The inn was well presented, had a good menu and served excellent ale. To say nothing of providing a supply of whisky he was certain had never been within scent of an exciseman.
George Armstrong, who following the death of his father now bore the title Baron Hexham, winced at the squawk the feet of his chair made as he pushed it back a few inches to allow him to cross one knee over the other and not upturn the nearby table. He sniffed the spirit in his glass, savoured the peaty aroma with appreciation and took a sip.
“Douglas, ‘tis as good as ever,” he said to the anxiously awaiting landlord. “You are a genius in securing something so special. What I wouldn’t do for a cask of this at home.” He laughed at the landlord’s agonised expression. “No, I will not ask you to facilitate that. I imagine it is fraught enough getting sufficient for your needs.”
“That it is, indeed, my lord. But if you wish I…”
George took pity on the man. He had been only half-serious when he’d said he wished he had some at home. It would have put the noses out of joint of the people who worked on his estate and had their own stills secreted away. They may lie south of the border, but their appreciation—and copying—of the water of life was alive and kicking. He had no idea where they secreted the still whose results he regularly acquired, but he hoped it was never discovered by the powers that be. The resultant whisky was as good as the one he now savoured. “Do not worry yourself. It’s another good reason to visit you. Along with your wife’s cooking and a comfortable bed on my journey.”
“That’s grand. May I ask how t’house is comin’ on?”
George sighed. His Corbridge home had been razed to the ground by his laudanum-addicted father, and his addlepated sire had perished in the blaze. “Slowly, Douglas, very slowly. The one redemption from the whole sorry state is no one but the late baron was hurt when he ventured too near the flames.” He chose not to mention the man had been as naked as a jay and waving a bottle of port, or that he could never forgive himself for not remembering that whilst under the influence Gordon, his late father, had been irrational and likely to fall into a rage. The conflagration had been because George had foiled his parent’s plans to ruin a man whose long-dead ancestor, his father had believed, had caused a curse to be laid upon the Armstrong family. In his drug-clouded mind, Gordon had invented a ruinous theory of the curse being broken by way of a marriage between the two families, and had stooped to the lowest form of blackmail to bring this about. That was the manner of man he had been. George hoped and prayed he had none of the man’s unpleasant traits in him. “He thought he saw someone or something inside.” A lie, but who was to confront him over it?
“Ah, good man, sorry ending.” The landlord shook his head in sorrow. “Life must go on though, eh? You off north?” Douglas’ voice penetrated George’s mind, and he brought himself back to the present.
George nodded. “To the Trossachs, to see a good friend who lives there. Then I’m away to the Tay for the fishing before the season ends.”
“Then I’ll wish ye well,” Douglas replied. “I’d not be wantin’ to go so far m’sen but I know you gentry folk are happy wi’ all t’travel. Will you be using the private parlour later this evening?”
Amused at the idea that only those higher up the social ladder travelled, George blinked at the change of topic and considered the question, while pondering the types of people who also travelled. What about salesmen? Servants changing jobs? Drovers, herders and itinerants? The list could be endless. He mentally laughed at himself and let the thoughts go.
As to his present abode, he was comfortable where he was. The room was aptly named the snug. Three tables, two benches and four high-backed armchairs with padded seats. Set in front of a crackling fire with a bell pull for service. What more could he want? Except for a warm and willing body and that was as unlikely as a Stuart returning to the throne. “Not if you need it for someone else. I’ll be as happy here.”
“Then I’ll tell the gentleman who wishes to use it with his ward that he may.” The landlord sounded relieved. “The lass has had a touch of nausea after travelling, so they’re biding the night. Last two rooms, they got. We’re mighty busy this day. The sheep sales, you know.”
George nodded. Not that he did know a lot, but he’d intended to take a look at the sales and see if anything there interested him. His estate in the Cheviots would stand a few additions to the flock and Callum, his shepherd, was due the following day to look the animals over. They’d been told some of a flock with outstanding pedigrees would be up for auction. A couple of rams and an ewe or two wouldn’t go amiss.
George would leave everything to Callum, hand him the cash they had decided on and keep well away. Callum was an unknown in the area—George himself was not. He wouldn’t put it past some farmers to collaborate to push the prices up if it were known he was bidding. His father hadn’t shown their family in a good light in the area. George accepted he would have an uphill struggle to rectify it.
He settled down in front of the fire, legs crossed at the ankle, and steepled his hands on his chin. Deep in thought, he studied the flames for a while and pondered on how fire could be both good—here at that moment—and bad—the way his home had ended up as ashes.
With another dram and several of the landlady’s famed-throughout-the-area singing hinnies, he contemplated all he needed to do in the next few weeks. Singing hinnies, sweet griddle cakes, which George, along with a large percentage of the local population, were partial to, were a local favourite, and everyone guarded their own specific recipe jealously.
George’s mind moved from the future to the past as he mused over the previous twelve months. They had been frenetic, worrying and, thankfully at times, uplifting. With the exception of the fire and the tragedy of his father’s death, there had been more positives than negatives, and at last George felt his life was on an even keel.
Apart, of course, from his still being unwed. Not something that had overly bothered him in the past, but now seeing new—but good—friends happily settled, he was aware he thought he would like a wife. Children. A family. An heir.
How he was to achieve that he had no idea. A season paying court to the well-brought-up young ladies on the marriage mart held little appeal—even if he’d been so inclined. His father’s antics, plus his own once well-deserved but no longer relevant reputation as a rake, would ensure no parent worth their salt would consider him a good bet as a husband for their daughter.
He sighed and stared into his tankard of ale as if it had all the answers.
It didn’t. He took one mouthful, twisted the tankard around and watched the contents froth. How long before it fell flat? A bit like he felt at that moment.
George was not the sort of person to think every solution was found in the bottom of a jug of ale or a flagon of whisky, and had no idea how long it was before he became aware of voices from the adjoining room. Seconds probably. He put his drink down and debated whether to scrape his chair over the floor to show the occupants the private parlour, it seemed, wasn’t exactly private.
Whether it was due to the way the chimneys met and merged or doors ajar he had no idea, but two voices could be clearly heard.
“I told you I’ll come with you and marry you, so why all this farridaddle?” a female voice asked. “If you don’t think I’ll be true to my word, lock me in my room. Try to make me share yours, and I’ll bring the roof down and cause such a scandal you won’t have a hope of your plot succeeding. Your choice.”
“You better be on the level.”
George decided not to announce his presence and narrowed his eyes, as if by doing so he could see though walls or even identify the speaker. Did he know him? He certainly had never heard the female voice before, but the deeper baritone sounded familiar.
“I am as on the level as you are,” the lady—he was certain she was a lady, a gently reared female—continued. “I would do nothing to harm my family, even if you are not so scrupulous. I will not let any scandal stick to Papa or the memory of my late mama, and you know that fine well. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have thought up this insidious plan. One, I might add, only a scoundrel would choose to carry out. Now, kindly go and locate the landlord and discover which room I have been allocated so I may retire for the evening. Alone.”
For a few seconds there was silence, then the male answered.
“Very well. Wait here. But remember…” The tone George supposed was meant to be menacing had more than a hint of a whine in it. And now he recognised it.
Adrian Corbett, by God. The blaggard! What is he up to?
“Oh, I remember it all. You can be sure I will go to my room, but do not think to accompany me to it, because if you do, I will…” There was a pregnant pause. “Create. A. Scene.”
George mentally applauded the lady. Not many well-bred females of his admittedly limited acquaintance would have the sense—or temerity—to act in such an assertive way.
A door creaked open and footsteps sounded on the wooden boards of the hallway outside the snug. George considered not just the words he’d overheard but also the disdain and loathing in the female’s voice. Whoever the lady may be, she was obviously being coerced into a marriage against her natural inclination. She had sounded feistily determined to stand her ground, but would her words be enough to hold a man like Adrian Corbett at bay should he decide to enter her room after imbibing a couple of brandies?
The thought turned George’s stomach. The man was certainly foul enough to physically force his presence on a slighter-built female. He would probably excuse himself doing so without a second thought if she was destined to be his wife. It was not to be borne. No female should be forced into marriage. With anyone. George set his glass on the table, walked quickly to the door and left the room.
* * * *
Grace Foston stared at the back of the parlour door as it shut behind the detestable Adrian Corbett and discovered she was breathing heavily, almost as if she had been out for a long hard gallop on her favourite pony then swum in the river. Both things which were frowned upon in the circles she moved in.
The bloody man. The gall and, she allowed, the cleverness he showed. Her poor, poor sister.
In Corbett’s absence she retied and tightened the ribbons of the poke bonnet she had selected that morning for the fact of it having a large-rounded brim that shaded the top half of her face. And just in time. For not two minutes after her nemesis departed, the door handle turned again. The landlord must have been hovering nearby. However, to her surprise, it was not Corbett who entered the parlour but a man she had never seen before in her life. He beckoned her towards him then held out his hand.
“Come. Quick. Before he returns.”
This not being part of Grace’s master plan in the slightest, she stood but moved no closer. “Ah…this is a private parlour, sir. I request you leave it.”
The man’s tone became more urgent as he walked towards her. “No. No. I won’t have it. Especially not with him.”
Grace glared and opened her mouth to object, but before she could speak, found herself captured in a bear hug and lifted from her feet.
“Forgive me, but I cannot allow you to stay here with such a man.”
Held in an embrace so tight there was no room to so much as wriggle, Grace couldn’t find enough breath to scream.
What could she do?
The handle of the furled parasol she’d hung on the back of her chair brushed against her hand as he began to walk toward the door. She curled her fingers around its ivory shaft and managed to take it with her as she was carried unceremoniously from the parlour and up the stairs to her abductor’s room.
Each firm footstep echoed in her mind. Like the steps to doom.
Stop being fanciful, she chided herself. Doom is not allowed in this establishment, or in my foreseeable future. She hoped.
The man set her back on her feet and released her after toeing the door shut behind them. Grace seized her chance and set about him with her silk-covered sunshade. He yelped at the first blow. The whalebone shaft shattered at the second, and the delicate ivory sticks of its ribs disintegrated as she pummelled his arms. He held his hands up to protect his head from further assault.
“Damnation, woman. Stop it, you hellcat. I’m saving you from a fate worse than death here. Ow! That hurt. Why did I even bother…?”
His words gave Grace pause. She surveyed the mangled parasol and dropped it with a thud. It would never be the same. “Now look what you’ve made me do. It’s ruined. Who are you and what on earth made you step forward as you did?” She glanced around for something near at hand that could also be used as a weapon. Two vases and a heavy, ugly statue of a naked nymph could be easily reached. Reassured, she stared at the man. “I demand an explanation at once.” She stamped her foot. “And I meant it, or else.” What a stupid statement. Or else what? “Explanation. Now.”
She was not at all certain she’d get one. Handsome, engaging and no doubt a rake, he wouldn’t be the sort of person to tamely reply. He had the look about him—that of a man who would do as he preferred and not kowtow to conformity.
The intruder rubbed his head, where she could see a lump was already forming. He smiled, ruefully. “George Armstrong. At your service, and to rescue you from the clutches of a man no sane person would spend a minute with. Otherwise, it won’t only be the parasol that is ruined.” He held out his hand. “If you wish to escape him, come with me now. We don’t have a lot of time.”
She ignored his offer and resolutely tamped down the hint of sympathy for the injury she had bestowed on him. He deserved it. His face might be unfamiliar, but his name was not. The antics of a certain Mr G A of Corbridge had made regular appearances in the scandal sheets over the years. Why on earth hadn’t she kept her pistol in her reticule instead of stowing it in her portmanteau? She glanced towards the most substantial vase in the room. She would have no chance to reach it before he overpowered her. The nymph it would have to be. She had an irrelevant thought of the statue’s prominent breasts hitting him in a place he would find very painful.
“George Armstrong… I’ve heard of you.”
He flinched as if the note of disgust in her voice had administered a direct slap to his face. Why? Gossip might be unreliable but there would not have been quite so much of it in the press unless there was some element of truth in the loose behaviour they accused him of.
“I should have hit you harder,” Grace said forcefully. “As it is, my poor parasol will never be opened again. Who are you to tell how me how to go on? You…you…rake…” She didn’t add she had also heard of his prowess as a lover, although being face to face with his broad shoulders and undoubted good looks, she had no trouble believing the truthfulness of those particular rumours. Not that she intended to let them influence her. Not at all. So why were her nerve ends tingling? Why were her palms clammy and her mind sending amorous thoughts to her brain? Along the lines of ‘wouldn’t it be good to find out’?
Enough. Concentrate on the necessities of this situation.
His mouth quirked up at the corners and a twinkle entered his blue eyes, as if what she had just said amused him.
“A rake?” he drawled, in the best rakish voice she had heard in an age. “I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call myself that, not these days at any rate, although I will admit to the odd peccadillo or several in my past. Due to those, ah…interesting times, and given my youthful follies, I have experience of how a rake’s mind works. I’ve met many a man like Corbett. I hope not to meet many more, but I don’t hold my breath. They seem to go forth and multiply at a formidable rate.”
Grace looked longingly at the nymph once again then glared at him. Youthful follies? Not if the papers are to be believed. Is he addled?
“Are you an aficionado of the poppy, Mr Armstrong?” It was the most scathing thing she could think of on the spur of the moment.
Any hint of humour fled from his face. He reddened.
Maybe that was a bit too much. He appears ready to commit murder. Probably mine. Grace opened her mouth to apologise, but before she had a chance to speak, he beat her to it.
“I am not,” he replied stiffly. “I have no need of such things, be they medicinal or not. As for Corbett, I have no clue as to whether he has any unsavoury addictions, although I do know he’s a less-than-honourable man. A weasel. A reprobate of the first order. An underhanded rogue.” He raised his shoulders and let them fall. “Count your fingers after he has held your hand. He’s the type of person whose only consideration is for himself and what is best for him. Nothing else. Why on earth is someone like you here with someone like him?” His voice was desolate, and his bleak expression made her wince.
However, she was wise enough to know any sympathy would not, at that given moment, be well received. Grace held her tongue, striving not to let her temper get the better of her and fairly sure she would not succeed. After all, what did he know?