The Mystery Begins at Sneadley Hall, Yorkshire, England
No man is ever rich enough
to buy back his past.
It’s snowing, great white starry flakes that cling to my red hair like a tiara on a princess for all of a minute, before melting and running in icy drops down the back of my neck. My mother, who was a stickler for proper behavior for young ladies, would have said it was my own fault, I should have worn a hat to the funeral out of respect for the dead. Of course she was right, but since I don’t possess a hat, at least not one suitable for a funeral, I’d decided to do without.
So now here I am, standing with a small crowd of mourners at the graveside of Robert Waldo Hardwick, modern mogul, maker and loser of several fortunes and the proud winner of a knighthood, bestowed on him by Her Majesty the Queen, making him unto eternity, I suppose, Sir Robert Hardwick.
We are outside the Gothic, gray-stone church in the village of Lower Sneadley, Yorkshire, England. It’s a freezing cold April afternoon, with the wind whipping across the Pennines, chilling the blood of those of us who are still amongst the living. At least we assume we are, because by now all feeling is numbed. Even Bob’s dog, a small, stocky Jack Russell crouched next to me on his lead, looks frozen into stillness. He doesn’t even blink, just stares at the hole in the ground.
Shivering, my heart goes out to him, and to the poor Brontë sisters who lived in an icy parsonage in just such a village as this, not too many miles away. When I think of them on cold, candlelit nights, of their poor, chapped little mittened hands desperately scribbling down the thoughts that became their famous novels, I can only wonder at their stamina.
Looking at my small crowd of fellow mourners I know most of them are asking themselves what am I, Daisy Keane, a thirty-nine-year-old American lass, doing at the funeral of a Yorkshire tycoon? I feel their curious sideways glances but I keep my eyes steadfastly on Sir Robert’s velvet-draped coffin, pretending to listen to the vicar’s final thoughts and prayers. Why, I ask myself, couldn’t the vicar have gotten this over with inside his almost-as-icy church? Isn’t he aware there’s a spring blizzard blowing and that we are all slowly freezing?
I feel the tears sliding down my cheeks. Selfishly, I’m so cold that for a moment I’ve forgotten why I’m here. And no, it’s not for Bob’s money. I’m prepared to work for my living and I’ve no need for handouts from the rich. Which is exactly what I told Robert Hardwick the first time I met him, though then it wasn’t exactly the truth.
It was at a cocktail party, one of those society events in London where everybody knew everybody else. Except for me. I didn’t know a single soul. What’s more, looking around I wasn’t sure I even wanted to know them. The men were Savile Row suited, hair brushed smoothly back in that British old-schoolboy way, rich and talking business so they might get even richer. And the women were older trying to look younger, dressed too sexily by Cavalli and Versace, busy gossiping about women who were not there.
Bitches, I thought, snagging a second glass of dreadful white wine and a peculiar canapé consisting of a tiny pea pod filled with what looked like brown crabmeat. Starving though I was, I sniffed it suspiciously.
“It’s curry,” a voice said from behind my left shoulder. “And I don’t recommend it.”
I swung around too fast, slopping wine down the front of one of the biggest and ugliest men I had ever met. I mopped futilely at his dark pin-striped vest with my cocktail napkin. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
“I startled you, it was my fault.”
“How do you know it’s no good?” I asked.
He gave me one of those aw-come-on-girl looks. “I’ve tried ’em before, of course,” he said in a deep voice that expressed his exasperation at such an inane question.
“That was pretty stupid of me,” I admitted. “Put it down to the company around here. Look at them, all talking about money and sex, who’s got it, and who’s getting it.”
His pale blue eyes under grizzled brows had a flinty glint to them. I guessed he hadn’t taken to my brash American gal comments, or maybe he didn’t care for redheads.
“And so why aren’t you talking money?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I have enough. Not a lot, but I don’t feel the need for more.” I was lying, of course. I had exactly five hundred dollars to my name and no job. Which was the reason I was at this party, scouting prospects, though what a college-educated, divorced, former suburban American housewife would find here was hard even for me, ever the optimist, to imagine.
We stared silently at each other again. Then he said, “Okay, so then why aren’t you talking sex?”
I gave him a cool upward glance. “Same answer.”
He grinned, tight-lipped. “Are you hating this ‘do’ as much as I am, then?” He had an accent I couldn’t place, vaguely Beatles but not the same, with flatter a’s and a harsher lilt.
“You mean you noticed?”
“So exactly why are you here?”
I shrugged. “A friend gave me the invitation. He couldn’t make it. I’m a gossip page editor,” I lied quickly. “For the American weekly mag People Like Us. Know it?”
“Thank God, no.”
I smiled, guessing he’d been the butt of gossip columnists too often for his liking. I couldn’t place him, though. I was on new turf here, didn’t yet know the ins and outs of Brit society, but this was a rough-and-ready, take-no-prisoners kind of guy.
“You’re in the wrong place,” he told me firmly in his alien accent. “The people here don’t give a damn about American magazines. They live in their own tight little world. For them, everything else is second-class.”
That sounded to me very much like the boy locked out of the in-group at school. I stared curiously at him. He was maybe six-five, a massive bear of a man, hefty but not paunchy or soft, in a well-cut and very rumpled suit. He was in his early sixties, I guessed, clean shaven with a craggy brow, a wide nose, thin lips, a ruddy skin, and the worst haircut I’d ever seen. His hair was a thick gray tangled mop. I was sure no barber had been near it for years and was willing to bet he cut it himself. He brought to mind the ogre at the top of Jack’s beanstalk. His massive hand clutched a glass of wine and his pale frosty eyes were taking me in from my long red hair and freckled face all the way down to my pointy-toe ankle-strap stilettos. Assessing my net worth, I thought, irritated.
“I’m Bob Hardwick.” He paused as though waiting for me to react. I shook his hand but kept my cool. Of course, I knew who he was: the man who’d pulled himself up by his bootstraps from brash, poor, uneducated Yorkshire lad to famous global megatycoon, but I didn’t let on.
“What say you and I get out of here? I’ll buy you dinner,” he said abruptly.
If he was after what I thought he was after he’d gotten me wrong. I threw him the under-the-lashes skeptical glance I’d had a lot of practice throwing at men over the past year. “I don’t need anyone to buy me dinner,” I said.
“Fine. Then you’ll pay. Come on, let’s go.” And he had me by the elbow and was walking me out of there before I could even react.
Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Adler. All rights reserved.