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Excerpt from The Devil's Heiress


"Head and shoulders above the usual regency fare, this novel's sensitive prose, charismatic characters, and expert plotting will keep readers enthralled from first page to last." Publisher's Weekly, July 2nd, 2001

This novel was first published in 2001 and is the third story in the trilogy brought together in the collection, THREE HEROES. For more on the other two stories, please go to the end of this page.

Chapter One
June 1816, Sussex

    Major George Hawkinville hadn't thought he cared about home, but today, with the village en fete for his friend's wedding, the contact, the bone-deep belonging, was like a cannonball slamming into earth far too close and knocking the wind out of him.
    Following Van and Maria out of the church into the midst of the bouncing, cheering crowd, he felt almost dazed. It was all familiar -- the ancient green ringed by buildings new and old, the row of ramshackle cottages down by the river, the walled and thatched house at the end of the row...
    Hawkinville Manor, his personal hell, but now, it would seem, his essential heaven.
    "Welcome home, sir!"
    He pulled himself together and shook hands with beaming Aaron Hooker. And with the next man, and the next. Soon women were kissing him, not all decorously.
    This was Van's wedding, but Con was introducing his bride Susan here, too. Clearly the villagers were making it into a return festivity for them all.
    The Georges.
    The plaguey imps.
    The gallant soldiers.
    The heroes.
    It wasn't the time to be wry about that, so Hawk grinned and kissed and shook hands and accepted back-slaps from men used to slapping oxen. In the end, he caught up to the blushing new bride and the very recent bride, and claimed kisses of his own.
    "Hawk," said Susan Amleigh, Con's wife, eyes brilliant, "have I told you how much I love Hawk in the Vale?"
    "Once or twice, I think."
    She just laughed at his dry tone. "How lucky you all are to have grown up here. I don't know how you could bear to leave it."
    Because a whole tubfull of sweet posset could be soured by a spoonful of gall but Hawk didn't say that, or let his smile twist. He'd been desperate to leave here at sixteen, and didn't regret it now, but he did regret dragging Van and Con along. Not that he'd have been able to stop them if their families couldn't. The Georges had always done nearly everything together.
    What was done was done -- wisdom, of a trite sort -- and they'd all survived. Now, in part because of these wonderful women, Con and Van were even happy.
    Happy. He rolled that in his mind like a foreign food, unsure whether it was palatable or not. Whichever it was, it wasn't on his plate. He was hardly the type for sweethearts and orange blossoms, and he would bring no one he cared for to share Hawkinville Manor with himself and his father. He had only returned there because the Squire was crippled by a seizure.
    If only he'd died of it.
    He put that aside and let a buxom women drag him into a country dance. Astonishing to realize that it was shy Elsie Dadswell, Elsie Manktelow now, with three children, a boy and two girls, and no trace of shyness he could see. She was also clearly well on the way to a new baby.
    Somewhat alarmed, he asked if she should be dancing so vigorously, but she laughed, linked arms, and nearly swung him off his feet. He laughed too, and ricocheted down the line off strong, working-women's arms.
    His people. His to take care of, even if he had to fight his father to do it. Some of the cottages needed repairs and the river bank needed work, but prizing money out of the Squire's hands these days, was like getting a corpse to release a sword.
    A blushing girl missing two front teeth asked him to dance next, so he did, glad to escape mundane concerns. He'd dealt with mass army movements over mountainous terrain, through killing storms. Surely the Squire and Hawk in the Vale couldn't defeat him. He flirted with the girl, astonished to discover that she was Will Ashbee's daughter. Will was only a year older than he was.
    Will had spent his life here, growing children and working through the cycles of the seasons. Hawk had lived in the death-cycle of war. Marching, waiting, squabbling, fighting, then dealing with the broken and burying the dead.
    How many men had he known who were now dead? It was not a tally he wanted to make. God had been good, and he, Van, and Con were all home.
    The fiddles and whistles came to the end of their piece, and he passed his partner to a red-faced lad not much older than she was.
    Love. For some it seemed as natural as the birds in spring. Perhaps some birds never quite got the hang of it, either.
    He saw that a cricket match had started on the quiet side of the green. That was much less likely to stir maudlin thoughts, so he strolled over to watch and applaud.
    The batter said, "Want a go, major?"
    Hawk was about to say no but saw the glow in many eyes. Damnable as it was, he was a hero to most of these people. He, Van, and Con were all heroes. They were all veterans, but most importantly, they had all been at the great battle of Waterloo a year ago.
    So he shrugged out of his jacket and gave it to Bill Ashbee -- Will's father -- to hold, then went to take the home-carved bat. It was part of his role here to take part. As son of the squire and future squire, he was an important part of village life.
    He wished he weren't their hero, however. Two years after taking up a cornetcy in the cavalry, he'd been seconded to the Quartermaster General's Department, and thus most of his war had been spent out of active fighting. The heroes were the men like Con and Van who'd breathed the enemy's breath and waded through blood. Or even Lord Darius Debenham, Con's friend and an enthusiastic volunteer at Waterloo who'd died there.
    But he was the major while Con and Van had only made captain, and he knew the Duke of Wellington. Rather better than he'd wanted to at times. He took the bat and faced the bowler, who looked to be about fourteen and admirably determined to bowl him out if he could. Hawk hoped he could.
    The first bowl went wide, but Hawk leaned forward and stopped it so it bumped across the rough grass into a fielder's hands. He'd played plenty of cricket during the lazy times in the army. Surely he could manage this so as to please everyone.
    He hit another ball a bit harder to make one run, leaving the other batter up. The bowler bowled that man out. Disconcerting not to be able to put a name to him.
    After a little while, Hawk was facing the determined bowler again, and this time the ball hurtled straight for the wicket. A slight twist of the bat and the ball could knock the bails flying raising a great cheer from the onlookers and a mighty whoop of triumph from the young bowler.
    Hawk grinned and went over to slap him on the back, then retrieved his coat. Ashbee helped him on with it, but then stepped back with him out of the group around the game. "How's the squire today, sir?"
    "Improving. He's out watching the festivities from a chair near the manor."
    Sitting in state, more likely, but Hawk kept his tone bland. The villagers didn't need to feel a spill of bile from the Hawkinville family's affairs.
    "Good health to him, sir," said Ashbee, in the same tone. Folly to think that the villagers didn't know how things were, with the servants in the manor all village people except the Squire's valet.
    And after all, men like Bill Ashbee could remember when handsome Captain John Gaspard arrived in the village to woo Miss Sophronia Hawkinville, the old Squire's only child, and wed her, agreeing to take the family name. They would also remember the lady's bitter disillusion when her father's death turned suitor into indifferent husband. After all, Hawk's mother had not suffered in silence. But she'd suffered. What choice did she have?
    And now she was dead, dead over a year ago of the influenza that had swept through this area. Hawk hoped she had found peace elsewhere, and regretted that he could not truly grieve. She had been the wronged party, but she had also been so absorbed in her own ill-usage that she'd had no time for her one child except to occasionally fight his father over him.
    He realized that Ashbee was hovering because he wanted to say something.
    Ashbee cleared his throat. "I was wondering if you'd heard anything about changes down along the river, sir."
    "You mean repairs." Damn the Squire. "I know there's work needs doing-"
    "No, sir, not that. But there was some men poking around the other day. When Granny Muggridge asked their business, they didn't seem to want to say, but she heard them mention foundations and water levels."
    Hawk managed not to swear. What the devil was the Squire up to now? He claimed there was no money to spare, which Hawk couldn't understand, and now he was planning some improvement to the manor?
    "I don't know, Ashbee. I'll ask my father."
    "Thank you, sir," the man said, but not looking markedly satisfied. "Thing is, sir, later on Jack Smithers from the Peregrine said he saw them talking to that Slade. The men had stabled horses at the Peregrine, you see, and Slade walked them from his house to the inn."
    Slade. Josiah Slade was a Birmingham ironfounder who'd made a fortune casting cannons for the war. For some devil-inspired reason he'd retire here in Hawk in the Vale a year ago and become a crony of the Squire's. How, Hawk couldn't imagine. The Squire came from an aristocratic family and despised trade. But somehow Slade had persuaded the Squire to permit him to build a stuccoed monstrosity of a house on the west side of the green. It would not have been so out of place on the Marine Parade in Brighton, but in Hawk in the Vale it was like a tombstone in a garden. The Squire had brushed off questions rather shiftily.
    All was not right in Hawk in the Vale. Hawk had come home hoping never to have to dig in the dirt again, but it seemed it wasn't to be so easy.
    "I'll look into it," he said, adding, "Thank you."
    Ashbee nodded, mission complete.
    Hawk headed back into the crowd, looking for Slade. The trouble here was that he was damnably impotent. In the army he'd had rank, authority, and the backing of his department. Here, he could do nothing without his father's consent.
    By his parents' marriage contract, his father had complete control over the Hawkinville estate for life. He'd heard that his mother had been mad to have dashing Captain Gervase, and had been the indulged apple of her father's eye, but he wished they'd fought for better terms.
    It was all a pointed lesson in the folly that could come from imagining oneself in love. He saw Van and Maria dancing together, looking as if stars shone in each other's eyes. Perhaps sometimes, for some people, love was real. He smiled at Con and Susan too, but he caught Con in a contemplative mood, a somberness marking him that would have been alien a year ago, before Waterloo.
    No, he'd been changed before Waterloo, changed by months at home out of the army thinking peace had come. That change, that gentling, was why the battle had hit him so hard. That and Lord Darius' death. Amid so many deaths one more or less shouldn't matter, but it didn't work like that. He could remember weeping on and off for days over the loss of one friend at Badajoz.
    He wished he could have found Dare's body for Con, though. He'd done his damndest. He saw Susan touch Con's arm, and the dark mood flee. Con would be all right.
    He spotted Slade over by a beer barrel, holding court. There were always some willing to toady to a man of wealth, though Hawk was pleased to see that not many of the villagers fell into that category. Colonel Napier was there, and the new doctor. Scott. Outsiders.
    Hawk had to admit that Slade was a trim man for his age, but he fit into the village as poorly as his house did. His clothes were perfect country clothes -- today, a brown jacket, buff breeches, and gleaming top-boots. The trouble was that they were too perfect, too new -- as real as a masquerade shepherdess. Hawk had heard Jack Smithers commenting on the horseflesh Slade kept stabled at the Peregrine. Top class horses, but the man was afraid of them and when he went out riding he sat like a sack of potatoes. Slade clearly wanted to exchange his money for the life of a country gentleman, but why, in the name of heaven, here?
    And what new monstrosity did he have planned?
    Replace the old hump-back bridge over the river with a copy of the Westminster one?
    He strolled over and accepted a tankard, and a kiss, from Bill Ashbee's wife.
    "A grand affair, Major," declared Slade, smiling, though Hawk had noted before that the man's smiles to him were false. He had no idea why. Van and Con had both complained of the way Slade beamed at them, obviously trying to insinuate himself with the two local peers. A mere Hawkinville wasn't worth toadying to?
    "Perhaps we should have more such fetes," Hawk said, simply to make conversation.     "That will be for the Squire to say, will it not, sir?"
    Hawk ran that through his mind, wondering what it meant. It clearly meant something more than the obvious.
    "I doubt my father will object as long as he doesn't have to foot the bill."
    "But he won't be squire forever," said Slade.
    Hawk took a drink of ale, puzzled. And alert. He knew when people were running a sub text for their own amusement. "I won't object either, Slade, on the same terms."
    "If that should arise, Major, you must apply to me for a loan. I assure you, I will always be happy to support the innocent celebrations of my rustic neighbors."
    Hawk glanced at the "rustic neighbors" nearby, and saw some rolled eyes and twitching lips. Slade was a figure of fun here, but Hawk's deep, dark, well-tuned instincts were sending a very different message.
    He toasted Slade with his tankard. "We rustic neighbors will always be suitably appreciative, sir!"
    He drained the ale, hearing a few suppressed chuckles and seeing Slade's smile become fixed. But not truly dimmed. No, the man still thought he had a winning hand. What the devil was the game, though?
    Hawk turned to work his way through the crowd to where his father sat near the manor's gates, his valet hovering. A few other people had brought out chairs to keep him company -- newer village residents who doubtless saw themselves as too good to romp with their "rustic neighbors" , even for a lord's wedding.
    Hawk put that thought out of mind. They were harmless people. The spinsterish Misses Weatherby, whose only weapon was gossiping tongues. The vicar and his wife, who probably would prefer to be in the merriment but perhaps felt obliged by charity to sit with the invalid. That Mrs. Rowland, who claimed her husband was a distant relative of the Squire's. She was a sallow, dismal woman who dressed in drooping black, but he shouldn't be uncharitable. Her husband still suffered from a Waterloo injury and she was in desperate need of charity.
    The Squire had given her free tenancy of some rooms at the back part of the corn factor's, and freedom of produce from the home farm. In return, the woman was a frequent visitor, and she did seem to be welcome to his father, heaven knows why. Perhaps they talked of past Gaspard glory.
    Her husband was another Waterloo veteran, however. Hawk remembered guiltily that he'd meant to look in on Lieutenant Rowland to see if anything could be done for his health. No one in the village had so much as seen him, except Doctor Scott, one assumed. He must ask him about it.
    At the moment he was more interested in Slade.
    Slade wasn't evil, no. But there was something amiss there.
    So badly amiss that Hawk changed his mind and turned back to the celebration. He didn't want to confront his father in public, but confront him he would, and squeeze the truth out of him if necessary. Whatever Slade was up to could be blocked. All the land in the village was owned by the manor.
    He'd learned to put aside pending problems and grasp whatever pleasure the moment held, so he joined a laughing group of young men, who had once been lads of his own age to play with or fight with. He kept an eye on the Squire, however, and when his father was finally carried back into the Hawkinville Manor, Hawk eased away from the revels and followed. He crossed the green and the road that circled it, and went through the tall gates that always stood open these days. Once those gates and the high, encircling wall, had been practical defenses. A tall, stone tower still stood at one corner of the house, remnant of an even sterner medieval home of the Hawkinvilles. He was aware of a strange instinct to close the gates and man the walls.
    Against Slade?
    The door opened and Mrs. Rowland came out, a basket on her arm. "Good evening, Major Hawkinville," she said as if good was an effort of optimism. She was a Belgian and spoke with a French accent. "A pleasant wedding, was it not?"
    "Delightful. How is your husband, Mrs. Rowland?"
    She sighed. "Perhaps he grows a little stronger."
    "I must come and visit him soon."
    "How very kind. He has some days better than others. I hope it will be possible." She curtsied and left with a nun-like step that made him wonder how she'd produced two children.
    A very strange woman.
    He shook his head and crossed the courtyard, evening-full of rose perfume and bird-twitter. The hounds greeted him at the door, still not entirely used to him. Only old Galahad dated from his boyhood. He'd named him, in fact, to his father's disgust at the romantical name.
    The Squire called him Gally.
    Perhaps it was a miracle that his father's dogs didn't bite him on sight.
    When he walked in through the oak door his boots rapped on the flagstoned corridor. Strange the things that a person remembers. When he'd returned here two weeks ago, that sound, his boots on the floor along with the slight jingle of his spurs, had been a trigger for explosive memories, both good and bad. There were other triggers. The smell of wax polish which this close to the door blended with the roses in the courtyard. There had always been, as now, roses in the pottery bowl on the table near the door. In the winter, it was rose pot pourri.
     Hawkinville's roses had perhaps been his mother's savior. Over the years she had abandoned everything to her husband except her rose garden. Wryly, he could remember being jealous of roses.
    When he was young. When he was very, very young.
    He had always been practical, and had soon learned to do without family fondness. Anyway he'd had the families of his friends to fill any void.
    It would be different now. Perhaps that was what had tinged the day with slight melancholy. Astonishingly the close friendship of the Georges seemed to have survived, but it could never be the same, not now Van and Con had another special person in their lives. Soon, no doubt, there would be children. But it was still there, the rare and precious friendship. As close as brothers. As close as triplets, perhaps. Perhaps that was the tug of Hawk in the Vale. It was the home of his closest friends. But here, in the entrance hall of the house in which he had been born, he knew it was more than that.
     Hawkinvilles had been here far longer than the house, but even so his family had worn tracks in these flagstones for four hundred years, and doubtless cursed the damp that rose from them when heavy rain soaked the earth beneath.
    Perhaps his older ancestors hadn't needed to duck beneath some of the dark oak lintels, though at least one had held the nickname "Longshanks." Hawkinvilles had made marks in the paneling and woodwork, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. There was a pistol ball embedded in the parlor wainscotting from an unfortunate disagreement between brothers during the Civil War.
    He had thought he didn't care. Over the years in the army, he could not remember experiencing home-sickness at all. A fierce desire at times to be away from war, a longing for peace and England, but not homesickness for this place.
    It was a shock, therefore, to be falling in love like this. No, not falling. It was as if an unrecognized love had leaped from the shadows and sunk in fangs.
    Hawk in the Vale. Hawkinville Manor. He reached out to lay his hand on the oak door-jamb around the front parlor door. The wood felt warm, almost alive, beneath his hand. My God, he could be happy here.
    If only his father were not here.
    He pulled his hand away. Bad luck to wish for a death, and he didn't actively do so. But he couldn't escape the fact that his dreams depended on stepping into a dead man's shoes. There'd be no happiness for him here as long as the Squire lived.
    He went up the stairs -- too narrow for a gentleman, his father had always grumbled -- and rapped on his father's door.
    The valet, Fellows, opened it. "The squire is preparing for bed, sir."
    "Nevertheless, I must have a word with him."
    With a long-suffering look, Fellows let him in. God knows what the squire told his man, but Fellows had no high opinion of him.
    "What now?" the squire demanded, his slightly twisted mouth still making the words clearly enough. Perhaps it was the damaged mouth that made him seem to sneer. But no, he'd sneered at Hawk all his life.
    The seizure had affected his right arm and leg, too, and he still had little strength in either, but at a glance, he did not appear much touched. He was still a handsome man in his fifties, with blond hair touched with silver, and the fine-boned features he'd given to Hawk. He kept to the old style, and wore his hair tied back in a queue. On formal occasions, he even powdered it. He was sitting in a chair in his shirt sleeves now, however, feet in slippers. Not particularly elegant.
    Hawk was blunt. "Is Slade planning more building here?"
    His father twitched, then looked away. "Why?"
    Guilt, for sure.
    But then the Squire looked back, arrogance in place. "What business is it of yours? I still rule here, boy."
    Eleven years in the army teaches self-control. A number of them working close to the Duke of Wellington perfects it. "It is my inheritance, sir," Hawk said, "and thus my business. What is Slade planning, and why are you permitting it?"
    "How should I know what that man intends?"
    "That man? You had him to dinner two nights ago."
    "A politeness to a neighbor." He didn't look away again, but Hawk had questioned more skillful deceivers than his father, and could see the lie behind it.
    "I was told that there were men here who sounded like surveyors studying the area along the river, and that they later spoke to Slade. What interest could Slade have down here. There is no available land."
    His father glared at him, and then snapped, "Brandy!"
    Fellows rushed to obey, protesting all the while that brandy was not allowed. The Squire took a mouthful then said, "Very well. You might as well know. Slade's planning to tear down this place, and the cottages too, and build himself a grand riverside villa."
    Hawk almost laughed. "That's absurd."
    Into the silence, he added, "He does not have the power to do that."
    Doubt and fear stirred. His father, for all his faults, was not a fool, nor had his illness turned him mad. "What have you done?"
    The squire took a sip of brandy, managing to look down his long straight nose, even in the chair. It was posing, though. Hawk could see that. "I have gained a peerage for us."
    "From Slade?" Hawk couldn't remember ever feeling so at a loss.
    "Of course not. You are suppose to be clever, George. Use your wits! It is a title from my own family. Viscount Deveril." He rolled it off his tongue. "It was thought to be extinct when the late Lord Deveril died last year, but I proved my descent from the original viscount."
    "My congratulations," Hawk said with complete indifference, but then his notoriously infallible memory threw up facts. "Deveril! By God, father, the name's a byword for all that is evil. Why the devil would you want a title like that?"
    The squire reddened. "It's a viscountcy, you dolt. I'll take my place in Parliament! Attend court."
    "There is no court anymore. The king is mad."
    Like his father?
    The squire shrugged. "I am reverting to my rightful family name as well, of course. I am now John Gervase, soon to be Viscount Deveril."
    "Are you also leaving here?" Hawk asked. He kept his tone flat, but it was hard. Unlikely sunshine was breaking in. My God, was all he wanted about to drop into his hands....?
    But then he remembered Slade.
    "What has Slade to do with this? You can't..." Words actually failed him for a moment.
    "You aren't allowed to sell the estate, Father."
    "Of course I have not sold it," his father declared haughtily. After a moment, however, he added, "It is merely pledged."
    Hawk put out a hand to the back of a nearby chair to steady himself. He knew every word of the besotted marriage settlement that had given his father power here. His father could use the estate to raise money.
    It wasn't an outrageous provision since the administrator of an estate might have need to raise money for improvements or to cover a disastrous season. His grandfather had been sensible enough to have it worded so that Hawkinville could not be staked in gambling, or used to pay off gaming debts. Not that that had ever been an issue. His father's flaws did not include gambling.
    "Pledged against loans?" he asked.
    "I must admit, sir, that I am at a loss as to how you have sunk into debt. The estate is not rich, but it has always provided for the family adequately."
    "It is quite simple, my boy," said his father, almost jovially. It was a mask. "I needed money to gain the title! Research. Lawyers. You know how it is."
    "Yes, I know how it is. So you borrowed from Slade. But surely if you have the title, you have property that comes with it to pay him off."
    "That was my plan." The Squire's face pinched. "Deveril -- rot his black heart -- willed most of his worth away."
    "It wasn't entailed?"
    "Only the estate."
    "Which seems unproductive."
    Hawk took a breath. "Let me get this clear. You have mortgaged this estate to Josiah Slade to get money to claim one that is valueless."
    "It's a title! My family's title. I would have paid more."
    "Borrowed more, you mean. How much?"
    Over the first shock, Hawk was beginning to arrange facts and make calculations. He had some money of his own. He could borrow elsewhere to pay off Slade....
    "Twenty thousand pounds."
    It was like being hit by a pistol ball. "Twenty thousand pounds? No one could possibly spend that much to claim a title."
    The estate only brought in a few thousand a year.
    "I have been pursuing Deveril's money as well, of course."
    "Even so. Your lawyers would have to have been eating gold quills for breakfast."
    "Investments," the Squire muttered.
    "Investments? In what?"
    "All kinds of things. Slade does well off them. There was a foreigner here a while back -- Celestin. He'd made a fortune at it. Offered me some good advice."
    Maria's dead husband, who had led Van's father to ruin this way. But Slade, Slade was the active villain here.
    "So Slade lent you money, and then lent you more to invest to earn it back?" Twenty thousand pounds.
    An impossible sum, and throttling Slade would not fix the disaster.
    Hawk forced his mind to look for any possibility.
    "How much did Deveril leave that was willed elsewhere?"
    "Close to a hundred thousand. You see why I had to have it!"
    "I see why we have to have it now. What reason do you have for thinking you can overturn the will?"
    "Because it was left to a scheming chit he planned to marry, by a hand-written will that was certainly false."
    "Then why don't you have the money?"
    The squire knocked back his brandy and held the glass out to be refilled. "Because the poxy chit has all the Deveril money to pay for lawyers, that's why! And some plaguey high-flying supporters. Her guardian's the Duke of Belcraven, no less. The Marchioness of Arden, wife to the duke's heir, stands her friend. I wouldn't be surprised if the little whore has the damned Regent in her pocket."
    "It would have to be a very large pocket," Hawk remarked, his mind whirling on many levels.
    Twenty-thousand pounds. It couldn't be borrowed, even from friends. Especially from friends. Even if they could raise it, it would take Hawkinville a generation to pay it off, and only by squeezing the tenants hard.
    His father laughed at his comment. "I have to say, you're taking this better than I expected, George."
    Hawk looked at his father. "I am taking this extremely badly, sir. I despise you for your folly and self-indulgence. Did you ever give a thought to the welfare of your people here?"
    "They are not my people!"
    "You've been pleased enough to call them such for over a quarter century. Families have lived in those cottages for centuries, Father. And do you care nothing for this house?"
    "Less than nothing! It's a plaguey farmhouse, for all you like to call it a manor."
    Hawk wished his father was well. Perhaps then he might feel justified in hitting him. "And Slade will be squire here, since the title goes with the property. You are selling everyone here for your own petty ends."
    His father reddened, but raised his chin. "I do not care! What is this place to me?"
    "So what is? The Deveril estate? It's going to be a damn chilly comfort with no money to go with it, isn't it?"
    His father glared, but said, "You have a point. That is why I have come up with a solution. You are not a bad-looking man, and you have a certain address. Marry the heiress."
    Hawk laughed. "Marry a `poxy chit' to rescue you? I think not."
    "To rescue Hawk in the Vale, George."
    It hit home, and his father knew it.
    All the same, every instinct revolted. He had made one vow, many years ago -- that he would not repeat his parents' mistake. He would not marry unless he was sure of harmony. He'd accepted that it meant that he would likely never marry, but that would be better for everyone than more bitterness and bile.
    "I have a better idea," he said. "Do you have any cogent reasons to believe the will is false. What arguments have your lawyers made in court?"
    His father glowered, but he said, "It was handwritten, and it left all his money to this girl, to come under her complete control at twenty-one."
    "Quite. And the heiress is one Clarissa Greystone. You may not have heard of the Greystones. Drunkards and gamblers, every one."
    "And yet you failed to break it. Why, apart from better lawyers and influence in high places? Our courts are not so corrupt, I hope, that they would overrule reason."
    "Because the will was in Deveril's hand, and found in his locked desk with no sign of a break in."
    "Two men in his employ, but they went missing after his murder."
    "Murder?" Hawk repeated. "How did he die?"
    "Stabbed in a back slum in London. His body wasn't found for some days."
    "Good God. So he was murdered and this Greystone chit has all his money, and no one has been able to prove she did it?" He laughed. "And you think I will marry a woman like that?"
    "That, or lose Hawkinville, dear boy."
    Hawk gripped the back of the chair tightly. "You're finding a kind of satisfaction in this, aren't you? Does it give you so much pleasure to see me wriggling on this hook?"
    The twisted smile was definitely a sneer now. "It gives me pleasure to see you taken down a peg or two. So superior you've been, especially since returning home. You've always despised me for marrying for money, haven't you? Well, what are you going to do now the shoe's on your foot, eh?"
    "What am I going to do?" Short of throttle you. "I'm going to prove that damn will false, and if possible see the Greystone creature hang for murder. And then, I hope, I'll see you out of here, and begin to repair the lifetime's damage that you've done."
    The sneer became somewhat fixed, but his father disdained to answer.
    "When does the loan come due?" Hawk asked.
    His father laughed. "The first of August."
    "Two months!" Control. Control. Hawk carefully let go of the chair. "Then I had better get on with it, hadn't I?"
    It was only as he left the stuffy room that another disastrous aspect hit him. Titles were hereditary. One day he would have to be Lord Deveril.
    For the first time he sincerely wished his father a long, long life.
    But away from here.
    At his precious Deveril estates.
    Instinctively he sought his mother's rose garden, even though this mess was her fault. If only she hadn't let herself be entranced by a handsome face and a winning manner. He'd heard that there had been solid, reliable local men courting her.
    He shook his head. That was all past history. For the present and the future, the Hawk had one more hunt to fly, and as reward, a golden future tantalized.
    If he could prove the will a forgery and get the money for his father, the new Lord Deveril would move away from here. After paying off Slade, off course.
    Twenty thousand pounds. It was a sum to stagger him, but he put it aside. There was five times that much waiting if he did his job right.
    Then he would have Hawkinville. His father called it a farmhouse, and he was right. It was two stories and contained only four bedchambers. The ceilings were low, the fixtures practical, the "grounds" merely the courtyard and a garden at the back.
    But it was his piece of heaven. He would not let it be torn down, nor would he let Slade rip the heart out of Hawk in the Vale.
    He walked back out onto the green. A few people called to him, waving, with no idea that their world was threatened. He waved back but turned to look at the manor house and the line of cottages. Most of the front doors were open, with children running in and out. Old people, who had lived in their cottage for most or all of their lives, sat hunched on chairs, watching their generations enjoy themselves. Mothers, babies on hip or even at the breast, chatted together as they kept an eye on their families.
    None of the cottages had a straight line, and most of the thatch needed work, but that was all the responsibility of the manor, not the tenants. No roses bloomed at the front because the cottages opened right on to the road around the green, and faced north, but he knew that in the long gardens running down to the river roses bloomed among well-tended vegetables that fed these families.
    He watched Slade strolling around, beaming, clearly -- in his own mind, at least -- already master here. Perhaps he was envisioning a tidy clearing, a modern improvement.
    A pure and simple urge to murder held Hawk rigid for a moment. But no. That would not serve.
    What if he couldn't prove the will false?
    Then he'd prove the Greystone chit a murderess. That would work just as well to throw doubt on the will. It probably wouldn't even be hard for a man like him. His work in the war had included investigations, and he'd been very good at it.
    He'd hoped never to unleash the Hawk again. Those investigations had left unpleasant memories, and sometimes pushed the borders of his honor.
    But this, again, was war. He made a silent vow that greed and folly would not destroy Hawk in the Vale.

Read Chapter Two

The Devil's Heiress is the third story in the trilogy THREE HEROES. The other stories in the trilogy are THE DRAGON'S BRIDE and THE DEMON'S MISTRESS. THE DEMON'S MISTRESS and THE DRAGON'S BRIDE were both finalists for the RITA, romance's top award.

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