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The news of Horatio Algernon Thorne's death came accompanied by a letter from him.
March 1, 1887
Avery James Thorne
My physicians tell me I haven't long to live and that I should put my affairs in order. This I intend to do. By ensuring this letter arrives in your hand before the reading of my will I do you the favor of forewarning you of its contents. You may thank my sense of familial obligation for this courtesy, a sensibility with which you apparently have little experience.
You have probably assumed that upon my death and as your cousin Bernard's only living male relative you would become his guardian. You are mistaken and I will now tell you why.
First and foremost, you are too like your father. In spite of my best efforts to correct your temperamental similarity to him, you have remained irresponsible as well as willful, and combative. These last two qualities may have stood you in good stead had you been robust and hearty, as I was in my youth, and might have made you a leader of men. But physically you are a poor specimen and no man willingly takes orders from a weakling.
I judge you would be a dangerous example to Bernard, particularly at this point in his life when he shows the same unfortunate inclination toward physical feebleness. Do not think I do not remember the many times you used your illness as an excuse to lie abed in the school's infirmary, or the letters you had your tutors write asking that you be released early from terms on account of your wretched weakness. You would be too likely to molly-coddle Bernard and as the heir to a great fortune he must overcome thistendency.
Thus, in your stead, I have appointed bank trustees whom I have known personally for many years to act as Bernard's guardian.
Now, as to you, Avery. As I have said, I am conscious of my familial duty. For the next five years you will receive a reasonable monthly allowance either from these same bank trustees or from one Miss Lillian Bede who, upon my death, has been offered the management of Mill House and who will, at the end of five years, inherit the estate should it demonstrably profit under her management. If she does not show a profit, you shall inherit.
Why I have made this proviso is no concern of yours. Mill House is mine to bestow as and where I see fit.
However, should you recall that I once suggested you might one day own the estate, I feel obliged as a gentleman to inform you that I have not forgotten that which you may have construed as a promise. I am still perfectly confident you still shall do so. Miss Bede is, after all, a nineteen-year-old female and if this pricks your manly pride, so much the better.
Consider your inheritance on hiatus while you, hopefully, become worthy of it. Not that I expect you shall spend much time regretting the loss of such a responsibility. Indeed, you are probably happy to be given this reprieve. You seem as indifferent toward your inheritance as you are toward your cousin.
At the end of five years you shall be appointed Bernard's legal guardian. In the interim I commend you from my grave to commit yourself to humility, thrift, and your family obligations.
Horatio Algernon Thorne
"And I commend you to a fiery hell." Avery pushed himself away from the battered desk occupying one wall of his rented apartments. His gaze traveled over the few mismatched furnishings that came with the let, other people's castoffs, endurable only because he'd known that someday he would have something of his own. Someday he would have Mill House.
Fifteen years ago, a week after an influenza epidemic had taken both his parents, he'd arrived in Devon to meet his guardian, his uncle Horatio. He'd been seven.
He remembered coming onto the shell drive from the cypress-lined lane. He'd stuck his head out the window, taken one look at the stone manor house glowing like amber on a bed of summer green, and fallen passionately in love.
Horatio, amused by Avery's wide-eyed infatuation and as yet unacquainted with Avery's "intolerable wheezing," had yielded to an uncharacteristic whim and promised it to him. Well could Horatio afford such munificence. Mill House meant nothing to Horatio; it was simply another house he owned that had come with the acreage to a farm purchased by his father.
Even allowing for Avery's infrequent visits thereaftertwo rare Christmas holidays, a few weeks during one incomparable autumnhe'd held the image of Mill House firmly in his mind's eye. And during those lengthy convalescence periods that he'd spent in Harrow's infirmary, he'd fled his pain by mentally walking Mill House's halls.
He'd waited for it most of his life. Like the most devoted suitor he'd admired and wanted, never revealing the extent of his passion lest it be used against him. And now that careful indifference would appear to be his undoing. His house was being offered to some nineteen-year-old suffragist!
His fingers closed tighter on the envelope and his lips curled in a bitter smile. Long ago, as a matter of survival, he'd developed a tough spirit to make up for his physical frailty. He'd become adept at taking it like a man, like the gentleman he'd determined to become. Whatever blows dealt him, both physical and emotional, whether from the fates, his guardian, or other lads, he'd accepted with fierce dignity and a biting quip. It had earned him the respect and admiration of the other lads, if no one else.
Indeed, he'd often pleaded with the schoolmasters not to write Horatio regarding any downward turn in his physical condition. He knew full well it would only disgust his guardian. Gauging from Horatio's letter, his wishes had not always been heeded.
All he'd ever owned had been a keen mind, his status as a gentleman, and the promise of a house. And now that was being "put on hiatus" while it went to this . . . Lillian Bede.
He was vaguely familiar with the name. He remembered seeing an artist's rendition of her in one of the newspapers. A tall, black-browed gypsy-looking girl, the darling of the suffragists.
How had this little baggage wormed her way into Horatio's good graces and why would she accept such an insane challenge? Certainly what Horatio had said was true: no slip of a girl could for five years manage an estate like Mill House. Not successfully.
Five years. Avery dropped his head against the back of the swivel chair. He spun slowly around in a circle, forcing himself to think, but no matter how he abjured himself to be calm, the anger continued to boil within him. Five damn years.
He was sick to death of taking it. Carefully, he ripped the letter into little pieces. Pride was a costly commodity but in this case it was the only commodity he owned. He opened his thin hand, watched the scraps flutter to the floor, and knew what he had to do.
The dark walnut door to the hushed innermost office of Gilchrist and Goode, Solicitors, banged open and Lily Bede burst unceremoniously from the interior. She held up the envelope in her hand. A thin layer of sweat coated her palms and bled from her fingertips into the thick vellum.
She looked around. No one followed her out into the anteroom, not the lovely widow, the spindly little boy, or the handsome, middle-aged daughter. Doubtless they were still sitting around the solicitors' table, mouths agape. Only one person affected by the terms of Horatio Algernon Thorne's will had been absent for its reading: Avery Thorne, the presumed heir to Mill House and, should she decide to accept the terms of this bizarre will, her . . . ward? Charge?
At the thought, Lily's legs began to tremble.
She spotted a small bench beneath an open window and lurched gratefully to it, sinking down on the hard surface. This morning she'd been searching for some way to pay the rent on her mean little attic room. This afternoon she was being offered a manor.
And what amounted to the guardianship of a grown man.
Her light-headedness returned. Who could have foreseen this? She'd met Horatio Thorne only once, three years ago, after her parents' untimely deaths. A tight-lipped, fierce-looking old man, he'd come, so he said, out of respect for his dear departed wifeher auntto offer Lily financial aid.
Penniless, Lily had swallowed her pride and used his money to go to one of the new women's colleges. Upon completing her education she'd discovered that a superior education did not necessarily translate into superior employment. In fact, she hadn't any employment at all. When she'd received the surprising request to attend the reading of Horatio's will, she'd been pitifully relieved.
She'd hoped for a small bequest; instead she'd been offered a tiger's tail. She looked down at the envelope she clutched. Why? She ripped it open and withdrew several sheets of paper.
March 1, 1887
As you know, I disapproved of my wife's brother-in-law, your father. He should have legalized his relationship with your mother by marrying her and thus legitimized you. Out of respect for my wife I attempted to alleviate this wrong by assisting you financially.
Imagine my shock and disappointment when I saw your name printed in a newspaper! The articleabout this so-called Women's Movementquoted you lambasting the institution of "legalized slavery called marriage."
Considering your own situation, I would think that you, of all people, would support the sacred institution that protects women. As for your claim that women are capable of doing whatever a man does, only betterbalderdash! Alas, I know full well the uselessness of preaching to young, headstrong people. So I will offer you instead a lesson through experience.
I offer you the chance to prove your claim by making Mill House a going concern. If, at the end of five years, you succeed you shall inherit it and all its assets. You will have achieved your ambition and can live completely independent of masculine influence. And you will have the redoubtable pleasure of proving a dead man wrong. But, should you fail, the house will go to my nephew, Avery Thorne.
Avery Thorne is currently as little capable of managing the estate as you, though he, at least ostensibly, possesses the masculine qualities necessary to do so. Unfortunately he has not yet demonstrated these qualities. Hence the two-fold nature of my proposition.
Avery is in need of self-discipline and humility. By making you responsible for his financial maintenance, I hope to provide the groundwork for both.
Of course, should you already see the error of your ways you may cry off. Avery will inherit Mill House and you, upon your public concession that a woman's place is in the home under the care of a man, shall be awarded a handsome yearly stipend. But, should your name ever again be associated with those suffragist creatures, you will be immediately dispossessed.
Horatio Algernon Thorne
Lily crumpled the letter into a tight little ball, taking savage delight in the process. The interfering, self-important . . . ! Her lips flattened, heat rose in her cheeks. How dare he make judgments about her family?
She may have been a bastard but her parents had at least sheltered her from pious snobs like Horatio Thorne. As for marriagemarriage was no guarantee of security, safety, or happiness. Marriage only guaranteed that a woman was legal chattel, subject to the whims and brutality of a man. Even her children became his legal property. Why, her own brother and sistershe shied away from the hurtful thought, returning to the matter at hand.
She couldn't possibly accept Horatio's proposal. She was amazed the old fox had managed to make the conditions of such a will legal. Surely someone would contest it. Horatio's daughter? The widowed daughter-in-law? Certainly this Avery Thorne.
But, she thought, her stomach once more coiling in apprehension and hope, if no one did contest it and she were to oversee the estate and do it successfully . . . The concept tantalized. She would not have to worry about when she would next eat, if she could pay the rent. Even more incredibly, she might meet people with the same ideas and convictions that she had. Perhaps she would even meet a soul mate, a man who would not take her heart and offer her slavery.
Her slight smile faded from her lips. She was being nonsensical. Of course someone would contest the will.
A shadow fell across the sheet of paper she clutched. The scent of lilacs filled her nostrils. She looked up.
Horatio's daughter-in-law, Evelyn Thorne, stood silently before her in the sunlight shining through the window. Her lightly clasped hands trembled. The sun washed the color from her skin and bleached her fair hair, giving her the appearance of a noontide specter, too timid to haunt the night.
"You'll want to collect your things," Evelyn said in her soft, hesitant voice. "You might send for the driver. That is, if you think that's right."
Lily gazed at her without understanding.
A tentative smile flickered over Evelyn's face. "You are going to come to Mill House, aren't you?" She paused. "It seems a waste to maintain two separate establishments."
Her friendliness when Lily had expected only resentment was irresistible. She returned Evelyn's smile with a rueful one of her own. "No one could possibly call my rented room an 'establishment,' Mrs. Thorne."
Evelyn's cheeks grew pink.
"Forgive me," Lily said, rising to her feet. She stood a head taller than Evelyn and now, this close, one could discern the finest net of lines at the corners of her lovely gray eyes, a delicate crepe on her slender neck. She was older than Lily had first surmised, nearer thirty-five than twenty-five.
Lily stuffed the letter into her skirt pocket. "I have been set up for failure, Mrs. Thorne. I can't possibly fulfill the terms of your father-in-law's will. I have no idea how to begin handling an estate."
"I understand," Evelyn concurred. "I would not dream of interfering but should I hazard a guess, I would assume Mill House must have certain systems in place to keep it running." She swallowed.
Lily studied Evelyn thoughtfully. She was right. Presumably, the operations at Mill House hadn't come grinding to a halt since Horatio's death. If she just had the time to figure out how things worked . . .
"But what about Mr. Thorne's daughter? She looks a formidable sort of woman. Won't she resent a stranger's coming into her home and taking over the management, especially someone as inexperienced as I?"
"Francesca?" Evelyn's eyes widened. "She's never used it as more than a temporary home. I assure you, Francesca doesn't care who lives in the house or handles the estate. Besides, Horatio has provided her, as well as my son and I, with ample means."
"Well, there's still the matter of Mr. Avery Thorne," Lily said. "Mill House could be his. He will doubtless contest the will." She warmed to her subject. "He'll only need to appear in court to have the judicial system deem him right, regardless of the issue, by virtue of his gender alone. He"
"He has left for Africa, Miss Bede," Evelyn cut in gently. "This past Friday."
"We had a letter from h