On a moonless night, the familiar inn looked somehow strange and unwelcoming. Had Cecily been of a fanciful nature, she might have described it as menacing. Fortunately, she was the most practical and sunny natured of young women, so she merely took her aunt’s arm and led her inside.
The wall of noise and smells hit her at once, for the door from the entrance hall to the public taproom was wide open. However, at least it also enabled the innkeeper to catch sight of his noble customers, too, for he hurried toward them at once, shouting to his underling to take his place, and closed the door behind him.
“Your ladyships,” he exclaimed, bowing low. “What a pleasant surprise. I’m sure we’ve had no word of your coming.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” Cecily’s aunt, Lady Barnaby, said dryly. “It was not our intention until an hour ago when one of our wretched horses went lame. We’ve had to toil our way to you, the nearest shelter. We require a bedchamber each, and your private parlor.”
The innkeeper, who rejoiced in the name of Villin, looked dismayed. “Your forgiveness, ma’am, but I have only the one bedchamber in the whole of the inn, and the parlor is taken, too.”
“Drat,” Lady Barnaby said crossly. “I suppose we would not care for the coffee room at this time of night either. Well, our hands are tied. We shall take your one bedchamber and whatever dinner you can find for us.”
At that moment, the parlor door opened and the innkeeper’s wife came out carrying an empty tray. Beyond her plump, comely person, Cecily glimpsed several men bathed in the somehow mysterious glow from scattered candles. Most were seated around a table in the middle of the room, but one man stood by the fire, leaning carelessly against the mantel shelf. Although his dress looked to be that of a gentleman, he wore it extremely casually, with his cravat loose and his coat unbuttoned. Neither did the coat fit with fashionable snugness across his broad shoulders. Clearly, it was made for comfort rather than appearance.
He seemed to be ignoring the men at the table, who, from her one hasty glance, gave Cecily a vague impression of tense malevolence. While they drank and talked with quiet intensity, the gentleman scowled at the hearth, his expression dark and brooding. His lean jaw was shadowed with stubble. His raven-black hair, too long for fashion, fell carelessly forward over his high forehead. In all, he looked a little like one of Lord Byron’s heroes, and was handsome enough besides, to make Cecily’s heart skip a beat.
As though he heard the anomaly, he glanced up, unerringly straight at Cecily. His lips curved. Some dangerous light glinted in his eyes like fire. And then Mrs. Villin closed the door on the room and Cecily breathed again.
“Here’s my wife who’ll show you to your bedchamber,” Villin said with relief. “And my daughter will bring you up some dinner in just a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” Cecily said, glancing once more toward the parlor door.
“Bless your ladyships, what a pleasant surprise,” Mrs. Villin said, handing her husband the empty tray. “Just a shame we’re so busy tonight, for we didn’t expect you. Visiting at Audley Park, were you?”
“Yes,” Cecily replied, following her upstairs. “We attended Miss Maybury’s wedding to Lord Dunstan.”
“How wonderful,” Mrs. Villin exclaimed with genuine pleasure. “And were the duke and duchess there, too?”
“Indeed, they were,” Cecily replied, “but they have already returned to Lincolnshire. We were heading to London when one of our horses went lame and forced us to stop. So, is it the gentlemen in the parlor who have taken all your bedchambers?”
“Some of ’em,” Mrs. Villin said, leading them across the landing to the door at the end of the passage. “Here we are, my ladies. I’m sorry you have to share, but I hope this will do for you.”
Cecily and her aunt cast a quick glance around it. Though a little sparse of furniture, it was a large room with a huge bed.
“It looks very comfortable,” Cecily assured her. “By the by, I’m sure I know one of the gentlemen in the parlor, but his name eludes me,”
“Oh, no, my lady, you won’t know any of them.” Mrs. Villin sounded shocked by the very idea.
“Why ever would I not?” Cecily asked, amused.
“You’re a young lady,” Mrs. Villin stated. “I’ll have your bags sent up and Lily will bring you dinner presently.”
As she bustled away, Lady Barnaby took off her bonnet and cast it on the bed before sinking onto the one arm chair in the room, and peeling off her gloves. She fixed Cecily with her sternest gaze. “What, pray, is your interest in the gentlemen downstairs?”
One could never keep anything from Aunt Barny.
“Curiosity, dear aunt, curiosity,” Cecily replied. “Didn’t you wonder what they were doing there so solemnly? In the middle of nowhere?”
“Be reasonable, my dear. The Hart cannot be in the middle of nowhere when the taproom is so full of locals.”
“Yes, but they weren’t local,” Cecily argued. “In fact, I’ve never seen such an odd set of men sitting at one table before. Did you not notice? One of them looked like a bank clerk, and the others looked largely villainous. As for Childe Harold by the fireplace …”
“The hero of Lord Byron’s poem,” Cecily said impatiently. “I give you my word, he looks exactly like him.”
“Then I’m not surprised Mrs. Villin was so reticent! Drat, how are we to cope without the maids?”
Their maids, with the baggage, had been sent on ahead to London before the accident occurred.
“We must ‘maid’ for each other,” Cecily said flippantly. “It’s quite fun having no entourage. We can pretend to be damsels in distress.”
“I am most certainly a matron in distress!”
The innkeeper’s pretty young daughter, Lily, brought them dinner a little while later. Since the inn’s cooking was wholesome and tasty, Lady Barnaby’s mood improved somewhat.
“I daresay we shall be back in London tomorrow,” she observed. “And our first caller will inevitably be Torbridge.”
Young Lord Torbridge, son and heir of the Marquis of Hay, was Cecily’s most persistent admirer. She wrinkled her nose, acknowledging her aunt was no doubt correct.
“So, have you made up your mind?” Lady Barnaby inquired. “Will you accept him?”
“Aunt, he hasn’t even offered yet.” She stabbed her fork into a piece of beef with unnecessary force.
“But if he did?” her aunt persisted. “I think you like him better than any other gentleman.”
It was true, there was something appealing about Torbridge, though she couldn’t put a finger on exactly what. He was a high sticker in areas of propriety, which didn’t normally attract Cecily. On the other hand, he was very good natured about it, and he did make her laugh. He was just a little different from most of her suitors, who were either too pleased with themselves or too obviously fortune-hunters.
“You are nearly one-and-twenty,” Lady Barnaby pointed out. “Torbridge is a good match, and you would be a marchioness one day. Alvan would be happy.”
But would I? In truth, she rather liked her life as it was, carefree and amusing, with her aunt’s sudden journeys to make her life interesting. But she knew it couldn’t go on forever. Her family duty was to marry well.
She sighed, refocusing on her aunt whose hand pressed to the base of her throat.
“I ate it too quickly,” Lady Barnaby mourned. “And my wretched medicine is with the baggage!”
Cecily stood. “I’ll get them to send up a glass of milk,” she said sympathetically. “That usually helps.”
“Oh, don’t go downstairs, Cecily. That nasty taproom is much too busy.”
“It’s quieter now,” Cecily assured her. “I can barely hear them. Besides, I would rather not stand at the top of the stairs and shout. I feel that would draw more unwelcome attention!”
Aunt Barny was clearly in too much discomfort to argue, so Cecily left their chamber and ran lightly downstairs. She meant to go directly to the kitchen rather than look for their hosts in the public taproom, but as luck would have it, Lily was crossing the hall toward the parlor, a heavy tray laden with food and wine in her hands.
“Lily, might I trouble you—”
“One moment, my lady, if you don’t mind,” Lily said apologetically, knocking on the door with the corner of the tray.
The door opened almost at once to reveal the man Cecily thought of as Harold. To her surprise, he took the tray from Lily, then his gaze flickered around the hall as though he somehow sensed another presence.
Cecily refused to shrink into the shadows, but he didn’t appear to notice her, merely vanished with the tray. To Cecily’s annoyance, Lily followed him inside.
Tempted to sit on the stairs to wait, Cecily drummed her fingers on the bannister instead. However, the first person to emerge from the parlor was not Lily, but Harold.
He seemed about to close the door when he caught sight of her. Immediately, she looked in the other direction, as though he was of no interest to her. Which, of course, he wasn’t, except for his imagined resemblance to her favorite literary hero of the moment.
After a pause, she risked a glance back toward the door. He still stood there, watching her. He did not bow, simply began to walk toward her, his pace slow and somehow predatory, like a large, stalking cat. Her heart lurched with alarm, but it was not in her nature to show fear, so she simply regarded his approach with what she hoped was haughty disapproval.
His dark, hooded gaze dipped, unhurriedly taking in the rest of her before returning to her face.
A faint smile played around his lips as he raised his hand to his heart. “The very instant that I saw you, did my heart fly to your service. How may I assist such patient beauty?”
His voice, deep and beguiling, seemed to slide under her skin. If he had looked an attractive man at a distance, close-up, he was devastating—large, physically overwhelming, and yet his black eyelashes were long and thick, such as any woman might envy. His deep, heavy-lidded eyes glinted, at once teasing, tempting, and distracting.
But fortunately, her mind still worked. How may I assist such patient beauty? “By not quoting words from Shakespeare among your own,” she said shortly. “As you go about your business.”
His smile widened, adding a sardonic twist to his humor. “I don’t pretend they are my own. I merely borrow to make up for my deficiencies. As for my business, do you mean mine does not connect with yours?”
She raised one eyebrow, a devastating trick that had brought grown men to their knees. “How could it when we have never met?”
The stranger appeared to be immune. “I conduct business with many people I have never met.”
She curled her lip. “I do not conduct business at all.”
He tilted his head. Although his eyes never broke contact, she had the impression she had surprised him.
Lily emerged from the parlor, giving Cecily the excuse to step around him. As she did so, she caught the faint whiff of brandy on his breath.
“Lily, might I trouble you for a glass of milk for my aunt?” she said briskly.
“Of course, m—”
“Thank you,” Cecily interrupted, and whisked herself upstairs. When she glanced down from the landing, Lily had vanished, presumably into the kitchen, but the stranger still stood at the foot of the stairs watching her. Her heart seemed to twist. She couldn’t work out whether the feeling was pleasant or not, but it certainly churned her up.
What in the world had that been about?
“Something strange is going on in that parlor,” she told her aunt. “And I am convinced Harold is at the root of the business. Whatever it is.”
“Mind your own, Cecily,” her aunt said, swallowing painfully.
Cecily frowned. “My own what?”
“Business,” Aunt Barny said dryly. “Oh, is that my milk, do you think?” she added hopefully as footsteps hurried across the landing.
“Come in,” Cecily called to the knock, and Lily entered bearing a large glass of milk, which she took straight to Lady Barnaby.
“Thank you, Lily,” Cecily said gratefully as her aunt sipped the milk. “Tell me,” she added quickly as the girl turned to go. “Who is that rude man who spoke to me downstairs?”
Lily glanced about her with something very like fear. “Oh, my lady, you don’t want to go talking to him. It’s not at all suitable.”
“Why, who is he?” Cecily asked again, even more intrigued.
Lily lowered her voice. “Lord Verne.”
Lady Barnaby all but choked on her milk. “Verne?” she spluttered. “Verne? Under this roof?”
“The sinister baron himself,” Cecily said, more comforted than alarmed by this news. “But he’s a friend of Alvan’s, is he not?”
“That’s as may be,” Aunt Barny said with dignity. “Gentlemen know many people they do not introduce to their sisters.”
“Well, aside from his nickname, which I’ll allow does suit him, I can’t see what the fuss is about. I daresay he behaves no worse than any other nobleman.”
“Apart from murdering his way to the title,” Aunt Barny said indignantly. “To say nothing about the devil worship, the orgies, and the vanishing women! Who may be no better than they should be, but who do not deserve to disappear without a trace.”
“Well, I’m sure no one deserves that,” Cecily agreed. “But if you ask me, it all sounds like a hum.”
“Really?” Lily was looking at her closely. “You don’t believe any of it? Really?”
In truth, she hadn’t thought about it beyond teasing her aunt. Besides, her natural instincts were to defend someone the world denounced. But some of the rumors at least surely had substance. There was something downright dangerous about the man, and the company he kept must be shady to say the least.
“Why, have tonight’s women vanished already?” she asked flippantly.
“I wouldn’t go downstairs again tonight,” Lily advised with an anxious tug at her apron.
“He has not threatened you, has he?” Cecily asked, outraged at last.
Lily laughed. “Oh, no, my lady, no one threatens me. But I saw how he looked at you.”
“How?” Lady Barnaby demanded, scowling.
“Like the cat with the cream,” Lily said bluntly.
For some reason, Cecily flushed. “I’ve no need to go down again.”
Lily nodded as though satisfied. “Is there anything else you need?” she asked Lady Barnaby.
“No, I thank you,” Aunt Barny said with a sigh and Lily took herself off.
The milk appeared to help Lady Barnaby’s heartburn, so Cecily helped her prepare for bed, and had her own clothes loosened in return. But though her aunt fell into almost instant sleep, Cecily felt too restless to go to bed just yet.
Instead, she wrapped a shawl about her shoulders, then took the one candle still lit and went to the window seat, where she opened one shutter and looked out into the shades of darkness over the inn yard to the nearby cliffs and the gently rippling sea.
Although the inn was off the main turnpike, it had a beautiful location. But Cecily didn’t have long to enjoy the view before she was distracted by movement in the yard. Three figures emerged from the inn. Something about their brisk pace made them seem unlikely late-night revelers being sent home at last. One of them carried a lantern, whose weaving light swung upward, allowing her a glimpse of Lord Verne’s saturnine countenance.
Cecily sat up straighter, resting her forehead against the glass. The men with him had surely been in the parlor, too. One of them threw a cloth over the lantern, deliberately shading its light—which was bizarre behavior on so dark a night. In quick suspicion, though of what she was not sure, Cecily unfastened the window and opened it a crack.
But the men did not seem to speak to each other as they walked under her window toward the gate. They halted, and Lord Verne offered his hand to one of the men. Finally, he did speak, and by the luck of some freak breeze, she heard him say, “Au revoir. Bonne chance.”
Among educated people of his class, it was not uncommon to hear such phrases in French. But as the other man, surely of a quite different degree, took the outstretched hand, he replied in the same language. “Merci, monsieur. Au revoir.”
The hair on Cecily’s neck seemed to stand up in alarm. Simple schoolboy French and yet surely there was no need, no reason for it to be spoken in this place at this time? Something about it was just wrong.
Of course, the man could be a French émigré, driven from his own country by the revolution, who had lived here for years. They were not all aristocrats. But everything about this situation pointed to something much more sinister. The secretive meeting in the private parlor of an inn so close to the sea. Lord Verne’s rather odd words to her, which she suddenly interpreted as an accusation of spying on him… as if that was his business, too.
Her heart rebelled against the idea of him being a spy, let alone one who aided his country’s enemy. For one thing, he was Alvan’s friend. For another… despite his forward manners and the legion of accusations against him, there had been something about him she liked.
Well, she refused to like Bonaparte’s spy. They said the monster was about to invade Russia, as if he was not satisfied with the huge swathe of Europe he already controlled, but he would never give up on Britain, who alone had always stood against him.
Below, the men had parted, two leaving by the gate and vanishing into darkness on foot, Lord Verne returning to the inn. Hastily, she drew the shutter back across the window, in case he noticed her observation.
What was she supposed to do about this? Tell Alvan? Or Lord Liverpool, who was now prime minister since poor Mr. Perceval had been shot and killed only a few weeks ago.
What if it was not a disgruntled merchant who shot Mr. Perceval? What if he was acting for the French? What if Verne is somehow involved, smuggling assassins and spies into the country?
Here, she pulled herself up, forced to smile at her wild imaginings, which were quite a leap forward from a few innocuous words spoken in French! Alvan and Liverpool would laugh at her, and quite rightly. All the same, what if she was right that something bad was going on? How could she then live with herself for not having told?
Told what? demanded her sensible self. She had nothing to tell anyone, for she didn’t know anything.
Cecily turned, gazing thoughtfully at the bedchamber door. This was the inn where her brother Alvan had first met Charlotte Maybury and confronted armed intruders. There was something about the house that seemed to inspire recklessness. But everyone agreed the Villins were good people, and she was sure they would let nothing bad happen to her.
Besides, where was the danger is just listening at the parlor door, to overhear what was said? The taproom was quiet. She suspected the inn staff—or most of them—had gone to bed already. If Verne or his cohorts caught her skulking, she did not doubt her ability to distract them. With flirting, if necessary. She was a past master of that art, learned in the ballrooms and drawing rooms of London, where she often encountered gentlemen whose intentions were not strictly honorable. Even her abduction last month by one of the most pathetic creatures she had ever encountered had taught her she could deal with any situation, and in this case, forewarned was surely forearmed.
With decision, she picked up her candle and walked to the door. Halfway there, she paused for footsteps sounded on the stairs and then in the passage. She heard a couple of murmured goodnights and knew a moment of disappointment. If they were Verne and his remaining companions from the parlor, then they were speaking now in English. And she had no more chance of overhearing their evil discussions.
The trouble was, she had only glimpsed the men in the parlor. She wasn’t sure how many there had been. Judging by the amount of supper Lily had taken them, quite a lot.
After a brief hesitation, Cecily resumed her plan, opened the, door and crept downstairs.