It was the fashion during the Regency era to hire a house for the season in Mayfair—the heart of London’s West End—at a disproportionately high rent for sometimes very inferior accommodation. But Number 67 Clarges Street, a town house complete with staff, has remained vacant season after season, as the history of the house and rumors of bad luck dissuade potential renters . . .
Salvation seems to come at last in the form of Mr. Roderick Sinclair, who has confirmed his intentions to let the house for the season. The servants are overjoyed—until they find that Mr. Sinclair is a terrible miser and is planning no parties. Furthermore, his ward, Fiona, seems not to have a bright idea in her head. But Rainbird, the clever and elegant butler, plots with Fiona to bewitch, bedazzle, and confuse the earl into seeing things their way . . .
“A romance writer who deftly blends humor and adventure.” —Booklist
Previously published under the name Marion Chesney
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An unforgiving eye, and a damned disinheriting countenance.
— Sheridan, School for Scandal
Far away in another part of the British Isles, however, events were taking place that would change the fortunes of Number 67 Clarges Street.
It had all started at the end of February when Mr. Roderick Sinclair, a retired Scottish lawyer, learned the glad tidings of the death of his brother, Jamie.
At first, Mr. Sinclair could hardly believe his luck. He was a fat, jovial, slovenly man, a bachelor, who had retired five years before to enjoy the remainder of his days in drinking away his savings. Mr. Sinclair fully expected to die before he reached the age of sixty. But his sixtieth birthday had come and gone, leaving him in a small apartment in the Royal Mile in Edinburgh with very little money left and the prospect of the workhouse before him. His brother, Jamie, a wine merchant, had saved all his life, only grudgingly parting with any penny. In this way he had amassed a great fortune and was as rich as Roderick Sinclair was now poor. Jamie had been tottering on the brink of death for years. Mr. Sinclair had waited so long for Jamie to cross over into the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns that he had quite given up hope.
But that very day he was on his road to see Jamie's lawyer, nursing a pounding head — for he had celebrated his brother's death up and down every tavern in the Old Town the previous night — determined to celebrate further with a restorative "meridian" — the traditional gill of ale that was drunk every morning in the taverns when the bells of St. Giles played out the half-past eleven. In fact, most of the citizens of Edinburgh drank from the gill bell to the drum that was sounded by the town guard at ten in the evening to warn all citizens to clear the streets and taverns and go to bed. The very fact that Mr. Sinclair still lived in the Royal Mile was a sign that he was slowly sinking towards the River Tick.
For the New Town, which had sprung up on the other side of the North Bridge, had gradually drawn all the gentry and aristocrats out of their crumbling, noisy tenements and set them up in stately mansions far from the bustle of the Mile or High Street, which ran from the medieval castle squatting on top of its fourteen-hundred-foot pile of rocks down to the Palace of Holyrood a mile away at the east end — hence the name, the Royal Mile. On either side of the Mile stood gloomy tenements, built as far back as the sixteenth century and compressing between them a dark maze of sloping alleys and courtyards as dreary as dungeons.
Mr. Sinclair could remember the days when the Mile would be crowded at this early hour with noblemen lurching homewards after a night's drinking at one of the Old Town's many clubs. But now only a few die-hard aristocrats remained. Most had learned to despise the democratic ways of sharing the same building with tailors and washerwomen, preferring to live on the other side of the green gulf that lay at the bottom of the castle rock where the New Town had sprung up.
How much had Jamie left? Mr. Sinclair picked his way through the filth of the pavement muttering sums of thousands and thousands of guineas over and over.
It was as he was passing St. Giles Church that his conscience smote him. His brother was dead, and he, Roderick Sinclair, had so far not shed one single tear. He tried to conjure up some fond thoughts of Jamie, and found he could not. Jamie, the elder, had always tormented him as a child. Jamie had married the only woman that Roderick Sinclair had ever loved by buying up the mortgage on her mother's house and threatening to evict her if she did not marry him. Her name had been Catherine Campbell, and Roderick knew to this day that Jamie had never loved her, but had wanted her only out of spite. Well, poor Catherine had died young and left Jamie childless. Bad cess to the man. He was better off dead.
Mr. Sinclair felt a sinister itching in his big toe. Gout! Ah well, with Jamie's money he would be able to afford the best of wines. Gout was surely caused by twopenny ale.
The lawyer's office was situated at the bottom of the Mile. Only when he was turning into the dark close that led into the building did Mr. Sinclair realise he should have changed his clothes. He had fallen asleep in a chair in the early hours of the morning, still wearing his old-fashioned chintz coat and knee breeches. A splash of ale marred his left stocking and his cravat was covered with snuff stains — somewhere during the merry roistering he had mistaken it for his handkerchief. He could only hope the lawyer would consider his dress a sign of extreme grief.
Patting his wig and settling his bicorne more firmly on his head, he climbed the noisome stairs, stepping over two peacefully snoring drunks.
The lawyer's name was Mr. Kneebone. Mr. Sinclair thought it a prodigious funny sort of name and considered cracking a joke until he saw the lawyer's ancient, funereal face.
"Come in, Mr. Sinclair," said Mr. Kneebone in sepulchral tones. "Aye, it's a sad day. Mr. Jamie was a kenspeckle figure in this town."
"To be sure, to be sure," said Mr. Sinclair, rubbing his hands and looking hopefully at the pile of parchment on the lawyer's desk. "You won't be wanting to prolong my grief, Mr. Kneebone, so I humbly suggest you begin reading the will right away."
Mr. Kneebone looked disapprovingly at Mr. Sinclair over the tops of his spectacles, gave a dry cough, and walked with maddening, creaking slowness round the other side of the desk and sat down.
Mr. Sinclair settled himself in a battered armchair by the fireplace and waited to hear the good news.
At first, he could not really take in what the lawyer was saying. It appeared Jamie had left such and such a sum to one obscure charity, and such and such a sum to another. Mr. Sinclair shook his heavy head like a bull plagued by flies as the reading of the will went on and on listing sums left to charities and no sound of his own name.
The sudden shadow of the workhouse seemed to loom over him. He interrupted the lawyer. "Ahem, Mr. Kneebone, does Jamie say naethin' about me?"
"Do you wish me to read only the bit that pertains to you?"
"Very well, although I thought that all of your brother's charitable bequests would interest you. A very charitable man. Let me see ..." He rattled the parchment while Mr. Sinclair waited in an agony of apprehension. "Ah, here I have it! 'To my profligate brother, Roderick ...'"
Mr. Sinclair flushed. "Aye was fond of a joke was Jamie," he mumbled.
"'To my profligate brother, Roderick Sinclair,' "went on Mr. Kneebone severely, "'I leave my ward, Miss Fiona Sinclair.'"
"Miss Fiona Sinclair."
"Who the deil's she?"
"If you had been in touch with your brother during the last years of his life, you would know that he took a young lady under his protection —"
"The dirty auld —"
"Mr. Sinclair! Mr. Jamie's motives were of the purest. The girl came from an orphanage of which he was one of the trustees."
"Well, let's hope he left me some money to look after her with."
"Not a penny."
Mr. Sinclair moaned and clutched his heart.
"I am afraid so. It was Mr. Jamie's opinion that you would drink yourself to death were you left any money. This Fiona has been taught God-fearing ways, and he considered her sobering company to assist you in your declining years."
"Brandy," whispered Mr. Sinclair.
"I do not touch or keep spirits. I can make you some tea."
"Tea!" screamed Mr. Sinclair, leaping to his feet. "Tea! I will tell you what you can do with your tea, sirrah! You can take your tea and ..."
Children crowded round the open doorway, laughing at the sight of the fat old man telling Mr. Kneebone to put his tea in a place where it would cause him great discomfort. Mr. Sinclair charged through them when he had finished abusing the lawyer and hurtled down the stairs, tears running down his fat cheeks.
All that long day, he cried and cried. By the time he had ended up in "the coffin," that long, narrow room in John Dowie's tavern, he felt he could cry no more. His mind was made up. He would have one more drink and then take himself home, sling his belt over the ham hook on the rafters, and hang himself by the neck. Having come to that decision, he sadly ordered a bottle of the best claret and proceeded to demolish it.
There were two advocates at the other end of the long table. They had a copy of the English newspaper, The Morning Post, and were discussing the social column. "We should hae been born women, Erchie," said one of them. "You only need to have a pretty face at the London Season and you can marry as much money as you want." They went on to discuss other items.
Mr. Sinclair finished his claret and lurched to his feet. His legs seemed like jelly, particularly the left one, which gave him a dipping sort of walk, but by feeling his way along the sides of the buildings with both hands above his head, rather in the manner of a mountaineer feeling his way along a high, narrow ledge in the Alps, he regained his own stair.
Hanging himself proved to be no easy matter. He was very drunk, although his brain seemed crystal clear. But he had double vision. And try as he might to sling his belt over the ham hook, he could not seem to pick the real hook out from the ghostly one, although he tried them both. He wondered vaguely if he might not have treble vision and if the real hook were hanging somewhere else.
He climbed down from the chair on which he had been standing to ponder the matter when there came a rattling at the tirling pin on the outside door. The idea of committing suicide without letting any of his drinking cronies know what he was planning to do suddenly seemed a weak sort of way to shuffle off this mortal coil, and so he tacked to the door.
He picked up a candle in its holder, vaguely noticing with some pride that his hand was rock steady, and swung open the door.
A vision of loveliness looked back at him. It curtsied low. It said in a sweet, lilting voice, "An it please you, sir, I am Fiona Sinclair."CHAPTER 2
Its very speed was a dangerous and heady novelty for the old-fashioned, and it was with some daring that people entered the vehicle which would take them swaying through the night at a speed of as much as fifteen miles an hour.
— F. George Kay, Royal Mail
Mr. Sinclair struggled awake next morning. He knew that something really awful had befallen him the day before, and for a while he was content to lie in his bed and stare at the ceiling and keep memory at bay. His mouth felt like a gorilla's armpit, and his forehead, like a furnace.
But at last the full enormity of Jamie's will crashed down on his tortured head. That Jamie, who had successfully kept up the appearance of being charitable all his life, getting himself elected to this and that board of orphanage or poor house without parting with so much as a farthing, should actually, finally, give it all away to charity out of sheer malicious spite was too much. Mr. Sinclair closed his eyes and groaned aloud.
And then a gentle hand bathed his fevered temples with cologne, and a quiet voice said, "Lie still, sir. I have made you a dish of tea."
Mr. Sinclair knocked away the hand and struggled up against the pillows. He could not remember getting to bed. He remembered opening the door to the prettiest female he had ever seen, and after that everything was blank. Now the lovely vision was sitting beside his bed. Roderick Sinclair blinked and looked again. It was hard to believe she was real.
Fiona Sinclair was a dazzling Highland beauty with a creamy skin and thick black hair that shone with blue lights. Her large eyes with their heavy fringe of lashes were grey, clear, silvery grey. She was wearing an old-fashioned gown with the waist where a woman's waist should be instead of the current fashion, which put it up under the armpits. Her waist was tiny, her bosom perfect.
"How did I get to bed?" asked Mr. Sinclair, saying the first thing that came into his head.
"You fell on the floor," said Fiona calmly. "I put you to bed."
Mr. Sinclair felt down his large body and found it clothed only in his dirty nightshirt. He blushed for the first time in years. "You've got a good back on ye if you could lift the likes of me," he said, trying to sound as hearty and avuncular as possible.
Fiona sat quietly, her hands in her lap. Her hands were long-fingered and very white.
How beautiful she is, thought Mr. Sinclair. How utterly useless! He could practically see the workhouse walls closing in on him. A thought struck him. "I'm surprised a lassie like you could make her way here without all the lads in Edinburgh sniffing at her heels."
"I covered my head and the most of my face with the hood of my cloak," said Fiona. "Mr. Jamie told me I was so ugly that people stared at me, and I do not like to be stared at."
"You're the most beautiful creature I've ever seen," said Mr. Sinclair bluntly. "Jamie must have wanted you for hisself."
A tiny frown marred the perfection of Fiona's brow.
"Never mind," went on Mr. Sinclair. "I have something to do that's private. Why don't you go back to my brother's?"
"I cannot," said Fiona. "The house was left to an orphanage, and so I was turned out."
"That's not possible," said Mr. Sinclair hotly. "The funeral's only tomorrow."
"Mr. Jamie told the orphanage that they might take over the minute he died. He told them I had been provided for."
"Oh, he did, did he?" snarled Mr. Sinclair. "What exactly was your relationship with Jamie?"
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
"To put it bluntly, were you substitute daughter or mistress?"
"Oh, no, I am too ugly to have deserved either position. Mr. Jamie told me so. He was rescuing me from myself. He said he saw harlotry in my eyes."
"He was looking in his ain mirror, the dirty auld miser."
"I beg your pardon?"
"God grant me patience. Look, I have very little money. I cannot keep you."
"Very well," said Fiona equably.
"So you will need to find work."
"Yes," said Fiona. She gave him a sudden, dazzling smile. Mr. Sinclair blinked.
The gill bell sounded. He had a longing to escape this problem, to go back to the tavern for one last meridian. Then he would need to send her away somewhere so that he could hang himself. He would scrawl a will on a bit of paper leaving her the apartment and its contents.
"Leave me," he said curtly. "Take away the tea. I am going to get dressed."
She rose, curtsied, and glided from the room. Mr. Sinclair wondered what she was thinking, and finally came to the conclusion that she thought about very little.
His clothes felt different. He realised his coat had been sponged and pressed and his shirt and cravat were white and crisp. How she had managed to achieve all these miracles during the night, he could not fathom. But his morale was rising with the unaccustomed feel of fresh linen next to his skin.
When he emerged from his bedroom, it was to find his small parlour shining like a new pin. The brass fender in front of the blazing fire shone like gold. The room smelled clean and fresh. In a sudden burst of gratitude Mr. Sinclair said, "Hey, lassie, put on your cloak and I'll take ye for a dram."
She obediently put on her cloak and then dragged the hood over her head so that it concealed most of her features.
"There's no need for that," said Mr. Sinclair. "Put your hood back. You are fair to look on."
"But Mr. Jamie said —"
"Tish! Cunning Jamie knew you were a diamond of the first water, but he didn't want you to know it."
Again, that puzzled little frown. But she obediently put back her hood. The cloak was an old, blue woolen one, but her dazzling looks seemed to turn the cloth to velvet. Mr. Sinclair felt his heartbeats quicken. It was decades since he had had a pretty woman on his arm.
Their progress down the Royal Mile caused a sensation. Men stood dead in their tracks and stared open-mouthed. Carriages jammed the narrow street. Drivers stood up on the boxes of their coaches and craned their necks for a last glimpse of Fiona Sinclair as she tripped along daintily by Mr. Sinclair's side.
The day was windy, but there was a faint, warm promise of spring in the air. Bursting with pride, Mr. Sinclair ushered Fiona into John Dowie's tavern.
Now, although quite respectable ladies had frequented the taverns in his youth, a new wave of gentility had put paid to such free and easy democracy, and there were only men in the narrow room when Mr. Sinclair entered with Fiona on his arm — men who rose to their feet.
"Sit down!" bawled Mr. Sinclair, embarrassed. "Have ye no' seen a lassie afore?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Miser of Mayfair"
Copyright © 1986 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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