"And to my granddaughter, Lady Sarah Melford, I do hereby will and bequeath my entire estate so that she may remain free to conduct her life in whatever manner she chooses without regard to pecuniary necessities," the lawyer intoned solemnly, not daring to look up from the sheaf of papers in front of him. There was a deathly silence following this pronouncement, until at last Mr. Trevelyan glanced up at the little group gathered before him in the richly paneled library at Cranleigh. It was just as he had warned her it would be when Lady Willoughby had first broached the subject of her will with him. The recipient of all this good fortune, Lady Sarah Melford, sat stunned, her eyes dark with misery, her face wan and pale, too preoccupied with the loss of her grandmother to care about anything else while the room's other occupants also remained speechless, though for entirely different reasons.
The already florid countenance of Harold, Lord Melford, Marquess of Cranleigh, had turned, if possible, an even deeper shade of red at this latest and final outrage on the part of Lady Willoughby. His grandmother had never had appropriate respect for propriety and tradition when she was alive, and now it appeared that the outrageous old woman continued to flaunt the conventions even from beyond the grave. Why, nothing could be more absurd, or improper for that matter, than to leave an immense fortune to a young woman who had just turned twenty-one. Moreover, the young woman to whom she had bequeathed these vast sums was already independent enough as it was--most unbecomingly so to Harold's way of thinking. The last thing his sister needed added to an already wayward character was further encouragement.
Lord Melford pursed his fleshy lips in an effort to contain his rising aggravation. The ingratitude of it was staggering. After all, it had been he, Lord Melford, who had offered the old woman a home after she had been widowed. To be sure, she had contributed to the repairs on the west wing and extensive modernization of the rest of Cranleigh, but that was only natural given his provision of bed and board. Nevertheless, Harold supposed he might have expected such a queer start. Lady Willoughby, for all her wealth, had never had any breeding--certainly nothing that compared to the Melfords. Daughter of a mere baronet who had amassed one fortune in mining coal and put that toward amassing another in shipping, Lady Willoughby very nearly ran the risk of smelling of the shop and had been, in Harold's opinion, very fortunate in her marriage to Lord Willoughby. Her husband had been an impoverished member of the cadet branch of minor nobility, but despite these setbacks, he had been the descendant of an ancient and once powerful family. The fact that Lady Willoughby had saved her husband and his family from ruin and that her daughter's immense dowry had done very nearly the same for the equally impoverished Melfords was beside the point. However, despite her long association with illustrious families possessed of impeccable bearing. Lady Willoughby had retained to the last a certain irreverence that a kind person might label eccentric, but Lord Melford could only call ill-bred. What was worse, she had encouraged a similar attitude in her granddaughter. Lord Melford shuddered at the thought.
A conscientious man, the Marquess of Cranleigh blamed himself in part for his younger sister's unbecoming strong-mindedness and her tack of suitable respect for the proprieties. If he had had more time, he would have remained at Cranleigh after the death of his parents, insuring that she was educated in a manner befitting a young woman of gentle birth. As it happened though, his budding political career had kept him in London, consigning his sister to the supervision of her grandmother and to the local vicar, both of whom exhibited dangerous tendencies toward free thinking and radicalism.
Harold shook his head in disgust and glanced over at his wife. At least he had brought a woman of exquisite sensibility and social grace to Cranleigh as its mistress, and it was to be hoped that in time her presence would exert a beneficial effect on her sister-in-law. Rosalind, Lady Melford, possessed all of the qualities that one would wish in the Marchioness of Cranleigh. Daughter of the Melfords' closest neighbor, Lord Tredington, she had been considered the toast of Kent from the moment she had returned from the select boarding school in Bath where she had been sent to acquire the finishing touches to an already devastating allure.
Her reputation had not suffered in the least as she progressed to the more sophisticated society of the metropolis, where she at once had been hailed an incomparable, a role that she filled to perfection. In fact, Rosalind was so assured of her own charm and beauty that it never even occurred to her anyone else might not be equally convinced of it. This serene confidence in her powers only made them all the more potent to the hapless males who crossed her path. Unfortunately for Rosalind, and through no fault of her own, she had been blessed with a ruinously expensive family.
Rosalind's father had already gambled away one fortune even before his daughter's first Season and was starting in on the next, which he had acquired by exerting his not inconsiderable attractions on a wealthy but infirm widow, who had quickly succumbed to her infirmities. Fortunately for his children, Lord Tredington had soon followed in his wife's footsteps and had died before he could run through her entire fortune. However, his only son, Richard, exhibited, if possible, even more ruinous tendencies than his parent along with much of the legendary Tredington charm. Rosalind herself had inherited extravagant propensities, although hers found their outlet at expensive modistes and milliners rather than at the gaming table.
Anyone at all acquainted with the Tredington genealogy knew that alliance with any member of the family was sure to mean an inevitable and severe drain on one's finances. Thus, while Rosalind was constantly surrounded by hordes of admirers possessing considerable rank and fashion, none of them seemed inclined to come up to scratch. Any man with half a brain in his head could see that marrying Rosalind meant supporting Richard, and that prospect made even the most besotted suitor sit up and think.
Such was the state of affairs when Lord Melford had appeared on the scene. Inured by long association to the ways of the Tredingtons and confident of coming one day into the vast fortune of his grandmother, the Marquess of Cranleigh had moved forward where others had hesitated and thus captured a prize that otherwise would have been far beyond his grasp.
However, the prize did not come without a sacrifice, which was to settle all of Richard's debts and to keep the marchioness fashionably attired and supplied with ample pin money. It was a hefty price to pay, but it had been worth it, Harold thought as he gazed proudly at his wife.
Rosalind Melford, Marchioness of Cranleigh, was undeniably a beauty of note, and she captured attention and admiration wherever she was, whether it was the gloomy library at Cranleigh or the brilliantly lit ballrooms of London. Fashionably dark, she possessed the rosebud lips and retrousse nose currently demanded of a diamond of the first water. The flawless complexion was enhanced by glossy brown curls, dark brown eyes, and a bewitching dimple at the corner of her mouth. Her figure was exquisite, tantalizingly rounded in all the right places, and every movement she made was one of grace and elegance. Her chief feature was her eyes, dark and sparkling, fringed with long curling lashes and set under delicately arched brows. They were eyes that a man could lose himself in. And it was these eyes that she now fixed so intently on the lawyer that he broke off in mid-sentence, transfixed for a moment by the sheer loveliness of the owner. Quickly recollecting himself, Mr. Trevelyan coughed awkwardly and proceeded with the reading of the will.
Though outwardly calm and wearing a serious expression appropriate to the moment, Rosalind was seething within. The old witch, she fumed silently. How could she do such a thing! Sarah had no need for this inheritance. Why the plain black gown she wore that had been hurriedly fashioned for the occasion was the first new article of clothing she had ordered since Rosalind had known her. Whatever did someone who spent her time galloping about the countryside in a most unbecoming fashion and closeting herself in the library with books and journals need with a fortune worth a king's ransom? It was all so monstrously unfair when she, Rosalind, would have used it to such good effect--ridding Cranleigh of its worn and faded carpets and drapes, its dingy, outmoded furnishings, and refurbishing both it and its mistress in the height of a la modality and good taste. Rosalind's discontented gaze slid from the dull library draperies to light contemptuously on her sister-in-law. All the fashionable clothes in the world would do nothing for Sarah, drab little thing that she was. If they were not careful, she would spend it all on books or give it all away to the poor or do something equally ridiculous.
Rosalind's eyes narrowed slightly. The only thing that had made the dull and pompous Harold at all acceptable as a husband--she was conveniently forgetting that no one else of any social standing had applied for the position--was the fortune he was destined to inherit. To be sure, Rosalind was determined to make the Marquess of Cranleigh a name well known in the highest political circles and transform his various establishments into magnets that attracted the most exclusive and influential members of the ton. But none of this could be done without incurring a great deal of expense. Rosalind had managed to spend a fair amount of his money already, and she was not about to let all the rest of it slip through her fingers to lie dormant in the possession of Sarah--not without a fight anyway.
The object of all this good fortune sat as if turned to stone, too numbed by misery and loss to care about anything except the loneliness that had haunted her since her grandmother's death.
Lady Willoughby, so sharp and quick, so interested in everything going on around her, had been possessed of such an abundance of energy and vitality that it had never occurred to her granddaughter that she might die. She had shared so many things with Sarah and had been so much more tolerant and progressive in her outlook than Harold that Sarah had never really thought of her as old, and this had made the loss all that much more unexpected.
Sarah barely remembered her mother, who had died when she was four, and she had seen so little of her father that six years later when he followed her mother to the grave she was barely aware of his absence. All of his love and energy had been focused on his heir. Harold had been the Marquess of Cranleigh's chief interest in life. By marrying into a fortune, Harold's father had procured the wherewithal to save Cranleigh from the creditors, even to improve it, but it had been up to Harold to restore the Melford name to its former glory. Nothing had been denied Harold--attention, horses, education--and he had grown up to share his father's unshakeable belief that the future Marquess of Cranleigh was the center of the universe.
For a long time Sarah, in awe of her godlike elder brother, had shared this opinion, but as she had grown older and read and observed more widely, she had begun to see that Harold was, at best, no more than ordinary and, at worst, a self-important prig possessed of a limited understanding. Fortunately her father, and Harold after him, had had no interest in looking after a young girl, and they had engaged a most sensible nurse to keep an eye on Sarah. When she was older, there had been a governess who was not only most capable but highly intelligent. Miss Helen Trimble had been born to an eminent clergyman who had spent most of his meager earnings on the care of the poor and the instruction of his children. Helen, one girl amidst four bright, eager brothers, had received an education that was far more thorough than that of most young men her age. She in turn had passed as much of it along to her young charge as she could.
Left largely to her own devices, Sarah had spent most of her time in the library at Cranleigh, eagerly absorbing all that she could. By the time Harold had deemed it prudent to dispense with Miss Trimble's services, she was far better educated than her brother and quite able to run rings around him in any discussion--a situation that Harold was at great pains to avoid.
The arrival of Lady Willoughby at Cranleigh after the death of Lord Willoughby had served to further Sarah's education, for Sarah, well vested in the classics and the literature of the previous ages, was unaware of contemporary thought, a state of affairs her grandmother was quick to detect. Lady Willoughby liked nothing better than to peruse the morning's papers, reading through the news and parliamentary discussions of the previous days and then drawing her own conclusions as to the true state of affairs. She was delighted to discover in her granddaughter a quick mind and a keen intelligence that grasped all the intricacies of the political and social questions of the day. After some time spent in these discussions, Sarah was able to offer her own opinions, and the two would spend hours wrapped up in stimulating and speculative conversations.
One day the vicar, the Reverend Mr. Thaddeus Witson, called on the ladies and interrupted a particularly brisk dialogue. He had been so intrigued by it all that he had soon become a regular participant, who could be counted upon to furnish them with supplementary reading material.
Their days had sped by delightfully, and Sarah had never been so happy. With Harold spending a good deal of his time in London, advancing his career and his wife's social aspirations, Sarah and her grandmother had enjoyed a quiet reclusive life free from meddling neighbors. This situation had worked extremely well for everyone involved: Harold and Rosalind could virtually ignore Sarah and Lady Willoughby as they pursued their own goals while leaving the running of Cranleigh, with a good deal of pecuniary assistance from Lady Willoughby, to Sarah and her grandmother. At one point the marquess, not entirely unmindful of his responsibilities as a brother, had suggested that Sarah ought to have a Season, but this idea was greeted with such disfavor by Sarah herself and given so little encouragement by his wife that he had quickly abandoned the plan, and all had continued to proceed smoothly, until now that was.
Mr. Trevelyan cleared his throat again tentatively. Lady Willoughby had warned him how it would be. "I only wish I were going to be there to see their expressions, what with Harold so eager to get his greedy hands on my money and his wife with half of it spent already in her mind on the latest fripperies," Lady Willoughby had chuckled merrily. It was all very well for her to laugh, Mr. Trevelyan thought sourly. She was not faced by a large, angry man and his equally infuriated wife.
Mr. Trevelyan thanked his lucky stars that his business was in London, a city large enough in which to escape the effects of the marquess's irritation. Still, it had been worth it to know that Lady Willoughby's granddaughter would be taken care of. His former client had seen to that. "You make sure that everything is all right and tight so that neither Harold nor his precious Rosalind can lay their hands on what is rightfully Sarah's," she had instructed him. Mr. Trevelyan had assured her that he would do his utmost to look out after the interests of her granddaughter. A quiet little thing weighed down by her loss and no match for her beautiful sister-in-law or her overbearing brother, Lady Sarah Melford looked as though she would need his assistance.
Mr. Trevelyan gathered his papers, stood up, and prepared to depart, then turned to Sarah. "I am always at your disposal, Lady Sarah. Should you wish to consult me, please send me notice and I shall come immediately."
"Thank you so much." The voice was soft and subdued, but the green eyes looking up at him were full of a lively intelligence. She was not such a dab of a thing after all, the lawyer thought as he made the briefest of bows to the marquess and his wife. Lady Sarah Melford might be overwhelmed for the time being, but that brief glance had shown him that she was well aware of her situation. In that moment, Mr. Trevelyan had received the very definite impression that behind her quiet demeanor lay a good deal of strength. Well, she would need it, he mused later as he climbed into his carriage. Both her brother and her sister-in-law looked to be as spoiled and self-centered as they could be, and neither one of them would take kindly to the loss of a fortune.