Between the Devil and Desire(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 2)(3) by Lorraine Heath
“—I bequeath a trust that if properly managed should provide her with two thousand pounds per annum as long as she lives. To Mr. Jack Dodger—”
Olivia barely had time to acknowledge the disappointment he’d not left her the residence, before her attention was snagged by the fact that at long last, the reason for the ridiculous summons of Jack Dodger would come to light.
“—I bequeath the remainder of my worldly assets, save one item, on the condition he serve as guardian and protector of my heir until the child reaches his majority or my widow marries and her husband assumes the role. When either of the stated conditions are met, Mr. Dodger will receive the final item—its value immeasurable.”
From a seemingly great distance, Olivia became aware of a rushing sound between her ears, like the beating wings of a thousand ravens fleeing the tower of London and signaling Great Britain’s downfall. She was vaguely aware of paper crackling, as Mr. Beckwith laid down the will. She couldn’t have possibly heard correctly. Her temples had begun to throb the moment her husband had tumbled down the stairs and taken a mortal blow to the head. The grief she was experiencing at the unexpected loss was playing havoc with her mind, causing words to jumble and lose their true meaning. As she tried to comprehend how that could be, how she could force them back into signifying what they were supposed to, Mr. Beckwith picked up a black leather-bound book and extended it toward Jack Dodger. “This ledger contains a listing of all the non-entailed assets which will become—”
While Olivia watched in stunned horror, Jack Dodger snatched the book from Mr. Beckwith’s grasp before he’d finished speaking, opened it, and began quickly scouring the pages, each turn of the page a rasp against her brittle nerves. Mr. Beckwith lifted another ledger and extended it toward Olivia. “For your review, a listing of the entailed assets which go to your son.”
Olivia shook her head. “I must beg your forgiveness, but I don’t quite understand the meaning of all this.”
“From the moment the titles passed to him, your husband kept precise records indicating which properties and assets were part of the entailments—”
“No, no. I’m referring to the will; you misread it. You indicated that Mr. Dodger is to serve as guardian.”
“Yes, that was the duke’s wish.”
“No, Henry is my son. I am his guardian.”
“The law recognizes only the father as guardian. Upon the father’s death, if the child has not yet obtained the age of one and twenty, the father must appoint the guardian in his will.” With no emotion whatsoever expressed, Mr. Beckwith sounded as though he were reading from a parliamentary document. “I’m sorry, Your Grace, but your husband’s decision cannot be challenged.”
“Not be challenged?” Olivia came to her feet in such a rush that she almost lost her balance. Mr. Beckwith also rose, while Jack Dodger remained seated, hungrily devouring the contents of the ledger. Obviously the man hadn’t a clue regarding proper behavior when in the presence of a lady, but then she suspected the women who normally provided him with company would hardly be considered ladies. “Have you lost your mind? Somehow you managed to misunderstand my husband’s intent. He can’t possibly have meant to let this scoundrel—”
“It says here this residence and everything within it is mine,” Jack Dodger suddenly announced, and Olivia’s composure came almost completely unhinged. Not this residence, not the one place she had worked so hard to make a home.
Jack Dodger unfolded his long, lean body, dropped the ledger on the desk with a loud thump, and leaned ominously toward Mr. Beckwith. “Is this some sort of prank?”
Mr. Beckwith, to his credit, stood valiant against the devil’s advance. “I assure you, Mr. Dodger, this is no prank.”
“You’re telling me a man I barely knew is leaving me”—he jabbed the ledger with a blunt-tipped finger—“all of this?”
“You knew my husband?” Olivia asked, stunned by the revelation.
He had the audacity to wave his hand at her as though she were insignificant, to be dismissed with no more thought than one might give a beggar pleading for coins.
“Yes, Mr. Dodger, it appears that is in fact the case,” Mr. Beckwith said.
“And what of his debts?” he asked caustically. “I suppose I inherit them as well.”
“There are no debts. The duke didn’t believe in credit. He paid as he went.”
That seemed to give Mr. Dodger pause, before he splayed his long, slender fingers over the ledger. “And the final item is more valuable than all of this?”
“As indicated in the will, its value cannot be measured.”
“Do you know what it is?”
“I do. It’s to remain in my possession until such time as it’s to be handed over.”
“He trusted you with something of immeasurable worth?”
“He trusted me with everything, Mr. Dodger.”
Mr. Dodger seemed to consider that. “An item the value of which cannot be measured could be worth nothing.”
“If I had to measure its worth, I would declare it the most valuable item the duke ever had the pleasure to possess.”
“Bloody hell,” Mr. Dodger said quietly in that raspy voice he possessed. “I need a drink.”
In spite of the ludicrousness of the entire situation, Olivia felt all her appropriate upbringing and her need to be the perfect hostess shoot to the fore. “Shall I have a servant bring you a cup of tea? Or some lemonade perhaps?”
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