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Primrose Cottage was going to the dogs. Literally.
Corin Knowlton, Viscount Knowle, jumped to his feet. "The devil you say. Not even Aunt Sophie would leave a perfectly good house to a pack of mongrels."
Yes, she would. And did.
The solicitor cleared his throat until Corin resumed his seat. Mr. Spenser was a large man, looking out of place behind Lady Sophie's delicate gilt Florentine desk. Then again, Mr. Spenser looked no more out of place than Corin felt on his spindly chair with the ruffled cushion. Every surface in the room was covered in lace or ribbon or fluttery floral-print fabric. Every surface, that is, that wasn't covered by a dog. A dog that was going to inherit his, Viscount Knowle's, cottage.
"Bloody hell," Corin swore, ignoring the cluster of servants standing at the rear of the study in their shawls and cloaks, "that can't be legal."
"I assure you, my lord, that your late aunt's last will and testament is perfectly legal. The firm of Spenser, Gilroy, and McMartin would not produce an inferior document." Mr. Spenser glared over his spectacles at the younger man, but Lord Knowle wasn't about to be intimidated by any pompous, pettifogging paper shuffler. He'd faced English public schools, French cannon, and the Almack's patronesses. One snuff-stained solicitor couldn't faze him, especially when the man was spouting claptrap about Primrose Cottage having been bequeathed to a motley collection of curs.
"Legal, my arse," Corin said now, setting one of the housemaids to tittering until she was shushed by the housekeeper. "If children cannot hold property, and women cannot hold property, then four-legged, fur-bearing creatures certainly cannothold property."
Mr. Spenser realigned his papers. "Nor do they in this instance, as I was about to explain. The dogs do not own Primrose Cottage under the terms of your late aunt's will; the house is instead to be maintained for their comfort under the proper trusteeship."
"Ha! I wonder who gets to feather his nest with that tidy little windfall."
Mr. Spenser ignored the viscount's muttered contempt. "Lady Sophie named three administrators: myself, Reverend Benning, and Squire Hardwick."
Three unimpeachable, respected gentlemen, dash it. Corin tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair.
Spenser frowned at him. "Squire Aloysius Hardwick is the local magistrate, my lord."
"I know who Squire Hardwick is, by Jupiter. I don't care if you've wrapped it all in jurisprudence jargon, overseen by a panel of archbishops. The whole thing is crazy. And Aunt Sophie had to be dicked in the nob to think of such a thing. No court will accept that piece of fustian. You do recall that bit about being of sound mind, don't you?"
"Your aunt was crippled in body, my lord, not in her mind. I have here a note from her physician, attesting to Lady Sophie's mental acuity, witnessed by the vicar and the magistrate." Mr. Spenser blew on his fingers, then thumbed through his folders until he found another document. He handed it across the desk to Viscount Knowle. "And another, signed by the chairman of the College of Physicians, who personally interviewed my client the same week the will was drawn up. I myself played whist with the lady not a sennight before her death, my lord, and found her to be eminently rational. I lost ten pounds to her that evening. Oh, and so did Bishop Rushford. I believe General Cathcart was her partner."
So much for impugning the witnesses. Corin was on his feet again, pacing. He was warmer that way, at any rate. Deuce take it, the place was freezing, despite the fire in the hearth that was likely for the comfort of the dogs. The dogs who were hairy heirs to his legacy! "I don't care if Aunt Sophie marked the cards! Primrose Cottage was not hers to give. It was supposed to revert back to the Knoll, become part of the Knowlton estate again with her demise."
"Begging your pardon, my lord, but those were not the precise words on the deed." Mr. Spenser blew on his fingers to warm them again, before riffling through another folder. "As you must be aware, Primrose Cottage was originally--and until quite recently as these things are counted--a neighboring estate. It was never part of the Knowle viscountcy holdings, and therefore is not subject to the entailment."
"It's on the corner of the estate, dash it."
"But it is not part of the estate. Your grandfather purchased it himself, with his personal monies."
"Yes, yes, I know. He wanted a private place to bring his mistresses. Everyone knew that. Later my father let Aunt Sophie have the use of it, because it was easier for her to get around in than Knowle Castle." And because Aunt Sophie and Corin's own mother didn't see eye to eye about running the Knoll. That was putting it mildly. Everyone in the county knew the two fought like cats and ... dogs. Corin ran his hand through his already disordered blond curls, wishing he had his hat. And his gloves. "Aunt Sophie had no issue, no heir, no husband. Nor was she likely to, considering the nature of her infirmities. So Father assumed--no, he intended--that the cottage and its acreage would revert to the estate."
The solicitor found the correct paper. "Here it is.... 'Shall be hereby deeded to my sister, Sophronia Rose Knowlton.' You see, there was nothing in your father's will about her lifetime tenancy."
"But that's what he meant! He only included the deed in his will in case Mama tried to--That is, my father thought that if Aunt Sophie did get married or moved or passed on, the land and the house would become part of the Knoll again."
"And so it shall. You can add Primrose Cottage to the entailment as soon as Lady Sophie's last pet goes on to its final reward."
From the look on Lord Knowle's face, that fortunate day would come sooner, rather than later, if he had anything to do with the care of the benighted beasts.
"To reiterate, your aunt left the administration of her estate to myself and the others, but she left the maintenance of the cottage itself and the welfare of her beloved pets to Miss Angelina Armstead."
"Who the deuce is Angelina Armstead?" the viscount demanded, moving closer to the mantel and what little warmth the hearth beneath it gave. He tried to nudge a sleeping bulldog aside with his toe, but the old dog just showed its worn teeth and growled. When one of the servants called out, "No, Windy," the bulldog begrudged Corin an inch nearer the fire, as if it owned the place, by Jupiter!
Mr. Spenser cleared his throat again. "Miss Armstead was your aunt's companion, my lord. I believe you know her as Lena." The older man nodded his head toward a dark-clad figure seated at the back of the room, near the door.
Corin had thought she was just another of the servants, avidly listening to hear the word "pension." He vaguely recalled his aunt's most recent companion, a somber shadow pushing the Bath chair. Yes, there was the gray shawl and the mousy brown bun at the back of her head, under a wide black mobcap. According to the terms Spenser was enumerating, the companion could buy herself a new bonnet or two--or the whole blasted milliner's shop if she wanted. Five thousand pounds outright, plus five thousand pounds per annum for each year she stayed with the cursed canines.
"Hell and damnation," he swore, "I see what happened. A pension wasn't enough for the grasping harpy, so the jade played on my aunt's tender sensibilities. The companion couldn't get the house and fortune from Aunt Sophie outright, so she cozened her into this taradiddle fund for the fleabags."
The figure in back sat up straighter, clutching a small dog to her flat chest, but it was Mr. Spenser who answered the viscount's charges. "If I may read from the will, my lord: 'The above remuneration and recompense I gladly bequeath to my loyal companion and dear friend, Miss Angelina Armstead, unbeknownst to her. My hope is that when all my beloved pets have found good homes or are reunited with me in heaven, my dear Lena can make a good life for herself, for all the joy she has brought me.' Did you say something, my lord?"
Nothing repeatable in polite company. "No, no, go on." While the solicitor droned on about the generous retirements Aunt Sophie left to the rest of her servants, with even more handsome benefits if they stayed on to help care for her dogs, the viscount resumed his pacing. Thinking to look out, or to let more light into the room so he could better see the female who would be living on his property, he parted the heavy damask drapes at one window. Well, it was no wonder they were all shivering despite the fireplace. It might be April, but the day was still too cold for the windows to be open. He slammed it shut.
"Oh, my lord, you don't want to be aclosing--" a servant said.
But Mr. Spenser frowned the speaker into silence. He repeated the last bequest, then dismissed the servants.
Corin stepped closer to the desk. "That's it, then? I get the rest? My aunt was more than generous with her retainers, but I know her fortune far exceeded the amounts you mentioned, even including the exorbitant sums set aside for the upkeep of this palace for pugs."
Spenser coughed. "Ah, not quite, my lord. As you say, Lady Sophie was a wealthy woman. Her mother's fortune, don't you know, was not an allowance or annuity from the Knowle estate," he hurriedly reminded the viscount, lest there be any confusion over the source of Lady Sophie's income.
Corin nodded his understanding, having advised his aunt about some of her investments. "Go on, tell me what harebrained scheme she had for the rest of her fortune. What is it? Buying coats for London's hackney horses?"
The solicitor removed his spectacles to wipe them. Then he used the same handkerchief to wipe his suddenly damp brow. "She, ah, set aside the remainder of her capital, and the income therefrom, to purchase, maintain, and endow a, ah, home for unwanted dogs in the village of Knowlton Heights."
"A what?" Corin shouted. "A home for unmarried mothers, for injured veterans, or penniless orphans--those I can see. Even a home for retired lady's maids. But a home for dogs?" He pounded on the mantel. The bulldog rolled over. Mr. Spenser coughed. Corin ran to open the window.
"Your aunt sincerely believed that we are all God's creatures, my lord, from the highest to the lowest. She did support many worthy charities in her lifetime, but this is what she wished to do after her death, create a shelter or hospital or home for neglected beasts. She hadn't decided precisely what to call the foundation." Noting the scowl on the viscount's face, Mr. Spenser tried to inject a more cheerful note by explaining, "It shouldn't take the full amount of Lady Sophie's resources, my lord. Once the house, kennel, or whatever is built and the endowment is established to provide continued funding, you will inherit the rest."
"If I live so long!"
"Oh, no, my lord, a parcel has already been selected for the site, and an architect has been consulted. Your aunt had hoped to see the project completed before she--But one never knows, does one? Nevertheless, you'll eventually come into a tidy bit of capital, along with the cottage, of course. And it's not as if Lady Sophie forgot to mention you altogether, my lord. Here, this paragraph." The lawyer readjusted his spectacles. "'Henceforth, due issue, predecease ...' Ah, here. '...Entire remaining assets and accounts shall then devolve upon my nephew, my next of kin and sole heir, Corin James Alexander Knowlton, seventh Viscount Knowle, Baron of Darleigh, Lord Rotterdean--'"
"You don't have to read them all, man. I do know my own titles and dignities."
"Quite. 'Upon my nephew, my next of kin and sole heir, et cetera, et cetera, who presently needs nothing but to learn to appreciate what he already has.'"
Corin snorted. "That sounds just like the old bat. Well, don't expect me to appreciate being cheated of my own property, sir. I'll find a way to overturn that blasted will if I have to petition St. Peter himself. I'm sure he doesn't want a bunch of malodorous mutts littering up his place any more than I do mine. Good day, sir." Corin turned to go but paused near the door, where Miss Armstead sat with the rat-size terrier in her lap. Two others yipped at the viscount from under her chair, but the companion kept her head lowered. All he could see of her was the untidy brownish bun at the back of her neck, tied with a black ribbon. The dogs all had black ribbons in their topknots, too. Corin shuddered. "My congratulations to you, ma'am," he said. "For now."