Chapter One


London, 1794

Mrs. Pickett screamed.

Fortunately, she was sitting in a stout, overstuffed chair, so Mr. Bartlestaff was not overly concerned she might faint.

Mr. Bartlestaff, of Redigen, Bartlestaff and Porter, was accustomed to female clients swooning, crying, and throwing tantrums. Thus he insisted there always be a fresh supply of laundered handkerchiefs and smelling salts on hand. The gentleman was married, with five grown daughters. This stood him well; emotional women no longer rattled him.

Composing a sympathetic, fatherly expression on his face, he waited for the ranting.

The weak ones screamed, then fainted. The reasonable ones sighed, then composed themselves. The annoying ones, such as Mrs. Pickett, screamed and then ranted—as if the law firm were to blame for their misfortune. As if she could bully them into changing the dried ink upon the old will.

“That is impossible! My Harold would never have agreed to such a clause in his will. Never!” The feather in her outrageous hat bounced in agreement, as did her multiple chins.

“The encumbrance was tied to the deaths of both Mr. Harold Pickett and his previous wife, Lady Jeannette Pickett. Since he never mentioned it to you, Harold Pickett was either unaware of it or unconcerned about the possibility of his own death.”

The bright light from the side window glinted from Mr. Bartlestaff’s spectacles.

“How did we not hear of this before?” she asked with a sneer. “This law firm must be either mistaken or grossly negligent. Perhaps both.”

Mr. Bartlestaff removed his glasses. Eyes closed, he pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I assure you the clause has always been there, Mrs. Pickett.” He opened his eyes and focused his direct gaze upon the glaring woman. “When your husband first married, due to his wife’s sizeable fortune her family insisted upon the clause.”

He could still recall the first wife’s unhappy father, a long-standing client. His lordship had been concerned with his daughter’s choice of husband, but it was a father’s intuition. Not finding a suitable reason to forbid the marriage, he indulged his daughter’s wishes to marry the handsome Harold Pickett, but tied a legal knot to protect her. The stipulation? Only a portion of the estate was touchable each year. This had been sizably generous, however, so the bridegroom readily agreed.

What the greedy young fellow had not realized was that the larger portion would remain in trust for any offspring of Lady Jeannette’s. Her husband Harold would never touch the bulk of her inheritance.

“As I’ve already explained, madam, the greater part of the fortune that came from Mr. Pickett’s marriage to his first wife will not be in your control.” He wiped his glasses with his handkerchief. “The will is very specific: your two stepdaughters inherit equally.”   

Two stepdaughters? You are again mistaken!” She almost crowed with smugness. Shifting in the chair, she tugged impatiently at the purple skirt bunching tightly at her hips. Her impatience just as quickly transferred to him. “There is no second daughter, Mr. Bartlestaff. Only my dear, sweet Eleanor. Surely your recordkeeping is not so incompetent that you did not know Harold’s second daughter died?”

“I realize it was presumed the baby died with its mother when the first Mrs. Pickett met her tragic death. However, we now have evidence the young girl survived to adulthood.” It had, in fact, been the most startling of surprises, he reflected—the confidential letter received upon Miss Madeline’s eighteenth birthday. “It was this firm’s unfortunate duty to contact her and inform her of her father’s death. The father she apparently never had a chance to know.”

Mrs. Pickett made a rude noise. “Let me tell you something, sir—I’ve raised my Eleanor since she was two years old. I am the only mother she remembers, and she is the most biddable of daughters. I am confident she will look after her dear mama with the money she inherits from her father. That is what she calls me,” she sniffed, “‘Mama.’  For we are very close, and her own mother deserted her.”

She pointed her pudgy finger at the lawyer, punching the air as she spoke: “But … she will not share one farthing with this imposter. Eleanor’s sister is dead. And even if she were not, she deserves nothing. As you admitted, she’s never even known her father. So why should this stranger profit from Harold’s death? You know she’s only interested because of the inheritance.”

Mr. Bartlestaff stopped wiping his glasses. “Miss Madeline has not been informed of the specifics of her father’s will, so she knows nothing about the size of the legacy.” He replaced his spectacles upon his nose. “Furthermore, whether you feel Miss Madeline is ‘deserving’ does not signify, Mrs. Pickett. The terms of the will shall be carried out in accordance with the law by this firm.”

“It’s not fair!” Mrs. Pickett was red in the face. “I demand to speak to the owner of this establishment,” she ordered, as if she were at the local haberdashery.

Mr. Bartlestaff did not take offense.

The fact that Mrs. Pickett was not a member of the peerage, however, made it a bit more enjoyable to take his time, sit back in the leather chair, let it squeak a couple of times in the silence, and then to steeple his fingers before replying, “I am one of the two senior partners of this firm, madam.”

Her brows lowered in a frown. He knew exactly when she realized there was no other way to push, for her face turned ugly and she rose to leave.

“This is intolerable! That is all I have to say. Good day, sir.”

He let her get almost to the door. “Mrs. Pickett?” he called clearly.

She stopped, and he saw the tension in her shoulders; knew she did not want to turn around or acknowledge him.

“Your stepdaughter, Miss Madeline, will arrive within a fortnight for the reading of the will. I assume you will be bringing Miss Eleanor?”

She did turn now, and he saw she was white. Whether from rage, shock, or a combination of the two, he could not discern, though he was normally quite a discerning gentleman.

She turned her back on him and marched out.



                        <END> of Chapter One