S.J. Foxx © 2017
All Rights Reserved
One: Mahogany & Silk
The day was like smudged charcoal, and the sky poured with rain that hammered against a bottle green car roaring over the hills. In the back of the automobile, Hugo Bentley slumped lower in his seat, vastly unimpressed by his welcome to England. He pulled his fedora down over his face and closed his eyes against the waterlogged scenery.
Everything in this country, so he had heard, was miserable. From the stiff upper lip and cold shoulder the British were renowned for, right down to their lifeless taste in fashion.
The young man had left behind the buzz of New York City, where jazz filled the streets and pretty girls in cocktail bars wore feathers in their hair. He’d spent his nights in smoky halls with a cigar between his lips and a deck of cards in his hands. There he’d thrived amongst glitzy lights of Times Square, with wind in his hair as he hummed down the streets in the back of a Revere.
Life had been late nights and side-splitting laughter, with the occasional bottle of moonshine to pass around his circle of young educated men.
Unfortunately, Hugo’s hedonistic existence had been discovered by his enraged parents but only after it had been discovered by the press. The twenty-year-old heir to a steel business had been found in bed with the wife of his father’s business partner. A simple tip off to the papers had led to the devastation of the Bentley family’s hard-earned good name.
Sickened by the very sight of him, his parents had sent Hugo packing. They’d shooed him to the English countryside, where he could redeem himself under the watchful gaze of his aunt and uncle, Ethel and Henry Harrington. With their help, Hugo could learn a thing or two about being a gentleman.
With the bleak green backdrop of the moors replacing the distractions of a big city, his parents had decided it was the perfect location to stop Hugo from getting himself into trouble. This was his opportunity to fix things. He either straightened up his act, or he’d be cut off. He just prayed the Harringtons weren’t too awful.
Exhausted from his week-long trip, the lull of the motor and the drifting of his thoughts sent Hugo to sleep.
When he next woke, the sky had darkened into an indigo blue and the rain had subsided into a haze that made the air thick with a sticky moisture. He pushed his fedora back onto his head and turned his heavy-lidded gaze outside. The stark silhouette of Finchley Hall loomed in the distance, behind wrought-iron gates.
It was surrounded by endless green lands and a patch of woods that stretched out as far as the next village. It was a foreboding home with ivy garlands creeping up the pristine white walls. A great marble balcony overlooked the driveway with cascading steps that led to the front door, polished and black with a silver knocker in the shape of a lion’s head.
Potted trees, groomed to precision, were lined up like guardsmen alongside the gravel path. Hugo groaned and turned away. These were the types of homes that the prissiest, insanely wealthy people owned. Aunt Ethel had married well. He was certain her husband was going to be insufferable.
The car weaved around the stunning marble fountain, the soft sigh of the falling water a sweet song that resonated in the surrounding silence. They followed the gravel path and the car began to slow, tyres crunched over the stones until they stopped outside what was to be Hugo’s home for the next year.
On the flagstone threshold, a welcoming party waited to greet him.
“Welcome to Finchley Hall, sir,” a plump silver-haired man with a jolly face said as he opened the car door. Behind him stood servants. There were valets, footmen, and maids alike, lined up shoulder to shoulder like an army platoon, straight-faced and pristine. Hugo could only assume this man was their butler. Their commander in chief.
“Thanks,” Hugo replied flatly. Removing his hat, he ruffled up his sandy-blond curls and clambered out of the car with the help of a gloved hand, then turned his chin to observe the band of servants with interest.
Their uniforms were extravagant. The men wore white bow ties and beautifully tailored black tailcoats, with gleaming brass buttons. The valets wore forest green waistcoats, and the taller footmen wore grey. The maids were attired in simple black dresses and white aprons with ruffled edges, their hair pinned back into neat, simple buns.
The Harrington family appeared at the door then. First was Aunt Ethel, a mirror image of his mother, with copper curls all swept up into an elegant bun. She was a little thing with ivory skin and soft green eyes like his own. Her thin mouth pulled taut when she looked at her nephew.
“Hugo,” she said stiffly, as if the word tasted sour. She folded her arms across her chest and wrinkled her nose.
Hugo turned to look at her and glowered. Turning the rim of his hat around in his hands, he gingerly approached the grand prison. “Ethel,” he grumbled, equally unimpressed.
“Show some courtesy, boy.” Ah, and there was Uncle Henry, barrelling through the door shortly after his wife—a robust man who enjoyed one too many sweets. He had a hardened, weather-beaten face like tanned leather. The trenches had been hard on him.
“You’ve disgraced your family and gotten yourself into a damn mess, Hugo. We’ve been kind enough to take you into our home and this is how you greet my wife?” he scoffed.
“Henry, not out here on the balcony,” Ethel snapped. “The servants are listening. What is the matter with you?”
Hugo’s fingers tightened around the rim of the hat, and he straightened his back, drawing his shoulders in against his neck. This was the man who was supposed to help him become a gentleman? Goodness.
“Apologies, Uncle, Aunt Ethel. It’s been a long trip. Tiredness has gotten the better of me,” he said and pinched the bridge of his nose. He felt rather like a chastised infant.
“I won’t hear any excuses, Hugo. If we are to do this for you, you will show us the respect we deserve, or we’ll send you straight back home and you can forget about your damn future.” Uncle Henry’s big hands were turning white as they tightened around the balcony frame.
“Henry,” Ethel hissed.
“I understand. I meant no offence, honestly,” Hugo said. It was hard to try to keep his tone even, to keep the venom out of it. What a ridiculous overreaction.
His uncle looked back at him blankly, his gaze roaming across his clothes until his face wrinkled into a frown. “Funny choice of attire, no?” he grumbled, raising a brow, trying to change the subject, no doubt. Perhaps he could feel the beady eyes of his wife burning into his temple.
Hugo tugged at the sleeve of his mustard tweed travelling coat, grateful for the new direction of conversation. “Fashion is very different in New York, Uncle.”
“I’ll say!” Henry said, looking down at the hat he clutched to his chest too.
From the corner of his eye, Hugo caught the flickering expression of a servant, whose forehead creased and brows knit together, puckering up his face as though he’d bitten into a lemon. He was eyeing up his mustard tweed too.
Hugo met his gaze and the slightest hint of a smile lifted the footman’s mouth before he looked away.
His curly-haired cousin came bounding out of the door and hurried down the steps to greet him in the courtyard. She opened up her arms and wrapped them tightly around his shoulders, squeezing. Scrambling to try to reach, she pushed herself onto her tiptoes and planted a quick kiss on both of his cheeks.
“Dear Arabella.” Hugo gave her his best smile, rather cheered by the contrast in greeting. He took her by the shoulders and leaned back to get a good look at her. The only Harrington he’d previously met, she’d visited America with her maid a couple of times in the past. “Goodness, you shot up! You were the size of a bunny when we last met.”
“I’m a woman now.” She preened, giving a little twirl. Her coral dress fanned out, circling around her.
“You are not a woman until you find a suitable man willing to marry you,” huffed Aunt Ethel, shaking her head.
“I’m only sixteen, Mama! I don’t need to find a husband yet.”
Ethel only sighed. “Now, let us not dilly-dally outside, talking nonsense. Hugo has had a long trip. Edward will carry up your things, Hugo, and once you feel rested, we will introduce you formally to everybody else. For now, you only need to know Edward. He’ll be your valet for the duration of your stay, and Thompson, he’s in charge of the household staff.” Ethel gestured to the jolly-faced man who had greeted him.
Hugo’s gaze flickered back to that tall man with the mischievous smile, but it was the shorter man beside him who nodded his greeting.
Inside Finchley Hall, it smelled of polished wood and the greasy duck that was cooking away in the oven downstairs.
Chandeliers drenched in crystals hung from the wooden buttresses, and beneath them, a beautiful Persian rug filled the hallway floor space.
The grand staircase was carpeted in plush red, complemented by the wrought-iron banister, fashioned into curling roses that spiralled alongside the stairs.
Edward scurried up the stairs. He had a shock of blond hair, a button nose, and the mannerisms of a mouse. Edward showed him to his room without speaking a single word other than goodbye.
The last thing Hugo remembered was resting on his new bed with his sketchbook lying open in his lap, and what a lovely bed it was too, with silk sheets that felt like heaven beneath him. His head melted into the pillows, and before he knew it, he was being woken by a gentle tapping on the bedroom door.
Hugo lifted his head from the crumpled pillow and glared at the door in dismay. “Not now,” he said, voice crackling, still heavy with sleep. He turned over onto his side and closed his eyes again. It had been far too long since he’d slept in a bed as comfortable as this—one that didn’t shake and rock with the sway of the ocean. The last thing he wanted to do was move.
“Sir, dinner will be served in half an hour.”
“Wonderful,” Hugo said and pulled his pillow over his head, willing himself to nod off again. The valet outside his door continued on.
“May I come in, sir?”
“Oh, for goodness sake, Edward,” Hugo snapped, his eyes bolting back open. He squared his shoulders and sat up, rigid. “What for?”
“Well, to help you dress, sir.”
“I’m already dressed. Stop harassing me.”
Hugo ignored his babbling and flopped back down on the bed.
“That will be all, Edward.”
“That will be all!”
“Very good, sir,” Edward replied, defeated, and his footsteps faded along the corridor.
At eight, the knock came again. This time, Hugo was up and ready. He plucked his sketchbook from where it had fallen onto the floor and tucked it away beneath his pillows.
The door opened and his valet stepped hesitantly into the room. His eyes widened at the sight of Hugo, still dressed in his tweed jacket with tousled hair.
“Y-you’re going to dinner dressed like this?”
“I certainly am. Let’s not have this discussion again, Edward. Lead the way.” He gestured toward the door.
With a gulp, Edward nodded. “As you wish, sir.” He led Hugo down the stairs without another word, and Hugo followed, his eyes roaming across every piece of artwork and Chippendale furnishing they passed. The house was lit with the bright yellow hue of electric bulbs, a luxury that Hugo was not accustomed to.
He ran his fingers across the smooth oak wall panelling and poked his head into every room they passed on their way to the dining hall. Each one seemed to have a colour theme. A drawing room decorated in soft lemon and pastel yellows, with white blinds and beaded lampshades. The sofa full of floral embroidered cushions and throws.
Another drawing room, powder blue with oak furniture and the smell of old books. A cluttered bookshelf stood along the far wall and a wingback armchair sat before a fireplace, which would be a very cosy spot come winter, or summer, according to the orange cat curled up in it.
Finchley Hall had so many rooms, he imagined the Harringtons weren’t quite sure what to do with them all. There were more drawings rooms than he could count.
“A billiard room, complete with a bar. There is a library, sir. A study, ballroom, two dining rooms, a conservatory, and a dozen bedrooms,” Edward was saying, running out of fingers to count on. “Ah, but here we are, sir.”
At the end of the corridor, a set of open double doors led into the main dining room. The smell was divine—garlic and herbs and melted butter. This room was lit by candles that set soft shadows upon the walls and illuminated the Harringtons’ pale faces with an eerie glow.
A beautiful varnished mahogany table filled the space, set with two silver candelabras and crystal glassware.
Upon entering the dining room, the merry chattering of his family was instantly snuffed out into an awkward silence. Blinking eyes turned his way and Aunt Ethel frowned.
“Goodness. Did you lose your luggage?” she asked, pressing her hand against her chest.
Uncle Henry wore an equally displeased smile to match his wife’s, and Arabella, all wide-eyed, lifted her hand to her mouth to giggle into it.
Hugo paused in the doorway and looked down at his attire. “Uh…no?”
“But, you’re still dressed in travelling clothes,” Aunt Ethel grumbled.
The footman with the cocky smile from earlier pulled back his chair and gestured with a gloved hand for him to sit. His face was more composed now. A flat expression smoothed out his mouth, but his doe eyes still glinted with mischief.
Still frowning, Hugo sat down.
Aunt Ethel cleared her throat. “Is this how you dress for dinner in America?”
“We dress up for special occasions, sure. Is this one?” Hugo replied coldly.
She looked as though she had received the news of a loved one’s death. Quite a ridiculous reaction to a man who had dared not to wear a dinner jacket and slacks at the Harringtons’ dining table.
Uncle Henry put down his glass and sat forward in his seat. “In this country, you make an effort when having dinner with your family,” he huffed. “Bear that in mind next time you think it’s a good idea to dress like a tramp.”
Hugo sat back in his seat like a startled rabbit. “I don’t seem to be able to do anything right today. Fine. I won’t wear tweed to dinner again, if it means that much to you. Goodness.”
“Don’t start, Hugo. Just do as you’re told.”
“And next week,” he continued, “I have a friend visiting. A very good friend who has been helping me with our property business. Don’t behave like you did in America, no matter how much he’ll try to encourage you to.”
Hugo turned his gaze onto the table, observing the china, etched with intricate gold designs around the rim, and extravagantly arranged silverware, how it was laid out with such careful detail so that everything was designed into a symmetrical pattern.
Hugo reached out and gently nudged one of several forks out of alignment, and the footman flinched visibly. Hugo pressed his lips together and tried not to smile at the reaction.
With gentle encouragement from Arabella, he cautiously retold of his trip across seas and some of the uneventful details of his days on board. He talked about the food, the classical music that tinkled away in the music hall each evening, his seasick on-board valet.
He was careful to leave out the details of the gambling he’d gotten addicted to with the rich Europeans and the amount of money he had lost in several games of poker. He’d skipped over the details of the fun he’d had with an Italian aristocrat named Antonio, thoughts alone that would make him blush like a virgin at the dinner table, until at last, Thompson saved them by announcing that dinner was served.
Silver platters were carried in gracefully by gloved hands. An array of beautiful dishes that formed a feast of tender meats and vegetables. From the mouths of American soldiers, he had heard dreadful tales of British food, but they’d only had the experience of tinned beef and stale bread in the trenches to go off. Everything here looked and smelled beautiful.
The smirking footman dipped down to offer him a dish of potato dauphinoise. Not so British after all. Looking up, Hugo caught those soft brown eyes and he smiled.
“What’s your name?” Hugo asked.
“Sebastian.” He liked that name. “Is it good?” Hugo asked without thinking.
The question took the footman by surprise. He frowned a little and tipped his head. “Well, I wouldn’t know, sir. I have never tried it myself.” There was a hint of peppermint on his warm breath.
Hugo leaned closer.
“However, Mrs. Greene is a wonderful cook so I imagine it’s delicious,” he added as an afterthought.
“Well, if I don’t like it, you’re the one to blame then, eh?”
The tray began to tremble ever so slightly. “Did you want to try?” he urged, pushing the tray closer.
“Sorry. Yes. Thank you, Sebastian.” Hugo grasped the spoon and piled the potatoes high onto his plate.
Sebastian watched and cocked a brow. Leaning closer to Hugo until his lips hovered by his ear, he said, “There’s only one plate of this particular dish to go around, sir.”
Hugo only beamed and put the spoon back. “This one has personality—I like him.”
Dinner was a long affair—three courses and after-dinner drinks until Aunt Ethel was practically swaying in her chair. She and Arabella dismissed themselves to bed, leaving Hugo and Henry to retire to the library, where they consumed plenty of port and smoked cigars until they could barely see past their noses.
Henry’s booming laughter ricocheted around the room until Hugo’s head roared with a migraine. He rambled on about politics and current affairs in England that he felt that Hugo ought to be in the know about. Henry sat, balanced at the very end of the armchair, his black eyes glossy and unfocused.
His slurred conversation was mainly with the opposite wall, for he no longer attempted to look at Hugo, who had long ago stopped listening anyway.
At last, the man shifted his gaze from the wall, long enough to spot the clock on the mantelpiece. “Goodness!” he said so loudly that Hugo almost fell off his chair.
“Look at the time, dear boy! I’m off to bed; I will see you in the morning.” And with that, Uncle Henry managed to lift himself out of the chair and stagger blindly through the smoke and out of the library, leaving Hugo alone to mull over what the next year in England might have in store for him.
He lost track of how long he was slumped in the armchair with an unlit cigar dangling from between his lips. He swayed until the sound of movement along the corridor alerted him, and he stood swiftly from his seat. He swung out his arm as he turned to face the incoming intruder and knocked the glass off the table. It toppled and smashed to dust across the floor.
With a groan, Hugo looked down at the carpet, now oozing with a blood-red stain, as a figure appeared in the doorway.
“Everything okay, sir?” Sebastian’s voice floated into the room.
“Y-ye-yes, fine, just a little accident is all,” Hugo responded, waving his arm frantically, the cigar wriggling up and down in his mouth. He stared at the footman through drooping lids and gave him a sloppy smile of greeting.
“Oh dear,” Sebastian said, entering the room quickly.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed? Surely even the Brits don’t keep you up all hours of the night to wait hand and foot,” he huffed clumsily.
“Not usually. However with it being your first night, Mister Thompson asked me to ensure you were settled before I retired for the evening.”
“So why didn’t they send little Edward?”
“Edward has a headache, sir—Mister Thompson thought it best if he got an early night. Besides, he could also use the beauty sleep.” There went that lopsided smile again, tugging at the corner of his mouth, strong jaw line twitching slightly.
There was something about him that reminded Hugo of Greek mythology. Sebastian was all high cheekbones and thin lips, with a sharp nose, riddled with an imperfect bump on the bridge. He had olive skin and raven hair that he smoothed flat into a rather elegant side parting.
“Perhaps I ought to escort you to bed, sir?” Sebastian offered.
“Bushwa. I’ve barely had a tipple. Come smoke with me, Sebastian. You’re more fun than the Harringtons.” He pulled the limp cigar from between his teeth.
“Actually, sir, I really think you ought to allow me to escort you upstairs.”
“Do not tell me what to do! Just…just clean up this mess instead.” Hugo cried in protest and took a swopping step toward Sebastian, who stepped back in alarm. Like a drunken fool, he slumped against Sebastian’s frame, and so the footman wrapped his strong arms around him and held him steady.
After a ten minute struggle trying to manoeuvre him, Sebastian managed to guide Hugo up the staircase.
He leaned onto Sebastian until he was practically being dragged upstairs. With his help, Hugo managed to wriggle out of his coat, slip out of his shoes, and flop back onto the comfort of his bed to fall into a heavy, drunken sleep.