Born as the comet blazed across the heavens, cursed by her mother’s dying breath, Lori Riley had been promised her father’s fortune and Windswept, his elegant Hudson River estate.
But promises can be cruelly broken. Freed by her legacy, Lori was doubly bound . . . to Sylvia, her mysterious half sister . . . to Robert, her husband . . . to the irresistible Tony—and to Windswept, the only home she’d ever known.
For even as one love sustained her, the other set her afire, shaping her tomorrows through a lifetime of heartbreak, scandal, tears, and triumph, fulfilling the fiery promise of her . . .
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
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The musty smell of fresh-turned earth assailed her nostrils and the cleric's funereal voice droned in her ears, but Lori Riley was impervious to grief. She was grateful for random gusts of misty rain that swept beneath the black umbrella and clung in tiny droplets to her lashes. Since her father's death two days ago, her large hazel eyes had not once blurred, nor had a single sob wrenched her bosom. Even now, as his coffin was lowered into the grave, she had only a fleeting sense of regret, for there had been no affection between them.
April was barely a week away, yet snow lingered in dirty patches between the ornate monuments and stone angels dotting the slopes of this lonely cemetery in the Catskills. Ice melted slowly into dead leaves caught in haphazard clusters along the high, spear-tipped fence that kept the dead within boundaries and the living at bay. Occasional wisps of fog blurred the outlines of marble headstones descending in frozen rows to the foot of the hill, where low clouds trailed long, vaporous fingers into the steel-gray waters of the Hudson. Only the barely discernible pale green on a nearby weeping wil low gave promise of new life in the midst of death. Lori realized with a twinge of sadness that this graveyard was a fitting epilogue to the last, desolate years of the man they had buried today.
She tucked stray wisps of honey-blond hair back into place beneath her fashionable cloche. Though soaking wet from the hem of her short black dress to the soles of her calfskin pumps, she was warmed by a wave of euphoria.
Windswept is mine now!The words rang in her head, momentarily blotting out the minister's somber prayer.
Lori's most impassioned dream was about to come true. As her father's only living relative, she would soon be mistress of Windswept, the house she loved beyond all else. It was the birthplace from which she'd been banished in infancy, the mansion where she'd been merely tolerated in late childhood, and the legacy over which she would now reign in triumph.
With proprietary eyes she looked up toward the spiked iron gates where the chauffeur waited, one foot on the running board of Windswept's new 1929 import, a Minerva Landaulet. Her father had bought the motorcar out of habit, for he was a recluse even before Lori met him in 1921 when she was eleven years old.
With a growing sense of exhilaration, she thought of the mercantile store in Poughkeepsie, the manufacturing plant in Buffalo and the lofty Boston office building where lawyers and architects labored daily to add to the Winslow fortune. But best of all, there was Windswept.
The cleric's words, extolling the dead man's virtues, intruded upon her thoughts, but to Lori they were meaningless. They did not apply to the bitter man who had been her father. Silently acknowledging her own lack of grief and noting the few who had come to mourn, she realized that Vincent Winslow's passing after fifty-odd years of life had, for all his wealth and power, evoked not a tear. Nor had it left the slightest vacancy in the hearts of his fellowmen.
Across the burial mound Aunt Maggie Riley Rush-ton stood beside Mrs. Gerdes, Windswept's housekeeper since Lori's birth. A short distance uphill, six Windswept servants stood huddled beneath black umbrellas.
No friend or neighbor had come to pay respects to the brooding man whose coffin now settled into its final resting place. And of her father's large army of employees only Charles Evans, Winslow architect and Lori's fiance, was in attendance.
Charles tightened his arm around her, and she was grateful for his presence. Snuggling deeply into her sable coat, she leaned into his embrace, thinking what a godsend he'd been since his arrival two days ago from the Boston offices. He'd taken matters in hand, making funeral arrangements and notifying business colleagues of the death. There had been a profusion of flowers, telegrams and phone calls, along with excuses for not attending the interment.
A depressing sense of futility washed over Lori, and she wondered if there was indeed a purpose in living and dying.
“Lori!” Charles's voice broke into her reverie.
She stared, uncomprehending. Then her eyes followed the minister's pointing finger to a mound of black dirt next to the grave. Obediently she stepped forward, removing one kid glove as she did so.
How ironic, she spoke silently to her father, that your illegitimate daughter should be the only one left to throw first earth on your coffin!
A taste of bitterness welled in her throat, for she'd been denied that which, next to Windswept itself, she most coveted. Her father had died without bestowing his name upon her, and she could not forgive him.
She bent down, scooping up a bit of moist sod. Then, hesitating only a moment, she let it fall with a resounding thump to the metallic gray casket below.
“Rest in peace,” she murmured. But her words were lost in the ringing voice of the minister chanting the last prayer.
Resuming her place beside Charles, Lori sent a puzzled look at Mrs. Gerdes. The woman was in her early sixties, and gray hair pulled back into a tight bun accentuated her sharp nose and chin. Her small piercing eyes held a peculiar gleam, while a brief enigmatic smile played about the corners of her thin lips. It was a familiar expression, one that Lori was certain boded ill for someone. Their eyes met, and mutual hatred flared like an electric arc between them.
Lori knew that Mrs. Gerdes had been the childhood nurse of her father's wife, Lillian, and had come to Windswept as housekeeper, supervising preparations prior to the couple's return from a European honeymoon. She knew also that, along with a young, Italian servant, it was Mrs. Gerdes who had found her, the squalling newborn infant of a dead kitchen maid, desecrating the Winslow marriage bed.
My first act as mistress of Windswept will be to get rid of Mrs. Gerdes!Lori told herself, recalling girlhood agonies under the woman's unreasoning malevolence.
Then, meeting her aunt's loving gaze, Lori's own eyes softened. Fingering her rosary, Maggie looked at least half her forty years in a wraparound coat of forest green and matching Peter Pan hat with a wet, bedraggled feather over bobbed auburn curls. Though photos of Sheila Riley showed raven-black hair, Lori thought that Maggie's small, tip-tilted nose and high cheekbones resembled the mother she had never known. The poignant loneliness she'd felt these past two years since Maggie's marriage and move to Albany again swept over Lori.
The mournful wail of a train echoed through the mountains. Lori saw Maggie raise her head and stare off into the distance. When she again dropped her gaze into the open grave, her niece wondered where memories had taken her.