Maxie stiffened at the reminder that Darcy had a child of her own but she refused to rise to that bait. Poor Polly looked trained enough as it was. ‘Polly knows what I meant—’

‘Does she—?’ Darcy began.

‘I feel dizzy!’ Polly announced with startling abruptness.

Instantly Darcy stopped glaring at Maxie and both women anxiously converged on the tiny brunette. Maxie was the more efficient helper. Gently easing Polly down into the nearest armchair, she fetched a footstool because the smaller woman’s ankles looked painfully swollen. Then, noting the untouched tea trolley nearby, she poured Polly a cup of tea and urged her to eat a digestive biscuit.

‘Do you think you should see a doctor?’ Darcy asked ruefully. ‘I suppose I was lucky. I was never ill when I was expecting Zia.’

‘What do you think, Polly?’ Maxie prompted.

‘I’m fine...saw one yesterday,’ Polly muttered. ‘I’m just tired.

At that point, a middle-aged man in a dark suit was shown in with great ceremony by the housekeeper. Introducing himself as Edward Hartley, their godmother’s solicitor, he took a seat, politely turned down the offer of refreshment and briskly extracted a document from his briefcase.

‘Before I commence the reading of the will, I feel that I should warn you all beforehand that the respective monies will only be advanced if the strict conditions laid down by my late client are met—’

‘Put that in English,’ Darcy interrupted impatiently.

Mr Hartley removed his spectacles with a faint sigh. ‘I assume that you are all aware that Mrs Leeward enjoyed a very happy but tragically brief marriage when she was in her twenties, and that the premature death of her husband was a lifelong source of sorrow and regret to her.’

‘Yes,’ Polly confirmed warmly. ‘Our godmother often talked to us about Robbie.’

‘He died in a car crash six months after they married,’ Maxie continued ruefully. ‘As time went on he became pretty much a saint in her memory. She used to talk to us about marriage as if it was some kind of Holy Grail and a woman’s only hope of happiness.’

‘Before her death, Mrs Leeward made it her business to visit each one of you. After completing those visits, she altered her will,’ Edward Hartley informed them in a tone of wry regret. ‘I advised her that the conditions of inheritance she chose to include might be very difficult, if not impossible for any one of you to fulfil. However, Mrs Leeward was a lady who knew her own mind, and she had made her decision.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘With my colourful reputation?’

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

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

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