Two weeks after her stepfather was buried, Jessica Andover sat in the mellow, panelled library of Winchcombe listening to her lawyer detail the state of her affairs. They were not good. In fact, they were disastrous.
"It is in the highest degree unfortunate that your father did not secure the estate directly to you, Jessica my dear," Mr. Samuel Grassington said sadly. "However, he was a young and vigorous man when he died. He could not be made to see the importance of settling his affairs, and without the proper safeguards your property was at the free disposal of your mother's second husband."
Jessica's lips tightened. "I know that all too well, Mr. Grassington."
Mr. Grassington cleared his throat. He had been an uncomfortable spectator at one of Jessica's confrontations with Sir Thomas Lissett. "Ah, yes," he said.
"How much did my stepfather squeeze the estate for, Mr. Grassington? The horses, the card games, and the women must have cost a pretty penny I should imagine."
The old lawyer looked unhappy. "I wish they were the whole of it, my dear."
Her gray eyes darkened. "What do you mean?"
"It has become regrettably clear that Sir Thomas Lissett made a great number of unwise investments."
"With my money?"
"With your money."
Jessica fixed the lawyer with somber eyes. "What is the total debt?"
"Considering that Sir Thomas has not been dead three weeks and that all the creditors have not yet applied to me..."
"How much?" Jessica repeated steadily.
He told her.
There was a stunned silence. "It is worse than I thought," she finally said quietly.
"It is not good, my dear. I am so very sorry."
Jessica sat for a minute with bent head; then she looked up. "What about the boys?" she asked stiffly.'
"I had more success with your stepfather about making a will than I had with your father. He could not name you as guardian of your half brothers as you are not yet twenty-one, so I persuaded Sir Thomas to name me the legal guardian of all three of you."
Warm color flushed into Jessica Andover's cheeks. "Thank you, Mr. Grassington. I could not have borne it if..." She stopped and bit her lip, emotion for the moment overcoming the cool composure she usually presented to the world.
"Needless to say, I have no intention of interfering with how you rear Geoffrey and Adrian. You have had them in charge since the death of your mother and you seem to be succeeding admirably." The elderly man reached across the table, and is an uncharacteristic gesture of affection covered her hand. "I only wish I could have done more, my dear. But there was no way I could stop him from running through your property."
"I know." She raised her chin in a gesture only too familiar to Mr. Grassington. "My situation then is this. I have myself and my two brothers to support. Adrian is to start Eton this year and the money must be found to send him. Money must also be found to pay Geoffrey's tuition for his remaining five years at Eton. I don't think Geoffrey is at all interested in going to the university, but Adrian must certainly go to Cambridge. You tell me the farms are all heavily mortgaged and I cannot afford to redeem them. They must be sold, then. The money will help to pay off some of the debt. The loss of the farms leaves me bereft of regular income, however."
'Tuition is very expensive," murmured Mr. Grassington.
"I know." Jessica's voice was very firm. "I shall have to make money out of the horses."
"The horses? Of course you will have to sell the horses, Jessica."
"I have no intention of selling the horses," she returned. "Didn't I just say I needed a regular income?"
"I don't understand what you mean. How are you going to get a regular income out of the horses?"
"My stepfather spent a great deal of money on those horses, Mr. Grassington, and whatever his faults, he knew horseflesh. I have the makings of a very impressive little stud at Winchcombe. A very profitable little stud, I might add, if it is handled properly."
"But my dear..." the old lawyer protested faintly.
Jessica's gray eyes were burning with intensity. "You live in Cheltenham, Mr. Grassington. You can't be unaware of the amount of money that a wealthy owner will pay for a good race horse. I plan to breed good race horses and collect some of that money. I have the initial investment sitting right in my own stableyard, eating their heads off. I'd be a fool not to take advantage of it."
"Are you serious, Jessica?"
"Deadly serious, sir. I have very few talents, but-1 do know horses. And I'm not afraid of work."
Mr. Grassington looked very uneasy. "Jessica, my dear, there is no need for you to turn yourself into a stableboy. There are certainly other ways of dealing with this problem."
"I should be very happy if you would tell me what they are."
Mr. Grassington cleared his throat. "You are an extremely attractive young woman," he said finally, "You come from one of the best families in the county. There are many men, men of substance, who would be pleased to marry you if only you would give them a chance."
She stared for a minute at the kind, concerned face of the old lawyer who had known her since her birth, then abruptly turned away toward the window. "No," said Jessica, directly, firmly, and finally.
"Why not?" he persisted.
The girl gazed steadily out the window, her profile aloof and withdrawn. "That was my mother's solution, if you remember," she said evenly. "The burden of running an estate was too much for her, so she married again to have someone to take the burden off her shoulders." She turned now to face the lawyer, and passion burned in her clear gray eyes. "Do you really think, having just gotten out from under the yoke of my stepfather's greed, that I am going to turn my property and my person over to some other man?"
"Jessica! All men are not like your stepfather."
"I know that," she replied steadily. "But I have no intention of marrying, Mr. Grassington. I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself and of my brothers."
"Selling off the farms will cover only a part of Sir Thomas's debt," he reminded her gently.
"So I see. I had hoped I wouldn't have to do this," said Jessica, "but I shall have to mortgage Winchcombe."
Mr. Grassington sat frowning at the table for almost a full minute; then he spoke slowly. "I think perhaps Sir Edmund Belton would help you. He was a friend of your father's. I should feel comfortable knowing that he was the one who held the mortgage on Winchcombe."
Jessica nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, that is a good idea. I'll go to see him tomorrow."
The lawyer began putting his papers away. He looked up at last and said, "Are you sure this is what you want to do?"
A rueful smile crossed the old man's face as he looked at the determined face of the girl he had been trying to advise. "You are just like your grandfather," he said.
She gave him her rare smile. "I take that as a compliment."
He picked up her hand and kissed it with old-fashioned courtesy. "It is, my dear. It is."
Sir Edmund Belton was more than pleased to be able to help Jessica. He was a man of fifty or so, but since the death of his only son in the Peninsula he had aged twenty years. He assured her he would be happy to advance her whatever sum she needed. He did not even want to hold a mortgage in return, but Jessica insisted.
After they had decided to put the whole transaction into the hands of their respective lawyers, they sat drinking tea and chatting comfortably in Sir Edmund's old-fashioned drawing room. One of the pleasures Sir Edmund found in talking to Jessica was that he never had to ask her to repeat herself. He was rather hard of hearing, a defect he hated to admit to. He often had to strain to hear a speaker, but as he became intensely annoyed if someone shouted at him, his conversational partners often found themselves in a quandary.
Not Jessica. She had a superbly deep, clear voice, which she could pitch effortlessly to Sir Edmund's hearing level without seeming to shout at all.
She was rising to take her leave when the door opened and a tall, dark man came into the room. "Oh, there you are, Harry," said Sir Edmund. "I want you to meet my nephew, Jessica. Captain Henry Belton. This is Miss Jessica Andover of Winchcombe, Harry."
Jessica gazed steadily at the dark, rather hard face of Harry Belton. He was, she knew, heir to Melford Hall now that Sir Edmund's son John was dead. "How do you do," she said, and held out her hand.
Captain Belton took it slowly, his own eyes intent on Jessica. He saw a tall, slim girl of striking appearance. Her face was thin, with beautiful, translucent skin and long, finely drawn features. Her brows and lashes were dark, but the large eyes were pale gray and very clear, like water. Her thick hair, which was braided in a coronet on top of her head, was brown, but there was a shade of tawny autumn leaf in it, a color indescribable and one he had never seen before. "I am very pleased to meet you. Miss Andover," he said, and held her hand for a moment too long.
"Are you making a long stay. Captain?" Jessica asked, recovering her hand.
"I am afraid not," he said regretfully. "My regiment is going to Ireland, unfortunately. I shall be here only a week or so."
"Well, perhaps we shall see more of you at some future time," she said, dismissing him from her thoughts. "I must be going now, Sir Edmund. I cannot thank you sufficiently. I think you know what it means to me."
"My dear girl, I am happy to be able to help. You know how fond of you I am. Come again and see me soon."
Jessica leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "I will," she said. She directed a brief smile at Captain Belton and was gone.
The captain stood looking after her before he turned to his uncle. "What was that all about?" he asked in tones that had been trained on the parade ground.
'There's no need to shout. Harry," Sir Edmund replied crossly. "The poor girl has found herself in the devil of a fix, that's all. That scoundrel Sir Thomas Lissett has gone and gotten himself killed and left her with two young boys and a mountain of debt. I just told her I'd hold a mortgage on Winchcombe."
There was a very intent look in Captain Belton's brown eyes. "I thought Winchcombe belonged to the Andovers. Surely Lissett couldn't touch the estate."
"He could and he did," Sir Edmund replied shortly. "Pity he didn't get killed sooner."
"How did he die?"
"I see. And you are going to hold a mortgage on Winchcombe so Miss Andover can pay her stepfather's debts?"
"How very interesting," said Captain Henry Belton softly.