Gilding Lillian

Legacies, Book 2

DawnMarie Richards

 

Prologue

Lillian Gustave Milton Bennett stood naked before a full-length mirror, taking stock with the confident self-awareness particular to the very beautiful or the very vain. True, she worked at inspiring lust. Male or female, young or old, naïve or jaded, few seemed immune to her seductive presentation. Currently, though, she took note with a dry-eyed sensibility. How she appeared to others did not motivate her in the least.

Tipping her head back, she peered along the length of her nose at her image. She placed her fingertips along her jawline, pausing before trailing them down her torso. The more sensitive spots she gave special attention with a scrape of the nails or quick pinch. After a time, she brought her hands to rest along her outer thighs and waited, watching. Her skin flushed and her nipples drew tight, but beyond the automatic responses of her nerves and muscles, she felt nothing—no flash of desire.

Her entire adult life, she’d considered herself an exception to the cautionary maxim not to judge a book by its cover, her sexy shell the perfect hint of what lay beneath. Seeking out and providing physical satisfaction was as necessary for her well-being as air for her lungs or food for her body, but over the last several months there’d been an inexplicable quieting, a dampening of the fire.

A number of rational explanations presented themselves. They ranged from the obvious—she was getting older, she would celebrate her fortieth birthday next year—to the absurd; the extreme amount of sex she’d had, and the multitude of men she’d had it with, had led to some kind of sexual ennui. None of them explained, to her satisfaction, her uncharacteristic disinterest.

Shrugging, she reached for a negligee from the selection hanging in front of her and fitted it over her head. The apricot silk cascaded around her, caressing her skin in a pale imitation of a lover’s touch. The fanciful thought made her sigh with exasperation. She pulled on the nightgown’s matching robe, cinching it closed and knotting the belt with an impatient tug.

Such foolishness! Mentally shaking herself, she left the confines of the walk-in closet and padded, barefoot, to her husband’s bedside.

She moved her fingers deftly along the length of the IV line, pausing at the drip chamber. The steady fall of drops informed her, at a glance, the fluid flowed properly. Turning her attention to Leonard, she opened his pajama top, parting the pinstriped cotton to check the skin around his central line. Finding everything as it should be, she bent to the task of refastening the buttons.

“Taking too damned long.”

She looked up at the sound of his deep, graveled voice. His closed eyes and peaceful expression made her doubt her ears.

“Leonard? Are you awake?”

The corners of his mouth twitched, a smile struggling to find its way to his lips. Lillian sank down onto the edge of the bed in wonder, her hip pressed tightly to his.

For an astounding eleven years, Leonard Bennett had managed to not only survive, but thrive, after receiving the devastating diagnosis of stage-4 colon cancer. The Herculean feat had more to do, in her opinion, with his indomitable stubbornness than the medical care he’d received, extraordinary though it had been. But over the last several weeks, his embattled body seemed to have succumbed to the ravages of his disease leaving him lingering in the twilight between life and death. Lillian had not expected him to emerge from it.

“What is taking too damned long?” she prodded, only half believing he would be able to respond.

“Dying,” came his gruff reply.

She shook her head at his audacity. Irreverent to the end, her Leonard. She realized he’d fought his way, not just to consciousness, but awareness. Indomitable stubbornness.

“It is taking exactly as long as it should,” she told him in her most imperious voice.

His eyes sparked with ironic amusement when he opened them to consider her.

“Dictator.”

Il infante.”

They smiled at the familiar taunts.

He sobered. “Taking too long…for you.”

The regret in his voice tightened her easy grin. It made her angry to think he would waste his precious energy on concern for her. She should be the last thing on his mind. Taking his nearest hand into both of hers, she squeezed.

“You are not to worry about me,” she scolded him gently.

“Don’t want you to miss…”

“Miss what?” she asked, but his eyelids had drifted closed.

In the silence, she considered the tangle of their fingers. Her marriage to Leonard had lasted more than twice as long as the previous two. Perhaps it explained their comfort with one another though she suspected it to be something more.

They were kindred spirits, she and Leonard. They recognized and respected the aspects of their personalities others condemned. Leonard’s preoccupation with maintaining the integrity of an illustrious family name, and the business it had created, had garnered him a reputation for being cold and unfeeling. Lillian admired his accomplishments and understood the sacrifice, determination, and unwavering drive they required. The rumors of Lillian’s penchant for widowhood led many to dismiss her as self-serving and mercenary. Few bothered to know her beyond base assumptions. Of course, Leonard knew the truth. But even before being privy to the details of her reality, he suspected she’d transcended her reputation and treated her with respect.

She looked up at him, not ready for the gift of the unexpected chat to end.

“Miss what?” she whispered.

“Love.”

Shock made her suck in her breath. Her forehead creased in concentration as she struggled to piece together their disjointed conversation and tease meaning from it. Surely, her no-nonsense, logical-to-a-fault husband could not be speaking to her about love in the traditional sense. He knew she did not subscribe to the emotion. Realizing the stressed neurons in his brain would be stimulating random thoughts and memories, a possible interpretation emerged.

“Helena? Are you thinking of her?”

He opened his eyes upon hearing the name, focusing on a distant spot over Lillian’s shoulder. The blue in the gray of his irises became a striking shade of sapphire. She assumed she had guessed correctly, and he had retreated to the special place where he kept his treasured memories of his beloved first wife. But after a brief moment, he dragged his gaze to hers.

“No. You,” he insisted. “You miss love.”

She considered him carefully. Had he somehow sensed her disquiet and the failed experiment in the dressing room?

Because of the special circumstances of her marriages, unusual allowances had been agreed to by all involved parties. One such concession had to do with Lillian being left free to have her physical needs met in whatever way she saw fit.

Her first two husbands had adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, leading Lillian to elevate discretion to an art form. But Leonard—being Leonard—had his own way, taking an untoward interest in her extramarital activities. It had been a major point of contention between them until she’d accepted it for what it was. Her husband’s way of letting her know there was no part of her life he didn’t want to know about, even the aspects which might threaten the ego of a lesser man.

Affection softened her expression as she answered, “I am fine. It will be taken care of, you know that.”

“Not lovers,” he mumbled. “Love. You’re missing love.”

Lillian tipped her head with confusion.

“Leonard? You know…”

“Yes,” he interrupted. “Don’t believe.”

“Yes.”

His clear and direct stare began to make her uneasy.

“You are wrong.”

As if the reproach had exhausted his remaining strength, his eyelids slipped shut. Lillian searched his face before lowering her gaze to watch the shallow, if steady, rise and fall of his chest. All at once, understanding came to her in a tingling flush. The gift of Leonard’s lucidity indicated something more.

“Leonard,” she called to him, hoping against hope for a few moments more. “I want you to know what a great honor it has been to have been your wife. Thank you.” She leaned toward him, holding tight to his hand, wanting him to feel her presence as long as possible and know he was not alone. “Thank you for everything.”

He tensed beside her, his lips moving but making no sound.

“Leonard.” She smoothed her hand over his chest, trying to comfort him. “Is there something, anything, I can do for you?”

“Griffin,” he managed in a ghostly whisper.

“Your son.” She knew instantly what he needed. “Yes. I will do everything I can. Everything we talked about,” she reassured him. “I promise.”

He relaxed into the pillows, a satisfied grin replacing the taut line of his mouth.

“Enough.” He nodded.

Whether he referred to the weight of her promise or his time on Earth, Lillian would never know. The single, cryptic word would be Leonard’s last.

Chapter 1

Somewhere over the province of Manitoba, Canada, Griffin Bennett had started drinking. He’d been traveling for over five hours by then and had at least as much to go. And he hadn’t slept since he’d gotten the phone call telling him his father was dead.

He’d hoped a scotch on the rocks would quiet his mind enough for him to rest. But one had turned into four, and all he’d gotten was one hell of a headache and the unnerving sensation he was wavering on a narrow ledge. Not the ideal frame of mind for the meeting about to take place, and he had no one to blame but himself.

Taking a deep breath, he rang the doorbell.

The chiming was instantly familiar and brought a reluctant smile. The echo of clipped footsteps quickly chased it from his face and straightened his back. The door opened to reveal a petite woman with short brown hair. There was a knowing smile on her full lips and a sparkle of recognition in her doe eyes.

“Griffin Bennett.” It was not a question.

“Do I know you?”

“You did.” She smiled. “Please, come in.”

She moved to the side and Griffin stepped past her into the entry hall. The sound of the door closing behind him, solid wood finding its home in a grounding reverberation, sobered him. He turned to face the pixie standing before him.

She was young, must have been a little kid back then. It should have been a clue. There hadn’t been many children around when he was growing up here. He squinted at her as he tried to grasp onto a wisp of memory.

“Epiphany Jones,” she supplied without preamble.

“Ephie? You’re joking.”

“I am not.” She laughed at his disbelief.

“You were…what?…Five when I left?”

“Eight.” She scrunched up her face. “But I suppose I must have seemed like a little kid to you.”

“Well, you’re not a kid anymore.” The wary disapproval in her eyes at his innocent observation made him change topic. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m Mrs. Bennett’s personal assistant.”

“Oh.” Reflexively, he looked down the hall leading to the kitchen. “And your grandmother?”

“She died.” Griffin’s gaze snapped to her face at the softly spoken words. “About two years ago.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that. She was a nice woman.”

“Yes, she was.”

“And an amazing cook.”

Ephie smiled her agreement. They shared a moment of quiet reflection, Griffin recalling the many kindnesses of the lady who had prepared the meals for his family for as long as he could remember. A dull vibration against his chest brought him back to the present, his cell phone alarm.

“Damn. I’m sorry.” He reached into his breast pocket and pressed off the reminder. “I have an appointment and the taxi is waiting for me. I thought Mrs. Bennett…” The name stuck, making him pause. “I thought she’d be expecting me.”

“She is. I’ll tell her you’re here.” Ephie turned and took several steps before stopping and coming back to him. She touched the fingertips of one hand to his bicep. “Before I go, I want you to know how very sorry I am for your loss. Your father was always good to my family and to me.”

Griffin marveled at the tears welling in her eyes.

“Thank you,” he said simply, suppressing the sarcastic comment which had sprung to his lips out of respect for her evident sincerity.

“I’ll get Mrs. Bennett.”

Griffin watched as she ascended the stairs and disappeared down the hall leading to the bedrooms. Sighing, he surveyed the room. It was eerily as he remembered. Granted, there wasn’t a lot to be tampered with, only two pieces of furniture, an intricately carved table at the center of the floor, and an antique grandfather clock to the left of the stairs directly facing the front door. A tasteful arrangement of flowers on the entry table welcomed visitors.

Every detail appeared well tended. The handrail, balusters, and newels of the curved staircase gleamed from regular polishing. The handwoven Gregorian runner gracing its treads, the one his mother had chosen more than two decades ago for its bold design, was as vibrant and luxurious as the day it had been installed. The dramatic chandelier held its own in the two-story space, its hundreds of crystal teardrops sparking in the sunlight. The artwork hung precisely level in the exact locations they had occupied since before Griffin had sat in this sunny spot playing with his matchbox cars. He remembered the glasslike marble floor made for excellent racing.

So if it all looks the same, why do I feel like I’ve stepped into an alternate reality? Griffin rolled his head on his neck, willing the muscles in his shoulders and back to relax. He inhaled deeply and it came to him; it was the smell. Lifting his face, he sniffed. Undoubtedly pleasant, it was something earthy and floral, like sex in a meadow. He grunted as the bizarre, unbidden image brought him up hard.

“What the fu…”

Before he could finish muttering the curse, he heard the careful pulse of high heels on carpeting coming from somewhere over his head. Bringing his hands together in front of him, he schooled his features.

“Griffin?” a throaty, accented voice queried, drawing his gaze to its source.

She was beautiful, as he’d expected. But he’d imagined a blonde, big-chested, obvious beauty; a gaudy bauble meant to appease an old man’s ego. But this woman was something very different. Her hair was dark, a deep and glossy black. It shone almost blue where the light hit it. She wore it loose, long strands falling to her collarbone. Shorter layers bowed softly around her face. Her silk sheath dress, a watercolor print of melding shades of purple, revealed rounded hips, a trim waist, and shapely breasts. Her legs seemed to last forever, made longer by black leather stiletto sandals attached to her feet with nothing more than thin straps over her toes and broader ones buckled around each ankle.

She was seduction personified. He cinched his cupped hands closer to his body in an involuntary and instinctual gesture of protection. The fleeting contraction did not escape her notice. She leisurely took his measure, leaving him uncomfortably exposed.

“I am Lillian,” she offered unabashedly when she’d finished.

Extending his hand with affected confidence, he introduced himself, “Griffin Bennett.”

Lillian took his large, calloused hand into both of hers. Adrenaline shot through him, tensing his muscles and making his mouth go dry. As absurd as it was undeniable, he wanted her.

He searched her face. If she was aware of her effect on him, she hid it well, looking back at him with no more than polite interest.

“You have been traveling.” Was he imagining the breathless nature of her voice? “You must be very tired.”

“I haven’t slept.” The pathetic statement made him wince.

“Would you like to rest, then?” she asked, releasing his hand and mercifully ending their connection. “Did Miss Jones have your things brought upstairs? Your room is…”

“I left my luggage in the cab. The driver is waiting for me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I decided to get a hotel room closer to the city.”

“That seems foolish. This is your home.”

“It hasn’t been my home for a long time.”

“Very well. Coffee, then? I hate to keep you from your bed, but there are a few things we should discuss, yes?”

“Yes.” He motioned with an outstretched arm for her to lead the way as he fought against the image of Lillian and his bed. He failed.

My father’s widow, he reminded himself. My father’s fucking widow.

She turned to her right and led him toward the “parlor,” as his mother had called it. Over the years, Helena Bennett had taken great care, and a good deal of her husband’s money, to restore the Beacon Hill mansion to its Victorian glory. Griffin had come to believe the refurbishment of this home, as well as the economic revitalization of a fading family line, had played no small role in the union of his refined and retiring mother to his shrewd and driven father.

In front of him, Lillian opened the pocket doors with a graceful flourish of her arms.

“Please, make yourself comfortable,” she told him as, without the slightest pause in her forward motion, she made her way to the love seat of an intimate furniture grouping in front of the room’s fireplace and perched on its edge.

Griffin stopped just inside the doorway. Floor to ceiling solid wood walls, adorned by stately columns and raised panels, reflected the light coming through two large stained glass windows acting as backdrop to the baby grand piano at the far side of the room. The mantel—lit by sconces showcasing the intricately carved frieze—overflowed with objets d’art intermingled with framed photos from his childhood. To his surprise, his mother’s much-beloved wedding photo held center stage as it had for as long as he could remember. From the geometric parquet floor to the stunning, gold-leaf overlaid ceiling, and everything in between, the room remained precisely as he remembered.

A sterling silver service set waited for them on the coffee table. Lillian had taken up the pot and begun to pour into one of two fine porcelain cups on the tray. The rich aroma of the dark brew beckoned him like a siren’s song, but the disquieting sense of déjà vu kept him from taking more than a few steps forward.

“It’s exactly the same,” he muttered incredulously.

Mi scusi?” Lillian paused in pouring to look over at him. After a moment, she smiled knowingly. “Ah, the room. Yes. Your mother did lovely work, no?”

“I don’t think I ever fully appreciated it.” He forcibly shook off his inertia and crossed the room to sit in the chair adjacent to the settee where Lillian sat.

“Perhaps you were too young,” she reasoned. “Cream? Sugar?”

“Black.”

He accepted the cup she handed him and leaned back, telling himself to relax. Twenty minutes, just get through the next twenty minutes.

“You seem surprised things are…unchanged.”

He watched her prepare her coffee, two teaspoons of sugar and a healthy swirl of cream, before answering.

“I guess I am. I’ve been gone close to twenty years.”

“I believe keeping things as they were helped your father remember.”

Griffin couldn’t help his sharp laugh. “I don’t recall my father being the sentimental type.”

Lillian paused mid-sip and gave him a hard look.

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t…this isn’t…” He brought his cup to his mouth to end his uncomfortable stammering and took a sip. The coffee was good, hot, and strong. He gulped down half the contents before changing tack, “I don’t mean to rush you, but the cab is waiting.” He drained his cup before leaning forward to place it on the coffee table and then reached into the breast pocket of his suit jacket to get his cell. With a few swipes of his finger, he accessed his calendar. “I assume all of the arrangements have been made.”

“Yes, of course.”

Griffin lifted his head, shifting his attention from his device to her arrestingly beautiful face. “Thank you for that. I wouldn’t have known where to start.”

“Of course.” She waved away his gratitude. “The funeral is tomorrow at ten A.M.”

“No calling hours this evening?” he asked as he thumbed the information into his phone.

“No. Leonard did not want that. There will be time for a private viewing at the funeral home at nine if you wish.” He looked at her questioningly. “If you wished to say goodbye,” she explained.

“That won’t be necessary.”

She opened her mouth as if to argue but, after a slight lift of her shoulders, continued without contradiction. “Very well. If you would be there by nine thirty, I believe you have the address in the e-mail I sent you. I would ask you travel with me in the family car. That is, of course, if you have no objection.”

He closed his eyes briefly, imagining being confined in the backseat of a limousine with her. He couldn’t think of anything he could possibly want to do less. But he reminded himself of his objective, do whatever it took to get the hell out of here as soon as possible and return to his life. Sighing heavily, he nodded.

“That will be fine.”

“There will be a reception here after the services.” She looked at him directly. “I’ve also planned a small brunch the following Sunday for close friends of your father to begin introductions.”

“That won’t be possible,” he informed her, checking the time on his cell before slipping it back into his breast pocket. “I’ve booked a return flight for Sunday morning.”

“The day after tomorrow?” Her expression registered mild interest, but tension pulled at the muscles along her neck and shoulders. “Then you must plan to return for the reading. Perhaps you will be able to take some time then.”

“No. I don’t intend to return. I have a meeting today with Mr. Wurst, the estate attorney.”

“Nathan?”

“Yes. I’m hoping he can answer some questions for me, and I plan to sign over power of attorney to him.”

“I see.” She dropped her gaze, staring into her coffee cup.

Everything from her cool tone to her dismissive posture told him she wholly disapproved. He knew her opinion shouldn’t matter to him in the least. When it came right down to it, she was nothing more to him than his father’s gold-digging widow.

Yes, she’d been careful and deliberate in delivering sensitive news to a potentially hostile recipient, a skill he had been able to appreciate even in his surreal state of disassociation. Her words, e-mails, and texts had been largely responsible for getting him prepared, packed, and on a plane in a few short hours after learning his father was dead. Perhaps the unexpected shame he felt at disappointing her wasn’t so odd, given the extreme circumstances under which they’d come to know each other. Unfortunately, the thought did nothing to dampen his growing irritation.

“Is there a problem?”

Without looking at him or answering his question, Lillian took a delicate sip from her cup. She returned it to its saucer and placed both pieces on the table in front of her and then folded her hands in her lap. She faced him with a curious expression; part dread, part resignation.

“Your father had harbored a hope you might use the time to reacquaint yourself with your life here. He’d hoped you might consider becoming the steward of your family’s legacies…this home and the business.”

He opened his mouth, but for several seconds there were no words.

“What are you talking about?” he managed at last.

“As I said earlier, this is your home.” She swept her arms in encompassing arcs like a game show hostess highlighting a grand prize. “And your father wished for you to take his place in the business as chairman.”

Whether it was exhaustion or alcohol or being in this place where memories lurked around every corner, Griffin felt the walls moving in on him. He got to his feet in a rush. The sudden motion made him sway unsteadily. Lillian rose as well, placing her hand on his forearm. His eyes went to where she touched him. Electric currents radiated from the point of contact.

He brought his hands up intending to push her off of him. But when his palms met the warm skin of her shoulders, instead of setting her away, he pulled her close.

Her startlingly green eyes went wide. He was struck, again, by their unexpected hue in contrast to her blue-black hair and olive skin. But there was something more. Peering closer, he noticed flecks of gold in the emerald depths. Fascinated, he watched as the golden slivers heated to shimmering, white shards. The effect was remarkable, its implication clear. Griffin’s lips curved at the astounding irony of it all.