Authors: Margaret Bennett
Tags: #Nov. Rom
She pulled the dog closer to her body, wrapping her cloak protectively around the squirming ball of fur. A smile split Melvyrn’s face as he thought of the pup’s enviable position, tucked neatly under the attractive
young lady’s bosom.
“Running someone over is hardly a laughing matter.”
Her tone was sharp and her countenance changed from one of fright to indignation, adding even more expression to her eyes. Blue, he thought, slate blue eyes like the North Sea. Under the dark blue hood of her cloak, light brown curls framed a small delicate face.
He schooled his
expression to disguise his thoughts. “Please forgive me, Miss. But I see your, er, friend, now there is a beauty and a fine hunting breed.”
“Silas is not a hunter,” she huffed
with a haughty lift of her small, straight nose.
Melvyrn quirked an eyebrow. “He’s already too big for a lap dog.” He wat
ched, fascinated, as the young woman lovingly stroked the pup, cradling it closer to her body. As if suddenly conscientious of where she was, she stepped off the path and turned into the woods. Before she disappeared, he asked, “Where are you going in these woods?”
But she ignored his query.
Not detoured, Melvyrn turned Hector into the bramble to follow her. He’d heard the cultured tones of her speech and was intrigued. “Do you live around here?” he asked, thinking she was a local squire’s daughter. From the rear, his eyes feasted on a pleasing view as she’d wrapped her cloak tightly about her to cover the puppy. “I nearly ran you over back there. Could you at least explain why you are in these woods?”
She didn’t slow her pace but tossed over her shoulder, “Looking for
appeared too young for his interest. Still, what harm could come of an innocent dalliance. It was unlikely he’d see her again. Besides, he might learn something.
She stopped suddenly and turned to face him. “
Sir, are you following me?”
By Jove, she was pretty. Her dainty chin tilted up arrogantly, letting him see her eyes. Though still large, they no longer dominated her slightly tanned face. Her cheeks were flushed, whether from embarrassment or exertion he couldn’t tell. He watched her struggle to hold the squirming spaniel. “It might be easier if you put the pup down.”
She gave him a rueful look. “I cannot.”
“Oh?” he asked, leaning forward and putting his arm across Hector’s withers.
“He chases rabbits.”
Melvyrn’s sense of the ridiculous got the better of him as he rose up, laughing, and her small chin took on a haughty tilt. He was again conscious of her erect stance and delicate bone structure and said, “Blood will always tell.”
he whirled around and began walking further into the woods, Melvyrn wondered if he’d insulted her. He nudged Hector to keep apace with her. He was buying trouble and he knew it. “What sort of herbs are you seeking?”
Comfrey,” she said, trudging along.
“I admit my knowledge of herbs is limited
, but isn’t that for wounds?”
“Is someone in your family hurt?”
She stopped and he guided Hector
next to her. Most people were leery of the stallion’s size, but she appeared unfazed as she looked up at him. “No, I keep it on hand in case one of the farm workers is injured.”
“Which farm is that?” He tried to keep his tone neutral.
“I must be getting back before I am missed.” Her small chin came up and her slate blue eyes held a challenge. “Please leave me be.”
Melvyrn studied her. She never flinched under his scrutiny but met his eyes with a self assurance he found hard to
fathom in a young woman alone in a spinney with a complete stranger. Nor was there any coyness in her demeanor. Certainly, she was unlike any debutante his sisters had tried to foist upon him. “Can you tell me where you live?” he asked one last time.
“We’ve not been introduced, sir,” she countered. “All this ha
s been most improper.”
So she was a member of his cla
ss. His eyes narrowed as he tried to memorize her features, though he thought he’d have little trouble recalling them. In particular, he found her full, faintly tinted pink lips fascinating and wondered what her smile would look like. She appeared so delicate as the squirming Silas pushed up under her breasts, exposing more of them above the yellow bodice. He saw the blush rise up from the neck of her gown and realized he’d been staring.
“My apologies, Miss. I meant no offense. It is my hope that we
will meet again.” He gave her his best smile, the one he saved for his nieces and nephews. It did little good.
“That is unlikely,” she said dryly. “Now, if you will excuse me . . .
.” Hefting the pup on her hip, she turned on her heel and worked her way through the trees.
Melvyrn made no further objection but watched as she disappeared into the woods. Then he turned Hector and headed back to the trail to proceed to Folkestone.
A short distance from the village, he tied the stallion to a low-hanging branch and made the rest of the trek on foot to the village’s only tavern. He pulled Bailey’s knit cap low on his forehead and trusted to luck that no one would recognize him.
A white and blue faded sign hung over the entrance to
the Eight Bells Inn, a two-story, gray stone structure. Melvyrn opened the door and quickly located the taproom, which faced the street, off a long, dark hallway. A short, stout, middle-aged man came through an archway that, from the sounds, led to the kitchen. Assuming the man to be the proprietor, Melvyrn ordered ale. He chose a seat at a scarred planked table by a window that overlooked the main street. When the man returned, Melvyrn asked for Luther Tolliver’s direction.
With squinty eyes he gazed at Melvyrn and asked, “What would yer be wantin’ him for?”
“Tolly’s an old friend of mine.”
“Don’t say much,” the innkeeper challenged. “You got a name?”
“Phillips,” he replied, giving a variation of his middle name.
“Brothers,” the proprietor said. “Bart Brothers.”
n took a sip of his ale, then let his gaze scan about the taproom. With the revenuers roaming the area for smugglers, he knew it wasn’t likely the innkeeper would volunteer information. Besides that, contraband brandy and spices which the innkeeper undoubtedly bought from the Gentlemen ensured a steady business. At length, Melvyrn’s unhurried manner paid off.
Wiping down another table, the man asked, “How do you come to know Tolly?”
“We served together in Portugal,” Melvyrn said. He considered palming the innkeeper a gold coin, then thought better of it. That was something a government agent might try.
The innkeeper took his time mulling this over. “Yeah, Tolly talks about them he met during the war.
” Giving Melvyrn another squinty stare, he said, “Turn east after you leave here. It’ll be the last house at the end of the street.”
Minutes later, Melvyrn stood in front of a neat little cottage, set slight
ly back from the road. It didn’t look any different from the other stone houses with wood-shingled roofs. Seeing no one out front, Melvyrn didn’t bother knocking on the door when he heard a banging sound coming from the rear. He crossed the tiny lawn and picked his way through a small kitchen garden on the side of the cottage.
Seated on an upended wooden crate sat one of the biggest men Melvyrn had ever known. His barrel chest
widened into massive shoulders that supported a large, black bushy head. Two beefy hands worked at separating a pile of wooden blocks with grooved pulleys and metal hooks at each end.
“Well met, Tolly,” Melvyrn called out.
When Luther Tolliver’s dark brown, nearly black eyes flew up and solemnly regarded his, Melvyrn instantly recognized the respect his sergeant held for him. But Melvyrn also saw something else, a wariness expressed by Tolly’s closed expression. This mountain of a man, who feared no one or any thing, was definitely on his guard. “How have you been?”
stood and held out a hand. He’d never been a loquacious man, and Melvyrn knew he had his work cut out for him.
Accepting his hand, Melvyrn motioned for Tolly to be seated again. “I won’t mince words with you,” he said.
“This is no social call, as you’ve undoubtedly guessed, though I admit to thinking of you more than once after I’d heard you were sent home.”
“Same here.” Tolly
’s dark eyes never left Melvyrn’s.
“Fact is, Tolly, I need your help.
Word has reached the War Office that there’s a ring of smugglers operating out of Folkestone. Knowing you, I figured if there was one, you’d know about it.”
When the fisherman didn’t answer, Melvyrn walked over to another wooden crate, upended it, and sat down facing his old friend.
He glanced down at the pile of pulleys. “You own a boat?” At Tolly’s nod, he said, “The War Office sent me down. No one knows much about me since I came here only once as a lad. I’m at Cliffe Manor, supposedly recovering from a bout of yellow fever.”
“Never knew’d you caught the fever,
Major,” Tolly said, falling into the old familiar address he’d used for Melvyrn in the army.
“I didn’t. It’s a ploy to keep most of the gentry away from the
Manor.” Melvyrn tried to read his old sergeant. He’d trusted this man with his life more than once, and regarding Tolly’s forthright gaze, he decided he’d do so again. “I need to infiltrate your crew, Tolly,” he said, taking a chance that in a village this small Tolly was in on the smuggling. “The government wants to use your fishing boat to relay dispatches to and from the continent.”
n paused and waited for a response. But the huge fisherman only stared back at him. Finally, Melvyrn broke the silence. “You’re not saying much?”
on’t see the point. Seeing you’s a surprise, too.” A huge grin split the solemn face, his large teeth showing white against his black bristly beard and head. “Never thought to be no government agent, either.” His eyes glinted with merriment when Melvyrn let out a laugh.
“So, Tolly, do I call you Captain?”
The smile slowly left Tolly’s face. “Well now, that I don’t know.”
Melvyrn arched one eyebrow in question. When the fisherman
returned the look with a shake of his bushy head, he began to have doubts about the situation. Maybe Tolly wasn’t the captain of the fishing boat. If not, that meant his old sergeant could be somehow enmeshed with a French spy network. But this scenario just did not fit with what Melvyrn knew of the man’s character.
“Come on, Tolly. Out with it,” Melvyrn growled, deciding to tackle the issue head on. “You’re in cahoots with the ring they call the ‘mercy smugglers,’ aren’t you?”
Hesitating only for a moment, the burly seaman seemed to increase in size as he sat straighter, squaring his massive shoulders. “Aye, that I am.”
“Are you the leader?”
“Aye. I could take you on a run, let you see how we work. But that ain’t the problem.”
“Then, what the devil is? If you vouch for me, isn’t your word
good enough for your men?”
“Damn well better be or I’d be
lopping off some heads!” Tolly bellowed. Melvyrn leveled his eyes on him, and Tolly shifted his considerable bulk uneasily. “It ain’t for me to decide, Major.”
“Call me Phillips. It’s close enough to my middle name that I won’t have trouble answering to it. Besides, I’ll be taking orders from you shortly.”
Tolly had to understand how important the situation was with English lives at stake every day this stinking war went on.
“We don’t need an extra hand. The men’ll likely talk if I bring you in.”
“Get this straight, Tolly,” Melvyrn said in a deadly serious tone. “You may be the captain of a gang of smugglers instead of leading a platoon of men under me up a Spanish hill, but this is still wartime. Consider yourself still under my command and get me in. Have I made myself clear, Sergeant Tolliver?”
that you have.”
After two days passed without any word from his old sergeant, Melvyrn began to think Tolly was deliberately avoiding him. Therefore, the third morning he hung about the village, keeping an eye out for the burly seaman. He even went to see Gladys Tolliver, a tall, raw boned dame with a kind face and an even kinder smile.
“Luther’s about here somewhere,” she told Melvyrn after he left a message for Tolly to meet him at the Eight Bells Inn. “He’ll not be far away when it’s nigh on to dinnertime.”
“Please give him my message, Mrs. Tolliver, and be sure to stress it’s urgent,” Melvyrn instructed after accepting a handful of freshly baked gingersnaps.
An hour later, with a tankard of ale for company, Melvyrn sat at a table and waited for Tolly to show. This time of day, the Eight Bells was empty. Glancing out a window that overlooked the main street he saw
a young woman coming out of a shop. The wind caught her blue poke bonnet, revealing her shiny light brown curls. She stopped and tucked the package she was carrying under her arm, then adjusted her hat. She was neatly dressed in a blue woolen gown and a short black cape. Those eyes reminded him of someone, but who? Then, the tilt of her chin triggered the memory of the young woman in the woods whom he’d almost run over riding Hector. Before Melvyrn could give it any more thought, he saw Tolly stride purposely down the street, coming toward the Eight Bells.