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He was never coming back. The war had taken him from her. She felt it, felt his death in the emptiness that had spread through her heart. Felipe was gone. The Americans had killed him—or perhaps his own need to prove himself had done so. But as Seraphina stood on the high, rugged cliffs above the churning Pacific, she knew she had lost him.
Mist swirled around her, but she didn't draw her cloak close. The cold she felt was in the blood, in the bone. It could never be vanquished.
Her love was gone, though she had prayed, though she had spent countless hours on her knees begging the Virgin Mother to intercede, to protect her Felipe after he had marched off to fight the Americans who so badly wanted California.
He had fallen in Santa Fe. The message had come for her father to tell him that his young ward was killed in battle, cut down as he fought to keep the town out of American hands. His body had been buried there, so far away. She would never, never look on his face again, hear his voice, share his dreams.
She had not done as Felipe had asked. She had not sailed back to Spain to wait until California was safe again. Instead, she had hidden her dowry, the gold that would have helped to build their life together—the life they had dreamed of on so many bright days here on these cliffs. Her father would have given her to Felipe when he came back a hero. So Felipe had said as he kissed the tears from her cheeks. They would build a beautiful home, have many children, plant a garden. He had promised he would come back to her and they would begin.
Now he was lost.
Perhaps it was because she had been selfish. She had wanted to stay near Monterey and not put an ocean between them. And when the Americans came, she hid her bride gift, afraid they would take it as they had taken so much else.
Now they had taken everything that mattered. And she grieved, afraid it was her sin that took Felipe from her. She had lied to her father to steal those hours with her love. She had given herself before the marriage was sanctified by God and the Church. More damning, she thought, as she bowed her head against the vicious slap of the wind, she could not repent of her sins. Would not repent them.
There were no dreams left to her. No hope. No love. God had taken Felipe from her. And so, defying sixteen years of religious training, against a lifetime of belief, she lifted her head and cursed God.
* * * * *
One hundred thirty years later, the cliffs were drenched in the golden light of summer. Gulls winged over the sea, turning white breasts to the deep blue water before wheeling off with long, echoing cries. Flowers, sturdy and strong despite their fragile petals, pushed their way through hard ground, struggled toward the sun through thin cracks of rock, and turned the harsh into the fanciful. The wind was as soft as a stroke from a lover's hand. Overhead, the sky was the perfect blue of dreams.
Three young girls sat on the cliffs, pondering the story and the sea. It was a legend they knew well, and each had her own personal image of Seraphina as she had stood in those final despairing moments.
For Laura Templeton, Seraphina was a tragic figure, her face wet with tears, so alone on that windswept height, with a single wildflower clutched in her hand as she fell.
Laura wept for her now, her sad gray eyes looking out to the sea as she wondered what she would have done. For Laura the romance of it was entwined with the tragedy.
To Kate Powell it was all a miserable waste. She frowned into the sunlight, while plucking at stubby wild grass with a narrow hand. The story touched her heart, true, but it was the impulse of it, the mistaken impulse that troubled her. Why end everything when life held so much more?
It had been Margo Sullivan's turn to tell the tale, and she had done so with a rich dramatic flair. As always, she envisioned the night electrified by a storm—raging winds, pelting rain, flashing lightning. The enormous defiance of the gesture both thrilled and troubled her. She would forever see Seraphina with her face lifted high, a curse on her lips as she leapt.
"It was a pretty stupid thing to do for a boy," Kate commented. Her ebony hair was pulled neatly back in a ponytail, leaving her angular face dominated by her large almond-shaped brown eyes.
"She loved him," Laura said simply. Her voice was low, thoughtful. "He was her one true love."
"I don't see why there has to be just one." Margo stretched her long legs. She and Laura were twelve, Kate a year behind them. But already Margo's body had begun to hint at the woman just waking inside. She had breasts and was quite pleased about it. "I'm not going to just have one." Her voice rang with confidence. "I'm going to have hordes."
Kate snorted. She was thin and flat-chested and didn't mind a bit. She had better things to think about than boys. School, baseball, music. "Ever since Billy Leary stuck his tongue down your throat, you've gotten wacky."
"I like boys."
Secure in her femininity, Margo smiled slyly and brushed a hand through her long blond hair. It streamed past her shoulders, thick and wavy and wheat-colored. The minute she'd escaped her mother's eagle eye, she'd tugged it out of the band that Ann Sullivan preferred she tie it back with. Like her body, and her raspy voice, her hair belonged more to a woman than an adolescent girl.
"And they like me." Which was the best part, in Margo's estimation. "But I'll be damned if I'd kill myself over one."
Automatically Laura glanced around to make certain the swear word wasn't overheard. They were alone, of course, and it was blissfully summer. The time of year she loved most. Her gaze lingered on the house crowning the hill behind them. It was her home, her security, and it pleased her just to look at it with its fanciful turrets and high, arching windows, the soft red tiles of the roof baking in the California sun.
Sometimes she thought of it as a castle and herself as a princess. Just lately she had begun to imagine a prince somewhere who would one day ride up and sweep her away into love and marriage and happy-ever-after.
"I only want one," she murmured. "And if something happened to him it would break my heart forever."
"You wouldn't jump off a cliff." Kate's practical nature couldn't conceive it. You might kick yourself for bobbling a routine fly, or bombing a test, but over a boy? Why, it was ridiculous. "You'd have to wait to see what happened next."
She, too, studied the house. Templeton House, her home now. She thought that of the three of them, she was the one who understood what it was to face the worst, and wait. She'd been eight when she lost her parents, had seen her world rip apart and leave her drowning. But the Templetons had taken her in, had loved her, and though she'd only been a second cousin on the unstable Powell branch of the family tree, had given her family. It was always wise to wait.
"I know what I'd do. I'd scream and curse God," Margo decided. She did so now, slipping as easily as a chameleon into a pose of abject suffering. "Then I'd take the dowry and sail around the world, see everything, do everything. Be everything." She stretched up her arms, loving the way the sun stroked her skin.
She loved Templeton House. It was the only home she remembered. She had been only four when her mother left Ireland and came there to work. Though she had always been treated as one of the family, she never forgot that she was a servant's daughter. Her ambition was to be more. Much more.
She knew what her mother wanted for her. A good education, a good job, a good husband. What, Margo wondered, could be more boring? She wasn't going to be her mother—no way was she going to be dried up and alone before she was thirty.
Her mother was young and beautiful, Margo mused. Even if she played both facts down, they were facts nonetheless. Yet she never dated or socialized. And she was so damn strict. Don't do this, Margo, don't do that, she thought with a pout. You're too young for lipstick and eye powder. Worried, always worried that her daughter was too wild, too headstrong, too anxious to rise above her station. Whatever her station was, Margo thought.
She wondered if her father had been wild. Had he been beautiful? And she'd begun to wonder if her mother had had to marry—the way young girls did. She couldn't have married for love, for if she'd loved him, why didn't she ever speak of him? Why didn't she have pictures and mementos and stories of the man she'd married and lost to a storm at sea?
So Margo looked out to sea and thought of her mother. Ann Sullivan was no Seraphina, she reflected. No grief and despair; just turn the page and forget.
Maybe it wasn't so wrong after all. If you didn't let a man mean too much, you wouldn't be too hurt when he went away. But that didn't mean you had to stop living too. Even if you didn't jump off a cliff there were other ways to end life.
If only Mum understood, she thought, then shook her head fiercely and looked back out to sea. She wasn't going to think about that, about how nothing she did or wanted seemed to meet with her mother's approval. It made her feel all churny inside to think of it. So she just wouldn't.
She would think of the places she would someday visit. Of the people she would meet. She'd had tastes of that grandeur living in Templeton House, being a part of the world that the Templetons moved in so naturally. All those fabulous hotels they owned in all those exciting cities. One day she would be a guest in them, gliding through her own suite—like the one in Templeton Monterey, with its staggering two levels and elegant furnishings and flowers everywhere. It had a bed fit for a queen, with a canopy and thick silk-covered pillows.
When she'd said as much to Mr. T., he'd laughed and hugged her and let her bounce on that bed. She would never forget the way it felt to snuggle against those soft, perfumed pillows. Mrs. T. had told her the bed had come from Spain and was two hundred years old.
One day she would have beautiful, important things like that bed. Not just to tend them, as her mother did, but to have them. Because when you had them, owned them, you were beautiful and important too.
"When we find Seraphina's dowry, we'll be rich," Margo announced, and Kate snorted again.
"Laura's already rich," she pointed out logically. "And if we find it we'll have to put it in the bank until we're old enough."
"I'll buy anything I want." Margo sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees. "Clothes and jewelry and beautiful things. And a car."
"You're not old enough to drive," Kate pointed out. "I'll invest mine, because Uncle Tommy says it takes money to make money."
"That's boring, Kate." Margo gave Kate's shoulder an affectionate jab. "You're boring. I'll tell you what we'll do with it, we'll take a trip around the world. The three of us. We'll go to London and Paris and Rome. We'll only stay at Templeton hotels because they're the best."
"An endless slumber party," Laura said, getting into the swing of the fantasy. She'd been to London and Paris and Rome, and she thought them beautiful. But nothing anywhere was more beautiful than here, than Templeton House. "We'll stay up all night and dance with only the most handsome men. Then we'll come back to Templeton House and always be together."
"Of course we'll always be together." Margo slung an arm around Laura's shoulders, then Kate's. Their friendship simply was to her, without question. "We're best friends, aren't we? We'll always be best friends."
When she heard the roar of an engine, she leapt up and quickly feigned disdain. "That's Josh and one of his creepy friends."
"Don't let him see you." Kate tugged hard on Margo's hand. Josh might have been Laura's brother by blood, but emotionally he was every bit Kate's too, which made her disdain very genuine. "He'll just come over and hassle us. He thinks he's such a big shot now that he can drive."
"He's not going to bother with us." Laura rose as well, curious to see who was riding shotgun in the spiffy little convertible. Recognizing the dark, flying hair, she grimaced. "Oh, it's just that hoodlum Michael Fury. I don't know why Josh pals around with him."
"Because he's dangerous." She might have been only twelve, but some females are born able to recognize, and appreciate, a dangerous man. But Margo's eyes were on Josh. She told herself it was because he irritated her—the heir apparent, the perfect golden prince, who continually treated her like a slightly stupid younger sister, when anyone with eyes could see she was almost a woman.
"Hey, brats." With the studied cool of sixteen years, he leaned back in the driver's seat of the idling car. The Eagles' "Hotel California" blasted out of the radio and rocked the breezy summer air. "Looking for Seraphina's gold again?"
"We're just enjoying the sun, and the solitude." But it was Margo who closed the distance, walking slowly, keeping her shoulders back. Josh's eyes were laughing at her beneath a shock of windblown, sun-bronzed hair. Michael Fury's were hidden behind mirrored sunglasses, and she couldn't tell where they looked. She wasn't overly interested, but she leaned against the car and gave him her best smile. "Hello, Michael."
"Yeah," was his reply.
"They're always hanging out on the cliffs," Josh informed his friend. "Like they're going to trip over a bunch of gold doubloons." He sneered at Margo. It was much easier to sneer than to consider, even for a moment, the way she looked in those teeny little shorts. Shit, she was just a kid, and practically his sister, and he was going to fry in hell for sure if he kept having these weird thoughts about her.
"One day we'll find them."
She leaned closer, and he could smell her. She arched a brow, drawing attention to the little mole flirting with the bottom tip of it. Her eyebrows were shades darker than all that pale blond hair. And her breasts, which seemed to grow fuller every time a guy blinked, were clearly outlined under the snug T-shirt. Because his mouth was painfully dry, his voice was sharp and derisive.
"Keep dreaming, duchess. You little girls go back and play. We've got better things to do." He roared away, keeping one eye trained on the rearview mirror.
Margo's woman's heart pounded with confused longing. She tossed back her hair and watched the little car bullet away. It was easy to laugh at the housekeeper's daughter, she thought with bubbling fury. But when she was rich and famous…
"One day he'll be sorry he laughed at me."
"You know he doesn't mean it, Margo," Laura soothed.
"No, he's just a male." Kate shrugged. "The definition of an ass."
That made Margo laugh, and together they crossed the road to start up the hill to Templeton House. One day, she thought again. One day.
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When she was eighteen, Margo knew exactly what she wanted. She had wanted the same at twelve. Everything. But now she had made up her mind how to go about attaining it. She was going to trade on her looks, her best and perhaps only talent as far as she was concerned. She thought she could act, or at least learn how. It had to be easier than algebra, or English lit, or any of those other stuffy classes in school. But one way or another, she was going to be a star. And she was going to make it on her own.
She'd made the decision the night before. The night before Laura's wedding. Was it selfish of her to be so miserable that Laura was about to be married?
She'd been nearly this miserable when Mr. and Mrs. T. had taken Laura and Josh and Kate to Europe the summer before for an entire month. And she had stayed home because her mother had refused the Templetons' offer to take her along. She'd been desperate to go, she remembered, but none of her pleas, nor any of Laura's and Kate's, had budged Ann Sullivan an inch.
"Not your place to traipse off to Europe and stay in fancy hotels," Mum had said. "The Templetons have been generous enough with you without you expecting more."
So she'd stayed home, earning her keep, as her mother called it, by dusting and polishing and learning to keep a proper house. And she'd been miserable. But that didn't make her selfish, she told herself. It hadn't been as if she hadn't wanted Kate and Laura to have a wonderful time. She'd just ached to be with them.
And it wasn't as if she didn't hope that Laura's marriage would be perfectly wonderful. She just couldn't stand to lose her. Did that make her selfish? She hoped it didn't, because it wasn't just for herself that she was unhappy. It was for Laura too. It was the thought of Laura's tying herself to a man and marriage before she had given herself a chance to live.
Oh, God, Margo wanted to live.
So her bags were already packed. Once Laura flew off on her honeymoon, Margo intended to be on her way to Hollywood.
She would miss Templeton House, and Mr. and Mrs. T., and, oh, she would miss Kate and Laura, even Josh. She would miss her mother, though she knew there would be ugliness between them before the door closed. There had already been so many arguments.
College was the bone of contention between them now. College and Margo's unbending refusal to continue her education. She knew she would die if she had to spend another four years with books and classrooms. And what did she need with college when she'd already decided how she wanted to live her life and make her fortune?
Her mother was too busy for arguments now. As housekeeper, Ann Sullivan had wedding reception on her mind. The wedding would be held at church, then all the limousines would stream along Highway 1, like great, glinting white boats, and up the hill to Templeton House.
Already the house was perfect, but she imagined her mother was off somewhere battling with the florist over arrangements. It had to be beyond perfect for Laura's wedding. She knew how much her mother loved Laura, and she didn't resent it. But she did resent that her mother wanted her to be like Laura. And she never could. Didn't want to.
Laura was warm and sweet and perfect. Margo knew she was none of those things. Laura never argued with her mother the way Margo and Ann flew at each other like cats. But then, Laura's life was already so settled and smooth. She never had to worry about her place, or where she would go. She'd already seen Europe, hadn't she? She could live in Templeton House forever if she chose. If she wanted to work, the Templeton hotels were there for her—she could pick her spot.
Margo wasn't like Kate either, so studious and goal-oriented. She wasn't going to dash off to Harvard in a few weeks and work toward a degree so that she could keep books and read tax law. God, how tedious! But that was Kate, who'd rather read the Wall Street Journal than pore over the glamorous pictures in Vogue, who could discuss, happily, interest rates and capital gains with Mr. T. for hours.
No, she didn't want to be Kate or Laura, as much as she loved them. She wanted to be Margo Sullivan. And she intended to revel in being Margo Sullivan. One day she would have a house as fine as this, she told herself as she came slowly down the main stairs, trailing a hand along the glassy mahogany banister.
The stairs curved in a long, graceful sweep, and high above, like a sunburst, hung a sparkling Waterford chandelier. How many times had she seen it shoot glamorous light onto the glossy white and peacock blue marble tiles of the foyer, sparkle elegance onto the already elegant guests who came to the wonderful parties the Templetons were famous for?
The house always rang with laughter and music at Templeton parties, she remembered, whether guests were seated formally at the long, graceful table in the dining room under twin chandeliers or wandered freely through the rooms, chatting as they sipped champagne or cozied up on a love seat.
She would give wonderful parties one day, and she hoped she would be as warm and entertaining a hostess as Mrs. T. Did such things comes through the blood, she wondered, or could they be learned? If they could be learned, then she would learn.
Her mother had taught her how to arrange flowers just so—the way those gleaming white roses in a tall crystal vase graced the Pembroke table in the foyer. See the way they reflect in the mirror, she thought. Tall and pure with their fanning greens.
Those were the touches that made home, she reminded herself. Flowers and pretty bowls, candlesticks and lovingly polished wood. The smells, the way the light slanted through the windows, the sounds of grand old clocks ticking. It was all that she would remember when she was far away. Not just the archways that allowed one room to flow into another, or the complex and beautiful patterns of mosaics around the tall, wide front door. She would remember the smell of the library after Mr. T. had lighted one of his cigars and the way the room echoed when he laughed.
She'd remember the winter evenings when she and Laura and Kate would curl up on the rug in front of the parlor fire—the rich gleam of the lapis mantel, the feel of the heat on her cheeks, the way Kate would giggle over a game when she was winning.
She'd imagine the fragrances of Mrs. T.'s sitting room. Powders and perfumes and candlewax. And the way Mrs. T. smiled when Margo came in to talk with her. She could always talk to Mrs. T.
Her own room. How the Templetons had let her pick out the new wallpaper when she turned sixteen. And even her mother had smiled and approved of her choice of pale green background splashed with showy white lilies. The hours she'd spent in that room alone, or with Laura and Kate. Talking, talking, talking. Planning. Dreaming.
Am I doing the right thing? she wondered with a quick jolt of panic. How could she bear to leave everything, everyone she knew and loved?
"Posing again, duchess?" Josh stepped into the foyer. He wasn't dressed for the wedding yet, but wore chinos and a cotton shirt. At twenty-two he'd filled out nicely, and his years at Harvard sat comfortably on him.
Margo thought disgustedly that he would look elegant in cardboard. He was still the golden boy, though his face had lost its innocent boyishness. It was shrewd, with his father's gray eyes and his mother's lovely mouth. His hair had darkened to bronze, and a late growth spurt in his last year of high school had shot him to six two.
She wished he was ugly. She wished looks didn't matter. She wished he would look at her, just once, as if she wasn't simply a nuisance.
"I was thinking," she told him, but stayed where she was, on the stairs, with one hand resting casually on the banister. She knew she'd never looked better. Her bridesmaid's dress was the most glorious creation she'd ever owned. That was why she'd dressed early, to enjoy it as long as she possibly could.
Laura had chosen the summer blue to match Margo's eyes, and the silk was as fragile and fluid as water. The long sweep of it highlighted her frankly lush figure, and the long, sheer sleeves showcased her creamy ivory skin.
"Rushing things, aren't you?" He spoke quickly because whenever he looked at her the punch of lust was like a flaming fist in his gut. It had to be only lust because lust was easy. "The wedding's not for two hours."
"It'll take nearly that long to put Laura together. I left her with Mrs. T. I thought they… well, they needed a minute or two alone."