Authors: Stephanie Laurens
feel like tearing my hair out—not that that would do any good.”
The dark hair in question fell in elegantly unruly locks about Jonas Tallent’s handsome head. His brown eyes filled with disgusted irritation, he slumped back in the armchair behind the desk in the library of the Grange, the paternal home he would eventually inherit, a fact that accounted in multiple ways for his current, sorely frustrated state.
At ease in the chair facing the desk, Lucifer Cynster, Jonas’s brother-in-law, smiled in wry commiseration. “Without intending to add to the burden weighing so heavily upon you, I feel I should mention that expectations are only rising with the passage of time.”
Jonas humphed. “Hardly surprising—Juggs’s demise, while being no loss whatsoever, has raised the specter of something better at the Red Bells. When Edgar found the old sot dead in a puddle of ale, I swear the entire village heaved a sigh of relief—and then immediately fell to speculating on what might be if the Red Bells had a
Juggs had been the innkeeper of the Red Bells for nearly a decade; he’d been found dead by the barman, Edgar Hills, two months ago.
Jonas settled deeper into his chair. “I have to admit I was first among the speculators, but that was before Uncle Martin expired of overwork and the pater went off to sort out Aunt Eliza and her horde, leaving the matter of the new incumbent at the Red Bells in my lap.”
If truth be told, he’d welcomed the opportunity to return from London and assume full management of the estate. He’d been trained to the task throughout his youth, and while his father was still hale, he was becoming less robust; his unexpected and likely to be lengthy absence had seemed the perfect opportunity to step in and take up the reins.
That, however, hadn’t been the principal reason he’d so readily kicked London’s dust from his heels.
Over the last months he’d grown increasingly disaffected with the life he’d more or less fallen into in town. The clubs, the theaters, the dinners and balls, the soirees and select gatherings—the bucks and bloods, and the haughty matrons so many of whom were only too happy to welcome a handsome, independently wealthy, well-bred gentleman into their beds.
When he’d first gone on the town, shortly after Phyllida, his twin sister, had married Lucifer, a life built around such diversions had been his goal. With his innate and inherited attributes—and, courtesy of his connection with Lucifer, the imprimatur of the Cynsters—achieving all he’d desired hadn’t been all that hard. However, having attained his goal and moved in tonnish circles for the past several years, he’d discovered that life on that gilded stage left him hollow, strangely empty.
In reality, unengaged.
He’d been very ready to come home to Devon and assume control of the Grange and the estate while his father hied to Norfolk to support Eliza in her time of need.
He’d wondered whether life in Devon, too, would now feel empty, devoid of challenge. In the back of his mind had hovered the question of whether the deadening void within was entirely an effect of tonnish life or, far more worrying, was the symptom of some deeper inner malaise.
Within days of returning to the Grange he’d been reassured on that point at least. His life was suddenly overflowing with purpose. He hadn’t had a moment when one challenge or another hadn’t been front and center before him, clamoring for attention. Demanding action. Since returning home and seeing his father off, he’d barely had time to think.
That unsettling sense of disconnection and emptiness had evaporated, leaving only a novel restlessness beneath.
He no longer felt useless—clearly the life of a country gentleman, the life he’d been born and bred to, was his true calling—yet still there was something missing from his life.
Currently, however, it was the missing link at the Red Bells Inn that most severely exercised him. Replacing the unlamented Juggs had proved to be very far from a simple matter.
He shook his head in disgusted disbelief. “Whoever would have imagined finding a decent innkeeper would prove so damned difficult?”
“How far afield have you searched?”
“I’ve had notices posted throughout the shire and beyond—as far as Plymouth, Bristol, and Southampton.” He pulled a face. “I could send to one of the London agencies, but we did that last time and they landed us with Juggs. If I had my choice, I’d have a local in the job, or at least a Westcountryman.” Determination hardening his face, he sat up. “And if I can’t have that, then at the very least I want to interview the applicant before I offer them the job. If we’d seen Juggs before the agency hired him, we’d never have contemplated foisting him on the village.”
His long legs stretched before him, still very much the startlingly handsome, dark-haired devil who years before had made the ton’s matrons swoon, Lucifer frowned. “It seems odd you’ve had no takers.”
Jonas sighed. “It’s the village—the smallness of it—that makes all the good applicants shy away. The countering facts—that when you add the surrounding houses and estates we’re a decent-sized community, and with no other inn or hostelry in the vicinty we’re assured a good trade—aren’t sufficient, it seems, to weigh against the drawbacks of no shops and a small population.” With one long finger, he flicked a sheaf of papers. “Once they learn the truth of Colyton, all the decent applicants take flight.”
He grimaced and met Lucifer’s dark blue eyes. “If they’re good candidates, they’re ambitious, and Colyton, so they believe, has nothing to offer them by way of advancement.”
Lucifer grimaced back. “It seems you’re looking for a rare bird—someone capable of managing an inn who wants to live in a backwater like Colyton.”
Jonas eyed him speculatively. “You live in this backwater—can I tempt you to try your hand at managing an inn?”
Lucifer’s grin flashed. “Thank you, but no. I’ve an estate to manage, just like you.”
“Quite aside from the fact neither you nor I know the first thing about the domestic side of running an inn.”
Lucifer nodded. “Aside from that.”
“Mind you, Phyllida could probably manage the inn with her eyes closed.”
“Except she’s already got her hands full.”
“Thanks to you.” Jonas bent a mock-censorious look on his brother-in-law. Lucifer and Phyllida already had two children—Aidan and Evan, two very active little boys—and Phyllida had recently deigned to confirm that she was carrying their third child. Despite numerous other hands always about to help, Phyllida’s own hands were indeed full.
Lucifer grinned unrepentantly. “Given you thoroughly enjoy playing uncle, that condemnatory look lacks bite.”
Lips twisting in a rueful smile, Jonas let his gaze fall to the small pile of letters that were all that had come of the notices with which he’d papered the shire. “It’s a sad situation when the best applicant is an ex-inmate of Newgate.”
Lucifer let out a bark of laughter. He rose, stretched, then smiled at Jonas. “Something—or someone—will turn up.”
“I daresay,” Jonas returned. “But
? As you pointed out, the expectations are only escalating. As the inn’s owner and therefore the person everyone deems responsible for fulfilling said expectations, time is not on my side.”
Lucifer’s smile was understanding if unhelpful. “I’ll have to leave you to it. I promised I’d be home in good time to play pirates with my sons.”
Jonas noted that, as always, Lucifer took special delight in saying that last word, all but rolling it on his tongue, savoring all that it meant.
With a jaunty salute, his brother-in-law departed, leaving him staring at the pile of dire applications for the post of innkeeper at the Red Bells Inn.
He wished he could leave to play pirates, too.
The thought vividly brought to mind what he knew would be waiting for Lucifer at the end of his short trek along the woodland path linking the back of the Grange to the back of Colyton Manor, the house Lucifer had inherited and now shared with Phyllida—and Aidan and Evan and a small company of staff. The manor was perennially filled with warmth and life, an energy—something tangible—that grew from shared contentment and happiness and filled the soul.
While Jonas was entirely comfortable at the Grange—it was home, and the staff were excellent and had known him all his life—he was conscious—perhaps more so after his recent introspections on the shortfalls of tonnish life—of a wish that a warmth, a glow of happiness similar to that at the manor, would take root at the Grange and embrace him.
Fill his soul and anchor him.
For long moments, he stared unseeing across the room, then he mentally shook himself and lowered his gaze once more to the pile of useless applications.
The people of Colyton deserved a good inn.
Heaving a sigh, he shifted the pile to the middle of the blotter, and forced himself to comb through it one last time.
mily Ann Beauregard Colyton stood just beyond the last curve in the winding drive leading to the Grange on the southern outskirts of Colyton village, and peered at the house that sat in comfortable solidity fifty yards away.
Of worn red brick, it looked peaceful, serene, its roots sunk deep in the rich soil on which it sat. Unpretentious yet carrying a certain charm, the many-gabled slate roof sat over attic windows above two stories of wider, white-painted frames. Steps led up to the front porch. From where she hovered, Em could just see the front door, sitting back in shadowed majesty.
Neatly tended gardens spread to either side of the wide front façade. Beyond the lawns to her left, she spotted a rose garden, bright splashes of color, lush and inviting, bobbing against darker foliage.
She felt compelled to look again at the paper in her hand—a copy of the notice she’d spotted on the board in the posting inn at Axminster advertising the position of innkeeper-manager of the Red Bells Inn at Colyton. When she’d first set eyes on the notice, it had seemed expressly designed to be the answer to her prayers.
She and her brother and sisters had been wasting time waiting for the merchant who’d agreed to take them on his delivery dray when he made his round to Colyton. Over the previous week and a half, ever since her twenty-fifth birthday when, by virtue of her advanced age and her late father’s farsighted will, she’d assumed guardianship of her brother and three sisters, they’d traveled from her uncle’s house in Leicestershire by way of London to eventually reach Axminster—and finally, via the merchant’s dray, Colyton.
The journey had cost much more than she’d expected, eating all of her meager savings and nearly all of the funds—her portion of their father’s estate—that their family’s solicitor, Mr. Cunningham, had arranged for her to receive. He alone knew she and her siblings had upped stakes and relocated to the tiny village of Colyton, deep in rural Devon.
Their uncle, and all those he might compel or persuade to his cause—that of feathering his own nest by dint of their free labor—had not been informed of their destination.
Which meant they were once again very much on their own—or, to be more precise, that the welfare of Isobel, Henry, and the twins, Gertrude and Beatrice, now rested firmly on Em’s slight shoulders.
She didn’t mind the burden, not in the least; she’d taken it up willingly. Continuing a day longer than absolutely necessary in their uncle’s house had been beyond impossible; only the promise of eventual, and then imminent, departure had allowed any of the five Colytons to endure for so long under Harold Potheridge’s exploitative thumb, but until Em had turned twenty-five, he—their late mother’s brother—had been their co-guardian along with Mr. Cunningham.
On the day of her twenty-fifth birthday, Em had legally replaced her uncle. On that day, she and her siblings had taken their few worldly possessions—they’d packed days before—and departed Runcorn, their uncle’s manor house. She’d steeled herself to face her uncle and explain their decision, but as matters had transpired, Harold had gone to a race meeting that day and hadn’t been there to witness their departure.
All well and good, but she knew he would come after them, as far as he was able. They were worth quite a lot to him—his unpaid household staff. So traveling quickly down to London had been vital, and that had necessitated a coach and four, and that, as she’d discovered, had been expensive.
Then they’d had to cross London in hackneys, and stay two nights in a decent hotel, one in which they’d felt sufficiently safe to sleep. Although she’d thereafter economized and they’d traveled by mail coach, what with five tickets and the necessary meals and nights at various inns, her funds had dwindled, then shrunk alarmingly.
By the time they’d reached Axminster, she’d known she, and perhaps even Issy, twenty-three years old, would need to find work, although what work they might find, daughters of the gentry that they were, she hadn’t been able to imagine.
Until she’d seen the notice on the board.
She scanned her copy again, rehearsing, as she had for the past hours, the right phrases and assurances with which to convince the owner of the Grange—who was also the owner of the Red Bells Inn—that she, Emily Beauregard—no one needed to know they were Colytons, at least not yet—was precisely the right person to whom he should entrust the running of his inn.
When she’d shown her siblings the notice, and informed them of her intention to apply for the position, they had—as they always did, bless them—fallen in unquestioningly and enthusiastically with her scheme. She now had in her reticule three glowing references for Emily Beauregard, written by the invented proprietors of inns they’d passed on their journey. She’d written one, Issy another, and Henry, fifteen and so painfully wanting to be helpful, had penned the third, all while they’d waited for the merchant and his dray.
The merchant had dropped them off outside the Red Bells. To her immense relief, there’d been a notice on the wall beside the door stating “Innkeeper Wanted” in bold black letters; the position hadn’t yet been filled. She’d settled the others in a corner of the large common room, and given them coins enough to have glasses of lemonade. All the while she’d surveyed the inn, evaluating all she could see, noting that the shutters were in need of a coat of paint, and that the interior was sadly dusty and grimy, but there was nothing she could see amiss within the doors that wouldn’t yield to a cloth and a bit of determination.
She’d watched the somewhat dour man behind the bar. Although he was manning the tap, his demeanor had suggested he was thinking of other things in a rather desultory way. The notice had given an address for applications, not the inn but the Grange, Colyton, doubtless expecting said applications to come through the post. Girding her loins, hearing the crinkle of her “references” in her reticule, she’d taken the first step, walked up to the bar, and asked the man the way to the Grange.
Which was how she’d come to be there, dithering in the drive. She told herself she was only being sensible by trying to gauge the type of man the owner was by examining his house.
Older, she thought—and settled; there was something about the house that suggested as much. Comfortable. Married for many years, perhaps a widower, or at least with a wife as old and as comfortable as he. He would be gentry, certainly, very likely of the sort they called the backbone of the counties. Paternalistic—she could be absolutely sure he would be that—which would doubtless prove useful. She would have to remember to invoke that emotion if she needed help getting him to give her the position.
She wished she’d been able to ask the barman about the owner, but given she intended to apply for the position of his superior that might have proved awkward, and she hadn’t wanted to call attention to herself in any way.
The truth was she needed this position. Needed it quite desperately. Quite aside from the issue of replenishing her funds, she and her siblings needed somewhere to stay. She’d assumed there would be various types of accommodation available in the village, only to discover that the only place in Colyton able to house all five of them was the inn. And she couldn’t afford to stay at any inn longer than one night.
Bad enough, but in the absence of an innkeeper, the inn wasn’t housing paying guests. Only the bar was operating; there hadn’t even been food on offer. As an inn, the Red Bells was barely functioning—all for want of an innkeeper.
Her Grand Plan—the goal that had kept her going for the last eight years—had involved returning to Colyton, to the home of their forebears, and finding the Colyton treasure. Family lore held that the treasure, expressly hidden against the need of future generations, was hidden there, at a location handed down in a cryptic rhyme.
Her grandmother had believed unswervingly in the treasure, and had taught Em and Issy the rhyme.
Her grandfather and father had laughed. They hadn’t believed.
She’d held to her belief through thick and thin; for her and Issy, and later Henry and the twins, the promise of the treasure had held them together, held their spirits up, for the past eight years.
The treasure was there. She wouldn’t—couldn’t—believe otherwise.
She’d never kept an inn in her life, but having run her uncle’s house from attics to cellars for eight years, including the numerous weeks he’d had his bachelor friends to stay for the hunting, she was, she felt sure, more than qualified to run a quiet inn in a sleepy little village like Colyton.
How difficult could it be?
There would no doubt be minor challenges, but with Issy’s and Henry’s support she’d overcome them. Even the twins, ten years old and mischievous, could be a real help.
She’d hovered long enough. She had to do this—had to march up to the front door, knock, and convince the old gentleman to hire her as the new innkeeper of the Red Bells.
She and her generation of Colytons had made it to the village. It was up to her to gain them the time, and the facility, to search for and find the treasure.
To search for and secure their futures.
Drawing in a deep breath, she held it and, putting one foot determinedly in front of the other, marched steadily on down the drive.
She climbed the front steps and without giving herself even a second to think again, she raised her hand and beat a sharp rat-a-tat-tat on the white-painted front door.
Lowering her hand, she noticed a bellpull. She debated whether to tug that, too, but then approaching footsteps fixed her attention on the door.
It was opened by a butler, one of the more imposing sort. Having moved within the upper circles of York society prior to her father’s death, she recognized the species. His back was ramrod straight, his girth impressive. His gaze initially passed over her head, but then lowered.
He considered her with a steady, even gaze. “Yes, miss?”
She took heart from the man’s kindly mien. “I wish to speak with the owner of the Red Bells Inn. I’m here to apply for the position of innkeeper.”
Surprise flitted over the butler’s face, followed by a slight frown. He hesitated, regarding her, then asked, “Is this a joke, miss?”
She felt her lips tighten, her eyes narrow. “No. I’m perfectly serious.” Jaw firming, she took the bull by the horns. “Yes, I know what I look like.” Soft light brown hair with a tendency to curl and a face everyone—simply everyone—saw as sweet, combined with a slight stature and a height on the short side of average didn’t add up to the general notion of a forceful presence—the sort needed to run an inn. “Be that as it may, I have experience aplenty, and I understand the position is still vacant.”
The butler looked taken aback by her fierceness. He studied her for a moment more, taking in her high-necked olive green walking dress—she’d tidied herself as best she could while at Axminster—then asked, “If you’re sure…?”
She frowned. “Well, of course I’m sure. I’m here, aren’t I?”
He acknowledged that with a slight nod, yet still he hesitated.
She lifted her chin. “I have written references—three of them.” She tapped her reticule. As she did so, memories of the inn, and the notices—and their curling edges—flashed through her mind. Fixing her gaze on the butler’s face, she risked a deductive leap. “It’s clear your master has had difficulty filling the position. I’m sure he wishes to have his inn operating again. Here I am, a perfectly worthy applicant. Are you sure you want to turn me away, rather than inform him I am here and wish to speak with him?”
The butler considered her with a more measuring eye; she wondered if the flash she’d seen in his eyes might have been respect.
Regardless, at long last he inclined his head. “I will inform Mr. Tallent that you are here, miss. What name shall I say?”
“Miss Emily Beauregard.”