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By Nicola Cornick
Mills & BoonCopyright © 2004 Nicola Cornick
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Chapter OneThe offices of Churchward and Churchward in High Hol-born had seen many secrets. The lawyers' premises exuded a reassuring discretion that was highly valued by their noble clientele. On this August day in 1808, Mr Churchward the younger was dealing with a matter of inheritance that should have been straightforward. War, and the vagaries of his eccentric clients had, however, made it a matter of some delicacy.
The new Earl of Selborne had arrived some twenty minutes earlier and after the conventional greetings had taken place, Mr Churchward had offered his condolences and had taken out the last wills and testaments of both the Earl's late father and his grandmother. At the moment they were still studying the terms of the late Lord Selborne's will and had not even touched on the Dowager's dispositions. Mr Churchward, who knew what was still in store, had the depressing feeling that matters were moving downhill rather more swiftly than a runaway carriage. He settled his glasses more firmly on his nose, a manoeuvre designed specifically to give him time to study the gentleman sitting in the comfortable leather armchair before the desk.
Robert, Earl of Selborne was looking a little grim. He had the thin face and chiselled features of the Selbornes, with dark hairand eyes that hinted at his distant Cornish ancestry. Though tanned from several years of campaigning in the Peninsula on General Sir John Moore's staff, Robert Selborne was pale and somewhat tight-lipped. And no wonder. He was confronted by a dilemma that no one would envy. Mr Churchward was grimly aware that he had not had the opportunity to raise the details of the second will yet. That was, if anything, even worse.
As Mr Churchward studied him, Lord Selborne looked up and said, "I should be grateful if you would run through the terms of my father's will again, Mr Churchward, to be sure that I fully understand."
His tone was clipped.
"Certainly, my lord," Mr Churchward murmured. He suspected that the Earl had understood the will perfectly from the first, for he was no fool. At six-and-twenty years old, Robert Selborne had been away fighting since he had achieved his majority, first in India and then in Spain. He had been mentioned twice in despatches, commended for his courage under fire and his heroic rescue of a fellow officer. Unfortunately it was young Lord Selborne's preference for the army over the merits of settling down young that had led him into the situation in which he now found himself.
Mr Churchward scanned the will again, although he was entirely conversant with its contents. In many ways it was a simple document. And in others ... He cleared his throat.
"You have inherited the Earldom of Selborne and all entailed property absolutely as the only son of your predecessor, the fourteenth Earl Selborne of Delaval." Mr Churchward looked grave. "All unentailed property and monies accruing to the title ..."
"Yes?" Robert Selborne's dark eyes held a mixture of exasperation and resignation. Mr Churchward allowed himself a very small, sympathetic smile. He had seen young gentlemen squirm on such a hook before, although he had never come across such specific terms in a will as these.
"Will come to you the day that you marry." Mr Church-ward's tone was dry as he read the next paragraph of the will word for word.
"My son is to choose a bride from amongst the young ladies present at the marriage of his cousin, Miss Anne Selborne, and is to marry one of them within four weeks of the wedding. He is then to reside at Delaval for the following six months. Otherwise all unentailed properties and monies relating to the estate of Delaval will pass to my nephew, Ferdinand Selborne, Esquire ..."
"Thank you, Churchward." Rob Selborne's tone was as dry as that of the lawyer. "Alas, I did not mishear the first time."
"No, my lord."
Rob Selborne got to his feet and strolled over to the window as though the office felt a little too small for him.
"So my father managed to clip my wings in the end," he said. He spoke conversationally, almost to himself. "He swore that he would find a way to do so."
Mr Churchward cleared his throat again. "It would seem so, my lord."
"He always wished for me to marry and settle down to produce an heir."
"Most understandable, my lord, as you are the only son."
Rob Selborne flicked him a glance. "Of course. Do not think that I did not appreciate my father's feelings, Churchward. In his situation I would very likely have behaved in the same manner."
"Indeed, my lord."
"Who knows - I might even have invoked such a draconian condition myself." "Very possibly, my lord."
Rob swung around. "Even so, I am tempted to tell my father's memory to go hang, disrespectful as that might be."
"Very natural under the circumstances, my lord," Mr Churchward said soothingly. "No gentleman likes to feel himself coerced."
Rob clenched his fists. "Ferdie may have the money. I will not marry simply to inherit a fortune." There was a pause.
"You are aware, my lord," the lawyer said carefully, "that the extent of the fortune, even when assessed conservatively, is around thirty thousand pounds? It is not a huge sum, but it is not to be dismissed lightly."
The grim line of Robert Selborne's jaw tightened a notch. "I am aware."
"And that the estate of Delaval, whilst bringing in a reasonable income under normal circumstances, has fallen into disrepair after the epidemic that carried your parents off?"
Rob sighed. "I have not yet seen Delaval, Churchward. Is it in so bad a condition?"
"Yes, my lord," the lawyer said simply.
Rob turned abruptly towards the window again. "I did not go away because I cared nothing for my family or for Delaval, Churchward. I wish you to know that."
The lawyer was silent. He knew it perfectly well. From his earliest youth, Robert Selborne's love of Delaval had gone very deep. He might have been away for the best part of five years, he might have wanted to prove himself by serving in the army, but his attachment to the place of his birth - and to his family, for that matter - was unquestioned.
"I wish now," the Earl said, "that I had not been away from home for so long."
There was a wealth of feeling in his voice.
"Your father," Mr Churchward said carefully, answering the sentiment rather than the words, "was away for three years on the Grand Tour in his youth."
Their eyes met. Robert Selborne's grave expression lightened slightly. "Thank you, Churchward. I suppose that we must all strike out for our independence in our own way."
"Indeed so, my lord."
Excerpted from Penniless Bride by Nicola Cornick Copyright © 2004 by Nicola Cornick. Excerpted by permission.
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