At eighteen, Charlotte Page made a life-altering mistake.
She wronged a man in an impulsive act that she came to deeply regret, though it led to her present life as Mrs. Charlotte Harris, owner of Mrs. Harris’s School for Young Ladies. Unbeknownst to her, that man is now her anonymous benefactor, the mysterious “Cousin Michael.” His masquerade began as preparation for a devastating revenge, but soon became a labor of love.
Now Charlotte desperately needs his help. Can he save her from disaster without revealing the ugly secret behind his charade? Or will the mistakes of both their pasts tear them apart forever?
Filled with passion, romance, and lovable heroines, the School for Heiresses series proves that Sabrina Jeffries is a “grand mistress of storytelling” (Romantic Times).
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Richmond, England November 1824
Charlotte Harris, headmistress and owner of Mrs. Harris's School for Young Ladies, sat at her desk and reread twice the pleading letter she had composed to Cousin Michael, her anonymous benefactor.
Then she tore it up. What was the point of writing him, when every letter she sent to his solicitor was returned unopened?
She wiped her clammy hands on her skirt. He had to know what desperate straits the school was in he knew everything. And until six months ago, he had always told her everything he knew. But after she had pressed him so hard about his identity, he had ended their correspondence. There had not been a word from him since.
The hollow fear that gripped her so often these days made her stomach clench. All right, so perhaps he had good reason to be angry at her. She had agreed not to press him about his anonymity.
Still, how could he abandon them after all this time? He had been part of the school's inception fourteen years ago. Indeed, without him there would be no school. She would probably still be languishing as a teacher at the school in Chelsea, dreaming of the day when she could open her own institution governed by her own curriculum and her own rules.
Now their idiot neighbor, Mr. Pritchard, was about to sweep it all away. He was rumored to be on the verge of selling Rockhurst, the estate adjoining the school's property, to the owner of a racecourse in Yorkshire. She could just see it rough men flocking to bet on the races, spilling onto the school's lawn and accosting her girls.
How could Cousin Michael stand by and let it happen? He owned this property. Did he not care if she was forced out?
She sucked in a breath. That was what hurt the most the possibility that he was letting it happen so he could gain higher rents. From the beginning, her rent had been lower than that charged by other landlords in Richmond, and now, with property values in the area soaring, it was ridiculously low. In all these years, her mysterious cousin had never raised it. Why, she wasn't sure. Perhaps because he realized she could only afford a modest increase?
That was especially true now that enrollment had fallen off, fueled by the scandals dogging her pupils in the last year. If rumors about a possible sale of the property next door proved true, it would make matters even worse.
She would have to fight it. When she had thought that Rockhurst was about to be bought months ago, she and her friends had come up with several good ideas for thwarting Mr. Pritchard's plans. They could set up a petition to the licensing board again, or
"Beg pardon, madam."
She looked up to see her personal footman in the doorway. "Yes, Terence?"
"Lord Kirkwood is here to see you."
A pounding began in her chest. David? Here? No, that could not be. What possible reason could he have now that his wife, a former pupil of the school, was dead?
She thrust her shaking hands under the desk to hide them from her too-perceptive servant. "Are you sure it's Lord Kirkwood?"
"The one who married Miss Sarah Linley, right?"
She nodded. "Did he say what his visit concerns?"
"I asked, but he told me it was private." Terence, always protective of her, crossed his arms over his meaty chest. "So I told him that men aren't entitled to privacy when they visit a girls' school."
His lip twitched. "And he said he wasn't in the habit of giving up his privacy for the amusement of impudent footmen."
She gave a rueful laugh. "That does sound like something he would say."
Terence looked perplexed. "You know him, then? I didn't think he had ever been here, not even after he married Miss Linley."
"I know him socially through Lord Norcourt."
That was both an overstatement and a vast understatement of her association with David Masters, the Viscount Kirkwood.
She was fortunate he was even civil to her on the few occasions they met in society. Considering the great wrong she had committed against him and his family years ago, she would not fault him for giving her the cut direct.
Indeed, she had been afraid of his doing exactly that when she had attended poor Sarah's funeral months ago. But despite knowing how uncomfortable her presence would make him, Charlotte had felt compelled to make an appearance.
She and David had exchanged the barest of greetings, though he had been surprisingly cordial for a man who must despise her. Why, just remembering the summer of the Great Debacle made her cringe.
So what on earth had brought him here? She could not imagine a more awkward situation. In all these years, she and David had never been alone together, never spoken of what she had done to him.
"Should I send him packing?" Terence asked.
For a second, she was tempted. But something important indeed must have brought him to visit the woman who had once wronged him so horribly. "No. Just show him in."
After Terence left, she checked her appearance in the mirror to make sure her auburn curls were not too badly askew and her face not too pale. Perhaps it was foolish, but she wanted to look her best before him, of all people. She scarcely had time to smooth her skirts and pinch her cheeks before he was ushered into her office, bringing her face-to-face with the man she had nearly married so long ago.
Pasting a smile on her lips, she walked forward with her hand extended. "Lord Kirkwood. How nice to see you again."
His eyes flashed with some hidden emotion. "Charlotte." He took her hand and pressed it briefly before releasing it.
Charlotte. Not Mrs. Harris, but Charlotte, spoken in the husky tone that had made her heart flip over when she was eighteen and he nearly twenty.
No, she must not think of that. Those days were gone forever, lost in the pages of their pasts. Time and her own mistakes, as well as his, had changed them both irrevocably.
Nothing proved that more than the dusting of gray at his temples, the lines of care worn into his brow. At thirtyseven, David was still uncommonly handsome, with the aggressively masculine features of a man who had always commanded attention, from the sharp blade of his nose to the cleft in his chin. His coloring reminded her of the forest his eyes a leafy green and his thick, wavy hair the dark brown of walnuts and bark and rich tilled earth.
And his body...
She turned sharply and hurried behind her desk, afraid she might blush. At eighteen, she had noticed his body in the vague way of a virgin unfamiliar with sensual delights. But now, as a widow of some years, she noticed it with an awareness bordering on pain.
Since Sarah had been dead for six months now, he wore half-mourning, with some white blended in with his black. Ebony trousers encased the lean hips and muscular thighs of a man who kept himself fit, while his finely tailored morning coat of jet black saxony showed off his broad shoulders. And she could well imagine those large gloved hands, one of which gripped the handle of a leather satchel, playing over a woman's body with the surety of experience...
Heavens, she had to stop this. Terence was eyeing her from the door with rank curiosity, obviously hanging about to make sure David did not harm her.
She frowned at him. "Thank you, Terence. You may go."
With a grunt the man left.
"Rather a rough sort for a footman," David said dryly.
"He used to be a pugilist."
"Why on earth would you hire a boxer as a lady's footman?"
Bristling at the criticism, she said, "Because his skills are more useful to a woman going about town alone than any niceties of behavior." She forced a smile. "But I'm sure you didn't come here to discuss my servants, Lord Kirkwood."
Gesturing to the chair before the desk, she took her own seat, needing something massive between them to keep her mind from wandering to her unwelcome attraction to a man who surely loathed her.
Yet he did not look as if he loathed her. He watched her steadily as he sat down with the easy motion of a man very comfortable in his surroundings. "Actually, I've come bearing good news."
Good news? From him? "And what might that be?"
"In going through Sarah's things recently, I discovered a handwritten codicil to her will. In it, she left a substantial sum of money to your school."
Had she heard him right? "I don't understand."
"She bequeathed some of her fortune to the school."
"Your wife, Sarah. Bequeathed me money."
"Not you," he corrected with a lift of his eyebrow. "The school."
"Yes, of course, the school. But..." She thought of Sarah's snide remarks, the way the woman had behaved at the last tea she'd attended, the seeming contempt Sarah had always shown her fellow pupils. "But why?"
He shrugged. "She always admired you and thought fondly of her days here."
"Your wife, Sarah, thought fondly of her days here."
"I believe we've already established that the woman under discussion is my late wife, Sarah," he said dryly.
No doubt he found her response insulting. "Forgive me. It's just that...she never seemed to...that is..."
"I know Sarah could be...difficult. But I believe she secretly held you and the school in high esteem."
Charlotte muttered, "That was a secret buried so deep as to be invisible." Then she groaned. "I'm sorry. That was rude. It is just such a shock to think that Sarah had any particular regard for me or the school."
"Well, the truth of the matter lies in the size of her bequest." He leveled her with a gaze of dark intent. "It's thirty thousand pounds."
Charlotte sucked in a breath. "Oh my word. Are you sure?"
A faint smile touched his lips. "I wouldn't be here if I weren't." He removed a sheaf of papers from his satchel and placed them before her. "I took the liberty of having our family solicitor draw up a legal document that fully sets out the particulars she gave in her codicil. Feel free to have your own solicitor examine it."
Still unable to take in the news, Charlotte just gaped at the formal-looking papers with the name of some legal firm stamped at the top.
"Before you read it, however," David said, "I should warn you that there is one...er...string attached to the bequest."
Charlotte's gaze flew to his. Of course there was. This had begun to seem like a fairy tale, but life was never so tidy. Sarah had been a malicious little thing, much as Charlotte hated to admit it of any of her pupils. "What sort of string?"
"Sarah wanted the money to fund a new building to house the school. To be named after her, of course."
"Of course," she said mechanically, though her mind was elsewhere, trying to make sense of this. "Forgive me, sir, for I know this will sound insulting again, but...well, your wife didn't even give money to the charities we support. I can't imagine why she would bequeath a fortune to build a new school."
"She actually donated a great deal to charities anonymously," he said smoothly. "She was far more philanthropic than anyone knew."
The picture he painted of Sarah was so odd as to be suspicious. Charlotte hated to speak ill of the dead, but she had to know what was at the bottom of this. "Again I must beg your pardon, but I thought that Sarah's primary interest was cards, not charity." That was the nicest way she could put it.
Even so, he flushed. "Yes, well, that is true. But that was a function of her desire to rise in society. She gambled to be accepted among a select group of ladies. And their acceptance came at a high cost."
"Yet she still had enough money to leave the school a huge sum?"
He flashed her a thin smile. "Sarah's fortune was substantial. Why do you think she and I were forced to elope six years ago? Her father was none too happy to see so much money go to a 'titled wastrel.' "
The conversation was dancing very near to their own situation years ago, and that was the last thing she wanted.
Yet she could not ignore his opening. "Speaking of Sarah's family, how do they feel about this bequest?"
"They don't know of it, and I prefer to keep it that way as long as possible. It would pain her brother in particular to learn that Sarah gave money to your school rather than to her siblings. She and Richard were quite close, and she left him only a token amount. I hope I can count on your discretion."
"Of course," she said.
He cleared his throat. "About the building...I understand that the school's situation is rather unsettled just now. That Samuel Pritchard means to sell Rockhurst to a fellow who runs a racing establishment."
"You know Mr. Pritchard?"
"We've met in society a time or two."
She leaned forward. "Do you know if the sale is certain? It will be the ruin of the school if they build a racecourse next door."
"I can see how it would create difficulties for you," David said. "But surely you could sell this house and property to build the school elsewhere. That would solve your difficulties, wouldn't it?"
"For heaven's sake, no. Aside from the fact that I prefer this location, I do not own the house or the property."
He did not seem surprised to hear it. "Then who does?"
Charlotte stared down at her hands, wondering what David would think of her strange relation. "To be truthful, I do not know my landlord's real name. When he offered the property for my use, it was with the condition that I allow him to remain anonymous. He...er...communicates with me using an alias. We go through a solicitor, a Mr. Joseph Baines."
"Norcourt's solicitor?" David asked.
"Yes, actually." Anthony Dalton, Lord Norcourt, was one of David's closest friends and had married Madeline, a former teacher from Charlotte's school. "Anthony and I had a good laugh about it when I learned that he and Cousin Michael have the same solicitor. Do you know Mr. Baines?"
"In passing." His eyes narrowed. "Cousin Michael. Sarah mentioned him once. He's your anonymous benefactor?"
"Yes, though he has been virtually nonexistent of late."
"A pity," he said, rather curtly. "Now, about your situation with Mr. Pritchard..."
But she did not hear anything else, caught by an astonishing thought. What if David was Cousin Michael? Might that explain the sudden supposed "bequest" from Sarah to build a new school?
No, it was impossible. Her "cousin" had approached her through Mr. Baines only four years after the summer of the Great Debacle and her hasty elopement with Jimmy Harris. He had said that her late husband had mentioned her interest in opening a girl's school and that he wanted to help her achieve her dream.
At that point, David's public humiliation at her hands would have been fresh in his mind. He would have hated her virulently. He would certainly not have helped her start a school.
Besides, she had seen the solicitor's name at the top of David's document, and it was not Joseph Baines.
"Charlotte?" David prodded. "What do you think?"
She blinked, then sighed. "I am afraid I must once again beg your pardon. I was so caught up in considering this bequest that I missed what you said about Mr. Pritchard, my lord."
"My lord?" His eyes darkened. "Surely we've known each other long enough to be less formal." His voice softened. "You used to call me David."
"That was before I destroyed your life." She cursed her quick tongue.
"It was a long time ago. We're different people now," he murmured, clearly unwilling to speak of it. He forced a smile. "Beside, thanks to my wife's unusual codicil, we'll have to learn to deal with each other. We're practically going to be in each other's pockets for the next few months."
She caught her breath. "I beg your pardon?"
"You really weren't listening to what I said." His tone turned wry. "I'll make it brief, so as to hold your attention. Sarah's bequest is contingent upon one thing that I oversee the building of the new school. So you see, Charlotte, we'll have plenty of time to become reacquainted."
Copyright © 2009 by Deborah Gonzales