Authors: Margaret Evans Porter
Tags: #bestselling author, #England, #regency romance, #regency historical, #Devonishre, #award winning author, #historical novella, #margaret evans porter, #short fiction, #novella
She meant to spend the night in town, Edwin realized, and decided to do the same.
“’Twill be no trouble, Miss,” the lad declared, untying the cords that secured the casks to the sidesaddle. “We can always find a stall for old Pippin.” He asked whether Sir Edwin also wanted to have his horse shod, and on receiving a negative reply he led the pony away to the forge.
Edwin waited patiently while Annis went inside to speak to the blacksmith’s wife and to inspect the new kittens. She returned within a few minutes, the little boy and girl tagging along beside her, by which time he’d transferred her kegs to his own horse.
“You can’t carry them to the boat yourself,” he explained.
“Ned can take them. Don’t delay your journey on my account.”
“I’m happy to be of service, Miss Kelland.”
She bade farewell to her young friends, promising to bring each of them a present when she returned on the morrow. Then she and Edwin set out down the narrow, winding street that lead down to the quay, their progress hampered by carts, livestock, and dogs.
“Sue would like a new ribbon, but I’ve no idea what I should buy for Tim,” she admitted. “What
boys like? The last time I bought him a whistle carved from a reed. His parents have not yet forgiven me.”
“He might be glad to get a spinning top,” Edwin opined as he led his horse around the village pump. “That was my favorite toy when I was his age. They’re engaging children, but why do you give them presents?”
“Because I remember how much I enjoyed receiving trifles from customers at the Castle Inn, when my mother worked there.”
Edwin was familiar enough with her history to know she alluded to a darker period of life. During her father’s imprisonment in Exeter Gaol, her mother had served the drinkers and diners at Dartmouth’s principal inn. There Nancy Kelland met Squire Dundridge, who made her his wife within a year of the smuggler’s demise—much to the amazement of the Devonshire gentry.
The fact that Annis Kelland, so very pretty in her close-fitting bodice and simple russet petticoat, sprang from the farming class did not trouble Edwin. He was a baronet, possessor of a vast property and a stately mansion, but despite these essential differences he sensed that they’d be well matched.
She wanted nothing to do with him, which meant his advances during the harvest home had left a bad impression. Rescuing her from Captain Harper and delivering her cider kegs to ferry were not enough, he feared, to repair the damage done by his eager mouth and greedy hands, or to erase the residual mortification she must feel whenever she recalled what they had done together on that memorable night.
Entering the kitchen at The Castle, Dartmouth’s busiest and most popular Inn, Annis felt she’d stepped back into her past life. The smells wafting from the bread oven and the range and the turnspit were as mouth-watering as they had been in her youth, when she’d either scurried out of the way of all the activity or else assisted the servants, depending upon the cook’s whims and commands.
She’d pulled a stool into a dim corner to observe the busy folk preparing meals for the inn’s guests and regular customers. Her uncle, a waiter, poked his head into the room and told her breathlessly that he would join her after the taproom quieted down.
News of Annis’s presence brought the landlady to the kitchen. Mrs. Russell’s arrival curtailed the quarrelsome chatter of cook and maids, and she broke their respectful silence by advising them to carve the roasted goose.
“What are you about, my dear, hiding away in here?” she chided Annis gently. “Come into my parlor.”
“Later I will,” Annis answered, “after I’ve spoken with Sam.”
“I’ll arrange for one of the other men to take over his post for a little while. A reliable worker, your uncle. I’d be sorry to lose him.”
“Does he think of leaving you?”
The landlady shook her head and the ruffles of her mobcap fluttered. “I hope he won’t, but my best people always seem to move on. Your mother did, and I’ve never ceased to miss her. How is she?”
“Quite well, thank you.”
“But why wouldn’t she be, living as she does? A squire’s lady now, and no soul ever deserved good fortune more than she. No sooner did the news get ’round that her man had died in the gaol than Squire Dundridge started coming into town twice a week instead of once a month. I guessed how ’twould end.”
“I certainly didn’t,” Annis murmured.
“No, I suppose not, for you were no more than twelve. I’d better return to my ledgers,” Mrs. Russell said regretfully. “Pray give her ladyship my greeting. Her
she repeated reverently. “She was plain Nan Kelland when she came to me all those years ago seeking work. And whatever your poor papa may’ve been, your mother was honest and reliable.” With a sharp glance at the aproned females clustered about the fireplace spit, she added, “You’d all do well to conduct yourselves as she did.”
Upon delivering this shot, she swept grandly toward the door but turned back to address Annis once more. “A chambermaid will make up the same room you and your mother occupied when you lived here, the one at the very top of the stairs. The Squire wouldn’t want you riding back to Orchard Place at night, which it will be before you know it. Besides, if you lengthen your stay, you’ll see more of your uncle.”
Since going to live on her stepfather’s farm years ago, Annis had felt cut off from her Kelland relations. She’d always been particularly close to Sam. Her father’s younger brother was near enough in age that she regarded him more as cousin than uncle.
Within minutes he reappeared, saying, “I’ve been given half an hour to eat my dinner, and you’re to share it—Mrs. Russell’s orders. Polly, bring us something tasty, and be quick about it.” He removed his green baize apron and hung it upon a peg before sitting down at the kitchen table.
Annis joined him, and they were soon provided with a bowl of soup and a meat pie.
When they finished their simple meal, Sam said, “You should’ve et with Mrs. Russell instead of me.”
Annis blotted the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “It’s you I’ve come to see. Now tell me, how are all the Brixham Kellands? Does Grandfather’s rheumatism still trouble him?”
“No more’n usual, so far as I know,” Sam answered. “He’ll be glad for any news of you. Since Mum died, he’s been gloomy-minded. My sisters don’t like leaving their families, and live so far off that they’ll go a twelve-month or more without setting foot in Brixham. Papa used to say you should come to live with him, but he gave up hoping for that when Nan wed her squire.”
“I wish I might visit him,” Annis said wistfully. “I could easily travel to Brixham from here—it’s not so far. We could both go, if Mrs. Russell gave you leave.”
“Do you think you should?” Sam asked gravely. “Old Dundridge mightn’t like it.”
“He’s not here to object,” she countered. “Nor would he have any reason. I’m a Kelland, and I can call upon my own grandfather without having to justify it.”
Sam bowed his head, saying gloomily, “You don’t hardly know what being a Kelland means.”
“Oh, don’t I?” she retorted. “This morning, coming to Dartmouth, I was stopped by an Exciseman. He was curious about the contents of those cider kegs I brought you.”
“Is that all?” He shrugged.
“It was most annoying,” she said, her eyes kindling at the memory.
“’Twas but an inconvenience, nothing more. I’ve been treated far worse, you may be sure.” Turning his hazel eyes upon her, he said, “I want to work on a ship more than anything—always have done. Kelland men have been seafarers for as long as anyone can remember.”
Annis knew exactly what was coming, and placed a consoling hand upon his arm.
“But no ship’s master or captain in any Devonshire port is going to take on Jem Kelland’s little brother,” he grieved. “The Customs officers would scour whatever vessel I was assigned to for contraband every time it sailed or returned. They’d question me about the smugglers who run goods into Dartmouth and Brixham and everywhere else Jem had his contacts. And who could blame them? He was notorious. You wouldn’t remember, you were no more than a mite, but—” Sam hesitated momentarily. “Ah, never mind. Poor Jem. He never killed that land shark himself, and no one who truly knew him believes he did. Or
Annis, knowing so little about her father, hoped her relative would continue what for her was an illuminating discussion. But it came to an abrupt end when the head waiter charged into the kitchen, gesturing at him.
“Hurry along, Sam—you’re needed in the taproom! I’ve got a party of ship’s officers shouting for their grog, the dining room is full, and just now two fine gents came in wanting to sup in the private parlor. You, girl,” he said sharply to one of the cook maids, “put on a fresh apron and find out what they require.”
Annis bounded up from her stool. “Polly’s busy with the goose. I’ll go to them.”
Her uncle’s harassed colleague stared at her. “You, Miss?”
“Why not, if you’re short-handed?”
Sam put a restraining hand upon her shoulder. “Nay, Annis. B’aint what Squire Dundridge would want.”
For Annis that was the appeal of it. And although she felt shame at eagerness to go against the wishes of a man who was consistently kind and generous, she said airily, “He’ll never find out. It’s the least I can do for Mrs. Russell, who is so kind to me.”
She’d lived at the inn for many years, and knew the way to the private parlor commonly offered to the most distinguished customers. There her mother had often waited upon the squire.
After hastily straightening her fichu and smoothing her borrowed apron, she stepped into the room. One of the two gentlemen seated at the table was Sir Edwin Page. She decided to withdraw to the corridor and send Polly back in her stead—but wasn’t quick enough to escape his notice.
Squaring her shoulders, she advanced to the circular table and handed the baronet a bill of fare.
“What a pleasant surprise, Miss Kelland,” he intoned blandly. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon. I boasted to Mr. Corston that the service at the Castle is as excellent as the food. I daresay you’ll prove me right.”
A serving maid would probably have bobbed a curtsy. Momentarily at a loss, Annis wasn’t sure how best to respond. Smiling tentatively at his companion, a stranger with blond hair and a sunburned nose, she said, “The soup is very good today, sir.”
Looking up from the paper she’d given him, the man asked, “And how are the wines? Does your master have something special hidden away in his cellar—a bottle or two that slipped past the Excise officers?”
A fiery blush swept over her cheeks, and she couldn’t bear to look at Sir Edwin. Twice in one day he’d been reminded of her connection, however distant, to the smuggling trade.
“It would be far too risky for the Russells to keep any untaxed spirits, Garth. We’ll begin with a bottle of the best claret. And, Miss Kelland, I’ll try the soup.”
So began a painfully embarrassing and aggravating evening, made worse by the knowledge that she’d brought it on herself. Her uncharitable desire to go against the squire’s wishes was being punished. By impetuously taking on the role of serving wench she’d disgraced herself before the man whose admiration she secretly sought.
From time to time she permitted herself to notice the way the candles in the sconces burnished Sir Edwin’s chestnut hair, tied behind with a dark velvet ribbon.
For two years she had loved him. After inheriting his great-uncle’s title and country house, he’d called upon her stepfather—that first encounter was engraved upon her memory. Of his life before he’d come to live in Devonshire she knew almost nothing. And, as a result of her actions this night, her curiosity would go unsatisfied.
She should have known better than to go off into the orchard with him during the harvest home, but when he’d taken her hand and led her out of the crowd she hadn’t protested. His hot, desperate kisses had been a revelation. His fingers, which first moved tenderly across her face and then down her neck, to finally settle on her breasts, had evoked exquisite sensations. For as long as he’d held her in his arms, it hadn’t mattered who he was or what her own father had been or done.
Ever since, she had cultivated a frigid civility, intended to communicate her disavowal of what they had done together that night.
While removing the empty plates from the last course from the table to the sideboard, she listened intently to his discourse with his friend, who had consumed more wine than food and was dominating their conversation.
“Where did you leave your yacht?” she heard him ask.
“Torquay. I made excellent time from Lyme Regis, considering that the direction of the wind was against me. The pater and mater were after me to stay close by—they insisted I attend some damned local assembly, the sort of thing I abominate. But I sailed away quick as ever I could. And the closer I got to Devonshire, the more I was tempted to make good my threat to pay you a visit.”
“Fortunate for me.”
Annis, alert to every inflection in that low, pleasant voice, detected the faintest note of sarcasm.
“From the moment I received your letter boasting about that string of horses you’ve got at Harbourne Court, I’ve been eager to see ’em.”
“You may try them, if you like. When do your parents expect you back in Lyme?”
Annis, with the wine decanter, returned to the table and witnessed Mr. Corston’s careless shrug. “It makes no difference. They’ve got Lizzie, who’s better company than me. They’re parading her before all the provincials.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Incomparable Miss Cosrton has more admirers than she can count.”
The difference in the baronet’s tone was immediately apparent to Annis. She’d heard vague but persistent rumors of a distant lady-love. Her hand was unsteady as she refilled his empty glass—had he noticed?
Mr. Corston beckoned her to his side of the table, and she also poured wine for him. “How late do the coaches run in this district?” he asked Sir Edwin.
“I’ve no intention of returning to Harbourne Court tonight. The rains left the roads in a terrible state, and the journey isn’t short. Miss Kelland, do you happen to know whether bedchambers are available?”