USA Today bestsellng author and rising romance star Joan Wolf brings us her fourth big sensual and suspenseful historical romance set in Regency England.
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My God, My God, My God, he's reading Gerald's will.
It was as if someone had just dealt me a sudden and stunning blow to the head.
I stared at the lawyer standing in front of the closely clustered family group, and my fingers closed convulsively around each other in my lap.
I thought again, with shocked comprehension, He's reading Gerald's will.
I think it was the first time I truly understood that my husband was dead.
A deep voice from the chair next to mine murmured, "Are you all right, my dear?"
I pressed my lips firmly together and nodded. Uncle Adam reached over to pat my clenched hands gently, and then he returned his attention to Mr. MacAllister. The dry, dispassionate, legal voice droned on:
"In the event any part of my estate becomes payable to my son, Giles Marcus Edward Francis Grandville, before he attains the age of twenty-one, a separate trust shall be established for him, to be held by a Guardian, hereinafter named, upon the following terms, conditions, and for the following purposes."
As Giles was only four years of age, it came as no surprise to me that the estate would be tied up for him in a trust.
Giles was the earl of Weston now. Gerald was dead. I drew a long, unsteady breath and stared fixedly at the splendid green and white marble chimney piece that rose behind Mr. MacAllister's long, narrow head.
I had not been prepared for this kind of emotional reaction to the reading of the will. Perhaps that was why it had happened, I thought. It had caught me unaware.
The last few days I had felt as if I were living through an unrealnightmare.
After Gerald's death, the servants had shrouded the house in black, and for twenty-four hours his body had lain in state in the Great Hall. All day long neighbors and tenants had filed past his coffin. Then, yesterday, hundreds of black-robed mourners had formed a great funeral cortege from the house to the church. Giles had been beside me all during the church service, and his small hand had held tightly to mine when the vicar had said the prayers over the casket before it was lowered into the vault that already held six earls of Weston.
Giles had helped me. I had needed to be calm for him.
But Giles was not here today. Nor were there hundreds of eyes watching me. And Mr. MacAllister was reading Gerald's will. I breathed deeply, moved my eyes to the lawyer's face, and struggled to focus my attention.
Mr. MacAllister was still on the topic of the trust: "The Guardian herein named shall have the power to manage, sell at public or private sale, lease for any terms, or otherwise convey without the order of any Court, and to invest and reinvest the trust property..."
It seemed unbelievable to me that my little son was now the earl of Weston.
The atmosphere in the room changed subtly. I sensed a faint rustle, as of people coming to stricter attention. I brought my own attention back to Mr. MacAllister and realized that he was coming to the naming of Giles's Guardian.
Mr. MacAllister sensed the drama of the occasion and paused. He glanced up from the long, legal document he was holding and let his eyes run consideringly around the semicircle of faces assembled before him in the library of Weston Hall.
There were not many of us. I sat in the middle with Uncle Adam and his wife, Fanny, on one side of me and my mother on the other side. On the far side of Mama was Gerald's uncle Francis Putnam, and next to him was Gerald's cousin, Jack Grandville. The rest of the Grandville family had returned home directly after the funeral.
Mr. MacAllister returned his gaze to Gerald's will and began to read slowly and clearly: "I hereby name, constitute, and appoint my brother, Stephen Anthony Francis Grandville, as Trustee and Guardian for my son, Giles Marcus Edward Francis, and Executor of this my Last Will and Testament..."
There was more, but we didn't hear it.
"Stephen!" Jack's voice completely drowned out Mr. MacAllister's nasal drone. "Gerald can't have named Stephen!"
Mr. MacAllister lowered his document and looked at Jack over the rims of his spectacles. "I assure you, Mr. Grandville, the earl did most certainly name his brother, Stephen. I was the one who made the will for him, so I should know."
Mama's clear, cool voice made itself heard next. "Stephen is in Jamaica," she said. "He has been in Jamaica these last five years. He cannot possibly act as Giles's guardian from halfway around the world. You will have to name someone else, Mr. MacAllister. I cannot imagine what Gerald was thinking when he named Stephen."
Mr. MacAllister said calmly, as if he were totally unaware that he was dropping a keg of lighted gunpowder into our midst, "Mr. Stephen Grandville will have to be called home to assume his responsibilities. In fact, I have taken it upon myself to write and apprise him of the contents of Lord Weston's will."
"Well, that was damn cheeky of you, MacAllister," Jack said furiously. His handsome face was flushed with anger.
"One of the family should inform Stephen of his brother's death." For once my mother agreed with Jack; she had always been a stickler for form. "Such news should not come from an attorney."
"I also wrote to Stephen about Gerald's death," Uncle Francis said quietly. "Both letters will doubtless arrive in Jamaica on the same boat."
"Suppose he refuses to come back?" Jack said. "After all, he could still be arrested for that escapade of five years ago, couldn't he?"
"There was never any question of an arrest," Mr. MacAllister said coldly. "The authorities were fully satisfied by his father's promise to have him leave the country."
"No charges were preferred," Uncle Adam agreed. "Stephen is perfectly free to return to England should he choose to do so."
My mother turned to me and demanded, "Did you know Gerald had named Stephen, Annabelle?"
"No, I did not." I looked at the family attorney. "When was this will executed, Mr. MacAllister?"
"Shortly after Giles was born, Lady Weston," he replied gently.
I pressed my lips together and tried to keep my face blank.
Mr. MacAllister attempted to reassure me. "Mr. Stephen Grandville is to be Giles's guardian, Lady Weston, but I can assure you it was always Lord Weston's intention that the care of your son should remain with you."
"I cannot understand why Gerald did not name Adam," Mama said.
I stood up. "This discussion is pointless. Gerald named Stephen. I am quite certain, however, that when Gerald made this will he had every expectation of living well beyond Giles's majority." My voice shook treacherously. "I am going upstairs," I said.
"Mr. MacAllister has not finished with the will, Annabelle," my mother said.
I didn't answer. I simply walked out the door.
* * *
The dogs were waiting for me in the hall passageway, and as usual they trailed close behind me as I went up the stairs to the nursery, which was situated on the third floor of the house. I looked first into the schoolroom and found it empty. The dogs and I went along the corridor, past the governess's room, and into the playroom. There I found my son and his governess, Miss Eugenia Stedham, sitting at a table, putting together a puzzle of a map. I had allowed Giles to resume his regular daily schedule today, hoping that after five days of mourning, the familiarity would help him cope with his grief.
Giles pushed back his chair the moment he saw me. "Mama!" he cried, and came running to throw himself against me. The dogs went to curl up on the blue hearth rug in front of the unlit fire.
I caressed the back of my son's head, rejoicing in the feel of his strong, sturdy body pressed against my legs, his face buried in my stomach. I looked at his governess and said, "I think that Giles and I will go for a walk this afternoon, Miss Stedham."
Giles pulled away from me and clapped his hands. "A walk! Just what I would like to do, Mama."
"Have you eaten your luncheon?" I asked him.
He nodded, his gray-green eyes bright with anticipation. "I ate it all," he said.
Miss Stedham had gotten to her feet. "It is rarely a problem to get Giles to finish his meals," she said.
I smiled for the first time that day.
"Let Miss Stedham dress you warmly, Giles," I said to my son. "It may be sunny, but it's still rather cold."
Miss Stedham said, "When shall I have him ready, Lady Weston?"
"Right away." I ruffled my son's sleekly brushed hair. "Come along to my dressing room when you're ready, Giles. I have to change my clothes, too."
"All right, Mama." He turned to Miss Stedham. "Come on, Genie. Let's go!"
I turned to leave, and the dogs got up and followed me.
* * *
Outside, the March day was sunny but blowy and chill. Giles skipped along beside me, delighted to be outdoors after a morning spent in the schoolroom learning his letters and his numbers. We set out from the south entrance of the house, the dogs racing before us, leaping wildly, circling back to us again, then racing on ahead once more. The path we took led us through the formal gardens, where the blue and pink hyacinths were coming out and a few early trees were showing promise of the blossoms to come.
A small stream marked the end of the formal gardens, and we leaned over the wooden bridge and admired the marsh marigolds and violets and lady's-smock, whose brightness colored the grass along its banks. We continued on, following the path between two fenced paddocks where some of my Thoroughbred hunters were turned out on grass that was beginning to green up nicely. We stopped to say hello to the horses and to pat their necks before we continued on our way to the wooded hillside that was our destination.
Spring was showing herself in the woods also. The birds were singing, and we saw daffodils and periwinkles, primroses and the blue speedwell whose color I loved. The pussy willows were out, and Giles and I picked some to bring home to Miss Stedham.
Like my son, I was very glad to be outdoors. I had spent a seemingly endless week sitting beside Gerald's sickbed, holding his hand and listening helplessly as his breathing became progressively more difficult. And then there had been the funeral.
I drew the crisp, cold air deep into my healthy lungs and felt life course through me. I looked up at the intensely blue sky, with high white clouds scudding along it like sailboats, and thought, Stephen is coming home.
"Mama," Giles said, "where is Papa now?"
I looked at my son. His cheeks were ruddy, and the knees of his breeches were caked with dirt. I sat down on a fallen log, heedless of my skirt dragging in the mud. "Papa is in heaven, darling," I said gently.
"But we putted him in the floor of the church yesterday," Giles said. "How can he be in heaven if he is in the church?"
"Papa's spirit is in heaven," I said. "When we die our spirits leave our bodies and go home to God. Papa doesn't need his body any longer, Giles, so he left it behind in the church."
Giles scowled. "I didn't want Papa to die, Mama."
I reached out and drew him close. He had always been a cuddly child, and now he pressed his face against my breast. "I don't like him being in the church floor," he said.
Tears flooded my eyes, and I shut them tightly, forbidding them to fall. "I don't like it either, Giles," I said. "But Papa got very sick. There wasn't anything we could do to keep him with us."
He said, his voice muffled by my breast, "You're not going to die, are you, Mama?"
"No, darling. I am not going to die." I managed to say the words very clearly and firmly.
He lifted his face from my breast and looked up at me. "Never?"
His cheeks were flushed with healthy color, but his light gray-green eyes were filled with apprehension. "Everyone has to die someday, Giles, but I am not going to die for a long time." The apprehension still clouded his gaze, and I added, "Not until you are a grown man with children of your own."
The idea of himself as a grown man with children of his own was sufficiently impossible to him that he was reassured, and his eyes cleared. He began to turn away, but I put my hands on his shoulders and made him look back at me. "Papa left a will, Giles. Mr. MacAllister read it to us this morning."
He was intrigued. "What is a will?"
"It's a... a list... of things that Papa wanted to have done in case he died. One of the things he wanted was for his brother, your uncle Stephen, to come home to look after Weston for you."
"Uncle Stephen?" Giles said. "I don't know my uncle Stephen. He lives somewhere else."
"He has lived in Jamaica for the last five years, so you have never met him, but Papa has said he must come home to look after Weston for you until you are big enough to do it yourself. You are the earl now, darling. I know it is hard to understand, but you have taken Papa's place."
Giles gazed solemnly back at me. "I know," he said. "Genie said I was Lord Weston now."
"You are Lord Weston," I agreed, "but Uncle Stephen will take care of running Weston Hall and the farms until you are twenty-one. People will call you 'my lord,' but none of the responsibilities for Weston will be yours for many years."
Giles frowned. "But Uncle Adam takes care of Weston Hall and the farms."
I nodded. "I imagine he will continue to do that."
"Then why do we need Uncle Stephen?" my son asked.
"Papa named him to be your guardian," I said.
Giles, who was as sensitive to my moods as a tuning fork to a note, shot me an alert look. "Don't you like Uncle Stephen, Mama?"
I laughed. I stood up. I gave my son a hug. "Of course I like Uncle Stephen. You will like him, too. He is fun."
We began to walk back toward the house. "Does he like to play?" Giles asked eagerly.
I drew in a deep breath of air. I could feel a headache coming on. "Yes," I said. "He likes to play." Something flashed by the edge of my vision. "Oh look, Giles," I said enthusiastically. "I think I just saw a bunny."
"Where?" he demanded, his attention, as I had hoped, neatly diverted from the subject of Uncle Stephen.
* * *
When I walked into my dressing room some forty minutes later, my mother was waiting for me. The dressing room, which opened off the bedroom I had shared with Gerald, was supposed to be my private domain, but I could not seem to make my mother understand that. Of course, the room had belonged to Mama during all the years that she had been married to Gerald's father, and I suppose she still felt a proprietary right to it.
She was seated in a chintz-covered chair in front of the fire, sipping tea, when I entered.
"I cannot understand why you did this room over," she said, as she said every single time she came in here. "It was perfectly elegant when I had it. You have made it look so common, Annabelle." Her exquisitely straight nose wrinkled as if it had been assailed by an unpleasant odor. "Flowered chintz," she said in disgust.
When Mama had used the room it had been done in straw-colored silk. It had indeed been extremely elegant, but I had always been afraid I would dirty the upholstery when I sat down, and the dogs had rubbed mud on the silk draperies. For my purposes, the cheerful chintz was much better.
Mama's green eyes moved to regard my person. "Really, Annabelle," she said, her disgust deepening, "how can you allow yourself to be seen in such disgraceful garments?"
"I took Giles for a walk," I said. I sat down on the chintz sofa that faced Mama's chair, stretched out my legs, and contemplated my muddy boots. "We both needed to get outside. It has been a difficult time."
In respect for my grief, my mother forbore to comment on (a) the mud, (b) my posture, and (c) the dogs, who had curled up in the pool of sunlight in front of the window. "Poor Gerald," she said. "How could so young and healthy a man get an inflammation of the lungs severe enough to kill him?"
She made it sound as if it were Gerald's fault that he had died.
"I don't know, Mama," I said wearily. The headache was now lodged securely behind my eyes. "The doctor said that these things happen."
"Well, they shouldn't," she said.
I had no answer to that.
She took another sip of tea. The silence lengthened. I looked at my mother, and for the first time I noticed a few strands of silver in the pale gold perfection of her hair. "I cannot understand why Gerald would name Stephen to be Giles's guardian," she said.
I went back to looking at my boots and kept my voice carefully neutral. "Stephen was his only brother. I should think it was a natural choice."
"Nonsense. Gerald and Stephen were never close."
I shrugged and said something about blood relationships.
Finally Mama got to the point. "Did you have anything to do with this decision of Gerald's, Annabelle?"
I looked up from my boots. I met her eyes. "No, Mama, I did not."
After a moment she looked away. "Gerald must have been insane," she said. "What does Stephen know about running an estate like Weston?"
"He has been running the Jamaica sugar plantation for five years now," I pointed out. "He is not without experience, Mama."
My mother gave me a pitying look. "His father sent him to Jamaica because the plantation was in such bad financial condition that even Stephen couldn't do it any more damage."
"I understood from Gerald that Stephen has actually done a good job, Mama. At any event, the plantation has not gone bankrupt, like so many others in Jamaica."
I heard what I was saying and scowled as fiercely as Giles. Why was I defending Stephen?
"At any rate," I went on coldly, "I am quite certain that Stephen will want Uncle Adam to continue to look after Weston as he has always done."
"I certainly hope so," my mother said. "Stephen has always been sadly unsteady. He couldn't even stay in school; he was always fighting."
I opened my mouth, then shut it again. I was not going to fall into the trap of defending Stephen to my mother.
"If Stephen does come home, he cannot live in this house with you," my mother said.
I stared at her in bewilderment.
"Do not play the innocent with me, Annabelle," she snapped. "You cannot live here unchaperoned with Stephen."
My bewilderment turned abruptly to disgust. I said, "Mama, Gerald is not yet cold in his grave."
My mother lifted her chin. She is an incredibly beautiful woman, but the beauty is all on the outside. I have never liked her.
"I am only thinking of your reputation," she said.
I do not think I have ever been so angry with her. I stood up. "Mama," I said, "please leave."
She looked at my face and wisely decided it was time to retreat. She swept to the door and paused for a moment, looking back at me, clearly intent on having the last word. "You should be wearing black, Annabelle," she said.
She closed the door firmly behind her, leaving me alone with my headache.
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