Authors: Maggie MacKeever
Tags: #Regency Romance
He wandered deeper into the trees, gun held at his side, occasionally startling an unwary deer. It was all quite peaceful, and amazingly unreal. England remained largely unmarked by the hostilities in which she had been engaged for so many years, for she was protected by her great sea power from the devastation that had been wreaked across Europe by the merciless French cavalry. Ned sometimes doubted his countrymen were aware that there had
a war, so caught up were they in their everyday pursuits. He thought of the Portuguese and Spanish peasant bands that had fought so bravely, armed with nothing more than old blunderbusses and pruning knives and quince poles whose wooden tips were hard and sharp as iron. One chieftain named Moreno had killed and wounded nine Frenchmen with a single discharge from his enormous blunderbuss, and returned home with captured silver plate and a handful of French ears.
Rapidly approaching hoofbeats roused Ned from his reflections. He looked around, startled to find himself on a narrow winding lane.
A horse appeared, coming at a wild gallop. At sight of Ned, the steed shied violently. Its rider tumbled to the ground.
Faced with the choice of preventing the beast from bolting, or offering assistance to the rider, Ned knelt in the road. “That was a nasty tumble. Are you all right?” he asked, as he checked for broken bones. The horse galloped off in the direction from which it had come.
The rider’s eyes flicked open; they were a vibrant green. “I think so,” she said doubtfully. “If this isn’t all of a piece with my wretched luck! Connor is off hunting, and I’d hoped I might steal away and take some exercise, but the accursed horse took the bit between its teeth. Which is probably why Connor didn’t take the brute himself. I wouldn’t put it beyond him to guess that I might want to ride.” She flushed. “You will think I am a hopeless hoyden, and it is no more than I deserve.”
Ned was far too much the gentleman to agree with this remark, which was anyway untrue. “I think you may have sprained your ankle,” he said, as he helped the young lady to her feet. “Try and put your weight on it, if you can.”
She tried, and winced. “Oh, drat! We are miles away from anywhere, without a horse, and I cannot walk. What am I to do?”
“Don’t distress yourself,” Ned soothed. “Since I caused your accident, it’s only fair that I should rescue you.”
Her pretty eyes widened. “How kind you are, and to a perfect stranger. Let me introduce myself. I am Amanda, Lady Halliday. You will recognize my name if you live near here. Not that I blame everybody for gossiping about me, because it’s little enough they have to interest them, poor things. But who are
With a polite bow, Ned introduced himself. “I am visiting Greenwood Castle,” he added. “At the invitation of Lady Bligh.”
“I almost feel like I have met the Baroness,” Amanda informed him. “Because people talk about her too! You mustn’t blame yourself for my mishap, Lieutenant Sutcliffe, because if you hadn’t appeared when you did, I would probably have broke my neck. In comparison, you must see that to have merely sprained my ankle is a very good thing.”
Ned agreed that in such circumstances a wrenched ankle was a blessing. He then suggested that, since the Castle lay nearer than the Hall, he might escort her there.
“That is an excellent notion.” She regarded him doubtfully. “But how do you mean to go about it when I cannot walk a step?”
With a brief word of apology, Ned swung her up into his arms. Lady Halliday gasped, then settled herself more comfortably. “This is truly an adventure, is it not? I am in your debt, Lieutenant Sutcliffe. Oh, how drearily polite! Do you think, considering the informal nature of our meeting, that I might call you Theodore?”
“No one but my mother calls me Theodore,” he responded, with a grimace. “My friends call me Ned.”
“Excellent! And I am Amanda. Now you must tell me about yourself.”
He obliged, as they progressed through the thick woods, and in a manner that would have startled the occupants of the Castle, for Ned ventured only such details of his military career as might be expected to amuse a lady of tender sensibilities.
She twisted in his arms to peer up at his face. “You must be a hero. I have never met a hero before. And you are twice a hero now, because you have rescued me.”
“You make too much of it,” Ned replied, gruffly. “I’m nothing of the sort.”
“I see what it is: you are excessively modest.” Amanda looked wise. “Therefore I shall not tease you, but I do think you are brave. And I am not a featherweight, so you are also exceedingly strong.”
In an attempt to dissuade his burden of the notion that she might overtax his strength, Lieutenant Sutcliffe assured her that he might without the least overexertion carry her about the entire day. Lady Halliday, who was finding this young soldier a marvelous antidote to her blue devils, confessed she wished he might.
At that moment, Sir John and Hubert burst out of the trees. Amanda gave a little shriek. Instead of expressing gratitude at being found, Ned scolded his would-be rescuers for behaving like scrubby schoolboys, chasing one another through the trees. While they stood gaping, he strode past them and down the lane, the lady in his arms.
Humbug was the first to regain both his self-possession and his breath. “Did I not prescribe distraction?” he said, ironically.
In Greenwood village, the annual fair was underway. People from the surrounding countryside crowded the narrow cobbled streets: red-faced merchants and farmers in low-crowned broad-rimmed hats; field laborers in leggings and breeches and smocks; drovers and country matrons and a black-clad minister. They visited the stalls where gingerbread and fruits and nuts were sold; exclaimed over the grand historical panorama; clapped their hands in time with the tunes of a traveling fiddler; watched a wheelbarrow race in which the contestants were blindfolded, and the antics of a greased pig. Laughing and chatting, filled with jolly spirits, the villagers looked forward to the celebrations that would commence at Christmas and continue until Twelfth Night.
Feeling not the least bit festive, Lady Bligh’s long-suffering butler made his way past butcher and grocer and cobbler’s shops, barber and saddler and ironmonger. Gibbon had no more interest in pretty houses with romantic eaves and latticed windows than he did in pig-faced ladies and dwarfs.
At length he reached the Four Nuns. A faded sign bore the likeness of the sisters from whom the inn took its name. According to local lore, the ladies had been involved in a disgraceful incident, not surprisingly, with the then Baron Bligh. As a result, the sisterhood had been dissolved. Some believed it a blessing that the present Baron was the last of his line.
The exterior of the ancient structure was gabled and timber-framed, its walls pink-washed, its beams blackened by time. In warmer weather, customers sat outside under the spreading oak and chestnut trees.
Gloomily, Gibbon opened the door. His nerves, unsteady at the best of times, had already been exacerbated by his mistress’s house guests, not to mention the proximity of Bow Street’s Chief Magistrate, with whom he had a long and varied history. If all that were not bad enough, he must additionally endure Lieutenant Sutcliffe’s all-too-enlightening discourses upon such topics as hospitals where stricken soldiers lay untended upon heaps of rotting, verminous straw.
At least, at the moment, he wasn’t listening to Ned. Gibbon entered the taproom, a large chamber with an enormous granite fireplace, flagged floor, and a long low ceiling supported by massive oak beams. Bypassing wheelbarrow races and greased pigs in favor of a pint of ale, a few locals had gathered around the fire. Gibbon exchanged nods with them and seated himself nearby.
The villagers had grown accustomed to Lady Bligh’s tall, cadaverous butler, whose natural pallor was made even more startling by his shock of white hair and the black he habitually wore. They gave him only cursory glances before resuming their conversation, which dealt with the current celebrations, the climax of which was to be a boxing-match, the winner to be awarded a prize by the proprietor of this establishment.
That stout worthy bustled out from behind the bar, in his hand a mug of ale.
Gibbon accepted the tankard with a nod of thanks. Abel Bagshot lowered his bulk into a nearby chair. “It’s looking out for you I’ve been, Mr. Gibbon, ever since we had word that the family was coming for the holiday. ‘Tis a pity you wasn’t here for the celebrating of the peace. Sir Wesley had an ox roasted whole on the market-hill. It was given us alongside several hogsheads of strong beer. We had a grand bonfire and burned Boney’s effigy.” The innkeeper shook his head. “A good man was Sir Wesley, God rest his soul.”
“A sad affair, Mr. Bagshot,” commented Gibbon. “The family was most distressed by the news.”
“To turn up his toes like that, in his own garden,” marveled Abel. “Elderly gentlemen shouldn’t go around marrying ladies a great deal younger than themselves. Begging your pardon, Mr. Gibbon! I didn’t mean to imply disrespect. There’s not a person in the village who speaks other than kindly of Lady Halliday. It’ll be hard times for the poor lass once Master Connor has hold of the reins.”
“How’s that?” Gibbon watched the group seated by the fireplace rouse to play a game of quoits.
Abel lowered his voice. “Everyone knows Master Connor mislikes his stepmother. It’s being wagered that he’ll have her packing within a fortnight.
wager he was glad enough the old man died when he did, before that fine new wife could present him with another heir.”
“Ah.” Gibbon’s ears pricked up. He had once been a Bow Street Runner, after all, before his habit of making off with the evidence roused his employer to one final, unforgettable explosion of wrath.
Abel leaned even closer. “Master Connor wouldn’t care to share his inheritance with one who was but half his blood.”
“I suppose, as matters stand, that Connor Halliday inherits both his and his brother’s share?” Gibbon sipped his ale.
“Only Sir Wesley’s solicitor can answer that question. But no matter if Master Connor does inherit, his brother was the better man.” The innkeeper launched into reminiscences of how Master Cade had displayed in the ring, which segued into a discussion of the upcoming boxing-match.
Gibbon doubted his mistress would be interested in the finer points of the two contestants. “Mr. Halliday’s brother was also a sporting gentleman?”
“That he was,” agreed Abel. “Stripped to good advantage did Master Cade, and was bang up to the nines. Had to be, didn’t he, to beat Connor senseless? Because no matter what you say about Master Connor, you can’t call him a weakling.”
Gibbon had no wish to call Connor Halliday anything at all. “There was no attempt at reconciliation?”
“After Cade half-murdered Connor?” Abel shook his head. “Sir Wesley had already given Cade his walking papers, and that last set-to further made up the old man’s mind. Matters might’ve gone otherwise if Cade hadn’t tried to shift the blame onto his brother. Sir Wesley didn’t believe him. ‘Twas a sad day.”
Gibbon wondered how much of this the Baroness already knew. “Why did they come to blows?”
“That last time? No one knows. Those two was always at each other’s throats, Cade being all charm and butter-would-melt-in-his-mouth, and Connor surly as a bear. ‘Tis my opinion Connor was jealous of his brother. All the world doted on Master Cade.”
“Spoiled, was he?”
“Some might say so.” Abel took Gibbon’s empty mug and returned to the bar.
Moments later he was back, bearing two brimming tankards; handed one to Gibbon and kept the other for himself. “Here’s to the new year. May it prove more peaceful than the last.”
With that sentiment, Gibbon heartily agreed. He drank.
Abel surveyed his taproom. “Twenty-one years gone by, since the war with France was announced in the House of Commons by Mr. Pitt. The House itself is now lit by gas. I was talking with Sir Wesley about something of the sort myself. Mayhap a Patent Warm-Air Stove. Very grand they look in the newspaper advertisements. Or one of those new Hydropheumatic Lamps said to shine as bright as six candles. Just think of it!”
Gibbon thought that without a patron the innkeeper could no more afford to purchase such marvels than he could take wing and fly. That reflection, he kept to himself.
“Now Sir Wesley’s gone,” Abel lamented. “’Tis like an era has come to an end. Lord knows I’ve no love for those nasty, thieving tinkers but it seems hard that they should be turned off the land after being given leave to camp there so many years. Between you and me, Mr. Gibbon, I’d be much surprised if they was to go peacefully.”
Gibbon reflected unhappily upon his mistress’s notion of a quiet country holiday. “You expect trouble?” he asked.
“I do. And not just from the tinkers.” Abel leaned so close that his breath warmed Gibbon’s ear. “Master Connor has set man-traps in the park. There’s many a family hereabouts who’ll go hungry without that extra rabbit in the pot. Some say he’s wishful of keeping his step-mama from roaming — she
one to wander about, poor lass, with always a kind word for everyone, and no one would dream of harming a hair of her head. That devil Connor means to make her so unhappy she’ll leave, you mark my words.”
Gibbon was indeed marking his host’s words, every one of them, which considering the number of words Abel had already spoken, was a prodigious feat. “I’m surprised she doesn’t pack up and go home.”
“Her people haven’t two pence to rub together,” scoffed Abel. “After sleeping in clover would you want to go back to being poor?”
Gibbon allowed as he would not. Abel drained his mug. “It’s a sorry situation all around.”
Gibbon emptied his own tankard. “What happened to the brother? Does anyone know?”
“If so, they aren’t telling. Still, there’s those willing to guess. Some think Cade Halliday never left Greenwood, Mr. Gibbon; that Connor murdered his brother and buried his body somewhere it wouldn’t be found. Then he dragged his own self back to Lady Margaret’s Garden, there to be discovered lying senseless on the morn. The problem with that story being that Cade was alive enough to be banished the following day. Though Connor might still have done for him.” Abel leaned back in his chair. “ ‘Tis said Cade’s ghost’s been seen near his mother’s garden. There’s no mistaking him in the moonlight.”