Her late mother, Gwen, had once been Nancy’s companion—a paid employee but for all that Nancy had always talked of her as a friend. Her godmother, however, had thoroughly disliked the man her companion and friend had chosen to marry.
Weak, selfish, unreliable... Russ Kendall was, unfortunately, all of those things, but he was also the only parent Maxie had ever known and Maxie was loyal. Her father had brought her up alone, loving her to the best of his ability. That she had never been able to trust him to behave himself around a woman as wealthy as Nancy Leeward had just been a cross Maxie had had to bear.
Every time Russ Kendall had brought his daughter to Gilbourne to visit he had overstayed his welcome, striving to butter her godmother up with compliments before trying to borrow money from her, impervious to the chill of the older woman’s distaste. Maxie had always been filled with guilty relief when her father departed again. Only then had she been able to relax and enjoy herself.
‘I thought I heard a car but I must’ve been mistaken. I wish Maxie would come...I’m looking forward to seeing her again,’ a female voice said quite clearly.
Maxie twisted in surprise to survey the drawing-room door, only now registering that it was ajar. That had been Polly’s voice, soft and gentle, just like Polly herself.
‘That’s one thrill I could live without,’ a second female voice responded tartly. ‘Maxie, the living doll—’
‘She can’t help being beautiful, Darcy.’
Outside the door, Maxie had frozen, unnerved by the biting hostility she had heard in Darcy’s cuttingly well-bred voice. So Darcy still hadn’t managed to forgive her, and yet what had destroyed their friendship three years earlier had been in no way Maxie’s fault. Darcy had been jilted at the altar. Her bridegroom had waited until the eleventh hour to confess that he had fallen in love with one of her bridesmaids. That bridesmaid, entirely innocent of the smallest instant of flirtation with or indeed interest in the bridegroom, had unfortunately been Maxie.
‘Does that somehow excuse her for stealing someone else’s husband?’
‘I don’t think any of us get to choose who we fall in love with,’ Polly stressed with a surprising amount of emotion. ‘And Maxie must be devastated now that he’s gone back to his wife.’
‘If Maxie ever falls in love, it won’t be with an ancient old bloke like that,’ Darcy scorned. ‘She wouldn’t have looked twice at Leland Coulter if he hadn’t been loaded! Surely you haven’t forgotten what her father was like? Greed is in Maxie’s bloodstream. Don’t you remember the way Russ was always trying to touch poor Nancy for a loan?’
‘I remember how much his behaviour embarrassed and upset Maxie,’ Polly responded tautly, her dismay at the other woman’s attitude audible.
In the awful pool of silence that followed Maxie wrapped her arms round herself. She felt gutted, totally gutted. So nothing had changed. Darcy was stubborn and never admitted herself in the wrong. Maxie had, however, hoped that time would’ve lessened the other woman’s antagonism to the point where they could at least make peace.
‘She is stunningly beautiful. Who can really blame her for taking advantage of that?’ Darcy breathed in a grudging effort at placation. ‘But then what else has Maxie got? I never did think she had much in the way of brains—’
‘How can you say that, Darcy? Maxie is severely dyslexic,’ Polly reminded her companion reproachfully.
Maxie lost all her natural colour, cringing at even this whispered reference to her biggest secret.
The tense silence in the drawing-room lingered.
‘And in spite of that she’s so wonderfully famous now,’ Polly sighed.
‘Well, if your idea of fame is playing Goldilocks in shampoo commercials, I suppose she is,’ Darcy shot back crushingly.
Unfreezing, Maxie tiptoed back down the corridor and then walked with brisk, firm steps back again. She pushed wide the door with a light smile pasted to her unwittingly pale face.
‘Maxie!’ Polly carolled, and rose rather awkwardly to her feet.
Halfway towards her, Maxie stopped dead. Tiny dark-haired Polly was pregnant.
‘When did you get married?’ Maxie demanded with a grin.
Polly turned brick-red. ‘I didn’t...I mean, I’m not...’
Maxie was stunned. Polly had been raised by a fire-breathing puritanical father. The teenager Maxie recalled had been wonderfully kind and caring, but also extremely prim and proper as a result. Horribly aware that she had embarrassed Polly, she forced a laugh. ‘So what?’ she said lightly.
‘I’m afraid the event of a child without a husband is not something as easily shrugged off in Polly’s world as in yours.’ Darcy stood by the window, her boyishly short auburn hair catching fire from the light behind her, aggressive green eyes challenging on the point.