on her other senses, and this man reached her through them all. The power and force of him was against her hands, her breasts, her thighs. The tangy scent of him was in her nostrils and her mouth wherever she kissed him. With every step her desire flowered, demanded more. Jarvis had always feared that she’d come to conquer, and he was right. But it wasn’t his lands or title she claimed. Only the man himself would do. She would never be satisfied with less.
    He too was exploring, lingering on the curves and valleys that had tempted him, free now to indulge his curiosity. The soft roundness of her breasts against his palms made a sigh break from him. She heard it and arched against him, wanting more of him. He wouldn’t give her the words of love, she knew that, but there were signs that she could read.
    And the signs were there in the ardour and tenderness with which he claimed her, parting her legs gently and moving slowly, giving her time to think, even to reject him. But she was way past that now. She reached for him, pulled him over her, claiming him in the moment that he claimed her. Giving and taking together. Possession, yielding, surrender, triumph.
    And then astonishment. Lying beside him, matching her breathing to his, wondering how anything could be so wonderful as this feeling. And sensing, with awe and wonder, that he felt the same.
    When she awoke in the half-light and found herself alone she was sad but not dismayed. She’d more than half expected this and besides, dismay was for faint hearts. No woman could be faint-hearted after such a night of loving. All the passion he couldn’t put into words had been there in his arms, his lips, his caresses that had been tender and purposeful, his loins that had claimed her like a man possessed.
    And that was true. He had been possessed by another self, a self who could love and give openly and without fear. And one day, with her help, that other self would claim him completely, and she would awake to find him still in her bed, sleeping trustingly beside her, his arms about her, his face buried in her flesh as though he’d finally found his refuge.
    She promised herself that, as she lay there in the quiet dawn.
    As the last wedding guest departed Benedict carefully packed up his things, ready to leave. But he was detained a little longer by Meryl, who had something to show him.
    She took him to Little Grands and introduced him to Sadie. Benedict was as thrilled with the knits as she’d known he would be, and with her help he went the rounds of the farms where he found women knitting to a standard that had him chortling with delight. There were discussions, chaired by Meryl. Contracts were arranged. Benedict put his head together with Sadie, and when she’d shown him some more of her designs and he’d filtered her ideas through his own needs, they discovered they had evolved a style.
    It took three days to set up. Jarvis observed mildly that she seemed to be very busy and Meryl debated the wisdom of telling him details about the knitting. But she couldn’t forget how dismissive he’d been when she first mentioned the idea. It would be better to wait until she could show some real results. So she said merely that she’d spent the time showing Benedict the district, and Jarvis forbore to ask questions.
    On the day of Benedict’s departure Ferdy called to ferry them across the water. Jarvis went down to the boat with them, cheerfully carrying bales of wedding dress material. The original luxurious dress that Meryl had rejected was carried by Benedict, who was a mass of nerves as it was transferred to the boat.
    ‘It seems a shame to waste it after all the work you put in,’ Jarvis observed.
    ‘Waste it?’ Benedict was scandalised. ‘It’s my masterpiece. It’ll crown my first show in the new premises.’
    ‘Well, get to work or there won’t be any new show,’ Meryl commanded.
    ‘There’s a lot of formalities-’
    ‘I know, I know. I’ve told you I’ll make a flying visit as soon as you’ve found somewhere, and we’ll sign the lease, hire the staff and I’ll stick my nose in until I drive you crazy.’
    ‘That’s what I’m afraid of,’ Benedict said mournfully. ‘Darling, it will be a flying visit, won’t it? Flying, as in-you’ll only stay five minutes?’
    ‘I’ll send you flying into the water in a moment,’ Meryl observed.
    ‘Does this take much longer, or shall we just wait for the tide to go out?’ Ferdy asked of nobody in particular.
    ‘Coming,’ Meryl sang out. Benedict and Ferdy helped her into the boat. She waved at Jarvis, calling, ‘I’ll back tonight,’ as the boat moved off.
    He waved back, uncertain whether to be dismayed that she was going to New York, pleased that Benedict didn’t want her to stay long, or furious because he’d called her darling.
    Jarvis had once called Meryl a hothouse flower, and in the world she’d left the seasons were largely artificial. A treadmill took her from Manhattan to Los Angeles in search of parties, and to Paris or Milan in search of fashion, for she didn’t live in Benedict’s creative pocket. But the nearest she came to following nature was when she headed to the Caribbean in winter.
    Now she was living in a place where only nature’s calendar counted. April was the month for sowing cereals, the time when a farmer survived or didn’t by the condition of his soil and often by his ability to beg or borrow the money for fertiliser. To Jarvis’s tenants, hanging on grimly after a succession of misfortunes, his marriage had come just in time to enrich the soil for that year’s sowing.
    ‘If we’d married a few weeks later it might have been too late for them,’ she put to him one day. They’d been riding the countryside on horses hired from Sarah’s stable, and had stopped off to let the beasts drink from a stream.
    ‘Not might have been, would have been,’ he replied quietly.
    ‘But you didn’t take enough from me, did you? That man we were with this morning-the one who was showing me the machine for planting potatoes-’
    That made Jarvis grin. Farmer Bannion was a machine enthusiast, and there’d been no escape until he’d shown Meryl the special planter that he hitched to his tractor for potatoes, delivering a commentary without pausing for breath.
    ‘It – makes – the – furrows – so – that – the – rotating – wheel – drops – the – seed -potatoes – in – then – it – turns – the – soil – over – them – otherwise – the – potatoes – go – green – in – the – light. Of course – sometimes – you – want – them – to – have – a – bit – of – light – so – that – they – sprout – early – but – then – you’ve – got – to – be – careful-’
    Meryl, trying not to let her eyes glaze, had come away with only one thought.
    ‘His machine’s on its last legs,’ she told Jarvis now. ‘He needs a new one. You could make him an interest-free loan-’
    ‘It would be too late now.’
    ‘Just what I’m saying. You should have married me earlier and insisted on a bigger dowry.’ She nudged him in the ribs. ‘See what you get for being stubborn.’
    ‘Well, I’m not used to marrying for money,’ he said, nettled. ‘I don’t know how it’s supposed to be done.’
    ‘You fraud. You swore to Larry that you were a hardened mercenary. The fact is, you’re just a beginner.’
    ‘I’m not planning to make a career of it.’
    She went to the stream where the horses were drinking and splashed some water over her face. He watched her, elegant in her riding habit, her glorious hair out of sight for once. Only last night that hair had streamed over her shoulders and breasts while he kissed her, unseen and unseeing.
    Not by so much as a word or a look had she ever hinted at their secret life. By day they faced each other, smiling, fencing, sleekly armoured, each waiting for the other to whisper, I was the one you held in your arms last night.
    But so far neither had yielded an inch.
    With water in her eyes she fumbled for her handkerchief but couldn’t find it. Grinning, he offered her his own clean one.
    ‘Thanks.’ She sat down on a rock. ‘We must rethink the whole thing,’ she said thoughtfully.
    ‘Must we?’ he asked in an expressionless voice.
    ‘Yes. I’ll put a lump sum on deposit so that you can make them interest-free loans, and-’ She looked up. He was staring out over the water and the sight gave her a little spurt of temper. ‘All right, I put it the wrong way,’ she said irritably. ‘Rephrase it any way you like. I’m tired of dancing on pins just because you’ve got the pride of the devil.’
    He was instantly contrite, coming to sit on the rock beside her. ‘I meet your generosity very shabbily, don’t I?’ he asked.
    ‘Yes.’ She was too disappointed to be diplomatic.
    To her surprise he slipped an arm around her shoulder and hugged her. ‘I’m sorry for being such a bear. I don’t really know how to accept kindness.’
    Never having received very much, she thought with a sudden sweep of tenderness.
    But if he was tongue-tied, so was she. She longed to tell him of the change that was coming over her in this place. Now she could look back and see what a useless life she’d led, veering this way and that with every trashy wind that blew because she’d had no purpose and no one who needed her.
    Here there were people who needed her and had no false pride about accepting her help. Accepting her. She was finding a peace she’d never known before, and she longed for the moment when she could tell Jarvis. But that moment wasn’t here or now.
    ‘We’ll forget it, if it offends you,’ she said.
    ‘No way,’ he said, as she’d known he would. ‘I can’t deprive them of what they need simply because-well, anyway. I’ll leave you to fix it up.’
    He’d yielded, but only halfway. Still, she could hope for better next time.
    They returned to their horses. Jarvis was in turmoil. Gratitude for her understanding warred with alarm at the way she’d slid past him again. Deeper in her debt than ever. Bought and paid for. Their brief understanding, which had soothed the wound, now seemed another danger. Bought and paid for twice over.
    ‘When are you going away?’ he asked suddenly.
    ‘When-what?’
    ‘When are you going? This flying visit you’re planning to New York to help Steen set things up. I thought you’d have gone by now.’
    ‘I don’t have to go yet. It’s not-’
    ‘Better if you do. I have a farmers’ conference to attend. I’ll be away several days.’
    ‘I could come with you.’
    ‘You really wouldn’t like it. Besides, Steen must surely need your help.’
    Plainly he wanted to be away from her.
    ‘I’ll go tomorrow,’ she said.
    Benedict met her plane and drove her to her apartment overlooking Central Park. Her housekeeper had got everything in perfect order and the place was warm and welcoming.
    ‘I’ve found the perfect site,’ Benedict burbled. ‘It’s on Fifth Avenue-’
    ‘Good,’ Meryl said, trying to sound interested. ‘Is there any news of Amanda?’
    ‘The wretched creature is playing hard to find. She won’t answer my calls and all I want to do is ask her to reconsider. We could still make a go of it, but she’s switched her mobile off.’
    As always when he talked of his wife his genuine sadness touched Meryl’s heart. She invited him in for a drink, and took the first chance to call Jarvis and say she’d arrived safely. But Jarvis had already left for his farmers’ conference, so Meryl left a message and shrugged as she hung up.
    Gradually she fell back into her old life, except that now she was in control of her own vast fortune. Somehow it wasn’t as satisfying as she’d thought it would be. She transferred the money she’d promised to Larne for the interest-free loan, but she couldn’t help thinking of the land where the light faded slowly, and the fields were dotted with woolly sheep, and the way she could find serenity just by being there. She should be in Larne this minute, seeing the smiles as hope returned, hope that she’d brought them.
    Setting up Benedict’s business was a welcome diversion, but it wasn’t the whole of life, the way it would once have been. After a month she urgently needed more interests, and she contacted Amanda to invite her to lunch.
    They’d always been friendly, but seen little of each other. Amanda was a pale, fair young woman whose beauty lay in the expression in her eyes rather than her features. They had a long, friendly talk over lunch, but Amanda wouldn’t budge about Benedict, although she too was unhappy.
    ‘You two drive me crazy,’ Meryl said. ‘You’re in love, for Pete’s sake!’
    ‘Sometimes that isn’t enough,’ Amanda said with a faint smile. ‘The person you love the most may be the person you can’t live with.’
    ‘Yes,’ Meryl murmured. ‘Oh, yes.’
    They agreed to meet up again and settled a date. Meryl whipped out her little pen and prepared to scribble on the back of her hand.
    ‘I can’t get over you doing that,’ Amanda said, smiling.
    ‘Nor can Jarvis. The first time he saw me do this he nearly-’ She stopped and a horrid, cold wave washed over her. ‘What’s the date?’ she asked faintly.
    ‘The fifteenth of May. Why?’
    ‘The fête! It’s tomorrow. I promised I’d be there. I gave my word. Oh, heavens! After all the promises I made. Hurry. It’s a matter of life and death.’
    ‘Where are we going?’ Amanda asked when they were in the taxi.
    ‘To get my passport, then the airport.’
    ‘Can you do it in time?’
    ‘If I can get a flight tonight, and go there as soon as I land.’
    In her apartment Amanda booked the flight while Meryl frantically went through her wardrobe, seeking something outrageous and finally selecting a scarlet trouser suit.
    She tried to call Jarvis, but he was away and not expected back that night. Hannah took a message but seemed doubtful about being able to deliver it. ‘He doesn’t call home much,’ she observed. ‘Can’t think why.’
    Actually I can, Meryl thought in despair. And can I blame him?
    From that bad beginning things got worse. There were delays at the airport, and the threat of a bumpy journey when she did finally get off the ground.
    Oh, great! I’m a nervous flyer even when it isn’t bumpy. Plus I’ll get there too late. Plus I’ve done just what he predicted and lived down to all his worst fears, and he’ll never forgive me.

CHAPTER TEN

    ‘THE fête’s going to be spoiled,’ the vicar’s wife sighed. ‘The weather’s cloudy and Lady Larne isn’t coming, after she promised!’
    Her husband tried to soothe her. ‘Lord Larne said she was detained by urgent family affairs, but he’s very kindly agreed to take her place. And I believe that just possibly-’ his tone suggested some astounding concession ‘-the Honourable Sarah Ashton will be accompanying him.’
    If Mrs Rogers was overwhelmed at the prospect of this treat she managed to conceal it admirably.
    People had been arriving for the fête for the last half-hour. Lord Larne was there, smiling but ill at ease. The Honourable Sarah had also deigned to grace them with her presence and walked about, her arm tucked proprietarily into Jarvis’s, like one whose moment had arrived. Ferdy had come to watch the fun.
    The vicar sighed and looked up at the dark sky.
    ‘Well, she’s not going to descend out of the clouds, is she?’ his wife snapped.
    ‘I suppose not. Let’s get on with the opening.’
    The crowd had gathered in front of a small raised platform. The vicar took up his position, looking fixedly cheerful. Jarvis did the same, although he felt far from cheerful. A dead weight seemed to have settled in his chest, making everything an effort. Even now that the moment had arrived he found it hard to believe that Meryl had actually let them all down this way.
    Sarah’s compassion had been hard to bear. Without actually saying that she’d always predicted this she showed that she regarded him as an object of pity. Which was to say that he’d been a fool. And so he had. When Sarah had promised to accompany him to the fête he hadn’t wished to hurt his old friend by saying that she was no substitute for Meryl, the woman who’d duped and betrayed him. But no woman was a substitute for her.
    How eager he’d been to believe her! How nearly he’d yielded! The reality was bitter, and it was only now that he admitted to himself how deeply he’d longed to be convinced.
    Bought and paid for emotionally as well as financially.
    But hell would freeze over before he allowed anyone to suspect. So he adjusted his smile, assumed an air of attention, and wished he was dead.
    ‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman,’ the vicar said brightly.
    He got no further. A buzzing was making itself heard overhead, causing everyone to look up. But whatever was making the noise was coming from above the clouds.
    The vicar raised his voice. ‘Once again St Luke’s fête is-’
    Suddenly the clouds parted, revealing that the noise was coming from a helicopter. In the same instant the sun came out, streaming down so that the helicopter appeared to be descending directly on a beam of light.
    The crowd scattered, leaving the pilot space to land, but nobody went further than necessary. No one was going to miss this.
    At last there was a perfect landing, with a blast of propellers that ruined more than one hairdo. The owners never noticed. They were too busy watching the door open and the vision appear.
    ‘Hello, everyone,’ Meryl called.
    A cheer went up, growing louder as she stepped down from the machine. The pilot waved and lifted off, revealing Meryl in all the glory of a scarlet trouser suit and huge hat with scarlet streamers. She raised both hands in the air and turned around so that her smile fell on everyone, then bounded to the platform to shake the vicar by the hand.
    ‘Bet you thought I wasn’t coming!’ she sang out.
    ‘I explained that you were unavoidably detained,’ Jarvis said. ‘But we all hoped until the last moment.’
    ‘You should have known I wouldn’t let you down,’ Meryl said, speaking to both of them, but mostly to him.
    The crowd was applauding now, crowding around the platform. Meryl went to the front and launched into the speech she’d been working on for most of the journey. Ferdy sidled up to his sister. ‘You’re supposed to look pleased,’ he murmured.
    ‘Shut up!’
    In a burst of inspiration Meryl made a funny story of her journey and the final mad dash to hire a helicopter, ‘Because I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. And all the time I was in the air one thought kept me going-When I land somebody’s going to give me a lovely cup of English tea. Ladies and gentlemen, I declare this fête well and truly open and-and good luck to all who sail in her.’
    Roars of laughter. Applause, cheering. She had been a triumphant success.
    She was plied with tea, which she drank with genuine relief. The vicar’s two little girls bounced onto her and Meryl scored another bullseye by remembering their names. Then she was swept off to do a grand tour of the stalls. Many contained home-made items, and each one was a potential trap for giving offence. Meryl sized up the situation fast, and discovered a snag.
    ‘Where’s Jarvis?’ she muttered in Ferdy’s ear. ‘Tell him it’s life and death.’
    Jarvis was nearby. He hadn’t taken his eyes off his wife. ‘What is it?’ he asked.
    ‘I haven’t got any cash. I want to buy something from every stall, and I haven’t changed my dollars.’
    ‘How did you pay for the helicopter?’
    Her lips twitched as she looked him in the face. ‘Told them to send the bill to you.’
    ‘That was very enterprising of you.’
    ‘Come on, I need money urgently.’ She flapped her hands. ‘Money, money, money!’
    Luckily he’d come amply provided with cash for the same purpose. It gave him a strange feeling to be thrusting notes into her eager hands, but then all other thoughts vanished in the pleasure of seeing her again.
    She went around, stall by stall, exclaiming with pleasure and buying liberally. Jarvis had to admit she did it beautifully. Whatever she bought she had an idea for using the article at Larne- ‘This would look wonderful on that little table in the library’ -a subtle piece of flattery that won her golden opinions.
    ‘We usually have a stall with knitted clothes,’ the vicar said, ‘but not this year. All the ladies are busy working on something else. Your doing, I understand.’
    She confessed it and a few minutes later Jarvis drew her aside, ‘You didn’t!’ he accused.
    ‘I did.’
    ‘I told you what I thought of that idea.’
    ‘And I told you where you could put your objections-oh, heavens!’
    She darted away out of sight behind a tent, from which floated back sounds of anguish and a stomach subjected to too much strain. Jarvis, following at a cautious distance, found her kneeling on the grass.
    ‘Are you all right?’ he demanded, putting an arm around her shoulders.
    ‘I am now,’ she gasped. ‘Turbulence-all through the flight-and then the helicopter bounced me around even more. Oof! I shouldn’t have had that last cream cake.’
    ‘Poor thing,’ he said kindly. ‘Shall I take you straight home?’
    ‘No way. There’s the children’s fancy dress contest yet.’
    ‘You’re looking very queasy,’ he said, helping her to her feet.
    ‘I’ve got a headache. Could you get me something for it?’
    He hurried back with aspirin and tea a few moments later to find Meryl no longer there. She’d returned to the fray and was laughing over the antics of a mongrel in the dog obedience trials.
    ‘These are for her,’ he told Sarah who appeared by his side. ‘She’s not feeling too good, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her.’
    ‘I’ve never denied that she has spirit,’ Sarah said, boxing clever.
    ‘Guts,’ Ferdy said firmly. ‘It’s what drove the pioneers.’
    ‘Pioneering spirit,’ Sarah conceded with ponderous graciousness. ‘But this is hardly pioneering country.’
    ‘It is to her,’ Jarvis said reprovingly, and went off to ply his wife with tea, aspirin and husbandly concern.
    ‘Pity you had to ruin the effect at the last minute,’ Ferdy observed to his fulminating sister, then glided away before she could reply.
    Meryl scored another triumph with the children’s fancy dress, talking to each of the eight contestants, letting them tell her who they were meant to be. There could be only one winner, but after Meryl’s tour de force nobody felt left out.
    Jarvis would gladly have whisked her home at any moment, but she insisted on enduring tea at the vicarage and talking to everybody who dropped in, in the hope of seeing her. It was a masterly performance, but it lasted for hours and he noticed that she touched very little food and looked pale and drawn.
    At last he said in her ear, ‘We’re going. No argument.’ And won a look of gratitude.
    They just made it over the causeway as the night tide was rising. As soon as they arrived Jarvis said, ‘Put her to bed, Hannah.’
    Meryl was asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow. She awoke after a few hours to find the room almost dark, but with just enough light for her to discern the man standing looking out of the window. She slipped out of bed and came to him, resting her head on his back, her arms about him. He didn’t move at first, except to touch her hands on his chest.
    ‘How long have you been here?’ she whispered.
    ‘All night. I hoped you’d awaken. Meryl-’
    ‘Don’t say anything now. I’m here. And I’m awake.’
    He turned silently, his arms went about her, and in the kiss he gave her she could sense his smile, just as she could sense the delight in his whole self as he gathered her to him.
    They loved in darkness, as always, but this time she knew he was really there. Jarvis, the man, the person, was there with her as he’d never been before. Beyond the intense physical pleasure there was the pleasure of the heart. At the moment of greatest passion she thought she heard him whisper her name.
    She longed to tell him that she loved him, but she would force herself to be patient. Too much was at stake to risk by rushing things. She ventured to murmur his name back, and drew his head against her quickly before he could react.
    Afterwards there was silence. He seemed to have fallen asleep, as she’d always hoped. But after a few minutes she felt him rise and slip away. No matter. It had still been a better homecoming than she’d dared to hope for.
    The next morning they went riding together, travelling for miles, enjoying the fresh air of early summer, content in the new peace that reigned between them. There was still a lot to be said, but for the moment they could stop by a stream, lounging on the ground while the horses drank, and look at each other, smiling.
    ‘I’ve been away for such a short time, yet it all looks different now,’ she observed.
    ‘I know. We’ve brought the cattle out of their winter quarters into the fields.’
    ‘And the mowing. I thought harvest wasn’t until August.’
    ‘We harvest the grain in August. In May we mow the grass so that it can be stored for winter feeding.’
    ‘I’ll learn.’
    His eyes flickered to her, but he said nothing.
    ‘I wish you’d stayed with me last night,’ she said impulsively.
    After a long pause he said, ‘I hate that room.’ He threw a pebble into the water. ‘My mother used to sleep there.’
    ‘You told me about her death-how they didn’t tell you until you came home-’
    ‘I knew she wasn’t strong. When she wasn’t on the step to greet me I thought she must be in bed so I ran upstairs to her room. I burst in, longing to see her-’
    ‘Oh, no,’ she whispered, torn with pity for the eager little boy running towards heartbreak.
    ‘The room had been stripped. No bedclothes, just a bare mattress. That was how I discovered she was dead. Now I never go there, except once when I thought there was an intruder-’ He gave her a brief smile, inviting her to remember that night. ‘At other times, I prefer it without light.’
    She touched his face. ‘No wonder you don’t trust anyone. But don’t mistrust me, Jarvis. Don’t hide from me.’
    ‘That’s easy to say. A sensible man keeps himself hidden.’
    ‘That wouldn’t be a sensible man. It would be a stunted one. If he keeps himself a prisoner how can he ever reach out to anyone?’
    ‘I can’t argue with you. I don’t know how. You’re too good with words.’
    ‘And you think there’s nothing to me but words?’
    After a moment he said quietly. ‘You know better than that.’ And for once it was the voice that spoke to her in the night. And suddenly the night was there with them, despite the sunshine. Memory was stronger. His eyes, too, were defenceless.
    ‘I thought you weren’t coming back,’ he said quietly.
    ‘I was always going to come back.’
    ‘Are you here to stay now?’
    She hesitated. ‘I have to return once more, because I left in such a hurry-’
    ‘Yeah, sure. Well, just let me know when. Time we were going.’
    The moment was over. Like a hunted creature that sees the glint on the gun barrel and darts away, he’d spotted danger and retreated into his prickly shell.
    But she’d advanced a step into his confidence. The battle was winnable, she thought as they returned home.
    Sometimes she asked herself why she bothered. She had a good life waiting for her on the other side of the Atlantic, people who admired her and things she had planned to do when she had control of her fortune. Why not just draw a line under Jarvis, go off and enjoy her life?
    Because nothing was the same any more.
    Life meant being here, with the man who’d seized painful hold of her heart and wouldn’t let it go.
    What did he have to recommend him to her? His title? It meant nothing. His great estate? She could buy all the land she wanted.
    His castle? She could probably buy one of those too, somewhere.
    What then?
    And here her inner arguments fell silent in the face of the truth. By floundering around, not really knowing what she was doing, she had somehow stumbled on the one man who could give her what she didn’t already have. His need.
    She could add to that the need of his people, hundreds of them, all unwittingly giving her something that she needed, the satisfaction of knowing that she was making a difference for good. But it was Jarvis’s need, dumb, heart-wrenching, beyond his power to express, that ached within her, drawing her back here when common sense would have told her to go.
    Their fragile peace held for a while. One day Jarvis came home to find workmen crawling all over the castle with instruments.
    ‘They’re giving me an estimate for the central heating,’ Meryl explained. When he frowned doubtfully she engaged him eyeball to ball, saying, ‘I am Lady Larne. I am mistress of this castle, and I want central heating.’
    ‘You’re probably right,’ he agreed meekly.
    He didn’t complain when the turnip mattress mysteriously morphed into the latest fully sprung wonder, not even when Meryl said, ‘I didn’t actually throw the turnips away. I mean, they’re part of England’s heritage, aren’t they? You can give them to the nation, and say, “Queen Elizabeth I slept on these”.’
    He grinned. ‘No, she slept on cabbages in the West Wing.’
    But the following week their truce began to fray when he said, ‘I’ve had Ned Race and his cronies onto me, complaining that you’re filling their wives’s and daughters’s heads with nonsense.’
    ‘Cheek!’ Meryl exploded.
    ‘These men run family farms that need everyone’s help. Now the women are spending all their time knitting.’
    ‘I know Ned Race. He leaves the bulk of the work to his womenfolk, does as little as possible himself, and spends too much time in the pub.’
    ‘Nonsense, I’ve known him for years.’
    ‘But what do you know?’ Meryl demanded indignantly. ‘What he wants you to know. You should try talking to Clarrie Race and you’d hear a few things that would surprise you. Ned’s bellyaching because he’s got to shift his fat backside for a change.’
    ‘Meryl, I know you think you know what you’re talking about, but believe me, you don’t, and it isn’t kind of you to encourage these women to neglect reality and chase shadows. What was that?’ Meryl had made a noise.
    ‘I said a very rude word,’ she said crossly. ‘One of the best in my repertoire. It needed saying. It applies to Ned Race in bucketfuls and I’m beginning to think it applies to you, too. But since you’re my husband I’ll just call you a blinkered dinosaur with the discernment and farsightedness of a newt.’
    ‘That doesn’t make any sense.’
    ‘It does where I’m standing,’ she said dangerously.
    The subject was dropped, but there were others that only just avoided being quarrels. Sometimes his own defences failed him and she sensed the ardour that he couldn’t entirely deny. At other times she felt as though he was almost trying to drive her away, willing her to live down to his worst fears so that he could kill his hopes and have done with it. But that was to imagine that he had hopes, which she hardly dared believe.
    At the end of June Sarah departed to visit the Hamlins on Long Island, and Meryl said, ‘I shall have to go back soon, myself.’
    ‘Is it really necessary?’ Jarvis asked politely.
    ‘There’s a load more things to be signed, stuff I don’t want to entrust to the mail. Besides, I want to see Benedict’s opening. He called me today-’
    ‘Then of course you must go,’ Jarvis interrupted her. ‘I expect you’ll be off tomorrow.’
    ‘Well, maybe. I only wanted to tell you-’
    ‘But, my dear, there’s no need for you to tell me anything. I wouldn’t dream of prying into your private affairs.’
    ‘Why do you do that?’ she asked, exasperated. ‘One minute we’re fine, and the next you set me at a distance.’
    ‘Perhaps it’s because I’m always aware of how easily you set Larne at a distance when your memory fails.’
    ‘The fête again. I thought we’d sorted that.’
    ‘It’s true that you retrieved the situation in fine style, but only because you managed to hire that helicopter. That’s not remembering. That’s forgetting and covering up.’
    ‘I didn’t forget Larne, or my promise. I just didn’t notice that the date had crept up on me. It could happen to anyone.’
    ‘No, it could only happen to a woman who was used to buying her way out of trouble. You forgot us.’
    If she hadn’t been so agitated she would have noticed that ‘us’. Instead she demanded, ‘Then why didn’t you call and remind me? You weren’t secretly hoping I’d blot my copy book, were you?’
    ‘No way!’ He was genuinely shocked. ‘I’d never let other people be hurt in our private disputes.’
    ‘Then why not remind me?’
    ‘Because,’ he said reluctantly, ‘I admit that I forgot, too. I had a nasty shock when the vicar called me that very morning.’
    ‘Hah!’
    ‘You can hah! as much as you like. I wasn’t the one they were counting on. If you couldn’t have afforded that helicopter the truth would have been there for everyone to see.’
    ‘Why must my money always get in the way? If you’d been the one with money, you wouldn’t expect me to mind about it.’
    A strange look passed over his face. ‘If I’d had money it would have been my pleasure to give you everything. As it is, every natural impulse I have is checked. How am I supposed to feel married to you when I have nothing to give?’
    ‘But accepting gladly is a kind of giving. If your acceptance makes the other person happy-don’t you see?’
    ‘How can I accept gladly when I know that this is all really for Benedict Steen?’ There was a new, dangerous edge on his voice. ‘Don’t you think it’s time we discussed your relationship with that man?’
    ‘You mean, am I in love with Benedict? You’ve been listening to Larry.’ In her earnestness she took Jarvis’s shoulders between her hands and shook him. ‘Now, listen you, and listen good. I am not in love with Benedict. OK, I made him a loan of ten million dollars and perhaps I’ll lose it. That might prove I need my head examined; it does not prove I’m in love with him. End of story. He’s married.’
    ‘And on the verge of divorce, apparently.’
    ‘Not if he can prevent it. He loves Amanda, and that’s fine by me.’
    A doubt came into Jarvis’s eyes. ‘Honestly?’
    She shook him again. ‘Yes, honestly. I’m going to New York to tie things up and make sure I hire the bookkeeper.’
    ‘And what happens then?’
    She gave him a teasing look. ‘Depends how much you miss me.’
    The next moment she was being crushed in a bear hug and his mouth was on hers in the most demanding kiss he had ever given her. Even in the secrecy of their nighttime selves he’d never spoken so clearly of ruthless desire and purpose.
    She grew still in his arms, relishing the movements of his lips, savouring the long, long moments of passion that were sending messages scurrying through her. In another moment she would abandon the trip altogether.
    When he released her he was breathless and there was a glow in his eyes that thrilled her.
    ‘That’s how much I’ll miss you,’ he gasped. ‘If you want to know more, you’ll have to come back to me.’

CHAPTER ELEVEN

    SHE told herself that it was good to be back in New York, where there were people who wanted her. Benedict’s gorgeous new premises on Fifth Avenue were almost ready to open for business, and he was about to launch his collection. She began spending her time there, enjoying the satisfaction of seeing the project come to fruition, just as she’d always hoped.
    But as his professional dreams were being realised Benedict was still deeply unhappy, and at last Meryl decided it was time for decisive action. One evening she slipped into the darkened building and past the security guard, who recognised her but raised his eyebrows at the young woman with her. Meryl put her finger over her lips and passed on, accompanied by the other woman.
    Upstairs she found Benedict still working, tearing his hair and looking exhausted.
    ‘Hi, honey!’ he said in a frazzled voice. ‘I was just leaving for a stiff drink.’
    ‘I’ve got something much better for you than a stiff drink,’ Meryl told him. ‘Here.’ She pushed her companion forward.
    Benedict froze at the sight of her and his lips shaped one word soundlessly. ‘Amanda?’
    Amanda didn’t speak, just stood looking at her husband with her heart in her eyes.
    ‘Get on with it, the pair of you,’ Meryl said in kindly exasperation. ‘And don’t speak to me again until you’ve made up.’
    On her way out she paused at the door just long enough to enjoy the sight of Amanda and Benedict in each other’s arms. Smiling, she went downstairs and took a cab to her apartment, which suddenly seemed emptier than ever before.
    The following evening her friends, ecstatic over their reunion, invited her to the home they were sharing again, and toasted her joyfully.
    ‘We must have a party to celebrate,’ Benedict declared. ‘We’ll have it in the new place, so we can use it as a rehearsal for the big party when we open.’
    ‘My romantic lover!’ Amanda said, eyeing him cynically.
    Meryl laughed. ‘He’s like a kid where parties are concerned.’
    The lovers squabbled amiably for a while, then they laughed and fell into each other’s arms. Meryl made an excuse to leave. Their happiness was charming but it emphasised that she was alone here.
    As she relaxed on her own sofa later that night she reflected that that was how married people ought to be, sometimes bickering but always loving, and knowing that ultimately they couldn’t bear to be apart.
    She wondered what Jarvis was doing this minute. Was he pining for her as Benedict had pined for Amanda? At one time she would have said not, but now she remembered the way he’d kissed her, and a certain note in his voice when he’d said, ‘If you want to know more you’ll have to come back to me.’
    Oh, yes, he was missing her all right. Perhaps almost as much as she was missing him!
    Once, in another life, she’d promised herself that she would make this man want her. It would serve him right for being so dismissive. Wanting him hadn’t been part of the plan. But she’d been an adolescent in those days-all of three months ago. Now wanting him was her entire life. Wanting, loving, missing, yearning. He’d turned her into another person, an adult, determined to take on her man in the challenge that ended neither in victory or defeat, but in joy.
    If only she could go right back to him now! But she was packing up her entire life, and every detail took time. So she forced herself to work thoroughly, not wanting to have to return later.
    For the party Benedict designed Meryl a figure-hugging garment in scarlet, made of some silky, clinging material.
    ‘It’s a bit low in the front,’ she protested. ‘And I won’t be able to wear anything under it. It would show every line.’
    ‘That’s the idea,’ he assured her. ‘Eroticism with dignity.’
    The gorgeous garment made her feel intensely sensual. The woman who wore this dress was trying to tempt a man to remove it. And when she was home again with the awkward, prickly individual who’d claimed a heart no other man had even threatened, she would give him a private showing.
    On the big night she worked hard on her appearance, and knew she could rival any model. It was the kind of party that had once filled her life. The lights glittered, the food was excellent, the wine was the best. She arrived to find the place already packed. Benedict and Amanda appeared at her elbow.
    ‘Bless you darling!’ Amanda said, throwing her arms about Meryl. ‘We owe it all to you. Oh, thank you, thank you!’
    She hugged her friend exuberantly, kissing her on both cheeks. Everyone around them roared delight, so Meryl guessed they all knew the story of how she’d played Cupid.
    ‘Now me,’ Benedict said, seizing Meryl up into his arms and kissing her heartily on each cheek, then her mouth. ‘It’s all right, Amanda knows she doesn’t have to be jealous.’ He winked at his wife. ‘Not after last night.’
    More laughter. Champagne. Music. Dancing.
    Some of the guests were journalists from fashion magazines, invited to inspect the new premises. She took them on a tour, proud of the cream and silver salon, the spacious dressing rooms, the fabulous collection behind securely locked doors. Along the centre of the main hall was a large catwalk, big enough to take five models walking side by side. Just now it was being used for dancing.
    Meryl danced the night away, enjoying herself but beginning to realise nervously that her dress was even more outrageously daring than she’d guessed. Eventually she found herself dancing with Benedict, who eyed her décolletage with intense professional interest.
    ‘It’s not holding up as well as I thought,’ he observed, pointing to the offending part. ‘After all this dancing you’re showing more bosom than I meant you to.’
    ‘Now you tell me.’
    At last she gave up, and stepped off the catwalk, breathless.
    ‘Meryl, wonderful to see you.’
    Everett Hamlin was smiling at her. After the hugs and greetings she said, ‘Is Brenda here, too?’
    ‘’Course she is. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. We’ve got a friend of yours with us. Sarah Ashton.’
    ‘Of course, you met her at the wedding.’
    ‘That’s right. Terrific woman. Really knows her horses. Now where is she?’ He looked around.
    ‘Don’t worry,’ Meryl said quickly. ‘We’ll find each other. Tell me how you are…’
    They drifted away together. In a few moments Meryl had forgotten Sarah. The party was a great success, the perfect rehearsal for the big one, the showing of the collection. As the dawn broke and the last guest had gone, she, Benedict and Amanda, were sitting with their heads together.
    Jarvis met Sarah at the airport. ‘Good to have you back, my dear,’ he said, hugging her. ‘Let’s have some tea.’
    When they were sitting in a café he observed, ‘You were supposed to be staying longer. Couldn’t live without us, I suppose?’
    ‘After what I saw I wanted to come home as soon as possible,’ she said in a low voice.
    ‘Sarah, what’s the matter. You look as if you’ve been crying.’
    ‘Oh, Jarvis, I don’t know how to tell you-it’s so terrible-’
    ‘What can be that terrible?’ he said, laughing. He was quite unsuspicious.
    ‘I went to a party in New York. It was given by Benedict Steen in that place she’s bought him. He and Meryl-’
    ‘Sarah, it’s all right. They’re just friends. She’s explained it all to me.’
    In silence Sarah laid two pictures on the table.
    The photographer who’d covered the party was good at his job. His work was sharp, with every detail in focus. It was a toss-up which shot was better, the one of Meryl dancing with Benedict, looking up into his face while he laughed down at her, his hand pointing towards her half-revealed breasts, or the one showing the two of them kissing.
    ‘I see,’ Jarvis said in a colourless voice. ‘I think we should get off home now.’
    He rose and walked away. Sarah was a little disappointed that he left the pictures behind, but no matter. They’d served their purpose.
    Another fifteen minutes and she would call Jarvis. Another ten minutes. Like a child postponing a treat Meryl watched the clock, counting the seconds until she could allow herself the pleasure.
    Their phone calls always had an air of unreality. There was good-humoured banter and an undercurrent of tension, connected with the fierce kiss he’d given her. There had been another one when he saw her off at the airport, but that had been a restrained ‘married’ kiss, suitable for the eyes of strangers. The other had hinted at the passionate unrestraint of lovers, and that was the one she wanted to hurry back to.
    Five minutes, four…
    The phone rang.
    ‘Meryl?’
    As soon as she heard Jarvis’s voice a smile spread all over her, and it was there in her own voice as she replied. ‘Yes, it’s me.’
    But then everything went horribly wrong, as though the world had turned to ice around her, leaving her shivering and disbelieving.
    Jarvis’s voice was more hostile than she’d ever heard it. ‘I trusted you. Fool that I was, I trusted you.’
    ‘Jarvis, what are you-?’
    ‘Not at first, mind you,’ he went on as though she hadn’t spoken. ‘At first I knew more or less what you were up to, and I wasn’t interested. That was what annoyed you, wasn’t it? A man who wasn’t interested. You can’t stand that. So you set yourself to bring me to heel, just for the pleasure of showing me who had the power.’
    ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
    ‘Benedict Steen. A man you dance with half-naked and kiss in front of all the world. I’ve seen the pictures. Did you think they wouldn’t get back to me?’
    ‘Sarah,’ she breathed.
    ‘Yes, Sarah saw what you were up to.’
    ‘And made the worst of it.’
    ‘Is there any worst or best when my wife cavorts half-naked with her lover for anyone to see?’
    ‘He isn’t-’
    ‘Oh, please, I’ve heard that speech, and you were so convincing. But then you always were when you wanted to deceive me.’ She thought she heard a shuddering breath, and when he spoke again his voice wasn’t quite steady.
    ‘I was the last man in the world you could have persuaded, but that was the point, wasn’t it? The more I fought you, the greater your victory. You should be very proud of yourself, Meryl, because in the end you took me in completely. I was even falling in lo-’ Suddenly he couldn’t go on.
    ‘Jarvis, listen,’ she said urgently. ‘Benedict is back with his wife, and I made it happen. That party was to celebrate their reconciliation.’
    ‘Indeed! And I suppose his wife was watching while you kissed him.’
    ‘Yes, she was, and she was having the laugh of her life-’
    ‘Meryl, let it go.’ Jarvis sounded very tired. ‘You’ve won. I give in. Hang my scalp from your belt if it’s that important, just don’t come back to Larne. We made a deal and we’ve each kept our side. Leave it there.’
    Meryl’s temper had been rising, and now it burst out. ‘No, damn you! I won’t leave it there. How dare you judge me without a hearing!’
    ‘Those pictures speak for themselves. What do I need to hear?’
    ‘Try listening to the truth, even if it doesn’t fit neatly into your preconceived ideas. I’ve always known you were a hard, judgmental man, but I thought we might find some love, and maybe it would be enough to make you ease up. But that’s not good enough for you, is it?
    ‘I haven’t been playing games, Jarvis. I love Larne. I could have loved you. But you don’t want to be loved. That’s what you can’t accept. Not just material things, but the love that goes with them. Love means taking risks, making mental leaps, and you find it safer to stay in your suspicious world. Everyone’s bad in there, and that’s how you like it, because that way you know what to think.
    ‘So stay in it. Never fear my coming back, because I won’t, ever. I haven’t played you false, and one day you’ll know that. But don’t bother trying to tell me because I’m finished! I’ve got better things to do with my life than spend it banging my head against a brick wall.’
    Thousands of miles away Jarvis heard the click as she slammed down the phone. He had no way of hearing her storm of sobs.
    Somehow life went on. Workmen arrived at Larne to start on the central heating. It was too late to cancel it now. That would invite too many questions, and Jarvis hadn’t the heart. A lassitude had descended on him. Everywhere he saw signs of new hope such as once he hadn’t dared dream of. And suddenly it all seemed so futile.
    He tried to be logical. It was unreasonable to miss her so badly, except of course for estate matters where her presence would have been useful. But there were no estate matters in the middle of the night, and then the loss of her was a grinding misery that went on and on without relief.
    It would have been convenient to have her around for the lunch that he held annually for his tenants and their families. He flinched at the thought of the curious eyes, the unspoken questions.
    They all trooped in, Ned Race and Clarrie, his wife, Jack Tompkins and his Freda, Lillian, who rented a farm on her own account and took orders from no man, Peter and Elsie Somers and their daughter Helena, Sadie of the wools, and a dozen more. Meryl’s absence provoked a response that troubled Jarvis, but not in the way he’d expected.
    ‘New York, eh?’ Sadie exclaimed and looked around at the other women. They nodded. ‘She’s selling our stuff. She said she would.’
    Jarvis was silent, heartsick. How could he tell these decent, kindly people that she’d betrayed them?
    But Sarah would tell them. She and Ferdy were always invited, and over lunch she made herself busy. Jarvis couldn’t hear her words, but he could see the bewildered expressions of the others.
    He functioned on automatic and managed somehow. Afterwards they all retired to the library for coffee, and a dispute flared up between Lillian and one of the men farmers about a news item she’d picked up that morning. Lillian was bolshie enough for ten and she went at it hammer and tongs, to everyone’s entertainment.
    ‘Must we argue now?’ Jarvis asked at last. ‘I think Lillian’s right, but it’ll be on the news tonight.’
    ‘It’ll be on the teletext right now,’ Lillian said firmly.
    ‘All right, if it’ll satisfy you. Ferdy, you’re nearest the set.’
    Ferdy switched the television on and channel-hopped. Suddenly he stopped as though frozen, and said in a strange voice, ‘Isn’t that Meryl?’
    Everyone looked at the screen where Meryl could clearly be viewed sashaying along a catwalk, clad in a knitted garment that brought yells of recognition.
    ‘We did that!’ The women spoke with one triumphant voice.
    ‘Mr Steen said design something wild and crazy for him,’ Sadie said. ‘I went as mad as I dared but he said “more”. So I made it madder and madder, and by the time he was satisfied it took three women to knit it and sew it together.’
    Ferdy had turned up the sound and they listened, enthralled, to the announcer.
    ‘…Benedict Steen’s collection having its first showing in New York. There on the catwalk is his backer, Meryl Winters, now Lady Larne, modelling one of the revolutionary fashion knits from the Larne estate…’
    ‘Fancy that,’ Freda muttered. ‘We’re revolutionary.’
    Ned Race tried to mutter something disparaging, but he was drowned out by every woman present.
    ‘She said she’d show our stuff in New York,’ Clarrie carolled. ‘You-’ she pointed an accusing finger at her husband ‘-you said she couldn’t do it.’
    ‘Lady Larne is a woman of her word,’ Ferdy observed, eyeing Jarvis steadily.
    Jarvis didn’t see him. He was beyond speech or movement, his gaze fixed on his wife almost dancing elegantly along the catwalk, her smile brilliant.
    Now she was talking to the presenter, pointing out details of the glorious creation she wore.
    ‘That’s us she’s talking about,’ Clarrie breathed. ‘Our knits. We’re high fashion!’
    Ned Race, staging a rearguard action, muttered something and Clarrie turned on him.
    ‘You shut up, you old fool. With the orders I’m getting there’s enough to mend the pig barn and pay off the bank. So you can stir yourself and do some work for a change.’
    Ned cast her a hunted look, but relapsed into silence.
    Meryl had vanished from the screen, and the camera wandered over the crowd while the presenter continued in voiceover.
    ‘After this the collection will go to Paris, Milan, Rome, London-an extended trip that for Benedict Steen will also be a second honeymoon with his wife Amanda, with whom he’s recently been reconciled. Meryl, there’s a rumour that you played Cupid. Is it true?’
    Meryl’s voiceover: ‘I did my bit, because if ever two people belong together Benedict and Amanda do. But they love each other, so this was always inevitable.’
    Now Benedict was centre screen, his arm around a young woman, his adoring eyes on her. And there was Meryl beside them, laughing and calling to Benedict, ‘Kiss her-go on, kiss her-’ and leading the applause when he did.
    Jarvis didn’t know how he got through the rest of the afternoon. Somehow he made the right responses, smiled without knowing why, and fended off questions. In his head he could hear Meryl’s voice,
    I haven’t played you false, and one day you’ll know that. But don’t bother trying to tell me.
    He came out of his unhappy reverie to discover that Ferdy was talking to him.
    ‘Sarah suddenly decided that she wanted to leave,’ he said in a voice that gave nothing away. ‘She’s gone ahead to the boat and asked me to say goodbye to you.’
    ‘I understand,’ said Jarvis, who was beginning to understand a lot of things.
    At last it was mercifully over and he could be alone with his thoughts. But they were ugly and bitter and left him nowhere to hide.
    He escaped to his room, but found a noise coming from the connecting passage. There he found a workman making measurements.
    ‘Central heating,’ the young man explained.
    ‘Oh, yes.’
    ‘It’s a bit narrow in here for a radiator,’ Fred observed.
    ‘You could cut a bit out of this inner wall,’ Jarvis said, trying to make himself interested. ‘It must be feet thick, so there’ll be no problem.’
    The next day the workman started drilling, and almost at once he knew that the stone wall wasn’t feet thick. No more than ten inches, he estimated from the sound. He kept going and soon emerged on the other side. Then he drilled again until he was able to move one large stone right out. He held up his flashlight and peered in. What he saw made him freeze for a long, shocked moment before hurrying away to find his foreman.

CHAPTER TWELVE

    SO OFTEN in dreams Meryl had opened her door to find Jarvis standing there that when the unfamiliar knock had come she’d gone flying to the door, pulling it open without using the security speaker, ready to say it was all a mistake, that if he was sorry, so was she.
    But outside there had been only a stranger, surrounded by boxes and trunks. Jarvis had sent all her possessions from Larne. She never opened her door spontaneously again.
    She had slammed the phone down on him in a moment of anger, but, despite her misery, after that one moment of hope she had no regrets. There was no way back. She’d played and lost, and nothing but grief could come of clinging to false dreams.
    As day had followed dreary, desperate day, she’d worked at being strong-minded. She was now in the position she’d plotted and schemed for, her money in her own hands, a husband who’d vanished back whence he came, and the world before her. This was what she’d wanted. She told herself that.
    Plus she’d made life better for people she cared about. But it seemed she hadn’t made it better for Jarvis. She might have drawn him out to share the sunshine with her, but she hadn’t. He would grow older, and then old, just as he was. He would marry Sarah. At that thought she’d almost jumped on the first plane back to him, but she had forced herself to do nothing. He’d chosen his path. He didn’t want her.
    And at that thought she too had managed to harden her heart a little. It seemed he couldn’t learn from her, but she had learned wariness from him.
    Benedict’s show had been a riotous success. Soon it would be time to take it to Paris, and Meryl decided to go, too. It was a while since she’d seen Paris. She resisted the thought that she needed something to do.
    She was awoken early one morning by the doorbell ringing hard and continuously. Pulling on a wrap, she approached cautiously and switched on the speaker.
    ‘Who is it?’
    ‘Jarvis.’
    She couldn’t move. Wild thoughts raced through her head, but then he said quietly, ‘Please, Meryl, let me in.’ And she opened it at once.
    He looked so ill, she thought. So changed.
    His pallor had a grey tinge and he looked drained by weariness and strain, but that wasn’t the change. What really altered him was the hesitancy in his eyes, as though all his confidence had fled.
    She stood back for him to pass her, trying not to feel anything. Jarvis was right about that. It was better to stay safe. But she couldn’t stop her heart aching for him.
    He seemed to be having trouble speaking. Whatever he wanted to say, it wasn’t easy. But when had he ever found anything easy?
    ‘You look as if you’ve had a bad journey,’ she said, giving him time. ‘I’ll get you some coffee.’
    While the coffee perked she returned to her room and returned in trousers and sweater. She served the coffee on a low table by the couch and glanced around for him. He was looking at a niche where the bags he’d sent after her were standing. She’d dumped them there and never had the heart to touch them.
    He turned to her and his look made her heart miss a beat. His eyes were defenceless, as never before.
    ‘I came to say I’m sorry.’
    Throw yourself into his arms, said her heart. But-
    No, said hard learned caution. Why this all of a sudden?
    ‘Why?’ Just the one word was all she could manage.
    ‘I learned the truth. Steen’s collection was on television, plus something about his wife, and how you brought them together.’
    ‘I see.’ The faint flickering hope died. Jarvis was a conscientious man where facts were concerned.
    ‘I should have trusted you. In my heart I always knew I could.’
    ‘No, you didn’t,’ she said with a sad smile. ‘You say that now when it’s easy-I’m sorry-’ he’d winced ‘-I didn’t mean that unkindly, it’s just that-’
    ‘I know. It’s easy when you have the facts. It’s when you don’t have them that you need blind faith and trust. And I didn’t come through for you, did I?’
    ‘Jarvis, please-it doesn’t matter. I’m glad you know the truth. It was nice of you to come all this way to tell me yourself.’
    ‘I had another reason. There’s something you have to know. It’ll be in the newspapers soon, but I wanted to be the one to tell you. You’re the only person who’ll really understand.’
    She returned to the sofa and indicated for him to sit in a facing chair while she poured the coffee. ‘What’s happened?’
    ‘The workmen came across something in that passage that links your room to mine. You mentioned one day that it seemed oddly narrow, and you were right. There’s a false wall, with a tiny room behind it. You’ll scarcely believe what we found there.’
    ‘What?’
    ‘Marguerite.’
    Meryl stared. ‘But-she ran away.’
    ‘That’s what we thought, because she vanished suddenly. So did the steward and her maid. But they were all there. They’ve been there for six hundred years. No-’ he said quickly when Meryl gave a little shudder, ‘oddly enough it wasn’t particularly unpleasant. After all this time they were little more than dust. The clothes lasted better. She was wearing the pearls she has on in her portrait.’
    ‘But how did it happen?’
    ‘It seems Giles wasn’t the grieving husband we all thought. He wanted her money all for himself, but he didn’t want to share with her. He murdered her, and the steward, and her maid, to make it look convincing. Then he walled them up, and spread the story of how she’d deserted him.
    ‘To make it convincing he put the Vendanne pearls in there as well, probably because it was the one place nobody could find them. He must have meant to retrieve them later, when the fuss had died down, but he died too soon and nobody knew they were there.’
    ‘Poor Marguerite,’ Meryl murmured.
    ‘Yes. Harry doesn’t think she was ever really in love with the steward at all. That was just a lie to explain her disappearance. She was probably faithful and devoted to her husband, but he just wanted to take, not give.’ There was a pause before Jarvis added, ‘I’m afraid that may be a characteristic of the Larnes.’
    Meryl gave a wan smile. ‘That I should ever hear you being sentimental!’
    ‘It comes too close for comfort. I resented your generosity because I saw you as an interloper. I thought I was guarding my heritage from an invader, but actually I was just selfishly refusing to share. Everything you did, getting to know everyone, finding the outlet for the knitting, was all because you wanted to give and become part of us. And I rejected you because-’ he shuddered ‘-I think I was jealous. You took what I thought of as mine and made it yours, not with money, but by winning their love.’
    ‘You had nothing to be jealous of, Jarvis. I didn’t want to deprive you of anything. I fell in love with Larne from the first moment.’
    ‘Only with Larne?’
    ‘No,’ she said with a sigh. ‘I fell in love with you. But that’s old history now. I couldn’t really get through to you. We had our moments-’ she smiled as certain memories came back to her ‘-but you were always fighting me.’
    ‘I want to make amends.’
    He spoke gently, and laid his hand on hers, almost pleading. But they weren’t the words she needed to hear.
    ‘Amends? That sounds like something out of the business relationship. Still, I guess that was all we really had, wasn’t it?’
    He winced. ‘I only meant that I wanted to put things right between us.’
    ‘But what is “right”, where we’re concerned? We were all wrong from the start.’
    ‘But it could be different now. Do you remember I once said I couldn’t feel really married to you while I had nothing to give? I told you we found the jewels. Their value is incredible. If I’d had them before-’
    ‘You wouldn’t have needed me,’ Meryl broke in wryly.
    ‘That’s not what I’m trying to say.’
    ‘If you’d had them before, we’d never have met.’
    ‘Somehow we’d have met. We were meant to, and with the value of those jewels I could have looked you in the eye from the start.’
    She searched his face, trying to find in it something she desperately needed.
    ‘Oh, Jarvis,’ she said sadly at last. ‘If you’d ever really loved me, you could have looked me in the eye at any time, money or no money. OK, you’re rich now, and you think that makes a difference. Shall I tell you something about rich men that’ll surprise you? They’re ten a penny. I’ve hardly known any other kind, and I don’t give that for them!’ She snapped her fingers.
    ‘You were different. You were worth more as a man. You weren’t sleek and superficial like the others. I wanted to give to you, not to control you, but to do something for you and know I’d made a difference for good in your life. And if you’d loved me just a little, you’d have known how to take from me without your pride being offended, and that would have been all I asked. But because you didn’t have any money-’ she put a world of loathing and contempt into the word ‘-you couldn’t value yourself and you couldn’t value me. And now you’ve got a pile of cash and you think it makes everything all right?’
    He rose quickly, slamming one fist into the other hand. ‘I can’t follow you when you talk like this. I just thought that the barriers were down between us at last.’
    ‘Oh, yes. Benedict was a barrier, and money was a barrier, and now they’re both down. I see that.’
    ‘And it’s not enough?’
    ‘Of course it’s not enough. I wanted you to love me enough to surmount the barriers. Having them come down isn’t the same.’
    ‘I don’t know how to tell you how much I love you,’ he stammered. ‘I thought you’d know.’
    ‘Some things have to be said. But at the right time. For us the time will never be right.’
    He took hold of her. ‘We can make it right,’ he said desperately, ‘if you’ll only come home with me.’
    ‘I can’t, it’s too late,’ she cried in anguish. ‘If you knew how much I wanted it to be my home, but you wouldn’t let me inside-not where it really matters.’
    He groaned. ‘I know it’s my fault, but things have changed-’
    ‘Yes, things-not you. “Let invaders tremble.” You do make me tremble because I know I have to watch for the boiling oil.’ She touched his face. ‘It’ll always be there, in the back of my mind, if not yours. I’ll never be anything but an invader.’
    ‘I came to ask you for another chance,’ he said sombrely. ‘But how can I ask for your love? I haven’t done much to deserve it, have I?’
    ‘Jarvis, you don’t deserve love, or earn it. It just happens, and you have to learn how to take it.’
    ‘Come home and teach me,’ he pleaded.
    She shook her head. ‘Once I thought I could, but that was in my arrogant days when I thought I could do anything, just because I was Meryl Winters. But you showed me that the money was all I had, and it wasn’t enough. Let’s do what you said, and leave it there. We were never meant to be.’
    He had no way to persuade her. If she couldn’t find the words, how could he? He could only stand in silence as she slipped off his mother’s ring and handed it to him. After that there was nothing to do but leave.
    For anything except designing Benedict was a disorganised man, and it took the combined efforts of his staff, his wife and Meryl to have everything ready for the departure to Paris a week later. Meryl was glad. It saved having to think.
    They reached the airport in more than good time for the Paris flight. Meryl was surprised that Benedict and Amanda had insisted on setting out a clear hour before they needed to, but she went along with it. What did anything matter?
    But when they’d stood in the check-in line for a few moments she suddenly said, ‘This is the wrong line. It’s not for Paris.’
    ‘This is the right line,’ Amanda insisted. ‘Your flight is leaving in an hour. Not Paris. Manchester, England. Nine p.m. Here’s your ticket.’
    ‘No-listen you two-I know you mean well, but-’
    ‘Meryl, shut up,’ Benedict said firmly. ‘This is pay-back time. What you did for us, we’re doing for you.’
    ‘But Jarvis and I can’t-’
    ‘Cut that. For the last week Amanda and I have listened to you talking nonsense about how you and Jarvis can’t live together, and enough is enough. You say he didn’t know how to take your love. Then teach him, you stupid woman. Even if it takes years. That’s your job so get stuck in and do it. All right, Jarvis isn’t very clever about feelings, but just now you’re not being very clever either.
    ‘He reached out to you. He was asking you to show him the way and understand the things he didn’t know how to say. And you bottled out! I used to think you had guts, Meryl, but you gave up when the going got tough. Fat lot of use to him you were!’
    Her jaw dropped. She was speechless.
    ‘Everything in your life has come giftwrapped,’ Benedict added. ‘Well, this isn’t going to. You’ve worked hard so far, but that ain’t nothin’ to the hard work you’re going to have to put in on your marriage from now on. I know he’s not an easy man, but he put his pride aside for you. Now it’s your turn.
    ‘You’ll make it, as long as you don’t chicken out again.’
    They’d reached the head of the line. Amanda plucked the ticket and passport from Meryl’s nerveless fingers and handed them over. A minute later they were escorting her to the boarding gate.
    ‘We’re going to stay here to make sure you don’t come out this way again,’ Amanda said.
    ‘There’s no need,’ Meryl said, her eyes shining. ‘Thank you, both of you, with all my heart.’
    Everything now felt wonderfully familiar, including the dreadful weather that greeted her. With nothing but hand luggage Meryl got out of the airport fast and hailed a cab. It took three hours to make the drive, with rain lashing them all the way.
    ‘How are you going to get across?’ the driver asked as they neared Larne. ‘The water’s too high for me to drive over the causeway.’
    ‘Someone will take me in a boat,’ she said happily.
    ‘If you can get one. I think they’re all out looking for that bloke who’s missing.’
    ‘Who?’ she asked sharply.
    ‘Dunno. Some lord or other. Went out sailing last night and never came back.’
    ‘Dear God!’ she wept. ‘Jarvis.’
    She pulled out her mobile and dialled Ferdy’s number. He answered in a curt voice that revealed his tension.
    ‘Ferdy what’s happened? Is it Jarvis?’
    ‘I’m afraid so. Everyone is looking for him. I’ve been out in my boat, but it’s too small for this job. I’ve hired a big motor boat.’
    ‘I’m coming, too,’ Meryl cried at once.
    ‘I’ll be by the causeway.’
    He was there waiting for her, with a large white boat, built for strength and speed. He handed Meryl in quickly, and they were away.
    She forced herself to speak calmly, although she felt like screaming. ‘Tell me everything.’
    ‘Jarvis has been spending a lot of time on his own recently. Riding or sailing that little yacht of his. He’s a good sailor, but this morning he went out early and a storm blew up. The coast guard was alerted and there’s been a fleet out looking for him.’
    ‘But after all this time-’ she almost screamed.
    ‘People have been found safe and well after much longer than this,’ he said, trying to sound confident.
    ‘But he must have been in the water for hours already, and it’s cold,’ she said in horror.
    Ferdy didn’t answer. There was nothing he could say. He scanned the grey sea ahead as far as the horizon, but he could see with dread that the light was already failing.
    They said when you went down for the third time you were finished, but Jarvis had gone down too often to count and still clawed his way gasping to the surface. He knew it was useless to fight. There was nothing but the stormy sea around him, and no help to be found anywhere.
    It was his own fault. He’d been careless, functioning on automatic, manning the boat in body but not in spirit. His spirit had been wandering somewhere, seeking her, but she was never there. She’d vanished, as she’d always been bound to; he knew that now. And while he’d been following her in his heart his attention had wandered and he’d been surprised by the sudden sharp wind that cap-sized him.
    He’d gone down deep, deep, but he’d fought his way back to the surface and managed to seize hold of the boat. Yet nothing he could do would right it, and he’d been forced to cling on, looking all about him, hoping to see another boat. There was nothing as far as the horizon, in any direction. By now it was raining hard, the wind was rising, and as the hours wore on he felt himself being swept further out to sea, and his hope faded.
    The cold got to him, numbing him, making him dangerously sleepy. That was how he lost his grip on the boat. He made a wild grab but it was already a few inches away, then a few feet, and it was too late. He was on his own, the darkness gathering around him, and he was sinking again, using his fast failing strength to claw his way back up.
    He knew that if he wasn’t found soon he wouldn’t survive the night. Every moment weakened him. Every descent felt like the last. The water roared in his ears, and when he came up again the storm blasted him. And now he knew he was hallucinating because the howl of the gale seemed to be forming his name.
    ‘Jarvis! Jarvis!’
    The call came again and again. It was in his ears as he slipped beneath the waves for what he was sure was the last time. It reached him even under the water and made him fight his way up again, gasping and heaving. And now to the hallucination of sound was joined the hallucination of sight. For what else, but an illusion could be the woman appearing out of the storm, crying his name in terror?
    ‘Jarvis! Oh, God, Jarvis, please.’
    She looked this way and that, throwing out her arms in a despairing gesture.
    ‘Jarvis-my love!’
    How he managed to call back he never knew. His throat had been frozen into silence, but somehow now it became free enough to utter a choke. Faint as it was, she heard it above the scream of the storm, and called back.
    At that moment the moon came out from behind a cloud, flooding the ocean with silver. Out of that silver sea came the woman, her long hair blown by the wind, her arms outstretched to him. In his desperate state he was no longer sure what was real and what fevered illusion. He knew only that if he could reach her, he was safe.
    Their hands touched, then slipped apart and he was under again. Through the water he could hear her agonised cry, ‘No, no, no!’ He made one final, frantic effort and felt her fingers grasp his with painful force. He clung to her as she drew him out of the water that tried viciously to claw him back.
    As he fell into the bottom of the boat he vaguely realised that there was a man there too, helping her to drag him to safety. But he saw only her, knowing that if he kept his eyes on her he would be safe. If she disappeared again…
    ‘Darling,’ she choked. ‘Hold me-I’ve got you.’
    Cradled in her arms he murmured, ‘I thought you’d gone for ever.’
    ‘I’ll never go away again,’ she vowed.
    ‘As soon as we land I’m calling an ambulance,’ Ferdy shouted across to them.
    ‘No,’ Jarvis said at once. ‘No ambulance.’ He looked up at Meryl. ‘Just let me go home, with you.’
    She nodded. She knew how much time must pass before they could be alone, but for now it was enough that they had found each other as never before.
    She could be patient as they landed and hands reached out to help them ashore. Jarvis must be made dry and warm and put to bed. Ferdy must come in and be thanked and welcomed. But Ferdy soon told her, ‘Don’t worry about me. Just leave me the whisky and go to him.’
    She gave him a brief kiss of gratitude and ran up to Jarvis’s room. He was lying in bed, pale and weak, his eyes fixed on the door through which she must come. He held out his arms to her at once. She went into them and they held each other in a long silent affirmation of faith and love.
    ‘I’m not afraid to die,’ he said huskily at last, ‘but to die without telling you what you are to me-that would be unendurable.’
    ‘Hush, my love-my love. Forgive me.’
    ‘There’s nothing for me to forgive,’ he said passionately.
    ‘I accused you of pride, but my pride was worse. I loved you, but I sent you away because loving you was too hard. But for me you wouldn’t have been out in that boat. If you’d died-’
    ‘No.’ He put his fingers over her mouth. ‘We’ll never think of that again. You came to me out of the storm once, and tonight you did it again. This is our new beginning.’
    He pointed to the wall at the end of his bed, and she saw that the picture of the dogs had gone. In its place was the portrait of Marguerite.’
    ‘I put her there because she reminded me of you, when I thought I’d lost you.’
    ‘You’ll never lose me. I’ve come home to stay. Keep me in your heart, Jarvis. It’s the only home I’ll ever want.’
    Instead of answering with words he reached into his bedside drawer and took out the ring he’d given her, and which she’d returned in pride and bitterness. Jarvis slipped the diamond back into place. Then he pressed her hand to his lips.
    ‘Never remove it again,’ he whispered.
    ‘I never will.’
    ‘I’ve something else to show you.’
    He reached into the drawer again, this time producing a flat box. Inside were the most fabulous pearls Meryl had ever seen. Slowly Jarvis lifted them so that they shone in the light, revealing that they were large, perfectly matched, and of a faint pinkish hue.
    ‘I’ve never seen anything so lovely,’ she breathed. Then a terrible thought came to her. ‘Jarvis, what are they worth?’
    ‘Enough,’ he said, understanding her at once. ‘Enough to pay off every debt I ever had, but that’s nothing. In New York you said rich men were ten a penny, and you were happier when I was poor and you could give to me. I don’t entirely understand that-when did I ever understand you? When will I ever? But say the word and I’ll toss them into the fire.’
    ‘You would do that for me?’ she asked in wonder.
    ‘I would do anything for you,’ he said. And she saw real intent in his eyes.
    ‘No,’ she put her hand on his quickly. ‘There’s a better way.’
    He nodded. ‘That’s what I thought, too.’
    Gently he draped the pearls around her neck.
    ‘Now they’re yours, and I’m a poor man again,’ he said contentedly. Then a change came over him and he took her face gently between his hands. ‘And yet I’ll never be poor. I didn’t know-I never understood-’
    ‘Nor did I. Not really. But now we have everything. There’s nothing else but this, nothing that matters.’
    ‘Hold me,’ he said suddenly. ‘I don’t feel safe without you.’
    She lay down beside him on the bed, clasping him to her heart. ‘Do you feel safe now?’ she whispered.
    ‘Always, as long as I’m in your heart. You came just in time to save me.’
    ‘Yes, a few more minutes-’ She shuddered.
    ‘I don’t mean the sea. I mean what I would have turned into if you hadn’t come here that night.’
    ‘Or what I might have turned into,’ she said, trying to prevent his mood growing too dark. That too would be her task in years ahead. ‘When I arrived here I was almost as bad as you thought I was. You saved me, too.’
    But he wouldn’t allow that. For his fierce, uncompromising nature there was no middle way. As he had been hard in his resistance, he would be firm in his love and fidelity. He’d seen her as an enemy. Now, in his eyes, she was perfect. And that was how it would always be.
Out of the storm, across the water,
Came one night a rich man’s daughter,
Heart undaunted and spirit bold,
To marry the lord and save his soul.

Lucy Gordon


***

Top.Mail.Ru