The Fifth Woman
“You told her we were married!?”
Ben’s sharp silence was the only answer Andrew needed. Without pause, Andrew cocked his arm and socked his younger brother square on the jaw.
“You didn’t hold up your end of the bargain!” Ben cradled his cheek. “What else was I supposed to do?”
“A white lie, Ben. White. Small. Some gentle shade of reality. Not this boldfaced monstrosity that will ruin us…unless you have a wife stowed in the carriage house I don’t know about.” Andrew massaged his knuckles while he paced.
“But the money,” Ben pleaded. “So help me God, the British PM isn’t swiping Mother’s fortune, too. And if I had to spin a small yarn to meet her stipulations then shoot me.”
Andrew tipped his hat to a pair of petticoats that tittered down the path before leveling a cold gaze at Ben. “Don’t tempt me.”
There was nothing genteel, or even fair, about Mother’s stipulations. But the daughter of a British earl couldn’t afford to pass her inheritance—with all of its pomp and press—to anyone but established progeny. And now, on her deathbed (bedecked with only the finest jacquard linens), Countess Elinor was ensuring her demands were satisfied before her quill flourished her Last Will and Testament.
Her sons had to be married to remain in the will. No exceptions, even if they were busy building a railroad empire “across the pond.”
Ben peeped between fingers. “She wants proof by the end of the month. A picture of our blushing brides.”
The other two brothers were no less livid when Brainless Ben shared his “small white lie.” A demanding partnership in accounting had halted Pete and Loman’s romantic endeavors as well. Of the five siblings, only George proved nonchalant, naturally, because Abigail, his bride of three years, was already pregnant. No sweat off his brow.
Three tense days slinked by as Mother’s deadline loomed.
And then Ben reappeared. This time with a cast.
“Utter that suggestion again, and I’ll personally torch your trousers,” bellowed Andrew. “And send them home!” He jabbed a shaking finger in the general direction of the photographer who was setting up in the drawing room, accompanied by the grocer’s daughter. The young girl suspiciously sported formal portrait attire.
“It’s foolproof, Andy,” Ben was giddy at his own ingenuity. “Sit Abigail in the portrait with a few of ladies from the town, like the grocer’s daughter, and Mother will never know the difference. Besides, she’ll be long gone before the news reaches England that we’re actually still bachelors.” Ben was practically giggling.
Despite the plan’s brazen absurdity, Andrew felt his stomach lurch; the loss of Mother’s wealth would cripple the entire family.
The front door banged open to admit a breathless Pete, followed by a rather red-faced young lady in crinoline.
“I found Belinda!” he panted. “And she’s in!”
The confused young lady smiled nervously. “Always happy to model my broaches for photographers.” She referenced the hideous gold vine nestled precariously near her neckline.
Andrew spun on Ben. “You dragged Pete into this debacle?”
“Hey, brother, our inheritance is at stake.” Logan’s matter-of-fact tone announced his arrival on the scene. And, not surprisingly, the arrival of Daniella, the butcher’s dopey-eyed teenager, whose plum dress looked two sizes too big on her boyish frame.
Andrew slumped onto the ottoman.
The photographer’s polite cough broke the silence. “My apologies, gentlemen, but I have a firm appointment with the congressman’s wife at 2 p.m., which is in exactly 28 minutes. If you can’t gather your party, I’ll have to reschedule for late next month.”
Panic ensued as Ben dispatched the other three brothers to locate just one more willing lady, preferably with a pressed formal day suit in tow.
The clock ticked loudly against the drawing room wallpaper…1:41 p.m. 1:48 p.m. 1:54 p.m.
As the clock struck 2:04 p.m., the four brothers stumbled through the front door, empty-handed and defeated, envisioning their inheritance trickling into the hands of the greedy British PM.
Andrew, now alone, whistled cheerfully while straightening the settee. Wordlessly, he turned to his four siblings and handed them a single object: the completed portrait of not four, but five ladies taken just minutes ago in his drawing room.
The brothers gaped at the photograph.
“But…” Ben grasped for words. “There wasn’t a single woman to be found anywhere in this neighborhood! Who was the fifth woman?”
Andrew simply smiled and strode from the room, tossing what appeared to be (Was it? Yes, it was!) a woman’s wig on the settee.
The brothers’ eyes widened as they recognized the face of the fifth lady in the back of the portrait. Thin, masculine cheekbones bore an unmistakable resemblance to their own facial structures.
Let Andrew keep his dignity, shall we? I won’t tell if you won’t.