Drawing up in front of the Needham house on the curved driveway, Hal felt as if he ought to be arriving in a carriage and four rather than Margaret’s Daimler motorcar. The sprawling limestone house was a convoluted collection of roof peaks, turrets, and wings added on over the years. It looked like a castle, proclaiming nobility dwelt within and an outsider like him would never belong.
Hal didn’t resent the upper class their wealth, power, and prestige. He merely wanted to become one of them. Was that so awful? A friend had once come to Hal’s flat begging a sanctuary to spend a night or two. The stay had turned into something more like two months. But Hal certainly understood that desire to lay down the burden of constant struggle to survive and find a quiet, comfortable resting spot.
Margaret would be his safe place, and he would be hers, making certain she never wanted for companionship. In return, he’d have a nice house, good food, and a fine wardrobe. He would guard her fortune as if it were his own, spending wisely and increasing it shrewdly. He wouldn’t be a burden but a life companion in an easygoing, if chaste, arrangement.
He got out of the passenger side of the car, and Margaret came around to join him. “What do you think? The house may appear grand, but don’t let the battlements fool you. Inside, it’s quite shabby. Despite a respectable family name, my aunt and uncle aren’t wealthy by any means.”
Hal tucked her hand through the loop of his arm. “I’m not nervous. I’m quite ready to meet them and explain why I’ve fallen in love with their one-of-a-kind niece. This must have been a wonderful place to grow up with all those nooks and crannies to explore.”
“It truly was. Mother and I could have afforded to stay in our own home after Father died. But I’m so glad we came to live with Aunt Agnes and Uncle Harold; otherwise, I never would’ve had brothers like Julian and James.” She frowned. “After nearly two years, I still have trouble thinking of James in the past tense.”
Hal recalled James had survived France but died in the influenza epidemic almost immediately upon his return home. He put an arm around Margaret and hugged her. “You must miss him terribly.”
“His passing has been difficult for me but nearly killed my aunt and uncle. They’re still mourning. And Julian…” She shook her head.
“Misses his brother and perhaps blames himself for being alive,” Hal guessed. “I understand that feeling, having lost many comrades at the front.”
Margaret stopped at the doorstep and turned to him, eyes shining. “You survived because God had more for you to do in this life. He brought you to me, for which I am ever grateful.”
Hal hated himself just a little more at her declaration. When he’d begun this plan, he’d imagined landing a wealthy older widow who knew the score and didn’t mind so long as she had a handsome young husband to show off to her friends like a trophy. But then he’d met Margaret. He’d been so taken with her blend of sweetness and assertiveness that it had seemed possible to make a sham marriage work. Now he was stuck with the plan he’d devised.
The door opened before they knocked. A stooped older man with a paunch swelling his waistcoat greeted them. “Welcome home, Miss Margaret.”
“Hello, Grover. You’re looking very dapper today. I’m so glad to be back. I’ve missed home these past months. May I present my fiancé, Mr. Halstead Wiley.”
The butler bowed. “Good day, sir. Welcome to Barton Park.”
Hal almost returned the bow, then recalled his proper standing and nodded politely instead. “I’m happy to be here.”
Grover escorted them to the drawing room, where Mr. and Mrs. Needham and Julian were already gathered. Hal assessed the room before following Margaret inside. Pale blue walls and rug offered a sense of tranquility and the room was not overly cluttered. The dark, heavy pieces of furniture from an older century didn’t fit the pale color palette that suggested a more chic, modern décor.
Margaret’s aunt and uncle rose to greet him. The outdated style of Mrs. Needham’s gown didn’t detract from her aura of grace and refinement as she offered her hand. “Mr. Wiley, we’re pleased you could come. Darling Margaret is the daughter we never had, and we were eager to meet the man she’s chosen.”
“Quite so,” Mr. Needham said.
Hal wasn’t certain if he was meant to shake Mrs. Needham’s hand or kiss it. The customs of the gentry weren’t familiar to him. He gave a polite press before letting go, then turned to offer a hearty shake to Mr. Needham. “The pleasure is mine. Your niece is a prize.”
“Yes, she is.” Mr. Needham gave Hal an assessing look with gray eyes very much like his son’s.
Hal scanned the rest of the room to find Julian standing near the window. Sunlight burnished his brown hair with golden highlights. His well-cut profile with its straight nose and strong jawline was haloed in light. When he turned his stern gaze toward Hal, a little hum of anticipation awoke within him.
Hal squelched this reaction to a man he considered an adversary. Needham had invited him here to poke holes in his story, so he must be on guard every moment not to give himself away. If this wedding were to be called off, he’d be jobless and desperate again. One would expect work to be plentiful in the aftermath of the Great War with so few veterans returning, but the economy was in shambles. Odd jobs were all Hal had been able to find, spurring him to his mad scheme to land a wealthy woman.
He offered a bright smile. “Good to see you again, Mr. Needham.”
As much as it wasn’t, it actually was. Needham intrigued Hal, not only his physical demeanor but his affectionate manner with Margaret and his magnetic presence. Had they met under other circumstances, he and Julian might have been friends—or probably something more than friends, for Hal guessed “confirmed bachelor” Julian shared his attraction to men.
Hal dragged his thoughts away from the sorts of activities they might have gotten up to in another time and place, as he sat beside his betrothed on a sofa. “You have a lovely home,” he complimented his hosts. “Its history must be fascinating.”
“Thank you,” Mrs. Needham said. “Barton Park was built in 1640 and belonged to several families before the Needhams took possession.”
Her husband added dryly, “You may learn the entire history on every second Wednesday of the month, when the house is open. I daresay the tour guide is more educated on both the history and the architecture than we are.”
“Tours?” Julian abandoned his spot by the window to stride across the room with long-legged grace. “When did this begin?”
“Surely I mentioned this in one of my letters. A company that arranges tours approached us this past summer,” Mrs. Needham explained. “At first, your father refused to speak with their representative, but when we learned other owners of other estates were allowing tours, we decided to give it a go. It’s a respectable way to share one’s heritage and is little trouble at all. Thus far, the tourists, both domestic and foreign, have been orderly and respectful.”
“Not at all annoying having strangers troop through one’s home,” Mr. Needham continued in his sub-Saharan tone. “And you’d know about this if you paid the least attention to what your mother writes, or if you came for a visit every so often.”
Julian stood before his parents, scowling. “You did not mention this in any of your letters. I’d no idea you’d reached such a…” He glanced at Hal and seemed to reconsider airing his family’s financial business. “That you were considering such a thing.”
“It has become quite common these days for historical houses to be on display,” Mrs. Needham pointed out. “As you’ve said, times are changing.”
“More’s the pity,” the elder Needham growled.
Hal sat very still, wishing he were someplace else and not witnessing this family argument. He’d had no idea the Needhams were in such difficult straits until today. Apparently, their children hadn’t either. Surely Margaret would want to offer financial help, which would cut into the inheritance from her father’s side. He was a horrible person to immediately consider how the Needham family’s misfortune might affect him and his plans.
“Honestly, I think it’s rather brilliant to open the house to tours.” Margaret smoothed the folds of her modish knee-length dress. “Tourists enjoy seeing grand houses from a former century. The building should earn its maintenance at the very least. But if you require more financial assistance, please let me know. I want to do my part for the family.”
Julian Needham quickly added, “I can offer help as well. My investments are doing well enough.”
“We’re not quite destitute, although apparently our home has become a museum artifact to be gawked at by strangers,” Mr. Needham said.
“Thank you, my dears, for your generous thought. But such a discussion is most inappropriate at this celebratory occasion.” Mrs. Needham turned her attention to Hal. “Tell us how you two met.”
“We were both browsing at a bookstore. I shared a recommendation with Hal, and we talked for hours. You can see how that conversation ended.” Margaret turned her beaming smile on Hal. “Or never ended, for we always find something to discuss.”
“I was taken with Margaret from the moment we met. She manages to be both imaginative and levelheaded at the same time. One doesn’t let a quality woman like Margaret slip away.”
“Your family approves the arrangement?” Mr. Needham probed.
Hal seized a quick breath before plunging into his embroidered history. He hadn’t tried to pretend to Margaret that he came from any sort of gentility, instead inventing middle-class parents of modest means.
“My parents have passed, and I have no extended family. But I’m certain both Father and Mother would have welcomed Margaret with open arms.”
“Tell us about your parents,” Needham senior pushed.
“My father owned several shipping concerns. But in one year, a freighter was lost at sea and another seized by pirates. This put a great strain on his fortune and took a toll on his health.” Hal patted his chest, indicating possible heart failure or a broken heart. Let them decide which. “He passed away within a year, and my dear mother followed soon after. I believe she couldn’t face life without him.”
Mrs. Needham gave a soft murmur, and Margaret reached to pat Hal’s hand. He bowed his head, hoping he wasn’t overdoing the drama.
“Were you left penniless then?” Julian’s tone was cool and less than sympathetic.
“Julian!” Mrs. Needham exclaimed at his shocking ill manners.
“It’s all right, Mrs. Needham. It is quite reasonable to wonder about the stranger your niece has brought home. I should have followed custom and asked permission for her hand.” Hal offered an apologetic smile, then continued trying to reassure them he had nothing to hide.
“I invested the small inheritance I received and have increased it over the years, so I live quite comfortably. I won’t pretend to be more than I am. I come from a middle-class background, and I’m in love with a woman who is clearly above me. But I care for Margaret very much.”
The last part at least was true. Hal took her hand, gazed into her eyes, and prayed his selfish intentions could be forgiven.
Margaret smiled. “As I care for you.”
Julian made a small sound that might have signaled either acceptance or disgust.
Hal darted a sharp glance at him.
“It’s a lovely afternoon. I should like to take you on a tour of the land before supper,” Margaret said.
“Perfect weather for an invigorating walk,” Hal agreed and blessed her for freeing him from the relentless questioning.
“I’ll go with you.” Julian had not taken a seat during the entire conversation, and now he started for the door. “I should like to see how the farms are doing.”
They bid their elders goodbye and entered the hallway. Margaret excused herself to change into proper attire.
Hal had brought no walking shoes and lingered awkwardly with Julian, who scanned him up and down.
“You’ll want a pair of Wellingtons. The fields and woods are muddy. And a drover’s coat to cover this fine wool.” He fingered the lapel of Hal’s jacket, tailored for a gentleman and discovered by Hal in a secondhand store.
Julian stood so near, Hal felt the heat of his body and inhaled the scent of his shaving lotion. Did Julian mean to be intimidating? Probably, because he stared at Hal with the assessing eyes of judge, jury, and executioner.
When Julian at last stepped back, Hal took a deep breath. Unfortunately, the man wasn’t only a barrier to breach, he also unleashed attraction such as Hal hadn’t felt in a long time. Perhaps Julian sensed his desire and was baiting him to make an impulsive move.
But Hal wouldn’t reveal himself so foolishly. Nothing could come between him and the quiet, calm, comfortable life he craved. He must convince this doubting Thomas before he derailed Hal’s matrimonial plan.