He nodded and said the last thing Meredith wanted to hear. "You can be one of the first to congratulate me. Sarah Ross and I are getting married. We're going to announce our engagement officially at a party Saturday night."
The world tilted sickeningly. Sarah Ross! Meredith knew who Sarah was and she didn't like her. Although she was extremely pretty and very vivacious, she'd always struck Meredith as being shallow and vain. "I hope you'll be very happy," she said, carefully hiding her doubt and disappointment.
"I hope so too."
For a half hour they strolled about the grounds, talking about his plans for his future and then about her plans for her own. He was wonderful to talk to, Meredith thought with a feeling of poignant loss—encouraging and understanding, and he completely supported her desire to attend Northwestern instead of Maryville.
They were heading toward the front of the house when a limousine pulled up in the drive and a striking brunette got out of it followed by two young men in their early twenties. "I see the grieving widow has finally decided to put in an appearance," Parker said with uncharacteristic sarcasm as he looked at Charlotte Bancroft. Large diamond earrings glittered at her ears, and despite the simple gray suit she was wearing, she looked alluring and curvaceous. "Did you notice that she didn't shed a tear at the funeral? There's something about that woman that reminds me of Lucretia Borgia."
Privately Meredith agreed with the analogy. "She isn't here to accept condolences. She wants the will read this afternoon, as soon as the house clears out, so that she can go back to Palm Beach tonight."
"Speaking of 'clearing out,'" Parker said, glancing at bis watch, "I have an appointment in an hour." Leaning forward, he pressed a brotherly kiss to her cheek. "Tell your father I said good-bye."
Meredith watched him as he walked away, taking all her romantic girlhood dreams with him. The summer breeze ruffled his sun-streaked hair, and his strides were long and sure. He opened his car door, stripped off the jacket of his dark suit, and put it over the back of the passenger seat. Then he looked up and waved good-bye to her.
Trying desperately not to dwell on her loss, she forced herself to walk forward to greet Charlotte. Not once during the service had Charlotte spoken to either Meredith or her father; she had simply stood between her sons, her expression blank. "How are you feeling?" Meredith asked politely.
"I'm feeling impatient to go home," the woman retorted icily. "How soon can we get down to business?"
"The house is still full of people," Meredith said, mentally recoiling from Charlotte's attitude. "You'll have to ask my father about the reading of the will."
Charlotte turned on the steps, her face glacial. "I haven't spoken to your father since that day in Palm Beach. The next time I speak to him, it will be when I'm calling all the shots and he's begging me to talk to him. Until then you'll have to act as interpreter, Meredith." She walked into the house with a son on each side of her like an honor guard.
Meredith stared at her back, chilled by the hatred emanating from her. The day in Palm Beach Charlotte had referred to was still vividly clear in Meredith's memory. Seven years earlier, she and her father had flown to Florida at the invitation of her grandfather, who'd moved there after his heart attack. When they arrived they discovered that they had not been invited merely for the Easter holidays, but rather to attend a wedding—Cyril Bancroft's wedding to Charlotte, who had been his secretary for two decades. At thirty-eight, she was thirty years younger than he, a widow with two teenage sons only a few years older than Meredith.
Meredith never knew why Philip and Charlotte detested each other, but from what little she heard of the explosive argument between her father and grandfather that day, the animosity had started long before, when Cyril still lived in Chicago. With Charlotte within hearing, Philip had called the woman a scheming, ambitious slut, and he'd called his father a silly, aging fool who was being duped into marrying her so that her sons would get a piece of Cyril's money.
That trip to Palm Beach had been the last time Meredith had seen her grandfather. From there, he had continued to control his business investments, but he left the operation of Bancroft & Company entirely to Meredith's father, as he had done from the day he moved to Palm Beach. Although the department store represented less than one fourth of the family's net worth, by its very nature its operation required her father's complete attention. Unlike the family's other vast holdings, Bancroft's was far more than a mere stock transaction that yielded dividends; it was the foundation of the family's original wealth and a source of great pride.
"This is the last will and testament of Cyril Bancroft," her grandfather's attorney began when Meredith and her father were seated in the library along with Charlotte and her sons. The first bequests were for large sums that went to various charities, and after that four more bequests were made to Cyril Bancroft's servants—$15,000 each to his chauffeur, housekeeper, gardener, and caretaker.
Since the attorney had specifically requested that Meredith be present, she had already assumed that she was probably the recipient of some small bequest. Despite that, she jumped when Wilson Riley spoke her name: "To my granddaughter, Meredith Bancroft, I bequeath the sum of four million dollars." Meredith's mouth fell open in shocked disbelief at the enormous sum, and she had to concentrate on listening while Riley continued: "Although distance and circumstances have prevented me from getting to know Meredith well, it was apparent to me when I last saw her that she is a warm and intelligent girl who will use this money wisely. To help ensure that she does, I make this bequest with the stipulation that the funds are to be held in trust for her, along with any interest, dividends, etc., until she attains the age of thirty. I further appoint my son, Philip Edward Bancroft, to act as her trustee and to maintain full guardianship over said funds."
Pausing to clear his throat, Riley looked from Philip to Charlotte to her sons, Jason and Joel, and then he began to read Cyril's words again: "In the interest of fairness, I have divided the rest of my estate as evenly as possible between my remaining heirs. To my son, Philip Edward Bancroft, I bequeath all my stock, and my entire interest in, Bancroft & Company, a department store which constitutes approximately one fourth of my entire estate." Meredith heard it, but she couldn't make sense of it. "In the interest of fairness" he'd left his only child one fourth of his estate? Surely, if he meant to divide everything evenly, his wife was entitled to no more than one half, not three fourths. And then, as if from a distance, she heard the attorney finish, "To my wife, Charlotte, and my legally adopted sons, Jason and Joel, I leave equal shares in the remaining three fourths of my estate. I further stipulate that Charlotte Bancroft is to act as trustee over Jason and Joel's portion until such time as they have both attained the age of thirty."