Chapter 28

My mouth fell open.

Colin looked as though someone had just socked him in the stomach. Around us, the other party guests obediently lifted their glasses in a toast to Selwick Hall and then drifted on, returning to their drinking, their gossiping, their posturing, entirely unaware that a grenade had just been lobbed into their midst.

“Selwick where?” I heard one woman murmur to another.

The other shrugged, showing off her narrow shoulder bones to good advantage. “Jeremy’s family place, I think.”

Jeremy’s family place? Admittedly, he was a Selwick too, if only on his mother’s side, but it sure as hell wasn’t his. He didn’t live there. And he didn’t have the right to promise it to some film company.

At least, I didn’t think he did. Did he?

Colin stepped up to Jeremy, taking care, even in the midst of chaos, not to make a scene. “You can’t do that. You have no authority to contract for the use of Selwick Hall.”

Jeremy took a cool sip of his champagne. “I might not. But your mother does.”

And where was Colin’s mother? Didn’t she realize how this decision would have gutted her oldest offspring? Selwick Hall was his home—more than his home. I peered around for her. She was still there—she hadn’t slunk off to wash the blood from her hands or go hide behind an arras or whatever it was that disloyal Shakespearean queens were meant to do—happily chattering away at the center of a circle of adoring friends.

“. . . lovely this time of year,” I could hear her saying. I didn’t think she was talking about Selwick Hall. The tan she was sporting didn’t come from spring in Sussex.

“My mother only has a third share.”

“Legally,” said Jeremy, “that’s irrelevant. Any one tenant has full rights to the whole.” His teeth were too white. They sat too straight in his smiling mouth. “But let’s not talk of the legalities. Legalities have no place among family.”

“Did you tell your solicitor that before or after you phoned him?” said Colin curtly.

Jeremy’s smile didn’t falter. “I’d be a fool not to dot the I’s and cross the T’s on a deal like this.”

“There is no deal,” said Colin. “I may not have consulted my solicitor, but I feel fairly safe in guessing that letting out the house to a film crew doesn’t constitute normal enjoyment of the property.”

Not knowing much about English law post-1815, I couldn’t have said whether he was right or not, but it certainly sounded good.

“As I was saying,” said Jeremy, with the sort of chiding tone more appropriate from governess to pupil than from lying snake to stepson, “even assuming your mother doesn’t have the right, on her share alone, to promise Selwick Hall, wouldn’t you agree that majority vote rules?”

“Since when is one-third a majority?” I blurted out.

“One-third may not be a majority,” said Jeremy, never taking his eyes off Colin. “But two-thirds is. You can’t argue with that.”

If Colin had one-third and Colin’s mother had one-third . . . It was like a Sesame Street math problem, only one in which the Muppets had gone rogue, quibbling over the ownership of the letter S.

I didn’t need a map to point the way to the owner of the deciding one-third interest. It would have been obvious, even if Serena hadn’t looked as though she were trying to disappear into her own shawl. Guilt was written all over her face.

“Serena?” Colin turned to his sister. “You don’t know anything about this. Do you?”

It was clear that he expected the answer to be in the negative, despite all indications. My heart ached for him. Don’t tell me organs don’t work that way; I could feel it as a physical squeeze in my chest. I wanted to wrap Colin up in my pashmina and whisk him away from the whole gruesome scene, transport him safe and whole to Selwick Hall.

Which wasn’t, it seemed, entirely his, or entirely safe.

Did this also mean the others could sell it if they took the notion? It was a truly alarming thought. For them it was all a lark—a source of status and prestige or, in this case, spare cash. For Colin, it was home.

After his father’s death, Colin had given up a successful career in the City, given up his flat and his job and a regular salary to try to make something out of the old family home. While Colin’s university friends were out at wine bars, playing with their BlackBerrys, he was calculating crop yields. Admittedly, no one had held a gun to his head; it had all been his own choice, but from what I gathered, without that choice there wouldn’t have been much of a Selwick Hall for Jeremy to rent out.

Serena, for all her other neuroses, had her work at the gallery, a small but expensive flat in Notting Hill, and a fairly active social life in London.

What did Colin have?

“It’s for the best, you’ll see,” Serena was saying, speaking too fast, her lashes blinking rapidly. “We’ll all share the money equally. You can use yours on the Hall.”

Colin was still a step behind. I was reminded of people stumbling out of the doctor’s office after those drops that dilate your eyes, squinting at everyday objects in an attempt to reconcile the distorted images to their regular forms.

“Then . . . you did know?” He sounded incredulous, as though he still didn’t entirely believe it.

I thought of all the times Colin had looked out for her, all the times he’d cut short our dates, all the times he’d seen her home, and I wanted to slap her. All she’d had to do was say no, that was all. Was that really so hard?

Serena’s thin hands twisted together. “It’s only for a month, they say. They’ll pay well.”

Colin said, very slowly, “That promotion. This is why you didn’t tell me about it. It was a quid pro quo, wasn’t it?” Colin turned to his stepfather. “You fixed it with Paul. Serena’s agreement in exchange for a new title and a thicker pay packet.”

I could feel the satisfaction coming off Jeremy in waves, like cheap cologne.

“It wasn’t quite like that,” Jeremy said smugly, and I understood, for the first time, that it wasn’t just that Jeremy was uncomfortable with Colin; Jeremy actively disliked Colin. He wanted to hurt him. And he had. He had hit him in the two places he was most vulnerable: his sister and Selwick Hall.

“It really wasn’t,” Serena chimed in, inadvertently making matters worse. Just what Colin needed. For her to side with Jeremy. Again. “With the money the film company is paying, Paul is letting me buy into the gallery. He’s making me a partner. A junior partner.”

And whose idea did she think that was? I’d met her boss. He wasn’t much of a wheeler-dealer. Paul had gotten into art in the seventies because he’d been hanging out with the artists in pot-infused lofts, experiencing the colors in a psychedelic haze. Now that they were older, their work practically sold itself, leaving very little for Paul to do other than reminisce fulsomely about the old days before calling in Serena to do the paperwork and close the sale.

To be fair, Paul did scout out new artists, and according to Serena, he had a genuine eye for what would sell and what wouldn’t, but he certainly wasn’t the sort to take any proactive business decisions without a Lady Macbeth giving him a shove between the shoulder blades. Or, in this case, a Mr. Macbeth.

Colin turned to his sister, struggling to understand. “If you needed the money, why didn’t you come to me? I’d have found it for you somehow.”

Beneath their layers of carefully applied makeup, Serena’s eyes were haunted with ghosts I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Nor, I suspected, could Colin. For all his reticence, Colin’s world was a pretty straightforward one. He did what he said and said what he meant, end of story.

“I couldn’t,” Serena whispered. “It wouldn’t have been my own.”

“As opposed to doing it this way.” Colin sounded like he was still trying to understand, taking in the betrayal piece by piece.

Serena nodded. “Yes.”

Colin’s face settled along bitter lines. “Behind my back. You might at least have told me.”

Serena had all but shredded the end of her shawl. She twisted to look at her stepfather. “I didn’t know,” she said desperately. “I didn’t realize Jeremy planned to announce it like this. I had thought—”

“That you could spring it on me privately?”

Serena nodded miserably.

“And that would make it better?” Colin’s voice rose on the last word. It was as close as I had ever seen him come to losing his temper.

Across the room, Caroline Selwick-Selwick blithely downed another glass of champagne. I was beginning to understand why Mrs. Selwick-Alderly, Colin’s great-aunt and Jeremy’s grandmother, didn’t like her.

What was the woman, a gerbil? It wasn’t exactly like she was eating her young, but this was cannibalism by proxy.

“Children,” said Jeremy, in what I could only generously assume was an attempt to lighten the mood. “Your mother won’t like it if you quarrel.”

Colin said something entirely unprintable.

Serena flinched. I stared. I had never heard Colin use language like that. Hell, I didn’t know he knew language like that. It was rather impressive, even if I only understood about half of it.

I put a hand on Colin’s arm, a little in restraint, but mostly in support. Whatever Colin had called Jeremy, Jeremy more than deserved it.

Colin stared at my hand, using it as a focal point as he drew in a ragged breath, pulling himself together. Fixing Jeremy with a level stare, he said in a cold, hard voice, “You can keep your suggestions to yourself. You’ve done enough already.”

Jeremy didn’t like that. I’m not sure what he had anticipated, but this wasn’t how he had wanted things to play out. What had he expected? That Colin would beg?

Jeremy forgot himself enough that he lapsed back into Queen’s English, rather than his carefully cultivated transatlantic mishmash. “At least I’m not making a shrine out of a second-rate plot of land.”

Colin’s voice was clipped. “If it’s so second-rate, why do you keep trying to buy it?”

There was a loaded silence, the sort where no one seems to be capable of drawing breath.

Jeremy’s cheeks darkened beneath his tan. “I only asked as a favor for your mother.”

“Right,” said Colin shortly. “Come on, Eloise. Let’s go.”

“Wait!” Serena’s fingers brushed Colin’s sleeve, her nails making an ugly noise as they scraped fabric. “Don’t go. We need to—”

“No,” said Colin.

And that was all. No. He kept on going. He didn’t look back. The door of the gallery swung open in one smooth motion, wide enough for both of us to pass. I could hear it banging into its frame behind us.

“Shouldn’t you—,” I began.

Oh, the irony. For months, I had been trying to think of ways to get him to say no to his sister, just once. But not like this.

“Um, talk to her?” I finished lamely.

“What for?” Colin was covering the terrain in long, ground-devouring strides. We were already well on our way out of the square, the lights of the gallery barely a smudge on the pavement behind us. If Serena wanted to run after us, she’d have to scurry.

I risked a glance over my shoulder, despite the danger of tripping and/or whiplash at the pace we were traveling. She didn’t seem to be trying. The door of the gallery was closed, the brilliantly clad people still partying behind the glass, Serena somewhere among them. Was Jeremy toasting her? Congratulating her on her fortitude in protecting her interests against big brother? The thought made me vaguely sick.

Even so, I had to try. “She is still your sister.”

“Is she?” I had to yank on Colin’s arm to keep him from stepping off the pavement right in front of a blunt-nosed car. He didn’t seem to notice. The driver shouted something out the window. Colin kept going. “Why couldn’t she at least have told me first?”

“Maybe she was hoping it would all just go away?” I’d tried that technique a time or two myself. It never works, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

Colin was still fuming. “That bastard. That bloody bastard.”

I didn’t say anything. What could I say, other than to agree? Jeremy was a bloody bastard.

We were back on the Seine, back on the bridge that had been so charming hours before, in the rose-and-purple glow of sunset. Now it was a dark place, and the damp of the night air enhanced the slight smell of old urine.

Colin kicked a cobble. “My mother hates Selwick Hall. She’s always hated it. She wouldn’t care less if it burned into the ground. He didn’t do it for her; he did it for him. He’s been trying to get his hands on the Hall for years, and if he can’t, then he’ll do his best to ruin it for me.”

“It’s only a month,” I pointed out.

“Only a month,” Colin echoed bitterly. “Ha. If he can do this once, why not again?”

I thought of Serena’s stricken face, the expression on it as she had watched her brother walk away.

“I don’t think he’ll find Serena’s agreement so easy to secure next time,” I said thoughtfully. “I’m pretty sure this was it.”

“Oh? What happens when Paul changes his mind about the partnership? What happens when he ups the price? What happens when someone wants to make a fucking music video?”

“She loves you,” I said. “She wouldn’t deliberately hurt you.”

“What was this, then?”

“Business?” I ventured.

Colin slammed the flat of his hand against the stone parapet. It must have hurt him far more than it did the bridge. “Brilliant,” he said bitterly. “Sold for thirty pieces of silver.”

Okay. I understood he was hurting, but this wasn’t precisely the fall of man, here. It seemed like a good idea to shift the blame back onto the real culprit. “Why does Jeremy want Selwick Hall so badly?”

“Because he couldn’t have it. Why does anyone want anything?” There was so much acid in Colin’s voice I was surprised it didn’t corrode the stone. “It came as a shock to him when he discovered my mother didn’t inherit it outright.”

“You don’t think . . .”

“That he married her for Selwick Hall?” Colin’s hands tightened on the edge of the parapet. The light of the iron lamp picked out the smattering of gold hairs on the back of his hand, the white of his knuckles. “Jeremy wanted whatever my father had. Selwick Hall. My mother. He got one of the two.”

“Ouch,” I said, for lack of anything better.

My lips tingled with questions I knew I couldn’t ask. Why did Jeremy hate your father so much? Do you think he loves your mother? Does your mother know? Does she care?

And the biggie: How in the hell have you managed to stay on good terms with them for so long? Why didn’t you say anything sooner?

Somehow, I didn’t think Colin would appreciate the inquisition.

There were also more pressing issues at the moment. No matter how Colin felt now, he only had one sibling.

“About Serena . . . ,” I began.

“Not now.” Colin turned to me, his face bleached pale by the streetlamp. I could feel the clutch of his fingers through the wool of my pashmina, pressing into my upper arms. “I don’t want to talk about this now. Please.”

I nodded, swallowing half a dozen potential comments before saying simply, “Okay. Whatever you want.”

He didn’t answer in words. Instead, he hugged me tightly—a prolonged squeeze that forced the breath out of my lungs and made me fear for the fate of those gougeres I’d eaten over drinks.

I lifted my head to say something, but he kissed me before I could muster the words.

Normally I would have minded that we were in public and this was behavior better reserved for drawn shades and closed doors. But not now.

I could feel the urgency in his kiss, the desperate push to use the body to forget the things the mind would rather not remember. Not exactly the most reliable method of therapy, but it does sometimes work in the short term. I kissed him back, using the press of my body and my lips to blot out the past hour, Jeremy, Serena, Melinda, Colin’s mother.

Colin released me, leaving me wobbly against the parapet. I vaguely registered that I was still holding my purse. I was amazed it hadn’t gone over into the Seine.

“Whatever, you said?” Colin’s eyes glittered in the lamplight. I was pleased to hear that he sounded as breathless as I felt.

“Well . . .” I’m not a lawyer’s daughter for nothing. “Within reason.”

“Reason is overrated,” said Colin, and pulled me to him again.

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