Authors: Margaret Bennett
Tags: #Nov. Rom
Brothers hesitated, then nodded his balding pate. “That it ‘tis.”
“I’m Melvyrn. I’m working with Luther Tolliver on some business.” There was no point in promoting himself as Phillips since his appearance at Saint Eanswythe’s on Sunday morning. Still, he needed to establish his reason for joining the smuggling gang without giving any information away.
Frowning, Brothers nodded. “Figured as much. London gentry don’t mix with fishermen and smugglers for no simple lark.” He looked down into his mug but never sampled it.
Though Melvyrn questioned Brothers about the area’s smuggling activities, the barkeep never muttered a sound. Instead, he stared into his untouched mug of ale. After a fruitless ten minutes, Melvyrn decided to give it up for the day. He quickly downed his ale, said good day and wondered if the owner would drink the mug he’d bought him or pitch it out like dirty dish water.
Coming out of the
inn, Melvyrn let his eyes adjust to the bright sunlight. He decided his next stop would be Tolly’s cottage. The burly fisherman had yet to answer for his meddlesome behavior that kept Melvyrn from meeting Embree and talking with the youth. Melvyrn resolved that his former sergeant would remedy both of these omissions after he first received a thorough dressing down.
Glancing down the street
at the lad walking Hector, his attention was caught by the petite figure of Miss Wensley exiting a store. She was headed his way, and he stepped back inside the doorway to better observe her progress unnoticed. The closer she got, his connoisseur’s eye became transfixed on her heart-shaped face, perfectly arched brows and heavily fringed eyelashes. Her complexion was creamy smooth, not the pasty hue that so many of the debutantes strived to maintain. Her cheeks held the color of a pale rose. As she drew nearer the inn’s doorway, her slate blue eyes first widened in surprise as they met his, then turned turbulent. She most definitely did not appear happy to see him.
Doffing his beaver tophat, he smiled, but it was not returned. Instead, the diminutive lady
nodded her head and averted her gaze as she increased her pace. She hadn’t given him a direct cut, but it was almost as if he had the plague. What happened since yesterday when they talked on the cliffs? Oh well, he thought prosaically, perhaps he was losing his touch. Besides, it might be for the best. After all, provincial maidens, no matter how pretty, were hardly his usual style. And this one was certainly temperamental.
When he turned toward the lad bringing
his horse, he was dismayed to see Lady Chadlington bearing down on him.
“Good day, my lord,” call
ed out the older woman coming out of the milliner’s shop across the street before he could duck back inside the inn’s doorway. “I hope you are feeling well today. Sylvia and I want so much to repay you for your kindness the other night when our horse tossed a shoe. We are looking forward to the luncheon tomorrow. Perhaps you will come to dinner one night as well?”
“That’s most kind of you, Lady Chadlington. I’ll do that. Now if you will excuse me, I see my horse is ready,” Melvyrn replied, making good his escape as he espied the young ostler with
Hector coming his way.
“Yes, but when, my lord?” the frustrated matron called after Melvyrn when he failed to be more specific.
Melvyrn released an expletive under his breath as he ripped the offending cravat off.
Nothing had gone right for him so far that day. He’d learned nothing from Brothers, Miss Wensley was still a puzzle to him, and Tolly hadn’t been home for the raking over the coals his former sergeant so well deserved.
He held out his hand to Bailey for another cravat. When one was not forthcoming, Melvyrn looked at his valet’s distracted expression. “Something bothering you, Bailey?”
His valet started. “Huh?” Shaking his head, he said, “No, milord,” he said, handing Melvyrn a fresh cravat. “I was considering how a quiet, unassuming little pixie of a gel can get me to do more things for her than the prettiest vixen.”
“I see the fair Janey has snared your interest,” Melvyrn commented as he made the final crease in his cravat. “Just what has she asked you to do?”
“That’s just it, milord,” Bailey said dazedly. “She ain’t asked me to do anything. But I came across her carrying buckets of water up the stairs, and I suddenly couldn’t bear the idea of her hauling them about. So I took the task upon meself.”
“Didn’t know you possessed a chivalrous heart
?” Melvyrn said with a smile.
“Now there you’re out, milord
.” Bailey chuckled. “If helping a lass with a wee chore will advance my . . . interest . . . well, need I say more?” he said, waggling his eyebrows.
laughed. “Tell Hixon to hire a footman or two. I’m sure your Janey has enough to do in the kitchen.”
“I’ll do that, milord.” Taking a clothes brush and applying it to his lordship’s shoulders, he asked, “Have you had any luck finding the identity of the young lad?”
Melvyrn shook his head. “There’s a connection I think between the lad and Ashford Hall, for the lad bears a striking resemblance to Miss Wensley. Perhaps you could ask around, find out if Lord Wensley or one of his ancestors strayed from home.”
“What’s the lad’s name?”
“Good question, and one I wish I could answer. Tolly calls him Ros and keeps the lad close by, coddles him, and won’t let me near him. Maybe I’ll learn something useful visiting the Hall,” Melvyrn said thoughtfully.
Several hours later, riding up Ashford Hall’s land, Melvyrn thought of Miss Wensley’s less than enthusiastic acceptance when he’d asked to call on her. Her response definitely wasn’t what he was used to among London’s fashionable debutantes, and he wondered why she was so intent on snubbing him. He rode Hector up to the Hall’s wide front steps and waited for several minutes, expecting to see a footman come and take his mount. Finally, he stopped an old man coming around the side of the house. As Melvyrn handed Hector’s reins over to the old groom he asked, “Are you the head groom?”
“I am,” the old man said. “Name’s Thomas, milord.”
Glancing back toward the stables, Melvyrn asked, “Have you no help?”
Appearing reluctant to answer, Thomas said, “Don’t need any.” Before Melvyrn could ask another question, he led Hector down the drive toward the stables.
As Melvyrn mounted the steps, the door was opened by an elderly butler, who upon learning the Earl’s purpose led him into the cool interior of the main hall. After taking his hat and gloves, the butler showed Melvyrn into a bright drawing room decorated in mellow tones of yellows and greens and announced, “Miss Wensley will be with you shortly, my lord.”
Minutes later, Miss Wensley
, soberly dressed in a dark blue gown with her hair pulled back in a bun, entered with a smile which did not reach her stormy slate blue eyes. “Good afternoon, my lord,” she said with a quick curtsey. Behind her carrying a sampler and workbag was an attractive, older woman in a plain gray gown with a white lacy fichu, whom Miss Wensley introduced as her chaperone, Mrs. Boroughs.
Melvyrn met Mrs. Boroughs’s steady
blue gaze and warm smile and bowed. “A pleasure, my lord.” She curtsied and said, “I will sit by the window where the light is better to work on my embroidery, if you don’t mind?”
took a seat on the yellow and green chintz settee and gestured for him to take a chair across from her. “May I offer you some tea, or would you prefer something stronger?”
“Tea will be fine,” he said just as the door opened and the butler rolled in a tea cart. Either they had been waiting for him, which he doubted, or Miss Wensley was in the habit of taking tea around this time.
After sampling a scrumptious shortbread cake and taking some tea, he asked, “I hope I am not taking you away from anything?” When she gave him a questioning look, he continued. “Forgive me for noticing, but your gown suggests you were not expecting visitors.” It may have been unkind of him. However, he had told her that he would be calling today and she had acquiesced, however reluctantly.
Looking down, she had the grace to blush as she plucked at the pleats in her serviceable gown. When her eyes met his again, she said, “I was working on the accounts and lost track of time. Also, we are a small community, and so I
seldom have visitors.”
“You work along
side your man of business?” he asked, now even more curious about this petite young woman.
“My father never employed one, so neither have I. I am also blessed with exceptional tenants, relieving me of land management. So you see, it is quite a
n unexceptional task.”
“But an exceptional one for a young lady,” he said. “I’ve noticed that you have a very small staff as well.”
She met his level gaze with a defiant lift of her small chin. “I am the only one in residence, my lord, and do little entertaining. It would be an extravagance to keep a large staff for just one person.”
Her words again implied he was an unwelcomed visitor. He also recalled her refusal to join the Chadlingtons for tea and began to suspect the young woman was an eccentric recluse. Too bad, he thought, for she was a true beauty with the most
remarkable eyes--which reminded him of the lad. “Have you any relatives living in the area?”
“None,” she said definitively
as a rosy hue graced up her cheeks.
, he’d struck a nerve. It appeared the lad was born on the wrong side of the blanket. Several moments passed before Melvyrn realized he’d let the silence drag out. He reached for another shortbread cake and asked, “Do you ride, Miss Wensley?”
As he took a bite of the cake, he watched, fascinated by her changing expression as her eyes grew wide and her small mouth opened. Finally, squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin, she seemed to recollect herself. “I am a very poor rider, my lord, and prefer to go about by carriage.”
“Ah, too bad, for I was hoping you could show me about the countryside.”
“I am sure Miss Chadlington would be delighted to take you about.”
Melvyrn thought he detected an overly sweet tone yet, scrutinizing her countenance, found no hint of jealousy or malice. He allowed her to direct the conversation toward the weather and other desultory neighborhood topics before taking his leave.
At the fr
ont steps, Melvyrn took the reins from Thomas and mounted Hector. Rather than going down the drive to the main road, he turned the stallion toward the stables at the back of the Hall. As he trotted along the edge of the woods, he spotted Tolly coming from behind the stables and watched the fisherman enter the Hall’s kitchen door. Now what business could the big, burly fisherman have at the Hall? And with no fish to deliver? When next they met, Tolly was in for one heck of a grilling, Melvyrn decided.
Taking the circuitous r
oute home across the down and along the cliff’s edge, he enjoyed the cool breeze coming from the Channel. The sun’s disappearance behind puffy clouds dappled the fields. As Hector fought the bit at being held to a leisurely trot, he gave the stallion his head and they flew along the cliff tops.
’s sense of well-being, a feeling persisted that he’d missed making some connection at Ashford Hall, something important.
On an impulse, Melvyrn decided to find Tolly.
He found the fisherman behind his house mending nets. “Catch any today?” he asked by way of a greeting.
Tolly looked up, none too pleased to see him. “Enough,”
“You’ve got some explaining to do, Tolly.” Making no reply, the fisherman stared at Melvyrn.
“Who’s the boy?” he asked.
Lives around here. Helps out interpreting.”
“What’s his last name?”
“The boy don’t need to be part of this,” Tolly finally said, his tone making it clear the subject was closed.
But like a tenacious pup chewing a bone, Melvyrn asked, “What’s the lad’s relationship to the old Frenchman?”
“Then how did he come to know the old man?”
“Through the father.”
“Tolly, there can’t be any secrets between us if this mission is going to
succeed,” Melvyrn said at last. When Tolly didn’t reply, he decided to play his trump. “What’s the lad’s relation to the Wensley chit?”
Though Tolly never flinched a muscle, Melvyrn knew he’d struck a nerve. Those black eyes nearly burned in their deep sockets as the huge man sat motionless, staring at him.
“Is the boy related to the girl?” Melvyrn repeated.
“No.” After several tense seconds, Tolly drew a deep breath. “Don’t need the lad, anyway. You speak French.”
“Yes, but I was hoping the boy could help ease the way with the old Frenchman.”
“Won’t be necessary. Embree’ll help.”
Damn, thought Melvyrn, the way Tolly glowered at him, it was hard to believe that his old sergeant and he were on the same side. What was it about the lad that Tolly wanted to keep hidden from him?