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A Scandalous Arrangement by Ashe Barker – Sample

Chapter One

Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, July 1881

“I’m sorry, Victoria, but it’s done now. There can be no going back.”

A Scandalous Arrangement by Ashe Barker“Done? It can’t be done. How could you…? This is our home, our livelihood.”

Edward Wynne had the grace to squirm in his seat, and looked more than a little discomfited under his sister’s stormy, outraged gaze. Even so, his face was set. He shoved back his chair, causing a shrill scrape as it rasped against the floorboards of the small office where Victoria now glared at him from across her desk. It was the same gleaming partner’s desk their father had ordered to be built to his specific requirements some thirty years earlier when he first acknowledged that his modest weaving mill in the even more modest market town of Hebden Bridge was showing distinct signs of prosperity.

Always a cautious man, Edward Wynne senior had nurtured the small concern he inherited somewhat unexpectedly from his second cousin. The firm had been nothing much when it came into his possession but Edward gave his name to it and expanded the business slowly, making prudent investments in new, modern machinery and in exploring overseas markets for the fine woollen cloth he started to produce there. Nothing spectacular, that was not the way of Edward senior. He could never have been described as courageous in his commercial affairs. Rather, he was steady and reliable, and that worked. His weaving mill grew, holding its own against stiff competition from the massive sweatshops that dominated textile manufacturing in nearby Bradford and Leeds. His workers enjoyed relatively healthy conditions, he employed no one under the age of thirteen, and they all had every Sunday to call their own. Or rather, God’s. A diligent churchgoer himself, Edward made it known he expected no less from his employees.

He was widely regarded as a good owner, a fine man to work for, and as Wynne’s Weaving Mill prospered, so did the town around him. As well as upholding godliness in his workers and offering a decent example himself of the Protestant work ethic, Edward was proud to serve on the town council. He would have been appointed mayor but for his untimely and somewhat improbable demise in 1871, the result of having imbibed a little more fine claret than was strictly necessary and falling in the river Calder on his way home from a singularly relaxing municipal function.

Edward left a grieving widow, Hester, and three children. Victoria was seventeen when her father passed away, and Edward a year younger. The baby of the family, Georgina, was just ten years old. Victoria’s education was considered to be complete and her days now consisted of supporting her mother through myriad charitable functions and social engagements, interspersed with a little embroidery and dabbling in water colours. Edward was about to embark on furthering his academic career. Not a natural scholar, he had nevertheless secured a place at the university in Leeds with the intention of studying law. He was no doubt aided in that endeavour by a generous endowment by his late father, which had enabled the university to add a wing to their library.

Edward junior saw no persuasive reason why his unexpected inheritance and new responsibilities as head of his household should derail his plans. At his father’s funeral he announced his intention to leave Hebden Bridge within the week and establish himself in an apartment in Leeds. A manager could be appointed; Edward could supervise their affairs from a distance.

Edward’s supervision of the ongoing commercial fortunes of Wynne’s lasted about as long as his studies. He was asked to leave the Leeds School of Law after just two terms following an unpleasant incident concerning the bursar’s daughter. Edward insisted he was innocent of any wrongdoing, but when the young lady was discovered in his apartment after having been missing for two days, drunk and wearing little more than a smile, the dean saw no other course but to eject young Mr. Wynne summarily from the faculty.

Edward did not return to Hebden Bridge. As she glared at him from across her desk, it occurred to Victoria that she was uncertain precisely where her brother had spent the intervening decade, and she cared not a jot. They heard from him occasionally, usually when he required funds. On one occasion she had sent money to him in Cannes to settle a gambling debt that had turned out to be life-threatening, and on another she had paid a fine to secure his release from Stirling jail. Always, her mother wrung her hands, bewailing the plight of her beloved boy and begging Victoria to step in and aid him. Victoria always complied, though with increasingly bad grace.

No manager was ever appointed to steer the affairs of Wynne’s Weaving Mill. At just seventeen years of age, on the day following her father’s interment in the family plot at St. Saviour’s Church, Victoria had marched into the mill office, seated herself at his desk, and called for his clerk to attend her. It was this same desk across which she now regarded her brother’s belligerent display of pretend authority with a mix of incredulity and blind rage, whilst that same clerk hovered on the threshold.

“Miss Wynne. Would you like me to—”

“No!” Both Wynnes turned to Mr. Timmins as one and bellowed at him. The clerk withdrew, shuffling away backwards and closing the door behind him.

“It was our home…” Edward continued, articulating his words slowly as though to a child, or a half-wit.

Victoria was neither. “Our home. Ours. Not yours. You have no right to sell it from under us. I won’t allow it.”

Edward tilted his chin and puffed out his chest. “You have nothing to say in the matter. The property is mine and mine alone. I have been kind enough to allow you to remain here all these years, but no longer.”

“How dare you!” Enraged, and not in the least impressed by her sibling’s self-important posturing, Victoria rose to her feet, leaning across the expanse of polished rosewood. Not especially given to violent impulses, had Edward been within reach she might well have struck him about the head even so. “I have run this mill for the last ten years. Me, not you. It was me who kept everything going when our father died, me who took care of our business and our family whilst you swanned off to Leeds and then goodness knows where.”

“I was—”

She brandished her fist at him, then brought it down on the gleaming desktop with a resounding thump. Her fine carved glass inkwell jumped, pens scattering across the surface. “Do I look to you as though I care even remotely where you have been these last ten years? Do I give that impression? Do I, Edward?”

“Victoria, I know this is a shock, but—”

“It is not a shock, it’s an outrage. And furthermore, it is not happening. You can just take yourself back off to this, this—individual—and tell him the deal is off. Wynne’s is not yours to dispose of.” Both fists now firmly planted on her blotter, Victoria glared at her brother under lowered brows. Her heart thumped, her breath heaved, but she was not backing down. Not here, not in her own office.

Her mill.

“I cannot do that. The mill is mine to do with as I will. Or it was. The deal is already concluded. Wynne’s now belongs to Mr. Adam Luke, as do the adjoining land and properties. The mill building itself, the workers’ cottages, and Wynne House, all his. I’m sorry, Victoria, but you and the others will have to move out. By the end of this month. The workers should be fine though as the new owners will doubtless have need of them, if they decide to continue in this same trade.”

No! The house is ours. Mine. You can’t do this, not without consulting me. What about mother? And Georgie?” Victoria’s ferocity was waning now as the awful reality of her situation began to sink in. Incredible, unbelievable, unjust as it was, the mill and all else left by her father was legally her brother’s property. It had been since the reading of the will, naming Edward junior as sole beneficiary.

At the time of writing that will, Edward senior had no doubt seen no reason to anticipate taking an unfortunate tumble into the river. He would have fully expected his son to graduate from Leeds with a degree in law, bought and paid for. Edward junior would emerge well qualified to take up, eventually, the reins of their family business and to see to the welfare of the dependent Wynnes.

It had not worked out that way.

The fact that Edward had not displayed the smallest scrap of interest in the mill or his family for ten years, except for on those occasions he needed extricating from some mess or other and an injection of cash was called for, made no difference to the reality now facing Victoria. She was a businesswoman and she understood the legal position. Her brother was entitled to sell the mill, and their family home, Wynne house. Morally the whole thing stank, but legally it was sound enough.

Her head whirling, Victoria sank back into her chair. What could she do? Even now, at this late stage, there must be a way out, some way to avert this disaster. There was nothing to be gained by further remonstrating with Edward; that much was clear. Her brother was out of the equation. She would have to find some way to reason with the new owner, explain to him the true circumstances, and convince him to do the right thing. Whatever that might be.

“This Mr. Luke? Who is he? Where is his office? His mill? I do not know that name.” Through her trade connections Victoria was at least acquainted with every mill owner and textile baron in the county, and several further afield. Her brow wrinkled as she tried—and failed—to place this unfamiliar individual.

“He is a businessman, based in London. He owns ships, I gather.”

“London? Ships? Then what possible reason would he have for wishing to acquire a weaving mill in Yorkshire?”

Now Edward did writhe in his seat, his embarrassment acute. Victoria inhaled and leaned against the back of her chair, waiting for an explanation she knew she would not like.

“He did not acquire the property, exactly.”

“Did he not? Then how, Edward, did my mill, my workers’ houses, and my family home come into his possession?” Her tone was quiet, deceptively soft.

“He… won them.”

“He won them?” Victoria repeated the words as though she did not entirely comprehend their meaning. Indeed, she was not convinced that she did. “How exactly did Mr. Luke win our home and our livelihood from us, Edward?”

“In a game of faro. At Crockford’s.”

“Faro? A card game, a game of chance. Are you telling me that you went to a gentlemen’s club in London and gambled away all that we own? All that our father and I have worked for these last forty years? Is that what I am to understand from this conversation, Edward?”

Edward declined to respond verbally. His sharp nod was sufficient.

Victoria was incredulous. “But how? How could you lose so much on the turn of a card?”

He shrugged, as though the matter were of little consequence. “I owed Adam Luke money already. A lot of money and he demanded that I settle up. The man is totally unreasonable, and I had to do something, I needed to get straight or find myself in jail again. Had I won he would have cleared my debt.”

“But you did not win, did you? Instead, you lost even more. You lost everything.”

Edward’s jaw was set, his expression defensive but unmoving. “It’s done, and Wynne’s is his now, I owe no one anything.” Least of all you.

The final words were unspoken, but hovered between brother and sister like a distasteful odour. Edward got to his feet and reached for his hat and cane, which were lying before him on Victoria’s desk. “I need not have even bothered coming all the way here today, but I thought I should tell you. Before Adam Luke’s man of affairs does. The lawyer will be in touch with you soon to make the necessary arrangements.” He tossed a white business card on the desk. “Those are his details. Now, I’ve done what I came for and need to take my leave. There’s a train back to London in forty-five minutes. Please give my regards to mother, and to Georgie.”

“What’s the matter? Can’t you face them?” Contempt dripped from her voice now as she swept him with an icy glare. Victoria made no attempt to get her brother to remain, to help her to break the news to her mother and sister that they were homeless, ruined, their family business gone. She wanted him out of her sight, now and forever. If she should be unfortunate enough to set eyes upon him again in this lifetime it would be too soon. She watched in arctic silence as he slunk from the room, listened as his footsteps clattered down the wooden staircase leading to her private exit at the rear of her mill. The door slammed, and he was gone.

Victoria lowered her face into her hands, and for the first time since her father died, she wept.

She allowed herself the luxury of wallowing in self-pity for all of half an hour after her brother scuttled from her office. Her clerk had had the good sense not to disturb her until, fortified and once more in control, she summoned him to her side.

“Mr. Timmins, I wonder if you would be so good as to tell me how much of the conversation between myself and my brother you found yourself privy to?”

Her employee sat down in the chair opposite her, uninvited. Theirs was an easy, relaxed relationship and he was not given to standing on ceremony.

“All of it, Miss Wynne. Up until you… dismissed me.”

“I see. I need hardly tell you, that this whole matter is highly confidential.”

Mr. Timmins did not dignify that remark with an answer. “Could you fill me in on the details I missed?”

Victoria sighed, but knew she needed to confide in someone, and Oliver Timmins had always been her first choice up to now. She leaned back in her chair and trotted out a succinct version of the pertinent facts.

When she concluded, Mr. Timmins offered no comment on Edward’s behaviour. Instead, he leaned across the desk and took her hand. “What can I do to help?”

His quiet concern almost sent her into a fit of weeping once more, but Victoria was past all that. More or less. She gave her eyes one final swipe with her damp handkerchief and met his gaze. “I don’t want anyone else to know about this. No one at all.”

“But, your family. Surely…”

“Most particularly not my family. I intend to satisfactorily resolve this ridiculous situation, and they need never be aware of my worthless brother’s perfidy.”

“How do you intend to do that, Miss Wynne?” She noted he did not appear to disagree with her assessment of Edward’s character.

“I intend to negotiate, as I always do. I will speak with this Mr. Luke and we will agree to an equitable solution to our dilemma. There is always a deal to be had, Mr. Timmins. My father always said so.”

“And he was usually correct. I do hope so on this occasion, Miss Wynne. Mr. Luke? He is the new owner of the mill, I assume.”

“His tenure will be brief. I intend to own Wynne’s.” In her heart she already did, and had been the owner for the last ten years. It was a pity the law did not see it her way, but she would find a way to set that right.

“I see. Very well, I will not disclose anything of the current situation outside of this office, though I do believe you should take Mrs. Wynne and Miss Georgina into your confidence. Their support would be invaluable whilst you… whilst you…” He had no apparent enthusiasm for completing his sentence, and Victoria had no wish to hear it in any case. Mr. Timmins flattened his lips as his employer shook her head, her refusal to share this catastrophic news quite emphatic. “Very well. Is there anything I might do to assist you?”

“Yes, there is. I expect to be very busy for the next few days so I will require you to be in charge here. Starting now, if you would.”

“It is already after five o’clock, Miss Wynne. May I suggest you go home, enjoy a meal with your family, and sleep on this? We can discuss our tactics in the morning.”

“So late? Have all the workers left then?”

“Yes. The looms shut down thirty minutes ago.”

Goodness, she had not even noticed the silence from the factory floor. Mr. Timmins was right, she did need to take break. She needed to regroup. Victoria managed a tremulous smile for her loyal employee. “You are quite correct. I will leave now. Would you mind locking up, please?”

“Of course, Miss Wynne. I will see you in the morning.”

“Cauliflower, dear?” Hester Wynne leaned across the dining table to offer the tureen to Victoria. “You look pale, Victoria. Is something amiss?”

Victoria gave herself a mental shake. “No, mama, I am perfectly fine. Just tired. It has been a long day.”

Hester tutted as she rose and came around the table to serve her daughter vegetables. “You work too hard, Victoria, and too long. You need a holiday, my dear. Perhaps we could find a few days to spend in Harrogate. Just the three of us. That would be nice, I think. We would enjoy the spa. Or Scarborough, even.”

Victoria shook her head. “I can’t, not right now. The mill is so busy, and I have much to settle.” She glanced up, softening her tone as she took in her mother’s anxious expression. “Maybe later in the year. When the weather improves.”

The older woman bestowed a considering gaze on her eldest child, then nodded. “In the summer then. Definitely. I insist. Georgina, please pass your sister some potatoes.”

Between them Hester and Georgina Wynne ensured that Victoria was well supplied with food, then they both peered at her as she pushed their efforts around on her plate.

“Is the beef not to your liking? I believe Mrs. Bridger purchased it especially with you in mind.” Georgina’s question several minutes later interrupted Victoria’s frantic head-spinning.

“What? Yes, it is very nice. Perfectly tender. Mrs. Bridger has done well, as always.”

“Then why do you not eat it? We have the finest cook in town, you always say so. You should do her food justice.”

“As I said, I am tired, and not especially hungry I find. Please convey my apologies and my appreciation to Mrs. Bridger.” Victoria laid down her knife and fork and crumpled her napkin before tossing it onto the table. She rose. “I wonder, would you both excuse me, please?”

“I trust you do not intend to return to work.” Hester’s tone was tart as she watched her daughter’s progress toward the door.

Victoria paused, and half turned. “No. Well, not really. I do have some figures to look over. Not much, I promise, just an hour or so. I’ll be in the library.”

“Very well, dear. I’ll pop in and say goodnight later then.” Hester sounded less than impressed, but Victoria was too accustomed to managing her own time to take much notice. She left them to the remains of their meal.

In the library she sat for some time and stared at the empty sheet of paper laid out before her, her quill idle beside it.

She needed to write to him, to this Mr. Adam Luke. It was necessary to explain that Edward had been entirely remiss in staking Wynne’s mill in a card game, and that the situation required to be rectified without delay. She glanced at the business card her brother had dropped on her desk as he left, and which she had scooped up and shoved in her pocket as she did likewise.

Mr. Horace Catchpole, Solicitor and Commissioner For Oaths.

The address was a smart street in the city of London. It would appear Mr. Luke could afford the best. Lacking any details of the man himself, she would have to contact him through his legal representative. Victoria sighed and picked up her pen. She dipped it in the ink and started to write.

Dear Mr. Catchpole,

I correspond with you as you are the legal representative acting for Mr. Adam Luke in the matter of Wynne’s Weaving Mill, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. I am the proprietor of that establishment and would like to take this opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding that I believe may have arisen in respect of the future of this enterprise.

My brother, Mr. Edward Wynne, may have left Mr. Luke under the mistaken impression that this business and associated properties were available to be disposed of in payment of a debt. This is not the case. Wynne’s Weaving Mill is a thriving, going concern and Mr. Wynne had no right to offer it as he did.

I appreciate this may cause some difficulties, but those are not of my making, nor are they mine to resolve. I must ask Mr. Luke to confirm that Wynne’s remains in my control, and further I urge your client to take up any outstanding financial issues with my brother.

Yours faithfully,

  1. Wynne

 

Victoria folded the paper and slid it into an envelope. She addressed it with care and set it aside to post first thing in the morning. It would go first class, and she would take it to the post office herself, preferring not to entrust the missive to a curious servant who would be sure to chatter about Miss Wynne’s urgent correspondence with a London lawyer.

She was not entirely happy with the wording of her letter, knowing full well she was making claims that went beyond her legal status in this affair. In short, she was bluffing. She hoped though to give Mr. Luke reason to pause, and to enter into a dialogue with her. If she could meet with him, explain the true nature of her brother’s involvement in the mill, Mr. Luke would be forced to agree with her that it would be wholly inappropriate to continue with this charade.

Meanwhile, she would continue as normal. There was no reason whatsoever to disturb her mother or Georgina with this nonsense.

By unspoken mutual consent, Victoria and her mother had divided up their responsibilities after her father died. Hester took charge of all matters of a domestic or social nature, and cared for Georgina. Victoria devoted herself to the mill and to ensuring they remained prosperous. She might even go so far as to allow that they were wealthy, though they lived relatively simply. Certainly, their living standards had not declined in the years since Edward senior was taken from them, and Victoria took great personal pride in that.

She had received no formal training, but had been fascinated by the mill and everything to do with it from an early age. As soon as she could walk she had been in the habit of toddling the short distance from the garden at Wynne House to the back door of the mill. She would clamber up those wooden stairs onto the floor where the offices were located, and look for her papa. She would invariably find him engrossed in his ledgers, his fingertips stained with ink as he recorded rows upon rows of figures in his neat, precise hand. Often Mr. Timmins would be there too, scratching in the books, tallying up invoices and receipts. He was a much younger man then of course, but he had infinite patience with the small girl who dogged his progress around the mill.

In contrast, her brother spent his time adventuring with his friends, and as he grew older, cavorting with girls from the town. He spent less and less time at home, and none at all in the mill. Her father saw no real problem with this; the lad was merely sowing his wild oats as all young men must. He would do his duty perfectly well when the time came to settle down. The elder Mr. Wynne harboured no doubts that his son would have a head for the business—it was in the blood after all. You only had to look at little Victoria to know that.

Victoria didn’t cavort, and had no adventures. She grew up among weavers and engineers, and revelled in everything connected with the textile trade. She knew how the machinery operated, she understood exactly how the finest cloth was woven, how much it was worth down to the last half penny, and who would likely buy it. She had assumed throughout her childhood and adolescence that she would have a role in the mill when she grew up. She was quick with figures, could calculate cash flows and projections in her head, and knew all the most reliable suppliers of the finest wool. She expected to run Wynne’s with her father, and eventually her brother, so she was devastated when Mr. Wynne explained to her, gently but firmly, that the proper place for a gentle young lady of means was in the drawing rooms of their friends and acquaintances, or aiding those less fortunate through charitable works. She should not aspire to a life of managing a workforce and arguing with other mill owners about the price of cloth.

Victoria endured almost a year of that existence while her father continued to run the mill without her aid, and considered herself to be in her own personal purgatory. Her ordeal ended with his death but even so, she grieved deeply over the loss of her beloved papa, and not a day had passed in the ten years since that she did not miss him. When Edward junior announced his imminent departure, she silently rejoiced, always knowing she would step in. Her mother offered no objections to Victoria’s new status, and the pair of them slipped into an easy alliance that served them well on the whole.

Their only source of disagreement was Edward. Hester fretted over her son’s antics and his frequent demands for cash. She worried about him. Victoria was simply glad he had gone. She paid up when she saw no alternative, and life continued well enough. Until now.

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