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Winning Violet by Lower, Becky (1)

Chapter One

Portsmouth, 1823

Parker hated England. He scanned the harbor, the pit in his stomach cavernous as he stared at the bleak, gray landscape in front of him.

The ship had only been docked for an hour and Parker Sinclair hadn’t yet set foot on English soil, but nonetheless, his hatred of the country had been ingrained in him from childhood. He stared at the gangplank, willing his body forward when he desperately wanted to turn tail and head back to Philadelphia.

But since that was not an option, Parker stumbled onto the cobblestoned street, jostled by all the dockworkers scrambling about, reminding him of a colony of ants as they loaded and unloaded ship after ship, hauling goods either on board or onto land.

 He groaned internally at his need to contract for a horse and buggy in order to get to Salisbury. At least two days’ travel lay ahead before he got to his final destination. Two days of being knocked about on a wooden plank seat, on roads pitted by the wheel marks of thousands who had come before him, with nothing to stare at except the soggy, rolling English countryside.

He heaved a sigh, positioned his satchel on his hip, paid to have his trunk delivered to the nearest livery, and hobbled there on foot, despite how the damp air affected his leg. Another thing he held the British accountable for, because one of their musket balls tearing through his leg had caused the limp. Might as well get on with things. The sooner he got started, the quicker he could return home. He took a deep breath of the briny air that stunk of fish and bent over, coughing.

“Where you ’eading to, mate?” The gangly man at the livery eyed Parker from head to toe, as if measuring the size of his wallet. His muscles were thin and ropey, his bones jutting out at all angles.

“Salisbury, I’m afraid, for about a month.” Parker grimaced.

“Do ya ’ave enough blunt to hire a horse and buggy for two fortnights?” The man studied Parker closely again and tossed his greasy hair.

“Yes, sir.” Parker tugged some money from the pouch he wore around his waist. “But I hope to return your horse and buggy earlier than a month’s time. Let’s get on with it.” He tried to control his facial expression this time. This man didn’t need to see what Parker truly thought about his country. He brushed his hand over his heart. His son would have been nearly twelve by now, if not for the British. Would he have enjoyed seeing all the ships in the harbor? Parker would never know.

“Well, you don’t appear none too ’appy ’bout makin’ the trip. What’s in Salisbury for you?” The livery man prodded as he set about getting the cart ready. His motions were practiced and quick.

“Have you been working the livery long? I’m impressed with your speed.” Parker attempted casual conversation in an effort to override the man’s observation.

“Naw, I’m only ’elpin’ out my friend today. But I’ve been around horses me whole life.” The man made a few minor adjustments to the cart reins.

At this rate, Parker would be on his way in no time.

On his way to a foreign town in a foreign country to buy foreign plants to take back to America. He could only guess what awaited him in the blasted village southwest of London. “I’m on my way to Mulberry Hill, the nursery and landscaping business.”

The man smacked his forehead with his hand. “Ach, you’ll ’ave to deal with those wretched sisters, then.”

Wretched sisters?

Parker shook his head, but a small part of him whispered the word sisters. As in more than one. Perhaps there could be a silver lining in Salisbury. Or a dark cloud. “I’m to meet with Mr. Wilson. I have no knowledge of sisters.”

“Wilson’s daughters. Four of ’em. Pretty as the flowers they grow, but prickly as a blackberry bush, too. Be on yer guard.” The man cackled, exposing missing teeth along with the remaining yellowed ones. He glanced over Parker’s shoulder into the interior of the darkened barn.

Parker’s head swam as his nose and lungs congested, and he lowered himself to a bale of hay to wait for the buggy to be readied. The wind had picked up outside the stables, and he shivered in his coat as a blast of cold air invaded the dwelling. Suddenly, pain exploded in the back of his head, and his world became dark.

• • •

Parker woke to the wind howling outside and a raging headache. He struggled to sit up and could not suppress a moan as his body screamed in pain. What had happened? The horse, buggy, and the livery man were gone. The last words the man had spouted were “Be on yer guard.” Evidently, he hadn’t meant only with the wretched sisters.

Parker stood, cradling his aching cranium. Moisture seeped through his fingers, and he lowered them to stare at his bloodstained hands. He lurched about the barn in an effort to make sense of the situation. A quick glance out the door showed the weak sun low in the sky. How long had he been passed out? Where were his things? His trunk? His all-important satchel with his sketches and his notes on what to buy? He peered into the barn’s shadows, searching for the livery man. Or his accomplice, the man who had snuck up behind him and dealt the blow that laid him out, evidently for hours.

He shook his head and groaned as a dusting of hay fell from his hair. His body had been compromised by this gloomy weather, and now it appeared he’d been robbed as soon as he’d set foot in this terrible country. More reasons to hate England. He stumbled around the barn and located his trunk, which had been forced open, and the contents, what was left of them, anyway, strewn about. He searched for his money pouch around his waist. Gone. Why did that not surprise him? Did the man and his accomplice rob everyone who came in to buy their services? Or did they limit their actions only to Americans?

His satchel had been opened and the papers riffled through, but otherwise, nothing was amiss there. Apparently, his robbers didn’t care much for his precious notes and sketches. His trunk had not fared so well. All that had been left behind was an old pair of well-worn boots and a crude work shirt.

Parker applauded himself that he had listened on board when the sailors talked about tucking their money into their boots. The money from McMahon Nursery, his employer, was still safe under his heels.

Parker stood in the stable, hands on his hips, and took stock of his situation. He’d lost a day’s travel, his possessions had been decreased considerably, but the most important parts of what he was transporting were safe. It could have been worse. It could also have been so much better.

Parker sat on the hay bale again and stared at the empty trunk. Dammit, anyway. At least he no longer had need of the buggy. Perhaps he’d been dealt a favor. All he needed now for transport to Mulberry Hill was the back of a horse. He could get out of this unwelcoming port town before night fell completely, and be in Salisbury by tomorrow afternoon. According to his maps, the town was some forty miles away.

He didn’t hesitate, even though his head pounded with each movement. He removed his handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed away the blood, wincing each time he touched the wound. “Salisbury, here I come.” He mumbled as he threw a saddle over the back of the nearest horse, and attached a bridle. He’d paid dearly already for the use of the horse, so he wasn’t technically stealing. With any luck, the horse would be swift and he could make it to Salisbury before he caught pneumonia. Blasted England.

Of course, he might lose his way in the darkness and end up going in the opposite direction from where he needed to go. Or he could be set upon by marauding thieves, who would find very little left to steal. Yet if he stayed here any longer, he’d lose his opportunity to nab a horse and leave. He’d take his chances.

• • •

Violet Wilson removed her goatskin gloves with cowhide cuffs that covered her arms almost to her elbows and flung them onto her father’s desk. She appreciated their weighty sound as they hit the wood. The sound matched her attitude. She perched on the edge of the stuffed, earthen-colored velvet chair in her father’s office, not collapsing into the comfortable seat as she usually did. Today, she needed to clear up this matter as soon as possible and get back to her greenhouse. “Why must it be me?”

Her father, Edgar, took a deep breath before he raised his gaze from the letter he’d been reading. He took off his eyeglasses and riffled his fingers through his hair, then bit into a slice of a shiny red apple. Her father’s favorite stall tactic. The delay gave him time to form a response.

Violet’s fingers itched to smooth the tangled web of his graying hair, but she held back. She also hungered for a slice of his succulent apple, but she held back on that as well. Any touch on her part, or request for food, would give him an advantage. And she needed to not be upended in her quest. Her plants and her experiments were her main concern, not some bloody American.

He stared at her as his brow furrowed. “I suppose ‘because I said so’ will not be a sufficient enough explanation?”

Violet laughed at his absurd comment, but the sound came out harsh, as if she’d just swallowed gritty sand. “No, Father, that explanation hasn’t worked for years. Why not assign the American to Iris instead?”

Edgar sighed heavily and ran his hand over his eyes. “Our guest is making a personal appearance because one of McMahon Nursery’s most important clients, Thomas Jefferson, needs a huge bed of roses to line his drive, and it’s Mr. Sinclair’s duty to create such a display for him. You’re the rose expert. Iris could only show him how much profit we make off each plant he will buy, not the proper care, feeding, and peculiarities of each type.”

“Can’t you handle him instead? I have too much work to do.” Violet chafed, chewing her lip as the minutes dragged on and she hadn’t yet completed their conversation to her satisfaction.

“And I don’t? Your greenhouse is only one part of my business.” Her father lifted the mound of letters and invoices he had on his desk and let them fall back onto the surface before he plowed his fingers through his unkempt hair again. He puffed out his cheeks before he spoke. “Mr. McMahon has expressly asked for his employee, a Mr. Parker Sinclair, to be instructed on how to hybridize roses while he’s here selecting the roses he will purchase. You’re the only one he can learn the technique from, so you must be the one to take him under your wing. I’ll meet with him several times to show him how we operate our business, but the bulk of his time will be spent with you.”

“He’s only going to get underfoot. I may have to step on him.” She jumped up and paced in front of the desk. “How long will he remain?”

“You will behave yourself during his visit, Violet, and act as a proper young English lady. His plans are to stay a month, learn all he can from you about your hybridizing techniques, and then return to Philadelphia.” Her father tracked her pacing.

“A month, Father?” Violet croaked, ceasing her movement as she leaned over the desk, her face inches away from his. “Surely, I’ll perish before thirty days are up.” She returned to her chair, this time falling awkwardly into the overstuffed monstrosity in hopes she would suffocate herself.

Instead of suffocating, she raised her head and glared at her father. “What information do you have on the man? Is he older and will he have to be shown my techniques time and again? That would be the only reason he needs a month here.” Violet had to have some advance knowledge of what she would be up against. To come up with a plan. An older man, a scholarly botanist, she could deal with. Younger men only got her into trouble. She shooed away the thought of the last time a young man had captivated her and how she still paid dearly for that dalliance.

“I don’t have any information on the man other than he’s a trusted, esteemed employee of McMahon Nursery, which has purchased a considerable amount of merchandise from us over the years. So you will do what you can to teach him and be cordial during his visit. He’ll be here by tomorrow morning, unless the road between Portsmouth and here has been washed out, so spend the rest of today mapping out a plan for an orderly teaching experience.” Her father spoke firmly, put his glasses back on, and picked up another piece of correspondence. Then he raised his gaze to Violet, who had yet to move. “Consider it practice for the day you present your findings to the Royal Horticultural Society. You’re very close, and I have no doubt the Society will want you as part of their lecture tour, possibly as early as next year.”

Violet vaulted out of the comfortable chair and loomed over her father’s desk again. “While I may wish to capture the attention of the Royal Horticultural Society, I have no wish to be part of their lecture tour. I only want to stay in my greenhouse.”

Edgar raised one eyebrow. “You may be able to fool everyone else, Violet, but I’ve seen your notes on your experiments. You follow the Horticultural Society’s guidelines to the letter. You may not wish for the attention. But you do desire the adulation.”

“Not so, Father. I only wish to accomplish my goal with the Lady Banks. Then I’ll cease my experiments.” She shook her head.

“I don’t believe you for a moment, Violet. Once you accomplish what you’ve set out to with the Lady Banks, you’ll be on to another rose, trying to make it hardier or to bloom more frequently. There will always be a project for you. That’s the way your mind is wired.” Edgar reached over the desk and took hold of Violet’s hands. “And I, for one, am in awe of your expertise. Now, we have to make certain Mr. Sinclair is likewise impressed.”

Her father’s assessment of her ambitions was not far off the mark. She had set a goal years ago of being recognized for her work by the Royal Horticultural Society and becoming a respected member of the botanical community. But she’d never revealed her desire to anyone.

“You are aware dealing with this intruder will set back my hybridizing efforts by weeks, aren’t you? If I’m ever to prove my findings and have them validated, I must maintain a strict schedule.” Her voice edged close to wailing, and she squeezed her lips together. Her father didn’t care for whining women.

Edgar raised his hand and stroked her cheek. “You remind me so much of your mother when you get your ire up. You will survive, my dearest Violet, and the American will be terribly impressed by your knowledge and the work you are undertaking.”

She straightened again and stared at her father. “Flattery, Father, has never worked on me. I have no wish to impress the American. I have no wish to ever leave my greenhouse. I’m comfortable with my plants; their needs are simple. When their leaves droop, I water them. If they begin to lose their color, I add fertilizer. People are a different matter entirely. They talk quite a bit, but I’m never certain of their motives.”

Her father stood, ending their conversation, and placed an arm around Violet’s waist as he ushered her to the door. “You must let down your guard and face the world sooner or later, Violet. The work you’re doing is important, and all of England and beyond will need to be informed once you’ve successfully completed your experiments. Think of the boon to our business once you have hybrids we can sell. Hiding away in a greenhouse is no way to live.”

“No, but hiding is a way to survive.” She dropped her shoulders and pivoted away from him toward the door. At the threshold, she stopped and glanced back at her father. “All right. As you wish, I’ll teach Mr. Sinclair all he needs in one month’s time or less, if possible. Then he’ll be on his way back to America, and I’ll have my greenhouse to myself again. And, I’ll mark the days of his visit off on my calendar in bold black ink.”

Perhaps an oversized calendar showing only thirty days. She would hang the calendar on the back wall in her office so every day Mr. Sinclair would bear witness to how much of her precious time he took up and would wrap up his business quickly. How long could it possibly take to select a hundred varieties of roses? She’d be courteous, of course, but if she didn’t stray from her teaching, did not attempt to engage him in idle conversation, made certain he never got comfortable in her space, perhaps he’d leave before his thirty days were finished.

• • •

At dinner that evening, her sisters were all abuzz about their soon-to-be guest. “Ooh, an American,” cooed Poppy, the youngest of the group. “We’ve entertained Europeans before but never an American. What have you learned about him, Father?”

Violet scowled at the remark. “Americans, from what I’ve read, are uncouth and vulgar. Not at all proper, like the British. I’m not relishing this visit at all. If any of you would prefer he spend his visit with you, please volunteer. I won’t be at all offended.”

Edgar helped himself to a mound of mashed potatoes before he spoke. “We’ve been doing business with his firm in the United States for years, but how much can one really tell from that?”

“Where will he be staying?” Lily, younger than Violet by a year, passed the plate of chicken to her right before she took the bowl of potatoes from her father and helped herself. “Are we to put him up here in the house?” She glanced around the table. “This could get quite interesting.” Her grin lit the room.

“He’s got a room at the inn already bought and paid for by his employer. I specifically told them we had no room to lodge him here. I cannot allow him to stay here with the four of you. I have your reputations to uphold, after all. I still pray one of you will marry a man with an interest in plants who can take over the reins of the business from me someday.” Edgar glanced up from his meal and studied his daughters.

“You mean someone like Mr. Sinclair?” Poppy’s eyes danced with merriment.

Her father picked up his fork. “No. That’s not why the American is coming here. He’s probably already married, anyway. I mean a proper British fellow. Besides, Mr. Sinclair is to spend most of his time with Violet because he wishes to learn about hybridizing roses, and I’m sure Violet won’t be tempted by him, because she barely speaks to any men.”

“So Violet gets to spend the most time with him? That’s not exactly fair.” Poppy pouted at her sister. “I do hope you’ll do something with your hair, Violet. After all, you will be representing all of us.” She then gave a sidelong glance at her father as she played with the peas on her plate. “And if he’s to be with Violet, shouldn’t there be a chaperone? I could take time from my studies to fill the role.”

Iris, the eldest of the daughters, snorted at Poppy’s suggestion. “You’ll do anything to get out of your schoolwork, won’t you? Violet will be safe with him and vice versa, rest assured. As Father said, she barely speaks to any man who comes to visit, so this will be no different.”

Lily ran a hand through her short hair and glanced down the table at Violet. “Why, Violet, do you not talk to men, anyway? That’s all I do, all day, every day. Give my workmen direction. I don’t have a problem with men, nor does Poppy, or even Iris, for that matter.”

“Not that it’s anyone’s business, but I find most men uncouth and not worth my time.”

Violet shrunk inside her clothing. Davey had certainly not been worth her time. Poppy had to draw attention to the deficiencies in her appearance, to her unruly hair, and then point out how inappropriate this whole visit would be with no chaperone. Just the two of them, alone in the greenhouse day upon day. But Violet had faced adversity before. As long as her barbed tongue still worked, she’d be fine.

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