Summer 1814 in Southern England
“You’ve been away from the district for too long to appreciate the gravity of the situation, Lord Gabriel.” Mrs. Wilkinson, the vicar’s wife, screwed her features into an expression of extreme displeasure. “The ladies of the town daren’t walk the main street in broad daylight. They fear for their lives.” She paused to dramatically clutch her ample bosom. “Or worse.”
Gabriel blinked, understandably confused. “Worse?”
“Yes, much worse.” Mrs. Wilkinson settled her bulk more comfortably and glowered at him. “There, what do you have to say to that?”
“I can assure you, madam, that your fears are quite without foundation.” Gabriel spoke in a smoothly reassuring tone. “The marquess is well aware of the situation and fully intends to—”
Hal, the marquess under discussion, was observing this encounter in his formal library from a hiding spot in an adjoining secret passage. He didn’t discover what he fully intended to do since the formidable spokeswoman for this unwelcome group of visitors cut his brother Gabriel off with an impatient swipe of her hand.
“That’s all very well. We’ve had such assurances often enough from Lord Robert, and now from you—”
“But the marquess never does anything about it,” said Miss Lewis, the elderly owner of the draper’s establishment on the main street. “It’s as though our concerns are beneath his notice. It really won’t serve. It’s his responsibility to keep the village safe and prosperous. My business can’t survive if my customers are afraid to make their way to my door.”
“Quite so,” added another female voice.
“Where is the marquess?” Mrs. Wilkinson demanded to know.
Miss Lewis threw Gabriel a darkling glance. “Too ashamed to show himself, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Several heads nodded in agreement, setting bonnet ribbons dancing.
“Really, his neglect of his duties is not to be borne.”
Damn it, Gabe, you’ve allowed Mrs. Wilkinson to get fully into her stride. There’ll be no stopping her now.
“We look to him for guidance and leadership. Or at least we would if we could find him.”
As Gabriel, red-faced, struggled to exert himself, Hal shoved a hand over his mouth to avoid laughing aloud. Few people could handle Mrs. Wilkinson when she was in such a high dudgeon. Even he’d experienced difficulty on the few occasions when he’d been unable to avoid her, so young Gabe didn’t stand a chance. It was hilarious.
It was also deucedly inconvenient.
Gabriel ought to tell the old witch that she, at least, was in no danger from actual bodily harm. No one in the locality was quite that desperate. The same could be said for the three matrons accompanying her.
“I really couldn’t say,” Gabriel muttered, looking more uncomfortable by the minute.
I should bloody well think not.
“Your evasiveness does you no credit, Lord Gabriel.” Mrs. Wilkinson thumped the arm of her chair in an unladylike display of frustration. “We could all be murdered in our beds, our throats cut from ear to ear, whilst the marquess is off carousing about town, getting up to I know not what, and he wouldn’t care one jot.”
She has a point there.
“I shall, of course, do my Christian duty and ask the vicar to pray for him, but even a man of God can’t work miracles when a soul is so very lost.” A squawk slipped past Hal’s lips. “What was that?” Mrs. Wilkinson asked, looking deeply suspiciously. “Is someone lurking back there?”
“Rats, most likely,” Gabe said.
“Rats! You have rats here at the Hall?” Mrs. Wilkinson looked scandalized at the mere prospect of any rodent having the temerity to take up residence at such an august establishment. She pulled her skirts more closely against her, as though expecting a rodent to run up her leg at any moment. Any creature foolhardy enough to attempt it would most likely be suffocated by the whalebones in her corsets. Hal could hear them creak each time she moved, even from within the depths of his hiding place. “Well, that just goes to show I’m in the right of it. If the marquess was here—”
“Which we were told he was,” Miss Lewis put in indignantly.
“Indeed. His carriage was observed passing through the village just this morning and so we didn’t lose a moment coming up to see him. We thought nothing of the inconvenience, even if it is a full five miles.”
“But once again he’s disappeared,” Mrs. Mullet said in an aggrieved tone.
“Absolutely.” Mrs. Wilkinson nodded vigorously. Hal was surprised that she didn’t put her eye out with the feather on her bonnet since it came perilously close to impaling her each time she moved her head. “However, as I was saying, if the marquess was here more often to attend to his property, then rodents certainly wouldn’t inhabit the wainscoting.”
“No more would they abound in the Boar’s Head,” Miss Lewis said severely. “And I am not referring to the four-footed variety.”
“I’m not sure what you expect me to say about the village.” Gabriel’s measured tone warned Hal that even his easygoing brother had reached the end of his tether. “I can however reassure you about the activities at the Boar’s Head. My brother keeps a very close eye on the business conducted there.” Well, that’s true enough. “You must understand that when men have been at sea for a long time, they can be a little wild when they reach dry land, but that doesn’t mean that they would—”
Mrs. Wilkinson sniffed. “Wild you call it. I could supply a more apt description, but such language is not for the ears of the innocent.” She cast a glance over her shoulder before returning her attention to Gabe. “However, I’m persuaded that you comprehend my meaning.”
“The men are merely letting off steam.” Gabriel ploughed on valiantly over Mrs. Wilkinson’s interruption. “However, they know better than to accost anyone who resides in the village. Or anyone at all, for that matter.”
“How can you be so sure, young man?”
“Have you heard of anyone actually being assaulted?”
Well said, Gabriel.
“Not precisely, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Or that it won’t in the future.”
“You are all quite safe.”
Unquestionable. Hal was bored. “Come on, Gabe,” he muttered. “How difficult can it be to rid yourself of four tiresome women with more time on their hands than common sense?”
Mrs. Wilkinson shifted in her chair, clearly not ready to let matters rest. “Have you considered the welfare of the Misses Elliott?”
Who the devil are the Misses Elliott?
Mrs. Wilkinson obligingly pointed behind her, which was when Hal noticed that another female occupied his study. He moved his eye closer to his spyhole and craned his neck to get a closer look at the creature in question. She was a great deal younger that her companions, probably no more than twenty. She sat ramrod straight in a chair placed as far away from the rest of her entourage as she could politely situate herself. He’d also bet half his fortune that she found the situation almost as diverting as he did.
He looked at her with a little more interest. Her body was enveloped in a grey cloak, and an ugly straw bonnet hid most of her face from his view. Even so, Hal thought he could detect lively, dancing eyes beneath its brim and full, plump lips that couldn’t quite conceal her amusement.
“Miss Leah Elliott and her sister are living in Sir Percy’s gatehouse, quite alone and unprotected.” Mrs. Wilkinson tutted. “Really, I said to my husband that it’s not right, but he’s too kindhearted to take Sir Percy to task and—”
“Pray, don’t distress yourself on our behalf, ma’am.” Miss Elliott’s voice, pitched low, was firm yet easy on the ear, especially after half an hour of Mrs. Wilkinson’s strident lecturing. “Sir Percy is my uncle and he has made Bethany and me entirely comfortable. Besides, we are not alone. We have our servants and shall be here for just a few months.”
“The younger Miss Elliott is of a delicate disposition. Her physician has recommended sea air and exercise, but she can hardly partake freely of both if she’s molested each time she steps outside her door.”
“Has your sister been molested, Miss Elliott?” Gabriel asked.
“No, nothing of that nature has occurred, I’m happy to say.”
“Not yet at any rate,” Mrs. Wilkinson said, scowling in Gabe’s direction. “However, I myself was in the village only yesterday and saw a very rough sort of person looking at the young ladies in a most inappropriate manner. Had I not chased him away with my stick, I dread to think what might have happened.”
“I’m sure Miss Elliott and her sister are much obliged to you,” Gabriel said, looking as though he too was struggling not to laugh.
“Indeed we are.”
“That’s as may be, but we still have not discussed the quite disgraceful behaviour at the Boar’s Head. Good heavens, there is drunkenness, debauchery, fistfights and all manner of unchristian activities going on in that place. The most unsavoury characters come and go at all hours, without the slightest thought for the disturbance they cause to the residents of the village.”
“What nature of comings and goings are you referring to, Mrs. Wilkinson?”
“Well,” she said, hesitating for the first time. “I’m not sure I’d care to detail the particulars. Such things are not for Miss Elliott’s delicate ears.”
Miss Elliott sat a little straighter, if that was possible, now taking a lively interest in the conversation. It appeared as though she’d very much like to know what iniquities the patrons of the Boar’s Head were guilty of committing.
“Well then, I can’t—”
The door burst open and Hal’s sister Felicity whirled into the room, all sprigged muslin, bouncing cream curls and a dazzling smile. Gabriel looked highly relieved, as well he might. Mrs. Wilkinson had more than met her match now.
“Gabriel, there you are. I’ve been looking for you all over. Oh,” Flick added, appearing to see his visitors for the first time. “Pray excuse me, I did not realise you were engaged.” Of course you didn’t. “How are you, Mrs. Wilkinson?” she asked with a disarming smile—the one that had always got her out of trouble with their parents and even appeared to appease this old battle-axe. “I trust you have fully recovered from the head cold that prevented you from attending the little party we put on at the orphanage last week?”
“Thank you, yes, Lady Felicity, I am quite well again, only to be overset by—”
“Oh, hello.” Flick, of course, wasn’t listening. She had a happy knack of hearing only that which interested her, but she was so charming that few people took offence at her incivility. She was now smiling at Miss Elliott. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Felicity Forster.” She dipped a brief curtsey. “How do you do.”
Miss Elliott stood and curtsied also. She was a full head taller than Hal’s diminutive sister. A lock of quite the reddest hair he’d ever seen had escaped that dreadful bonnet. Presumably she had a whole batch of freckles across her nose to go with it. Her cloak fell away as she took Felicity’s outstretched hand, revealing a serviceable worsted gown in deep blue. There was nothing remarkable about her, other than that flaming hair and those dancing eyes, but she held Hal’s interest because she appeared to have a little backbone, albeit a rigidly upright one.
“Good morning, Lady Felicity,” she said in that melodious voice of hers. “I am Leah Elliott.”
“Then you must be Sir Percy’s niece. He told us you would be coming to stay. How lovely to meet you.” Typically, Flick linked her arm through Miss Elliott’s as though she had known her for her entire life. “You and I must be of a similar age,” she said boldly.
“I am one-and-twenty.”
“Then you are just one year ahead of me.” Felicity sighed. “Oh, how I wish I was of age. Then my three dreadful brothers wouldn’t try to govern every move I make.”
Gabriel made a scoffing sound at the back of his throat, echoing Hal’s own thoughts. The day had yet to dawn when any of them could make Flick do something she didn’t wish to.
“I’m sure they only have your best interests at heart.”
“Well, I’m not sure of any such thing,” she said with a toss of her curls. “Such a fuss they make over the slightest little thing.”
“You are fortunate to have relatives who care so much about your welfare.”
“That’s easy for you to say.” Flick clapped a hand over her month. “Listen to me, talking without thinking. Hal will have it that it’s my biggest fault. I tend to forget myself, you see, and my tongue runs away with me.”
Leah smiled. “Think nothing of it.”
“You have lost your dear mama and papa, is it not so, Miss Elliott, and are now quite alone in the world, but for your uncle, Sir Percy?”
“Yes, but my sister and I are reconciled to our loss. It was several years ago now.”
“Even so.” Flick appeared to notice that the other ladies had stopped talking amongst themselves and were following the girls’ conversation with avid interest. “However, I long to get to know you and your sister. It will be delightful to have girls closer to my own age in the locality. May I call upon you?”
Hal expected that such a request, coming from a lady of Flick’s status, would overwhelm Miss Elliott. Once again she surprised him with her calm civility.
“We’d be honoured,” she said simply.
“Good, and you must both come to dinner here as soon as it can be arranged.”
“Well, I’m not sure if—”
“Nonsense, I insist. She must come, must she not, Gabriel?”
Gabe inclined his head. “We’d be delighted to see you and your sister as soon as Flick can make the arrangements.”
Oh, Lord. Hal expelled a long breath, all out of patience with his impulsive sister. The last thing he wanted was two church mice at his table, too frightened to open their mouths. They’d probably be unaware which fork to use, how to pass a dish of peas, which side to place their bread.
“Good, well, that’s settled then.” Gabriel stood up but it was a moment or two before Mrs. Wilkinson followed his example.
“Be sure to advise the marquess of our concerns, young man,” she said, wagging a finger beneath Gabriel’s nose. “Otherwise, it won’t be me that calls next time, but my husband.” She pulled herself up to her full insubstantial height. “There, what do you say to that?”
Thank heavens for small mercies.
Gabriel rang the bell, Potter appeared with stately alacrity and showed the ladies out. As soon as the coast was clear, Hal emerged from his hiding place.
“God’s teeth, Hal!” Gabriel ran a hand through his hair. “How do you cope with them?”
Hal laughed. “By avoiding them at all costs.”
“And leaving them to me.”
Hal elevated a brow. “You did say that you wanted to take on more responsibility here at the Hall.”
“Yes, but dealing with that harridan wasn’t quite what I had in mind.”
Hal helped himself to a measure of brandy from the decanter on the sideboard. “Rough with the smooth, little brother. Unfortunately one can’t pick and choose.”
Gabriel grunted. “You appear to do so.”
“I thought Miss Elliott has possibilities,” Flick remarked.
Hal pulled the local newspaper from his sister’s grasp. “That isn’t for your eyes.”
Flick pouted. “How else am I supposed to learn about Mrs. Fitzherbert’s latest doings with the prince regent?”
“You’re not. Whoever writes all that gossip deserves to be clapped in irons.”
Flick merely laughed and retrieved the paper from where Hal had thrown it. “What a charmingly old-fashioned view. I adore gossip.”
Hal and Gabriel exchanged a look.
“With regard to Miss Elliott,” Hal said. “Was it really necessary to invite her here?”
“It’s all very well for you,” Flick said, casting the paper aside again. “You come and go as you please, getting up to I know not what. So does Robert, for that matter, and Gabriel’s having a grand old time of it at Cambridge. Whereas I—”
“Will be going up to town for your second season. And,” Hal added, “you could have been comfortably married with an establishment of your own by now, had you deigned to consider any of the many suitable offers that came your way when you made your debut.”
“Bah!” She flapped a hand. “They were all so stuffy.”
“But rich enough to keep you in silk,” Gabriel pointed out.
“Oh,” Flick said carelessly, “Hal can do that without my having to give anything in return.”
“Felicity!” Gabriel said, shocked.
Hal merely laughed. “Unless you bankrupt me with your extravagance first,” he said, unable to keep the affection he felt for the minx out of his tone.
“Well, I fully intend to take up with Miss Elliott.” Flick’s smile was full of mischief. “I understand that her sister is quite the beauty.”
“More than can be said for Miss Elliott,” Hal muttered.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Flick mused. “I thought her face possessed great strength of character. And I absolutely adore the colour of her hair.”
“Such lofty considerations being sufficient for you to decide she’s worth knowing?”
“Beggars can’t be choosers. There are few enough young ladies in the district whom you would consider suitable companions for me, and I get lonely.”
Hal ruffled her curls. “You have Miss Archer to bear you company.”
“Archie is more a friend than a governess nowadays, but it’s not at all the same thing.” Flick canted her head. “The Misses Elliott might be impecunious but their relationship to Sir Percy makes them a perfectly respectable connection.”
“Oh, God!” Gabriel groaned. “If you invite the Elliotts, I suppose you’ll have to invite Sir Percy too. I don’t mind him but his wife is worse than Mrs. Wilkinson, if that’s possible. No wonder Miss Elliott insisted upon inhabiting the gatehouse.”