Tis the Season to Be Sinful by Adrienne Basso by Adrienne Basso - Read Online

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Tis the Season to Be Sinful - Adrienne Basso

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Chapter 1

England, 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.

After seeing the remaining bedchambers, which though mercifully lacking floral wallpaper, were in contrast Spartan and dull, they returned to the main floor. It took nearly an hour to tour the various drawing rooms, dining room, breakfast room, morning room, music room, conservatory, and of course, the infamous mirrored ballroom.

Mr. Fowler ended the tour in the peaceful booklined study, the dark wood paneling a soothing balm to the senses. Richard settled himself in one of the two wingback chairs set in front of the unlit fireplace while the land agent poured drinks.

Tell me, Mr. Harper, what is your impression of the property? Mr. Fowler asked as he placed a crystal glass of whiskey in Richard’s hand.

It has potential, I think, though clearly a complete renovation is required in several rooms. The Egyptian drawing room comes instantly to mind, as do all those floral bedrooms. Richard smiled faintly and took a gulp of his drink. I am, however, willing to increase my offer if certain pieces of furniture and other items remain.

No need for that, Mr. Harper. The terms of the lease state that the house is to be rented exactly as you see it, with all furnishing and housewares included, right down to the pots and pans.

Lease? What sort of underhanded tactic was the man trying? I have no interest in a lease, Richard stated as he unclenched his jaw. I want to own this estate, Mr. Fowler.

Looking flustered, Mr. Fowler lowered his gaze. I’m afraid there has been some misunderstanding. The property is to be rented, Mr. Harper, not sold.

Barclay let out a high-pitched, inarticulate squeak of dismay. "No, no, no! Mr. Fowler, I distinctly remember informing you in my correspondence that Mr. Harper desired to purchase a property. Never once did I suggest he would be willing to lease one."

The land agent’s face tellingly flushed red. This is the only property in the entire county that comes close to meeting your needs, he countered. Better to lease than not find anything at all.

Barclay sputtered with indignation and began searching through the papers in his leather folder, no doubt looking for a copy of the letter that would prove his point. Unperturbed, Richard took another sip of the excellent whiskey. There were many advantages to being wealthy, chief among them the distinct benefit of getting your own way. In all matters.

I am aware that there are two mortgages on the property and the fact that it is not currently occupied suggests the lack of funds to maintain it. With the right approach, I am certain the owner will be amenable to a sale, Richard declared confidently. As you so aptly put it, Mr. Fowler, this property meets the majority of my needs. And now that I’ve seen it, I fully intend to own it.

I’m going for a walk up to the main house, Mrs. Perkins, Juliet Wentworth announced as she strolled into the cozy kitchen. Would you mind terribly keeping an eye on Lizzy while I’m gone? I shouldn’t be away for more than a few hours.

The housekeeper, who also did the majority of the cooking for Juliet and her family, nodded. I won’t mind a bit. Take all the time you need.

A walk, Mama?

Juliet gazed down at her four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, affectionately known by one and all as Lizzy, and smiled. The child had the same wispy honey blond hair and impish grin as her father, and Juliet’s heart melted nearly every time she looked at the little girl’s sweet face.

Born five months after Henry’s death, Lizzy had been the baby girl they had both prayed for, the missing piece needed to complete their happy family. Her birth had been a day of bittersweet joy, adding another dimension of cruelty to Henry’s untimely death, knowing he would never see the child he had wanted so much, never even know of her existence.

Yes, dearest, Mama is going for a walk, and while I am gone, I need you to be a grown-up girl and stay with Mrs. Perkins, Juliet said as she gently stroked the curls on Lizzy’s head.

The child’s face contorted into a frown. I want to go, too.

Not this time, Pumpkin, Juliet replied firmly, but truth be told, she was starting to waver. It was always so difficult to refuse Lizzy anything, especially when her bottom lip began to quiver.

Yet Juliet knew her errand today needed to be accomplished as swiftly as possible, and bringing Lizzy along would definitely slow her progress. She was heading to the main house, to inspect the cleaning done earlier in the week and perhaps arrange a few bouquets of fresh flowers if she could find enough blooms in the gardens.

After waiting almost a year for a possible tenant to occupy Highgrove Manor, Mr. Fowler was bringing someone to view the property tomorrow afternoon. Finally! According to the land agent, the gentleman was a prosperous American businessman. Truthfully, Juliet didn’t care if he was an Arab sultan with three wives as long as he signed an agreement and paid the rent on time.

The initial qualms she had experienced when she approached Mr. Fowler about renting the manor had significantly dwindled, along with her very meager bank account, over the past few months. Collecting a sizable rent on the property would solve a great many of Juliet’s financial woes, and for that reason alone she wanted the house looking its best.

Don’t you fret about Mama, little lamb, Mrs. Perkins said soothingly as she carefully pried Lizzy’s fingers off Juliet’s skirts. I’m going to start making the meat pies for supper and I need a helper. But my helper needs to be a big, strong girl.

I’m strong, Lizzy piped up enthusiastically, turning away from her mother. I can be the helper.

Wonderful! Now go and get your apron and we’ll tie it around your waist, Mrs. Perkins instructed.

The moment Lizzy rushed off to find her apron, Juliet slipped out the kitchen door, mouthing a silent thank-you to Mrs. Perkins as she took her leave. The woman really was a treasure. For Lizzy, any occasion to put her hands in something, be it dough or mud, was an opportunity not to be missed. Thanks to Mrs. Perkins’s quick thinking, the little girl would be far too content to take much notice of her mother’s absence.

Confident that her child was in good hands, Juliet donned an old straw bonnet to shield her fair complexion from the sun and took off at a brisk pace. She followed the path behind the kitchen garden, pleased to see green sprouts shooting through the dark soil. It had been only a week since she and the children had planted those neat rows.

The fresh vegetables would be a welcome change from the monotony of produce their root cellar provided. Even better, consuming fresh greens would ease some of the household expenses. It seemed that these days the boys were always hungry, always looking forward to their next meal. Gracious, their appetites increased almost as fast as their shoe size!

Once beyond the garden, Juliet hurried past the dining room, where her two sons, Edward and James, were having their afternoon lessons. Since the dowager house had been constructed with the assumption that it would be occupied by an elderly widow, there was no nursery or schoolroom or, for that matter, no proper library or study.

By necessity, lessons were taught at the dining room table. Juliet peered through the draperies covering the long windows and caught a glimpse of the boys huddled at the mahogany table, their heads bowed as they labored over their work. Their tutor, Mr. Bates, was pacing behind them. In his right hand, he held a long ruler, which he periodically slapped against his beefy thigh.

Juliet shuddered. Her boys looked so painfully young, so innocently vulnerable. She did not like Mr. Bates, or his strict, overbearing rules. He was far too quick to rap the boys’ knuckles or strike the backs of their heads with the palm of his hand. She had spoken to him on more than one occasion about his harsh treatment of her children, but he had simply sniffed at her and pointedly refused to change his methods.

Given the choice, Juliet would have gladly shown him the door. But the tutor was paid by her brother-in-law, the Earl of Hastings, and only he had the power to fire the man. Her chest deflated as she recalled the numerous conversations she had had with the earl, trying to convince him to dismiss the tutor. Begging, pleading, crying, cajoling; no approach had made any impact.

Deep down, Juliet knew she should be grateful that the earl even bothered to fund his nephews’ education. Without it, her sons would have no chance at all of becoming gentlemen. Yet somehow she could not.

Henry had been a kind husband, with a sunny outlook and an easy manner. His brother was the complete opposite—cold, reserved, and dictatorial. Juliet was convinced the earl’s grudging, miserly support of her and the children stemmed as much from his frugal nature as his need to