Home > A Matter of Temptation (A Matter of Temptation #1)

A Matter of Temptation (A Matter of Temptation #1)
Author: Stacy Reid



Chapter One

   The only way to satisfy

temptation is to yield to it...

   Miss Wilhelmina Eleanor Crawford—Mina to her friends and family—deeply inhaled the aromatic soup which she stirred in the large iron pot, her mouth aching for a taste of the thyme-infused dish. “The smell is divine, Mrs. Bell,” she said with a grin, blowing at the tendril of hair which escaped her cap and tickled her nose. “Adding onion and thyme was a stroke of genius on my part, you must admit it.”

   Their portly cook smiled, using the back of her hand to wipe at the sweat matting the hair curling atop her forehead. The large stone kitchen was rather hot, but it was preferable to the blistering cold that had been infused in each grayscale stone earlier.

   “I hate to see ye laboring so, Miss Mina. ’Tis not the work of a lady to be cooking in the kitchen.”

   “Nonsense. I love being your helper and keeping your company.”

   Mrs. Bell harrumphed, but her bright hazel eyes gleamed with affection for her young mistress. Mina had started assisting their cook out of necessity after their family fell on dire straits and they had become unable to pay their servants’ wages.

   A shout echoed from outside and Mina went over to the windows to peek out, grinning when she saw little Tommy perched on a willow tree branch flying a kite—the kite she had given him only two weeks past for Christmas. Mina laughed when his curses drifted on the air as the harsh wind tried to rip his tiny body from the limb. Thankfully there was a soft mound of snow covering the ground, enough to cushion him if he fell from that height.

   “That one has the mouth of a sailor on him,” the cook said, “and he curses using all those fancy words you’ve been teaching him. He has ideas now that he’ll stop being a stable lad someday and will be a physician! I never heard the likes of it.” She shook her head with a harrumph. “Ye shouldn’t encourage him so, Miss Mina. Soon he’ll be getting those airs, too, the ones of an impossible dreamer.”

   “I believe in him, though! Little Tommy can be whatever or whomever he wants to be, and I shall help him,” Mina said, pressing her nose to the cold window. The yearning to be outdoors stirred inside of her. “Oh, look at him fly that kite!”

   “Why don’t you go out there? Anyone with eyes can see ye badly want to join him.”

   With that soft urging from their cook to do something as simple as fly a kite, Mina was suddenly acutely reminded that once she had dreamed of impossible things, and they had soared inside her heart, pushing her to reach for dizzying adventures. “I am not a young and reckless girl anymore,” she said softly, that familiar wrench twisting through her heart. I have not been for six years. Brushing aside the loneliness that tried to creep over her body, Mina straightened and turned around.

   Cook shook her head again. “It ain’t reckless to climb a tree around these parts—no one to mutter about it. I do not see why ye keep denying yerself simple fun, Miss Mina. It ain’t natural for a lovely girl such as yourself to be so buried down in the countryside and having no enjoyment of life.”

   A door slammed in the distance, saving Mina the necessity of a reply. Cook frowned and said, “It sounds like the young master is home. He is always closing that door with too much force.”

   Concern curled through Mina, and she lowered the wooden spoon onto the small plate before her on the stone counter. There were days she could read her brother’s mood simply from how he entered his country manor. Without the benefit of a butler to see to such needs as opening and closing doors, he managed the task himself, one greatly aided by his emotional ups and downs.

   Gently removing the cap from her hair, she muttered, “I will see if he will eat with us, Mrs. Bell.”

   Mina hurried up the stairs leading from the kitchen, down the servants’ staircase, and into the lower floor hallway that was no longer lined with grand paintings. The sweet melody of a sound being played on the pianoforte rode the air, and her concern grew. Whenever Anthony was troubled, he turned to the comforting solace of music, especially Beethoven. Did this mean he had been denied the loan by Drummonds bank?

   She all but ran to the sparsely furnished music room and pushed open the ajar door. Anthony’s fingers faltered at her entry, and he shifted on the bench to face her. Mina stopped, her breath catching at the wild look of fear in his dark green eyes before her brother shuttered his expression.

   “Anthony, what is it?” She took a few more steps into the room. “Please, just tell me whatever it is. We will work it out together.”

   He inhaled a shaky breath and released it heavily. “The bank denied our loan. They would listen to none of my plans.”

   Mina gripped her fingers until they ached. This was a disaster indeed. “Did they say why?”

   “The last two loans are still being paid on, and they do not believe I have the confidence to manage a third,” he said with a harsh laugh. “Though I am Viscount Crawford, no heiresses are lining up to marry me for my title. The bankers are aware of this. One of them even went as far as to say agriculture is dead, it is all about manufacturing now, and we do not have the tools or men of the trade to venture out from farming.”

   Mina and her brother had spoken of it at length before he made the journey to London. Still, though they had prepared for a rejection of their application, Mina had not really envisioned the consequences of that rejection. Mrs. Bell had not been paid a salary in almost a year, and the lone footman and stable boy had their own families to care for and feed. They needed to be paid. Their manor was also in dire need of repairs and proper staffing and supplies of food and other necessities to see them through for the rest of the year. The larder and pantry were almost empty.

   “I still have Mama’s necklace. We can pawn it for a tidy sum to see us through this year until we come up with another plan,” she said staunchly. “We will practice greater economy and retrench even further—”

   “Retrench further? Mina, we are barely holding on. What more can I do? Whatever income we have goes into paying off loans and debts.”

   Guilt clawed at her with raking talons. Before their father had passed away five years ago, there had been a plan to help the family replenish their coffers, but Mina had destroyed it with her reckless impetuosity and ruined herself spectacularly and irrevocably by eloping.

   She’d naively wished for a grand sort of adventure. Well, the future would be an adventure, indeed. Mina’s heart clenched at the uncertainty that gripped her.

   “I have to leave in the morning,” Anthony said suddenly, unable to meet her eyes.

   “Where do you go?”

   “Perhaps to London,” he said with a bitter twist to his mouth. “The season will start in a few weeks. Do you remember Lord Phineas Moulton? He recently married an American heiress, and his estates were saved. Perhaps I might do the same for us.”

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