Home > Someone to Love (Westcott #1)(16)

Someone to Love (Westcott #1)(16)
Author: Mary Balogh

“Good God!” Harry had leapt to his feet and turned to stare behind him at the woman sitting close to the door. “You? You are our father’s . . . ? No, you are not his by-blow, are you? You are his legitimate daughter. Good God. You are my half sister. Good God.”

The dowager countess too had turned her head and raised a lorgnette to her eyes.

The woman herself looked back at Harry, apparently unmoved by what she had just heard. But Avery, observing her more closely through his quizzing glass, noted that her knuckles were whiter than they ought to be.

What she was, he thought, was Lady Anna Westcott, legitimate daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale. Interesting. Very interesting indeed. But Brumford had not finished.

“There is more, sir,” he said, addressing Harry and clearing his throat again, “if you will be seated.”

Harry sat, turning his head slowly away from his newfound sibling. He was looking more pleased than outraged.

“I checked certain crucial facts and made a disturbing discovery,” Brumford continued. “I had Beresford check them too, but I had not been mistaken. The dates on the relevant official documents showed to our shocked eyes—and you may believe me that we were very deeply shocked—that Humphrey Westcott, Viscount Yardley, married Miss Viola Kingsley at St. George’s Church here on Hanover Square four months and eleven days before the death of his first wife.”

Ah. All was suddenly clear.

Avery let his glass drop on its ribbon. A stunned silence fell upon the room. Brumford mopped his brow with a large handkerchief before continuing.

“The marriage of Lord Yardley to Miss Kingsley was bigamous and therefore invalid,” he said. “It remained invalid after the death of his first wife. The children of that illicit union were—and are—illegitimate. The late Earl of Riverdale had only one legitimate child, Lady Anastasia Westcott.”

For a moment longer the silence resumed and held. Then someone wailed horribly—Jess—and Avery pushed himself away from the wall. The dowager countess was on her feet, her lorgnette trained upon the woman by the door while Lady Matilda Westcott produced a vinaigrette from her reticule and tried to press it upon her mother while making bovine noises probably intended to be soothing. Elizabeth, Lady Overfield, spread both hands over her face and bowed her head forward until it almost touched her knees. Baron Molenor set an arm about Mildred’s shoulders in an unprecedented display of public affection for his wife. The countess too was on her feet and turning to look back, her face drained of color. The duchess, also out of her chair, Jess clutched to her bosom, was promising to call down fire and brimstone upon Brumford’s head and to have him disbarred for incompetence and other assorted crimes and cast into some deep, dark dungeon. Abigail had buried her face against her brother’s shoulder and got to her feet when he did. Camille was loudly declaring that such vulgarity was not for the ears of delicately reared ladies and she would listen to no more of it. Alexander Westcott was sitting rigidly to attention and gazing at an ashen-faced Harry. His mother was clutching Alexander’s arm.

Lady Anastasia Westcott, alias Anna Snow, sat straight-backed on her chair, her hands clasped in her lap—without his quizzing glass Avery could not see if they were still white-knuckled—and looked calmly back at them all. Perhaps, Avery thought, she was in shock.

He strolled forward and set a hand on his stepmother’s shoulder. He squeezed slightly while smoothing the other hand over Jessica’s head. “A lawyer,” he said, “cannot be disbarred or imprisoned or cast into hell merely for telling the truth.” Unfortunately.

He had not raised his voice. Yet it seemed everyone had heard him, including his stepmother, who stopped talking and closed her mouth with a clacking of teeth. Everyone looked at him—the dowager through her lorgnette while she batted away her daughter’s hand and the vinaigrette. There was expectation on almost every face, just as there had been earlier when he walked into the room, as though they expected him to wave some magic wand—his quizzing glass, perhaps?—and set their world to rights again. But ducal powers were, alas, finite.

“I believe,” he said, “Brumford has more to say.”

Miraculously everyone who was standing sat down again, Molenor removed his arm from about his wife, and there was silence once more. The solicitor looked as though he wished he had been disbarred years ago, or had never been barred, if that was indeed the opposite of disbarred. He must ask Edwin Goddard, Avery thought. He would know.

“The late Earl of Riverdale’s nearest legitimate paternal male relative and therefore the rightful successor to his title and entailed properties is Mr. Alexander Westcott,” Brumford said. “Congratulations, my lord. All his unentailed properties and all of his fortune, according to the will he made at Beresford’s office in Bath twenty-five years ago, now belong to his only daughter, Lady Anastasia Westcott, who is here present, having been fetched from Bath.”

The countess rose again and turned, a look of strangely mingled blankness and resentment on her face. “And this is all my doing,” she said, addressing the woman who was Lady Anastasia Westcott, sole legitimate daughter of the late earl. “I thought to do you a kindness. Instead, I have disinherited my own son and shamed and beggared my daughters.” She laughed, but there was no amusement in the sound.

“Harry is no longer the earl?” Abigail asked of no one in particular, her hands creeping up to cover her mouth, her eyes huge with shock.

   
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