In The Duke’s Arms
Hopewell-on-Lyft, Nottinghamshire, England, 1817
Awareness shivered down Oxthorpe’s spine. He had no notion why but took the reaction as a sign he ought to pay attention. He braced one booted foot on the edge of the plank table and tipped back his chair until it rested on the wall behind him. He was alone at this table by the fire: a place reserved for him alone. A carved swan and griffin adorned the top stretcher of his chair.
No one dared join him, a fact that suited him. He preferred solitude even when in public. Especially in public. He sipped the dark lager the innkeeper brewed in his basement. As good or better than any produced by the larger brewer two towns over. Wattles, the proprietor of the coaching inn, supplied Killhope with a regular measure of this lager.
The front room of The Duke’s Arms was crowded with a mix of locals and travelers. The locals were closing out their day with dinner before heading home, the others awaited their connections to parts north or south. From his seat he could see the inn’s wooden sign with its painted swan and griffin echoing, rather loosely, those carved into his chair.
When he was not looking out the windows, his inelegant position gave him a view of his boot. The left of a decent pair of boots. Suitable for the country. He’d liked them well enough three years ago; the leather was supple even still. But these excellent boots did not have the folded top-cuff of his new boots. Nor did they have a maroon tint to the leather, which he thought would set a fashion—if it was possible for a man like him to set a fashion for anything but striking fear into hearts.
He ought to be wearing his maroon top-boots and was not. Because he could not. The left of his new boots, never worn but for assuring the fit, had gone missing from Killhope. Servants had searched the house and grounds top to bottom and found nothing.
Just as he was about to conclude that nothing untoward was going to happen after all, the front door opened.
Winter air blasted through the front room. Several of the patrons near the door shivered. A woman of about thirty came in. Oxthorpe straightened his chair and set his beer on the table. For the last month, he’d been telling himself he was prepared for this moment. He was not. This was inevitable, that they would eventually be in the same place. His heart banged away at his ribs.
She was dressed against the chill in a black woolen cloak, hood up so that one did not see the color of her hair and little of her face other than that she was pale complected. She was of medium height. Her eyes were brown, not that he could see that from here, but they were.
The maid closed the door behind them and stood to one side, hands clasped and head down. Of this he approved, both that her maid held her employer in the proper respect, and that she’d brought a servant with her.
With one hand, because she held a paper-wrapped parcel in the other, the woman pushed back the hood of her cloak. A spray of tiny blue flowers adorned her brown hair. She had hair combs, too. Ivory, if he was not mistaken. This was an embellishment he had never seen from her in Town. “Good afternoon, Mr. Wattles.”
Miss Edith Clay brightened the room with her presence. Just from walking through the door, she’d made the room a happier place. This was true despite his having spent the last several months assuring himself his recollection of her had to be incorrect.
His recollection was not incorrect. It was appallingly accurate.
Wattles grinned from behind the bar where he stood to pull beer or ale from the tap and tell stories or, often, listen to them. “Delightful to see you, Miss.”
Mrs. Wattles moved toward the door. She wiped her hands on her apron and folded them beneath the fabric. “Always a pleasure to see you here, Miss Clay.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Wattles.” Her smile hollowed out his chest. She’d changed since last he saw her. She was brighter. More vibrant. Happiness suited her. “You are so kind.”
The Wattles’s daughter, Peg, came into the front room from the back carrying an empty tray, heading, he presumed, to the kitchen.
“You’re early to pick up your dinner, Miss,” Mrs. Wattles said.
“Peg. I hope you’re well.” She tugged at the wrist of one of her gloves. Blue kid.
Her focus returned to Mrs. Wattles, and while she was so engaged, Oxthorpe took the opportunity to study her and tightly wrap up his response to her. He had a clear view of her from where he sat. To see him, however, she would have to look into the rear of the room and into the shadows, and she had not done so. Why would she? She’d not come to see him. For one thing, his visit this afternoon had not been scheduled.
Waning afternoon light shone through the windows to the courtyard, with its glimpse of the Great Northern Road. A groom hurried toward the stables at the rear, his arms wrapped around his middle. Her maid was not a Hopewell-on-Lyft local. He supposed she must be from London.
“Yes, I am a little. But that’s not why I’ve come. Not the only reason, that is.”
Strange, seeing her without her younger and much prettier cousin. In London last year, and later in Tunbridge Wells, he’d got used to seeing them together. Inseparable those two, even though Miss Clay was the elder by a decade. Two years younger than he. Unlike him, she was cheerful. Always pleasant. So bloody, horribly happy even though she had no particular looks, and at the time he met her, no fortune whatever. She had been, in fact, entirely dependent on her relations.
Mrs. Wattles waved to her daughter. “Tell the kitchen Miss Clay is early to pick up her supper.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Wattles.” She glanced around the room but her gaze slid over him in the shadows of his table. Even in London, always happy. “How is your father, ma’am? Better, I hope.”
Mrs. Wattles’s father was ninety years old and, lately, in failing health. “As well as can be expected, I think. He says thank you for the bread and broth you sent.”
“He would enjoy that, Miss.” Mrs Wattles bent a knee. “We’d be grateful if you did.”
She adjusted the parcel in her arms. The light through the windows turned her hair shades of walnut. “I hope you’ll let me know if there is anything else you need.”
“Thank you, Miss.”
By no stretch of imagination was Edith Clay anything but a pleasant-looking woman. Not unattractive. But nothing to make a man’s head turn. She wasn’t young. At twenty-seven, nearly twenty-eight now, thirty was not far off for her. A woman, not a girl. Her cloak separated to reveal a portion of a blue frock. Robin’s Egg blue, and that was unusual, her wearing colors. She never had before.
“I am here on account of a mystery most deep, Mrs. Wattles.”
One of the laborers in the far corner of the main room came forward with a chair. The man set it down near where Miss Clay stood near the bow windows with her parcel in her arms, then backed away. Another of them pushed forward a chair for her maid. Her maid sent a grateful glance in the direction of the men.
“Thank you,” she said. Edith did.
He did not understand this fey power of hers to make people like her. He wondered if she’d walked here. If she had, she’d have a mile and a half through the cold when she left, and uphill, too. There might be snow, this time of year. Quite likely with the way the sky looked.
Edith perched on the edge of her chair, knees pressed together, feet perfectly aligned. Habit. She’d sat just so before, a woman of no importance, whom no one noticed when she was quiet. “I hope you can assist me.”
Mrs. Wattles clasped her hands underneath her apron. “Whatever we can do.”
These were now more words than ever he’d heard her say at one time. In London, she had guarded every word against her elder cousin’s disapproval. There were more differences between the woman she’d been then and what she was now. He stared at her, with her blissfully unaware for now. Besides the better quality clothes, her face was more animated and though she was not a beauty like her young cousin, there was something there. She seemed freer now than she had been. Who would not be, who had made a similar escape?
“What did the note say?”
“It was left, I presume, by the previous inhabitant, by way of instruction. It said, ‘For Items Found.’ Is that not peculiar? I thought it peculiar.” She had a good, strong voice. She smiled with her voice, too.
“What did you find?”
“Ah.” She held up her gloved index finger. “I suspected as much. There have been things found at my home before.”
“There might have been.” Mrs. Wattles laughed.
She unwrapped the parcel she held. Several of the laborers and many of the travelers in the front room craned their necks to see. “When I returned from my morning perambulations to the vale and back, I found this in my driveway.” She held up a boot. A gentleman’s gleaming top boot of maroon leather with a folded down cuff. “Is this not most mysterious? I have not been in Hopewell-on-Lyft very long, so perhaps it is common, but it seems uncommon to me.”
True. She’d been here hardly a month, no longer.
“Perhaps one frequently finds a boot in one’s drive.” She was laughing at herself, delighted with the absurdity. So were the others. He, too, was smiling. Even though it was his boot.
Peg had returned from the kitchen, and she eagerly explained. “It’s Mr. Paling’s collie, Miss. From Killhope.” Paling being his groundskeeper. The man had a three-legged collie who followed him everywhere.
Edith tilted her head just so. Wide-eyed innocence played to perfection. “Are you certain? For this seems so very much like a boot, to me. It’s not at all collie-shaped.”
Mrs. Wattles laughed. Edith hadn’t a mean bone in her body. Not one. She meant to amuse, and she did. He was amused, though he did not want to be.
“Mr. Paling’s collie is excitable,” Mr. Wattles said. He’d refilled someone’s beer and now held it in one hand. “When she’s in an excitable state, why she’ll snatch up something near and dash away with it. She leaves it wherever she is when the excitement wears off.”
“When he comes here with the dog, we are careful to put away anything she might carry away in her excitement.” Wattles pushed the beer to the man waiting for it. “You’re not so far from Killhope, Miss. It’s bound to happen.”
“This is the duke’s boot?”
Mrs. Wattles glanced over her shoulder at him. So did her husband. And Peg. And several of the locals. “I can’t say if it is or it isn’t.”
Edith did not notice the stares in his direction because she was examining his boot. “Well. Not a princely boot, then, but a noble one. Yes, I see that now.” With a sigh, she re-wrapped his boot and retied the string. “I do wish I’d guessed that before I walked a mile and a half in the opposite direction.”
Oxthorpe stood. He could do nothing else.
“Duke.” She’d given the field laborer a happier smile than she gave him. Most everyone else had stopped smiling, too. This was the effect he had on others. He was the Duke of Oxthorpe, and though he did his duty by his title and his estate, he was not beloved. He did not know how to be beloved the way Miss Clay was.
“You have my boot.”
She turned her head very slightly to one side. To avoid meeting his gaze. “Do I? Your Grace.”
“I’ll try it on and let you judge the fit.”
“That will not be necessary.”
“It is when you doubt that it is mine.” He walked to her, and she handed over his boot. He examined it when he’d sat on a chair Wattles brought for him. He would not have gone through with his ridiculous challenge to her except she so clearly thought he would not.
“It isn’t the collie’s fault,” she said.
He drew off his boot with less effort than he expected and put on the other. A perfect fit. “There are tooth marks.” Too late he understood he’d spoken gruffly. Quite possibly, she thought he accused her of damaging his boot.
Her expression smoothed out, and then she did what she would never have done before. She smiled brightly and said, “I assure you, duke, they are not mine.”
This was amusing. He recognized that. Several people guffawed, and he heard others trying not to laugh. Without allowing his annoyance and dismay to show, he changed boots again. “You relieve me, Miss Clay.”
Once again, he had offended her. He should not care. He did not care. Why ought he to care about a woman like her? Except he did. He bowed, jaw clenched against the possibility that he would say more to offend. He strode out of The Duke’s Arms with his bloody damned boot.