Thinking before speakingcould avert all sorts of catastrophes.
Why hadn’tshedone sonow? "I must have got knockedharder than I thought, "she muttered in disgust.
"Perhaps some brandy? " the butler inquired sympathetically, her words seeming to have shocked him out of his stunned silence.
Valoree shook her head, wincingas pain shot through her skull again."Never touch the stuff. I’ll takesome rum, though, if you have any."
"Oh, dear, " Meg saidwith a sort of horror, then managed to forcea titter of feignedamusement. "Oh, my dear, you areever the witty one. Youmust not joke so, however, for not everyone knows what a prankster you are." Turning to the butler, who relaxed ather words, she added sweetly, "A coldcompress will befine. Anda touch of brandy, please."
Nodding, the servant hurried to a sideboard to pourthe brandy, then started back toward Valoree with it, only to pause when "Aunt"Megmet him halfwayacross theroom. "I shallfetch a cold compress, " he said as he handed her the snifter, then disappearedthroughthedoor.
Valoree watchedhim go, but was distracted by the newcomer.
"Whatever wereyou doing at the door? "
Valoree peered at the man with irritation. He was tall and handsomeand carried himself as only a member of the nobility could.And she would bet her shareof the booty from that French frigate hercrew had just taken thathe knew exactly whatshe had been doing. There was no mistaking the glint in his eyes for anything but malicious humor.She supposedhe wasworking off some of the temper his appointment had stirredin him, but she didn’t like it.Were they on her ship – But they weren’ton her ship. They were in aparlor. She made aface at the thought and did the only thing she could.She lied.
"I was about toleave the room, obviously." Turning away, she movedtoward a chair and satdown. "I was aboutto go looking for the loo."
A sudden sputtering made Valoree glance abruptly over at Meg. The woman had paused a few steps away. She was clutching the brandy glass with white-knuckled fierceness and looking readyto swoon. Abject horror wasthe only explanation for her pale, pinched lookandthe wayhermouth wasflapping with nothing but insensible sounds emerging.
The newcomer, too, was reacting oddly, blinking at her rather blankly, unableto believehe had heardwhat he thought he had just heard.
Gathering from all this that ladies did not "go to the loo, "
Valoree sighed inwardly and offered a bland smile. "Lou. Louis.
Our footman.I left my smelling saltsin the carriage and I was going to have him fetch them for me. My aunt faints quite easily, " she added drolly. Then, putting a hard edge into her voice, she addressed Meg. "Aunt? Is that brandy forme? "
"I – Yes, dear."The woman hurried forwardat once, pushing the glass into Valoree’shand and pattingher on the back. "Come, mydear. You should rest silently and drink this … after that knock."Her emphasiswas notmissed by Valoree.
The butler hurried into the room just as Valoree lifted the snifter ofbrandy to her lips.
"Here, my lady. This should help, " the older man murmured, rushing to her side withaflowered bluebowl filledwithwater and a fresh cloth. Setting them on the table before her, he watched anxiouslyas Meg tookher glass, setit aside, and took up the cloth to dip it in the water.
"Iam ever so sorry about this. All of this.Youshould noteven havehad towait. Yours was theonly appointment scheduled for today, but – "
"ButI arrived unexpectedlyand quite rudelyusurpedsome of your time, " the younger man interrupted. "Of course, once I realized that MasterWhisterhad anotherappointment, I politely took myself off hereto allow you your time before I finishwith him. He should be along directly."
Valoree accepted that bit of information with interest, then glanced towardMeg as the woman touched her arm.
"Lean your head back, " her faux aunt instructed quietly, then laidthecold cloth out flatover her forehead and face so that even hermouth was covered.
If Valoree had suspected thatcompresseswere not generally supposedto cover the mouthas well as everything else, a short burst of laughter fromthe newcomerassured her she wasright.
Draggingthecloth away, she satup toglare at Meg, thenglanced toward the newcomer. But before she could give him the dressing-downhe deserved, the butler murmured, "Well, then, MasterWhister should bereadyto see younow. I shall just check tosee – "
"No need to check, Hinkle. I amready."
They allturnedto the door at that bluff announcement, and Valoree took in the lawyer with curiosity.He was tall, slender, and distinguished-looking. Too, he had a gentle, reassuring face that seemed tosuggest he was trustworthy. He tooka moment to survey his guests, then started forward, his smile of greeting turning to a look of concern."Is everything all right? You are not ill, are you, my lady? "
"Aye. Imean, nay, Iamfine, "Valoree murmured, rising to her feet as the solicitor paused before her. Turning to Meg with suddenpanic, sheadded, "And thisis my aunt." She fell silent then, decidingatthat point that shewould bemorethan happy to allow the womantotake over.The lawyerintimidated her. She didn’t know why. The otherman and the butler hadn’t, butthis man, gentle-looking though he was, did. She supposed it had something todowith thefact that she had togo through him to get what she wanted, Ainsley Castle. And she knew that cutlasses and flintlocks were not the way to do it this time. Shewasout of herdepth.
Meg stepped into take over. As Valoree watched, Megsmiled and chatted away, entirely charmingasthe lawyer ushered them out of the salon andinto hisoffice.Once there, the small talk between thetwo continued briefly beforethey finally got around tobusiness.
"I received your letter regarding your brother Jeremy’sdeath. I am sorry for your loss, " Whister beganwith suitable solemnity."I realizehe is the last of your closefamily."
"It was years ago, " Valoreemurmured, ignoringthe pang of loss she felt at the mention of hisname.
"Yes.Yes, of course. Well, itwasluckyyou had sucha lovely and warm aunt whocould take over your upbringing and shelter you until now, though. Was it not? " He smiled charmingly at Meg, who actually blushed. Rolling her eyes, Valoree muttered a quiet agreement tothat.
"Well." Clearing his throat, hesmiled oncemore at Meg, then looked away before getting to the sticky part."Ineed proofof his death, of course. I presume you…" The lawyerpaused as Valoree suddenlytugged a rolled-up scroll of paper from her sleeve, then removed the ring she had not taken offsincethe day Jeremy had givenit to her.The day he had died. She set bothon the desk before him.
Whister read the scroll, a doctor’s letter, then examined the family signetring silently before setting it gentlyback in the hand Valoree held out. Hethen settled himself behind his deskonce more and began to shuffle through his papers. "Well then, of course youknow thatJeremy never reallyclaimed Ainsley. He made an appointment to seeme andhave ownership transferred from the guardianship into his name, buthe never arrived for that appointment."
"Yes, I know." Valoree ignored Meg’s startled glance and cleared herthroat. "Ainsley was – probably still is – ashambles.
LordSwintunreleased the servants whenhe took over and rented the estate out forseveral years. Until it fell into disrepair."
"Yes." Whister acknowledged gently. "Your brother did write to explainthat he would missour appointment.He didsay that the estate had been poorly usedby Lord Swintun. He claimed that Ainsley needed extensive work and monetary input to make it liveable and self-sustaining, but that there was not nearly enoughmoneyto make the repairs necessary. Hehad purchased, instead, asmall ship and contracted to privateer for the king to earn the funds."
Valoree nodded mutely.
"What I never understood was, why he did nottakethe money hepurchasedtheship with and use it to begin the repairs on Ainsley? Surely hemighthaveborrowed upontheestate then."
Valoree felt herhands clench in herlap. She had made that same argument herself. And had Jeremy agreed, hewould still be alive. Butthingshad notturned out that way."My brother was a proud man. Hedid not want to borrow. In fact, Jeremybought theship with jewels that wereactually left tome, " she explained quietly. "He intended to make enough wealth toreturn both those jewels to me and restore Ainsley … without involvinganyone outside thefamily.And hesucceeded in doing so!Had he not been robbed and killed …" Valoree fell silent as her throat constrictedwith emotion.Fora moment she struggledwith anger andgrief, then, notingthepityingexpressionon the lawyer’s face, she straightened. "But he was killed, "she finishedgruffly.
Whister immediatelybegan to shuffle his papers again. "Yes.
Well, in the end it wasfortunate that he hadn’t claimedAinsley…
since he left no will. As it is, since he died without either producing an heir or claiminghis inheritance, we must revert to your father’s will. According to that – " He paused briefly, skimming a few linesof the paper he held. Nodding, he said, "According tothis, that makes you the heiress. Which, of course, you already know. Else youwould not be here."
"Aye, "Valoree murmured, shifting uncomfortably. It did not feel right that she was there to collect an inheritance gained through her brother’s death. She would rather her brother were alive. Still, thingshad notturned out that way, and she hadto be strong.
"Well, then, on your twenty-fourth birthday … Let ussee, that wouldbe … Mygoodness, that was almost three months ago."
Valoree nodded solemnly. They would havecomesooner, but they’d run into rough weather ontheir firstattempt to head for England. It hadbeenas if the sea itselfwere trying to prevent her gaining her inheritance. They hadbeen lucky to pull throughthe storm, but not fortunate enough to escape with their ship undamaged. They’dhad to put in toport for a bit to make repairs; then there had been a bit of troublewith illness – several of the crewhad come down with a fever of unknownorigin. And as Valoree had refusedto leave the illmen behind, sincethey had fought for her for long and well, they had waited untilthe sailors’ illnesshad run its course.
"Well, then, letme seehere."Propping a monocle over one eye, Whister lifted several pages and squinted to read them quickly. "Yes, yes, "hemurmuredafter a moment, then setthe sheets down and smiledat hersweetly. "Itis all very simple and straightforward.All you needtodo is haveyour husband come with you to sign these papers – "
"My husband? " Valoreestaredathim blankly.
"Aye. Accordingto the will, your husbandmustsign – "
"Husband? " Valoree interrupted. "It is not mine, but my husband’s? "
Eyebrows rising slightly at thedismayin her voice, the lawyer shifted unhappily. "Well, technicallyit will go to your heir, but your husband willhavecharge ofit until your son is of age."
Seeing that the news did not appear to improve her grim expression onewhit, hebeganstraightening hispapers nervously.
"It is very common. Mostmen are hesitant to leavesucha large estate in the hands of their daughters. Either they leaveitto their sons, or – "
"Fine. Ishall marry then, " Valoree announcedcalmly, almost to herself. It was little enoughtrouble to accomplish that deed.
She could marryone of her men, for that matter.None of them would be foolish enough tothink that theycould take control of her inheritance, and ifthey did… Well, they simply wouldn’t.
They would realize that therest of her crew would quickly make hera widow shouldtheytry it.
Mr. Whisterpeeredfrom her to her auntand then back. "Am I tounderstandthat you are not married? "
"I see. Well…" Frowning, hebeganto straighten the papers on his desk, then glancedat her uncertainly. "Your husband has to beof noble birth, youknow."
NowValoree wasfrowning. "Noble? "
"Aye. I fear that was a stipulationof your father’s willaswell.
Anoble of someintelligence, good reputation, and … er …" He flushed slightly, then muttered, "Capable of fathering achild, of course."
"Fathering a – "
"LordAinsleywasquiteconcernedwith continuing the family line."Whister was quite pink now."To prove the … er… last requirement, you have to be married and either with child or alreadyhaving had oneby your…er … twenty-fifth birthday."
"Bymy twenty-fifth – But that isonly – Why, it’s not much more than nine months away."
"Aye, Iknow, " headmitted apologetically.
"What if she ismarried but not… inthe family way bythen? "
Megasked as Valoreesimply stared.
"Well, thentheestate would revert to the next inline.I am not sure whothat wouldbe, butI can look it up – "
"Thatwill not be necessary, " Valoree told him, getting abruptly toher feet. "Thank you for your time. Good day."
Blinking as she started for the door, Master Whister got abruptly to his feet.He hurried around his desk as Aunt Meg followed Valoree out.
"I am sorry. I did not realize that youwerenotaware of the stipulation, " heapologized miserably as he hurrieddown the hall behind them.
Nodding silently, Valoreesailed through the entry andoutthe door, leaving Meg todeal with the man.
Henryleaped from his perchandhurried to open the door of thehack asshe approached.Valoree ignored his frown, knowing thathe was worriedby her stiffdemeanorandcold expression.
Hecould wait for anexplanation.Asshe seated herselfinthe carriage, sheturned to see Meg hurriedly exitthe house. Valoree raisedher eyebrow inquestion, hopingthat somethinghadbeen said that altered the situation.
The woman shook her head inanswer and climbed into the carriage, pulling the door closedbehind her.
Valoreerapped onthecoach, and, shrugging, Henry climbed back up onto his perch at theback of the coach so that Skully could get the horsesinmotion. They set off.
Thesilence in the carriagewas heavy. At last Meg spoke, and Valoree was surprised by the concern in the woman’s voice.
"Whatwill you do now? "
Valoree wassilent for amoment, thenshrugged. "Return tothe ship and set sail."She glanced over, regretful. Bull had promised this woman a place on the estateifshe helpedthem.Nowthe promise was in vain, despiteMeg’s having held up her end of the bargain.