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He smiled. "By ensuring that your fortune grows apace. I have some small talent, as Ned knew very well."
"How could you possibly have any knowledge of investments, and the Exchange, and cent per cents, or whatever they're called?" Emma demanded. "You've never had a feather to fly with."
"True enough." He folded his arms and regarded her with a half smile. "My esteemed sire, as we all know, was not a thrifty gentleman."
"Bad blood," muttered Lord Grantley. "Came from his mother. Bad blood in all the Bellinghams. Hardened gamesters, the lot of 'em. Saw your grandmother lose six thousand guineas at one sitting. And your father was the same."
"The matter of my penury is thus explained," Alasdair agreed blandly. "The youngest son of a hardened gamester . . ." He shrugged. "However, I wonder if we're not wandering off course a little here."
Emma was silent. Alasdair's father, the earl of Chase, had been a vicious tyrant. A drunkard and a gamester who had fallen from his horse late one night on his way back from a card party and broken his neck, leaving an estate mortgaged to the hilt and more debts than a king's ransom could have settled. Alasdair, the youngest of three sons, had not a penny to his name. Not that you would ever guess that from looking at him, she thought. He lived like a wealthy man, but how she couldn't imagine.
"I wouldn't begrudge it if Ned left you twenty thousand pounds," she said impatiently. "You were his closest friend . . . closer than any brother could have been. But I absolutely refuse to accept your authority over my expenditures. Am I to ask you for my quarterly allowance? Ask permission if I wish to set up mystable? Have you approve all my household expenses?" She glared first at Alasdair and then at the lawyer.
"My dear Emma, I'm sure that Lord Alasdair will be everything that's accommodating," said Maria, rising from her armless chair. "And you don't want to be worrying about finances yourself. It's so . . . so unfeminine. Much better to leave such sordid details to a man. Men have much better minds for dealing with such matters. I'm sure dear Ned knew that he was taking care of your interests . . . just until you get married." She came over and laid a hand on Emma's arm. "Maybe you should lie down on your bed and rest for a little before dinner."
"Since when have you known me to need to rest before dinner, Maria?"
"Well, to be sure, never," the lady said. "But this has been a very trying afternoon for you."
"An understatement," Emma said shortly. She addressed the lawyer. "Well, sir. Do you have answers to my questions? How much authority has my brother invested in Lord Alasdair?"
The lawyer rubbed his mouth with his fingertips. "By the very nature of the trust, ma'am, the trustee must review all expenses," he said hesitantly. "But there is no other area of jurisdiction."
"Oh, how fortunate. I am not obliged to gain his consent to my marriage, for instance?" she inquired sardonically. "Or to where I might choose to live?"
The lawyer shook his head and sounded quite shocked as he said, "No, indeed not, Lady Emma. You are of age."
Emma frowned down at the carpet at her feet. She traced the pattern with the toe of her blue satin slipper. "There is no way, I take it, that this will can be set aside?"
"None, Lady Emma."
Emma nodded almost absently. "If you'll excuse me," she said, her voice distant as she walked over to the door to the music room. She disappeared, the door clicking shut behind her.
"Well, I always said she had very odd manners," Lady Grantley announced, rising to her feet. She sniffed. "Of course, with such a fortune, she'll not be short of offers, regardless of her manners. We'll just have to pray she doesn't squander herself on a fortune hunter."
"Her fortune has always been large and she hasn't succumbed as yet, ma'am," Alasdair pointed out gently.
Lady Grantley gave him a look of supreme dislike. "She was seriously in danger of doing so once, as I recall." She sailed to the door. "I shall go to my apartments. Maria, would you send the housekeeper to me. I wish to review the menus for the week."
"I believe Emma has already done so, Lady Grantley," Maria said.
"Emma is no longer mistress of this house." Lady Grantley swept from the room. Her husband, with an apologetic look at Maria, muttered something about a glass of claret and followed her.
"Well," declared Maria, two bright spots of color on her cheekbones. "Well!"
"Well indeed, Maria." Alasdair pushed himself away from the bookshelves. "The sooner you and Emma are established elsewhere, the better for all, I would have said." He smiled at the woman, and the rather harsh cast of his features was immediately softened. His eyes lost their sardonic glitter and became warm; the thin line of his mouth took a less uncompromising turn. He patted her shoulder. "You have no need to take instructions from the countess. If she wishes to interview the housekeeper, let her summon her herself."
"Yes . . . yes, I think I shall do just that." Maria nodded decisively. "Mr. Critchley, I'm sure you'd care for a glass of wine before you leave. If you'd like to come with me . . ." She went to the door. The lawyer gathered his papers, bowed to Lord Alasdair, and followed his hostess with an eager step.
Alasdair flung himself down in a chair with earpieces and closed his eyes, waiting. He guessed Beethoven. He didn't have long to wait. The first notes of the pianoforte were soft, tentative almost, as Emma found her mood. Then they grew and strengthened and he found himself listening to the Kreutzer Sonata.
He nodded his satisfaction. He still knew her as well as ever. He rose and entered the music room. If the player noticed him, she gave no sign. Alasdair took a violin from a lacquered marquetry cabinet and came to stand behind her. The sweet sounds of the violin joined with the pianoforte, but Emma didn't acknowledge him until the piece was over.
Her hands were still on the keys as the strains of the sonata slowly faded in the air. "Oh, how I wish we didn't play so well together." It was a cry from the heart.
Alasdair contemplated a response and decided against it. He placed his violin on a marble-topped table with gilded legs. "Do you have any idea how much you're worth, Emma?"
She turned on the thimble-footed stool. "Not exactly. A great deal, I know. Does it matter precisely how much?"
"I think so," he said dryly. "And if you don't think it matters, then I have to say that you're definitely not the best person to be managing such a fortune."
Emma flushed but was obliged to acknowledge the justice in this. However, she said, "That's not why Ned made this arrangement, and you know it."
"You are now worth something over two hundred thousand pounds," Alasdair said steadily, ignoring her statement. "You are an extremely wealthy woman."
"And you're going to make me even wealthier, I gather." She rose from the stool. "But that isn't why Ned made this arrangement. Is it?"
"I don't know why Ned decided on this," he said dismissively. "All I know is that it's a fact. So let's get to points, shall we? Where do you intend living?"
"In London for the season. Where else?"
"Where else indeed?" he agreed. "Do you wish me to find you a suitable house for hire?"
"I would wish to buy," Emma snapped.
"I don't believe that would be sensible," he said evenly.
"And why not, pray?" Her chin lifted; her eyes threw their challenge.
"Because you will get married," he stated baldly.
"Not to you!" Emma flashed before she could stop herself.
"No . . . as I recall you made that painfully clear once before," Alasdair replied with a cool nod. "As it happens, I was not renewing my suit."
Emma controlled herself with difficulty. It was typical of Alasdair to turn the tables in that way . . . to put her at a disadvantage. She faced him directly. "I believe that was what Ned intended with this diabolical arrangement."