Margaret Stanhope stood at the doors that opened onto the veranda, her aristocratic features set into an icy mask as she watched her butler pass a tray of drinks to her grandchildren who had just returned for the summer holidays from their various private schools. Beyond the veranda, in the lush valley below, the city of Ridgemont, Pennsylvania, was clearly visible with its winding, tree-lined streets; manicured park; quaint shopping area; and, off to the right, the rolling hills of Ridgemont Country Club. Situated precisely in the center of Ridgemont was a sprawling cluster of red brick buildings that comprised Stanhope Industries, which was responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the economic prosperity of most of Ridgemont's families. Like most small communities, Ridgemont had a well-established social hierarchy, and the Stanhope family was as firmly ensconced at the pinnacle of that social structure as the Stanhope mansion was entrenched upon Ridgemont's highest bluff.
Today, however, Margaret Stanhope's mind was not on the view from her veranda or the lofty social standing she had possessed since birth and improved with her marriage; it was on the staggering blow she was about to deliver to her three loathsome grandchildren. The youngest boy, Alex, who was sixteen, saw her watching him and reluctantly took iced tea instead of champagne from the butler's silver tray. He and his sister were just alike, Margaret thought contemptuously as she studied the pair. They were both spoiled, spineless, promiscuous, and irresponsible; they drank too much, spent too much, and played too much; they were overindulged brats who knew nothing of self-discipline. But all that was about to stop.
Her gaze followed the butler as he offered the tray to Elizabeth, who was wearing a skin-tight yellow sundress with a plunging neckline. When Elizabeth saw her grandmother watching, the seventeen-year-old threw a haughty, challenging look at her and, in a typical gesture of infantile defiance, she helped herself to two glasses of champagne. Margaret Stanhope watched her but said nothing. The girl was practically the image of her mother—a shallow, oversexed, frivolous lush who had died eight years ago when the sports car Margaret's son was driving went out of control on an icy patch of highway, killing his wife and himself and orphaning their four young children. The police report indicated that they had both been intoxicated and their car had been traveling in excess of one hundred miles per hour.
Six months ago, heedless of his advancing age and bad weather, Margaret's own husband had died while flying his plane to Cozumel, supposedly to go fishing. The twenty-five-year-old fashion model who was also in that plane must have been along to bait his hook, she thought with uncharacteristic crudity and frigid disinterest. The fatal accidents were eloquent illustrations of the lechery and carelessness that had characterized the lives of all the Stanhope men for generations. Every arrogant, reckless, handsome one of them had lived each day of their lives as if they were indestructible and accountable to no one.
As a result, Margaret had spent a lifetime clinging to her ravaged dignity and self-control while her profligate husband squandered a fortune on his vices and taught his grandsons to live exactly as he lived. Last year, while she slept upstairs, he had brought prostitutes into this very house, and he and the boys had shared them. All of them except Justin. Her beloved Justin…
Gentle, intelligent, and industrious, Justin had been the only one of her three grandsons to resemble the men on Margaret's side of the family, and she had loved him with every fiber of her being. And now, Justin was dead, while his brother Zachary was alive and healthy, taunting her with his very vitality. Turning her head, she watched him stride swiftly up the stone steps that led to the veranda in answer to her summons, and the explosion of hatred that raged through her at the sight of the tall, dark-haired eighteen-year-old was almost past bearing. Her fingers tightened on the glass in her hand, and she fought down the wild urge to hurl it at his tanned face, to rake her nails down it.
Zachary Benedict Stanhope III, who had been named after Margaret's husband, looked exactly like his namesake at the same age, but that wasn't why she loathed him. She had a much better reason for that, and Zachary knew exactly what that reason was. In a few minutes, however, he was finally going to pay for what he had done—not enough, of course. She couldn't exact full retribution for that, and she despised her helplessness almost as much as she despised him.
She waited until the butler had served him a glass of champagne, then she strolled onto the veranda. "You are probably wondering why I've called this little family meeting today," she said. Zachary watched her in noncommittal silence from his position at the balustrade, but Margaret intercepted a look of impatient boredom between Alex and Elizabeth, who were sitting at the umbrella table. They were both undoubtedly eager to escape the veranda and meet up with their friends, teenagers who were just like themselves—amoral young thrill seekers with weak characters who did as they damned pleased because they knew their family's money would buy them out of any unpleasant consequences. "I can see you're impatient," she said turning to the two at the table, "so I will go directly to the point. I'm sure it has not occurred to either of you to wonder about anything as mundane as your financial status, however, the fact is that your grandfather was too busy with his 'social activities' and too convinced of his immortality to establish proper trusts for you after your parents died. As a result, I am now in complete control of his estate. In case you are wondering what that means, I shall hasten to explain it to you." Smiling with satisfaction, she said, "So long as you both remain in school, improve your grades, and comport yourselves in a manner that I do not deem unacceptable, I will continue to pay your tuition and I'll allow you to keep your fancy sports cars. Period."
Elizabeth's immediate reaction was more puzzled than alarmed. "What about my allowance and my living expenses when I start college next year?"
"You won't have any 'living expenses.' You will live here and attend the junior college! If you prove yourself trustworthy during the next two years, then and only then will I allow you to go away to school."
"The junior college," Elizabeth repeated furiously. "You can't be serious about all this!"
"Try me, Elizabeth. Defy me and watch me cut you off without a cent. Let word reach me of any more of your drunken parties and drugs and promiscuity, and you'll never see another dollar." Glancing at Alexander, she added, "In case you have any doubt, all that goes for you, too. Also, you won't be returning to Exeter next autumn, you'll finish high school right here."