Six Years Ago, Fairchild House
It was an obscenely pleasant day for a funeral.
At least, so Elizabeth thought. There should have been rain lashing down from iron-grey skies, a gale whipping their clothes and hair about them, and maybe even a rumble of thunder here and there. The sunny, warm summer’s day seemed entirely inappropriate to the occasion.
The mourners, too, were not as grief-stricken as Elizabeth felt that they should be. She’d already delivered a searing put-down to more than one rosy-cheeked, simpering lady, who informed her that there was no need to be sad, because her mama was in Heaven now, safe and happy with her Papa, and all was well with the world.
They always looked surprised when Elizabeth, a mere fourteen-year-old girl, turned on her heel and told them exactly what she thought of them and their weak well-wishing.
It was better for her to stay here, in the Great Hall, where she could look at her parents’ portraits and think of better times. Let Henry stay with the false mourners and soak up their insincere consolations. Henry was only eleven, after all, and had likely not grasped the enormity of the situation just yet.
“I thought you might be in here.”
Elizabeth flinched, glancing over her shoulder at the man standing at the other end of the hall.
“Hello, Uncle Charles. Are you here to tell me off for what I said to Mrs Simons?”
“No, I am not.” Uncle Charles responded briskly. “Although she did make an extensive complaint to me about your impertinence. I pointed out that you had just lost your mother, only a year after the unfortunate death of your poor papa and were coming to terms with being an orphan. I then proceeded to scold Mrs Simons for being so unforgiving and unchristian at a time like this. She seemed quite chastened by the end of it.”
Elizabeth managed a weak smile. “Thank you, Uncle Charles.”
“No need to thank me. Come, let’s sit down. I left Henry being consoled by a large group of widows. They were feeding him cake and sips of watered wine when I left him, so I daresay he’ll spend most of tonight being sick.”
Uncle Charles moved over to a padded chaise longue, opposite the pictures Elizabeth was gazing up at, and patted the seat beside him.
She sat, and they spent a few minutes staring up at the portraits. Viscount Robert Fairchild smiled fondly down at them from one, and his elegant wife, the Viscountess Ruth Fairchild, peered out from the other.
“I still can’t believe that my little sister is gone.” Uncle Charles murmured after a moment or two. “I keep expecting her to turn up at my door, with some gossip to tell me, something to make me laugh until my sides hurt.”
Elizabeth glanced up at her uncle. “I don’t feel anything, Uncle Charles. I thought I’d cry and cry, like I did when Papa died, but I don’t feel anything. Am I wicked?”
“Of course not, what nonsense. Grief affects people in different ways, my girl. Nobody could doubt that you loved your mother. You’re still recovering from the death of your father, too. Such a thing is not easily gotten over. Losing both parents within a year of each other like that…” Uncle Charles trailed off, shaking his head. “It hardly bears thinking about.”
This reassured Elizabeth a little. There had been so much to do when her mother died. She was the one who had to write to Uncle Charles – who had been somewhere abroad when Ruth first began to fade away – as well as organize medical care for her mother, and then the funeral.
There was, of course, the business of guardianship and inheritance. The money and estate were to be split between Elizabeth and Henry, but they couldn’t inherit until they turned twenty-one. For Elizabeth, that was a full six and a half years away, and just under ten years for poor Henry.
“She didn’t have to die.” Elizabeth said, with sudden venom. “Papa’s death was a hunting accident, and nobody could have seen that coming. Mama just let herself waste away. She didn’t want to live, not even for me and Henry.”
“You’re being harsh, Lizzie.” Uncle Charles said quietly. “Your mother loved your father dearly. His loss was simply too much for her to bear.”
“Well, I had to bear it.” Elizabeth snapped. She’d said earlier that she didn’t feel anything, but that wasn’t true. She felt anger. Anger at her mother for not trying harder to live, anger at her father for dying so inconveniently, anger at everyone around her for not understanding and going on with their lives as if the very world hadn’t just come crumbling around Elizabeth’s ears.
“I will never love anybody else that I don’t have to.” Elizabeth continued. “I have to love Henry, of course, and you, Uncle Charles. But no more. It’s not worth the pain. I shall certainly not get married.”
Uncle Charles sighed; gaze still focused on the portrait of his dead sister. He was older than Ruth, by about ten years, if Elizabeth remembered correctly, known as the scatter-brained older brother, affected with a terrible wanderlust, a man who never married, never settled down, instead preferring to travel the world with the same valet he’d had since his youth, who seemed to be a remarkably close friend for a valet. He adored his younger sister and her family with a surprising fervor.
“You mustn’t say that, Elizabeth. Life is much easier for a married woman.”
“That isn’t a good enough reason to get married.”
“Perhaps not.” He acknowledged. “But love… well, that’s not something to be sniffed at. I don’t want you to miss out on love, Elizabeth.”
“Miss out? The only thing I’m missing out on is misery and heartache.” She replied stoutly. “My mind is made up, and I won’t be changing it. Not now, not ever.”
Uncle Charles chuckled. “Goodness, I can tell that you’re Ruth’s daughter, alright. Well, I shan’t argue with you about this now, not today.”
“Do I need to go back in and talk to everybody?”
“Not if you don’t wish to.”
Uncle Charles put his arm around Elizabeth’s shoulder and pulled her close. She rested her head against his arm, closing her eyes. A headache was building at her temples, a regular, painful throb.
“I want my mama.” She whispered; her voice hoarse.
Uncle Charles’ arm tightened around her. “I know, darling, I know.”
“Are we going to have to leave Fairchild House, and come live with you?”
“No, darling, of course not. I don’t think moving you and Henry to my home – which is a rather miserable set of apartments in London, by the way, that I don’t often inhabit – would be the best thing for you now.”
Elizabeth twisted to look up at her uncle. “Really? We can stay here, then?”
“Of course. Your parents had detailed plans for you both, you know. As your new legal guardian, I shall be following those plans to the letter. An extensive education is planned for you both. I hope you like Latin, by the way. Your dear papa had quite a bee in his bonnet about Latin. And Ruth had a finishing school picked out for you, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t want to go to finishing school. Mama and I used to argue about it, before… before everything happened. I suppose she’s gotten in the last word, now.”
“Yes, she has rather deftly won that argument by dying.” Uncle Charles agreed. “Finishing school isn’t all bad. You’ll enjoy it, wait and see.”
“Uncle Charles? Elizabeth?”
Henry appeared in the doorway; thumb jammed in his mouth. It was a habit he had given up years ago, but it had made a reappearance in the last year.
“Come join us, Henry.” Uncle Charles said gently, holding out his free arm. “Your sister needs time to grief away from the cloying grip of Polite Society.”
Elizabeth smiled weakly at that. She’d always loved how Uncle Charles talked about things. He had a way of using words that made even the most ordinary things seem new and exciting. She was lucky to have him, she knew. Unprotected orphans were at a great risk of being swindled and mistreated, everyone knew that. The Fairchilds had lots of friends in town, but they were Society friends – polite, pleasant, but distant, all the same.
“Are the Thorntons here?” Elizabeth asked suddenly, hating how hopeful she sounded.
Uncle Charles sighed. “I’m afraid not, although they sent a long letter of condolences. I’m sorry, Elizabeth, I know they were family friends, but travelling here from London is a long way to go. You can’t blame them for not being here.”
Elizabeth said nothing. She didn’t much care about Lord and Lady Northbridge, the heads of the Thornton family. But she and William Thornton had once been good friends. Very good friends. Inseparable, in fact.
Of course, that was years ago. He would be eighteen years old now, and not all interested in being friends with a fourteen-year-old.
Forget him, Elizabeth told herself firmly. The Thorntons moved away, and that is that. Concentrate on your life now. Concentrate on protecting Henry and yourself, so that we never have to feel this sort of pain again.
Never. Never ever.
Present Day, London
“A little to the left.” Elizabeth instructed. “A little more. Just a fraction… yes, there. That’s perfect, thank you.”
The two footmen stepped back, dusting off their hands, inspecting the newly hung portrait.
The portrait of the late Charles Everett hung between an older portrait of his sister, Ruth, and his brother-in-law, the Viscount Fairchild.
It was a far cry from the grand Great Hall back at Fairchild House, set deep in the country, but Elizabeth privately preferred the smaller, cozier house that her uncle had taken up in London five years ago, instead of the unpleasant set of apartments he had rarely inhabited. He had no portraits of himself hanging up, and Elizabeth intended to fix that. Immediately.
“You look very fine, Uncle Charles.” She murmured to herself. “I shall say good morning and good night to you every day, just like I do Mama and Papa.”
The familiar hand of grief clenched around her heart, squeezing and squeezing until the ache in her chest was almost unbearable. She turned away, smiling tightly at the footmen and gesturing for them to leave.
Peace had barely fallen over the halls of Red House before a nervous, discreet cough from the doorway shattered it again.
Elizabeth flinched, turning around with a glare.
“Do forgive the interruption.” The man mumbled guiltily. “The butler let me in. I believe I am expected?”
“Indeed, you are, Mr Baxter.” Elizabeth said, recovering herself. “Let’s talk in my uncle’s study.”
Mr Baxter hovered where he was, nibbling his lower lip. “Is Master Fairchild here? I had expected to discuss these matters with him.”
“Henry has gone out.” Elizabeth replied curtly, remembering all at once why she disliked her uncle’s solicitor so much. “I am the oldest out of the two of us. I had expected that you would discuss these matters with me. Henry is not even eighteen yet.”
Mr Baxter swallowed hard, his eyes fluttering nervously. He always seemed a little intimidated by her, and Elizabeth could understand why.
She would be twenty-one soon, an adult in the eyes of the law. She had grown up tall and sturdy, with none of the willowy frailness that seemed to be the fashion for women at the moment. Her hair was a delicate red-gold, like her mother’s, and her eyes were a staunch grass-green, like her father’s. She was taller than a great many men. Some of them complained about her height, apparently with the expectation that she would stoop, or hunch over, or somehow lower herself to allow them to feel taller.
She had done no such thing, of course. The men were always shocked and a little offended. Elizabeth often did not notice. It was simpler that way.
She knew, in a disinterested sort of way, that she was pretty – or rather, handsome, as some sulky, short gentlemen might say – but it really mattered very little to Elizabeth. It was nice to have good looks, but at the end of the day, none of that mattered. What mattered was what was on the inside.
Without waiting for Mr Baxter to agree, she led the way down the hallway towards her uncle’s study. Her stride was long and elastic, and poor Mr Baxter struggled to keep up.
The study was a small room, made smaller still by the profusion of books, papers, maps, pictures, and various knick-knacks and souvenirs with which Uncle Charles filled his space. The desk in the centre of the room was reasonably clear, as was the chair behind the desk and the one in front of it.
Elizabeth seated herself behind the desk and indicated for Mr Baxter to take the other chair.
He did, clutching his briefcase to his chest as if for comfort.
“Once again, Miss Fairchild, allow me to offer my condolences on the loss of your uncle.” He said, as if parroting off a rehearsed script. “You must be prostrate with grief.”
“I am not.” Elizabeth retorted shortly. “I loved my uncle dearly, of course, and his loss will leave a gaping hole in my life. However, I am not the sort of person to lounge around and cry. I do better when I have something to keep me occupied.”
“Very industrious.” Mr Baxter said weakly. “Well, shall we get to business?”
Elizabeth picked at nonexistent specks of dust on her sleeve. Uncle Charles’ death had been a shock. He’d always been so healthy, so vigorous. He met his demise at the age of fifty five, a time scarcely befitting his departure. It had been sudden, some heart complaint that took him quickly and painlessly. Elizabeth knew that she should be grateful that he hadn’t suffered, but it was difficult to feel anything at all at the moment. And now, Uncle Charles’ portrait hung alongside her mother and father’s picture, and she felt like an orphan once again.
“As you know, I am the executor of your late uncle’s will. He left a substantial amount of money to you and your brother. I might add that your father’s estate is not quite as valuable as initially thought.”
Elizabeth’s fist tightened, knuckles standing out white. “I know that.”
That had been something of a shock, too. She was only a child when it all happened, of course – although the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth had considered herself very grown up indeed – but it had turned out that the Viscount Fairchild’s estate was worth very little indeed, even after Uncle Charles paid off most of the debts. And of course, what was left had to be divided between Elizabeth and Henry, when they came of age. It was a reasonable amount, enough to live a decent, sensible sort of life.
In short, their fortunes would come from Uncle Charles and his money. He’d told them both that his considerable fortune would be divided between them both, leaving them wealthy and comfortable forever.
At the time, Elizabeth had furiously told her uncle not to think about that, he was going to live for decades yet, and both she and Henry would much rather have their uncle than any fortune.
This was the purpose of this will reading – to find out exactly how much money Uncle Charles had, who his properties had been left to, and other important details.
Mr Baxter did not seem keen to give up these details. He was squirming on his seat, not looking Elizabeth in the eye.
“The late Mr Everett was somewhat… well, absent-minded.” Mr Baxter muttered. “His valet was the one who reminded him of most important engagements.”
Elizabeth frowned. That was true enough. Uncle Charles often joked that he would forget his head if it were not fixed on, while Robinson shook his head and chuckled.
“I am aware of that. Tell me, is Mr Robinson – my uncle’s valet – provided for in the will? He is too old now to get another position as valet. He was the same age as my uncle, and they were… close.”
At that word, close, she remembered poor, grey-haired Mr Robinson in floods of tears at Uncle Charles’ funeral, with Henry doing his best to console him. She remembered Mr Robinson’s tales of how they’d travelled together, seen remarkable things, and endured all sorts of dangers. If he wasn’t provided for in her uncle’s will, then what would the poor man do?
“Oh, Mr Robinson is receiving a sizeable portion.” Mr Baxter commented, glancing sourly down at the papers in front of him. “Plus, a house of his own here in London, and a yearly pension.”
Elizabeth relaxed a little. Of course, Uncle Charles would have thought to provide for his dearest friend and life’s companion. “Good. That’s good. Go on, please.”
Mr Baxter’s unease was only increasing, and Elizabeth was starting to worry.
“You will receive exactly half of your uncle’s fortune, including possession of the properties listed below.” He said in a rush, pushing a piece of paper with numbers scrawled on it towards her. “However, there is a condition.”
Mr Baxter swallowed hard, gathering his courage. “Your uncle has stipulated that you should marry before you come of age.”
There was a long, taut silence.
“I must marry in order to receive my inheritance?” Elizabeth repeated, sure that she must have misheard.
Mr Baxter shrank down in his chair. “Your uncle provided a note to explain his reasoning.”
He pushed a piece of writing paper across the table, and Elizabeth snatched it up, reading it eagerly.
My Dearest Elizabeth,
I’m sure you’re fuming. Marry before you come of age to get your inheritance? I’m glad I’m dead, so I won’t have to face your anger.
Let me explain myself, my darling girl.
You are a strong character, a clever young girl, and I admire that about you. You remind me of both of your parents, with their finest qualities embodied in you. You are independent, quick-witted, and fearless without being reckless. You are more courageous than anyone else I have ever met, and I am proud to be your uncle and guardian. I hope that your parents would have been happy with how I chose to raise you.
As you know, your parents’ fortune is rather paltry, and the vast majority of your fortune will come from me. However, I do have a worry about you in particular, my dear girl.
You claim that love of all kinds is a recipe for pain and misery. You say that you choose to avoid future grief by staying away from entanglements now.
I’m not sure I can blame you for that. Losing your beloved parents – and now me, I can assume – is a tremendous blow. You have a big heart, and deep affections.
However, I am afraid that you will shut yourself up in a fine house and devote yourself to spinsterhood and loneliness forever. There’s nothing wrong with never marrying – I myself have never married or had children – but cutting yourself off from love is a slow death.
I myself have loved and been loved in return, and you must believe that it is a wonderful thing.
As humans, we were made in pairs, after all.
So, I have added this stipulation to my will, that you must marry before you come of age in order to inherit your fortune from me. You are a beautiful and remarkable young woman and will have no trouble at all in finding a man you can love and respect. I know this might be difficult for you to accept, but I have thought long and hard on this matter, and I am sure that this is the best thing for you. I cannot bear the idea of your living out your life in solitude and loneliness, and this seems to be the best solution.
I pray that I have done the best for you and your brother, my sweet girl.
All my love, Your Uncle,
Elizabeth slowly and deliberately crumpled the letter into a ball. Her chest was aching, like somebody was squeezing her heart. She wanted to cry – tears pricked at her eyeballs in anticipation – but she refused to let the tears fall.
Oh, Uncle Charles, you deluded, lovely man, she thought wildly.
“But I will be of age in six months.” She said, the words sounding as if they came from somebody else. “He says that I’ll have plenty of time to find someone suitable. Six months is not plenty of time.”
Mr Baxter coughed nervously. “Your uncle added this stipulation to his will when you were about fifteen, Miss Fairchild. It is my belief that he was preparing for the event of his early death, leaving you and your brother alone. His death, as you know, was sudden, and I think… I cannot help but think that he forgot about this stipulation, leaving you with a deadline of only six months.”
Elizabeth wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. It was a very Uncle Charles thing to do – add a time-sensitive stipulation to his will and then forget about it.
“And what if my twenty-first birthday comes and goes, and I am not married?” she asked, her voice tense. “What then?”
Mr Baxter swallowed hard. “There… there is no provision for that. It would be a lengthy and complicated legal process, but I assume your share of the inheritance would go to your brother.”
“But not before it was mostly eaten up by legal fees.” Elizabeth muttered. “So, there’s no getting around it?”
“I… I fear not, Miss Fairchild. Is there some gentleman with whom you have an understanding? If so, may I suggest…”
“You can go, Mr Baxter.”
Mr Baxter blushed, offended that his advice was being rejected. He sniffed to himself, gathering up his things and sweeping out without another word.
Elizabeth waited until he was gone. Then she picked up a glass paperweight from her uncle’s desk and threw it across the room. The glass shattered satisfyingly, and she sank down onto her chair with a groan.
“What am I going to do?” she moaned.
“Well, it’s obvious. You need to get married.” Jane stated. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t like that idea. If you want your inheritance, you need to marry.”
Jane was right, of course, but Elizabeth had no intention of admitting it.
The two women were taking tea in the parlour. After Mr Baxter had left, Elizabeth had sent a note to her closest friend in London – her only friend, really – and asked her to come at once.
Jane Barker, daughter of a wealthy baron who was remarkably disinterested in his own child, was a year older than Elizabeth, and notably less beautiful. Jane was dark-haired, brown-eyed, and round-faced, with a tendency to favour dresses with too many ruffles and ornaments to really suit her. She had a heart of gold and an irrepressible sense of humour beneath her plain appearance, although most men and women were too shallow to stay and find out.
They were, in Elizabeth’s opinion, not worth Jane’s friendship.
Elizabeth sighed, stirring sugar into her tea. She didn’t usually have sugar in her tea, but today was already upside down, so why not?
“I don’t want to get married, Jane. You know that.”
“I understand, but if you want your inheritance…”
“Yes, yes, I know. I have only two choices. If it were just me, I might… I might try and get the will overturned, or simply let Henry have my share. But the thing is, Henry isn’t even eighteen yet. He won’t come of age for another three years. What are we to do in the meantime? My inheritance from my parents won’t support us, and you know how terrible Henry can be with money. I worry about him, you know.”
Jane considered this, sipping her tea.
“You are in a pickle.” She acknowledged. “But there’s no point railing about it now. You need to marry if you want this money, and that’s that.”
Elizabeth groaned. “Ugh. I truly don’t see how I can find someone to marry in just six months. The Season won’t really get started for another month, and then I have to find someone, go through all the rigmarole of courtship, and…”
“You,” Jane said, matter-of-factly, “are overthinking this. In cases like this, honesty is the best policy.”
“What do you mean?”
Jane set down her teacup with a clack. “Do you think you’re the first lady or gentleman to be obliged to marry due to their inheritance? It’s not a common thing, I warrant you, but I know of several men and women whose parents compelled them to marry before they could inherit. It’s been left as a stipulation in wills, or in some cases, the parents simply threaten to cut off their child if they don’t marry and produce heirs. It’s vulgar, of course, but people do it.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t see how that helps me. What should I do, then?”
Jane leaned forward. “You, my dear, need a marriage of convenience.”
Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. “One of those vulgar, mercenary arrangements? No, thank you.”
“Think about it. You can approach some gentleman yourself, choosing someone suitable, unhindered by emotion, and lay the situation out before him. Make sure you protect your own fortune, of course, but if he were offered a portion of it, I’m sure it would be a good enough motivation to marry you. You’re very pretty, you know.”
“I suppose it could work.” Elizabeth mused, getting to her feet. “I could choose someone with the same habits as me.”
She paced back and forth, her mind whirring furiously. A marriage of convenience would remove the need for any troublesome emotions, or convincing some dull gentleman that she was in love with him.
“When you say, ‘the same habits’…” Jane queried.
Elizabeth gave a light shrug. “Oh, someone serious, intellectual, logical, and so on. Somebody disciplined. An early riser, for example. I’m sure I could find a gentleman like that with no problems at all.”
Lifting his head from the pillow with an effort, William squinted at the clock across the room.
Good gracious, it was earlier than he’d imagined, earlier than he’d gotten up in weeks. It was barely noon.
He rolled onto his back, stretching out his arms. It wasn’t a very late night last night. If his memory served him correctly – and usually it didn’t, to be fair – he had crawled into bed shortly before two in the morning.
He was turning into a staid middle-aged man these days.
Smiling to himself, William contemplated whether to get up or to sleep for an hour or two longer. He decided on the former – a beam of sunlight was streaming into the room through his half-open curtains, landing directly on his face. If he was going to get up and close the curtains, he might as well get up and ferret himself out some breakfast.
“Cook!” William said, clapping his hands. “I’ll take a full English for breakfast, if you please, with fried bread, extra bacon, a pair of kippers, and a full apple pie. With whipped cream.”
He chuckled at his own joke. There was, of course, no cook, maid, or housekeeper at William’s apartments. He had a manservant up until recently, but when he got behind on the poor man’s wages, the manservant had taken himself to William’s brother to get the rest of his money, then presumably found a job elsewhere.
That was for the best. William had never liked the sour-faced man. Always complaining, always making thinly veiled slights towards William’s friends.
Although in the case of one or two of those chaps, William thought, he’d been right.
He rolled out of bed, kicking away an empty wine bottle from across his slippers. A dribble of red liquid leaked from the bottle, seeping into the wooden boards. William shrugged himself into his robe, ignoring the stain.
Shuffling across the floor in his slippers, William yawned mightily, raking his fingers through his hair and doing his best to ignore the mess in his room. There were assorted empty glass bottles, most of which had contained wine or whiskey, and in one case, gin. He hadn’t liked that, and it gave him an awful headache.
Still, you’ve got to try everything at least once, haven’t you? William told himself cheerfully. He wracked his brains, wondering what there was to eat in the apartment. Eggs, maybe? There were usually eggs, and probably a heel of bread that wasn’t too moldy. If he hadn’t been foolish enough to lose all of his remaining cash in that silly wager over Benedict Thompson jumping out of the window, he could have gone down to an inn and had breakfast there.
Nothing you can do about that now. How were you to know that Benedict was drunk enough to jump from that window and not break anything? You were hardly sober yourself.
Sighing, William shouldered the door open, stepping directly into the main room of his apartments, where armchairs were angled neatly towards an unlit fire, and a once-fine rug was spread over the bare floorboards.
A man sat in one of the armchairs. William stopped dead.
The uninvited guest was not just any man, of course. It was the Earl of Northbridge.
“Richard!” William gasped involuntarily.
“William.” His brother replied, his voice curt and clipped.
There were barely three years between the brothers. At first glance, they could easily be mistaken for twins. Both had the same impressive height, the same well-built frame and broad shoulders, the same half-curling brown hair and sharp blue eyes.
They were not twins. In fact, they only resembled each other in their appearances. It didn’t matter that nobody else could tell which one of the brothers was the oldest. Richard was the oldest, and as such, he had everything worth having. The money, the reputation, the title.
He even had a wife, although William didn’t particularly begrudge him Sarah.
“What… what are you doing here?” William stammered, glancing nervously around the room. There was mess everywhere, of course. A crumpled shirt, once white, sat accusingly in one corner. There were dirty dishes and cups covering the kitchen counter, and a spider had built a web between the dishes and the wall.
And, of course, there was dust everywhere. A thick layer on the floor, with William’s footprints showing where he walked the most often. There were cobwebs in every corner, and for the first time, William realized how stale and unpleasant the air was in his home.
He cleared his throat. “If you’d told me you were visiting,” he said lightly, “I’d have done some spring cleaning.”
That was a paltry attempt to lighten the mood. Richard did not smile. He adjusted his position on the armchair, picking at the cuffs of his expensive, emerald-green coat.
“Sit down, William.” He said, in a way that could only be described as cold.
Where are the Written Acknowledgements of my Debts from last night? William thought to himself wildly. For the first time that morning, his alcohol-addled brain conjured up a memory of stumbling home, wet from the late-night shower of rain, cold, and miserable. He remembered pulling handfuls of receipts and the Written Acknowledgements of his Debts from his pocket, dropping them unceremoniously on the coffee table beside the armchair.
Can’t let Richard see them.
“I said, sit down, if you please.” Richard repeated sharply, and William found himself obeyed. He sat down in the vacant armchair with a plop.
And there were the Written Acknowledgements of his Debts.
They were spread out over the arm of Richard’s chair, taking up both arms and then most of the hearth, arranged neatly, in some sort of logical order. William’s heart sank when he saw them. There were far more than he’d remembered.
“Do you care to explain what these are?” Richard said, his voice low and dangerous. The same tone their father always used when one of them did something that displeased him. The tone was usually followed by a switch or paddle, administered with painful strength and brutal accuracy.
William had revolted against his father’s tyranny by becoming the free spirit he was today. Richard, it seemed, had simply decided to become the man.
“My informal agreements to repay my debts, by the looks of it.” William said lightly.
Richard clenched his jaw. “I know that. I’m asking you how you came to have so many.”
“Well, you wouldn’t know this, but when gentlemen get together and have fun, they sometimes play card games. During those card games – and I shall try to keep this simple for you, brother – people will offer each other written agreements, in order to promise…”
“Pray, cease your prattle, William! Cease it, I implore you, cease it!”
The room went quiet after Richard’s outburst. He went red, biting his lip and staring at the empty grate as if he could see flames flickering there. There was no firewood, of course, no coal. That cost money, and why would William need to heat his home at this time of year? It was warm, after all.
“You can’t tell me to shut up in my own home, Richard.” William said quietly.
Richard raked his fingers through his hair, disheveling the expensively styled Brutus cut. William saw an emerald ring glint on his finger. That was new. A present from Sarah, maybe? Those two did love each other, in their serious, sensible way. They were always buying each other presents, always happy in each other’s company. A pang of jealousy soured William’s stomach.
“May I remind you that I pay the rent on your home, William.” Richard said at last. “Now. These Written Acknowledgements of your Debts. Do you have any idea how much money they amount to?”
William had a rough idea, but he’d worked hard not to think about it. The number that kept flashing into his head made him feel sick. Rather than explain all this, he numbly shook his head.
“It’s over half of your monthly allowance.” Richard said, his voice trembling just a little. “Possibly closer to two-thirds. How much of your allowance is left, by the way?”
Not enough, was the answer. A few pounds, possibly. William said nothing. He didn’t really need to speak. Richard could read it all in his face. He always could.
Richard stared at him for a long moment. Waiting for an apology, William thought. An explanation, perhaps.
Well, there were none. William’s apologies always rang hollow, especially since he always did it again. It wasn’t his fault. It was easy to go out with his friends, to drink until he couldn’t stand up and forget just how much of a disappointment he was to just about everyone who knew him.
“I pay your rent, and I settle your outstanding debts with astonishing frequency.” Richard said slowly, almost to himself. “I pay you a monthly allowance, since our father did not see fit to leave you anything in his will. And yet, despite having nearly no outstanding monthly bills to pay, you’re deeply ensnared in debt. I don’t understand it, William. I don’t understand you.”
“You don’t need to understand me.” William said sharply, before he could stop himself. “Why don’t you just go home to your sour-faced wife and squalling new baby, and leave me alone? Go take your nagging somewhere else. It’s like being with Father again. Go away, Richard. That would make everyone happy.”
Anger and hurt flashed across Richard’s face. William could have bitten off his tongue. He would have done so, if it could have guaranteed that he could take back those words and make it so that Richard had never heard them.
“Well, it’s good to know what you think of me.” Richard said thinly.
William swallowed hard, fighting down guilt. “I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean… I’m sorry, Richard. I’m sorry.”
Richard smiled wryly. “And I’ll forgive you, won’t I? That’s how we go along, you and I, isn’t that so? You make mistakes, I clean them up, and then I forgive you. Then you do them all over again. Well, not this time, do you hear me? No more. I’ll pay off these,” he shook a fist full of crumpled papers at William, “and that’s it.”
William bit his lip. It would be difficult, going through life without knowing he could rely on his big brother to pay off his debts, but perhaps this was what he needed.
“I understand.” William said nobly. “I can’t expect to keep asking you for money like this. I shall make sure that my allowance…”
“No allowance.” Richard said shortly, getting to his feet. He dusted down his trousers, as if sitting in William’s dusty home had left marks on his fine clothes.
Well, it had probably had, in fairness.
“I… what?” William stammered.
Richard chuckled. “Oh, now I’ve surprised you, eh? You heard me, William. I’m not paying you a monthly allowance and your rent for you to fritter your money away on card games, ridiculous wagers, and gambling. I might as well simply set fire to my money. Well, no more. Sarah and I have discussed this at length…”
“Oh, I might have known that she would want you to cut me off.”
Richard pursed his lips. “For your information, Sarah only suggested that I reduce your allowance. I was the one who decided to cut you off entirely.”
William felt colour rising to his cheeks. He knew that Sarah, the latest Lady Northbridge, did not like him. He and Richard had been close when the marriage first happened, and he supposed that she was worried that he would drag Richard into the vices of gambling.
She needn’t have worried – Richard was pure as the driven snow. She was a fastidious, prim sort of woman, and made no secret of her disapproval when it came to William in general.
She clearly pitied him, too, and that was worse than anything.
“Sarah and I have little Arthur to think of now.” Richard continued. “He’s our first child, and we may well have more. I have to provide for my family, William.”
“Oh, and I’m not family, am I?”
“You’re a wastrel!” Richard snapped, anger creeping back into his voice. “You spend and spend and spend, knowing that I will spend my own money to keep you out of debtor’s prison. I pay for these appalling accommodations. I even increased your allowance when you requested it, and still, you are not grateful. It isn’t fair, William, you must see that it isn’t fair!”
William bounced to his feet, coming nose to nose with his brother.
“None of this is fair, you’re right about that. This has been unfair from the start. It’s not my fault I didn’t inherit any of Father’s money!”
“And it’s not my fault that I did.” Richard countered. “Do you think I just sit in my fine house, counting my money and idling away the hours? No! I have an estate to run, a reputation to keep up, social obligations to fulfill I am expected to throw so many parties and balls a year, and they must be magnificent and expensive. I have taxes and duties to pay. I have tenants to keep happy, debtors to chase up, investments to handle, and my wastrel brother to manage. On top of that, I try my best to spend time with my beloved wife. Now we have a child, and I barely have time for him because I am too busy running around after you!”
The last word echoed around the quiet apartment. William bit his lip, horrified to find that tears were springing to his eyes.
“Fine.” He said, when he could trust himself to speak. “Go spend time with your new family. I don’t need you.”
He sat down heavily, crossing his arms over his chest.
Richard stood there for a moment, motionless. He made no move to leave, and William wasn’t sure whether he even wanted him to.
He sighed, then sat down in his own chair.
“We can’t go on like this, William.” He said softly. “We’re turning on each other like wild animals. Father would not have been thrilled.”
William swallowed hard, closing his eyes. “I didn’t mean to say those things about you, or about Sarah. I truly didn’t. I was angry, and I know that’s not an excuse, but…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “I don’t know what to do.”
“This can’t go on.” Richard said decisively. “You need your own money, William.”
“I’d get a job, but…” he sighed, shrugging helplessly. “I’m a gentleman. A second son. I was meant to go into the army or into the clergy, and neither of those vocations suit me.”
“You need to marry a rich woman.” Richard said decisively.
William blinked, not sure whether he’d heard correctly or not.
“I beg your pardon?” he managed tentatively. “Did you say…”
“Yes, you heard me, William.” Richard leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Find yourself an heiress, or a rich widow. Find some woman who’ll marry you, who has a fortune of her own. She’ll give you an allowance and keep you safe. You’ll be set for life.”
William shook his head. “I never thought I’d marry. Not after…”
He didn’t say her name. It was easier that way. Richard didn’t say it either.
“And I never thought I’d be supporting my grown-up brother, who seems to be a professional fool.” He retorted. “I meant what I said about your allowance, William. This can’t go on. But I can help you find a more permanent solution. You’re handsome, charming, and very entertaining. There’s no reason you can’t find yourself a suitable woman to marry.”
“But what if I don’t love her?” William said stupidly. “You loved Sarah when you married her.”
“That was different. I had the leisure to pick out somebody I truly cared about. But that wasn’t all I considered before I asked Sarah to marry me. Look, the Season is just getting started. You’re in the perfect position to put this plan into action. I’ll help you, William. I promise.”
Richard got to his feet, straightening his waistcoat, and extended a hand to his younger brother. William eyed it for a moment.
Marriage. He’d contemplated marriage once, of course, and had believed that he would get married to a particular lady. Then his dreams crumbled to ash, and he’d decided that it was safer not to build them up again.
But it would be nice not to have to beg my brother for money, he thought. Maybe to have a family of my own. I could hold up my head again. Richard would like me, admire me like he used to.
He took his brother’s hand.
“Very well.” He said, giving it a squeeze. “I’ll do as you suggest. I’ll find myself a nice heiress.”
“Or a rich widow.” Richard added. “Don’t limit your options.”
He strode out of the apartments without a backward look, leaving William reeling.
Where am I going to find a rich woman who’d be willing to marry me, though? He thought, dazed.
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I’m glad that you finished reading the preview of “The Spinster’s Gamble”. It will be on Amazon very soon!