Making Merry by Erica Ridley

Chapter 1

December 1808

Marlowe Castle


Mr. Aaron Thompson joined his eccentric employer at the threshold of an enormous, high-ceilinged chamber. Before him, laborers were busy laying the floor with new parquet.

“This,” Mr. Marlowe said with pride, “will be the grand ballroom.”

Despite Aaron’s initial skepticism at taking a renegotiated post as in-house solicitor in what, by all accounts, was an abandoned castle at the northernmost tip of England, Mr. Marlowe had managed to surprise him at every turn.

This salon would indeed be a grand ballroom. Quite possibly one of the largest in England, and certainly one of the most unique. The walls were draped with emerald silk. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. An eclectic mix of Gothic and Elizabethan styles added whimsy and drama.

“Can the castle host enough guests to fill such a large ballroom?” Aaron asked.

“It doesn’t matter.” Mr. Marlowe’s sharp blue eyes glittered beneath his shock of snow-white hair. “Our guests aren’t paying for a crush. They’re paying for exclusivity. They’ll not only happily hand over a month’s rent in Mayfair for a single week here, they’ll keep coming back year after year.”

This bold assertion begged an obvious question.

“Why?” Aaron asked.

“I’m not selling room and board,” Mr. Marlowe explained. “I’m offering a holiday in Utopia.”

Aaron glanced over his shoulder at the wide stone corridor behind them.

The once-dilapidated castle now sparkled like a freshly cut jewel, but was paying through the nose for lodgings—no matter how opulent—anyone’s idea of Utopia?

“Not just the castle,” Mr. Marlowe said as though he could read his solicitor’s thoughts. “The dining facilities and the ballroom and the luxurious guest suites with sweeping views of snow-covered hills is only a small part of what we’re selling.”

“What are we selling?” Aaron asked politely.

Mr. Marlowe’s eyes narrowed with satisfaction. “The perfect village. A chance to live in a fairy tale, not just read about them.”

“Is there a specific story we’re to emulate?”

For the first time since Aaron’s arrival in Cressmouth, a flicker of doubt creased Mr. Marlowe’s brow.

“We’ll think of one,” the older man said with confidence. “It must be perfect. And distinctive. We shall give our guests an experience they cannot duplicate anywhere else in the world.”

Aaron and Mr. Marlowe retreated from the ballroom to allow the laborers to continue their work without distraction. They retraced their steps to the large reception hall at the castle entrance. The original uneven stone floor was now smooth white marble. Crackling fires behind shiny grates chased away the chill, filling the interior with warmth and a cheerful yellow-orange glow.

Through the frost-edged windows, the village of Cressmouth was visible below. Marlowe Castle stood at the peak. Only one road traversed the picturesque village.

Mr. Marlowe had purchased the entirety.

All of it, as far as the eye could see.

At Aaron’s suggestion, his employer had granted long-term property rights to the people already living in the village. Mr. Marlowe still technically owned the land, but each family now possessed a hundred-year lease for the price of a single guinea.

Mr. Marlowe had not acquiesced out of altruism.

He’d done so because Aaron had pointed out that a castle was not a village. A village was people. Cressmouth could not be quaint and cozy if it was empty.

With his characteristic single-minded intensity, Mr. Marlowe had immediately set about building cottages, lining the road with shops, and finding people to live and work in them.

Aaron had drawn the contracts. Each agreement was more unusual than the last. Try as he might to encourage his employer to be less... mercenary, Aaron was not always successful in the endeavor.

The village now boasted a first-class jeweler, stud farm, bakery, smithy, brewery, dairy, glasshouse... plus an amphitheatre capable of performing to an even greater audience than could fit in the grand ballroom.

For the new residents, their individual agreements were simultaneously exploitative and the chance of a lifetime. Not one of them had turned down Mr. Marlowe’s generous, ruthless terms.

Aaron wasn’t certain anyone had ever said no to Mr. Marlowe.

That was why Aaron was here, wasn’t it?

Mr. Marlowe’s usually cold blue eyes were soft and unfocused as he stared out through the closest window.

“It’s snowing,” he said, his voice tinged with a hint of wonder.

“It’s December,” Aaron said. “And it’s cold in Cressmouth eight months of the year. You purchased a castle high atop a northern mountain.”

Mr. Marlowe wasn’t listening. He stepped closer to the window and touched the fingertips of one hand to the cold glass.

“Mary-Anne adored winter,” he said softly.

Ah. Now Aaron understood.

Mary-Anne was Mr. Marlowe’s late wife, who had passed decades before.

“The beauty of the snow always reminds me of the love I once had.”

Wonderful. Now it would do the same for Aaron.

He would not be reminded of Mrs. Marlowe—Aaron had never known her.

But he had also once had a love that he later had lost.

Estelle.

She was still out there somewhere, alive. In that, Aaron was more fortunate than his employer.

The list of advantages ended there.

Though Aaron could picture her perfectly in his mind, he hadn’t seen Estelle in years. He still dreamt of her every night. The softness of her curves, the warmth of her lips beneath his, the halcyon days past when he’d believed he would be able to offer for her within a year or two at the most.

He was still striving for it, pointless as the effort might be.

At any moment, a wedding announcement would appear in the newspapers, and Aaron’s chance would be lost forever.

It was not the falling snow that reminded him of Estelle, but the fire crackling in the grate. The way it drew him near, despite the danger of being touched by such beautiful flames.

How he longed to feel her heat once more.

“Mary-Anne loved the festive season,” Mr. Marlowe continued. “I should have given her a castle like this while I had her. But I was always too busy with important things, and never had time for her or Christmas.”

Or for the rest of his family.

From what Aaron understood, Mr. Marlowe had no one left, save for an estranged grandson he hadn’t spoken to in years.

This was the first indication he’d ever witnessed that Mr. Marlowe had regretted any of his choices, if only for an unguarded moment.

“Perhaps that’s the answer,” Aaron said.

Mr. Marlowe dropped his gnarled hand from the window and turned to look at him. A sharp, crafty expression replaced all traces of sentimentality.

“Tell me your idea,” he commanded.

“Christmas,” Aaron replied.

Mr. Marlowe frowned. “What part of it?”

All of it.” Aaron gestured at the rolling hills of white snow, dotted by endless fields of evergreens. “Cressmouth looks like a Christmas village all year round. Why not make it one? While the rest of the country is limited to a fortnight of Yuletide, our guests can enjoy a festive holiday whenever they wish.”

Yes. That is exactly what we shall do.” Mr. Marlowe’s eyes shone. “We shan’t emulate one specific Christmas story. We’ll provide an immersive experience all year round. The lake is usually frozen, making it perfect for ice skating. Snow-covered hills practically beg for snowball fights and sledding. Mistletoe... Boughs of holly... Are you taking notes, Mr. Thompson?”

“I am indeed,” Aaron assured him as his pencil flew across a new page in the journal he kept in his jacket pocket.

Unlike the contracts the local shopkeepers had signed, Aaron’s employment could be terminated at will, by either Mr. Marlowe or Aaron himself.

Not that it was designed for that eventuality.

Mr. Marlowe was too clever—and too rich—to leave anything to chance.

He’d not only more than matched the respectable salary Aaron had garnered in London, but also written an exponential increase into the contract: For every year Aaron served, he would receive a ten percent increase in wages.

By year eight, the original number would double.

By year thirteen, it would more than triple.

Although he didn’t plan on staying that long, this was his best chance to amass a fortune as quickly as possible, thereby proving himself worthy of Estelle.

When next he saw her, Aaron would be able to offer more than just marriage. A new gown, you say? Commission as many as you like. A home? Anywhere in England; no limitations. No neighborhood would be too fancy for Aaron’s pocketbook, if the location pleased his bride.

He wouldn’t just provide for his wife. As Mr. Marlowe said, Aaron would be able to offer Estelle a chance to live the fairy tale, not just dream about it.

Aaron looked up from his journal. “How will people learn about Cressmouth?”

Mr. Marlowe squinted across the empty reception hall.

“We’ll purchase advertisements,” he said decisively.

“We could,” Aaron said slowly, “and we should, but… Why not create your own newspaper?”

“A broadsheet?” Mr. Marlowe frowned. “Instead of a guidebook?”

“Guidebooks are useful, but a one-time purchase. A newspaper—a quarterly gazette, perhaps—allows you to disseminate the latest news and offerings .”

“Whilst also charging money for the privilege of being advertised to,” Mr. Marlowe crowed. “Perfect. We’ll do it. And we shall release each guidebook as an annual publications, making them collector’s editions.”

“Something like an almanac?” Aaron said. “Perhaps it can recount the previous year’s amusements and include a list of registered guests at the castle.”

“Brilliant. Once people see the patronesses of Almack’s in the book, or mayhap the Prince Regent himself, they will flock to the castle in order to see their own names published next to such fashionable ones.” Mr. Marlowe gestured at Aaron’s journal. “Double our prices.”

“Double our... already exorbitant lodging rates?” Aaron repeated.

“You’re right,” Mr. Marlowe said. “Short-sighted. Let’s triple them. There is no price the haut ton would not pay to flaunt their wealth as conspicuously as possible.”

Aaron refrained from pointing out that Mr. Marlowe had purchased a castle, a village, and the entire surrounding area.

“What if we triple prices for those who can afford to pay them,” he said, “and give the experience away for free to those who cannot?”

Mr. Marlowe’s ears turned red. “Give... things... for free?

Aaron spoke carefully.

“What if the ‘only’ charge to the beau monde is for the exclusive guest suites? Then the food could be ‘free’, the entertainments could be ‘free’... You’ll earn vastly more than enough funds to cover it all, no matter how extravagant the offerings. Why not allow the local villagers to enjoy year-round Christmas, too?”

“I see,” said Mr. Marlowe, his eyes sparkling. “We’d be providing witnesses. Filling the ballroom and the dining rooms with adoring eyes so that every guest feels like royalty paying a visit to their loyal serfs.”

Aaron closed his mouth rather than reply.

That hadn’t been what he’d meant at all, but he’d learned it was best not to argue with Mr. Marlowe when one was essentially getting one’s way. His employer’s motivation did not matter, so long as the end result was the same.

Free food, free entertainment, no rent for the next one hundred years... It would be Christmas to the local villagers. Perhaps even more so to them than to the Polite Society tourists that descended upon them.

“What kind of entertainments?” Mr. Marlowe demanded. “The castle can host Yuletide themed balls every evening, but that is not enough. What will the village offer in return?”

A Winter’s Tale,” rang out a familiar, sultry voice. Twelfth Night. We can keep the Christmas spirit on stage all year.”

No.

It couldn’t be.

Aaron turned about slowly, half afraid the act of meeting her eyes would make her disappear like smoke.

Dark-brown curls. Plump, juicy lips. A figure hidden away between layers of crimson muslin... not that Aaron needed to see her soft curves to remember every delectable inch of them.

Estelle.

She was here.