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Safe behind her black veil, Sylvia Boisette steeled herself to confront those who, because of her birth, were a part of her world, but who would never accept her as part of theirs.
Dusty fingers of gold streamed through the bank of windows along the library's west wall, highlighting the room's comfortable shabbiness. On the threshold behind her, the eager servants murmured in anticipation of the reading of the will.
'I believe Mr Tripp wishes you to sit there, mademoiselle,' the butler muttered over her shoulder. He gestured to the far end of the room.
In front of the bewigged, craggy-faced lawyer, ranged the backs of three seated figures, a black-clad bastion of stiff respectability, and beside them, one empty chair.
'Who are they?' Sylvia whispered to the butler. Isolated in painful solitude at the funeral, she could only guess the identity of the strangers in attendance and the servants always knew everything.
'Imogene Molesby, the master's sister, to the right,' Bur-bridge murmured. A large-boned woman, she wore an outdated black bonnet and sat closest to the windows. 'Her husband, George.' Molesby's bulk seemed to overflow his straight-backed chair.
Beside him sat the handsome young man whose height and breadth had overshadowed the pitifully small group of mourners at the graveside, his aloof, patrician countenance full of disapproval. She nodded towards him. 'And the other?'
'Mr Christopher Evernden, Lord Stanford's younger brother.'
A buzz of anger in her veins chased off the numbness that had held her in thrall all morning. Lord Stanford, the head of the Evernden family, hadn't even bothered to come to his uncle'sfuneral. And Monsieur Jean had always spoken so well of his nephew.
Pauvre Monsieur Jean. How she would miss reading to him in this very room, his smiling face lit by the glow of a fireplace now as cold and empty as her heart. Sometimes, moisture glinting in his tired eyes, he had told her how much she resembled her beloved mother. Icy fingers clenched in her stomach. She might carry the burden of her mother's beauty, but she would not follow her path to ruin.
A deep breath steadied the beat of her heart. With a solemn swish of black silk skirts, she trod the bars of light and shade on the faded Axminster rug as if they formed the rungs of a ladder to her future, or an escape from her past.
Mr Tripp acknowledged her presence with a nod.
Fighting the sudden trembling in her knees, she sank on to the empty chair beside Mr Evernden. His sharp, sideways glance projected his distaste with the sureness of an arrow, while a chill disapproval emanated from his companions. She forced her spine straight. From this moment on, she would forge her own destiny.
Behind the ancient walnut desk, the lawyer glanced down at his papers. 'That is everyone, I presume?'
The straight-backed chair beside her issued an impatient creak and, from behind her veil, she risked a glance at its occupant. Polished Hessian boots planted flat on the floor, his muscular thighs extended well beyond the chair seat. Gold glinted in his dark-honey, wind-tousled hair. Fair skinned, with a chiseled jaw and high forehead, he bore the stamp of English nobility. His expressive mouth, set in a straight line, spoke of firmness of purpose.
Her stomach tumbled over in a strangely pleasurable dance.
Caught midbreath, she froze. She never allowed herself to notice men. One glance and the lascivious greed in their eyes sent her diving for the cover of cold disdain. She tried not to see them at all. Her interest stemmed from curiosity, nothing else. She focused her gaze on the lawyer.
Mr Tripp began to read. 'Being of sound mind '
Beyond the window, fleecy clouds scudded across a robin's-egg-blue sky, their shadows gambolling like lambs across the familiar green, rolling hills. She would miss walking those headlands between here and Folkestone.
Tripp droned on and she forced herself to listen. Monsieur Jean left small sums of money to his butler and the housekeeper. He left a guinea to each of the other servants. How like the gentle man to remember them. His prized books, already boxed and waiting for transportation, went to an old friend too ill to travel to the funeral.
'To my sister, Imogene, I leave the ormolu clock which belonged to our mother,' Tripp intoned.
The clock Mrs Molesby and monsieur had fought over for years. How he had chuckled over that tale. She repressed a smile.
'Cliff House will be sold to pay my debts,' Mr Tripp read.
Monsieur Jean had promised her something for her future. She needed very little. Sylvia held her breath.
Pausing, Mr Tripp looked over his pince-nez at the assembled company. He cleared his throat. 'I leave my ward, Miss Sylvia Boisette, in the charge of my nephew, Mr Christopher Evernden.'
Sylvia gasped at the same moment Christopher Evernden smothered a startled oath with a cough.
The lines etched in Tripp's face deepened. 'He will receive whatever funds remain from the sale of Cliff House for her future care. The balance, when she marries, is to be used for her dowry.'
The room rocked around Sylvia as if Cliff House had toppled from its chalky perch and now floated on the wave-tossed English Channel. Sylvia closed her eyes against a surge of nausea, holding her body rigid until her head ceased to spin. She would not let them see her distress.
What had Monsieur Jean done? The dagger of realisation stabbed through her whirling thoughts. By trying to protect her from beyond the grave, he had ruined her plans.
'Disgusting,' Imogene Molesby exploded. 'How dare he foist his ladybird on to a respectable member of this family? It's disgraceful. There ought to be a law against it.'
Heat scorched her face at the damning tone. She clamped her mouth shut against the desire to cry out against the woman's injustice. Not for her own sake, but for sullying her beloved Monsieur Jean's memory.
At the back of the room, the servants moved restlessly and low mutters broke out. She turned and shook her head to stem their loyal defence. She wanted no public outcry marring this day.
Mr Tripp mopped his brow with a large white handkerchief. 'That concludes the reading of the last will and testament of Mr John Christopher Evernden. A cold collation is offered to the family and mourners in the blue drawing room.'
The ormolu clock on the mantel ticked into the silence.
Hopelessly kind and a dreamer to his dying day, Monsieur Jean had buried her dream of starting a new, respectable life.
The chair arms solid beneath her shaking hands, Sylvia pushed to her feet.
Mr Evernden, shock and horror reflected in his hazel eyes, rose with her and executed a stiff bow. He wanted this as little as she. What English gentleman wouldn't be horrified at such a dreadful imposition? To be required to care for a woman of ill repute went beyond the pale of family duty.
Tears scalded the backs of her eyes and her mind unravelled at the speed of a spool of wool batted by a cat. She hadn't felt this lost since, at the age of eleven, she learned she would never see her mother again.
The tattered remnants of her composure her only shield against their censorious faces, she sketched a curtsy to Mr Evernden and the irate Molesbys. She nodded to Mr Tripp and, head held high, strode for the drawing room. The servants parted to allow her through the doorway. She acknowledged their murmured words of support as she passed.
She would not allow this to happen. There must be some way to be rid of this grim young Englishman.
Christopher, appalled and astonished, stalked towards the lawyer. He needed this error corrected immediately.
A hand clutched at his arm. 'I say, Evernden, we didn't expect to see you here today.'
Damn. The presence of the Molesbys added another layer of complication to the situation. He reined in his impatience. 'Mother insisted one of us had to attend. Unfortunately, Garth had another engagement.'
His chubby face shining and his gaze greedy with anticipation, Uncle George slid him a grin. 'That really is doing it rather too brown, don't you know. Leaving you saddled with his ' He coughed delicately into his hand and glanced at the affronted expression on his wife's horsy face. 'Well, I mean to say, his ward.' He winked. 'I hear she's ravishing.'
Christopher's heart sank. Garth's exploits, along with those of his infamous uncle John, were bad enough. When this news hit the clubs, Christopher's name would also be dragged through the Evernden mire. No doubt Uncle George would dine out on the story for weeks.
'Don't beat about the bush, George,' Aunt Imogene said with her habitual snort. 'We all know what sort of female she is.'
Knowing Aunt Imogene and her tendency to take the bit between her teeth, Christopher held his tongue. George stared at his boots, a penitent in purgatory.
In a travesty of a grimace, Imogene bared her protruding yellow teeth. And that is why your father banished him from the family. A young fool, he turned into an old fool. Can you imagine? He left all his money to her. All I got was the ormolu clock.' Her indignant voice rattled the ill-fitting windows.
Christopher kept his expression bland and his growing ire under firm control. No one could require him to inherit his uncle's mistress.
'Excuse me, Aunt Imogene, Uncle George. I need to speak to Tripp.' He bowed to the old couple and followed the lawyer into the drawing room.
While its cream walls and furnishings gave no indication of its designation as blue, at least this room looked more like a gentleman's home than the drab library.
At the window, stiff and forbidding in her deep mourning, Mademoiselle Boisette stared out across the English Channel. Outlined against the light, her high-collared black gown revealed shapely curves and a narrow waist. A deliberate ploy to display her charms to advantage, no doubt.
He wasn't interested.
Tripp hovered beside the sturdy Queen Anne sideboard piled high with pastries and platters of sliced roast beef, fruits and cheeses. Red tulips and sunny daffodils in a crystal centrepiece splashed colour into the muted room.
A glass of red wine in one hand and a fat meat pasty in the other, Tripp had the expression of a well-fed bloodhound. Apparently, reading wills sharpened the appetite.
'Help yourself,' Tripp said, spraying Christopher with crumbs. 'Oh, dear me. Excuse me, sir.' He dabbed at Christopher's coat front with his napkin.
Aware of the Molesbys' entrance into the room and their curious stares as they joined the vicar near the hearth, Christopher smiled and waved Tripp off. 'No, really. Don't be concerned.'
Tripp stopped flapping and gestured to the butler. 'Drink?'
For once, a drink sounded like a good idea. Perhaps several, after this got sorted out. Christopher selected a glass of burgundy from the butler's silver tray. He sent a swift glance towards Mademoiselle Boisette and turned his shoulder to the room at large. 'Now about this will,' he murmured. 'There's been a mistake.'
'I don't think so, sir,' Tripp replied. 'I helped Mr Evernden draw it up myself last month.'
'Last month?' Christopher reeled at the implication. Twelve years ago, Christopher's father had given his younger brother the cut direct and deemed himpersona non grata. Christopher never saw him again.
Until six weeks ago.
He'd run into Uncle John in London and while he'd barely recognised the gaunt, old fellow, he didn't have the heart to cut a man whom he remembered for his generosity to him and Garth in their childhood.
Tripp took another bite of his pasty, chewed and swallowed. 'That's right. The moment he returned from London, he insisted I come right around to change his will.'
Dismay plunged Christopher's stomach to the floor. He recalled Uncle John leaning on his silver-headed walking stick on St. James's Street, his eyes twinkling as he asked after Garth and his mother. They'd chatted in a desultory way about Princess Charlotte's forthcoming wedding. The old man bemoaned the slump in trade since Waterloo and Christopher expressed concern about the Bridgeport riots. And that was it. Not a word of a personal nature crossed their lips and they had shaken hands and parted company. Apparently, simple common courtesy had landed him in a dreadful coil.
Christopher groaned inwardly. He suddenly wished he had cut off his right hand before allowing the old man to shake it. 'There must be some way to change it. Pay her off.'
'Mademoiselle Boisette, you mean?'
Who else would he mean? 'Yes.'
After a wishful glance at the sideboard, Tripp said, 'Perhaps we should discuss this in the study?'
Christopher glanced around the room where the smattering of local gentry paid their respects by eating everything in sight. In the far corner, Aunt Imogene held court, complaining loudly about the poor state of the ormolu clock to the vicar's plump wife and casting dark glances at Mademoiselle Boisette's rigid back. He nodded. 'Lead the way.'
Full of old, broken-down furniture and other rubbish, the crowded oak-panelled study smelled of camphor and dust. Moth-eaten feathered and furred trophies leaned against every available upright surface in the gloomy room. Boxes and papers spilled off the shabby desk and cluttered the chairs, leaving nowhere to sit.
'He used to hunt,' Tripp observed.
Ignoring the lawyer's attempt at delay, Christopher frowned. 'What can I do about this will?'
'Bloody hell. What do you mean, nothing?'
Tripp pursed his lips and lowered his brows.
'I'm sorry,' Christopher said. 'This all comes as rather a shock.' He took a swig of his burgundy. At least Uncle John had kept an excellent cellar.
'I imagine Mademoiselle Boisette is also surprised,' Tripp said, his jowls drooping to his cravat. 'A pleasant young woman. Always a very gracious hostess.'
The revelation of unsavoury secrets held no appeal and Christopher pressed on. 'Can I just sell the house and give her the money?'
Tripp appeared to consider the question carefully. 'Your uncle thought her too young. She needs a guardian.'
'Too young?' The words exploded from Christopher's mouth. His uncle must have been nigh on sixty. He wanted to throttle Tripp. 'How old is she?'
Tripp stiffened. 'Twenty-three. Your position of guardian is to continue until she's twenty-five.'
Dear God! Twenty-three and she had lived with his uncle for twelve years? No wonder the old man had locked himself away from society all these years. His stomach churned. The normally solid ground beneath him seemed to turn into a quagmire.
'I must decline,' Christopher said.
Tripp sighed. 'I feared as much. I told Mr Evernden the family wouldn't like it. He set great store by you, Mr Christopher. He would have been sorry to learn of his mistake.'
'At the risk of being rude, Mr Tripp, I must be brutally frank. I don't care what you think or what my uncle thought. I refuse to be imposed upon. I want it sorted out. Now.'
Tripp looked as affronted as Aunt Imogene. Christopher didn't care.
'The terms of the will are quite explicit, sir,' Tripp said.