Authors: Margaret Bennett
Tags: #Nov. Rom
Melvyrn met Roeburn’s unblinking gaze. He knew what the
Marquess wanted, but he had no intentions of making it easy for his superior.
Roeburn coughed behind his hand. “If I remember right, your family has property around that area.”
Melvyrn lifted one eyebrow a fraction of an inch. “Since you’ve mentioned it, I presume you’re referring to Cliffe Manor.”
“Yes, that’s the place. By the coast, is it?”
“I was there but once when I was a small child. But I recall the Channel is within sight of the house.”
“Then the place is habitable?”
“According to Josiah Gilmore’s reports. He’s the bailiff with whom I correspond.”
A question hung in the air. It wasn’t about bravery. Before the death of his father two years ago, Melvyrn had been an officer on Wellington’s staff and had proven his mettle more than once. Since then, Melvyrn’s familial duties had taken priority
, though he continued serving his country in a diplomatic capacity. Now, however, if this band of benevolent smugglers was indeed a cover for a French spy ring, Melvyrn could find himself in a dangerous situation.
“I’ll lay it out for you, Melvyrn,” Roeburn said, shifting through the stack of papers on the desk until he came to the one he sought. “These
smugglers are probably no different from any others. Just a few locals taking advantage of the embargo and doing a bit of free trading. Whatever the case, they’ve made a valuable contact with the Frenchman who’s helping our men. If he’s on the up and up, the War Office would like to use him as a go-between for relaying messages to our agents in Marquise and Amiens.”
Melvyrn uncrossed his leg and leaned forward. “One of my men in Portugal, Luther Tolliver, lives thereabouts
in Folkestone. An excellent sergeant, he took several hits before one in the leg at Salamanca invalided him home. With your permission, I’d like to enlist his help.”
“Use your discretion,” Roeburn replied with a wave of his hand. “However, before you disappear in the height of the Season, you ought to put about a rumor that you’re headed for your hunting box or something to that effect.”
“Yes, my sister for one will be unhappy to hear that I’m leaving town. By the bye, you’ll be at Mattie’s rout tonight?” Melvyrn knew that his eldest sister expected the Marquess at her ball.
“Never fear,” Roeburn let out a rare, good humored chuckle.
“With an invitation from a renowned hostess as Lady Matilda Egremont, I’ve more sense than not to show up at the affair. Besides, my wife’s a close friend of your sister. Don’t suppose you’ve an inkling of what you’re going to tell Lady Egremont? She’s a wise one and won’t take your defection from Town lightly.”
You’re right. Mattie’ll raise a stink. I’d lay a monkey there’s a bevy of debutantes lined up for me to meet tonight. I’m the last of the Melvyrns, and though I’ve named her eldest boy my heir, Mattie has made it plain as pikestaff she wants me leg shackled to secure the line with a son of my own.”
Melvyrn paused, his mind dwelling on his dubious thoughts concerning the state of matrimony.
“I think a good lie is in order, Roeburn.”
Marquess grinned. “Just what sort of whisker have you in mind?”
“As I don’t want an entourage of eligible females following me--which is exactly the sort of peahen scheme my sister would hatch--I think I’ll develop a relapse of a recurring fever I contracted in Portugal.”
“Never knew you got that cursed fever, Melvyrn?”
“I didn’t, but my sister doesn’t know that. If she thinks I’m ill, she might leave me alone. Between Mattie and my other four sisters, it will be a welcome respite to get away from
the scheming lot for a while.”
“Well, I wish you luck,” said Roeburn. “But in my experience, once a female gets
a bee in her bonnet, whether it’s for matchmaking or otherwise, there’s simply no gainsaying her. At any rate, I’ll say no more about your assignment, even though I’ll see you tonight.” He reached across the desk and grasped Melvyrn’s hand. “Be careful. I’d hate to answer to all five of your sisters should anything happen to your carcass.”
Melvyrn loathed traveling cooped up in his coach. More to the point, he preferred riding his huge black stallion. But to keep up the ruse of poor health, he and Bailey, his former batman now valet, left his Mayfair townhouse early in the morning. Together, they used the time to discuss the details for his supposed illness, in which the garrulous Bailey took great delight. The skeletal staff at Cliffe Manor would doubtless report Melvyrn’s every action to the locals, so it was imperative that Bailey help him perpetuate his cover as a convalescent.
afternoon of the second day of tedious travel, the carriage turned through Cliffe Manor’s stone pillar gates. A long drive led up to the manor house. Melvyrn was pleased to note that the lane was well maintained. He had few recollections of the house itself and so was surprised by its rambling size, comprised of several additions, all topped with gables and sundry chimneys. The Channel winds had buffed the rambling gray stone structure, giving it a warm glow in the fading sunlight. At the rear of the house he glimpsed a large stone barn and an oast house with its conical roof.
When the coach stopped, a stout man with a bronzed face hurried out on the steps. Bailey first hopped down and made a
show of helping Melvyrn alight.
“Welcome to Cliff
e Manor, my lord. I am Josiah Gilmore.”
“It’s a distinct pleasure to put a face to your name, Mr. Gilmore.” And it was, thought Melvyrn as his gaze roamed over the velvety green lawns. “Your correspondence has always been informative and concise. At first glance, it appears you’ve done an excellent job in keeping up
Behind Gilmore stood an older man, tall, thin, and nearly bald. He stepped forward and bowed at the waist. “Good afternoon, my lord. I am Hixon. It is an honor to welcome you, and may I say on behalf of the entire staff how delighted we are to have you here at
efore the major-demo could toad-eat him, Melvyrn acquainted him with Bailey. “My valet will see to all my needs, Hixon. Anything you want from me, apply through Bailey.” Ignoring Hixon’s disappointed expression, Melvyrn climbed the flagstone steps and greeted the short row of servants lined up on the long terrace.
Afterwards, he retired to his study, a masculine room with
cherry wainscoting and bookshelves with a burgundy settee and chairs grouped around the gray stone fireplace, and a large cherry desk that looked out on the front lawn. Gilmore joined him and soon was explaining the estate’s accounts. While discussing the tenants, Melvyrn asked, “How big is the village?”
estone is not large, a several hundred or so homes, but since the War Office built the Shorncliffe Redoubt and with revenuers about, it sees more traffic of late.”
“Revenuers mean smuggling,” Melvyrn
ventured cautiously. “Is there much of that going on around here?”
Turning his back to Melvyrn, Gilmore picked up a ledger and said, “Not that I’m aware of, my lord.”
Melvyrn didn’t reply. Gilmore’s actions spoke volumes, and Melvyrn decided to keep an eye on his bailiff.
Later that evening, Melvyrn quizzed Bailey as the valet assisted him in taking off his form-fitting jacket. “How’s everything in the servants’ quarters?”
“Nothing unusual, milord. Though the housekeeper’s niece’s daughter, now there’s a rare article of womanhood.”
Melvyrn chuckled. “At it already, Bailey?”
It amazed Melvyrn how his tall, heavy set, and nearly bald valet succeeded as a lothario.
“Man’s got to have company now and aga
“Did you see or hear anything that would indicate something unusual was afoot?”
“Not a thing.”
“Were you able to ask about
“I did. ‘Course, it’s a mite early for any confidences, you understand. To the like
s of them, I’m a puffed up Londoner. They ain’t likely to take to a stranger early on, begging your pardon, milord.”
“I understand, Bailey.” Melvyrn hadn’t really expected much on the first day. There always existed that clash between the more sophisticated town servants and their country counterparts. Still, the valet’s report was disturbing. For one, time was a factor.
If the locals did, in fact, hold a secret, like a village full of smugglers, it would be even harder for his likeable and loquacious valet to break the social barrier. “Don’t push too hard, Bailey. We don’t want to make them suspicious.”
“That I won’t,” Bailey
replied with a wily smile. “I figure playing the lovesick swan, they’ll cozen up to me sooner. Them higher ups like Hixon don’t want one of their own making a bloody fool of himself over some lowly wench like the scullery maid, Janey, be she ever an eyeful.”
The next morning, though up before dawn, Melvyrn kept to his rooms. To foster the invalid image, he sent Bailey down to the kitchen for a breakfast tray. “Be sure you tell the other servants that I slept fitfully.”
“Huh,” Bailey tossed over his shoulder with one hand on the door knob. “They’ll hear more than that. Kept me up all
hours, you did, calling out like a delirious halfwit for most the night.”
An hour passed before the valet returned carrying a tray covered with a linen towel. “
Here you go, milord,” Bailey called out cheerfully.
Melvyrn laid aside
his correspondence and rose from the small writing desk. “About time. A man could starve to death waiting on you.”
Bailey set the tray on top of a lacquered cabinet and slipped off the towel to reveal tea and toast. “Got just what you requested, milord. An invalid’s breakfast.” When Melvyrn groaned his disgust, the valet’s face split in a broad grin as he opened a
dresser drawer and lifted out a covered dish. “I twigged two biscuits, cheese and an apple after dinner last night to help fortify you some. Even got a flask of home brew to wash it all down.”
“You’re a wizard, Bailey. A paltry diet like this,” Melvyrn said, pointing to the tray, “
will have me as weak as a babe by day’s end.”
“Well now, your staff don’t have to starve just because the lord of the manor don’t happen to be in prime form. Anyways, the housekeeper’s taken a liking to me since I’ve got me eyes on a family member. Aims to fatten me up for the slaughter is what she
plans to do.”
“Stow it, you old flirt,” Melvyrn laughed. “Bring that food over here before I perish from hunger. One more thing, Bailey. I need to slip out for a bit this morning. Tell Grimsley to saddle Hector and meet me in the woods behind the barn in an hour. He can use the excuse that he’s got to exercise the stallion.”
“Why would you be wanting to blow our cover so early in the game?” Bailey wore a confused expression. “Folks around here are bound to see you.”
“I’m supposed to be recovering from a fever, not dying,” Melvyrn said testily.
“Besides, I haven’t a choice. There’s a man in Folkestone I need to find.”
Bailey shook his head. “Beggin’ your pardon, milord, but that ain’
t smart, especially after all the trouble we’re going through to make you appear sickly.”
Melvyrn considered the valet through narrowed eyes for an uncomfortable moment. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said before giving the valet a sly grin. “We’re of a size, wouldn’t you say, Bailey?”
Melvyrn gave Hector his head, and the
temperamental stallion immediately quickened his trot to a canter across the top of the cliffs. Up here, Melvyrn was glad Bailey’d insisted he wear the heavy woolen coat, for the wind blowing off the water had a cold bite. Below the steep, sloping cliffs, he could hear the sea crashing on the pebbly beach. Using a circumventive route to reach Folkestone, he hoped to avoid being seen by the locals and causing talk. Although he knew Hector alone would cause comment, Melvyrn refused to ride an inferior mount.
Coming to a small co
pse, Melvyrn spotted a well worn trail among the trees and guided the stallion toward it. As he entered the grove, the oaks and wild hedge bushes broke the wind blowing off the Channel, and the sunlight, diffused by the canopy of early spring leaves, dappled` the spinney’s floor.
Hector rounded a clump of wild
ligustrum, and Melvyrn saw a young girl bent over in the middle of the path. Quickly, he pulled back on the reins, and the stallion reared, his massive hooves clawing the air.
girl stood rooted. Her mouth opened in surprise, but Melvyrn never heard her scream though frightened eyes comprised most of her countenance. An instant later, a black nose, then the furry brown and white head of a Springer spaniel puppy poked through the front of her cloak. Using skill and brute strength, Melvyrn kept Hector on his hind legs, forcing the stallion back several paces until the horse’s front legs could return safely to the ground. Patting Hector’s quivering neck, Melvyrn murmured soothing words as his gaze remained on the girl who appeared, on closer inspection, to be a lovely young woman.