Authors: The Rival Earls
THE RIVAL EARLS
Four tall, black-clad figures stood stiffly distant from one another in the library of Bromleigh Hall, exchanging inconsequential conversation in unnaturally hushed voices with a decided undertone of irritation. The three gentlemen and one lady were well enough acquainted, being siblings, to overcome any conversational restraints in ordinary situations, but this was not—as Henry Bromley reminded himself—an ordinary family gathering.
“I do not doubt,” began his eldest brother, Fletcher, the new Earl Bromleigh, “that the sorrow of the occasion which calls us here today, an occasion which I suppose we must be thankful has been rare in the family since we were children…that is, I mean to say, let us not allow the strain to cause us to be less civil to one another than…er, ordinarily.”
Fletcher, Henry reflected, had been something of a prig as a boy despite his brothers’ efforts to pummel humility into him, and had grown increasingly pompous with age and the expectation of the position to which, at thirty-eight, he had at last succeeded. He stood now, rather like a marble statue of some Caesar, with one hand resting on a fragile-looking Sheraton table and the other on his waistcoat, looking the picture of dignity—and spoiling it the moment he opened his mouth.
“Don’t be any more top-lofty than you must, Fletcher,” Randolph remarked, voicing Henry’s thought in less discreet terms. “We know you too well.”
The Honorable Randolph Reginald Bromley, the next in age to the new earl, wore his habitual expression of detached, slightly sardonic amusement at the follies of the world in general and his own family in particular. Good-looking and dressed, even in mourning, with exquisite care, Randolph was at present in a testy mood that Henry suspected was due less to the lugubrious occasion than to his being obliged to go hatless and thereby expose the prematurely bare spot on the top of his head to people inclined to remark on such things merely to annoy him.
“And for heaven’s sake, Sabina, do stop pacing and sit down so that we may do so as well.”
And then there was the Lady Sabina. Only daughter of the late earl and the youngest of his five children, she had survived an undeniably trying childhood as both the bane and the delight of her four brothers’ existence to grow into a stunning beauty with rich chestnut hair, large brown eyes, and a generous mouth now set in determined lines. Her expression was due, Henry supposed, to Fletcher’s unthinking remark earlier that Sabina, freed from her father’s restraining influence, would no doubt now be happy to set up house at Carling and have nothing further to do with the family she obviously considered an obstacle to her freedom to behave as notoriously as she pleased.
Since Henry knew this to be precisely what Sabina intended—although he also knew she did not wish to be rid of quite
her siblings—he was uncertain why she had taken offense at Fletcher’s bringing it up, however untactfully. Not that she had said anything to that effect—she had, indeed, maintained an ominous silence—but Henry was certain now that Sabina had deliberately remained standing so that her brothers would be obliged to do the same.
She now pretended not to have heard Randolph’s impatient request and wordlessly picked up a Caithness glass paperweight. She smoothed her hand over it as if caressing a dear friend, and Henry remembered that it had been a gift to her from their father on his return from a journey to Scotland years before.
Doubtless only such reminiscences kept Sabina from taking her usual lead in keeping the conversation going, but she was thereby forcing the rest of them to maintain the civilities by themselves with considerably less skill. Sabina could be stubborn in the most awkward ways. Henry could only hope that Mr. Quigley, the representative of the family firm of solicitors, would arrive shortly so that they could all sit down to hear the will read.
“What in blazes can be keeping them?” Randolph asked querulously, again voicing Henry’s thoughts. He extracted a cigar from the lacquered box on the table, looked at it, thought better of the idea, and put it away again. “Surely there can be no mystery about the disposition of the estate. Fletcher is Earl Bromleigh now, and given that he has been attending to Father’s affairs for the last year, he must be well aware of how they stand at present.”
“There is the small matter of Sabina’s portion,” the new Lord Bromleigh punctiliously pointed out.
“Bosh. We all know Sabina was Father’s pet. She may as well have begun spending it weeks ago.”
Sabina leveled a look as black as her bombazine mourning costume at her next-to-eldest brother. Although she and Randolph were separated by almost a dozen years in age, they were too much alike in temperament not to come to drawn daggers within ten minutes of entering the same room together.
“For a man so famed as you are for his polished address, Randolph, you can be quite astonishingly tactless,” she said finally, drawing herself up to her full five feet, ten inches, which—Randolph being the shortest male in a family tending to resemble a miniature forest when all planted in the same ground—brought her fulminating gaze more nearly on a level with his light green eyes, which gleamed with amusement—or pique, only Sabina ever knew which. “I would not dream of speaking so disrespectfully to Papa’s memory.”
This platitude was so unlike Sabina’s usual mode of expressing herself that Randolph gave a hoot of laughter and conceded the contest to her. Henry shot a concerned glance at his sister, but she had laid down the paperweight and turned her stiff back on Randolph and was now gazing with unconvincing intentness out the window at the leafy summer green of the home wood, so that he could not read what she was really thinking in her face.
Randolph, still chuckling, helped himself to a cigar after all. Fletcher clasped his hands together behind his back, sighed, and fixed his gaze on the pattern in the Axminster carpet at his feet. Henry shrugged and hoped that Sabina would confide in him, or in her sister-in-law, Dulcie, which would do as well, when she felt less emotionally volatile.
Sabina, unnoticed by her brothers, blinked her eyes rapidly to stop the tears that welled up only too readily of late. She was not ashamed of her tears, but long years of hiding her deepest emotions from the sometimes unthinking comments of her family prohibited her now from confiding in them as she would have liked to do—and indeed had done countless times over matters of less moment.
None of them knew how bitterly she had already wept over their father’s death the week before. For however long the family had been expecting the event, Sabina had indeed been closer to the old earl than any of them, and she felt his death too deeply to confide her feelings readily to anyone—at least, not just yet, while the memories were so fresh.
It was her father who had held her close when she was a child and told her how beautiful she was after her brothers had teased her, despite her determination to run just as fast and play just as hard as any of them, about her thin legs and coltish stride. Later, it was the old earl who, when Sabina’s adolescent experiments at transforming herself into a demure schoolroom miss had ended in a brawl with Randolph on the nursery floor, had convinced her that it was her quick mind that mattered, not how quickly she filled it with French phrases and geometrical equations. And, still later, it was her dear Papa who, when Sabina had turned down the season in London which her Aunt Sybil had declared was her only hope of finding a husband tall enough for her, had assured her that he was in no hurry to lose her to another man, however, tall, handsome, or eligible.
Sabina loved her brothers too, but they would never understand the special bond between their father and his youngest child and only daughter. She could never explain it, nor ever describe the special sense of loss she felt, which was perhaps no less deep than theirs, but not the same. She would certainly never let Randolph, or even Henry, see tears in her eyes, however much provoked she might be. That pride, too, was ingrained in her too long ago.
Becoming aware of the continued silence behind her, Sabina unclenched the hands hidden in the folds of her black skirt and schooled her carriage to one of supreme dignity. She raised her head high, and when she turned around again, there was no lingering sign of redness in her eyes.
“Sabina has never shown any resemblance to either a spendthrift or a recluse,” Henry observed mildly, “and I do not imagine she intends to change now.”
Sabina smiled gratefully at him, and Henry winked back. Randolph made a sardonic noise in his throat, but Fletcher forestalled any response Sabina might have made to this provocation by remarking that they would none of them be uncomfortable and, in any case, Sabina’s portion would doubtless be managed by the same firm of solicitors which had served the family for years.
It was, as usual, the wrong thing to say. “Are you insinuating that I cannot manage my own affairs, Fletcher?” Sabina said, turning on him.
“Eh? No, certainly not!” Fletcher hastened to assure her, uncertain how he had drawn her wrath.
Fortunately, the library door opened just then to admit Sabina’s sisters-in-law, Alicia, Countess Bromleigh, and Dulcie, Henry’s wife, who propelled her husband’s twin, Lewis, in his wooden wheeled chair. The end of this little procession was brought up by the solicitor, Mr. Quigley.
Lewis had been an invalid for the eight years since he fell into a nearby stretch of the Grand Union Canal and contracted a severe chill that left him with no feeling in his legs. He had come to accept his affliction stoically, if with growing signs of Randolph’s mordant turn of humor, but thus far only his twin had been privy to any serious expression of it. Now Lewis glanced up from his chair at each of his siblings in turn, seeming to gather from that comprehensive glance an accurate impression of precisely what each of them was thinking.
Henry quirked one eyebrow questioningly at his twin when Lewis’s gaze came around to him and received an answering grin which told him there was something afoot that would raise the kind of family dust-up that Lewis took perverse pleasure in observing, if not actually instigating.
Having retained much of his boyish lankiness, Lewis gave the impression of youthful sunniness of disposition and no great intellect, but although Fletcher, and even Randolph, did so, Henry knew better than to fall into the trap of believing either of these characteristics to be all there was to Lewis.
“I do apologize for having kept you all waiting,” Alicia said, smiling graciously and drawing everyone’s attention immediately to her.
Henry could not help reflecting that had Fletcher deliberately chosen Alicia as a bride with a view to her becoming a countess one day, he could not have done better for himself. Alicia was not only handsome—severe black became her and somehow brought out the full beauty of her dark eyes and hair, which was parted in the center and gathered in a coiled braid at the back of her head—but she was possessed of a great sense of what was due her position that did not prevent her being well loved and respected on the estate and throughout the district.
“You are all acquainted with Mr. Quigley, I fancy,” Alicia went on, indicating to the solicitor that he should come in and take the chair arranged for him at the massive oak desk at one end of the room. Alicia then deposited herself gracefully on the sofa, signaling the other ladies to join her. Dulcie did so, but Sabina sat down on the windowseat instead and turned her face outwards again. The men sank gratefully into the remaining chairs.
Dulcie, who had thus far said nothing, glanced towards her husband, who sent her the same questioning look he had to Lewis; Dulcie only shrugged her slim shoulders and turned her lovely blue eyes to the front of the room.
Mr. Quigley cleared his throat, rustled the sheaf of papers in front of him, and glanced up to see if he had everyone’s attention. Sabina continued to stare silently out the window, but everyone else focused their interest on the solicitor.
Interest quickly waned, however, in the contents of the Last Will and Testament of George Fletcher Bromley, Fourth Earl Bromleigh, when after five minutes nothing more was revealed than what all the company already knew and which gained no further interest through being couched in dry legal phraseology.
Fletcher, still freshly conscious of the dignities conferred on him, stared straight ahead as if to demonstrate that such great weight of responsibility neither awed nor unduly alarmed him, and he left it to his countess to make note of the disposition of the household linens, plate, pictures, and porcelain. Randolph stifled a yawn and shifted his attention to his sister-in-law Dulcie’s profile, finding it infinitely more admirable than Mr. Quigley’s.
Sabina looked uncomfortable to be indoors and draped in black on such a fine summer day, and Henry could almost see her mind take flight over the familiar fields and woods of her childhood home. He wondered for the first time if she would have preferred to remain there. Fletcher would, naturally, give her Carling, the one of their father’s many residences of which she was most fond, but it would not be the same as living at home. Not that living at home would be the same now, but he could not think it right that his sister should live alone. Perhaps, Henry thought, he would suggest to Dulcie that they invite Sabina to move in with them.