Viscount Healey climbed out of his carriage into the first flurry of January snow and stood gazing up at Roxham Hall, the huge country mansion in Kent which had been in his family for generations. It was his now and not before time. He had received word that morning that his father was dead, and he could not stop smiling.
He had not seen the old man for two years, not since they had quarrelled about Robert's future and he had walked out of the house. His father wanted him to marry the daughter of a friend of his, a minor baron of no consequence and a girl he had never before heard of. Robert refused. He had set his heart on Lady Camilla Austin, daughter of the Earl of Stanton, and he intended to wed her at the earliest opportunity.
When the old man had talked of this marriage, the girl was but thirteen years old, little more than a child, and the idea disgusted him; he was a grown man, for heaven's sake, twenty three years old and with the needs of a grown man. He had no desire to wed a little girl, likely not yet fully developed, and besides he wanted Camilla. He had no idea why his father had chosen this girl to be his son's bride, his future countess, but he thought it likely he owed something to the girl's father. He would never hesitate to use another to pay his own debts.
No firm commitment had been made to Lady Camilla, since he was waiting for the old man to die so he could inherit; then he would be in a position to commit to her, not before.
Now he stood among the faster falling snowflakes and looked forward to his future.
The last time he had seen his father, Robert had not expected him to last another two years. He was well over seventy, Robert's mother having been his third wife and the only one to give him a living child. Robert sometimes wondered what had become of those previous wives. As a child he had witnessed his father's abuse of his own mother, so he could not help but wonder, although he had no evidence.
The Earl was a violent man, a brutal man who treated his wife no better than a servant and Robert would shed no tears for his passing.
All he felt that morning as he stood in the snow, was relief that at last he could get on with his life, he could look forward to a future with Lady Camilla, he could make her Countess of Roxham, bring her to live in this fine old house and have the funds to give her the life she deserved, the life her position warranted. Her father and mother would be happy for the union to take place; it was what they had all been waiting for and the old man had at least done him the favour of dying just in time.
Camilla was getting tired of waiting, as was her father and he had started to make tentative enquiries with a view to marrying her elsewhere. There were a few suitable men, sons of earls and even a Duke who was interested in a match with her for his eldest son. Robert could not bear to think of losing her but neither could he bear to speak to his father about a firm commitment. He had no desire to have the old man bring up the subject of the little girl again. Best leave things as they were; the Earl could not live forever.
He stared a little longer at the massive house. It had stood since the early fourteenth century, had suffered wars and plagues; one of the earls had lost his entire household, including his wife and daughter, in the black death, the pestilence which decimated the country in the mid fourteenth century. According to family legend, when the disease had struck the village, the Earl had taken all the people who were still healthy into his house, and that is how they had all fallen ill and died.
Robert scoffed. There would have been no danger of that if his father had been their lord then. He would not have shared his house with a mere peasant, even if they all perished horribly as a consequence.
"My Lord?" The voice of his father's personal servant came from the doorway, where the man stood shivering in the cold. "You are getting very wet."
Robert suddenly realised his clothes were soaked, and the settling snow was sinking into his shoes and gathering on his shoulders. He had been so entranced, so pleased with himself, he had not even noticed. Now he picked up his leather travelling bag and strode toward the house.
"There is a fire in the small sitting room," the servant told him. "I will fetch a hot drink."
"Thank you, Frederick," he replied. He made his way into the great hall, a remnant of the house's feudal origins, Frederick following, ready to take his cloak and his hat which he now passed to him, shaking off the snow as he did so and leaving a puddle on the stone floor. "Have you arranged the funeral already, or were you waiting for me?"
"Oh, I waited My Lord. I was uncertain what sort of service you had in mind, and the Will is yet to be read. We have no way of knowing what provision he has made for masses or how to go about finding a priest to say them."
Robert looked back at him thoughtfully. Of course the old man would have left money for many, many masses, perhaps for all eternity. There was no chance of him escaping purgatory without them. Robert only wished he could overturn the provision and condemn him to extra time there, if such a place had any truth in reality, which Robert seriously doubted.
As a Catholic, albeit in secret and certainly not an openly practising one, the old Earl would believe in purgatory certainly, even if his son had given the matter little thought. He was happy to practice whatever religion the state demanded as long as it had no personal affect on him, and at this precise moment that was Protestantism, declared law by the young King Edward VI and his uncles. Robert made sure to swear loyalty to the King for fear of being thought a papist like his father. Edward was fiercely against popery and it was always wise to let the King know of one's loyalty.
"Have my boxes brought in, will you, Frederick," he said. "And have my things taken to my own bedchamber; I have no wish to take my father's. We will lock that up for the time being."
Frederick looked uncomfortable, then his glance moved to the sitting room door where stood a young woman, with tiny features and long, dark auburn hair falling to her waist. She curtsied quickly and her eyes met Robert's as she straightened up. He scrutinised her for a few seconds, his glance sweeping her from head to foot, then he turned his gaze back to Frederick.
"Who is she?" He demanded.
"Forgive me, My Lord. This is Mistress Antonia Jarvis, your late father's ward."
Again Robert narrowed his eyes at the girl who stared back at him, insolently he thought. He had no idea his father had a ward; what sort of father would leave his child to his care? Then he recalled the name: Antonia. Yes, that was the name of the little girl his father had wanted him to marry. So he supposed he had inherited her as well. He would act as her guardian if he had to, as long as it did not interfere with his own plans.
"Mistress Jarvis has been using your bedchamber since she came to live here," said Frederick. "It was your father's order."
Robert turned back to him with a scowl. There were thirty bedchambers in this house, but he had ordered Robert's to be used to house this little girl. His mouth turned down in a grimace; yes, it would be like his father to banish his son permanently by giving to a stranger the chamber he had occupied since childhood. He likely hoped Robert would get to hear of it. He sighed impatiently.
"Well, put her somewhere else," he said, as though the girl were not standing just a few feet away. "I want my own chamber back."
He turned and swept passed Antonia on his way to the sitting room and the warm fire, almost knocking her off her feet as he went. She brushed her skirts deliberately as he passed her, drawing attention to the moist patch he had left on her clothing. Once inside the sitting room he removed his damp shoes and tossed them onto the floor, then sat leaning toward the flames, holding out his cold hands.
"Just tell me where I am to sleep, Frederick," he heard a female voice, raised just loud enough for Robert to hear. "Anywhere will do, even the barn, just as long as I am not in His Lordship's way."
He heard a note of laughter behind her words, as though she found the situation amusing and perhaps she did. He could find nothing to be amused about. He had not expected to inherit this young girl along with the title and estate and he could only hope Camilla would be happy to have her in the house; if not she would have to go to a convent in France or serve in some noble household. Indeed, that might be the best thing in any event.
Frederick came back into the room and handed him a pewter goblet of mulled wine.
"The late Earl’s lawyer is due this afternoon," he informed him. "There are one or two things he wants to discuss with you and with Mistress Jarvis."
Robert raised an eyebrow, then waved the servant away. He supposed the old man had left some provision for her, a pension or dowry. Perhaps he had arranged a marriage for her. Robert hoped so; it would save him the trouble of doing it.
He sank back in the upholstered chair and sipped his wine, the liquid warming his insides, and he closed his eyes as he thought about his plans for the future. He had waited a long time to wed Lady Camilla, almost three years in fact, ever since they met at a small function given by her father. He was all set to arrange things, to ask her father for her hand and commit to a betrothal, when his father brought up this bizarre idea of his marrying a thirteen year old child from an inconsequential family.
They had quarrelled bitterly that day and Robert left, found shelter at the lodge house to Lord Stanton's estate. It was very cramped and not at all what he was accustomed to, but there was nowhere else.
He spent most of his time at the main house where Lord Stanton made him welcome, knowing he was a good match for his daughter and wanting to be sure he did not change his mind. As if he would do that!
He could not wait to marry Camilla, or rather he could not wait to bed her. He longed to take those beautiful full breasts into his hands, into his mouth, longed to caress that round, sensuous body and discover what was hidden beneath her fine gowns. He smiled at the idea and felt himself stir, then he heard a soft footfall and blushed when he opened his eyes and looked up to see Antonia gazing down at him. He quickly pushed himself up in the chair.
"Your lawyer is here," she said.
The grin she fought to suppress convinced him she had seen more than he would have liked.
Robert looked beyond her to see the man brushing snow from his cloak as he followed her into the room.
"I shall leave you to talk in private," she said, turning to go.
"No, Mistress," the lawyer stopped her. "This concerns you as well."
She turned back and went to sit at the oak table, while the lawyer did the same. Robert stayed where he was beside the fire; he was enjoying the warmth too much to move. He watched the lawyer spread the document out on the table, and frown thoughtfully.
"This Will is rather irregular in my experience," he said, "but I have searched for a precedent to see if it can be contested. I regret I have found nothing."
"Contested?" Robert sat up sharply. "Why would I want it contested?"
"Well, My Lord, it leaves everything to you, including the title, estate and a great deal of money, with the exception of an amount for Mistress Jarvis's dowry and money for masses for the dead, if we can find a priest to perform such a thing, as well as an elaborate funeral and tomb. But there are conditions."
He hesitated and flushed, began fidgeting in his chair. Robert was growing impatient.
"Well," he said. "Get on with it."
"Well, My Lord, remember I am but relaying His Lordship's wishes. Your own bequest and that of Mistress Jarvis is only valid if you marry."
Robert frowned and sighed impatiently, drank more of his wine. What was the fellow talking about?
"Of course I will marry," he said. "So will Mistress Jarvis, I imagine, once I have found someone suitable for her."
Antonia glared at him with a stubborn pout to her lips which he found impertinent.
"You misunderstand, My Lord," the lawyer was saying. "Your father left these things to you only if you marry each other."
The Viscount's Birthright - Book Three of the Holy Poison Series
When Viscount Robert's estranged father, the Earl of Roxham, dies, he returns home eager to marry Lady Camilla Austin and make her his countess.
But his plans are thwarted when he learns that his father had a young ward, Antonia, and his Will dictates that in order to inherit both the title and the estate and fortune, he must marry her.
Angry and disappointed, he consults lawyers and learns the Will is valid and in order to inherit he must marry where his father has stipulated. He gives up all thought of marrying Camilla and prepares to do just that, but he reckons without Antonia, who declares she would rather go and find work in service than to wed such an angry and disagreeable man.
Set in 1553, the last year of the Protestant reign of King Edward VI, this is a tale of how one self-important man discovers the meaning of an honest woman and his battle to keep her.