Authors: Wendy Soliman
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
Beth wrinkled her brow. “As always, Leah, you’re far too clever for me. How do you fathom that he’s involved?”
“Because he’s here quite a lot but hardly ever seen, because he won’t confront Mrs. Wilkinson—”
“You can’t condemn him for that.”
“Perhaps not, but I’m sure he
there this afternoon.” Leah grinned at her sister. “He’s reputed to be a forthright gentleman and so if he was in residence, I can’t imagine him leaving his brother to face Mrs. Wilkinson without good reason. Like not wanting to discuss the Boar with her.” Leah set her chin. “I just know I’m on to something. I can sense it.”
“And if you are, is it your intention to ruin the reputation of the most prestigious family in the locality by exposing their misdeeds?”
“That rather depends upon what they’re up to.”
Beth sighed. “I despair.”
“Darling, you mustn’t fret so. You’ll set yourself back.”
“I’m no longer unwell.”
“Precisely my point. You shall recover completely and then make a splendid marriage. You’ll attract the attention of a dozen rich and handsome men, who will challenge one another to duels, just for the honour of dancing with you.”
“Duelling is illegal.”
Leah suppressed a smile. “I was not speaking figuratively.”
“Even so, you can’t mean what you say. There is nothing particular about me. You’re simply biased because you’re my sister.”
“You and Gabriel Forster would make a beautiful couple,” Leah said speculatively. “Both blond and beautiful, both charming, both—”
“Stop it!” Beth threw a cushion at her sister. “Do stop it. You exaggerate so.”
“I do not. You
beautiful, charming, you have a kindly disposition...in short, everything that a man could possibly want in a wife. Unlike me,” she added with a wry grin. “But in order for you to make an impression we must first raise the funds to furnish you with a suitable wardrobe.”
“Oh no, Leah. There’s no need to go to that expense.” Beth became quite agitated, which brought on a coughing fit.
Leah moved to sit beside her sister on the sofa, reached for a glass of water, and supported Beth’s head whilst she took a sip.
“Better?” she asked when the coughing abated.
“Yes, thank you. But to return to the subject under discussion, I can make whatever new clothes I need.”
Yes, you can, but as things stand, we can’t even afford to patronise Miss Lewis’s dreary drapery.
“Your sewing is exquisite, darling, but I would not have you strain your eyes.”
“Then what else am I to do with myself all day?” It was as close to a complaint as Beth had ever come about her enforced idleness. “You can’t support us alone. Pray, allow me to do my part.”
“Get well,” Leah said, gently pinching her sister’s cheek. “If you wish to help, then do that much for me.”
“That I certainly shall. I feel so much better already.”
Leah cuddled her sister, careful not to hold her too tightly and create another coughing fit. “You and I will do very well here for the summer. After that we shall just have to see.”
“What about you, Leah? You seem to have me married off and settled but you’ve said nothing about your own aspirations.”
“Me? Oh, marriage isn’t for me. I’m not the docile type, nor do I take kindly to being told how to behave.”
Beth’s smile was laced with obvious affection. “That’s certainly true. But if the right gentleman were to—”
“There’s no right gentleman for me, of that I’m quite sure. So instead of matrimony, I shall look after your children, write scurrilous articles for whichever newspaper will pay me the most, and generally make you ashamed of me.”
Beth gurgled with laughter. “I shall never be ashamed of you, nor can you shock me, so don’t think to try it.”
“Just as well,” Leah said, grinning, “because I think it’s time Leon put in an appearance at the Boar’s Head this evening.”
The sisters dined early, as was their habit. Beth, still weak from her illness, retired for the night before darkness fell. As soon as the door closed behind her, Leah swung into action.
“We shall be going out in half an hour, Jonny,” she told their young lad.
“Right you are, miss.” As always he displayed no curiosity and Leah knew he would do whatever she asked of him without asking awkward questions. Meg would be a very different matter but, for the moment, contented herself with a disapproving tut.
Leah removed to her chamber. Turning herself into Leon necessitated the removal of her gown and petticoats. She seldom wore a corset, but her chemise remained in place. Wincing as she bound her breasts with strips of old sheeting, the task was soon accomplished. She then pulled on a pair of tight-fitting breeches and covered her upper body with a plaid shirt and jerkin. Her hair was more problematic. Falling almost to her waist, it took no little ingenuity and many hairpins to tame it into a bun on the crown of her head so that she could cover it with a full cap. Its distinctive colour worked against her when she wished to make covert investigations. If a strand should escape she was likely to be recognized immediately. Leah stifled a giggle when she imagined Mrs. Wilkinson’s reaction, were that to happen. The poor woman would probably have a fit of the vapours.
As satisfied as she could be that her tresses would remain in place, Leah pulled on thick stockings and a sturdy pair of boots and wrapped a muffler round her neck.
Jonny waited for her at the kitchen door, Pickle at his side.
“Where are we going, miss?” he asked, striding along beside Leah and whistling to Pickle when he disappeared into the hedgerow, presumably in pursuit of rats.
“To the Boar’s Head.”
He nodded, making no comment as to the wisdom of such action.
“I especially wish to discover what goes on behind that establishment.”
“There’s a big open area that leads to the edge of the cliff. A path goes down to a cove.”
“I know that, but what’s in the cove? That’s what interests me.”
Jonny sniffed. “Might get a bit rough.”
“That’s why I’ve brought you and Pickle with me.”
“Best keep to the shadow,” Jonny said as they approached the tavern.
Raucous laughter could be heard from within. A rough-looking sailor spilled out the door, a wench held tight against his side as he kissed her mouth and clumsily fondled her body.
“Oh my!” Leah said quietly.
The amorous pair disappeared round the side of the building, fortunately not in the direction that interested Leah.
“If we go round this way,” Jonny said, “we can hide in those bushes near the edge of the cliff. That way we’ll see if anyone arrives but they won’t see us.”
“Good thinking.” Leah could vaguely make out the shape of a ship at anchor. “I wonder whose boat that is.”
“It’s the marquess’s schooner.”
Leah shot Jonny a penetrating glance. “How do you know that?”
He shrugged. “Common knowledge hereabouts.”
Well, it was news to Leah. She wasn’t even aware that he possessed a ship. So much for her investigative powers. Still, she hadn’t previously been aware that the marquess might be of interest from a professional standpoint, so she forgave herself for not knowing.
“Perhaps that’s where he disappears to whenever he wants to avoid the local townswomen.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.” Jonny cast a considering look at the looming ship. “Do you want me to keep an eye out and see where he goes?”
“No, Jonny, thanks all the same. That won’t be necessary.” At least Leah didn’t think it would be. “Is it here all the time? The boat, I mean.”
“It comes and goes.” Jonny sniffed and Leah pretended not to notice when he wiped his hand across his nose. “Rumour has it that he did something important for the government during the war and used his ship to slip in and out of France.”
“Did he now?”
As they settled down to wait, Leah pondered that snippet of information, wondering if he did take after his father. It was colder than she’d anticipated. A sharp wind pushed in from the sea, chilling her bones. She shivered and pulled the collar of her jerkin up round her ears, winding the muffler over it. Light spilled from the windows at the back of the tavern, sufficient for her to see that the area of common land behind it was totally deserted.
“Perhaps nothing will happen tonight,” she said quietly after half an hour of no activity at all. She was severely disappointed. She had been so sure she was on to something. Besides, after all the trouble she’d gone to, she really needed something interesting to occur.
“It’s early yet,” Jonny whispered back.
“We’ll give it a bit longer then.”
Leah had cramp in her toes and was starting to lose all feeling in her fingers. The life of a newspaperwoman certainly wasn’t glamorous. Even so, she refused to be defeated and was unwilling to accept that she might have got it all wrong.
“Someone’s coming,” Jonny whispered.
Leah pushed the branches of her bush aside, her eyes widening with shock. A whole group of men, and some scantily clad women, spilled out of the tavern. Others entered the area direct from the road and formed a rough circle round the vacant plot.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Dunno, but I think it might be a mill.”
“A bare-knuckle fight.”
“I know what a mill is.”
But she’d never seen one and wasn’t sure if she actually wanted to. A moment’s indecision was all it took to bring her to her senses. She was here to investigate and she couldn’t back down now, just because she didn’t much care for the sight of blood.
She could see money changing hands. A man in a threadbare greatcoat and top hat was accepting bets. There was almost a carnival atmosphere as the group swelled in numbers, trading rowdy greetings and good-natured insults. Men stamped their feet, impatient for the activity to begin, others busied themselves with foaming tankards of ale.
After about fifteen minutes, two men appeared, stripped to the waist. Clearly, they were the fighters. Leah crawled out of her hiding place.
“Here, where are you going, miss?”
“To watch, of course.”
“I don’t think you should—”
“Nonsense! This is very interesting.”
Before Jonny could formulate further objections, Leah crept to the edge of the ring of men, standing on her toes and peering between their shoulders to get the best view that she could. The easiest place to hide was in a crowd. Besides, she’d never seen a man anything other than fully clothed before. If she was to be a full-fledged reporter, she really needed to broaden her horizons.
Frankly, she was rather fascinated by what she saw. Muscled torsos, at least when their owners were literally fighting fit, were strangely compelling. Perhaps she could write something about that for the paper—give a female’s point of view without making it too apparent that it was written by a woman. Mr. Morris might find that sufficiently different to appeal.
When the fighting started, Leah was impressed by the combatants’ skill. She was equally horrified by their brutality and single-minded determination to inflict as much damage on one another as possible. Kill or be killed, she supposed, hoping that thought didn’t reflect their true purpose.
The two men danced round each another, seeming to know exactly when to strike. The noise was deafening as the spectators screamed for blood. They shouted encouragement and raucous comments, as though men beating the life out of one another was a cause for celebration. Leah felt she ought to be repelled but became caught up in the excitement of the event in spite of her misgivings. The smaller man’s nose cracked beneath an especially vicious blow that he failed to avoid. The crowd erupted into loud cheering as his opponent went in for the kill, pounding the poor man’s face until it was a river of blood.
Leah looked away, feeling slightly sick but unwilling to admit as much to Jonny. Not that he would have noticed. He was totally taken up with the spectacle, face shining as he cheered loudly each time a blow landed. Leah directed her gaze round the clearing, seemingly the only person present not entirely focused on the fight. If someone was using the event as cover for something illegal, she ought to have been alert to that possibility rather than following the action, willing the smaller man to succeed.
“Have you seen anything suspicious?” she asked Jonny.
“Only that chap’s left hook,” Jonny replied, his gaze still fastened on the fight.
“Oh, my goodness, the small man’s got up again.” Leah felt extreme agitation. “Surely he ought to stay down. We must do something to stop this!” She dashed forward. “He’ll be killed if we don’t.”
Jonny grabbed her arm, showing a surprising amount of strength for such a thin youth. “You’ll be the one killed if you try that.”
“Maybe, but this is barbaric—”
“The small chap knows he has to fight on. There would be a riot if he gave in so easily.”
“So easily? He just—”
Another loud cheer, Jonny contributing to it as enthusiastically as anyone. “Did you see that, miss? I told you the little guy wasn’t finished. He just planted the big chap a right facer.”
Leah blinked, hardly able to believe her eyes. The larger man was now the one prostrate on the ground. His smaller opponent stood over him on swaying legs, blood covering his torso, ready to strike again if his foe was foolish enough to stir. It seemed that he wasn’t. The fight was over.
Men started to move and Leah suddenly had a clear view of the men standing across from her. She gasped when she noticed a tall man in well-cut clothes, blond hair tied back in a queue, looking directly at her.
* * *
Hal noticed the two lads and the scruffy dog emerge from the bushes when the fight started. More than that, he’d seen them arrive and conceal themselves there sometime before. They were both slight of build—probably no more than fourteen or fifteen years old—but he was pretty sure they weren’t locals. He’d certainly not seen them around before. Why hide? If they wanted to watch the fight, they only needed to arrive with the rest of the crowd. Hal wondered if they’d been sent here deliberately. If they were the scouts he’d been expecting these past weeks. Was this, at last, the break he’d been waiting for? It seemed unlikely. They didn’t look as though they could handle themselves if the going got tough, but too much was riding on his ability to keep on top of the situation here at the Boar’s Head to dismiss any possibility, however slight.
He watched the fight with half an eye, all the while keeping the two lads in his sights. Who were they working for? Should he let them go and have Robert get one of his men to keep a watch on them, see where they led, or should he confront them himself?
The decision was made for him when the fight came to an abrupt end. The challenger had a broken nose and one eye was completely closed. His injuries clearly lulled his opponent into a false sense of security. Taken unawares, he was now laid out cold and there was a stampede for Roker. He’d taken a drubbing tonight, since the champ was supposed to win. The two lads stood where they were, obviously unsure what to do next. Without hesitation, Hal strolled across to join them.
“Are you lost?” he asked amiably, giving them an unobtrusive once-over.
“What’s it to you?” asked the scruffier lad belligerently.
“Merely passing the time of day. Or should I say, night.”
His gaze rested on the second lad, who had yet to speak. There was something about him. Those slim legs, that pert backside...his gaze took in the boy’s face and he allowed himself to wonder. He’d seen those dancing eyes somewhere before. And quite recently.
Realization came crashing in on him. He’d never seen a youth quite so perfectly formed, but the same couldn’t be said for the female of the species. This was that mousy creature who’d been part of Mrs. Wilkinson’s deputation earlier today. He hadn’t been able to see that her eyes were such a remarkable silver but if he still doubted her identity, those plump, highly kissable lips and the strand of red hair had that escaped her cap settled the matter.
Surely the vicar’s wife hadn’t sent her, so what in the name of Hades was she doing here? It wasn’t safe for a young woman. If he could see through her disguise so easily, God alone knows, it wouldn’t take the rest of this mob long to make the connection. If that happened, there would be no saving her without undoing all the work he’d put in here for his own purposes.
Quite why Hal felt such an overwhelming desire to protect the interfering creature from her own folly, he was unable to say. Whatever her reason for being here, it could only be bad news from his perspective. Even so, he admired her courage. He liked her a lot better like this than he did as a shrinking violet, cowed beneath the force of Mrs. Wilkinson’s indomitable will. It must have taken courage to come here with just a young lad and a scrawny dog to safeguard her...courage driven by a deep desire to learn what, precisely? Only one type of female ever came to this place, and Miss—damn it, he’d forgotten her name—certainly didn’t enter into that category.
Hal felt a devilish desire to teach her a lesson. “Come inside, lads, and have some ale. It’s cold as the grave out here.”
“No, it’s all right,” she said. Hal shot the woman—Miss Elliott, was it?—an inquisitive glance. She looked away, apparently realizing that she’d spoken in her own voice. “We need to be getting back.” This time her words were a gravelly slur, partly because she’d pulled a muffler over her mouth, covering half her features with it, but leaving the row of freckles that bedecked her retroussé nose delightfully exposed. Hal hadn’t known that he held freckles in such high regard.
“Nonsense.” Hal clapped her on the back. She flinched but gamely stood her ground. “I wouldn’t hear of it.”
“Oh, very well then.”
The dog inserted itself between Hal and the woman as the three of them walked towards the tavern. It alternately growled and wagged, proving itself to be a most inept guardian.
Hal bent to scratch its ears. “What do you call the mutt?”