4th March 1758,
Weymouth, Dorset, England
Alexande Fredrick Augustus Telford, the second Marquis of Ravenspur, waited patiently for his liveried footman to open the door, before alighting from the plush coach. He paused to look up and down the street. The town seemed pleasant enough with its quaint little shops and narrow cobble streets. But Alex wasn't fooled, for beneath its cheerful mien, lay a sinister secret involving every citizen of Weymouth. And he'd been sent to ferret it out.
Alex nodded to a gaggle of twittering ladies standing on the walkway. They paused to whisper behind their fans, and stared at his carriage and then at him. He glanced back at the vehicle and noted the Ravenspur insignia boldly emblazoned upon the door in gold.
Alexande was bemused. Has my reputation preceded me once again? Surely the news of his recent duel with the Earl of Whittingham had not reached the seaside town.
True, those of the ton who did not care for the bustle of Brighton flocked to Weymouth for a month or two during the summer--but it was far too early for any of them to have arrived.
Though he wished his good friend Hunter was present. That rogue would give these provincial ladies something to talk about. Unlike Alex who preferred to remain cool and aloof, Hunter--the Marquis of Huntley--was charming, mischievous and daring to the core. He was also Alexande's closest friend and confidant, and since their days in Eton, his second in every duel Alex had ever fought on English soil. Alex had invited Hunter to come and visit him, but they had both known it had been nothing more than a beau geste--Alex hadn't been serious, and Hunter would never even think of leaving the London Season for a country village like Weymouth.
Alexande nodded to the women, flashing his most charming smile, and watched as they scattered like a gaggle of geese before a hungry wolf. Suppressing a laugh, he climbed the steps and waited for his footman to open the large portal.
Stepping inside, Alex discovered the town hall consisted of a large dimly lit chamber with rich mahogany walls and soft candlelight. A single clerk sat bent over his careworn desk, madly scribbling on a sheaf of parchment.
Sitting near the entrance was a young woman in a rather agitated state. There wasn't anything obvious to suggest her nervousness--she sat straight backed, her delicate hands folded primly upon her lap. A rumpled bonnet hid all but a single golden ringlet of her hair. Though her gown was modest and not of the proper cut, it was not entirely out of fashion--the wide skirts overflowing the wooden seat. No, it was the way she squeezed her hands as though to still their trembling, the absentminded nibbling of her bottom lip. And her rapt attention focused solely on the door at the rear of the chamber--as though she awaited harsh judgment.
The ton thought him just another wealthy decadent lord, ever seeking his next pleasure, be it in the form of a lady, duel or wager. But Alexande lived in a world of shadows, of illusion, where nothing was as it seemed, and danger lurked in every corner--from the elegant ballrooms to London's dark and seedy alleyways. In time he'd learned to read the subtle language of the body, and it had saved his life.
Alex strolled past the girl to the desk, unwilling to spare her another thought, no matter how pretty the chit--his mission was far more important than any problem she could be suffering.
He cleared his throat and the scribe jerked upright--his bespeckled eyes widening as he shot to his feet, nearly toppling his stool.
"M-m-my l-lord," the clerk stammered, swallowing hard, "w-what can we do for you?"
Alex opened his mouth when a thud reverberated in the chamber, interrupting him as the rear door banged open.
"Bloody bastard!" The obscenity was spewed by a young man in clean but rude clothing. His jaw was clenched tight, his face red with anger, his body rigid and his hands curled into fists.
Dismissing the other, Alexande returned his regard to the clerk. "Yes. I want to see the sheriff. Please tell him Lord Rav--" Alex grunted as something slammed into his shoulder. He spun around, his sword half out of its sheath when he realized it was the angry man.
"Why don't you watch where you're going? Just because you're a bleeding lord doesn't mean you own the bloody place," the young man growled.
Alexande let the rapier slip back into place, though his hand remained wrapped about the hilt. "Perhaps you need a lesson in manners," he responded coolly.
The man's eyes narrowed and his lips curled back in a snarl. "Is that right? Tell me when and where and I would be more than happy to oblige your lesson."
Not only was the young man blinded by his fury, he was a bloody fool--and if there was one thing Alex could not stand it was a hot-headed fool. "If you would like to step outside, I would be more than willing to accommodate," he said with a nonchalance which seemed to infuriate the man further.
"Bram, no!" The agitated young woman suddenly appeared and grabbed the man's arm. She turned the full weight of her gaze on Alex--he froze, his breath stilling.
"Please, sir, forgive my brother his ill manners. He does not mean what he says," she pleaded, and he found himself arrested by her wide, soulful eyes.
Delicate gilt brows arched above large, almond shaped eyes, fringed with long, dark lashes. For an instant, their gazes locked and Alex found himself drowning in the deep amethyst depths of her eyes--sparkling like twin jewels. It was a moment before he observed all her features--her slender, pert nose with its endearing upward tilt. Her delicate, creamy cheeks, beheld but a hint of blush. Her jaw was softly angled, and her dainty chin had the barest hint of a cleft. But her mouth was borne of every man's fantasy--luscious, full pouty lips, looking as soft as rose petals, beckoned his kiss.
He was shocked by a sudden and raw desire to pull her into his arms and ravish her mouth until she was gasping for breath--her brother be damned! Never had he let a woman or sex cloud his keen judgment.
"Mayhap I could be persuaded if your brother would be willing to apologize for his... folly," Alex offered.
Bram said nothing, his jaw locked.
She turned to her brother, her fingers digging into his arm. "Bram, you will apologize to this gentleman, now," she hissed.
Alexande almost felt sorry for her brother as the red blush of embarrassment crept into his cheeks, and his eyes spewed fire. He met Alex's regard and, with teeth clenched, spit out his apology. "Forgive me, my lord."
"Apology accepted," Alex replied with a cool smile.
Before Bram could respond, the young beauty was hauling him away--displaying surprising strength for such a petite thing. He watched until the exquisite vision disappeared out the door, half dragging her brother behind her.
Alex turned a thoughtful gaze on the clerk. "Tell me, who was that young lady and her brother?"
The little man's Adam's apple bobbed nervously. "Th-that's Miss Aubriana Welbery and her b-brother, Master Bram Welbery."
So the lovely chit wasn't married...but that did not necessarily mean she was an innocent. A beauty like that would have scores of men panting after her.
Alex dismissed her from his mind, he was not a man to pine over any woman, and turned to the business at hand. "As I recall, I had asked to see the sheriff. Tell him Lord Ravenspur wishes to speak with him at once."
The clerk's eyes bulged and he nodded vigorously. "Y-yes my lord, r-right away!" He turned and stumbling over his feet, sent the stool crashing to the floor. Turning red with mortification, the scribe quickly righted it and made a beeline for the rear portal of the vaulted chamber.
"The sheriff will see you now, my lord, if you will but follow me," the clerk informed him upon his return.
Alexande nodded and trailed the young man as he led the way into the rear of the hall.
Upon opening a door, the clerk announced, "The Marquis of Ravenspur."
Alex stepped past the clerk into a chamber better served as a broom closet. The tiny, stifling room was crammed full with bookshelves, a side table littered with decanters of various alcohol, and a massive walnut desk--its scarred surface buried under a mound of haphazardly scattered papers. A whiff of fresh air, wafting into the room from a tiny window set high in the wall, was nearly swallowed by the stench of stale alcohol and sweat. And squeezed into his chair behind the desk, sat the rotund sheriff. The moment the door closed, the sheriff lumbered to his feet.
"Orwald Hodgeson, Sheriff. 'Tis a pleasure to meet you, my lord," he said as he waddled around the desk, offering his hand.
Alexande took it and shook it firmly, glad for once he had followed the dictates of fashion--his glove shielding him from the man's sweat-dampened palm.
"Would you care for refreshments, my lord?" Hodgeson queried lightly. He turned to the sideboard and poured himself a dram of whiskey. "Tea? Whiskey? Brandy perhaps?"
"No, thank you." Alex declined, considering it was barely past nine o'clock in the morning. Amused, he watched as the sheriff downed the contents in one swift pull, before pouring himself another.
Alexande surmised Orwald Hodgeson was not just a simple, lazy country gentleman, but something more--a bloated walrus perhaps. His ill-fitting waistcoat stretched across his protruding potbelly, the buttons straining with the effort. His surprisingly fashionable clothes were stained by food and drink, making Alex wonder if the man had even bothered to change clothes from the night before. His grey wig, with its thick sausage curls, sat askew on his bald round pate. He had narrow, beady eyes much too small for his fat face. Though the man could be no older than forty, his red bulbous nose was thickly veined like a drunkard of sixty. And he had the distasteful habit of repeatedly licking his overly plump bottom lip.
He seemed like a friendly enough fellow, but Alex took an instant dislike. There was something underneath the surface bothering him. And he had learned well over the years--his instincts were always correct.
"So, to what do I owe this visit?" Hodgeson queried as he waddled back around the desk and fell into the creaking leather chair. He slammed the glass upon the desk, sloshing whiskey over the rim to spill onto the papers beneath.
Alexande took his seat and stretched his long legs. "I thought it best to inform you that I have opened Bournemouth Hall, and will be residing there for a few weeks."
Hodgeson suddenly leaned back and puffed out his chest, threatening to tear the buttons from his beleaguered waistcoat. He rested his steepled fingers upon his ample belly, and nodded sagely, setting his massive double chin a quiver.
"Ah, yes, my lord, I was quite aware you had arrived. The whole town is agog with the news," he acknowledged, a touch arrogant.
Alex leaned back and arched a single brow in silent question.
The sheriff swallowed nervously. "Yes...well...what I mean to say is your housekeeper, Mrs. Filbert is it?"
"Yes right. Mrs. Fulthrop came into town a fortnight back and while buying supplies from the butcher and the grocer, mentioned you were coming for a visit after all these years. The town has been abuzz with the news, of course. It has been fourteen years since your grandfather's death after all. A bunch of gossiping old biddies is what they are," the sheriff commented with a dismissive wave, before licking his bottom lip.
Alexande got the feeling the old gossips of the town weren't the only ones taking an interest in his arrival. "In either case, I came to ease your mind of any worry concerning the activity at the manor," he said coolly. "And there is another matter which concerns me."
Alex reached inside his waistcoat pocket, and retrieved two letters. He tossed them onto the heap the sheriff used for a desk, their seals landing face up. "I have been sent to investigate the recent death of Revenue Officer, Sir Geoffrey Dunn. I think these will explain everything you need to know."
Hodgeson stared at the letters as if Alexande had just tossed him a snake. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, before gingerly clasping the top parchment between thumb and forefinger, almost as if he feared the thing had been steeped in poison. Carefully, he opened the missive and angled it toward the meager light streaming through the tiny window.
Alexande watched with keen interest as the sheriff's eyes grew wider with each passing moment. He half expected them to pop out of the man's round head and roll around on the floor like marbles.
"This is from the Prime Minister, Duke of Newcastle!" Hodgeson said, aghast.
"Indeed," Alex commented with utter boredom. "I do not need to tell you that I expect your full cooperation in this matter."
"Y-yes, of course, my lord," the sheriff stammered, swallowing hard.
He returned his attention to the letter, seeming to read it once more before finally laying it aside. With eyes as wide as an owl's, he took up the second missive and began to read. Hodgeson's jowls began to quiver, as his hand shook. Reaching blindly, he sought the tumbler of whiskey, and downed the contents in one quick pull.
"Are you quite all right?" Alexande inquired, slightly alarmed by the man's sudden ruddy complexion. It looked like the sheriff was going to have an apoplexy right on the spot!
Hodgeson glanced up startled, almost as if he'd forgotten there was another in the room. Alex caught the look of utter terror in his dull blue eyes before it was masked by nonchalance.
The sheriff set the now empty glass onto the table, and casually folded the letter before tossing it after the other one. He cleared his throat and licked his thick lower lip, before offering a weak smile.
"Aye my lord, of course I'm alright. 'Tis not every day one looks upon a missive from the King is all," he proclaimed as if it would explain away his sudden fear--it did not.
"I can see if one is unaccustomed to them, one would tend to be a little astounded to receive a letter from His Majesty," Alex returned, offering him an escape.
"Indeed, my lord," the sheriff replied a little too quickly. "But...but why would the King and the Prime Minister be concerned with a mere revenue officer's death?"
Alex's gaze narrowed sharply as he leaned forward. "That mere revenue officer had friends in high places. In fact, he was sent by the Prime Minister himself to put a stop to the rampant smuggling permeating this town. Smuggling you are either unable or unwilling or too lazy to police."
Hodgeson sputtered at the insult. His brows darkened as he opened his mouth to offer a reply.
Alex arched a brow. He'd be more than happy to pay the sheriff in kind for any insult the man was foolish enough to utter.
Hodgeson must have seen the warning in Alexande's eyes, for he shut his mouth with an audible click.
Alex leaned back and offered him a wolfish smile. Sometimes it paid to have a dangerous reputation.
"Then you foresee no problems with my reasons for being here? I can expect your full cooperation?"
"No, no problems. And of course you have my full cooperation, my lord," the sheriff hastened to agree.
"Good." Alexande rose from his seat and donned his tricorn. Scooping up the two missives, he slipped them back into his waistcoat pocket. "I expect you to keep my reasons for being in Weymouth, private, of course," he said gravely, ensuring the sheriff heard the warning in his tone.
Hodgeson swallowed and licked his bottom lip before rising behind his desk. "Aye my lord, you can count on me to keep it safe!" He nodded vigorously, setting his enormous double chin a quiver.
"Very good. Until next time then..." Alex nodded to the man, before turning on his heel and stalking from the room.
Orwald waited for the soft click of the door before sagging like a sack of flour against the desk. His heart was beating with the speed of a runaway carriage, his lungs wheezed as he tried to catch his breath like some poor overworked plough horse--one who'd seen better days. Sweat trickled down his brow, he was perspiring under his arms, and fear knotted his guts.
I need a drink.
He stumbled to the sideboard and fumbled with the decanter of whiskey, cursing his trembling fingers. Grabbing a glass, he filled it to the brim with the potent amber liquid. He snatched the tumbler and threw the contents straight down his throat. The whiskey ran down his jowls and seeped into the stained ruffles of his neck cloth. Slamming the tumbler onto the table, he poured himself another glassful before drinking it. The comforting heat burned its way down his throat and warmed his belly. But his hands--his hands refused to steady.
Orwald banged the glass onto the table and swallowed, desperate to fight the rising panic threatening to consume him.
He was deep in it now--they all were. But if he didn't find a way out and soon...
"I'm a dead man."
The old swayback wheezed and trembled beneath its heavy burden as it slowly plodded up the trail to the cresting cliffs.
Orwald Hodgeson tugged sharply on the reins, and the poor beast of burden whinnied in protest before shuddering to a halt. They sat upon the summit, staring into the enveloping darkness and waited.
Orwald shivered as icy fingers of the wind slid down his back in a chilly caress before playfully snatching at his hat. He slapped a podgy hand upon his tricorn, and stared into the deepening night as the ominous-looking ruins of Sandsfoot Castle stared silently back. The white moon cast its silvery light upon the land, yet seemed to fall short of the broken castle, as if Night herself had staked claim upon the black hulk.
The sea-scented breeze danced gleefully across the grass before twirling in a merry circle about Orwald and his aging mount. He inhaled the briny scent, as he listened to the symphony of the waves buffeting the cliffs far below, battering against the land in their age old struggle of domination.
Orwald stilled, his muscles clenching, his heart beating a frantic refrain as light suddenly appeared in the darkened ruins. Three times it flashed before it was snuffed by the gloom.
Orwald exhaled a long sigh of relief.
But the knowledge did not slow his thunderous pulse, nor did it ease the tension creeping through his body. He tightened his sweaty palms upon the reins, and digging his heels into the nag's sides, urged it into a lumbering canter toward the castle.
Orwald pulled sharply on the reins before hefting his bulk from the saddle. He leaned against the swayback for a moment, to catch his breath, and his nerve. What I wouldn't give for a drink. He licked his bottom lip and resisted the temptation to pull out the cool flask resting in his waistcoat pocket.
He needed something to steady his frazzled nerves, but he'd learned his lesson when dealing with him. It was always best to keep a clear head and his wits for there was no telling what could happen. But afterwards, he would get "drunk as a lord" and no one would dare gainsay him. It was one of the perks of being the sheriff.
He pushed away from the nag, and carefully maneuvered his way over the loose and crumbling rock to the castle's gaping entrance. He paused upon the stone landing and peered down into the cavernous ruins.
The moonlight peeped through the roofless keep to illuminate the grass carpet and underbrush now claiming the once solid stone floor. Huge blocks of broken stone, having tumbled from the decaying structure, littered the ground. Sinister shadows untouched by the soft silvery rays blanketed much of the castle. Fear made Orwald's jowls twitch, and his nostrils flare. But no matter how much he longed to turn back, he couldn't--he was waiting, watching.
He licked his bottom lip.
Orwald teetered down the moldering steps, sending a spray of pebbles before him. He heaved a silent breath of thanks when his feet touched the soft ground. His gaze shifted to the shadows and he stilled. A sharp snap of a fan flicked open and drew his attention to the rear of the keep.
Slowly he waddled his way between the boulders and sparse foliage to the deepest of the shadows.
The roar of the crashing waves was almost deafening here, for the rear wall had crumbled into the ocean years ago, leaving a yawning chasm for the sea spray and the stars. The wind screeched and howled as it raced through the skeleton castle, like a banshee displeased with the invasion of her lair. A shiver of fear skittered down Orwald's spine as he stepped into the murky shade.
"Hodgeson." The voice was deep and gravely, and almost had Orwald leaping from his skin.
"M-my l-lord?" he stammered.
"What was so bloody important that you could not wait until our scheduled meeting?" the voice queried harshly.
Orwald inhaled a deep breath attempting to still his rapid pulse--unsuccessfully. "My l-lord, I come bearing news of great import," he began, reciting the speech he'd practiced over and over again in his head on the way there.
"Get on with it man!" the shadow thundered impatiently.
"W-well, I-I thought it best you know th-that the Marquis of Ravenspur has opened Bournemouth Hall, and shall be residing there for a few weeks."
Orwald stumbled backwards as he glided forward, fury emanating from his body.
"You disturbed my evening to tell me Lord Ravenspur has finally taken residence at Bournemouth?!" His voice rose to a shout as he slid into the moonlight, his face a contorted mask of rage. "Do you take me for a blind fool?"
"N-nay, m-my lord Espion," Orwald hastened to reply, his jowls quivering with fear.
Espion narrowed his eyes. "Did you think I would not have spies to tell me this? I even have a spy watching you."
Orwald swallowed hard and forced the lump of fear back down his throat. "B-but my lord, what of Ravenspur's investigation? If he learns you're behind--"
"So...the game has begun..." Espion interrupted. He stared off into the darkness lost in thought, and absently fanned himself.
Orwald gazed at the black fan grasped in Espion's long, elegant fingers. There was something disturbing about it--though it wasn't uncommon for fashionable gentleman to carry one. Trimmed with black Spanish lace, and decorated with swirling patterns of black crystals, it was lovely, even mesmerizing. But black? Black was the color of mourning...the color of death. And Espion took the fan with him everywhere he went. Orwald shuddered.
The silence was broken only by the waves crashing against the rocky cliffs below.
Espion's intelligent gaze suddenly settled upon Orwald, scrutinizing him. "'Twould seem it would be best to keep a closer eye on Ravenspur. We need to put a spy to work in Bournemouth Hall. There must be someone already working there...someone who was loyal to the old earl but resents the Rogue Marquis' presence. Use whatever means you must to bring them over to our side. Bribe, blackmail, threaten, I care not. You can even install one of your birds from the village if you wish. Just do it."
"As you wish, my lord."
"And another thing, make sure you are as cooperative as possible with the bastard."
"But my lord?!" Orwald exclaimed, astonished.
Espion's eyes narrowed to hard, glittering slits. "You will help him in anything he requires from you, and then you will report to me. You know not whom you deal with. Ravenspur is a wily fellow, too sly for the likes of you. Do as you must, but you will report everything the man does to me, is that clear?" he questioned, his voice a menacing growl as he snapped the fan closed.
"Aye, my lord Espion," Orwald hastily replied.
I know just the girl who would make the perfect spy...