Authors: Louise Bergin
Tags: #Nov. Rom
Miss Annette Courtney, spinster of Upper Brampton village in Wiltshire, sat patiently on her chair, waiting for Sir Nigel Montfort's will to be read. She did not mind the delay and watched as the other apparent beneficiaries settled themselves. For once, a roaring fire heated the grand drawing room at Hathaway Hall. She luxuriated in the opportunity to warm her bones, safe from the January winds lashing outside the windows. Since it would be most improper to stretch like a cat, Annette contented herself with curling and relaxing her formerly numbed fingers and toes. It had been a long, freezing wet walk from her cottage on the outskirts of the village to the manor house.
The extra chairs in the drawing room filled quickly as more men and women arrived. Hushed greetings were exchanged, as though they gathered in a church. Sir Nigel Montfort must not have been as much a miser in his will as he had been in real life. Most of the people Annette recognized were either from the village or servants of the estate. Along with the housekeeper, the cook, and the
Reverend Brown, she assumed she was to receive a small bequest.
She tried not to allow her hopes to rise too high, but any amount would be greatly appreciated. The collier, the butcher, and the merchant had all presented their bills to her for payment. The only question was, which one would no longer extend her any credit; he would be the one she paid. Prices had risen so much that she very much feared the income she relied on from her late mother's jointure would not support her throughout 1812, and the year had only begun.
Looking around, she saw that most of the chairs were filled and some of the people stood against the wall. The solicitor spread his papers out on a dark mahogany table set to one side of the hearth's fire. He stood so close to the blaze that his cravat drooped in the heat. She hoped the man would not take much longer to begin. The suspense filled her with anticipation.
Indeed, it surprised her that Sir Nigel had remembered her at all. The servants and the vicar were traditionally remembered in bequests, but Annette had never anticipated herself to be included. She would have thought the late baronet regarded her as a nuisance of the worst sort.
True, she had often plagued Sir Nigel for funds to assist the poor or the church's needs. Upon occasion she had even argued with him on behalf of his tenant farmers. Only after a great amount of pleading and persistence on her part, and continuous grumbling on his, would the old man dole out any of his money. Successful efforts left her departing Hathaway Hall with a drained feeling, as if her body had expended all its strength to pry free the few coins she clutched in her hands to help the poorest members of the village.
A sudden, deep laugh rang out over the subdued mur-murings of the beneficiaries. It sounded louder than it should because everyone else was so quiet. Annette joined the others in seeking its source.
The man lounging in the best seat, a wing chair placed not too close, yet not too far from the hearth, paid no heed at becoming the center of remonstrative attention. He was dressed from head to toe in correct mourning black, which made his white linen gleam in the gray winter light of the room. His brown hair was combed into a fashionable style, yet its appearance was not so outrageous as to offend the country's sensibilities. The gold watch dangling from his fingers swung in time with his crossed leg. From his relaxed manner, Annette assumed he was the heir and new baronet, Sir Gerard Montfort. Village chatter had seethed with every tidbit of his arrival.
He spoke in a low tone to another man seated nearby. Gossip said a friend had accompanied the new heir. Annette ignored him in order to study the new baronet carefully. From the late Sir Nigel, she had heard much regarding his low opinion of the man who would succeed him. The old baronet often ranted about the extravagances and wastefulness of Gerard Montfort. Sir Nigel had greatly feared what would happen to his hoarded wealth when his nephew got his hands on the money.
"He's a wastrel!" Sir Nigel would thunder.
Annette had always agreed, even though she had never met the man. It was easier to listen to the lecture that accompanied any donation, rather than argue on behalf of someone she did not know. Now she wondered how much of the harangues she had endured were true. In her circumscribed life within the confines of Upper Brampton
village, she had heard much about London wastrels, but she had never seen one.
If he was as negligent about money as his uncle claimed, perhaps she could convince him to support her plans for a school for the village and country children. Sir Nigel had always dismissed her project with a contemptuous snort and another lecture. He would never waste his money on a pack of dull brats, no matter how often Annette stated an education erased the stupidity. Even though she never managed to open the school, she tried to remain grateful for the donations she managed to wrest from the miser. Now she speculated at how successful she would be with the new baronet.
Sir Gerard looked rather striking. Despite the life of dissipation he was reputed to lead, no signs of it showed on his tall frame. His face had high cheekbones and the strong chin of a man of decisiveness. His jacket emphasized his broad shoulders, while his pantaloons encased the muscular legs of a man accustomed to hours on horseback. His appearance warred with his reputation. Not a young man, she decided. He was probably only a year or two older than her own age of thirty. She wondered why he had not married. Sir Nigel had also lectured her on the delinquent duties of his heir.
As if she had asked the question aloud, Sir Gerard suddenly looked at her. A grin spread across his face, making him appear almost lighthearted, which surely was an inappropriate action for the chief mourner. Resisting the urge to smile back, Annette pursed her lips. A wastrel with no sense of propriety, just as Sir Nigel had thundered.
Sir Gerard raised his eyebrows at her refusal of his friendly greeting. He shifted his body so his back was towards her and bent his head closer to his friend.
Annette sniffed, feeling guilty at her disdainful behavior. It was wrong of her to judge the man based upon the prejudicial rantings of his miserly uncle. When her late father was the vicar, she had heard many sermons, both in and out of church, regarding the judgment of one's fellow man. After all, now she would be coming to the new baronet whenever she needed a donation. Intending to make amends, she began to smile tentatively at the heir in case he glanced back towards her.
Then the solicitor cleared his throat.
Soft though the sound was, everyone immediately quieted as though a judge had banged a gavel. With avid expectation, they faced the man.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to begin. I am Piers Keller, the late Sir Nigel Montfort's solicitor, and I appreciate your making the effort to be here for the reading of the will."
Polite murmurings answered him, but no one spoke aloud. Like Annette, they wanted to hear what they would receive.
With his wke-rimmed glasses perched firmly on the bridge of his nose, Piers Keller began. Annette could not understand all the whereases, wherefores, and other legal terms that filled the document, but she paid close attention when the list of individual bequests started.
Sir Nigel was surprisingly generous to his servants. Even his tenants received a few coins back. When the solicitor announced the munificent amount intended for the church, a surprised gasp echoed around the room. Plainly, after death, Sir Nigel's reputation was going to be brightly burnished in the village.
From the corner of her eye, Annette noticed that Sir Gerard Montfort no longer lounged on his chair. Instead,
he sat bolt upright, a frown creasing his face. The prospect of so much wealth leaving his grasp through bequests obviously dismayed him. With an inward sigh, Annette feared she would be dealing with another miser in Upper Brampton village.
The solicitor had reached the end of the list of bequests without mentioning her name. He paused to take a breath. Excitement quivered throughout the room, as if it were a tangible part of the beneficiaries. Annette wondered if her name had been overlooked in the reading; she was certain she would have heard if it had been mentioned.
'To my nephew, Gerard Montfort, the new Baronet Westcourt, I leave all the entailed property including the title and the estate Hathaway Hall with its attached lands and house. All unentailed property and the balance of my wealth, I leave to Miss Annette Courtney, spinster of Upper Brampton village."
For an instant, shocked silence hung in the air, then a reflexive gasp filled the drawing room. All eyes turned to stare at Annette. She stared back in disbelief. The room began to swim before her eyes. A loud roaring filled her ears, and she wondered if she was going deaf. Certainly she could not have heard what she thought she had heard.
A sudden shout broke the incredulous spell. "No! I don't believe it!" Sir Gerard Montfort sprang to his feet and strode over to snatch the will from the solicitor's hands. "My uncle would never do such a thing to me."
Piers Keller drew himself up to his full height, but he was still five inches below the angry heir. "I assure you, this is what Sir Nigel wished."
Sir Gerard stared at the paper. "It cannot be. Just the lands and the title? Only what the entail required him to bestow? None of the money?"
The solicitor cleared his throat and carefully took the will back into his hands. "I believe he did not trust you with his money."
"But I am his nephew. To whom else should it go?"
"Sir Nigel selected Miss Courtney."
"And just who is this Miss Courtney?" Sir Gerard sneered.
Annette stood on legs that wobbled beneath her skirts. "I am."
Aware of everyone's stares, she approached the table. Sir Gerard cast her a contemptuous look. Suddenly Annette was very conscious of her serviceable brown woolen dress and the severity of her hairstyle. To his London eyes, she probably appeared like a maidservant, instead of the daughter of the deceased vicar.
"Quite the adventuress, aren't you, Miss Courtney? You obviously possess the talent necessary to swindle my uncle's money from him."
His gibe stung Annette. "This is just as much a surprise to me as it is to you."
"It is a surprise to me" he acknowledged with his dark eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Her ire began to stir within her. After all, she had withstood his uncle. The nephew was not going to browbeat her. Only by recalling how much of a jolt the news was could she rein in her tongue. With an effort, she turned to the solicitor. "What does that last part of the will mean?"
"It means you are a very rich woman," Keller replied. "Once all the beneficiaries have been paid, you receive the remainder of the money. The only things Sir Nigel could not give you were the lands and the title, which are
entailed. He only had a life interest in them, the same as Sir Gerard has now."
"But I need the money to go with it!" the baronet exclaimed. "This will cannot stand. It is totally ridiculous!"
The solicitor stiffened with affront. "I assure you that Sir Nigel was of sound mind when he outlined his wishes to me."
"Then I want you to break it." Menace threatened behind Sir Gerard's order.
"I cannot do that."
"I was the one who drew up this will for Sir Nigel. It is legal in every respect."
Sir Gerard nearly shouted with anger. "You drew up this monstrous display of injustice? What type of solicitor goes against all common decency in such a way?"
The man tried to soothe the angry baronet. "I did my best to point out the injustice in his plans, but Sir Nigel would not listen. He was determined not to give you a farthing more than he must. I did do my best, sir."
"Your best is obviously not competent enough for me. I will break this will."
"You can try." Annette heard the tartness in the solicitor's voice. "If you have the money, you can try anything, but I warn you. This will is sound. It will stand."
Sir Gerard flung up his hands and turned to face the beneficiaries. "I want you out of my house now. After all, Hathaway Hall is still mine, is it not?"
Subdued, Keller replied, "Of course it is, sir."
Grumbling greeted Sir Gerard's order. As people pushed back their chairs and stood, Annette knew they were disappointed to be sent home without the traditional reception after the reading of the will. She recognized that
many of the villagers were dressed in their Sunday best clothes in honor of the trip to Hathaway Hall. Sending them away so abruptly would not endear the new baronet to them. Memories lasted a long time in the country. Living in London, he could not be expected to know that. Since she was used to defending the villagers' interests, it was her duty to inform him, no matter how much she dreaded his anger.
She cleared her throat. "Sir Gerard, I believe the people expected to be offered something to eat. After the reading, a small reception is a common practice around here."
He stared at her in disbelief, his brown eyes as hard as the oak trees that lined his lands. "First you take my money, and now you expect me to feed you?"
"The money was not yours," she pointed out. "It belonged to Sir Nigel to do what he wished with it." Annette had paid close attention to the bitter exchange between the baronet and the solicitor. She had not yet grasped the extent of her new riches, but she knew she was a wealthy woman. "Sir, you can be gracious. After all, these people will be your neighbors and tenants for as long as you are at Hathaway Hall."
He shot a bitter glare at her. "That's correct. I only have a life interest in it."
He flung himself around to face the beneficiaries who had stood but had made no further move to leave while such dramatics played before them. "Very well. You may eat. The meal is laid in the dining room." He turned back to Annette. "Since the food is not entailed, I assume it is at your expense they will be eating. You can entertain them. I am going to my room, where I expect to enjoy a