THE HEIRESS OF BEARBERRY
Besides, the entire fortune is your right:
my uncle gained it by his own efforts; he
was free to leave it to whom he would:
he left it to you.
– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Fred Kirret looked across the University Common, past the rows and rows of peopled folding chairs, past the canopied dais, past the orchestra playing Jubilant Fanfare No. 1, to where the professors, dark-robed but brilliantly regaliaed, stood assembling. “Excuse me!” he called to a passing security guard. “Is that the Liberal Arts building?”
The man followed the jut of Fred’s finger. “You mean Delacroix Hall?”
Fred grinned, and adjusting his black-framed glasses, replied, “Well I sure don’t mean Carnegie.”
The guard’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, a smart guy.”
“What do you want?” he said as if obvious. “It’s college, ain’t it?”
The guard paused and said quite pointedly, “Yes. It is.” And promptly left.
Fred squinted at the man’s retreating back. “Elitist.”
Yet he couldn’t help but smile as he walked across campus and into the Boston morning, doing this for Leo, after all. Leo. Equally iconic as arguably insane Leo, who also had been very, very good to him. Because only for Leo—rest in peace—would Fred travel over three hundred miles in the middle of the night on the day of his own daughter’s first birthday, to deliver Leo’s long, lost niece his last bequest. And stay to catch her when she fell.
* * * * *
“Happy birthday, darling.”
Kate stared at the jewel box, feeling a little faint, an absolutely obscene diamond-nested sapphire glaring back at her. “Oh my God Geoff.”
He spread his doctoral robe and half-sat atop her desk, his leg an elegant dangle of bespoke mohair worsted. “Christ, Kate, you’d think I just proposed joint suicide. Don’t you want to marry me?”
Marry him! She recalled the only advice her long-dead mother ever gave her: Marry well, because trust me, Katherine, the right marriage is like Krugerrands in the bank.
And Dr. Geoffrey Wick was such a Krugerrand Kate could almost see her mother setting down her martini. At least for the time it would take to check his assets.
What’s the matter with me? Kate thought. He must think I’m insane. She coughed and opened her collar, buying a little time. Wasn’t this what she’d wanted nearly from the day they’d met nine months earlier, during a reception after a Victoria Redel reading and over a particularly pesky tray of Angels on Horseback?
“Aaaaah…” she had sighed that afternoon, sniffing the hors d’oeuvres as she left the butler’s pantry. Covertly, of course, same as all of her culinary close encounters, her lids fluttering under the greasy, glorious spell of evil, heavenly pork. She pinched an Angel, holding it aloft. Why, it almost seemed sacrilegious wrapping bacon around something as slimy as an oyster—
Kate flinched and plop went the Angel. Instinctively she looked down, shaking it off her foot when she heard, “Allow me,” and the tray slid from her hands.
She looked up and it was—what did they call him? The Wizard of Finance! Straight from Harvard and Cambridge. “You scared the life out of me!”
“And these murderous little bits of salt and nitrates didn’t?” He balanced the platter on his fingertips. “Darling, if you’re dead-set on a shellfish feed go with the crab.” He glanced over his shoulder with obvious distaste. “Even if it is as inferior as the rest of the scoff at this soirée.”
Kate folded her arms over her nearly concave abdomen, a bit off-kilter. Criminy! he looked like James Bond. “I’ll have you know I ordered the scoff for this soiree, though, personally, as far as shellfish goes…” She suppressed a cringe. “I’d rather eat angora.”
His brow rose imperiously, his gaze dipping well below her sightline. “I’ve always preferred a good Irish tweed, myself,” he said, his voice thick and brandied. “A bit of a chew at the onset, but always a smooth finish the next morning.”
A tiny snort escaped her and Kate was instantly mortified. But how could she be when his was so much louder. Then a second or so later they were both turning heads, laughing so hard the tray tilted and another Angel took the plunge, straight into the cuff of his trousers. He shook it off. “Mobile little bastards, aren’t they?”
Kate snorted again. “Oops. Better keep them going, then.” She slid the tray from him and into the hands of an awaiting attendant. “I’m so sorry about that.”
“Then prove it.” He smiled brilliantly. “Have dinner with me.”
Did he just say…? “What?”
“I know a place at the Seaport that serves up a loin of cod that will make the eyes roll back in your head.” He leaned in. “Or do you have a fabric analogy for that, too?”
“No. But—” Good Lord, her head was swimming. “I can’t. I have a class in twenty minutes.”
“A class?” He looked surprised. “A graduate student, then?”
Being thirty-seven and chair of the English department, she frosted a bit from the implication. “No. But I teach a graduate seminar on Faulkner.”
He inclined his head. “Consider it a compliment, Professor. You look like a schoolgirl.”
Was he kidding? “I could be teaching my own children.”
“Then these children of yours,” he said, moving closer, “must be prodigies.”
“These children of mine,” she countered, “are theoretical. But if they weren’t, of course they’d be genius.”
He laughed. “Oh, you are having dinner with me.”
Kate was honestly floored. Dinner with the man the whole campus was dishing about? And not because he was the Distinguished Visiting Professor, author of the ubiquitous, definitive text, Structures of Finance, who fielded the dozens and dozens of endowment chair offers like Oscar-winning actors picked through scripts.
Because this suavely handsome English academic reputedly possessed the sexual thirst of a pillaging Viking.
“But I don’t even know you,” she finally said, her pulse pounding.
“Geoff Wick,” he smoothly replied. “But I’m certain you already knew that.”
Right he was. About that and so many things. But—
“Well?” He gripped her hand, pulling her back to the present. “Don’t you want to marry me?”
Kate stood, crossing her tiny office to the window. Her answer should have been a mere formality since moving into his flat three months earlier. That is if Geoff’s upcoming sabbatical in Ireland hadn’t been hovering between them. No matter how neatly he applied the logic, his refusal to take her along still irked her.
Kate affected her best urbanity. “Why don’t we discuss it on the plane?”
He closed the jewel box with a slow, very audible sigh. Kate always thought it amazing how he could deflate his lungs yet pump his indignation in one seamless exchange of air. “All right then,” he said. “Go ahead and sell me on what you find so fascinating about start-up financing.”
“I don’t mean your factory tour. I’m talking about our going away together.”
“As we shall, but without the bonus ménage a trois of grad students, investors and plant managers. And when we do it’ll be called a honeymoon.”
She slid open the window, warm air seeping into the cool. “I’ll be half out of my mind by then. I mean, you’re the one who keeps—”
“Why are we thrashing this out again?” He swung her into his arms. “I would love to take you with me, but Christ, this isn’t a holiday. When I’m not out on field work, I’ll be writing to all hours of the night.” He kissed her neck. “And darling, you’re such a luscious distraction I’d damn well never make my deadline.”
His scent of sandalwood was now as familiar as ink and paper. “But I wouldn’t bother you, really. I could just sit in the hotel and read.”
“Then why go to Ireland when you can do that right here? Or even better, on the Vineyard?” He dropped his jaw in faux surprise. “Now, isn’t that an idea. You can go to the cottage and start planning our wedding!”
She yanked his impeccably-knotted tie. “Don’t change the subject. All I’m trying to say is lately my life is nothing more than a succession of similarities. I was just hoping for something different.”
“You?” He let out a bark of laughter. “Oh, don’t you dare go different on me! Next thing I know you’ll want to wear red at our wedding.” He smooched her cheek then plopped her doctoral tam atop her wildly-curling bob. “Christ, wouldn’t that be a howl? Proper little Dr. Kate dancing with Jonathan in a red dress.”
Her lips thinned sardonically. “I’m sure the sight of the university president in drag would be howl enough.”
This time he nearly lost it. “Riposte! Touché! Come here, you grammar goddess you.”
Then bang! bang! went a knock at her office door.
“Good Lord!” Kate cried. “We’re so late they’ve come for us. Geoff, you know I hate making the grand entrance.”
His thumb traced her lower lip. “If anyone knows how to slip in unobtrusively, darling, it’s you.” He flipped open the jewel box. “But I’m not letting you leave until you answer my—”
“Hello!” a man’s voice called.
“Thank you!” Geoff called back. “We’ll be there straight away!”
Silence, then, “Is Dr. Sickler in there?”
“Yes! We’ll be right down! Thank you!” Geoff took Kate’s hand. “Now, listen—”
“Dr. Sickler! Katherine Lynette Sickler? If you’re in there I need to speak with you! I’ve only got a few minutes and it’s extremely important!”
Kate snatched her hand back. “Katherine Lynette? Who is that?”
Geoff growled, snapping the box shut. “Some bastard with one god-awful sense of timing.” He dropped the jewel box into his pocket and set her behind him. “I’ll take care of this.” He went to the door and cracking it, hissed, “What?”
Fred Kirret gave his glasses an adjust. “I’m here for Dr. Sickler. May I speak to her?”
“Why?” Geoff answered, unmoved.
Fred craned his neck. “I’m sure you’ll find out if she decides to tell you. Now, she is in there, isn’t she?”
Geoff’s hand tightened around the doorknob. “I’m her fiancé and whatever it is you have to say you can tell me, or you can shove off.”
“Sorry. Can’t. It’s a legal thing.” He checked his watch. “Look, there’s some place I have to be real soon.”
“As I,” Geoff said, closing the door—
But was thwarted by Fred’s foot. “See? I knew there had to be a darn good reason for that party hat.”
Geoff yanked off his tam. “Listen, you little—”
“Geoff?” Kate said from behind.
Fred shoved inside. “Dr. Sickler, I presume?”
Kate slid Geoff a conciliatory glance. “Yes?”
He handed her a business card. “I’m Fred Kirret from the Philadelphia law firm of Bellows, Bellows, Arbuckle and Cinch. There’s a legal matter I need to discuss with you immediately. May we speak privately?”
“Dr. Wick is my….” She coughed, and he slipped a protective arm around her. “We have no secrets from each other. What’s this about?”
He squinted at Geoff then continued. “Correct me if I’m wrong. Your full name is Katherine Lynette Sickler and you were raised in Princeton, New Jersey, the daughter of Priscilla Rose Bennett?”
Her mother? Why was he…? “That’s right, although Bennett was my mother’s maiden name.”
Fred nodded. “Before it was Fordham, your real father’s name, and then Sickler, your stepfather’s.”
Fordham. She’d all but wiped it out. “What are you getting at?”
Fred leveled a tempering hand. “Bear with me, please. You’ll be happy you did. Now. Your father had a brother—”
“He did?” Geoff’s hold tightened as she felt herself teeter. “I didn’t—”
“You did.” Fred moved to Kate’s desk, setting his briefcase atop it. “Leo.”
“Leo…?” She forced herself to think. Leo. Maybe that would explain the fuzzy, disconnected images surfacing from time to time: sitting sprawl-legged in the dirt, a smiling man swiping her mouth. The same man slowly receding as she clutched for him, wailing inconsolably. “I recall someone, but I was never sure who.”
“But darling,” Geoff said, “you’ve always said you’ve no one in the world.”
“Because that’s what my mother always told me. I had no reason to believe it wasn’t the truth.”
“And it was,” Fred said, unsnapping his briefcase. “Only it was her truth, or at least what she wanted it to be.”
My God, Kate thought, I have family? A relation? Someone? “I have an uncle?”
“At least until recently.” His mouth crooked painfully. “I’m sorry.”
She felt a flash of anger; condolences seemed a bit cruel at this point. “When?”
“A week ago. The will’s going to probate Monday, so you can see why it was vital I reach you.”
Geoff said, “If it was so vital, why did you wait until he was dead?”
“A valid point, but I assure you there were circumstances precluding it.”
“Too complicated to go into at the moment.”
“Then spare us your feeble allusions and get to it!” Geoff snapped.
Fred leaned in and whispered to Kate, “Got a word for you—pre-nup. Call my office and I’ll set you up, pro bono.”
“Thank you, I’m sure, but he’s right,” she said dryly, her own voice sounding oddly disembodied. “We’re due outside for Commencement.”
Fred waved her off. “Let them wait. After today, they’ll be waiting on you.” He dug into his briefcase. “This is a copy of your Uncle Leo’s will,” he said, handing it to her, “along with his obituary and some press clippings you might find interesting.”
Kate stared at the scraps of newsprint. Cranberry King? Pinelands Conservancy Trust? She opened a fold of vellum sheets: THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF LEO WINSTED FORDHAM. “Good grief!” She turned to Geoff, who looked as befuddled as she. “What is this?”
“Your lucky day, I’m thinking.” Fred clasped his hands in front of him. “Dr. Sickler, as Leo Fordham’s executor I’m here to tell you as his only heir, you’ve been bequeathed the family farm and homestead in Bearberry, New Jersey.”
“Bearberry?” Geoff asked. “Where the hell is that?”
“In South Jersey,” Fred said. “The Pine Barrens, to be exact. Nice and woodsy and real country-like. Though this particular farm takes the concept of country a little more literally.”
“How do you mean?” Kate said.
“Well, let me put it this way. Even though the farm proper is a piddling two hundred acres, your Uncle Leo also left you the remainder of what the Fordhams accumulated over the last hundred and fifty years. Which, at fifteen square miles, ends up amounting to the largest undeveloped privately-owned tract of land in New Jersey.”
“Fifteen square miles?” Geoff said breathlessly. “In New Jersey?” He looked to Kate. “Even in this economy—Christ, it’s like giving you the keys to Fort Knox.”
“Maybe,” Fred continued. “But there’s a whole lot of people dying to know what you plan on doing with it. Especially Harry Mulliner.”
“Who?” asked a quickly-blanching Kate.
“Your next door neighbor. See, Harry’s swearing Leo promised to him. So I’m throwing a little arbitration party the day after Memorial Day because until then…” He snapped his briefcase shut. “Our boy Harry’s holding the whole shebang hostage.”
© Copyright Gwen Jones 2016 All Rights Reserved.