Authors: Margaret Bennett
Tags: #Nov. Rom
Melvyrn smiled to himself, wondering what Gladys Tolliver had said to the ex-sergeant that sent him straight to the tavern. When Melvyrn saw the petite young miss reach out and halt the fisherman in his tracks, he sat up straighter, nearly spilling his mug of ale.
Coming out of the linen shop, Rosalind looked about and saw Tolly hurrying down the street. “Where are you headed, Tolly? she asked. He obviously had his mind on other matters, for he was truly surprised by her greeting.
“Mind if I tag along?” she asked. She waved to Thomas, who sat atop the carriage halfway down the street, to wait for her and stepped down from the stoop into the street.
“Can’t,” Tolly replied, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket.
“Where have you been? I expected to have a report on th
at soldier we picked up several nights ago.” Rosalind knew she was showing her irritation, but the fisherman had been negligent of his duties lately. “When is the next run?”
night,” he replied, his dark eyes not meeting hers but straying down the street toward the Eight Bells Inn. “I’ve got to be going, Miss Rosalind.”
“When will you come by?” she pressed and reached out to grab the sleeve of his jacket as he tried to make good his escape.
“Tomorrow. In the morning.”
She released him then, but watched him stride purposefully toward the inn. He’d reacted strange, uneasy. It was as though he were trying to keep something from her.
While Brothers was bringing a mug of ale for Tolly, Melvyrn’s eyes narrowed as they strayed to the window. He watched the young woman get into the carriage. “Who is she?” he asked, not bothering to explain to Tolly whom he meant.
Tolly’s eyes followed Melvyrn’s. Then with a look of resignation, he said, “Miss Wensley.”
“Wensley? The same as the owner of Ashford Hall?”
Tolly glanced down at his ale before answering, “The same.”
“What business have you with her?”
“Business?” Tolly asked frowning.
“Yes, I saw you talking with her.”
After a long moment and still frowning, Tolly said, “She was asking about delivering some fish to the Hall.”
“I understood the old baron’s
dead. Does the daughter live by herself?”
“No, there’s a housekeeper who also acts as a chaperone.”
“Hardly fitting protection for a respectable young lady?”
Tolly bristled at the slight Melvyrn seemed to be making on the young lady’s character. “Folks around here know Miss Rosalind.”
Melvyrn arched an eyebrow. “Miss Rosalind?”
“Miss Wensley,” Tolly quickly amended.
“Yes, well Bailey’s forever reminding me daily of the differences here in the provinces and Town.”
“My valet. You might remember him. He was my batman.”
“The same,” chuckled Melvyrn. “Talks my ear off half the time. But for all that, he’s served me well.” Leaning back into his chair, Melvyrn narrowed his eyes on Tolly. “Can’t say the same about you lately.”
He’d expected Tolly to take offense and was surprised when he didn’t. He waited, sensing his old sergeant was fighting an inner battle and was soon rewarded.
Tolly splayed his beefy hands out before him on the table top. “I ain’t been up-front with you, Major.”
Looking around to be sure no one had come in to hear them, Melvyrn said, “Call me Phillips. You said you weren’t in charge of the operation. Who is?”
“I can’t say no more.”
“Damn it, man!” Melvyrn growled, fast losing his patience. “Time is running out. The War Office wants a meeting set up. I’m to connect
one of our agents with your Frenchman. I got to know who he is and if he’ll help us.”
With his thoughts hidden behind challenging eyes, Tolly stared at Melvyrn. Finally he said, “The Frenchman’s already
under suspicion. Don’t know if he can help you.” He pushed away from the table, preparing to leave. “Give me ‘till tomorrow.”
“Will I get answers then?” Melvyrn asked.
“Tolly, men are dying over there, comrades of ours.
The government needs this contact. It means getting our dispatches through a lot faster. Might even help shorten the war.”
Standing amid the sca
rred planked tables and chairs, Tolly’s bulk dwarfed the room. Though his eyes were fixed on Melvyrn, it was obvious his mind was elsewhere. “Tomorrow, Major.”
With that, Melvyrn had to be satisfied. But once back at Cliffe Manor, he gave Grimsley instructions to ride over to the Tolliver cottage and lay low. “Watch who shows up. Follow the fisherman when he goes out. I want a complete accounting of Tolly’s movements
by midday tomorrow.”
Rosalind looked up from the ledger as Tinsley opened the study door and announced Tolly. She noticed the uneasy shifting of the fisherman’s eyes as he sat down, completely filling the armchair in front of the desk. “Good morning, Tolly.” He nodded his head, but would not meet her eye. She carefully closed the ledger and folded her hands on top of the desk. “You have something to report to me?”
“I do.” Finally, with worry etched on his brow, he looked at her. “I’ve got a new crew member.”
“Oh, is it someone I know?”
He shook his head. “Got to do this as, well, a favor.”
“A favor?” She watched his expression darken. It was obvious that he disliked this new recruit, and she wondered who could make this fiercely loyal man do something against his will.
“It’s the Earl of Melvyrn,” he said,
sitting up straighter. “He works for the War Office and wants me to help him deliver dispatches in France.”
Rosalind began shaking her head. “But, Tolly, this could compromise Jacques.”
“He already knows about the Frenchman.”
Rosalind observed Tolly’s dark eyes and the set of his pressed lips. “I take it we have no choice in the matter?”
“That’s why I’m here. You can’t be a part of this, Miss Rosalind.”
I will not listen--”
If the Earl comes calling when you’re tending a soldier--”
Rosalind shook her head. “I will spur
n any attention he might show me,” she answered. “Even now, I shun most social events to dissuade visitors.”
“That ain’t right
, either. But Melvyrn mustn’t find out who you are,” he said vehemently.
Rosalind sat back in her chair and considered her options--and decided she had but one. “Listen to me, Tolly,” she said, raising her hand to stop his refusal, “I have been a part of these crossings ever since my
father died. It is important to me to help these soldiers, to keep them from falling into the hands of the French or dying. I will go with you tonight. Is that clear?”
at her for several moments before he nodded. “You’ll keep your distance from him.”
Rosalind understood it
was an order. “Yes,” she said with a soft smile, “and I know I can depend on your help.” As he rose from the chair and turned for the door, she added, “I will see you tonight.”
Tolly stopped and solemnly regarded her. “Tonight.”
With a sniffer of brandy in one hand, Melvyrn sat in a comfortable
wingback before the fire in his study, waiting for Hixon to announce dinner. He’d spent the day stuck in here with his bailiff going over accounts and plans for planting late spring. The flames jumped and crackled while he waited for dinner. His mind shifted to the night ahead.
Grimsley had reported back that Tolly
had left his house early that morning. “He’s cagy, I’ll give him that,” said Grimsley. “I lost him, milord. Don’t know how.”
“He knows these parts,” Melvyrn said. “He
’s worked for me in the past and probably suspected I’d have him followed.” But what could his old sergeant be hiding? Was the fisherman protecting someone? Or was this a part of the smuggling operation?
Melvyrn hoped to get some answers tonight
. He’d followed Tolly’s instructions to the letter. Bailey had unearthed an old navy jacket made of course wool and dark, heavy cord breeches. It could be awfully cold on the water this time of year, especially at night.
r than he expected, the butler popped his head around the door, but it wasn’t about dinner. “Begging my lord’s pardon,” Hixon began, affecting a slow drawl, “but visitors have arrived.”
“Who are they?”
“Lady Chadlington and her daughter,” Hixon announced sonorously. “I have taken the liberty of putting the ladies in the drawing room.”
“Quite a liberty at that,” Melvyrn returned. Of all nights, why had Lady Chadlington called
on this one.
“Indeed, my lord. However, it was unavoidable,”
replied the unflappable Hixon. “One of their carriage horses threw a shoe. I believe Grimsley is seeing to it now.”
you tell them that I am a sick man!” Hixon didn’t answer, but his wooden expression and ramrod straight posture told Melvyrn his staff hadn’t been deceived. Well, damn the lot of them, anyway. No man can be kept cooped up in one room all day without going batty. He probably should have listened to Bailey and gone for a walk in the woods each day instead of taking his stallion out for a good gallop. Now what was he to do?
“Very well, tell them I’ll be there shortly.” So saying, he wasted little time, bounding up the stairs two at a time to burst into his apartments.
“Bailey!” he bellowed angrily.
Rushing out of the
dressing room, arms full of freshly ironed cravats, the valet was obviously puzzled over Melvyrn’s tone. “Milord?”
“Blast and damn all female busy bodies! Got two of them perched on my doorstep this very moment with some taradiddle about their horse throwing a shoe.” He stopped pacing long enough to give Bailey a calculating look. “Can you make me look deathly ill and be fast about it?”
“How many females are there, milord?” Bailey calmly inquired while carefully placing the stack of cravats in a chair.
“Two, a mother and her unmarried daughter,” replied Melvyrn with a sneer.
“Just so,” answered Bailey. “In that case, they’ll be expecting an invitation to stay for dinner.”
“Over my dead body! I’ve other plans.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, milord,” began Bailey in what Melvyrn had come to recognize as his valet’s instructional voice. From past experiences, he’d learned enough to at least listen to the man. “I’m thinking it might be better to send word to the kitchen to scuttle the menu for . . . say boiled chicken without seasoning or any trimmings.” Crossing his hands behind his back and bowing his head in thought, Bailey began to pace the room. “Poached eggs, toast, and a simple custard pudding ought to round the meal off.” Stopping in mid stride, his head came up. “Oh, and ale to drink. That’s ‘cause you ain’t stocked the wine cellar, yet.” Giving Melvyrn a sapient eye, he added, “Tell them your sawbones believes that a man in your condition shouldn’t have anything too sophisticated for his gullet.”
Melvyrn shared a devilish grin with his valet. He was actually looking forward to greeting his company by the time he’d sent a footman to dispatch a message to Cook.
“Now, Bailey, practice your genius on me. I’m hardly the picture of ill health.”
“No indeed, milord, you look hale and hearty
,” Bailey said disparagingly as he disappeared into the dressing room. He soon returned with his hands full of jars, pots, and brushes. Then, like an artist, he applied powders to Melvyrn’s face and soot about his eyes. Next, he loosely retied the Earl’s pristine cravat into a limp knot. Finally, using pomade, he flattened his lordship’s springy dark brown locks. Finally, Bailey announced Melvyrn fit for the drawing room provided, he cautioned, “You walk slower, maybe even slouch a bit. Might even drool out of the corner of your mouth, milord, for effect, you know.”
the last idea, Melvyrn was amenable to his valet’s suggestions. Thus, his belated entrance to the drawing room lacked his usual confident stride. Striking a languid pose just inside the door, he drawled, “Dear ladies, allow me to present myself. I am Martin Carlyle, Earl of Melvyrn.” His bow was adequate but delivered very slowly, and he ignored the older woman’s proffered hand. Instead, he indicated the ladies retake their seats.
“Lady Althea Chadlington, Lord
Melvyrn,” replied the heavyset matron dressed in a voluminous red gown. A matching turban trimmed in gold cord hid a good bit of her gray-peppered hair. “And this is my daughter, the Honorable Sylvia Chadlington.”
A young woman with blond curls spilling out from under a chip straw bonnet, tied with a large pink bow
under her chin, sat next to her mother on the settee. With china blue eyes, she regarded him as her cherry red lips smiled invitingly. Her faultless face was accented with delicately arched brows. Yet despite the differences between mother and daughter, Melvyrn spotted resemblances in the sharply pointed noses and the shape of their faces. Miss Chadlington’s oval perfection had puffed out on her mother, resembling a bloated moon. The younger woman wore an azure blue spencer over a matching striped gown with a revealing low cut neckline. To his discerning eye, Melvyrn found the young lady’s assets most pleasing if a trifle overdone. But his drooping eyelids quickly veiled any interest sparked in his gray eyes as he haltingly made his way over to a chair next to the ladies.