Published: September 1999
With over 7 million copies of her books in print and a name that consistently appears on the New York Times, USA Today and other national bestseller lists, Brenda Joyce’s novels are imbued with rich sensuality, haunting suspense and characters whose worlds become your own. Now, Brenda Joyce delivers a richly crafted contemporary novel set in the exclusive world of the British aristocracy, where secrets remain hidden at all costs, and where one woman dares to discover a lost legacy of passion…and murder.
The tragic death of her fiancé in a harrowing car accident plunges Jill Gallagher into a dark mystery. His final words to her: “I love you…Kate,” force her to realize she neither truly knew this dashing British photographer, nor understood his true motives for being here in America. When she brings his body back to his English family, she enters a world of hostility, suspicion, and closely guarded secrets. Then she finds a century-old photograph of an American heiress named Kate Gallagher who looks remarkably like herself-and who disappeared nearly a century ago. What legacy of scandal has she unearthed? Who is so desperate to stop her? And can she trust the handsome, enigmatic stranger who may be her greatest ally…or a dangerous foe? At once otherworldly and vividly real, The Third Heiress is Brenda Joyce at her passionate and suspenseful best.
“Bestselling author Brenda Joyce mixes intrigue and romance into a page-turning tale you’ll be loathe to put down.”
“Brenda Joyce has crafted a genealogical thriller of family secrets and obsessions that is sure to keep you up, reading into the night!”
“Joyce brings her first hardcover romantic suspense novel to an exciting conclusion.”
“A tense and atmospheric thriller. The Third Heiress adds gothic and ghostly overtones to a story of one woman’s obsessive quest for truth and justice.”
“Brenda Joyce has combined modern romance with semi-time travel, historical romance and a mystery all in one intriguing story. A must read!”
–Affaire de Coeur
Who was Kate? Jill inhaled.
Tears slipped from beneath her closed lids. Hal was dead and she was standing by the carousel at Baggage Claim in Heathrow Airport. It was almost impossible to believe where she was and, more importantly, why she was there.
Jill was numb. Exhaustion, most of it emotional, some of it due to jet lag, did not help. Hal was dead, and she was bringing his body home to his family. The emptiness inside her, the pain, the grief, was astonishing in its intensity, and it was overwhelming. Hal was dead. Gone, forever. She would never see him again. And she had killed him. It was the worst she could have imagined, a nightmare come true. She did not know if she could stand the pain and the confusion-and herself-much longer. She did not know if she could stand the darkness much longer.
I love you… Kate. Hal’s voice, his dying words, pierced through her thoughts, her mind. It was a haunting litany she could not shake. Who was Kate? Jill jerked. The baggage from the British Airways flight was beginning to come down the ramp, thumping onto the carousel, going round and round, like her own spinning thoughts. Hal’s image as he died under the ministrations of a team of paramedics there on the side of the highway was engraved upon her mind. As were his last, haunting words, echoing cruelly, again and again. Words she never wanted to forget-words she never wanted to remember.
“I love you. …Kate.”
Jill hugged herself, cold and shivering. The luggage circling in front of her blurred.
Jill knew, she absolutely knew, that he had been telling her, Jill, that he loved her as he died. He had loved her-the way she had loved him. Jill had not a doubt. And she knew she must seize on to and cherish this belief. But dear God, his death, and her hand in it, his speaking of this other woman, Kate, it was all horrible enough without their having had that last and final, irreversible, unforgettable exchange. If only he hadn’t told her he had been having second thoughts about their future. He’d been having doubts about them, about her. Jill choked on a sob. She was in the throes of guilt and pain, grief and confusion.
Jill closed her eyes. She must not think about that conversation, it was unbearable. Everything was unbearable. Hal had been taken away from her. Just like her parents. Her love, her life, had been destroyed-a second time. Suddenly Jill’s world became too painful to bear. Blackness gathered before her eyes. Jill fought the urge to pass out, to faint. She must stop thinking, she told herself desperately, aware of tears streaming down her face, aware of the crowded terminal coming into and then out of focus. She fought for equilibrium as she swayed her knees weak and buckling. She had to get her luggage. She had to get out of there-she had to get air. She must concentrate on the details of survival-and on meeting Hal’s family, dear God.
Hal’s sister, Lauren, was picking her up at the airport. And in that moment, Jill’s mind went suddenly, frighteningly, blank. For one instant, she was utterly confused. She was panic-stricken. She did not know where she was, or why. She did not know who she was. The crowd moving around her, the interior of the terminal became more than a sea of shadows and faces. She could not identify anything or anyone. Even the letters on the signs became gibberish she could not read. But everywhere there were pairs of eyes. Turning her way, wide and accusing, myriad hostile stares. Why was everyone looking at her as if they wished she were dead?
Jill was ready to turn and run, but run where? Dead. In the next moment, her mind snapped to, the shadows became walls and doorways, gates and railings, the shapes became people, the eyes, faces, and she knew everything and it was so much worse. People were staring at her, but she was crying helplessly, and she was at Heathrow, bringing Hal’s body home to his family-tomorrow was the funeral. Did everyone present know that she had killed the man of her dreams? Jill wished she hadn’t remembered anything. There had been bliss in the memory loss. It had been like that ever since Hal had died-not knowing what to do, moments of terrible confusion, followed by other moments of sheer memory loss and then absolute, horrific recognition. Shock, a doctor had said. She would be in shock for the next few days, maybe even the next few weeks.
He had encouraged her to rest at home and continue taking the medication he had prescribed. Jill had thrown the antidepressants down the toilet after the first night. She had loved Hal so much and she would not sell her feelings short by trying to blunt or ignore them with Xanax.
She would grieve for him the way that she had loved him, completely, irrevocably. Jill removed her sunglasses to wipe her eyes with a tissue before replacing them. Her luggage. She had to find her single duffel bag and get out of there while she remained on her feet and in one piece. The one thing she must now do, Jill decided, was try not to think. Her thoughts were her own worst enemy. Jill glanced down at her feet, to find her carry-on and leopard-print vinyl tote there, along with her oversized black blazer. She turned her gaze to the carousel. To her surprise, most of the bags had been claimed. It seemed like only seconds ago she had been surrounded by the hundreds of passengers from her flight-now only a dozen people or so were waiting for their bags.
Jill inhaled desperately. Had she blacked out?
Somehow, she seemed to have lost time as well as her memory. She wondered how she was going to survive, not just the next few days, but the next few weeks, months, years. Don’t think! Jill told herself frantically. She must not go where her thoughts would lead. Suddenly Jill saw her black nylon duffel bag. It was already moving past her. Jill ran after it with desperation, gripping the handle and swinging it off of the carousel. The effort cost her dearly, and she stood there for a moment, panting. She had never experienced this kind of monumental exhaustion before.
When she had regained her breath, she glanced around at the milling crowd. Now where did she go? Now what did she do? How did she find Lauren, whom she had only glimpsed in a photograph? Jill was frozen, against her own admonitions helplessly thinking of the time Hal had so fondly and proudly showed her photos of his family. Hal had spoken often, not just of his sister, but also of his older brother, Thomas, his parents, and his American cousin. His family was, by his accounts, extremely close-knit. His love for them had been so obvious.
He had glowed when he had told her tales of growing up as a child, most of them describing the summers in Stainesmore at the old family estate in the north, where as children they fished and hunted and explored the nearby haunted manor. But there had been Christmas holidays at St. Moritz, Easter in St. Tropez, and those years at Eton, playing hooky and running wild in London’s West End, chasing “birds” as he called the girls, and sneaking into clubs. Then there had been his football years at Cambridge. And always, since he was a small boy, there had been his first love, his true love, his photography. Jill knew she was crying again. He had held her close on so many nights, telling her how his family would adore her-and that they would welcome her with open arms, as if she were one of them. He had been eager to bring her home, he could not wait for her to meet them. Until that unbelievable and final conversation of theirs in the car, when he had told her he wasn’t sure he really wanted to get married after all, that he wanted to go home for a while, alone.
Jill knew she must not cry again, but the tears would not stop. Shaking and weak and afraid of blacking out another time, Jill picked up her bags and started walking slowly with the crowd. She must forget about their last conversation. It was the icing on the cake, incapacitating her with bewilderment and confusion. In time, they would have worked things out. Hal would not have walked out on her. Jill knew she had to believe that. Jill followed the crowd through a barricade where Customs officials watched them go by, relieved at least that for the moment her tears had ceased. She was about to meet Lauren and the rest of Hal’s family, and never in a million years would she have dreamed that it would be this way, with her bringing Hal’s body home for the funeral. She wanted, desperately, to be in control of her physical functions. She did not want to black out in front of them. She paused as she reached a circular area where a crowd was waiting for the arriving passengers, some of them drivers holding up signs with names written boldly upon them. And Jill’s gaze immediately settled on a tawny-haired woman about her own age. Jill recognized the other woman instantly.
Even if Jill had not seen photographs of Lauren, she would have recognized her because she looked so much like Hal. Her shoulder-length hair was the same dark blond, spiked with lighter strands of gold, and her features were also classic. Like Hal, she was tall and slim. Lauren had that very same look of casual elegance and worry-free wealth that had nothing to do with the designer pants suit she wore but everything to do with her actual heritage-it was an aura only those born to old money can have. Jill faltered, unable to continue forward. Suddenly she was deathly afraid to meet the other woman. Lauren had spotted her, too. She was also motionless, and she was staring. Like Jill, she wore dark glasses. But hers were tortoise shell and oversized, matching her beige Armani suit and Hermes scarf perfectly.
She did not smile at Jill. Her face was stiff and set in an expression of . . . what? Self-control? Suffering? Distaste? Jill could not tell. But she was taken aback and dismayed. Gripping her canvas duffel bag and her carry-on, as well as her leopard-print vinyl tote, aware now of wearing faded Levi’s and a White T-shirt, Jill walked slowly toward Hal’s sister.
She could not meet her gaze even through the dark glasses that they both wore. Lauren nodded, a single jerk of her head, turning her face aside. Jill swallowed the lump that was choking her.
“I’m Jill Gallagher.”
Lauren had folded her arms across her chest. Her shoulder bag seemed to be dark brown alligator. A gold and diamond Piaget watch glinted from beneath the cuff of her suit jacket.
“I have a driver outside. We’ve already picked up the coffin. Because of the Easter holiday, we couldn’t find you a decent room and you’ll be staying at the house.”
She turned and began walking rapidly out of the airport. For one moment Jill stared after her, trembling, in disbelief. The woman had not said hello, or asked her how her flight was. Hal had said that Lauren was kind and compassionate and more than friendly. This woman was cold and aloof, and not even civil. But what did she expect? She had been at the wheel, and now Hal was dead. Lauren must hate her-the entire Sheldon family must hate her. She hated herself. Far more ill than before, filled now with an accompanying dread, Jill followed Lauren out of the terminal, her mind going blank again. Jill shifted so that she could see the highway behind her. She was in the backseat of a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, as was Lauren. Both women had taken to the farthest and opposite corners of the spacious sedan.
The hearse was behind them. Jill watched it make a left turn. She continued to watch the long black sedan as it disappeared from sight. It was taking Hal’s body to the funeral home, while she and Lauren were going to the Sheldons’ house in London. Jill did not want to be separated from the hearse. She almost felt like banging on the door, demanding to be let out. Her heart was thundering in her chest, and her sense of loss was, amazingly, worse. It was insane. Jill continued to stare after the disappearing hearse. She bit down hard on her lip, determined not to make a sound. She was shaking uncontrollably and afraid she might once again escape her grief by blacking out. Jill forced herself to settle back in her seat and breathe deeply, her eyes closed, continuing to shake as she fought for equilibrium. She was not even going to make it through the next twenty-four hours if she did not somehow come to grips with herself and Hal’s death. When she had regained a small amount of her composure, she glanced at Lauren. In the thirty minutes since they had left the airport, Hal’s sister had not said a single word. She sat with her back toward Jill, her shoulders rigid, staring out of her driver’s side window. She had not removed her sunglasses, but then, neither had Jill.
They were like two hostile zombies, Jill thought grimly. So much for kindness. They could comfort one another. After all, they had both loved Hal. But Jill did not feel up to making the first overture, not yet, and she was too aware of her role in his death. Tears burned her eyes. The funeral was tomorrow. She was booked to return home the following night. She hated the thought of leaving him behind, an entire ocean between them, yet on the other hand, if the Sheldons were all as compassionate as Lauren, it was for the best. She opened her carry-on, a huge fake Louis Vuitton bag that she had bought for fifteen dollars from a street vendor, and searched for and found a Kleenex. She dabbed at her eyes. Lauren hated her. Jill was certain of it. She could actually feel the other woman’s simmering resentment. Jill did not blame her. When Jill tucked he tissue back in her bag she looked up and found Lauren watching her, facing her directly for the first time. Jill did not think. Impulsively she said, low,
“I’m sorry.” Lauren said, “We’re all sorry.”Jill bit her lip.
“It was an accident.” Lauren continued to face her. Jill could not see her eyes through the opaque sunglasses she wore. “Why did you come?” Jill was startled. “I had to bring him home. He spoke of you-all of you-so often.”
She could not continue. Lauren looked away. Another silence fell.
“I loved him, too,” Jill heard herself say.
Lauren turned to her. “He should be alive. A few days ago he was alive. I can’t believe he’s gone.” Her words were angry and had she pointed her finger at Jill, the blame she felt could not have been more obvious.
“Neither can I,” Jill whispered miserably. It was true. In the middle of the night she would wake up, expecting to find the solid warmth of Hal’s body beside her. The coldness of her bed was a shock-as was the sudden recollection of his death. There was nothing worse, Jill had realized, than the oblivion of sleep followed by the absolute cognition of consciousness.
“If only,” Jill whispered, more to herself than to Lauren, “we hadn’t gone away that weekend.” But they had. And she could not change the past few days, she could only have regrets. She would have regrets for the rest of her life-regrets and guilt. Had he really been thinking of breaking up with her?
“Hal should have come home months ago,” Lauren said tersely, interrupting Jill’s thoughts.
“He was scheduled to come home in February-for my birthday.”
“He liked New York,” Jill managed, avoiding her eyes. Lauren removed her glasses, revealing red-rimmed eyes that were the exact same amber shade as Hal’s.
“He was homesick. The last few times we spoke, he told me so.” Jill was motionless.
What else had he told his younger sister, whom he was so close to? Jill thought she would die if Lauren knew about Hal’s sudden change of heart about their future. Then, angrily, she reminded herself that it had not been a change of heart. Nothing had been set in stone. Everything would have worked out, sooner rather than later. Lauren also remained unmoving. Finally she said,
“He mentioned you.” Jill jerked, eyes wide, staring now at Lauren as if she were a Martian. He had mentioned her? “What do you mean, he mentioned me?”
“Just that,” Lauren said, putting her glasses back on. She glanced out of her window as the silver-gray Rolls sped along. “He mentioned that he was dating you.” Jill stared, stunned. They had not been dating. They had been discussing marriage-they had been on the verge of becoming engaged. She was speechless.
“How long were the two of you seeing one another?” Lauren asked bluntly. Jill looked at her, the other woman becoming hazy and blurred. “Eight months. We met eight months ago.” She was gripping the sensuous leather seat with desperation.
“That isn’t a very long time,” Lauren said after a pause.
“It was long enough to fall head over heels in love and to be thinking about . . .” Jill stopped herself short. Lauren removed her eyeglasses again. “To be thinking about what?” she demanded. Jill wet her lips. She hesitated. Everything raced through her mind-his ambivalence, her guilt, a woman named Kate.
“The future,” she whispered. Lauren just stared-as if she had two heads. “He should have come home a long time ago,” Lauren said finally. “He did not belong in New York.”
Jill did not know how to respond. Hal had not told his sister about the extent of his relationship with her. Why? It hurt. God, it hurt, the way thinking about their last conversation hurt-the way he had hurt her by even having doubts about their future as man and wife. She lay back against the seat, severely exhausted. It hurt almost as much as his death hurt. She needed to find a sanctuary and bury her head under a pillow and sleep. But then she would wake up and remember everything and it would be so awful . . . The Rolls-Royce stopped. Instantly Jill’s tension increased.