Home > An Heiress's Guide to Deception and Desire

An Heiress's Guide to Deception and Desire
Author: Manda Collins


Chapter One

Applegate’s Tea Room, London, 1867


They’re behaving as if I haven’t been on my own, managing my life, for the year they were in Paris.”

Miss Caroline Hardcastle set her teacup down with rather more vehemence than she’d intended, and the resulting clink of cup against saucer seemed to echo through the tea room.

“My dear,” Lady Katherine Eversham said soothingly, “you knew there would be a period of adjustment once they returned, did you not?”

Caro, who lived with her parents in their opulent Belgrave Square townhouse, had become accustomed to the freedoms afforded to her during their time abroad, and as a result their return had been rather more suffocating than she’d imagined.

“It isn’t as if I don’t love them.” She sighed. “I adore them—of course I do. But Mama has a way of making her negative opinion of my hat or gown known without even uttering a word. And if I don’t change after she purses her lips, then I am forced to endure sideways glances until I can stand it no more and must choose another outfit whether I wish to or not.”

Kate raised one dark brow. “But you get along well enough with your father, don’t you?”

Before the Hardcastles had left for France, Caro had enjoyed a close relationship with her papa. Despite her mother’s objections, he had shared with Caro many aspects of his business in which he manufactured tinned food products. She’d even been inspired to write cookbooks featuring recipes using Hardcastle Fine Foods.

But perhaps because she’d become accustomed to going about her business without input or interference from her parents, Caro found even her father’s mild questions about where she intended to spend the evening intrusive. To make matters worse, the time away from London had created a distance between them where the operations of the business were concerned.

“Even he is too much for me to bear at the moment,” Caro admitted. “It’s as if in the time since they’ve been gone, I’ve crossed some bridge from child to adult and now they’re trying to force me back into the nursery. At least before, Papa treated me as if I were intelligent enough to understand manufacturing. Now he simply follows Mama’s lead and relegates me to the role of some delicate creature to be coddled.”

Kate took a sip of tea. “I think it could be that you’re ready for your own household, my dear.”

Caro stared down into the dregs of her cup. Kate wasn’t wrong. She was well past the age at which most young ladies of her class were married with children. There had been a time just a few years ago when she’d thought herself on the path to marriage with a man of whom even her exacting mother would have approved. But Lord Valentine Thorn, as he was then, had turned out to be more attached to the opinions of his aristocratic family than he’d been to her. Since the death of his brother, he’d taken up the courtesy title of Viscount Wrackham and was now the direct heir to his father’s dukedom. A circumstance she was quite sure had made him even more attached to his family’s judgments.

“You are right, of course.” Caro leaned back in her chair, suddenly exhausted. “But they will never allow me to set up my own house, no matter how I might wish it. For all that my funds are my own, I cannot quite bring myself to cut all ties to my parents, which would be necessary—emotionally, if not financially—for me to live on my own.”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.” Kate’s eyes were smiling but her mouth was pursed in exasperation. “I do not know what happened between you and Val, but you shouldn’t let it keep you from finding happiness with someone else if that is what you wish. I thought before I met Andrew that I would never let another man in my life again, and look at us now.”

As if to emphasize her point, the rare sunlight of an April afternoon in London glinted off her friend’s sapphire wedding ring.

“Of course, I’m not letting Valentine keep me from happiness with someone else,” Caro said with a laugh. Though some hidden part of her wondered if that was the truth. “I’ve merely been very busy these last years. I’ve written cookbooks. Collaborated on our column. And now there is the Lady’s Guide literary salon. How I even have time to chafe about my parents’ return to London, I don’t know. Really, it’s amazing I was able to see you this afternoon.”

If Kate heard the hint of desperation in Caro’s voice, she didn’t let on, merely smiling in commiseration. “You have been quite run off your feet. And I thank you again for taking charge of the salon. I simply couldn’t have managed it with the recent changes at the paper.” Kate owned The London Gazette, in which she published their joint column, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem.

“I wish you had time to come to more of our meetings,” Caro said. After enthusiasts of their column had written to them of their interest in sensation novels, which, like their writing, dealt with crime and murder and secrets, Caro had conceived of their literary salon. It had seemed a natural progression, in Caro’s mind, from discussing the real-life dangers to women in the column to talking about the fictional ones they faced in books like The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret. Genteel society liked to pretend that such works were outlandish and bore no resemblance to reality, but Caro, Kate, and their readers knew better. The salon was meant to create a place for their community of readers to confer over their favorite books in an environment where they felt comfortable doing so.

“You needn’t read the book if you don’t have time. Before we talk about it, we spend at least half an hour chatting about the latest happenings in town. And who would know more about that than the owner of London’s most fashionable newspaper?”

“Perhaps I will be able to drop in on a meeting soon,” Kate said thoughtfully. “I would like to meet all the new members.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the appearance of the shop’s owner, Mrs. Jean-Marie Applegate, with a plate of delicate tea cakes in her hand. “Thank you, ladies, for coming today,” she said in the lilting accent of her native Jamaica as she placed the dish in the center of the table. Her voice turned teasing. “But it is not like you to drink only the tea with no pastry to complement it. When Annie told me this, I had to come and see your table for myself.”

Caro laughed softly. “Have no fear, Jean-Marie. We are as fond of your baking as ever. We are simply waiting for a friend to join us and thought only to have tea while we waited.”

The frown lines on the shopkeeper’s forehead smoothed. “Ah, thank goodness! I could not hold up my head if the cookery expert should reject my perfectly baked cakes.” Her brown eyes twinkled with mischief. She and Caro had struck up a friendship when the shop first opened, and though they shared many of the same opinions on the craft of baking, they liked to tease one another when they disagreed on technique or ingredients.

“I, for one,” Kate said, picking up one of the lightly browned cakes, “am grateful you noticed. These look delicious and I must tell you the scents coming from the kitchen have been tempting me the whole time we’ve been sitting here.”

“You enjoy the cakes, Lady Katherine.” Jean-Marie smiled. “There will be more when your friend arrives. Just signal Annie when you are ready.”

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