Lost in Pleasure – Excerpt
Kilcreggan House, London, 1816
Richard, the Third Earl of Kilcreggan, picked up his newly-delivered package of books, crossed his legs, clad in tight-fitting pantaloons and polished leather boots, and settled into his favourite wingback chair. Amongst the bundle was a new German edition of Guass’s Princeps Mathematicorum, but as he idly flicked through the uncut pages, the book he had been so eagerly awaiting failed to hold his attention.
The library, his favourite room, was located at the back of Kilcreggan House, which itself stood on the south corner of Cavendish Square. Sash windows looked out onto the garden where Richard kept his treasured telescope, made to one of Mr Herschell’s designs. Much of the library’s wall space was taken up by glass-fronted book cases, but a large mahogany cabinet with a rosewood veneer stood in the corner by the fireplace, its innumerable drawers containing the most prized of Richard’s specimens – butterflies and insects, semi-precious stones, fossils, and a plethora of other curios he had amassed on his extensive travels. His famed exotic botanical specimens, also collected abroad, were cultivated at his country seat in a number of expensively-heated custom-built succession houses. These featured in the background of the painting which hung above the mantel.
Richard’s portrait, by the renowned Scottish artist Henry Raeburn, was, even he conceded, a good likeness. It depicted a tall man with a darkly brooding face, too forbidding to be considered classically handsome, but arresting enough to be unsettling. Mr Raeburn had captured the earl’s air of amused detachment, as if the sitter took neither the portrait nor himself too seriously. A volume of Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia was held open in his hands but his golden-brown eyes gazed out intently at the viewer, something which Richard’s friends and family found so disconcerting that he had been forced to move the portrait from the dining room in which it had originally been hung. ‘Can’t eat with you staring over my shoulder like that, my dear fellow,’ his friend Nick Lytton had joked.
Richard drummed his fingers on the frontispiece of a volume of poems. He was bored. No, not just bored, he was malcontent, though it pained him to admit it, for there was no logical reason to be so, and he was a man who valued logic above all else. Getting to his feet, he strode over to gaze out of the window. He was in no mood to be convivial, he had no urge for intellectual debate, and even the thought of whiling away an afternoon making love to a beautiful woman roused in him little more than mild ennui. Despite the endless opportunities with which his acknowledged charm and considerable wealth presented him, the pleasure he derived from love-making was becoming ever more unsatisfactory, leaving him spent but not sated. The sense that there was something vital missing from his life nagged at him.
He sighed heavily. Nick Lytton insisted that what he needed was a wife. Nick, who had for years forsworn matrimony, had recently been felled by a beautiful French heiress, and had now become a staunch advocate of the married state. Richard was not persuaded. Love was a transient illusion, a trick of nature designed to ensure the continuation of the species, nothing more. There was no such thing as eternal love, nor such a woman as the perfect mate. Richard had ever even come close to being mildly infatuated, never mind beguiled. Now, at six-and-thirty, he considered himself pretty much immune to emotions of that sort. As a man of science, he held that to be an entirely appropriate state of affairs.
Outside, the rain started to fall, the kind of soft grey drizzle that enveloped one like a damp blanket. It matched Richard’s mood perfectly. He pressed his forehead against the window pane and closed his eyes. There was much to be said for the reassuring predictability of science, but sometimes, just occasionally, it would be nice to experience the thrill of the unexpected.
London. The present.
Errin McGill pushed open the door of the small junk shop in Camberwell and paused, as she always did, to drink in the familiar evocative smell of old wood, mildewed books and damp upholstery. She loved this place, so much so that she always made it her first port of call on her regular buying trips from New York, though she rarely purchased anything here. Errin’s wealthy Manhattan clients demanded the very best, which meant genuine antiques in mint condition, without any of the scratches and signs of wear and tear which Errin herself preferred, for they gave each piece a provenance, a personality. But her rich clients weren’t really interested in history, they wanted ‘authentic’ period rooms, unsullied by evidence of real age. If antiques could somehow be botoxed, that’s what her clients would have her do to them.
She’d come straight here after dumping her bags at the hotel, having only two weeks in which to acquire a frighteningly long list of commissioned items. The flight from JFK had been delayed by three hours, and she hadn’t eaten since that fateful dinner with Mark the night before. Not that she’d eaten much then, not after Mark dropped his bombshell and produced, with a flourish, the Cartier box. She had been too shocked to do anything other than stare, and Mark, expecting delighted exclamations, had taken immediate offence. The ring, a diamond solitaire, winked up at her smugly. She hated it. Too big, way too showy, it would brand her indisputably as Mark’s property, another one of his expensively-acquired possessions.
Suddenly and with embarrassing clarity, Errin had realised that she didn’t love Mark. She would never love him, not in the crash, bang, dizzy, breathless way that true love should manifest itself. Nor experience that heart-stopping desperate-to-be-with-him, can’t-bear-to-be-without-him feeling. He was rich and gorgeous but that wasn’t enough. Despite her pragmatic sister Megan forever reminding her about biological clocks and career women, Errin wanted something she’d only read about in romance novels. What was wrong with shooting for the stars? She was only twenty-eight. Surely, out of the millions of men out there, her Mr Absolutely Perfect existed and was waiting for her?
Mark had been more angry than upset, stung by her refusal. He was, as he himself pointed out, an excellent catch. They’d been dating exclusively for over a year, so marriage was the next logical step, except now it made no sense whatsoever to Errin. ‘Your loss Errin, there’s plenty more fish in the sea,’ he’d sneered before storming off, sending their champagne flutes flying and drawing shocked stares from their fellow diners at Le Cirque.
Cringing now at the memory, Errin stooped to examine a companion set of brass fire irons, but although they were prettily made, they had been over-polished, the patina destroyed, so she put them back. Her head ached. Reaching up, she removed the clip which held her auburn hair back and shook it out, sighing with relief and rolling her shoulders in an effort to ease the tension in them.
She’d wanted to explain properly but Mark had refused to take her calls. She couldn’t really blame him, but nor was she sorry. When she got back from this trip, maybe it was time to make some other long-overdue changes to her life. Despite the phenomenal success of her interior design business, she was bored. It wasn’t how she’d pictured her life panning out when she graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts seven years ago. She’d imagined an exciting career doing something fulfilling and creative, not becoming a glorified personal shopper for people with more money than taste.
A wingback chair caught her eye. Mahogany, with cabriole legs and ball and claw feet, it was upholstered in dark brown leather. Early Regency, one of her favourite periods. She stooped to examine it more closely. It was in sad need of re-upholstering, but there was something captivating about it that made her want to try it out. She did so, snuggling into the high seat back, closing her eyes with a sigh of pleasure. The worn leather on the out-scrolled arms spoke of much use. It was a gentleman’s chair. She pictured it sitting in front of a roaring fire in a library or book room.
The chair seemed to envelop her, wrapping her in its welcoming embrace. Whoever he had been, the original owner was clearly a man who liked his comforts. Well-to-do, judging by the quality of this bespoke piece. Maybe a scholar, or a poet – the early Nineteenth Century was practically awash with poets. Errin smiled to herself. How different life must have been then. How romantic. How much she wished her life…
Her eyes grew heavy, and closed. There were flashing red lights behind her lids, a deeper more intense red swirled in the background, like a hot mist. She felt dizzy. Her fingers and toes tingled. The dizziness took a firmer hold, making her feel as if she were spinning round and falling backwards at the same time. The dazzling light hurt her eyes, but she couldn’t seem to prise her lids open. Then a sudden flash of white light burned through the crimson, making her sit bolt upright.