Eighteen days before the wedding of Camille, Lady Lydingham, to Mr. Grayson Elliott ...
Millworth Manor, October 1887
"You didn't need to come fetch me in person." Samuel Russell smiled at his old friend. "I did manage to get from one place to another in France and Germany, you know, and I'd bet I could have found my way from the train station to Fairborough Hall. It's not as if you people don't speak English."
"Yes, but you don't." Grayson Elliott grinned. The differences between the American and British forms of the same language had long been a running joke between the two men.
"I say, old chap, do be so good as to shut your mouth," Sam said in his best imitation of Gray's accent.
Gray winced. "You have just made my point. And whatever you do, don't attempt that again."
Sam laughed. He'd met the Englishman nine or so years ago and the two had built their respective fortunes in tandem. Sam grew his not inconsequential empire from a small company founded by his grandfather. Gray's success had begun with a loan from his family. They'd first met as competitors but soon discovered they shared a common work ethic, a similar way of looking at life and the possibilities the world presented for enterprising young men. Throughout it all, they'd formed a solid friendship. Now that Gray had returned to England after more than a decade spent in America, Sam missed the man who had been, at various times, confidant, cohort, partner, and friend.
"I must say I was surprised when I received your telegram." Gray slanted a casual look at the American.
Sam gasped in feigned dismay. "Surely you didn't think I would miss the wedding of one of my oldest friends as well as a valued business associate?"
"When I was in New York you said you wouldn't be able to attend the wedding."
"When you were in New York, I didn't think I would. But then I had no idea I would find myself in Europe. As I did, it seemed a shame to miss your wedding. And, every few years, it's wise to reacquaint myself with my London solicitors, as they oversee my international holdings."
"The firm I recommended."
"For which I will be forever in your debt. Besides, while I have been to England before, I have never had the time, or the inclination, to see anything beyond London. You have talked so much through the years about the idyllic world of Fairborough Hall and the English countryside, the opportunity to see it for myself just seemed too good to pass up." He glanced at the scenery passing by them in the open carriage. "I could use a few relaxing weeks in the country."
"A holiday?" Gray's brow rose in a skeptical manner. "You? I can't recall you ever taking a holiday."
"Past time then, don't you think?"
"I have thought exactly that for some time now." Gray paused. "Perhaps if you didn't devote every minute to work, we would be preparing for your wedding now."
"I believe we prepared for my wedding last year," Sam said mildly. There was a time when the mention of Sam's debacle of an engagement would have been met with annoyance. Not with Gray of course; the Englishman had stood by him when he had needed a friend even if Gray had had his suspicions about Sam's fiancée from the very beginning. Still, it was the mark of a good friend that Gray had not held over him the fact that he was right and Sam was so very wrong.
"She was never right for you." Although Gray couldn't resist mentioning it on occasion.
"And if I hadn't listened to you ..."
"You would now be married to the wrong woman."
"Fortunately, I came to my senses and recognized the truth."
They both knew there was far more to it than merely recognizing the truth but now was not the time to discuss it. Although he suspected, given Gray's impending nuptials, the topic would raise its ugly head again in the days to come. "And now you have found the right woman."
"Indeed I have." Gray chuckled. "But as much as I am delighted to see you here, I doubt that it's the wedding that has lured you here. Nor do I believe that rubbish about a holiday."
"I am here to help celebrate your nuptials. There is nothing more to my presence here than that."
"No doubt." Suspicion sounded in Gray's voice. The problem with old friends was that they knew you entirely too well.
"And I am eager to see your family's home."
"I shall delight in showing you around but I'm afraid you won't be staying at Fairborough. It was severely damaged in a fire last winter."
"Good Lord." Sam stared at his friend. "How bad was it?"
"Very, but fortunately the repairs are nearly finished. While my family is residing there once again it's still not quite ready for guests. Those coming for the wedding will be staying at Millworth Manor, the country home of my fiancée's family."
"Ah yes, the lovely Lady Lydingham. How is she?"
"Busy bordering on frantic with a tiny touch of panic tossed in for good measure." Gray chuckled. "There is far more involved in a wedding of this sort than I had imagined. Camille wants everything to be perfect and even though she has been through this kind of thing before and has experienced help, as well as one of her sisters, there's a distinct touch of insanity about her."
Sam bit back a laugh. "Oh?"
"You know how women are. You have sisters."
"Yes, but my oldest sister's wedding was not as grand as I suspect yours will be and none of my other sisters are old enough to be planning a wedding. But I can imagine the chaos." Sam paused. "I know the wedding is still a few weeks away. I hope my early arrival isn't a problem. I have already spent several days in London. Since it's only an hour by train, I do plan on going into the city to take care of a few remaining matters while I'm here but I could certainly stay in London until—"
"Don't be absurd." Gray scoffed. "I'm delighted to have you here. Millworth Manor is more than large enough to house any number of guests. And I don't mind saying I do welcome another male presence in the house. Camille's parents have been traveling and we're not sure when they might arrive. And who knows where her uncle is but we hope he appears before the wedding. Although Uncle Basil is notoriously undependable."
Sam nodded. "We all have one or two relatives like that."
"Camille's twin sister's husband is a political sort and probably won't arrive until a day or two before the wedding although Beryl is expected any day now." He grimaced. "I can definitely use another man around once Beryl arrives. For protection if for no other reason. Beryl's not especially fond of me."
"Her twin sister?" Sam raised a brow. "That must make things interesting."
Gray chuckled. "You have no idea."
"And Mrs. Hargate?" Sam adopted a casual note. In spite of the fact that she had been adamant, almost rude really, about never wanting to see him again, he was looking forward to seeing her. It had been nearly four months since their tryst in New York. There was a chance she had changed her mind about renewing their acquaintance. A chance he had lingered just as much in her mind as she had in his. The woman did seem to be there every time he closed his eyes.
Gray's brows drew together in confusion. "Who?"
"The lady who accompanied you and your fiancée to New York? Your chaperone? I thought she was a relative of Lady Lydingham's."
"Oh, of course." Gray's expression cleared. "Delilah. Lady Hargate."
"Lady Hargate?" And wasn't that interesting.
"She's Camille's younger sister."
"Is she? I was under the impression she was a more distant relative."
"They haven't been close in the past, although Camille is trying to rectify that. That was one of the reasons why she asked Delilah to accompany us and probably why Delilah agreed to come. She'd a have a fit if you addressed her as Mrs. Hargate by the way. She's very, oh, proper about that sort of thing." He cast Sam a curious look. "I wasn't aware you had met her."
"Only in passing," Sam said in an offhand manner. Only as her damned adventure. "I doubt that she even remembers my name." It was obvious now that while the woman hadn't actually lied to him, she had led him to believe she was someone she wasn't. Mrs. Hargate—ha!
"She arrived at the manor a few weeks ago along with Teddy, Lady Theodosia Winslow. Teddy's in charge of the wedding preparations. Her late father was an earl. She and her mother are among the most prestigious planners of weddings and social events in England. Camille says they're in high demand and agree to only the most important events. Fortunately, she is also Delilah's closest friend. Unfortunately, their services cost a small fortune," he said wryly. "Delilah claims they have to charge exorbitant fees because nothing free is truly valued."
Sam nodded. "She's right there."
"Aside from the soundness of their business practices ..." Gray lowered his voice in a confidential manner. "I suspect the late earl might have squandered the family fortune but if so, it's not common knowledge."
"And yet you have your suspicions."
"I suppose my years away have changed the way I look at things. Anyone here who might have the same suspicions would never voice them aloud, at least not in public. It simply isn't done." He paused for a long moment. "Speaking of suspicions, why are you really here?"
"You wound me deeply, Gray." Sam adopted an indignant tone. "I'm here for your wedding of course. And to spend some time with an old friend. And reacquaint myself with the London firm that oversees my international holdings. If, in the course of that, conversation turns to some sort of, oh, I don't know, some sort of investment or opportunity or—"
"Aha!" Gray laughed. "I knew you had an ulterior motive."
"Not at all. I simply ..." Sam grinned. "I don't think it's right to keep this to myself."
"Keep what to yourself?"
"Why, what kind of friend would I be if I didn't let you in on this?"
"In on what?"
"I know how you love anything that smacks of progress and the future."
"Progress?" Gray's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "And the future, you say?"
"I should warn you, it's highly speculative."
"Is it?" A familiar glint sparked in Gray's eyes. "Then I suspect as well it's extremely interesting."
"Indeed it is." Sam leaned closer to his old friend. "What would you say to the idea of horseless carriages?"
"Horseless carriages?" Gray groaned. "Are you insane?"
"Shhh." Sam glanced at the carriage driver. "This is best discussed in private."
"Keech can be trusted. And I have no doubts as to his sanity."
"Still, I'd hate for him to think I was mad." Gray heaved a resigned sigh. "And I suspect this is one of the maddest ideas you've ever had."
"Or one of the most brilliant." Sam flashed another grin.
Gray studied him closely, then nodded. "Very well, then." He turned and called to the driver. "Keech, we'll get out here. Mr. Russell would prefer to walk the rest of the way and I wouldn't mind a bit of exercise myself. Who knows how long this grand autumn weather will last. Besides we are nearly to Millworth's drive now."
"Very well, sir." Keech reined the horses to a stop.
Sam and Gray got out of the carriage. Gray nodded at the driver. "Please take Mr. Russell's bags to the house. We'll be there shortly."
"As you wish, Mr. Elliott." The driver tapped the rim of his hat and the carriage started off.
Gray waited until the vehicle was out of range. "Well, go on then. What is this nonsense about?"
"It's not nonsense and it might well be the way of the future."
"As might flying machines, but we've yet to see one that has managed to get an inch off the ground."
Sam cast his friend a smug smile. "I have."
Gray's brows shot upward. "You've seen a working flying machine?"
"Don't be silly. That would be absurd. I doubt man was meant to fly, although I'd never bet on that. After all, the world is changing every day." His grin widened. "But I have seen a horseless carriage."
"I too have seen a horseless carriage." Gray nodded and started off down the road, Sam by his side. "Rather useless things at the moment I'd say."
Gray stopped and stared at Sam. "What do you mean exactly?"
"I mean that at the moment they are rather useless." Sam nonchalantly started walking again. "But only at the moment."
"I have always relished the way you enjoy being circumspect. What are you trying to say?" "What is the biggest problem with horseless carriages?"
"I don't know. I really haven't been especially interested up to now." Gray thought for a moment. "An efficient, compact motor I suppose. Of course, there have been developments in recent years. Internal combustion and—"
Sam laughed. "I thought you said you weren't interested?" "I'm not," Gray said staunchly then shrugged. "Although admittedly it is an intriguing proposition."
"I have an even better one. I have just come from meeting a German, a Mr. Benz, who has not only patented an internal combustion engine but has designed and constructed the vehicle to go along with it."
"As have others."
"Yes, but there's something about Benz I like. And he hasn't just slapped a motor on a carriage. He's designed a complete vehicle. Three wheels, tubular steel frame, differential gears, etcetera. Admittedly, the steering mechanisms still need work."
"And you want to invest in this horseless carriage?"
"Motorwagon," Sam said firmly. "He calls it a motor-wagon."
"I believe the French are using the word automobile."
"Yes, I have heard that. Automobile." Sam considered the word. "I like it. It has a nice ring to it. Could be shorter, though. Something with a bit more snap to it—"
Gray halted and glared. "So are you or are you not planning to invest in this man's invention?"
"Yes. And no." Sam grinned and strolled down the road.
Gray hurried after him. "Yes and no?"
"That's what I said."
"If you would be so good as to explain straightaway rather than play this silly game—"
"Benz is starting to produce his motorwagons." Sam slanted a fast grin toward his friend. "I bought one."
"Imagine my surprise," Gray said wryly.
"I'm having it shipped here. You remember Jim?" James Moore had been Sam's right-hand man for the last four years. There were times when Sam wondered how he had ever gotten along without him.
"He's accompanying the motorwagon. Barring any unforeseen difficulties, it should be here within the week."
Gray's jaw tightened with impatience. "And what, dare I ask, do you intend to do with it?"
"I'm going to try it out. See how it ... feels." He glanced at his friend. "See what the real potential is. I want to determine for myself if it really is the way of the future and if it is, I want to be at the beginning of it."
"And, it seems to me that there is nothing rich Americans like better than anything liked by European aristocracy, particularly the British."
Gray nodded. "As evidenced by the grand mansions the newly rich are constructing in America with rapt abandon. Present company included, of course."
"It's really my mother and sisters, you know." Sam waved off the comment. The tendency toward excess of his mother and sisters was a source of constant irritation. "But they are exactly the type of people I'm talking about."
"And yet I still have no idea what you are trying to say."
"What I am trying to say is that if the British aristocracy embraces the motorwagon as a plaything of the wealthy, Americans won't be far behind. And once the upper crust in America latches on to something, everyone else wants a version of it. Eventually, there could be motorwagons or automobiles all over the civilized world." Sam grinned. "And it all starts here."
"Benz expects to be producing and selling motorwagons within the next year, beyond the handful he has already sold."
"Once he gets that steering problem solved?"
"Exactly." Sam nodded. "He and I have reached an agreement whereby I will set up a small factory in England to produce his machines, with the finest materials, directed toward the upper class." Sam paused. He was fairly certain his friend would go along with his plan but this was Gray's wedding and the English had always struck Sam as being somewhat reserved about mixing business with social events. "I thought your wedding would be the perfect place to demonstrate it and gauge interest. Perhaps even solidify some advanced orders."