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"He'll have to marry money, of course."
Mabel Reedness announced this truth as though it were something that might have escaped her niece's notice. For most of her forty-five years, Mabel had prided herself on being forthright. More recently she believed herself to have developed considerable matchmaking skills, which mainly meant that she was fond of reminding everyone that it had been she who introduced Jane's sister Nancy to her husband.
"Not that he should have the least trouble finding a wife, mind you. He's truly a fine figure of a man, and his title, though only a viscountcy, is nothing to scoff at."
Lady Jane, in her usual calm manner, agreed that it was so. She could see his lordship through the open doors of the summer parlor, galloping toward the Home Wood on Ascot. She rather wished Lord Rossmere hadn't brought Ascot with him. A year's time had not managed to heal that particular wound.
"Having to marry where there's a fortune is a distressing thing for a man of his pride," Mabel continued. "Still, for five-and-thirty he's quite a well-favored fellow. I'm surprised he doesn't have half a dozen young ladies dangling after him."
"That would be difficult," Lady Jane remarked dryly. "He doesn't take the least interest in London society."
"But he can't afford to!" Mabel picked up the fringe she'd been knotting and regarded it with disfavor. "He won't even accept all the help I've offered. Frankly, I consider that a trifle too proud in a godchild. There would be nothing wrong in my lending him a little blunt to put on a show in London for a Season, but he'll accept nothing more than necessary money for the Longborough Parkmortgage."
Rossmere had cleared the hedgerow that separated Willow End's lawns from the Home Wood. Jane watched as he directed Ascot along the path that skirted the wood, riding the magnificent beast with incredible ease. After the accident, Jane had considered having the horse destroyed, but Richard's will had specifically instructed that Rossmere was to have Ascot. When the horse's various injuries healed, it was a relief to send him away from Willow End.
Horse and rider disappeared from sight and Lady Jane tried to concentrate on what her aunt was saying. Mabel's voice had taken on a note of urgency. "The thing is, he won't look for a wife. I've tried to talk with him about it, but he refuses to hear a word on the subject. And if he doesn't marry, the title will die with him. He's the last of the line."
"Perhaps if Lord Rossmere had something for a future generation to inherit, he'd be more inclined to produce an heir. As it is?" Jane shrugged her shoulders. "Why bother?"
Mabel dismissed this eminently practical view of the situation, knowing that her niece, daughter of an earl, could not possibly believe it for a moment. Jane's opinions were a bit odd at times, but not that odd. She couldn't always tell when Jane was teasing her, because her niece's hazel eyes were always as clear and guileless as those of a child, and her ready smile held no hint of duplicity.
"He still has the estate, sadly deteriorated and encumbered though it may be. Longborough Park was a splendid pile twenty years ago. I wish you could have seen it then. But his father with the gambling fever... Well, least said, of course. When I think of all the rooms shut up, the furniture in holland covers, the stables empty, the staff down to a few old retainers..."
"Exactly," said Jane bracingly. "It would be better for the title and land to revert to the crown, so it might be given to someone with wealth who could restore it. That's the problem with all this entailment business, Aunt Mabel. Any ordinary person would be able to sell the crumbling ruins and buy himself a little cottage in the Lake District with the profits."
Now Mabel was sure her niece was jesting; Jane had no more use for cottages than for crumbling piles. But only a hint of sparkle in the hazel eyes gave the younger woman away. "You're trying to distract me," she scolded, giving the younger woman a scowl. "This is a very serious matter, my dear girl, and I won't be sidetracked by your absurd suggestions. I have arrived at a solution to the problem for him."
"It's usually best to let people solve their own problems."
"I've never found it to be true. Left to his own devices, Rossmere wouldn't do a thing about finding himself a wife." She picked at the fringe in her lap, not meeting Jane's eyes. "Nor would you do a thing about finding yourself a husband."
Jane shook her head with fond exasperation. "You know I have no intention of marrying, dear Aunt Mabel. And I'm sure Lord Rossmere isn't interested in allying himself with a twenty-eight-year-old spinster who's very nearly as tall as he is and who hasn't a classical feature to her name. I beg you to drop this scheme before you make some mischief."
"Mischief!" Mabel snorted. "What could be more eligible than a marriage between my niece and my godson? Both from the most distinguished families; both very attractive people. So what if you are tall? You have an elegance a shorter woman wouldn't dare lay claim to. And as for your age, so much the better. I'm sure Rossmere has no use for schoolroom chits."
"How could you possibly know that?"
"He's an intelligent man. I have no patience with this theory that an unformed, mewling girl can best be shaped to a man's taste. More likely she'll remain an unformed, mewling girl who hasn't the first idea how to run a home or deal with a husband's idiosyncrasies." Mabel met her niece's amused eyes. "Besides, young girls are romantics. That could be a great nuisance. They wouldn't necessarily understand the finer points of marrying an impoverished viscount, or undertaking the restoration of a fine old mansion."
Jane didn't try to restrain a chuckle. "I doubt if anyone understands the finer points of marrying an impoverished viscount. But that's not the half of it. It's an altogether unworkable plan, my dear, and you must abandon it before you embarrass me, to say nothing of Lord Rossmere."
Mabel's jaw developed a stubborn set. "You must marry and have children. It's the most important thing in a woman's life."
"Oh, pooh. I'm an aunt ten times over already, and godmother twice. That's more than enough children on whom to lavish my affections."
"It's not the same. Believe me, I know."
It was a bit of a shock for Jane to hear Mabel confess that being an aunt wasn't enough. Within the family it had always been assumed that she was content to be the spinster aunt of her brother's five motherless children.
She had, after all, lived with them most of her adult life, since Jane's mother died after Nancy's birth.
For a moment Jane couldn't think how best to reply. The sluggish murmur of the hot August afternoon whispered through the open doors. Finally Jane moved to tug at the bell cord. "I'll have Winters bring us some cold lemonade."
"Yes, that would be nice." Mabel cleared her throat. "And then there's the matter of your inheritance."
"I beg your pardon?" Jane had inherited Richard's estate, Graywood, along with all his other worldly possessions, except Ascot.
"There are those who think it wrong for you to have inherited Richard's estate when you were never married to him."
Jane's brows rose. "Surely you aren't influenced by that kind of talk. Richard had every right to leave me his property, if he chose to."
Mabel stared straight out the open doorway. "Yes, but property is always transferred through a will, and a will states that its author is of sound mind."
"Richard was quite sane when he drew up the will."
"I know that and you know that, but there are those who doubt it. If a man has spells of insanity, can he ever be adjudged completely sane?"
An angry retort rose to Jane's lips, but it was forestalled by the entrance of the butler. She gave instructions for lemonade and queen cakes and watched Winters depart in silence.
Mabel had taken up the fringe again and concentrated her attention on it as she spoke. "You've always been a woman of property, Jane, through your mother, and there will be considerably more one day when your father passes on. You really have no need of Richard's property."
"In our imperfect world, inheritance is not based on need."
"True. And I quite understand why Richard left you his property. He loved you and would have married you had it been possible. For that love and the suffering it caused you, you deserve every mite of his property."
"But if Richard had left no will, his property would have gone to Rossmere as his nearest relation. In fact, the will stated that if you died before Richard, his property was to go to Rossmere." Mabel sighed, a gusty, soulful exhalation. "I'm not saying Rossmere believes he should have come into the property, Jane. I'm saying that it would have been better if he had. And there's still a way he can."
"Nonsense. If Richard had wanted Rossmere to have his property, he had only to will it to him. I never asked Richard to make me his beneficiary. It was something he wanted to do. He wasn't responsible for Rossmere's predicament. In fact, Rossmere wasn't even the viscount when Richard originally made the will. Or the codicil giving him Ascot. Richard simply never changed it after Rossmere's troubles began."
"Did you ever suggest that he should?"
"It never occurred to me." Jane rose abruptly and wandered restlessly around the room. "I hardly know Rossmere, Aunt Mabel. At most I've seen him half a dozen times since I became an adult. I had enough things on my mind without worrying about his financial straits. If I thought of him at all while Richard was alive, I suppose I thought he would marry an heiress. After all, he has the title."
"If you had told Richard you didn't want his property, that he should leave it to Rossmere, he would have done it."
"I didn't know Richard was going to die so young!" Jane cried. "I thought there was all the time in the world. I thought we would continue loving each other until we grew old, and that I could even marry him when my childbearing years were past. In the dark times, when he was under restraint, I tried to think of him as little as possible. His will meant nothing more to me than a pledge of his devotion."
Jane could still vividly recall the only discussion they'd ever had of his making a will. Richard had just recovered from the first episode of his madness, and his face remained pale, his eyes haunted. They sat on the bank of the stream that ran through his property, her hand held tightly between both of his.
"You understand this means we can't marry, don't you?" he'd asked. She had thought her heart would break. "My father became progressively more...disturbed. That could happen to me, too, Jane, so I'm making my will now, while I'm perfectly capable of it. You're to have everything, just as though we'd married. It will be a symbol of my love for you, something tangible for the world to see."
She had been too upset to discuss the matter. And his condition had not deteriorated, as they had feared. In between episodes of madness he had been as lucid as ever, and she had thought he would live to be an old, old man. Perhaps he would have, if not for the fall from Ascot. Or had the fall itself been caused by an approaching episode? Had one of his pounding headaches come over him while he was riding? Had it come too quickly, engulfing him with self-destructive violence before he could reach safety? Oh, why hadn't she been there?
The sound of hoofbeats filtered into the room again and the two women turned to watch Rossmere canter alongside the Home Wood back toward the stable. Richard had once told Jane that the viscount had the best seat he'd ever seen, and he was certainly an impressive figure on horseback. Beast and man seemed to move as one, with the wind streaming through Ascot's mane and Rossmere's wavy black hair. Their bodies flowed in perfect rhythm, Rossmere's hands steady on the reins, his thighs tightly gripped against the animal.
For one stunning moment Jane felt furious with him. Who was Rossmere to ride Ascot with such careless ease when Richard had met his death on the huge brute? Why should the viscount bemoan his lack of fortune when he was alive and sane and titled? He could easily marry a fortune if he would tame his pride a little. Richard would remain dead in the Graywood graveyard, no matter what.
Jane turned her head from the sight of Rossmere on Ascot and willed away the irrational resentment. It wasn't Rossmere's fault that Richard was dead. Still, there was something about the viscount that distressed her, and had from the moment he'd walked in the front door of Willow End two days ago.
It might have been his pride. He radiated a self-containment that kept everyone else at a distance. It wasn't that he was lacking in manners; far from it. He was punctiliously polite, but lacking the warmth and closeness common in Jane's family. His holding himself apart contributed to the impression that he was proud, perhaps even arrogant. Jane might have conceded that this was a disguise adopted because of his penury. Except for his eyes.
Rossmere's eyes were a remarkable shade of silver blue. Though the color was distinctive, it was not the most significant thing about his eyes. They were bone-chillingly cold, like the silver-blue sky of a freezing winter's day. And there was a power in them, an authority, that disturbed Jane even more.
She turned to her aunt now and laid a hand on her arm. "I'll give some thought to the inheritance and whether I might in some manner share it with Lord Rossmere. I really have no need of it for myself. But you mustn't pursue this idea of an alliance. His lordship is not someone with whom I'd be interested in forming a connection, even if I were considering marriage."
Winters entered with the lemonade and queen cakes and set them on a gateleg table near where the ladies were seated. Jane thanked and dismissed him before speaking again. "I know it's been a year since Richard died, but I'm not ready to think of marrying. I may never be."
"But you must! You'll regret it all your life if you don't."
"Perhaps." She offered the plate of queen cakes to her aunt. "I'd rather not discuss it any further, Aunt Mabel. Would you help me plan the menu for Saturday's dinner party?"
The older woman eyed her with frustration, but lifted her thin shoulders. "I don't consider the matter settled," she informed her niece "but I'm willing to let it rest for the time being."
~ ~ ~
Jane escaped to the circular conservatory, where no one would think to look for her. A winged statue of a nude woman, the replica of one of her father's favorite antiquarian finds, stood in a niche opposite huge pots holding profusely blooming plants. The moist, stifling air in the room was almost unbearable. Jane pushed damp tendrils of brown hair from her forehead, thinking it would have been wiser to disappear to the dairy on a day like this.
She seated herself on a bench in the only shaded window. Larkspur and verbena thrust bright flowers out of containers on either side of her, and vines wound from floor to ceiling all around the room. At this time of year the conservatory looked like a gigantic garden basket, filled with the brightest and sweetest-smelling flowers that grew at Willow End. The horse chestnut outside the window filtered a green light into the room and tinted her white jaconet muslin dress.
The letter from Trelenny Ashwicke was still in her pocket. She'd been about to read it when Mabel interrupted her. Now she drew it out and spread it on her lap. As she read, a smile played around her lips and lit her eyes. Dear Trelenny! Nothing was ever going to tame her high spirits, thank heaven. Fortunately Cranford had realized in time that he loved her for them, rather than in spite of them. It seemed forever since she'd been with them in Bath, and yet it was little more than a year ago. Jane had intended to make the journey for their wedding, and would have, if Richard hadn't died.
Richard. How easy it was for everyone else to forget him. Jane had even heard her aunt and her father using terms like "for the best" when they didn't know she overheard them. Nothing would ever convince her that his death was for the best.
But Mabel might be right about Richard's estate. Rossmere certainly would have benefited from inheriting it. What would he have done with it, though? Its only use to him would be in the money a sale would bring. Jane couldn't bear the thought of strangers owning Graywood. Even now it was hard for her to see the tenants there when she rode past. When their lease was up next month, she would have to decide if she should renew it for another year. Or could she possibly..." No, it would cause far too much gossip for her to try to move there alone. She turned her gaze toward the window.
Rossmere had stopped under the horse chestnut on his way from the stables to the house. He stood unmoving, except for toying with a furry horse chestnut in one hand. He was not looking in her direction, and she had no way of knowing whether he'd seen her. Somehow she doubted it. His face wore a thoughtful look, with the eyes narrowed slightly and the lips pursed. It was a handsome face, as her aunt had said. He was a much larger man than Richard--not just taller, but more muscular and substantial. Even his hands looked stronger, as though they could crush the hard chestnut to pulp.
Perhaps it was the coiled strength in him that disturbed Jane. She expected it in a horse, energy ready to be released at the urging of hands or heels. In a man it seemed much more dangerous, an unknown quantity. Didit indicate a terrible temper, or an abundance of energy, or a touch of madness? Jane shook off such fanciful thoughts. Obviously they were only ramblings of her mind, evoked by her reminiscences of Richard. Rossmere was solid and healthy and undoubtedly as sane as the next man.
With surprising speed, he swung back his arm and threw the chestnut at a gate some distance away. His aim was accurate. The horse chestnut smacked into the upper rail and dropped to the ground. Rossmere continued to frown after it for some time before strolling off toward the hall.
Jane forced her gaze back to Trelenny's letter. Perhaps she would go to visit the Ashwickes as her friend suggested...after Lord Rossmere left Willow End, taking Ascot with him.