“Devil take it, Rafferty! The woman’s blind, or we’ve suddenly become invisible,” the Honorable Archibald Spelling grumbled to his companion. The two young Corinthians sat in the taproom of the Ram’s Head Inn with empty tankards on the stained cloth in front of them.
Julian Rafferty de Raymond, the Earl of Brinton, glanced up from the newly dealt cards in his hand with a sigh. “You can’t expect normal service under these conditions, Archie. I rather imagine that what we have here is a barmaid’s idea of hell.”
In the hours since the two friends’ arrival, the venerable Ram’s Head had become a madhouse. In the taproom every conceivable excuse for a seat had been called into use; people perched on trunks and baskets and even packing crates dragged from the storerooms. They leaned against the wainscoted walls and stood in the spaces between tables. The heat and the noise were nearly unbearable, and the stench of spilled ale overwhelmed all other smells. Through the smoky haze that filled the room, Brinton spied the barmaid struggling through the crowd, mugs aloft, looking remarkably like a frigate foundering in a storm.
Spelling had already tossed down his cards. “I confess I have a prodigious thirst, and I’m hungry enough to eat the elephant in the Tower menagerie.”
“How fortunate we are not in London, then,” Rafferty teased, setting his own cards aside in a deliberately tidy stack. Only intense concentration on their card play had allowed him to ignore his own discomfort. “The odds on food or drink reaching our table appear to be slight,” he added, his words trailing off as his voice suddenly tightened.
He pressed his fist against his chest as a deep, painful cough racked him. He waited for the spasm to pass before attempting to speak again, shrugging off Archie’s sharp look of concern. “I think I shall test my invisibility by trying to get into the kitchen,” he finished finally.
“Perhaps I should—” Spelling began, but the earl cut him off with a shake of his head. Foraging for food might not be a normal occupation for a peer, but social standing at the Ram’s Head had deteriorated to an animalistic survival of the fittest. Brinton was taller, leaner, harder, and tougher than his friend, despite his bad lung. His aristocratic features and confident bearing could communicate a cold air of authority that was seldom challenged. He preferred to take matters into his own capable hands. Grateful for the chance to stretch his legs, he rose from his seat and began to make his way through the crowd.
The state of affairs at the Ram’s Head was not immediately discernable from the outside. Porters, ostlers, and patrons alike had been driven under cover by the heavy spring rain, and the sound of water splattering from roof corners and gable ends echoed through an empty courtyard.
In truth the Ram’s Head was bursting at the seams like every other inn in Taunton. The first of the early season horse races had been planned to coincide with the usual Saturday market, and a profitable amount of crowding had been expected. The avaricious gleam in the innkeepers’ eyes had dimmed in dismay, however, when the morning’s drizzle had thickened into a driving downpour. As the turnpikes became quagmires, the steady stream of coach travel through Taunton had stalled there. The inns had quickly filled beyond capacity and beyond any innkeeper’s ability to cope.
The earl and Spelling had claimed their space at the Ram’s Head early enough in the day to obtain sleeping quarters, although no private parlor had been available. They were a striking pair, the earl’s dark coloring and angular features contrasting with Spelling’s round face and sandy red hair. Immaculately attired in tight-fitting buckskin and superbly tailored superfine, they exuded wealth and the careless confidence of the aristocracy. They had passed the hours playing piquet, watching and speculating about the steady accumulation of other guests.
Now as Brinton shouldered his way into the front entry hall of the inn, he could see that it was every bit as crowded as the taproom. The place reeked of wet wool and warm bodies. He could not catch his breath in the close, thick air, so he hurriedly pushed on toward the back of the passage.
As he did so, a sudden gust of wind set the candle flames dancing, and cool, fresh air steadied him. The thundering of a new downpour on the cobbles outside became momentarily louder, announcing the arrival of more pathetic souls to join the crush. Curious, he glanced toward the front door, wondering what sort of person would still be journeying on such a dismal night.
He glimpsed a tall, fair-haired youth, who turned to an even younger lad, Brinton guessed, judging by the shorter height and the cap that were all he could see of the second traveler. No servant or older person appeared to be with them.
Poor devils! he thought. They seemed so young to be traveling alone, and to be confronted with such a situation! As he turned again toward the kitchen, he wondered how they would manage. The unpredictable challenges of traveling could be difficult to bear, even for someone as seasoned as himself.
In the kitchen the earl easily rescued a haunch of mutton from the fire while the cook was busy berating a luckless stable boy who had been ordered to help her. Not one of the servants collected in the kitchen paid Brinton any notice. He hacked off a sizable chunk of the meat with a nearby kitchen knife and, skewering it neatly on the blade, carried it off, amused by his success even though he had not managed to find any beverage.
Brinton had never expected to be foraging his own fare now that he was home from the war against Boney. Service in the military, following his family’s tradition, had hardened him to inconvenience and discomfort, but his friend Spelling had not shared in those experiences. Archie was probably suffering much more from the present difficulties than he was, the earl reflected as he retraced his steps. The sound of raised voices in the entry passage brought him to an abrupt halt.
“I’ve got no place left to put you,” the formidable innkeeper was booming at the new arrivals. Although the blond youth was taller, the man’s girth could have encompassed the lad three times at least. Brinton was impressed that the lad stood his ground. As he positioned himself for a better view, he realized with surprise that the boy was nearly his own height.
The innkeeper waved a pudgy hand helplessly and continued in his rumbling tone, “I’ve got people everywhere—in the stable, in the cellar, even under the stairs. I’ve got fifteen people in each part of the attic if I’ve got five, and that’s packing ’em in like pickled herring.”
“We won’t be turned away,” the tall youth replied in a firm and obviously educated voice. “We have been to three other inns already and have traveled a great distance today.”
Brinton heard courageous desperation in that voice. He watched in fascination as the young man locked his eyes on the innkeeper and ignored the rude, unsympathetic noises coming from the crowd close by.
“Well, I don’t know what you expect me to do,” the innkeeper responded uncomfortably. “I’m no magician.”
Hoots of derisive laughter met this observation. A large, pasty-faced woman pushed up close to the young travelers. “There’s no room here—get on wi’ ye and let this man tend to the rest of us, wot’s got ’ere first!” She coughed, adding the vile smell of blue ruin to the foul air already around them.
The smaller lad sagged noticeably, and the taller youth slipped an arm around his companion for support. They were so wet the water from their clothing was draining into a puddle at their feet. The tall one, clad in a stylish greatcoat of brown wool broadcloth, held his head high and glared defiantly at the innkeeper. The short one could hardly be seen, muffled up in a voluminous green wool traveling cloak that must have been a crushing weight now that it was thoroughly soaked. A dripping lock of reddish brown hair hung over his forehead.
The earl remembered how it felt to be that wet. He and Archie might be hungry, he thought, but at least they were warm and dry. He was aware of the calculating looks directed toward the meat he was carrying, and he consciously tightened his grip, torn between the drama unfolding in the hall and his duty to his famished friend in the next room.
More ugly noises came from the crowd. He had no desire to be caught in the middle if the scene he was witnessing turned nasty, yet somehow the pair of young lads had engaged his sympathy. As Brinton continued to watch, the tall youth leaned close to the innkeeper.
“We will pay you double—triple—your usual rates,” he said in a low voice that nonetheless could be heard clearly by everyone. Then his proud posture crumpled as his companion very deliberately stuck a sharp elbow into his side.
The smaller lad looked away as he did so, by chance casting his glance in Brinton’s direction. The shock of meeting those eyes rattled the earl considerably. They were the most remarkable blue-green color he had ever seen, and they seemed to reflect the most profound distress. They widened slightly as awareness of his own gaze registered, and then the small face abruptly turned away again.
Brinton made a decision at that moment. He knew he was intrigued beyond resisting, and he wanted to do something to help. He forced his way back through the crowd into the taproom where Spelling still waited.
Brinton placed the chunk of mutton on the table with a flourish. “Here, Archie, dinner!” He grinned and, after carefully extracting the knife, cut a few pieces off the meat. He and Archie began to eat them with their fingers.
“Raff, you are admirably resourceful. How did you get this? Seduce the cook?” Archie said with his mouth full. “On second thought, don’t tell me. You have more deuced luck than anyone I know. But you have my eternal gratitude.”
The earl half listened as he considered how to introduce his new idea to his friend. “Eternal, eh? I hope so,” he managed to say between bites, “because what I’m going to propose we do next may not suit you so nicely, and I already consider myself in your debt for providing this escape from my visit to my uncle.”
“O-ho, that’s rich, considering the chaos we’ve found here. Must have been bad in Devonshire. And here I’ve been feeling blue-deviled for bringing you into this. I’m sure I’m game for anything you might suggest, Raff.”
Brinton had been summoned to his elderly uncle’s Devonshire estate to hear the old man announce plans to remarry. As the heir-apparent, he knew he was supposed to be shocked and chagrined, but he had refused to give the old fool such satisfaction, bestowing his blessing instead. If the union by some miracle produced a new heir, he would toast the child’s health. He had no need of his uncle’s estates and titles, and no interest in becoming leg-shackled himself any time soon.
He grinned at Archie and watched his friend’s face betray belated second thoughts. The two had shared a number of scrapes and misadventures in their schooldays and later in London.
Archie sighed. “You wouldn’t propose we give up the race tomorrow, would you?”
“Never fear, my friend. I truly do wish to view these so-called prime goers, assuming the mud after this monsoon doesn’t prevent it. My stables need new blood.” Rafferty gazed thoughtfully toward the hall. “No, what I have in mind is more immediate—quite pressing in fact if we want to prevent a riot. I want to offer to share our room.”
Spelling choked on the mutton he was chewing, and the earl had to get up from his chair to pound him on the back. While his friend was recovering, Brinton continued. “I recognize the imposition, Archie, especially when we’ve already been denied the privacy of a separate parlor. But we are among the very fortunate few who actually have a room to ourselves. What harm could it do?”
The ridiculously innocent expression on the earl’s face nearly sent Spelling into another spasm. “Harm? Why no harm at all, unless you count robbery, murder, and mayhem. To whom do you wish to make this offer, and why should we help them?”
The earl sighed. Archie always did have a talent for cutting right to the bone of a matter. “There is a pair of half-drowned pups who have found themselves in difficulties—two youngsters as green as they come. I take them for gentry at the very least—the older one speaks well, and they are dressed in quality that shows despite how wet they are.”
“I doubt we would be at any risk from them—they offered the innkeeper triple his price, if you can credit it, in full hearing of all that mob.”
“I admit they are a puzzle. They shouldn’t be traveling alone. There is something definitely amiss; that is part of what intrigues me, Arch.” He did not mention an elfin face with huge blue-green eyes that refused to quit his mind.
“Think they’re runaways?”
Brinton lowered his voice. “If you really want to know, I would wager they are on their way to Gretna Green.”
Archie’s mouth dropped open as he digested this unexpected twist. Then he slapped his thigh and roared. “A female? Eloping? If that don’t beat all!” He stopped to look sharply at Brinton. “How much would you wager?”
“Now, now. I didn’t mean it literally. I didn’t get a very good look at the smaller one. Whether I am right or not, they would still be better off with us than where they are now or back out in the street.”
“Where’s your gaming spirit?” Archie persisted. “Stake you a hundred pounds!”
“No, Arch. Save your money for tomorrow. There’s a pair of ‘legs’ over there that will be happy to take it from you then.”
In the end the earl prevailed. “Bring that, if you would,” he said offhandedly, pointing back to the remains of the mutton and the kitchen knife as he and Spelling quit their table. Archie dutifully scooped them up, ignoring pleas from the new occupants of their seats. He followed Brinton toward the hall, where ominous rumblings could be heard among the crowd.
They found the young travelers still in a stalemate. The innkeeper had given up arguing, dismissing them with a cold challenge to curl up in any vacant corner they could find. The inn’s entryway was so jammed, the two had not even been able to move away from their place at the booking desk. They stood there looking thoroughly miserable, with a large portmanteau and a leather satchel between them.
The earl used his voice and presence to clear a path just wide enough to squeeze through, leaving Archie to follow in his wake. “I believe we might be of some service,” he said, inclining his head as he approached the pair.
They turned to him, the tall one’s face eager with hope and surprise, the short one’s frowning with suspicion. Brinton thought they were as mismatched a couple as he had ever seen.
“I realize we are not known to one another, but my friend and I have decided we should place our room at your disposal.”
“Your room?” responded the blond youth in some confusion. “You are very kind, indeed, sir! But will you not be needing it? Surely you are not thinking to venture out in this maelstrom!”
The earl chuckled. “I am not sure whether the maelstrom outside is any worse than the one in here, but I can assure you we are not going out. I meant that, as gentlemen, we could manage to share our quarters!”
Brinton couldn’t help the slight emphasis on the word “gentlemen” any more than he could resist stealing a quick look at the smaller traveler to see if there was any reaction. Those blue-green eyes were fastened on him for a moment, and he thought he saw the cheeks pale before the face turned away.
The tall youth stretched out his hand with enthusiastic gratitude. “Would you really do that, sir? That’s uncommonly kind!” He was interrupted by a sudden jerk on his arm that pulled his hand down. His small companion was attempting to become a barrier between him and the generous gentlemen, shaking his head vehemently.
“What’s the matter?”
“We cannot do this, Gilbey.” The voice was low and soft.
“Yes, we can,” the blond traveler hissed back.
The two stared at each other for a moment, locked in their dispute and unmindful of their audience.
“Why on earth not?” insisted the tall youth. He was attempting to whisper. “Do you want to spend the night in this hallway or back out on the street? It is our only other choice.”
The one called Gilbey turned back to the earl and Spelling with an apologetic look. His heightened color betrayed his embarrassment. “My brother doesn’t like to accept charity,” he said quickly, dropping his eyes. He fidgeted with a button on his coat. “He didn’t realize that of course I mean to pay for our share of your hospitality—oww!” He cringed and cast an agonized look toward his companion, who had quite deliberately kicked his shin.
The earl hid his amusement. These two were a far cry from the usual besotted lovebirds who sought marriage over the border.
“Why don’t we remove ourselves from this rather public situation,” he suggested, inclining his head toward the stairs. “I am sure we can come to an agreement over the details.”
Without waiting for an answer, Brinton began to move off in the direction he had indicated.
In two hundred years of service the Ram’s Head had acquired a weary but comfortable crookedness that permeated everything from the window frames to the wall timbers. Spelling led the way down a dimly lit passage as narrow and twisted as the stairs.
“Aha! At least we have a fire,” he exclaimed as he unlocked and flung wide the door to their room. “Perhaps you’ll believe me after all when I tell you this inn is usually top notch.”
The little procession filed into the room with Brinton in the rear. Depositing their burdens, they regrouped around the welcoming warmth of the hearth.
The room was small, with a low ceiling, a large fireplace, and one small diamond-paned window. Candle braces on the mantel supplemented the flickering light from the fire. Most of the space was taken up by a huge, heavily ornamented canopy bed swathed in blue damask. Not very generously endowed with quilts or pillows, it was at least neatly made. A small table and two chairs stood in one corner. The room smelled mostly of candle wax and stale pipe tobacco, but from somewhere there was also a scent of lavender.
“They always scent the beds here,” Archie disclosed proudly. “It’s one of their trademark touches.”
“Beats changing the linens,” Brinton commented under his breath. Addressing their guests he said, “This may be a bit cramped, but it is definitely a more suitable setting to make one another’s acquaintance. However, I think our first order of business should be to see you out of those wet things and warm by the fire.”
The smaller traveler had turned toward the hearth and seemed to be soaking in the heat, hardly aware of anyone else. The fire threw its rosy glow on a delicately pointed chin and cheeks that were like flawless ivory.
Brinton was certain now that his guest was female. Coming up the stairs he had positioned himself behind her in order to better observe her. Although the heavy traveling cloak concealed its wearer admirably, it could not disguise her posture or the way she moved, which seemed decidedly feminine.
Shivering and wearing gloves far too large for her, she had also had trouble carrying the meat and the kitchen knife Spelling had handed to her when he had picked up her leather satchel. Now she had removed her wet gloves and was rubbing hands as small and white as Rafferty had suspected. At his words she clutched at her cloak and pulled it closer around her.
The one called Gilbey seemed relieved that introductions were not going to be the first order. He, too, was warming his hands and shed his coat gratefully. As if sensing his partner’s reluctance to follow suit, he turned to assist her.
Brinton studied the two carefully. His hands don’t linger the way a lover’s should—the way mine would, he caught himself thinking. As soon as the thought crossed his mind he chastised himself for it. But the young man’s tender concern seemed to meet hostility that was almost as tangible as if the girl had slapped him. She glared and pulled away from his touch.
The earl couldn’t help smiling, although he wasn’t sure why that amused him. As the girl’s cloak slipped from her shoulders, he exchanged a telling look with Archie. Wet, her ill-fitting male clothing only emphasized her unmistakably female shape.
As if he could cover her by conversation, her partner turned to Brinton. “With all due respect, sir,” he ventured, “couldn’t our first order of business be to have a bit of that mutton?”
Rafferty opened his mouth to reply and promptly closed it. Damned if the boy’s eyes weren’t an exact match for the girl’s! He hadn’t noticed it before, but now he looked closely to be sure it wasn’t a trick of the poor light. “Of course, forgive me!” he said, covering his thoughts. “I thought you would be hungry—that’s why we brought it along.” Yes, the eyes were that same aquamarine. The lad’s blond and alabaster coloring differed from the girl’s as dramatically as their opposite statures, but on close inspection his face showed a finely sculptured nose and chin very much like hers.
Ha! Not lovers at all, the earl thought happily. They are some sort of relations. But he could not reflect then on why this discovery put him in such good humor. “Sit, eat,” he said, gesturing toward the table where Archie had placed the meat.
The tall youth took the shivering girl by the hand to lead her to the table, but she snatched her hand away. As they sat down, he glanced back at the earl with a wry grin. “You must forgive my brother. He’s not prone to indulge in small talk.”
Brinton replied to the boy with an impishly raised eyebrow and a sidelong glance that included Spelling as coconspirator. “We are not offended, are we, Archie? We have noticed your brother has his own less subtle way of communicating with you, and I think I may say we are glad to be spared!”
Both Spelling and the young man laughed. The girl, who had already tackled the mutton hungrily, stiffened her spine and turned her back to all three men.
“Allow me to make the introductions, since we have no one else to do it for us,” Brinton said more seriously. “I am Julian de Raymond, Lord Brinton.” Only his closest friends knew him as Rafferty. He bowed, an impeccably correct and graceful movement. “This is my associate, Mr. Spelling. We are at your service.”
The young man called Gilbey paused before answering. “Lord Brinton, Mr. Spelling,” he repeated. “It is an honor indeed, my lord, and I’m quite sure it is we who should be at your service as we are most certainly in your debt.” He did not, however, offer his own name or that of his companion.
Brinton decided not to push. He thought the tension in the room fairly crackled. He stopped Spelling from speaking with a very readable eyebrow movement and said instead, “Some cheese and port would be an admirable accompaniment to that mutton. Mr. Spelling and I were just thinking we would go in search of some. It shouldn’t take us long.”
With a slight bow he turned to the door, ushering Spelling ahead of him almost forcibly. They gained the hallway before Archie could utter a syllable. “Forgive me for hastening your steps,” Brinton whispered. “I could feel the heat rising, and I quite believe we were sitting on a powder keg!”