Stolen Love

Harper-Collins, 1991

Chapter 1

When Geoffrey Villines died in 1836, he left behind him a twenty-two year old son ill prepared for anything but a life as a gentleman of leisure. There were so many things for Nicholas to attend to, he hardly knew how he found time to see the family solicitor. What he learned was no less shocking than his father's sudden death.

Very little remained of a once sizable fortune. Money that should have been spent paying off mortgages had instead been invested in creating the appearance of abundant wealth. To make matters worse, in the year or two before his death, Mr. Villines had made several attempts to regain his declining fortunes by dipping into the capital of what remained and speculating with the sums. The afternoon Nicholas spent with the solicitor gave ample evidence that his father's talent for business had been close to nonexistent.

For a young man brought up to believe he would never have to work for a living, Nicholas Villines was in a trying situation, to say the least. It did not occur to him to ask for help from his family, though any one of them would have been more than happy to do so. Indeed, he was shocked when his solicitor advised him to borrow from his relatives or to leave the country for a prudent period of time. Either course was inconceivable to him. Nicholas intended to restore his ruined inheritance, no matter the personal cost. He set himself to the task with all the optimism of his twenty-two years; he resigned his memberships in clubs that cost him money, sold his horses and his carriage, gave all his servants notice with the single exception of his valet and moved from his spacious quarters in the Albany to two small rooms on Pycham Street. His resolve hardly wavered at all when he calculated that notwithstanding his severe reductions in expenses he would be approaching seventy years of age before any significant amount of the interest paid on the remaining capital might be applied to his pocket rather than to mortgages and the like.

It was several weeks after his removal to Pycham Street that Nicholas sat in his room, trying to reconcile himself to the necessity of letting Mr. Chester go. His valet, who was repairing a shirtsleeve at the time, seemed oblivious of their cramped surroundings, but Nicholas was unable to believe Mr. Chester did not feel the reduction in circumstances just as keenly as he did himself. He cleared his throat, meaning to tell Mr. Chester that he was sorry, but if he wanted his wages, he had better find an employer who did not need to have his shirtsleeves mended. What came out was, "It is a pity, Chester, that I cannot discover some way to make a few pounds without any risk."

"You might apply for a position in a bank, Mr. Villines," said Mr. Chester, never taking his eyes off the shirtsleeve.

"In a bank!" It was testimony to his present difficulties that Nicholas's first thought was that engaging in commerce on such an intimate level was not entirely out of the question. But he knew his family would not stand for it, and more important, he did not wish to be forced to explain that his father had left him in straits. If the truth were known, he felt lucky to have so far succeeded in preventing them from learning where he now lived.

"There is a great deal of money in banks," Mr. Chester added.

This was just the sort of observation Mr. Chester was prone to make and that had once been a source of great amusement to Nicholas. Mr. Chester's pronouncements were invariably accurate and, as a practical matter, generally useless.

"There certainly is," Nicholas agreed with a sigh.

"It seems to me, sir, that people are inexplicably anxious to give their money to thieves." Mr. Chester shook his head sadly.

"What has that to do with banks?" asked Nicholas.

"It is my opinion that bankers are thieves."

Nicholas began to laugh but stopped when he saw Mr. Chester's offended expression.

"I fail to see the humor in the subject," the valet said huffily.

"You are perfectly right. It is a very serious subject indeed. One should never laugh at another's livelihood."

"The difference between a thief and a banker," Mr. Chester continued, warming to his subject, "is that one may call in the aid of the police when robbed by the former. With the latter one hasn't any recourse."

Nicholas felt compelled to respond. "At least one consents to be robbed by a banker, Chester."

"If you will forgive my impertinence, Mr. Villines, I should rather be robbed by a thief than a banker! I've insurance on everything of value and wouldn't be out so much as a shilling if I were to be robbed by a thief."

"Indeed?" There ensued a silence during which Nicholas gazed thoughtfully at his servant.

"Give me an honest thief, I say, sir. There's no pretense with him. One knows where one stands with a thief."

"Mr. Chester, you've given me an idea," said Nicholas.

"You're very welcome, sir."

Nicholas's re-entry into Society was gradual. He began by attending dinner parties. Then he had tea at Lady Lewesfield's, was occasionally present in his grandfather's box at the opera, and now and then took a walk in Regent's Park. The following year he was seen riding in the Park, and only a few months later he had acquired a rather dashing cabriolet. The very next year he'd hired a groom and by Christmas had purchased a large house overlooking the Park. Though he sometimes disappeared for lengthy periods (to look after some property in Derbyshire, it was said), he was much in demand at social events requiring the presence of handsome young gentlemen. Nor was it long before he had obtained a reputation for gallantry. Several broken hearts were directly attributed to the fact that Nicholas Villines preferred brunettes over blondes.

Society welcomed him back, he had absolutely sterling connections, after all. His paternal grandfather was Viscount Eversleigh, and though Nicholas's father had been the youngest of the viscount's three sons, by the start of 1840 Nicholas was third in line to the title. Lord Eversleigh's eldest son had died in 1838, leaving behind him only a son. This scion of the family honor soon found himself twenty-one years old and in control of a considerable income. Having been turned loose upon London at last, he appeared to be making the most of his freedom. It was said Henry took after his father, and there was speculation in some circles that it would be a miracle something on the level of the Second Coming if the health of Nicholas's cousin did not go into a serious and fatal decline as the result of his profligate ways. The current odds were three to one the Honorable Henry Villines would not live to see thirty and five to one his demise would occur before he had got a legitimate son.

The viscount's middle son, Russell, was second in line. Russell had no children, and he was now expected to leave his own fortune to his nephew Nicholas. Nicholas was, perhaps, the only person in all of England who paid no attention to distasteful speculations regarding whose death would make him rich, and he did not scruple to let it be known in what light he saw the matter. His hopes for the future, said he, were based solely on the balance shown in his bank book.

Nicholas's past hardships had taught him that in adversity one might learn a great deal about human nature. Consequently he had few friends, but the few acquaintances he did cultivate were deep ones. He was a generous man since he could now afford the luxury and a thoughtful one; he was quick to return kindness for kindness. Though it was not entirely intentional, he kept quite a bit to himself. He had little patience for fools, and it seemed to him London had more than its share of them.

There was something about Nicholas that set him apart from other wealthy young men of society. First, he was intelligent. Second, he had a great deal of presence, one always noticed when he came into a room. And third, though not precisely handsome, his features were strong, regular, and interesting-- commanding, even. If not for a certain gentleness about the set of his mouth, he would surely have seemed forbidding. His eyes were a piercing and unfathomable black. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and long-legged. If he had chosen to have his clothing made by someone other than Mr. Henry Poole (which he did not) he would still have looked good in them. His black hair had a hint of curl in it, and it was worn just long enough to make him seem daring, though he did not know that was the effect it had. There was a small scar on his cheek near his right ear he had once jokingly said was the result of a duel over a woman in Paris. To his chagrin, the tale was quickly repeated all over London and generally credited as true. The more he denied it, the more credence it seemed to gather, so he took to snorting derisively whenever the subject came up. He was almost completely unaware of the influence he had with women on the strength of his smile alone. Doubtless he would have smiled more if he had known it.

Though Nicholas became passionately attached to a suitable young lady, the attachment was not quite deep enough since toward the end of 1839 she married a baronet. On the advice of Mr. Chester, Nicholas distracted himself from his admittedly mild disappointment by building a conservatory. Upon its completion he filled it with orchids and was soon thoroughly enamored of the hobby. The pastime enthralled him. He spent hours caring for the delicate flowers, and he quickly discovered that he was able to concentrate his thoughts most efficiently while working in the carefully controlled environment, pruning, cutting, grafting, or cataloging his precious orchids. In the confines of his conservatory, Nicholas was utterly free to construct, test, analyze, and refine his plans for the future until he was certain they were foolproof.

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