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The air in the room was thick with the smell of incense from the candles burning on every surface. The fire was built so high the heat was almost suffocating and the three men standing within the curtains at the foot of the great canopied bed were sweating. The candles threw long shadows onto the ornately papered walls, the dark carved moldings echoed in the carvings of the bed and the heavy furniture. Thick velvet curtains at the long windows deadened the sounds from the street below and the heavy Turkey carpet muffled the footsteps as one of the three men moved backwards out of the stiflingly close confines of the bed curtains.
“Where’s Jasper?” The querulous voice coming from the high-piled pillows at the head of the bed was a thin thread in the heat and the gloom. Immediately one of the two men still beside the bed hastened to his side. He wore the plain black clothes of a lawyer or man of business.
“Where indeed?” muttered the man who had moved away from the bed. He was tall and lean, the candlelight reflecting off a head of golden hair, drawn smoothly back from a wide forehead and fastened at his nape with a black velvet ribbon.
“He’ll be here, Perry.” The speaker bore a striking resemblance to the golden-haired man. He stepped away from the bed to join him. “You know Jasper. He’s never in a hurry.”
“If he doesn’t get here soon he’ll be too late, and we’ll all be the sufferers,” Peregrine stated, his voice still low. “The old man won’t settle anything without Jasper, Sebastian, you know that as well as I do.”
Sebastian shrugged. “So be it,” he said, casting a quizzical glance at his twin brother. Physically they were alike, but temperamentally a world apart. Sebastian was troubled by little, regarding the vicissitudes of life with a cheerful insouciance. Peregrine took everything seriously, to the point of obsession on occasion as far as his twin was concerned.
“I don’t need the damn leech, Alton. I need my damned nephew, damn his eyes.” Irascibility lent strength to the voice from the bed and an outflung arm swept dismissal at the black-clad figure hovering at his head. The face on the pillows, framed in thin locks of white hair, had the yellowish cast of infirmity and age, the skin creased and brittle, the blue eyes pale and blurred with cataracts. But nothing diminished the sharp intelligence of their expression. The long, skeletal fingers of a blue-veined hand twitched restlessly over the ivory beads of a rosary.
“I’m glad to hear you in such fine fettle, sir.” A new voice, smooth and mellow with a hint of slightly caustic humor in its depths, spoke from the doorway. Sebastian and Peregrine swung around, looking towards the door. Jasper St. John Sullivan, fifth Earl of Blackwater, resplendent in a suit of deepest blue velvet, an amethyst glowing in the froth of Mechlin lace at his throat, came into the room, closing the door behind him.
“Sebastian . . . Perry . . .” He greeted his younger brothers with a cordial nod as he approached the bed, one gloved hand resting negligently on the hilt of the sword at his hip. “Ah, you’re here too, Alton.” He nodded at the black-clad man who had straightened at his arrival and was now fixing him with an anxious gaze. “I suppose the presence of my uncle’s lawyer means we are here to do business.”
“You know damn well why I summoned you, Jasper.” The invalid was sounding stronger by the minute, struggling up against his pillows. “Help me up.”
Jasper leaned over and propped the pillows against his uncle’s back. “That better, sir?”
“It’ll do . . . it’ll do,” the old man said, and then was convulsed in a violent coughing fit, pressing a thick white napkin against his mouth as his shoulders heaved. Finally the spasms ceased and he fell back against his pillows struggling to catch his breath. He looked at the faces around his bed. “So, the crows have come to the feast,” he declared.
“Hardly that, sir, since it was you who insisted upon our presence,” Jasper said amiably, tossing his bicorne hat onto a nearby table. He was as dark as his brothers were fair. “I doubt any one of us would impose ourselves upon you had we not been obeying an apparently urgent summons.”
“You always were an insolent puppy,” the bedridden man declared, wiping his mouth again with the napkin. “Well, now you’re all here, let’s get on with it.” He drew the rosary up to his chest. “Tell ’em, Alton.”
The lawyer coughed discreetly into his fist and looked as if he would rather be anywhere other than where he was. His gaze darted from brother to brother and then finally came to rest on Jasper. “As you know, my lord, your uncle Viscount Bradley has recently returned to the bosom of the church.”
“A fact that lies between my uncle and his conscience,” the earl said with a touch of acerbity. “It hardly concerns my brothers and myself.”
“Ah, there you’re wrong, m’boy,” the viscount declared with a chuckle. His faded eyes had taken on a shimmer of amusement in which just a hint of malice could be detected. “It concerns all three of you most nearly.”
Jasper drew a japanned snuffbox from the deep pocket of his coat and flipped the lid, taking a delicate pinch. It was hot as Hades in the chamber, but much as he longed to fling a window wide onto the cool night air of early autumn he refrained. “Indeed, sir?” he said politely.
“Aye.” The old man’s smile was almost smug. “You want my fortune, and you shall have it, three even shares, if you abide by my conditions. Tell ’em, Alton.”
The three brothers exchanged glances. Jasper leaned back against a carved bedpost, his arms folded. “You have our attention, Alton.”
The lawyer coughed again and took up a sheaf of documents from a table beside the bed. He began to declaim. “It is so stipulated in Lord Bradley’s will and testament that his entire fortune be divided equally among his three nephews, Jasper St. John Sullivan, fifth Earl of Blackwater, the Honorable Peregrine Sullivan, and the Honorable Sebastian Sullivan on condition that before Lord Bradley’s death they each have taken to wife a woman who is in need of salvation, and that by bestowing on that woman their name and fortune, they are the means of said woman’s conversion to the paths of righteousness.”
There was an instant’s stunned silence, then Peregrine demanded, “What in heaven’s name does that mean? In need of salvation? Paths of righteousness?” He turned in bewilderment to his older brother.
Jasper’s shoulders were shaking with silent laughter. “Sir, you have outdone yourself,” he stated, bowing with mock humility to the figure in the bed. “I expected something out of the ordinary, but never in my wildest dreams could I have come up with this.”
“Then, nephew, I shall eventually go to my Maker well satisfied,” the viscount declared, his fingers busy on his rosary, although his eyes still retained the gleam of amusement. “You are a trio of reprobates and you shall see not a penny of my fortune until you have each taken to your hearts and reformed some poor lost soul. It is my fervent hope and prayer that in the process you will find your own reformation.”
The twin brothers were silent, Peregrine still staring in a degree of openmouthed astonishment, and even Sebastian for once looking nonplussed. Jasper thoughtfully tapped his mouth with his fingertips. “Well, I’m sure your goal is a worthy one, sir. And, while I can’t speak for my brothers, for myself I am humbled that you should have such a care for my immortal soul. I take it that should you succumb to your illness before we have accomplished this task, the will is void?”
The viscount chuckled and closed his eyes. “Believe me, dear boy, I have no intention of meeting my Maker until you three are well and truly leg-shackled to women who satisfy my terms. Alton will explain the rest.” He waved a hand at them. “Go away now, and send in that crow Cosgrove. I have some writing to do.”
Alton gathered up his papers and scurried to the door. Sebastian and Peregrine followed; only Jasper remained. He looked down at the old man, who was breathing in shallow gasps, the parchment skin seeming to grow more yellow as the candlelight flickered. “You old fraud,” he murmured. “Of course you’ve no intention of dying on us any time soon. But I will say this, Uncle. Of all the tricks you’ve perpetrated on the world and your fellow man over your long life, this one takes the crown for sheer hypocrisy.”
Another cackle of malicious amusement ended in a bout of coughing, and the old man waved him away. “Get out, dear boy. I need to preserve my strength . . . indeed, you three should be more than anxious to ensure that I do.” He lay back against the pillows, his eyes glittering as they rested on his nephew’s countenance. For an instant, the old man’s mouth moved in the semblance of a smile. “You’re more like me than you’d care to admit, dear boy.”
“Oh, I don’t deny it, sir.” Jasper chuckled softly. As he turned from the bed a thin angular figure slipped into the room in the black garments of a priest, the weighty gravity of his expression belying his youth.
“Father Cosgrove.” Jasper greeted him pleasantly.
“My lord.” The young priest bowed.
“Get over here, Cosgrove. I have another installment to write and time is running out.” The invalid’s irascible tones made Father Cosgrove wince slightly, but he hastened to the bedside with a murmured, “At once, my lord.”
Jasper shook his head, feeling sorry for the young priest whose role as amanuensis to Viscount Bradley could not have been an easy one . . . certainly no easier than his role as personal priest and confessor. Not for the first time Jasper wondered what project could so involve his uncle in the last months of his life.
He left the bedchamber and joined his brothers, gathered with the lawyer in the antechamber to the bedroom. Sebastian said without preamble, “Is the old man mad? Can we credit anything he has said?”
“Oh, I think so, Seb, yes,” Jasper observed. He strolled across to a sideboard and picked up a decanter of sherry. “This seems to be all that’s on offer. May I pour for you?” He didn’t wait for a response but filled two glasses and passed them to his brothers. “Alton, for you?”
“Uh, yes, m’lord. Thank you.” Alton fumbled uneasily with his folder of papers as he took the glass handed to him.
Jasper filled one for himself and then crossed the room to the fireplace that was mercifully empty. He put one foot on the fender, rested his free arm along the mantel, and regarded his brothers and the lawyer with the hint of a smile. “So, we have much to discuss, it would seem. No, Perry . . .” He held up an arresting hand as Peregrine began to say something. “Let me speak for a moment and try to present this as I see it.”
Peregrine subsided and perched on the arm of a sofa, staring fixedly at his elder brother. The lawyer sat stiffly on an armless, straight-backed chair, clutching his documents with one hand and his sherry glass in the other.
“First, there’s nothing wrong with our uncle’s mind. In fact I’d say it was working more sharply than ever.” Jasper shook his head. “I imagine he’s been planning this diabolical little scheme for months. Certainly since before he decided to have his road-to-Damascus epiphany.” His smile was sardonic as he took another pinch of snuff. “You may choose to take that at face value if you wish. I for one don’t believe a word of it; however the whys and wherefores need not concern us. The fact is plain enough. Our uncle is an extremely rich man.” He glanced at the lawyer. “Do you have a figure, Alton?”
“Uh . . . yes, yes, my lord.” He began to shuffle the papers but without looking at them. “Viscount Bradley’s estate is worth in excess of nine hundred thousand pounds.”
Jasper contented himself with a raised eyebrow, although Peregrine drew breath sharply and Sebastian gave a low whistle.
“A goodly sum indeed,” Jasper said after a moment. “Certainly worthy of a nabob of my uncle’s ingenuity. And he could reasonably assume that since his nephews don’t have two pennies to rub together they would be more than willing to fulfill any conditions he might lay down for their inheritance.”
“You have rather more than two pennies, Jasper,” Sebastian pointed out without rancor.
“Yes, I inherited a heavily encumbered estate in Northumberland and an equally mortgaged mausoleum in town, and more debts of our father’s than I can ever imagine settling,” Jasper returned, equally without rancor. “And somehow or other our family name seems to create the expectation of largesse to every devout and poverty-stricken family hanger-on.”
“You need the money too,” Peregrine agreed hastily.
“Precisely. And our uncle knows that perfectly well. He has no one else to leave it to—” He stopped as the lawyer cleared his throat.
“If I may interrupt, my lord. Lord Bradley has specified that if you and your brothers do not meet the criteria for inheritance before his death his entire estate will go to a convent . . . a silent order, I believe . . . in the Pyrenees.”
Jasper laughed with rich enjoyment. “Oh, has he, indeed? The old fox.” He went to refill his glass, bringing the decanter to his brothers, still laughing. “Well, my dears, it seems we either each comb the streets for a fallen woman and steer her into the paths of righteousness, or we settle for poverty at best and debtor’s prison at worst.” He took an armchair, lounging with one velvet-clad leg crossed over the other. Candlelight glimmered on the silver buckle of his shoe as he swung his foot indolently.
“I don’t see what you find so amusing, Jasper,” Peregrine said.
“Oh, don’t you, Perry? I do.” Sebastian gave his twin a twisted grin. “Jasper’s right. It’s a stark choice.”
“Alton, give us the gory details,” Jasper instructed the lawyer with a nod.
“Well, my lord, first of all, all three of you must satisfy the terms of the will before any one of you can inherit.” Alton shifted a little in his chair. “The weddings must all take place, as you know, before the viscount’s demise. And the estate is to be divided equally, after all the mortgages have been paid on Blackwater Manor, and on the London property, Blackwater House.”
Jasper nodded in appreciation. “So the old man has some family pride left. Go on. Tell us about our prospective wives. How are they to be described?”
The lawyer consulted his papers again. A flush adorned his cheekbones as he began to read. “ ‘Each prospective bride must be plucked from a situation that is injurious to her immortal soul. Each prospective bride must be without means to provide for a conventional existence. It goes without saying that each prospective bride will not be found in the conventional social circles in which my nephews customarily move, although such a bride may be found in the less acceptable social circles which I’m certain they also frequent.’ ”
“Oh, clever,” Jasper murmured. He chuckled again in admiration. “The old man really has outdone himself. Ever the family outcast himself, he’s determined to force the high sticklers of Sullivan convention to accept into the family women they wouldn’t allow to touch their dirty laundry. Such a neat revenge for all the slights he’s endured over the years. Can you imagine the outrage among the aunts? I can hear them now.” He shook his head, still chuckling.
“That would appear to be the gist of the viscount’s thinking, my lord,” Alton concurred, looking even more uncomfortable.
“I can’t believe even Uncle Bradley would come up with such a diabolical revenge,” Peregrine murmured. “You’re the head of the family, Jasper, they’ll have to acknowledge your wife however much it galls them.” He subsided, shaking his head gloomily.
“You have it in a nutshell, Perry.” His elder brother smiled into his sherry glass.
The lawyer coughed again. “There is one other thing, gentlemen.” He turned over a page. “His lordship has made available to each of you immediately the sum of five thousand pounds to facilitate your pursuit of a suitable bride. He understands that you are all, for whatever reason, somewhat short of funds.”
“And never did man speak a truer word,” Jasper murmured. He regarded his brothers. “Well, gentlemen, despite the obvious difficulties, do we agree to this joint venture?”
Sebastian shrugged. Then he came forward, hand outstretched. “I do . . . Perry?”
“Yes . . . yes, of course.” Peregrine jumped to his feet, his own hand extended. “But it’s a damn smoky business, whatever you say.”
“Of course . . . what else did you expect from Uncle Bradley?” Jasper inquired, taking his brothers’ hands in turn. He raised his glass in a toast. “Here’s to the success of our enterprise.”
© 2010 JANE FEATHER