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Tis The Season To Be Sinful
By Adrienne Basso
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Adrienne Basso
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEngland, Spring, 1858
Richard Harper was late. His appointment with the land agent was set firmly for one o'clock, yet that hour had come and gone and the train upon which he sat was now stopped dead on the track. Ten miles from the station, according to his secretary, John Barclay.
"The conductor assures me the train will be moving within the hour," the secretary said as he removed a white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his damp brow.
Richard leaned forward in his seat, his sharp gaze piercing his employee. "Which hour, Mr. Barclay? This or the next? We have already been sitting here for two."
The secretary tugged at the collar of his shirt, running his index finger around the upper edge. "Why, I'm certain he meant this hour, sir."
"It's never wise to make assumptions, especially when dealing with unpleasant news." The practiced calm of Richard's voice did little to dispel the tension in the air. "Have you finally been able to learn the cause of the delay?"
Mr. Barclay lowered his shoulders and sank deeper into his seat. "Sheep," he murmured softly.
"Speak up, please, Mr. Barclay."
The secretary managed to raise his voice, though it quivered slightly. "'Twas a herd of sheep, sir, that wandered onto the tracks. Fortunately, the engineer was able to stop the train before it struck them or else we might have been derailed."
Sheep? Richard bit back a smile. The exalted British railway brought low by a group of wandering livestock. Apparently it was not as infallible as its owners liked to boast. Richard stored that tidbit of information in his head, predicting someday it might prove useful.
"The wayward animals explain why we stopped initially," Richard said, forcing his annoyance to cool. "The question remains why we are not yet moving. It certainly can't take this long to remove the sheep from the track."
The secretary shook his head, a small bead of sweat flying off his brow. "You are right, of course, sir. The track is cleared. However, there seems to be some difficulty in restarting the train's engine."
Interesting. Richard furrowed his brow, wondering how many other engines in the fleet were similarly affected. Certainly a better design would solve the problem. It might even be possible to modify the current engine, a cost-effective measure that would be easier to implement. And sell to the current owners.
Removing a folded sheet of paper from his jacket pocket, Richard swiftly scribbled a few notes. The delay was a vexation, to be sure, but might yet prove profitable in the end.
A successful American entrepreneur aching for a new challenge and intrigued with the idea of creating an international business empire, Richard had moved to London three years ago. Though hardly expecting to be welcomed with open arms, he was still surprised at the open disdain he encountered. Since he was considered by many to be an upstart, uncouth Colonist, Richard's progressive ideas had been met with skepticism and resistance.
A less determined man would have walked away, returning to the comfort and safety of America, where he was well respected, even admired. But it was not a part of Richard's nature to retreat. Fueled by the determination to stay in this land of his ancestors until he achieved his goal, he had simply worked harder until progress was made.
A lucrative mill deal, a consortium of investors organized to construct a new steel factory, the copper mining rights secured in an undeveloped area of Cornwall. The profitability of these ventures gradually elevated his status among several bankers and industrialists. It had also brought him to the attention of some aristocrats, who deemed trade beneath them but were not averse to investments that made substantial profits.
It was these men that Richard now courted; moving into this higher echelon of society had prompted this trip to the English countryside today. According to reliable sources, any successful businessman in England who wanted to be considered a gentleman owned a country estate.
These much-valued properties were acquired through marriage, or inherited, or built from the ground up to their owners' specifications. Having no time and limited social skills to acquire a proper wife, lacking any family connections that would enable him to inherit, and too impatient to wait while a manor house was constructed, Richard decided the simplest way to achieve this necessary acquisition was to purchase an established estate.
Alas, the task had proved more difficult than he'd first anticipated, for many of the finest homes were entailed, and thus unable to be bought outright. Honestly, no one but the British would create a legal device used to prevent an estate from being broken up and sold, or heaven forbid, descending in a female line.
The train lurched suddenly, a hiss of steam piercing the air. The cars chugged forward for a few seconds, then halted. Richard tried to temper his exasperated sigh, but Mr. Barclay clearly sensed his employer's agitated mood. The secretary shot to his feet. "I'll go check and see if I can discover what is now delaying us," he declared, before anxiously scampering away.
Frowning, Richard watched him depart. It was a useful thing, at times, to be feared, but he was finding his secretary's nervous manner and timid nature a bit grating. The man had been with him only a few months, and if his demeanor did not improve markedly, he might not be with him much longer.
Yet to be fair, Barclay had located the property they were to view today, demonstrating skill, intellect, and a devotion to his work. If the estate proved worthy and a deal struck, Richard vowed he would try to be more tolerant of the younger man's timidity.
Unexpectedly, the train once again lurched into motion, this time steadily gaining speed with each swaying movement. Richard held his breath, fearing a victorious celebration might doom the forward progress of the vehicle. His precaution proved unnecessary, for the train continued moving. Twenty minutes later they at long last reached the station, more than two hours behind schedule.
Barclay returned just as Richard was departing the railcar. The secretary directed him through the station to the paved drive where the land agent, Mr. Fowler, was waiting. He was a stout, middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a forthright manner.
Richard shook hands as they were introduced, then climbed into the waiting carriage. "I want to hear the history of the property and the lineage of its inhabitants, Mr. Fowler," Richard demanded, wasting no time with further pleasantries.
Mr. Fowler grinned and settled himself on the rear-facing seat of the open carriage, next to Barclay.
"It's prime real estate, Mr. Harper, I can assure you. The main house was built in the previous century by the Earl of Hastings as a gift for his second son and has been passed on through that line.
"Traditionally it is bequeathed to the oldest son of the current owner. If there is no male issue of that generation, then the manor reverts to the current earl's second son. It is one of the largest properties in the area, and the only one boasting a gilded, mirrored ballroom."
Richard almost smiled, trying to imagine himself hosting a social gala in such a formal, pretentious room. He could not. "Are there tenants on the property?"
"There are no tenant farms. The produce grown as well as the livestock raised are used by the household." Mr. Fowler cleared his throat. "I hope that won't be a problem?"
This time Richard did smile. He had no interest in playing lord of the manor. Besides, these days agriculture was hardly a profitable enterprise.
"If the property possesses the majority of my requirements, the lack of tenants will not deter my interest," Richard allowed, shrewdly knowing that to appear overeager would most certainly drive up the price. "Is the manor occupied?"
"Not currently. The owner, Mrs. Wentworth, is a widow. She and her children reside in the dowager house, which is several miles away from the main house."
Richard frowned, pondering the idea of a neighbor living so close. Privacy was a valued commodity, especially in a small community. Oh well, if he decided he liked the property, he would purchase the dowager house, too. That settled in his mind, Richard leaned back against the leather squabs, and for the first time since the train had halted so abruptly on the track, he began to relax.
The carriage traveled on a well-defined road, passing acres and acres of open fields, ripe for spring planting. After a few miles, a stone wall on the right came into view and began to meander alongside the road. Eventually it led to a pair of massive stone gateposts topped with snarling, foreboding lions. Richard immediately decided he liked the growling duo.
The black wrought-iron gates were drawn back, open wide in anticipation of their arrival. Ancient oaks bordered the drive, and Richard stretched his neck forward, curious to see what lay at the end of it.
The sight did not disappoint him. Built of gray stone in the classic style, the manor stood four stories high, its glazed windows sparkling in the reflected sun. There was a wide, lush green lawn leading up to the house, dotted here and there with magnificent trees. Fanning out behind the house on both sides were formal gardens, colorful and stately.
The overall effect was stunning. It was picturesque, elegant, and beautiful. Richard's heart began to beat a little faster. This was precisely what he'd pictured in his mind when he thought of a proper gentleman's country home.
"What is the property called, Mr. Fowler?" Richard asked.
"Highgrove Manor, sir," the land agent replied.
Richard nodded. The name suited. He glanced again at the stately manor and his mood improved, knowing the earlier frustrations of the trip would not be in vain. Unless the interior was in total ruins, he was going to buy the place.
The carriage rolled to a quiet halt and the three men exited. Up close, the front of the house was even more imposing. The main entrance, with its twin curving staircases dominating the front facade, was magnificent. Mr. Fowler led the way, opening the solid oak door himself, since there were no servants anywhere in evidence.
The foyer was a huge space of white marbled floors. A large chandelier with crystal swags and drops hung high overhead in the center of the room. Positioned directly beneath it was a round mahogany table with an empty urn set upon it. Richard supposed it was normally filled with flowers from the garden.
He took note of the paintings in gilt frames hung on the white plaster walls as they made their way across to the central staircase, deciding he would purchase them also, since they went so well with the rest of the decor.
"I want to see the bedchambers first," Richard declared, knowing they would be a good judge of the true condition of the house. The formal rooms seen by visitors would naturally be maintained to a higher standard.
"We can start by viewing the wing containing the master's chambers," Mr. Fowler replied readily. "Right this way, please."
They climbed an elaborately carved mahogany staircase. Once they'd reached the top, Richard found himself lengthening his strides to keep up with Mr. Fowler. For a short, heavyset man, the land agent moved quickly.
Richard narrowed his brow. Why the rush? Was the man trying to hide some imperfection or damage to this section of the corridor?
Deliberately slowing his pace, Richard turned to his secretary. "Make detailed notes as to what needs to be repaired, replaced, or improved. You should also include your own ideas and suggestions for correcting the deficiencies. I'll read your report later this evening."
Barclay nodded, hastily withdrew a fresh sheet of parchment from the leather folder he carried, then pulled a small pencil from his pocket.
Mr. Fowler was waiting at the end of the hallway, looking remarkably like a proud mother with a newborn baby. He smiled briefly, then dramatically opened a pair of double doors and ushered them inside. "The master suite," he announced.
Barclay gasped softly as he stared about the room in amazement. "'Tis fit for a king."
A king, indeed. The room made an instant impression. It was opulent, yet tasteful, a decorating feat considering its size and grandeur. Done in masculine shades of burgundy, deep browns, and antique gold, the space had a subdued, almost peaceful feel to it.
The furniture was antique and expensive, the thick carpets imported. A massive canopied bed, with heavily fringed burgundy velvet draperies surrounding it, was positioned directly in front of a long bank of east-facing windows, showcasing the magnificent views of the gardens and parkland.
In addition to the vast bedchamber, there was a dressing area, a private sitting room, and a private bath with piped water containing the largest tub Richard had ever seen.
As a general rule, Richard disliked grand, opulent surroundings, yet something about this chamber drew him. He could actually picture himself living here, could imagine himself in that bed, perhaps with a beautiful, naked woman by his side?
"As you can see, these chambers have recently been renovated," Mr. Fowler said, the sound of his voice breaking into Richard's erotic musing. "I believe Mr. Barclay had it right when he remarked these rooms are fit for a king."
"I am a Colonist, Mr. Fowler, as you can no doubt surmise by my accent. We disdain the idea of a monarchy."
Far from being offended, the land agent laughed. "Yet all men desire to rule their domestic domain, do they not? Even those born and raised in the Americas."
Richard reined in his smile. He ruled his business empire rather like a king, yet had not seen the need to live like one. Though raised in a struggling working-class family of very limited means, Richard had never confused the trappings of wealth with success. True, successful businessmen made money, but they did not always flaunt it in such an obvious manner. Yet was that not the very reason for buying this home? To fully showcase his success?
Mr. Fowler led them through the master suite into a wide hallway. A tall window of stained glass at the end let in a stream of sunlight that brightened the corridor. Richard assumed the sconces along the wall were used to illuminate the area at night and during rainy days. Seeing that the glass was cracked in one and chipped in another, he turned to Barclay, but the secretary had already noted the damage and was busy scribbling on his paper.
The door directly next to the master suite revealed another bedchamber, and the moment they entered it, Richard fully understood Mr. Fowler's comment about the master suite's renovation. This room clearly had not been touched—it was tired, old-fashioned, and in no way impressive. Wallpaper with red roses the size of a man's fist covered the walls, and long silk drapes in a matching shade of scarlet red hung on the two sets of windows.
The next bedchamber was a slight variation of the first, this one featuring yellow daisies. A third had violets and climbing ivy, the fourth pink tulips. The colors were striking and overbearing—Richard could not help wondering how anyone was able to sleep peacefully among so much rioting color.
Clearly, the same individual who had designed the master's chambers had not been allowed to work in these rooms. None were to Richard's taste and he wondered how his potential business associates would react if they were forced to sleep in a garden. Their wives would probably not object, but Richard did not anticipate entertaining often with wives along.
By necessity, the manor house would be a masculine retreat, filled with the manly pursuits of fishing and shooting, business deals discussed while playing cards, then solidified over billiards and brandy. Lacking a wife meant there was no hostess to organize the proper sort of distractions that women enjoyed.
Richard smiled inwardly, fancifully wondering how Mr. Fowler would react if asked about a wife being included with the property. Provided the woman was sensible and refined, that addition would make this the perfect manor house indeed.
Excerpted from Tis The Season To Be Sinful by Adrienne Basso Copyright © 2011 by Adrienne Basso. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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