Dark Angel. Lynne Graham
me?’ she prompted in near disbelief.
‘Had to…no choice,’ Hunt O’Brien confided tautly. ‘I have to start preparing your grandmother for what lies ahead. At our age, bad news is better broken little by little and, as it seems that we shall all be forced to move out of the castle now—’
‘Move out…?’ Kerry echoed in unconcealed horror.
‘I’m afraid that I’ve f-f-failed you both.’ The older man removed his spectacles, rubbed his eyes and shook his head in weary self-reproach. ‘We’ve managed to live from day to day but, in spite of all your many wonderfully enterprising ventures to keep the estate out of debt, for the past four years and more there’s been nothing left over to cover that loan.’
Four years and more? Shattered by that admission, Kerry removed a towering pile of books from an old armchair and sat down in front of her grandfather. ‘Try to give me all the facts,’ she urged as gently as she could. ‘Loans can be restructured. I might still be able to sort this out for you.’
‘It’s far too late for that, my dear. I know I’ve been foolish.’ Replacing his spectacles, Hunt O’Brien loosed a heavy sigh. ‘I just stopped opening the letters that came from the legal firm handling Luciano’s affairs while he was in prison. After that most unf-f-fortunate business with my late brother’s will, I simply couldn’t afford to make the loan repayments.’
‘I wish you’d told me that long ago…’ Kerry was aghast that important letters had been ignored and, well aware of the debacle that had followed her great-uncle Ivor’s death, she finally asked a question which she had often longed to ask but never before dared to press.
‘How much did you have to pay Ivor’s ex-wife to drop her claim?’
Her grandfather grimaced and whispered an amount that left Kerry bereft of what remained of her breath. No longer did she need to wonder why it had become impossible for the older man to pay all dues and still make ends meet at Ballybawn.
‘I didn’t want to upset you or your grandmother by telling you what a complete mess I’ve made of things. If truth be told,’ her grandfather continued unhappily, ‘I only accepted that loan in the first place because I believed that you and Luciano were getting married.’
Kerry paled and lowered her discomfited eyes in acceptance of that latter point.
‘I didn’t worry too much then about how I would repay it because the castle would have passed down to you and your husband anyway on my death,’ he pointed out ruefully. ‘I saw that loan in terms of Luciano making an advance stake in your future together here. I also believe that he saw it in the same light then…but of course, only a few weeks later, you decided not to marry him and everything changed.’
‘Yes…everything certainly changed,’ Kerry conceded unsteadily, thinking back to the agonising aftermath of Luciano’s conviction. She had resigned from her job working for her father’s wine-store chain, packed her bags, moved out of the Linwood home and returned to Ireland to live with her grandparents again. But neither distance nor different surroundings had eased the terrible pain of having to walk away from the guy she loved, and making a fresh start had been an even bigger challenge when Luciano’s infidelity had destroyed her self-esteem.
‘At first, I hoped that matters would improve and that I would be able to catch up with the loan arrears. When that didn’t happen, I prayed that the bank would come to our rescue.’ Rising to his feet, Hunt O’Brien went over to his desk and with some difficulty tugged out a bottom drawer. ‘I’m afraid the bank turned my request down, and yesterday while I was walking in the demesne I was approached by a young man who asked me who I was and then virtually stuffed this document into my hand!’
From the cluttered desk top, the older man lifted a folded sheet. ‘I’m facing a court order for repossession of the castle.’
In the act of looking into the drawer, which was packed to bursting point with unopened envelopes, Kerry straightened to stare in appalled silence at the legal notice that her grandfather had already been officially served with.
‘I’ve spoken to the family solicitor,’ the old man confided wearily. ‘If I don’t comply with a voluntary arrangement to settle my debts, I’ll be declared bankrupt, which I believe would be worse.’
Homeless or bankrupt? What a choice! A surge of rage blistered through Kerry’s slight, taut frame. How dared Luciano threaten to evict two harmless, helpless, elderly gentlefolk from their only home at this stage of their lives? How dared he subject her grandfather’s weak heart to the stress of fear and intimidation? How dared he make her grandmother’s hands tremble with nerves? What sort of a merciless bully had prison made out of Luciano da Valenza?
Hadn’t he done enough harm yet? Wasn’t it bad enough that he had wrecked her life? She lived like a nun sooner than risk that amount of pain and disillusionment again. She no longer trusted men. The guy she adored had gone behind her back and slept with a woman who hated her. At the age of twenty-six she was so much ‘on the shelf’, as her grandmother liked to call it, that she might as well have been nailed to it!
‘I’ll look into this, Grandpa,’ Kerry murmured in a soothing undertone, eyes as bright as sparkling turquoises in her flushed and furious face.
‘If it makes you feel better, go ahead,’ he said wryly. ‘But I assure you that nothing short of a miracle could help us now.’
‘Just you go back to your book,’ Kerry advised.
‘I am hoping that we’ll be quite comfortably off once I sell my books to a publishing firm,’ Hunt O’Brien declared, startling his granddaughter with an ambition which he had never mentioned before. ‘I’ve almost finished the eighth volume. It’s my final one, you know.’
‘Congratulations,’ Kerry told him with as much enthusiastic and matching optimism as she could muster at that instant.
‘Of course, the other seven volumes could probably do with a little tweaking.’ He settled back onto his sofa and reached for his pen with a smile, the gravity of their plight clearly wiped from his mind again as he contemplated the comforting creative challenges that still lay ahead of him.
While the older man returned to his notebook, Kerry lifted out the entire drawer of unopened letters and carried it from the room. An hour later, after she had only got through about a third of what had been a one-sided effort at communication stretching back over more than four years, her heart was heavy. Interest and arrears had swollen the original debt to a colossal and terrifying size and her grandfather’s total lack of response to those warning letters had put him very much in the wrong. The loan had been secured against the castle, and the castle was her grandfather’s sole asset. There was no way that she could raise the kind of money that was now owed to Luciano. Nor were there any valuable family heirlooms left to sell: Great-Uncle Ivor’s grasping ex-wife had seen to that.
In the midst of those increasingly panic-stricken thoughts and in desperate need of fresh air to clear her buzzing head and restore her concentration, Kerry went outdoors and headed for the lake that lay below the castle. Her feet crunching on the lush green grass of late spring, she finally came to a halt beneath the spreading branches of the willow tree that overhung the water.
A low swirling mist was rising from the still surface of the lake to lend an eerie, dream-like quality to the reflection of the pale limestone battlemented walls and turrets of Ballybawn. For five years she had worked round the clock in an effort to make the great house pay for its own upkeep and she had honestly believed that she was on the brink of finally achieving that objective! Had it all been for nothing?
But Ballybawn meant so much more to her than a responsibility: it was the only real home she had ever had. Her mother, Carrie, had walked out of her life when she was only four years old. Prior to that, Kerry had dim memories of frightening adult scenes in which her father’s rage had made him seem, perhaps unfairly, a cruel and threatening man. When the marriage had finally ended, her mother had left England to return to Ireland and her childhood home. Although it had been more than ten years