Read an ExcerptHow to enjoy a scandal
By Adrienne Basso
Copyright © 2008 Adrienne Basso
All right reserved.
Yorkshire Countryside, England Early Summer, 1817
"We are nearly there, my lord. Do you wish to remain inside the coach or would you prefer to finish the journey on horseback? I can instruct the coachman to pull to the side of the road so your horse may be unhitched from the rear of the carriage."
Jason Barrington slowly raised his left eyelid and glared at his valet, Pierce, who was sitting on the red velvet squabs opposite him. Though he had been drifting awake from his dreams, Jason had missed neither the sarcasm in the servant's voice nor the condescending manner in which the words were nasally spoken. My lord, indeed.
If not for the fact that Pierce could tie the most intricate cravat imaginable, shine a pair of Hessians until you could see your reflection in them and shave a jaw so close it was lacking in even a hint of whiskers, Jason would have sacked him years ago.
"I shall stay inside the coach, Pierce." Jason tapped the roof of the carriage with his fist, effectively slowing and then stopping the vehicle. "However, you shall ride atop the box with the rest of the servants. I am sure John Coachman will appreciate your congenial companionship for the remainder of the journey."
Now it was Jason's turn to be sarcastic. The coachman and valet were hardly companions. They tolerated each other, as upper and lower servants were required, but mostly tried to stay out of each other's way.
"I am certain the fresh air will invigorate my spirits, my lord," Pierce replied. The valet sniffed with a faint air of disapproval that belied his words and Jason felt a flash of guilt.
It was wrong of him to punish Pierce because the man was a stickler for propriety and possessed in abundance what Jason admitted he himself lacked-a conscience. Truth be told, Jason was not a lord. He was the son of an earl and the brother of a viscount, a man raised in wealth and privilege, but lacking a title, as was the case with most younger sons.
However, in this case, being a younger son was a consequence of mere minutes instead of years. His identical twin brother, Jasper Barrington, Viscount Fairhurst, was born seven minutes before Jason. Throughout the years, especially when they were youngsters, the twins had enjoyed switching places, playing pranks and fooling others with regards to their identity.
Yet this time, Jason had not set out with the intention of impersonating his brother. He was traveling north to Jasper's estate in Yorkshire, and at his brother's request was using the viscount's coach, with the Fairhurst coat of arms etched prominently on each carriage door.
It was therefore a perfectly honest mistake for the innkeeper at their first stop to assume he was in truth the viscount. Jason was unaware of the confusion at first, but the quality of service he received at that establishment left him inclined not to correct the mistake. Nor to deny it at the next inn or the next, and thus he had spent the past week and a half of his journey to the north country as a "viscount."
The rest of the servants that made up their small traveling party thought it a great lark. Except for Pierce.
"Do you know why I am going to my brother's estate, Pierce?" Jason asked his servant.
The valet, who had been in the process of donning his cloak in anticipation of leaving the comfort of the carriage, even though it was summer and fairly mild, halted.
"I am certain it is none of my concern," he replied, infusing a bit of backbone into his already-stiff spine.
"True, but that does not mean you cannot be curious about the matter."
Feeling magnanimous, Jason tapped on the roof of the coach a second time and signaled that they should continue. Pierce's face took on a more relaxed expression when he realized he would be spared from riding atop the vehicle.
"Since your brother rarely visits his estate, I assumed your trip somehow involves a task Lord Fairhurst has asked you to undertake. Is that incorrect?" Pierce finally asked.
"Yes. There have been problems at the estate that my brother has been unable to solve. Serious problems." Jason shook his head. "It appears that someone has been helping themselves to a large portion of the estate's profits."
"Thieving?" Pierce's thin, pointed chin lifted in indignant shock. "'Tis appalling. They should be sacked immediately. And then arrested."
"They will be," Jason said in a confident tone. "Once they are caught."
Jason glared at his servant and the valet had the grace to look slightly embarrassed.
"Do not underestimate my abilities," Jason said lightly. "When I was a mere lad of twenty-two I rescued my sister, Meredith, and two other young noblewomen from certain death."
"I have heard a thing or two of that tale," Pierce admitted. "Even though the incident took place the year before I came to work for you."
"Saints above, you have been with me for six years?" Jason grunted out a small snort of laughter. "It seems longer."
The valet sniffed. "For both of us, my lord."
Jason grunted again, then turned his head and stared out the window into the depths of the green, rolling countryside and the heather-covered moorlands. But he saw none of the bounty and beauty spread before him. His mind was racing, his stomach churning with memories that his disturbing dreams had evoked.
Elizabeth! It had been a very long time since he thought of her so intensely, yet for some reason she had been on his mind constantly since this journey began. Years ago he had fallen in love with her the very moment he had set eyes upon her delicate, blond beauty. Newly arrived from the country, she was sweet and naive and refreshingly honest.
That memorable Season he had eagerly attended any London event where she appeared, always braving the wrath of her fiercely protective older sister, who acted as her chaperone. Each conversation, each dance, each stolen moment had put him further under her spell and she had unknowingly and unintentionally captured his heart.
Through skill and luck and sheer determination, he had been able to save Elizabeth, along with her sister, Harriet, and his sister, Meredith, from the clutches of a madman. Yet from that moment, the sweet, delicate Elizabeth had forever associated him with that horrible incident and was unable to bear the sight of him.
He had wanted her for his wife, yet she could not tolerate being in the same room with him for more than a few minutes. She had sobbed and begged his forgiveness, had asked with embarrassed honesty for him to try and understand. Given no other choice, he was forced to leave her alone. As the years passed, he eventually came to understand that she had not meant to wound him, that she was sincerely sorry she lacked the ability to alter her feelings.
Yes, he understood. He even managed to forgive. But he never forgot.
Elizabeth's rejection had bled his heart, had crushed Jason's spirit, had left him feeling every sting of hurt that an unfair and unjust world could produce. He could still remember the wave of nausea that had rolled through his stomach when he finally admitted to himself that Elizabeth would never change her mind about him. The pain had unleashed his volatile nature, had made his already outrageous behavior even more daring, more reckless, more scandalous.
Within a month, he had been embroiled in a notorious affair with a very married, and much older, duchess. The following month it had been a famous Italian opera singer, who was soon replaced by a recently widowed marchioness. As the years passed, the names and faces, hair and eye color, size and shapes of Jason's female companions began to change with the same regularity as the seasons.
And he never thought about marriage again.
"The driver has signaled that Moorehead Manor is within his sights."
Pierce's voice drew Jason away from his melancholy reflections. He blinked his eyes and focused as the estate came into view, realizing it had been years since he had last seen it.
The manor house sat at the bottom of a rolling valley, its red brick wings stretching across a wide expanse of open land. Windows glittered under deep dormers, and ivy clung to the walls like a green curtain. A formal rose garden lay to the south of the house, its beds a riot of yellow, red and pink.
The residence was surrounded by acres of rolling green fields and, beyond them, patches of dense green forest. From what Jason could see, the crops looked tall, lush and healthy. By all accounts, this was a well-maintained and profitable establishment. Yet the funds deposited each quarter from the property had steadily dwindled over the last year.
"Shall I continue to address you as Lord Fairhurst once we arrive at the manor house?" Pierce asked, as the carriage swung down the gravel drive and sedately approached the manor.
"Yes." Jason, who had been mulling over the idea the entire morning, made his decision quickly. It would make his investigation easier if the household believed he was the viscount. "Do I look the part?"
The valet cast a critical gaze over his employer, who was dressed in dove-gray breeches and a bottle-green coat that set off the flecks of emerald green in his eyes. A crisp white cravat, starched and intricately tied, a silver threaded embroidered waistcoat and a spotless white shirt completed the ensemble.
"A man's breeding cannot be bought with expensive fabrics nor elevated unduly by an expert tailor. In the end, blood will tell." The servant brushed a small piece of lint from Jason's coat sleeve. "You look splendid, my lord."
There was no sarcasm this time, merely an honest assessment, with a dash of flattery thrown in for good measure. After all, Pierce was a man who understand which side his bread was buttered on. Still, Jason felt more at ease knowing he had his valet's support.
He stepped out of the coach, but before he had two feet firmly planted on the gravel drive, a middle-aged man rushed forward. From the detailed description that Jasper had given him, Jason knew it was the estate's steward, Mr. Cyril Ardley.
"This is an honor, as well as a pleasant surprise, Lord Fairhurst." The steward bowed low. "Though if we had known of your impending arrival, the staff would have had the opportunity to prepare a special welcome."
"Ardley." Jason ignored the comment, angled his left eyebrow and narrowed his gaze, in what he knew was a perfect imitation of his twin brother. The lack of notice that he was visiting the estate had been deliberate. Far better to catch everyone unaware.
The steward was a man of average height, with gray hair and sharp, dark eyes that regarded everything with keen scrutiny. He did not back away from Jason's narrowed gaze, but instead met it head on. The steward was both Jasper and Jason's key suspect regarding the missing funds from the estate and in that moment Jason knew he would prove a worthy adversary.
Ardley strode forward and held open the manor's front door. With a nod of thanks, Jason stepped inside to a dim and cool hall that stretched to the back of the house. A gallery ringed it, the intricately carved woodwork dark and shining and smelling pleasantly of beeswax. On the stone floor of the hall stood at least twenty servants, divided equally in two neat lines, their eyes turned curiously in Jason's direction.
He acknowledged the butler, housekeeper and cook first, pleased he was able to correctly ascertain their positions from their clothing. Then, feeling ridiculously like the returning prodigal son, Jason made his way slowly down one line and up the other, smiling and nodding a greeting to each and every one of servants. Thankfully, it had been at least three years since his brother had visited the estate, so there was no expectation of him knowing any of the lower servants by name.
When he was finished, Jason announced he would retire to the drawing room to relax after his journey. He graciously accepted the housekeeper's suggestion of a light meal and instructed that it be served to him informally in the drawing room.
Fortunately, the manor house had a traditional configuration, with the drawing room on the second floor. Jason was able to find his way without escort, though a footman eagerly dogged his steps, awaiting his command. He shooed the eager young servant from the room and collapsed into a horsehair stuffed chair, which he soon discovered was stiff and uncomfortable.
Rising from the chair, Jason elected to pace the room instead, feeling a bit cramped from sitting so many hours in the coach. He located a decanter of whiskey and helped himself to a sizable glass while awaiting the arrival of the aforementioned light meal.
Through the window he could see the walled garden, with its many rosebushes, neat paths and swaths of rambling wisteria. A pretty sight, if one enjoyed flowers. And the country. Two things of which Jason had never been especially fond.
He turned away from the pastoral scene and took in the furnishings of the drawing room. Jason had no strong recollection of the estate, though he had visited it on more than one occasion when he was younger. Perhaps knowing it would one day belong to his brother played a part in his lack of memory, but as a rule Jason was uninterested in houses or decor.
The drawing room was a good size, fitted with fine French antiques, accented with several long windows allowing in the natural light. Those many windows were dressed in long silk yellow draperies and the upholstered furniture scattered throughout the room was adorned with floral patterns in dominant shades of yellow. Even the lush Aubusson carpet in the center of the room featured an intricate weave in complementary shades of yellow.
Clearly whoever had outfitted the room had an unusual preference for any shade of yellow. Or perhaps an unnatural affinity for butter? Whatever the reason, Jason promptly decided if he spent too much time in this room his complexion would take on a very sallow hue.
Laughing quietly to himself at his foolish joke, Jason finished his drink, then poured another. He sat on several of the chairs and couches, relieved to finally discover one that wasn't so damn uncomfortable. As he sipped his whiskey and mused over the unappealing color scheme of the room, the door opened. Expecting the servants with his food, he turned his head slightly.
"My lord!" A large-bosomed woman with glossy dark hair cut short and curling around her face entered the room and hurried toward him. He rose automatically to his feet, hoping against hope that this was not someone he was supposed to know.
Fooling the servants would not be too difficult, but impersonating his brother to the local gentry might turn out to be a bit more tricky than he had first imagined.
"Good afternoon." He bowed low at the waist and gifted the middle-aged female with a dazzling smile.
"Oh, my." She paused, momentarily seeming to forget her purpose, but she soon regained her composure and smiled. Very broadly.
Jason felt a trickle of alarm bolt up his spine.
"Do forgive this impromptu call, but we stand on far less ceremony here in the country than in Town," she said.
"Oh, gracious." The woman tittered, then held up her hand to her mouth as if trying to stop her giggles. "I fear you will think me terribly forward by presuming upon our previous acquaintance, my lord."
Damn! He was supposed to know her. "In my experience, a beautiful woman can never be too presumptuous," Jason replied in a charming, seductive tone.
Her eyes widened like two saucers and a hint of curiosity entered her expression. "Goodness, you have become quite the charmer these past three years, Lord Fairhurst."
Jason's smile froze on his face. Bloody hell! He had been here less than an hour and already he was giving himself away. His twin was far more restrained around everyone, especially women. If he had any hope of successfully keeping up this masquerade, he would do well to remember it.
"It must be the country air causing my frivolity," he said hastily. "So much more informal, as you said."
The woman nodded. A light knock sounded at the door and Jason beckoned the footman into the drawing room. The young man was pushing a serving cart crowded with silver-covered dishes.
Excerpted from How to enjoy a scandal by Adrienne Basso Copyright © 2008 by Adrienne Basso. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.