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In the nineteen years since that fateful night, Jarret had grown a foot taller and had learned how to fight, and he was still gambling. Now, for a living.
Today, however, the cards were meant to be only a distraction. Sitting at a table in the study in Gran’s town house, he laid out another seven rows.
“How can you play cards at a time like this?” his sister Celia asked from the settee.
“I’m not playing cards,” he said calmly. “I’m playing solitaire.”
“You know Jarret,” his brother Gabe put in. “Never comfortable without a deck in his hand.”
“You mean, never comfortable unless he’s winning,” his other sister, Minerva, remarked.
“Then he must be pretty uncomfortable right now,” Gabe said. “Lately, all he does is lose.”
Jarret stiffened. That was true. And considering that he supported his lavish lifestyle with his winnings, it was a problem.
So of course Gabe was plaguing him about it. At twenty-six, Gabe was six years Jarret’s junior and annoying as hell. Like Minerva, he had gold-streaked brown hair and green eyes the exact shade of their mother’s. But that was the only trait Gabe shared with their straitlaced mother.
“You can’t consistently win at solitaire unless you cheat,” Minerva said.
“I never cheat at cards.” It was true, if one ignored his uncanny ability to keep track of every card in a deck. Some people didn’t.
“Didn’t you just say that solitaire isn’t ‘cards’?” Gabe quipped.
Bloody arse. And to add insult to injury, Gabe was cracking his knuckles and getting on Jarret’s nerves.
“For God’s sake, stop that noise,” Jarret snapped.
“This, you mean?” Gabe said and deliberately cracked his knuckles again.
“If you don’t watch it, little brother, I’ll crack my knuckles against your jaw,” Jarret warned.
“Stop fighting!” Celia’s hazel eyes filled with tears as she glanced at the connecting door to Gran’s bedchamber. “How can you fight when Gran might be dying?”
“Gran isn’t dying,” said the eminently practical Minerva. Four years younger than Jarret, she lacked Celia’s flair for the dramatic … except in the Gothic fiction she penned.
Besides, like Jarret, Minerva knew their grandmother better than their baby sister did. Hester Plumtree was indestructible. This “illness” was undoubtedly another ploy to make them toe her line.
Gran had already given them an ultimatum—they had to marry within the year or the whole lot of them would be disinherited. Jarret would have thrown the threat back in her face, but he couldn’t sentence his siblings to a life with no money.
Oliver had tried to fight her edict, then had surprised them by getting himself leg-shackled to an American woman. But that hadn’t satisfied Gran. She still wanted her pound of flesh from the rest of them. And now there were fewer than ten months left.
That was what had put Jarret off his game lately—Gran’s attempt to force him into marrying the first female who didn’t balk at the Sharpe family reputation for scandal and licentiousness. It made him desperate to win a large score, so he could support his siblings on his winnings and they could all tell her to go to hell.
But desperation was disaster at the gaming tables. His success depended on keeping a cool head and not caring about the outcome. Only then could he play to the cards he was dealt. Desperation made a man take risks based on emotion instead of skill. And that happened to him too much, lately.
What on earth did Gran think she would accomplish by forcing them to marry? She’d merely spawn more miserable marriages to match that of their parents.
But Oliver isn’t miserable.
Oliver had been lucky. He’d found the one woman who would put up with his nonsense and notoriety. The chance of that happening twice in their family was small. And four more times? Abysmally small. Lady Fortune was as fickle in life as in cards.
With a curse, Jarret rose to pace. Unlike the study at Halstead Hall, Gran’s was airy and light, with furnishings of the latest fashion and a large scale model of Plumtree Brewery prominently displayed atop a rosewood table.
He gritted his teeth. That damned brewery—she’d run it successfully for so long that she thought she could run their lives as well. She always had to be in control. One look at the papers stacked high on her desk made it clear that the brewery was becoming too much for her to handle at seventy-one. Yet the obstinate woman refused to hire a manager, no matter how Oliver pressed her.
“Jarret, did you write that letter to Oliver?” Minerva asked.
“Yes, while you were at the apothecary’s. The footman has taken it to the post.” Although Oliver and his new wife had already left for America to meet her relations, Jarret and Minerva wanted him to know of Gran’s illness in case it was serious.
“I hope he and Maria are enjoying themselves in Massachusetts,” Minerva said. “He seemed very upset that day in the library.”
“You’d be upset, too, if you thought you’d caused our parents’ deaths,” Gabe pointed out.
That had been Oliver’s other surprise—his revelation that he and Mother had quarreled the day of the tragedy, which had led to her going off in a rage in search of Father.
“Do you think Oliver was right?” Celia asked. “Was it his fault that Mama shot Papa?” Celia had been only four when it happened, so she had little recollection of it.
That wasn’t the case for Jarret. “No.”
“Why not?” Minerva asked.
How much should he say? He had a strong memory of …
No, he shouldn’t make baseless accusations, no matter who they concerned. But he should tell them his other concern. “I well remember Father at the picnic, muttering, ‘Where the devil is she going?’ I looked across the field and saw Mother on a horse, headed in the direction of the hunting lodge. That memory has been gnawing at me.”
Gabe took up Jarret’s line of reasoning. “So if she’d left in search of Father, as Oliver seems certain that she did, she would have found him at the picnic. She wouldn’t have gone elsewhere looking for him.”
“Precisely,” Jarret said.
Minerva pursed her lips. “Which means that Gran’s version of events might be correct. Mother rode to the hunting lodge because she was upset and wanted to be away from everyone. Then she fell asleep, was startled by Father, shot him—”
“—and shot herself when she saw him dead?” Celia finished. “I don’t believe it. It makes no sense.”
Gabe cast her an indulgent glance. “Only because you don’t want to believe that any woman would be so reckless as to shoot a man without thinking.”
“I would certainly never do such a fool thing myself,” Celia retorted.
“But you have a passion for shooting and a healthy respect for guns,” Minerva pointed out. “Mother had neither.”
“Exactly,” Celia said. “So she picked up a gun without forethought and shot it for the first time that day? That’s ridiculous. For one thing, how did she load it?”
They all stared at her.
“None of you ever thought about that, did you?”
“She could have learned,” Gabe put in. “Gran knows how to shoot. Just because Mother never shot a gun around us doesn’t mean Gran didn’t teach her.”
Celia frowned. “On the other hand, if Mother set out to shoot Father deliberately as Oliver claims, someone could have helped her load the pistol—a groom, perhaps. Then she could have lain in wait for Father near the picnic and followed him to the hunting lodge. That makes more sense.”
“It’s interesting that you should mention the grooms,” Jarret said. “They would have had to saddle her horse—they might have known where she was going and when she left. She might even have said why she was riding out. If we could talk to them—”
“Most of them left service at Halstead Hall when Oliver closed the place down,” Minerva pointed out.
“That’s why I’m thinking of hiring Jackson Pinter to find them.”
“You may not like him,” Jarret told her, “but he’s one of the most respected Bow Street Runners in London.” Although Pinter was supposed to be helping them explore the backgrounds of potential mates, there was no reason the man couldn’t take on another mission.
The door to Gran’s bedchamber opened, and Dr. Wright entered the study.
“Well?” Jarret asked sharply. “What’s the verdict?”
“Can we see her?” Minerva added.
“Actually, she’s been asking for Lord Jarret,” Dr. Wright said.
Jarret tensed. With Oliver gone, he was the eldest. No telling what Gran had cooked up for him to do, now that she was “ill.”
“Is she all right?” Celia asked, alarm plain on her face.
“At the moment, she’s only suffering some chest pain. It may come to nothing.” Dr. Wright met Jarret’s gaze. “But she needs to keep quiet and rest until she feels better. And she refuses to do that until she can speak to you, my lord.” When the others rose, he added, “Alone.”
With a terse nod, Jarret followed him into Gran’s room.
“Don’t say anything to upset her,” Dr. Wright murmured, then left and closed the door.
At the sight of his grandmother, Jarret caught his breath. He had to admit that Gran didn’t look her usual self. She was propped up against the bed pillows, so she wasn’t dying, but her color certainly wasn’t good.
He ignored the clutch of fear in his chest. Gran was merely a little under the weather. This was just another attempt to control their lives. But she was in for a surprise if she thought that the tactics that had worked on Oliver would work on him.
She gestured to a chair by the bed, and Jarret warily took a seat.
“That fool Wright tells me I cannot leave my bed for a month at the very least,” she grumbled. “A month! I cannot be away from the brewery for that long.”
“You must take as long as necessary to get well,” Jarret said, keeping his voice noncommittal until he was sure what she was up to.
“The only way I shall loll about in this bed for a month is if I have someone reliable looking after things at the brewery. Someone I trust. Someone with a vested interest in making sure it runs smoothly.”
When her gaze sharpened on him, he froze. So that’s what she was plotting.
“Not a chance,” he said, jumping to his feet. “Don’t even think it.” He wasn’t about to put himself under Gran’s thumb. Bad enough that she was trying to dictate when he married—she wasn’t going to run his whole life, too.
She took a labored breath. “You once begged me for this very opportunity.”
“That was a long time ago.” When he’d been desperate to find a place for himself. Then he’d learned that no matter what place you found, Fate could snatch it from you at a moment’s notice. Your hopes for the future could be dashed with a word, your parents taken in the blink of an eye, and your family’s good name ruined for spite.
Nothing in life was certain. So a man was better off traveling light, with no attachments and no dreams. It was the only way to prevent disappointment.
“You’re going to inherit the brewery one day,” she pointed out.
“Only if we all manage to marry within the year,” he countered. “But assuming that I inherit, I’ll hire a manager. Which you should have done years ago.”
That made her frown. “I do not want some stranger running my brewery.”
The perennial argument was getting old.
“If you don’t want to do it, I’ll have to put Desmond in charge,” she added.
His temper flared. Desmond Plumtree was Mother’s first cousin, a man they all despised—especially him. Gran had threatened before to leave the brewery to the bastard and she knew how Jarret felt about that, so she was using his feelings against him.
“Go ahead, put Desmond in charge,” he said, though it took every ounce of his will not to fall prey to her manipulation.
“He knows even less about it than you do,” she said peevishly. “Besides, he’s busy with his latest enterprise.”
He hid his relief. “There has to be someone else who knows the business well enough to take over.”
She coughed into her handkerchief. “No one I trust.”
“And you trust me to run it?” He uttered a cynical laugh. “I seem to recall your telling me a few years ago that gamblers are parasites on society. Aren’t you worried I’ll suck the life out of your precious brewery?”
She had the good grace to color. “I only said that because I couldn’t stand watching you waste your keen mind at the gaming tables. That is not a suitable life for a clever man like yourself, especially when I know you are capable of more. You have had some success with your investments. It wouldn’t take you long to get your bearings at the brewery. And I will be here for you to consult if you need advice.”
The plaintive note in her voice gave him pause. She sounded almost … desperate. His eyes narrowed. He might be able to make this work to his advantage, after all.
He sat down once more. “If you really want me to run the brewery for a month, then I want something in return.”
“You will have a salary, and I am sure we could come to terms on—”
“Not money. I want you to rescind your ultimatum.” He leaned forward to stare her down. “No more threats to disinherit us if we don’t marry according to your dictate. Things will return to how they were before.”
She glared at him. “That is not going to happen.”
“Then I suppose you’ll be hiring a manager.” He rose and headed for the door.
“Wait!” she cried.
He paused to glance back at her with eyebrows raised.
“What if I rescind it just for you?”
He fought a smile. She must be desperate indeed if she was willing to bargain. “I’m listening.”
“I will have Mr. Bogg change the will so that you inherit the brewery no matter what.” Her voice turned bitter. “You can stay a bachelor until you die.”
It was worth considering. If he owned the brewery, he could help his brother and sisters if they couldn’t meet Gran’s terms by the end of the year. They’d be on their own until Gran died, of course, but then Jarret could support them. It was a better situation than their present one. “I could live with that.”
She dragged in a rasping breath. “But you’ll have to agree to stay on at the brewery until the year is up.”
He tensed. “Why?”
“Too many people depend on it for their livelihood. If I am to leave the place to you, I must be sure you can keep it afloat, even if you hire a manager to run it once I am gone. You need to know enough to be able to hire the right person, and I need assurance that you will not let it rot.”
“God forbid you should trust your own grandson to keep it safe.” But she did have a point. He hadn’t set foot in the place in nineteen years. What did he know about the brewing business anymore?
He could learn. And he would, too, if that’s what it took to stop Gran from meddling in their lives for good. But he would do it on his own terms.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll stay on until the year is up.” When she broke into a smile, he added, “But I want complete control. I’ll keep you informed about the business, and you may express your opinions, but my decisions will be final.”
That wiped the smile from her face.
“I’ll run Plumtree Brewery as I see fit without any interference from you,” he went on. “And you will put that in writing.”
The steel in her blue eyes told him she wasn’t as ill as she pretended. “You can do a great deal of damage in a year.”
“Exactly. If you’ll recall, this wasn’t my idea.”
“Then you must promise not to institute any major changes.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “No.”
Alarm flared in her features. “At least promise not to make risky investments.”
“No. You either let me have full control or find yourself a manager.”
It felt good to have the upper hand. He refused to have her coming behind him, second-guessing every decision. If he was going to run the place, he would run it his way. And once the year was up, he’d be free to live his life as he pleased … and ensure that his siblings could do so as well.
Not that Gran would accept his terms. She’d never given up control of anything, for even a day. She certainly wouldn’t give it to her “parasite” of a grandson for a year.
So it was with some surprise that he heard her say, “Very well, I will meet your demands. I will have it put into writing for you by tomorrow.”
The gleam in her eyes gave him pause, but it was gone so fast, he was sure he’d imagined it.
“I do have one caveat,” she continued. “You must keep Mr. Croft on as your secretary.”
Jarret groaned. Gran’s secretary at the brewery was one of the strangest men he’d ever met. “Must I?”
“I know he seems odd, but I promise that in a week or so you will find yourself glad that you kept him on. He’s indispensable to the brewery.”
Well, it was a small price to pay for gaining his life back. He’d definitely gotten the better end of their bargain.
© 2010 Sabrina Jeffries, LLC