Read The Third Heiress Online

Authors: Brenda Joyce

The Third Heiress

This novel is dedicated to my sister, Jamie,
with love, faith, and blessings
J
ill Gallagher could not remember a time when she wasn’t alone. But eight months ago Harold Sheldon had entered her life, changing it forever. He had become her best friend and confidante as well as her lover. And now she was finally starting to forget and let go of the vague, shadowy fear and bewilderment that had been deeply imprinted upon an abandoned, lonely child so many years ago. A child whose parents were killed in a car accident when she was five. Her nights of insomnia, spent staring sleeplessly at dancing shadows upon the ceiling, filled with a fear she could not quite grasp, were finally a thing of the past.
As their rental car, a two-door Toyota, sped down the Northern State Parkway, Jill glanced at Hal sitting in the front passenger seat beside her. Her mood was more than light, it was exuberant, but her grip on the steering wheel tightened. Was something wrong? Hal was absorbed in studying the map he held, which was necessary—but he hadn’t really said a word since they had left Manhattan, and that wasn’t like him. Even though it was early April and unseasonably cool, they were headed for the North Shore. Jill was a professional dancer, and this would be their last chance to get away before the new show, where she was in the ensemble, opened. They had booked a room at a quaint bed-and-breakfast just steps away from the Peconic Bay. Jill was looking forward to a very quiet, intimate weekend before the grueling marathon of seven performances
six days a week began. She was also looking forward to long conversations about the future they would share.
Of course, nothing could be wrong. Last week Hal had asked her to marry him. Jill had not hesitated in accepting his proposal. And last night he had made love to her with even more passion than usual.
Jill smiled at the mere memory of his romantic proposal in a dark, closet-sized East Village restaurant. She thought how amazing it was that a single chance encounter could change your life forever. A year go, before meeting Hal, she had been resigned to the path of her life, to being alone.
The map rustled. The sound seemed intrusive, odd.
Jill glanced at him, her smile fading, because his expression was so set and hard to read. The Hal she knew and loved was the most amiable and carefree of people. He was always smiling. His good nature was one of the things she loved best about him—that and his passion for photography, which mirrored her passion for dance. “Hal? Is something wrong?” The tiniest inkling of dread rose up in her.
Immediately he flashed his very white smile. Although he was dark blond and British, he had a slight and perpetual tan. His family was wealthy. Upper-crust blue bloods or some such thing. His father, Jill had been told recently, was an earl. An honest-to-goodness earl. His older brother was a viscount who would one day inherit the title. Wealthy people, Jill knew, were always tanned. It was one of the facts of life.
She was going to marry an aristocrat. Her life had turned into a fairy tale. She had become Cinderella. Jill smiled to herself.
“Jill. Watch the road,” Hal said tersely.
She obeyed, her smile and sense of well-being vanishing, confused because his tone was so harsh. As she concentrated on the traffic ahead, her pulse began a slow, distinct pounding. Hal said, “We need to talk.”
Jill turned to stare at him in surprise. It was a moment before she could speak. “What is it?”
He looked away from her. Not meeting her eyes. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said.
Jill almost swerved into the vehicle in the lane parallel to hers. It was mid-afternoon and there was heavy traffic on the highway, but it was moving at a good clip, close to sixty-five miles an hour.
Her stomach flipped. Jill glanced at him, but he was staring straight ahead, out of the front window. His expression was so serious, so grim.
No, she thought, clenching the steering wheel so tightly her fingers began to cramp. He loves me and we’re getting married next fall. This is not about us.
It couldn’t be. She had already paid her dues. When her parents had died, Jill had been sent to an aunt in Columbus—an elderly widowed woman whose own children had long since grown up and had children of their own. Aunt Madeline had been distant, reserved, almost uncaring, and from a small child’s point of view, unkind. Jill’s childhood had been lonely. She’d had no real friends; ballet had been her refuge, her life. At the age of seventeen she had gone to New York City to become a dancer and she had never looked back once.
Hal’s presence in her life now made her realize how lonely she had been.
Hal suddenly cleared his throat, as if he were about to deliver a prepared speech. Jill’s head whipped around again, and this time she was acutely anxious. “What is it? Is someone sick in your family?” She managed a lopsided smile. “Oh, God, don’t tell me. Harrelson refused your work!” Hal had been furiously showing his portfolio in the hopes of finding a gallery to hold an exhibition of his work. This particular SoHo dealer had been very enthusiastic upon their first meeting.
“No one is sick. Harrelson hasn’t gotten back to me yet. Jill, I’ve been thinking. About what we discussed last week.” This time he glanced at her briefly. His amber eyes were anguished. And he couldn’t hold her gaze.
Jill gripped the wheel, focusing on the road with an effort. She was trying to recall what they had discussed last week, but it was impossible—her chestnut bangs were in her eyes and she was sweating. Her pulse interfered with her hearing—and her own thoughts. She did not like his tone—was he uneasy? There was only one subject she could remember them having discussed, but surely he was not referring to his wedding proposal now.
He was not.
“I’m not sure what we talked about—other than your asking me to marry you and my accepting.” She flashed him a smile, but could not maintain it.
He leaned back against the seat, morosely. “I’ve had second thoughts.”
Jill tried to stay calm but her pulse was rioting. She carefully slowed the car, glancing in her rearview mirror. She quickly began to get out of the left lane, a red sedan on her rear bumper.
This was not happening.
“You’ve had second thoughts?” She was in shock, thinking, I am not understanding him. “You don’t mean about us marrying?” Her smile felt sickly.
“It’s not about you,” Hal said, his tone miserable. “My feelings for you haven’t changed.”
Oh, God. He was referring to their marriage. Jill remained in a state of disbelief, her mind seemed to be shutting down, refusing to function,
refusing to assimilate what he was saying. She was staring at him. “I don’t understand. You love me. I love you. It’s that simple.”
He seemed uncomfortable. He avoided looking at her directly. “My feelings for you haven’t changed. But I keep thinking …”
“What?!” Jill’s tone was harsh, a whiplash. This could not be happening !
But then, hadn’t she expected this—on some deep, instinctive level? Because hadn’t their love been too good to be true?
He faced her. “I don’t want to live in New York for the rest of my life. I miss my family, I miss London. I miss the summer house in Yorkshire.”
Jill could not believe her ears. Her hands were sweating as she clutched the wheel. Her white T-shirt stuck to her skin like glue. “Have we ever said we’d live in New York forever?” she asked hoarsely, trying to focus on the traffic ahead, but not really seeing anything. Her pulse had become deaf ening in her own ears.
“If this show is a hit, it could run on Broadway for years. Don’t tell me you’d leave in the midst of a smashing success. You’ve never had this kind of opportunity before.”
Jill wanted
The Mask
to be a huge success, and she believed it would be, and until recently, her career had been the mainstay of her life, but she thought, speechlessly, Yes, I would leave, if it meant losing you. She remained silent.
Hal was also silent.
“Are you telling me that you’ve changed your mind?” she finally managed.
“No. I’m not sure what to do. I think we need to slow down. I think I should go home for a while and think things through.”
Jill inhaled, feeling as if he’d delivered a fatal blow. She was aware now of how her limbs trembled, of a terrible sickness inside her—as if she might throw up. She turned and stared at his perfect profile, aware now of an immense pain, a heavy, dread weight in her chest. And tears filled her eyes.
Good night, pumpkin
. The voice was deep, a man’s. Daddy. His lips touched her hair. His hand smoothed through her bangs.
Sleep tight. We’ll be home soon. By the time you wake up.
His smile was there, shadowy, loving.
Good night, darling
. A woman’s soft, loving voice, her mother’s slender, graceful silhouette in the doorway of her pink and white bedroom.
The door closing.
Darkness.
Silence.
Terror. Being alone—forever.
Because they had never come back.
“Jill!” Hal shouted.
Jill jerked her gaze to the road. To her horror, a huge pine tree was looming toward them as their car hurled toward it. Jill wrenched at the steering wheel, already knowing that it was too late …
Nothing in her life could have prepared her for the moment of impact. Her heart stopped. Simultaneously, Jill’s entire body was snapped against her seat harness and an air bag. The vehicle, a mass of steel and fiberglass, thundered and screamed and exploded in the head-on collision. Glass shattered everywhere. Pieces of it rained down on Jill’s hair and bare arms, her thighs.
And then there was absolute stillness, absolute silence.
Except for the booming sound of Jill’s heart.
Her mind came to, slowly, with dread. Her heart seemed to hurt her as it pulsed inside of her chest. Jill’s body felt as if it had been snapped in half; it felt crushed. She could not move, she could not breathe. Her mind was blank with shock.
An accident …
And then she felt the trickle of liquid down the side of her face as her lungs took in air, as her lids slowly lifted. She did not have to see it or taste it to know that it was blood—that it was her blood.
She was breathing, she was alive, they had hit a tree—oh, God.
Jill opened her eyes and saw the shattered windshield. Her side of the car was quite literally wrapped around the tree; Hal’s side of the car was folded in on itself like an accordion.
Hal.
Jill gasped, fumbling with her seat belt, which she could not see, the air bag in her way. She pushed at the bag, so she could see Hal. Blood and sweat and her too long bangs interfered with her vision. “Hal?”
She shoved at the bag and her bangs again. Jill froze. He, too, was crushed by an air bag. But his head lolled to one side, his eyes closed.
“Hal!” Jill screamed.
She turned and pushed at her door, almost beating on it until she somehow managed to wrench the handle open. Her head now throbbing, unable to breathe, Jill stumbled from the car. She staggered around the back of the sedan, tripping on the rough ground, on rocks and sticks and dirt. At Hal’s door, she froze again. Blood was gushing from his neck
where glass from the windshield had apparently cut a jagged hole in his throat.
“No!” Jill wrenched at his door and it flew open. Frantically, she found and unbuckled his seat belt.
Jill put her arms around him and dragged him from the car. Blood continued to stream from his neck; the front of his shirt was turning crimson. When he was on the ground, she pressed both hands against the wound, desperately trying to stanch the flow of blood. It was warm and wet and sticky, seeping through her fingers. “Help!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “Help! Help us, please!”
She sobbed, her gaze on his deathly white face. Then she saw his lashes flutter—he was alive!
“Don’t die!” she cried, pushing at his wound, the blood spreading and spreading—endlessly. “Hal, help is coming, don’t die—hang on!”
His eyes opened. When he spoke, his mouth filled with blood. “I love you,” he said.
“No!” Jill shrieked.
And then he said, his eyes closing, “Kate.”

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