Authors: Anita Mills
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Copyright Â© 1991 by Anita Mills
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First Diversion Books edition May 2013.
Also by Anita Mills
The Fire Series
is dedicated to
the memory of my mother,
Her pride in my accomplishments was a reflection of her love.
he solicitor cleared his throat and began reading the last will and testament of the late Viscount Westover. Of those assembled in the dark and gloomy Westover library, all but one hung on every word. The exception, the titular heir, appeared detached from the proceeding and quite impervious to the frequent glances of acute dislike cast his way. Not that the others believed that he could possibly be disinterested, for the late Vernon Danvers had cut up quite warm if the truth were knownâso warm, in fact, that the fortune was reputed to be an enormous one hundred thousand pounds at the least.
Having read the customary introductory passages about the state of the departed viscount's mental health, the solicitor paused to peer dramatically over the top of his half-spectacles at the group. It was clear that he was enjoying their impatience before he finally deigned to continue in stentorian accents with, “To my sister Lenore, I bequeath the sum of two thousand pounds that she may continue in her support of worthy and charitable causes.”
All eyes turned toward that lady as the entire assemblage suppressed grins at the viscount's final gesture toward his cold and greedy sister. Even her brother Hugh covered a smile and nodded in appreciation since it was well-known that Lenore Canfield had never willingly given anyone anything of value in her life. As for the lady herself, she colored uncomfortably, but bit back her customary sharp retort.
“And to my brother Hugh,” the solicitor resumed, “the sum of two thousand pounds to be used for the good of his parish â¦”
It was Hugh Danvers' turn to receive the stares of his unsympathetic relations. Red-faced, he started from his seat in protest, but then thought better of a public display of avarice. After all, as a man in holy orders, it was unseemly to reveal his desire for worldly rewards.
“To my nieces Vivian and Charlotte, I leave one thousand pounds each for any purpose they may choose. Since it appears unlikely at this date that either will ever wed, I recommend it as a source of independence for them both â¦”
“Why, that old nip-cheese!” one of them gasped. “A paltry thousand! 'Tis most unfair!”
“Hush, Charlotte,” cautioned her sister. “We have not heard it all.”
“To my nephews Charles, Lawrence, and Quentin Danvers, I bequeath one thousand pounds each in the hopes that they will learn to conserve their substance before it is too late. If, at the end of one year, the sum inherited remains intact, it shall be doubled.”
“I say â¦ I object!” A sartorially splendid young man lurched to his feet, his face livid above his high, stiffly starched collar points. “He cannot have meant it!”
“Poor Charlie,” his brother Lawrence clucked in mock commiseration, “I daresay you'll have to pay the tradesmen now or leave the country. You've put them off for years with your expectations, haven't you?”
“But it ain't right! The old fellow had a hundred thousand if he had a farthing! I agree with Charlotteâ'tis paltry!”
“Leave him be, Larry,” Quentin cut in sharply. “It ain't like you can stand for it, either, is it? I mean, your thousand won't last you a week in the gaming hells you frequent. At least I shall see mine doubled.”
“Tut-tut,” came the languid voice from the depths of the overstuffed chair in the back of the room. Almost in unison, everyone turned toward the acknowledged black sheep of the family. Lounging easily against the button-tufted leather, the young gentleman appeared unconcerned with the dismay of the others as he vaguely waved a fine Belgian linen handkerchief in the solicitor's direction. “Pray proceed, sir,” he directed, “that I may be on the road before 'tis dark.”
“Coming it too strong, Patrick,” Lawrence retorted. “Let us see if you are so smug when 'tis told what pittence he's left you.”
The young man straightened himself in his chair and lifted an eyebrow while murmuring, “How kind of you to concern yourself for me, Larry, but I assure you that I am not likely to be disappointed in the least. After all, I never expected anything of the old man when he was alive, and I certainly expect nothing now.” He managed a brief, wry smile that did not begin to reach his very fine hazel eyes. “And lower expectations lead to fewer disappointments, one must admit.”
“Ahem!” the solicitor cleared his throat loudly. “Now, sirs, if I may proceed, after allâ”
“But I believe that I have already directed you to do so,” the young man reminded him, and settled back in his seat.
Weatherby cast a wary eye in his direction and then hastened through the reading. “As for my nephew Patrick Danvers,” he intoned, “it has been discovered to me at considerable expense that since Patrick is the son of my next brother, there is no means of preventing his succession to my title, despite how abhorrent that circumstance is to me â¦” The plump, balding man paused for a nervous glance at the gentleman in question before plunging on, “For in the five years since his majority, I am persuaded that he has left no vice undiscovered. Having brought disgrace and dishonor on this family, he is now its titular head, a singular injustice that must nonetheless be borne.” Again, Weatherby looked up for some sign of the legendary temper and was relieved to see Patrick still in his chair.
“Do go on,” the young man prompted almost lazily, “for now you have reached the point that interests me.”
“Uh â¦ yes â¦ wellâ¦” The solicitor's discomfort seemed to increase as he pulled at his cravat, cleared his throat, and took a deep breath before screwing his courage to the sticking point and reading anew. “However,” he continued finally, “since I find I am unable to dispose of my title as I would, I deem it necessary to provide for its maintenance on condition. Therefore, I leave the remainder of the estate, all lands and monies not specifically bestowed elsewhere, to Patrickâ”
There was a collective gasp of shock and outrage from every relative but Patrick. He sat still as stone, his face set and inscrutable, while Weatherby finished, “âon condition that he marry a female of respectable birth and unimpeachable virtue and give evidence of producing a more suitable son within the twelvemonth of this reading. To provide for him during this time, he shall have at his disposal the sum of ten thousand pounds to settle on the unfortunate lady. Should he prove unwilling or unable to meet the stipulations set herein, the money will revert, in its entirety, to be used for the establishment of a school for indigent but able boys under the direction of Mr. Jonas Weatherby.”
Not daring to look again at Patrick, the solicitor enumerated various small bequests of articles and pensions to the Westover retainers. He was wasting his breath, however, as no one in the room was now listening. To a person, they stared at Patrick, their faces mirroring the revulsion and indignation that each felt at the perceived injustice of it all. As for Patrick himself, his only reaction was a barely discernible twitch of the muscles of his jaw.
Hugh Danvers, his face mottled a dangerous purplish-red, found his voice and spat out, “You! 'Tis outside of enough! His entire fortune indeed!” Shaking uncontrollably, he raised a blunt finger to point accusingly at his nephew. “He cannot have been of sound mind, I tell youânot after what you have done to this family!”
“Uncle Hugh, calm yourself!” Vivian implored as she caught at his arm. “He's not worthy of an apoplectic fitâhe's not! And besides,” she added in a reasonable tone, “he'll not spend a farthing above the ten thousand, Uncle, for there's not a respectable female as would have him.” Favoring the new viscount with a contemptuous glance, she sniffed, “No one would consider Patrick an eligible connection!”
“But what use is that to us, pray?” Lawrence complained. “As I heard it, there's precious little of Uncle Vernon's money that any of us'll see.”
“Ayeâthis time next year, the whole bloody fortune will be building a damned school,” Quentin snorted.
Seemingly unperturbed by the ire of his relations, the object of their disaffection unfolded his tall frame from the depths of his chair and stood, his attention absorbed with the removal of a small nub of lint from the sleeve of his perfectly tailored blue superfine coat. Then, adjusting the same sleeve down over a decidedly masculine wrist, he reached gracefully to retrieve his hat from the nearby table.
His face was schooled into bland amiability, but there was that about him which gave even his most disapproving critics pause. It was difficult to describeânot that they had not tried, of course, for more than once his Aunt Lenore could have been heard to remark out of his hearing that “Patrick is but an impeccably polite savage, if the truth dare be told.” Not that this was readily apparent even to an interested observer, for a cursory appraisal of the young man would reveal rather an extraordinarily handsome fellow whose striking good looks came from a perfectly chiseled face, hair the color of polished mahogany, almost hypnotic hazel eyes whose color altered to reflect his thoughts, and an excellently fleshed frame whose proportions were a delight to Stultz, his fashionable tailor. Yet there was something to be sensed rather than seen in Patrick Danvers, an unstudied, almost feline grace that combined with a certain air of self-assurance to evoke a sense of danger in his presence. Noâthere was something beneath that controlled facade. Even when he had been sent down from Oxford for his first duel, it was acknowledged that he was more distinguished than most of his peers in his studies, a thoughtful but incisive scholar of the classics, in fact. Indeed, he had even been immensely popular with his fellows and his relatives, in sharp contrast to the dislike he evoked now. But he'd earned a reputation as a duelist, something which of itself could have been easily forgiven but for his failure to follow the accepted rules. Yet twice, when he should have fled the country to avoid prosecution for fatal duels, he had chosen to remain and face public inquests which, while eventually exonerating him, nonetheless had exposed his ancient and noble family to disgraceâan unpardonable sin in the eyes of the
Unwilling to let him go quietly, Quentin could not resist taunting him, “Well, Coz, you can whistle that fortune down the wind, can't you? I'd say the old man has had his final revengeâall that money dangling in front of you and you cannot get it.”
“Well, I should hope not!” Vivian added maliciously. “Not after what he did!”
“Aye,” Charles joined in, “Pat, I'll lay you a monkey that says you cannot meet the terms.”
“Of course he cannot,” Lady Lenore sniffed, “but what comfort is that to us, pray?” Ignoring the new Lord Westover, she turned to the others. “I say that once he is gone, we must put our heads together with Mr. Weatherby to determine just how this infamous document may best be circumvented.”
“Oh, Aunt Lenoreâdo you truly think it possible?” Charlotte breathed. “I cannot bear that it should go to Patrick. Besides,” she added with feeling, “ 'tis not right the way Uncle Vernon positively encouraged us to toady to him in expectation and then to make no provisionâ”
“Charlotte!” Vivian reproved hastily. “We did not toadyâwe merely paid him his due when he was alive.”
The new viscount observed the hope mirrored on his relatives' faces as they contemplated the prospect of cutting him out of the family fortune. For a brief moment his hazel eyes exposed the pain and anger he felt, and then they were veiled as he turned to Charles.
“A monkey, Charlie?” he asked with deceptive softness. “Do you not think that a poor wager, given the stakes? But if you will make it your thousand pounds, you are on.”
“Don't do it, Charlie,” Quentin warned. “Remember what happens to those foolish enough to gamble with him.”
“Aye,” Larry agreed, “ten to one, you'd not live to collect it.”
Shrugging, Patrick reached into his coat pocket to draw out a slender leather pouch. Opening it, he extricated a sheaf of banknotes and extended them toward his uncle. “I believe you'll find a thousand there, Uncle Hugh, but I suggest you count it out in front of Charlie to be sure. Now”âhe turned back to his cousinâ“do you cover it or not?”
For an instant, Charles met his eyes and then looked away. “At what odds?” he asked with a dry mouth.
“Perfectly even. A bargain for you, wouldn't you say? You could have three thousand at year's end, after all.”
Charles hesitated. “I â¦ I'd not live to spend it.”
“My dear Charles, even I should scarce be able to murder you outright,” Patrick reminded him. “You'd have to agree to meet me first.”
“Remember Bridlington and Haworth,” Lawrence cautioned his brother. “He's as good as there is with a pistol.”
“And with a sword,” Quentin threw in.
“May the Lord forgive you all,” Hugh Danvers intoned sanctimoniously, “for gambling on this sad occasion. Our time would be better spent listening to Lenore. And I am not entirely averse to allowing Patrick to participate in circumventing this outrageous instrument.”
“Alas”âPatrick shook his head to declineâ“ 'tis scarcely to my benefit. After all, I seem to be the principal heir.”
“Only if you wed a respectable female and get yourself an heir of your own,” Charlotte gibed indelicately. “And none of us thinks you can do it.”
Charles Danvers wavered and then nodded. “Aye. Weatherby, you can give my thousand to Uncle Hugh to hold. But I warn you,” he addressed Patrick, “that I ain't going to be called out for nothing! I may be the slowtop of this family, but I ain't a fool.”
“Well, if that's settled then â¦” Patrick pushed back a stray lock of dark red hair and set his hat at a decidedly rakish angle. Flashing his most engaging grin at his outraged relations, he executed a mocking bow. “As we are agreed on the wager, I really must be getting on. Quite sorry to be leaving my charming family, of course,” he apologized, “but since none of you appears marriageable in the least, I shall bid you all good day.” Catching sight of Charlotte's totally indignant scowl, he favored her wickedly. “Sorry, my dear, but I fear we should not suit at all.”