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Grantley Manor, England
"It's outrageous! Insufferable! I absolutely will not tolerate it." Emma Beaumont tore at the lace-edged handkerchief between her hands as she paced the elegant salon. The flounced hem of her gown of dove gray crepe swung with every step.
"Oh, Emma, dearest, you cannot talk so," declared a middle-aged lady in a round gown of dark silk. The lappets of her cap trembled against her cheek as she shook her head decisively.
"Oh, can I not, Maria?" exclaimed the infuriated Lady Emma. "Mr. Critchley, something must be done about this. I insist upon it. I cannot imagine what Ned can have been thinking."
An embarrassed silence followed her declaration. Mr. Critchley coughed behind his hand and rustled his lawyer's papers. The middle-aged lady plied her fan vigorously. An elderly couple seated side by side on a sofa with guilded scroll ends stared into space. The man thumped his cane on the Aubusson carpet with monotonous thuds, while his spouse pursed her lips and gave a sour little nod, as if vindicated in some way.
"Emma . . . Emma!" a voice drawled from the far side of the room. "You're putting everyone to the blush." Alasdair Chase was leaning against the wall of bookshelves, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his buckskin britches. His mud-splashed topboots gave evidence of a day's hunting. There was a wicked glimmer in his green eyes, a sardonic quirk to his mouth.
Emma spun around on the speaker. "All but you, Alasdair, I daresay," she said with the same bitter fury as before. "Just what arguments did you use with Ned to get him to agree to this . . . this intolerable insult?"
The tapping of the cane grew more pronounced; the elderly gentleman coughed vigorously against his hand.
"Emma!" moaned Maria from behind her fan. "Only think what you're saying."
"Yes, indeed, Lady Emma . . . only consider," murmured the distressed lawyer.
Emma flushed and pressed her palms to her cheeks. "I did not mean . . ."
"If you must rail at me, Emma, then do so in private." Alasdair pushed himself away from the wall and crossed the room toward her. He moved with a lithe step; his slender body was supple as a rapier, giving the impression of sinew and speed rather than muscular power. A hand cupped her elbow. "Come," he said in soft command, and drew her toward a door in the far wall.
Emma went with him without protest. Her color was still high, her fingers still ripped at the now ragged handkerchief, but she was in control of herself again, aware once more of her audience and the impropriety of her words.
Alasdair closed the door behind them. They were in a small music room containing a handsome pianoforte and a gilded harp. He went to the piano, raised the cover, and played a scale, a vibrant ripple of notes that filled the small chamber.
Emma walked to the window. The winter afternoon was drawing in, the stark leafless trees bending against a sharp northeasterly wind coming off the Solent.
The notes faded and she heard the soft thud as the lid of the piano was replaced. She turned around. Alasdair stood with his back to the instrument, his hands resting on the smooth cherrywood cover behind him.
"So . . ." he invited with a lifted eyebrow. "Between ourselves, you may say what you please. I shall not take offence."
"It would ill become you to do so," Emma retorted. "Your hand is in this, Alasdair. Do you think I don't know how you could manipulate Ned when you chose?"
A muscle twitched in Alasdair's lean cheek and his eyes narrowed imperceptibly. "If you think that, you didn't know your brother as well as we all believed," he said, without expression.
"If this was not your doing, then whose was it?" she cried. "I cannot believe Ned, of his own free will, would serve me such a trick."
Alasdair shrugged. "Why do you believe it to be a trick, Emma? Isn't it possible Ned thought such an arrangement would be in your best interests?"
"Oh, pah!" Emma exclaimed, and then was instantly furious that the childish exclamation had escaped her. She resumed her pacing and Alasdair watched her, the glimmer back in his eyes, as she stalked from one end of the small chamber to the other.
Lady Emma Beaumont stood five feet nine inches in her stockinged feet and was built on generous lines. Alasdair Chase, from intimate knowledge, knew that her height masked the rich curves of her body, and he was, as so often, distracted by the mental image of the figure beneath the elegant gownthe wonderful deep bosom, the long slope of her back, the flare of her hips, the taut swell of her backside.
Abruptly he turned back to the pianoforte and raised the cover. He played another cascade of notes.
Emma stopped dead.
Alasdair spoke almost casually over his shoulder as his fingers continued to ripple over the keys. "You know, my sweet, you had better accept it with a good grace. You'll only make yourself ridiculous otherwise."
He saw her wide mouth tauten, her eyes, more gold than brown, burn with another flash of anger. A needle of wind found its way between the glass and the frame of the window. The fire in the hearth spurted and a flame shot up; the wax candles in the branched candelabra flamed on the console table beneath the window. The light caught her hair. Amazing hair, Alasdair had always thought. Striped hair, where onyx mingled with tortoiseshell amid swaths of pale gold, like summer wheat. When she was a child, he remembered, the paler colors had dominated, but as she'd grown, the darker strands began to predominate.
"Don't call me that," she said with low-voiced intensity.
Alasdair turned once more from the pianoforte with a small shrug. "As you please."
Emma hesitated, then she walked to the door leading back to the salon. Her shoulders were unconsciously squared as she opened the door and reentered the room.
The scene hadn't changed since her abrupt departure ten minutes earlier. The room's four occupants still sat in the same postures, as if frozen in place by a wave of a wand. They stirred anxiously as she came in, with Alasdair on her heels.
"Mr. Critchley, would you go through my brother's will again," she asked, her tone moderate, although her body still thrummed with palpable tension. "Begin at the beginning if you please."
The lawyer cleared his throat, rustled his papers, and began to read the dusty lawyerly language that seemed to Emma to confirm Ned's death more decisively even than the formal notification from Horseguards, the personal letter from the duke of Wellington, the flood of messages from his friends and colleaguesmore completely even than Hugh Melton's heart-wrenching account of Ned's wound and death in the barren landscape between Torres Vedras and Lisbon.
"As your brother was unmarried and had no direct heir, the title, Grantley Manor, and Grantley House in London are entailed upon your uncle, Lord Grantley." The lawyer raised his head and glanced toward the elderly man sitting upright on the chintz-covered sofa.
The sixth earl nodded solemnly and his countess smoothed down her black silk skirts. "No hurry to leave, m'dear," the earl said bluffly. "No hurry at all."
"No, no, you mustn't think that we're in haste to dispossess you of your home, my dear Emma," the countess said. "But such a pity you haven't found a husband as yet. However, I daresay there'll be very few improvements that we'll be wanting to make, so you must feel free to remain as our guest until you've established yourself comfortably."
"You need have no fear, ma'am, that I shall drag on your coattails," Emma said dryly. "Pray continue, Mr. Critchley."
The lawyer looked uncomfortable. It was at this point in the earlier will reading that Lady Emma had lost her customary poise.
Alasdair had resumed his position against the bookshelves, hands thrust deep into his pockets. He had the air of one amused by if not indifferent to the proceedings, but the gaze that rested on Emma was sharp beneath half-lowered lids. There was no danger of another public display of fury, he judged.
"Lady Emma, you are your brother's heir and inherit all of his estate that is not entailed," Mr. Critchley intoned. "That is to say, the bulk of his fortune." He cast an apologetic glance toward the sixth earl and his countess.
"It does seem very odd of Edward, I must say," declared Lady Grantley. "To leave nothing to his uncle . . . particularly when Lord Grantley will have all the responsibilities of maintaining the estate."
"The estate revenues, if ploughed back, will take care of all maintenance," Emma pointed out through compressed lips.
"To be sure . . . to be sure." Lord Grantley, possessed of a much more conciliatory temperament than his lady, waved a hand in hasty acceptance.
"Lord Grantley will find that the estate will run itself if he leaves it in the capable hands of Dresden and his stewards." Alasdair idly flicked at a speck of mud on his coat cuff as he spoke.
"Lord Grantley will make his own arrangements. He will wish to put in his own bailiff and steward," said her ladyship in quelling accents.
"Then he's even more of a fool than I took him for," murmured Alasdair in a voice that only Emma heard. Their eyes met, and he offered her a languid, conspiratorial wink.
Laughter glowed for an instant in her gaze, banishing the tension, and her wide mouth curved in an approaching smile. Then she remembered her grievances and turned away abruptly. Alasdair had always had the ability to make her forget that she was angry with him. It was among his most infuriating characteristics. He'd been able to do it with Ned too. As boys, when they'd come home from school for the long vacations, Alasdair for some reason would suddenly get the devil in him and delight in provoking the easygoing Ned to a flash of temper. Then he would change in an instant, joke and cajole until Ned couldn't help but laugh.
"Could we get on, Mr. Critchley," she demanded, an edge to her voice again.
"The late earl appointed Lord Alasdair as executor of his will and trustee of your fortune, Lady Emma, until such time as you should marry."
Emma drew in her breath in a sharp hiss. "And what precisely would Lord Alasdair's responsibilities be as trustee of my fortune?"
Mr. Critchley took a large crisp white handkerchief from his pocket, shook it out, and blew his nose vigorously. "Your brother has entrusted Lord Alasdair with the task of managing your fortune, Lady Emma. Lord Alasdair has sole control." He buried his face in his handkerchief again before saying diffidently, "Your brother, ma'am, made provision for Lord Alasdair to be compensated for his efforts on your behalf. His lordship is to receive a yearly stipend of . . ." he shuffled through his papers. "Five thousand pounds . . . yes, that was it. Five thousand pounds."
Emma took another turn around the salon, her step agitated, her color fluctuating. "It is intolerable," she said, but it was clear to her audience that she had herself well in hand.
"Oh, surely you don't begrudge me such a paltry sum, Emma!" Alasdair complained with a raised eyebrow. "You won't even notice it, dear girl. And I do assure you, I shall earn it."
She spun around on him. "And just how do you intend to earn it?"
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 my stable? 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."