Authors: Rebecca Connolly
Geoffrey’s jaw dropped, and his blue eyes widened. “How did you know that? Nobody knows that!”
“Everybody knows that,” Nathan assured him with a consoling smile.
Geoffrey buried his face in his hands. “All this time I thought Mary kept that a secret.”
Derek eyed his tankard and spoke easily, as if his words meant nothing. “She did…” he began, his lips curving into a grin and successfully gaining the attention of everyone at the table. He paused for effect, and then continued, “…until my sister managed to extract that particular bit of information from her one night about ten years ago. And you all know that Diana cannot keep anything from me, so, needless to say, I have known ever since.”
“Your sister should work for the Bow Street Runners, Derek,” Duncan crowed with a laugh, saluting him.
“She married one, which seems close enough,” Derek pointed out, receiving nods all around.
“So, your mighty Earlship,” Colin broke in, giving Nathan a wry grin. “How do you like your new home and when should we start calling you Lord Beverton?”
He shuddered. “Never, if you please. But the lands and people show great promise, and I think we have made some fine advances towards healing injuries my uncle might have caused.”
“I would agree with you there,” Duncan said with a nod. “Especially with the manual labor you have had us all employed in, and dressed in such plain clothing!” He sniffed at himself and winced. “I think that my aunt would be ashamed of us all, could she see us as we are now. ‘Fine gentlemen in the shoddy clothing of commoners, what will the kingdom come to?’ Cannot say I would disagree entirely with her on that point. I look like a farmer.”
“You can work in your finery if you want, Duncan, but I prefer to wear it as little as possible. Saves me the cost of a tailor,” Colin retorted with a laugh. “Besides, I think we all know some very fine farmers. And if no one else noticed, there is a quite charming looking maiden a few houses down who was mending some shirts quite remarkably like the ones we wear now. I’m of a mind to pay her a visit before the week is out.”
“Don’t start trouble in my earldom, Colin,” Nathan warned, smiling. “I have just gotten people to start liking me, I don’t need you proving their fears aright.”
Colin laughed again, grinning cheekily. “Very well, but she may mend my clothing yet, you know. I have no need of a wealthy wife.”
“Nor I, but modesty and decorum would be appreciated all the same.”
“Well, Nate, your new and appallingly large fortune should prove quite useful to you now, I should think,” Geoff suggested, bringing them back to topic. “Your
estate, for one, needs some attention.”
He shook his head, recalling his first impression of the ancient Beverton House in all its decline. “Years’ worth, I should think. It might be better just to pull the whole thing down and build a new one.”
Four voices cried out with varying opinions on what to do with the place, but none of their words reached his ears as his eyes caught sight of something far more interesting. A young woman with hair the color of copper, which was fast unraveling from its no doubt once-intricate style, had entered the pub. She seemed to be searching for someone, though he had no idea whom a woman such as she would hope to find in a place like this. As she scanned her surroundings, he glimpsed a pair of bright sapphire eyes that intrigued him almost as much as the determined set of her very fine jaw.
He was just about to begin his not-so-subtle examination of her person when those blue eyes landed on him, freezing him on the spot. And then, as if she knew his simultaneous fears and desires, she marched over towards him. In the same instant, all conversation surrounding him ceased.
“I am looking for Nathaniel Hammond,” she announced in a crisp voice that he instantly liked, along with all else he could see of her from his seat.
She quirked a brow at the lack of response, and he realized with a jolt of embarrassment that he had not managed to answer.
“He’s the attractive, silent bloke staring at you,” Colin chimed in with a grin.
She flicked her piercing eyes to him. “So everyone but you then? Marvelous.”
Colin’s eyebrows shot up and his mouth clamped shut, a glower forming, but smiles grew on every other face.
Nathan stood and inclined his head. “I am Nathaniel Hammond, Miss…?”
“Dennison. Moira Dennison. You can sit back down,” she told him, her eyes raking over him with apparent distaste. “I have a proposition for you, Mr. Hammond, and I would appreciate being heard out before you make a decision.”
Slowly, Nathan sank back into his seat, not entirely certain if he ought to be offended or amused, but he was leaning more towards the latter, against his own will and better judgment.
“I am looking for my intended, Mr. Hammond. Charles Allenford. He has not been heard from in over a year and I refuse to wait for someone else to find him and bring me word. I was given your name by an only moderately reliable source I happened across as I left my home in Gillam, and he assured me that if someone needed to be found, you were the man to do it. Therefore, I have sought you out to ask if you would accompany me and assist in finding Charles and seeing us back home to Gillam in safety.” Her words came out in a rush, as if she couldn’t wait to finish them, but one look at her proved she was set on her course, regardless of what anyone said or thought.
Nathan sat back in his seat, considering this woman and her outrageous offer. Accompany a young, single woman without any life experience outside of a dance hall across who knew how many miles to search out her so-called intended, reunite the lovers, and then see them safely returned to their presumably happy existence? It was madness.
“I would pay you handsomely, Mr. Hammond,” she said with a firm nod, all business despite the ridiculous nature of her venture. “Of that you can be assured. It would be enough to allow you a comfortable life for the rest of your days.”
He highly doubted that. Obviously, Miss Dennison had no idea who he was. All the better for him.
“It may take us some time to locate Charles, and though I know little of you, I have every confidence in your abilities. I have heard rumors of your bravery in the army, so I know that you are not one to shrink in the face of danger, which is encouraging, as I have no idea what we shall be up against.” She paused only to take a breath, and then went on. “As you can see, I am quite determined and will not allow the slightest obstacle to deter me. I will not be condescended to, dictated to, pitied, persuaded, brought down, set aside, or left out. I do hope I have made myself clear.”
Yes, rather clear, indeed. Nathan could not have spoken should he have wished to. This was truly the most bizarre situation he had ever been in, and that was saying a great deal.
“I shall give you ten minutes to decide, Mr. Hammond, and then I shall go elsewhere.” She swept from the room with a slight toss of her hair, leaving the entire table of men stunned in her wake.
“Holy…” Colin breathed, unable to complete the sentence.
“Mister?” Derek offered with a snort. “Impertinent thing. If I had a coherent thought in my head, I’d have set her straight, believe you me.”
“Nate,” Geoff broke in, leaning forward, “are you mad?”
He shrugged and heaved a deep sigh. “I know. I cannot leave, not when I just took over the earldom. There is far too much work to be done.”
The entire table was silent, staring at him. “He
mad,” Duncan insisted, looking at the others.
“Absolutely mental,” Colin agreed.
“Daft as a duck,” Derek said, nodding sagely.
“What? Why?” Nathan asked looking back and forth between his friends.
“Because you are thinking about
going,” Geoff retorted, leaning back. “That breathtaking woman is everything you’ve ever wanted, and you’re letting her believe you need time to think? Please.”
“Seriously, Nathan, if it were me, I would have said yes long before she started her rant.” Colin shook his head, looking appalled.
His friends were, yet again, making no sense. He looked around at them. “But she wants me to help her find her intended! It wouldn’t matter if she were Aphrodite, I still would balk.”
“That's no object. No ring means fair game,” Geoff said, waving it off.
“Sometimes even then it is still fair game, depending on the woman,” Derek chimed in quietly. The table stilled, and he looked up to find them all staring at him with varying levels of disgust. He hastily brought his hands up in surrender. “I don’t condone it! I am only stating the fact that marriage, to some, is not as morally binding as it is to others.”
“Says the only man here already with a wife,” Duncan pointed out.
Derek glared at him darkly. “Katherine is not a wife. She is a tyrant. A cold, heartless tyrant who exists merely to make my life more of a miserable hell than it already is.”
“Charming, Romeo. Please save your happy thoughts for a more appropriate time. Like a hanging,” Colin replied, putting his hand over Derek's face, and turning to Nathan. “Go, Nate. Go now.”
“I have nothing ready,” he protested lamely.
All of his friends laughed. “Please, Nathan,” Geoff said, clapping him on the back. “We all know you’ve yet to unpack a thing and that you have had a bag ready to go since you got here in case you changed your mind. We’ll look after things here until you return. Go!”
He looked at them all for a moment, then pushed back from the table and strode out of the door at a rather fast clip, bringing more laughter and some applause from his friends behind him.
Moira Dennison took a deep breath of the fresh air once she exited the building, hoping that somehow it would calm her slightly trembling body and addled brain. Her aunt Miriam would have been ashamed and sent her to the cellar for a week with nothing to eat but bread crusts had she known of this. Luckily for Moira, Aunt Miriam was six feet under the ground and nobody was left to care if she were to sell her soul to the devil or elope with a cobbler or join the circus or any other equally disastrous and ill-conceived action.
But even this was one deed that she never imagined herself undertaking.
Inviting a man she knew very little about
almost nothing, really
to accompany her alone
across Lord knew how many miles so that she could find Charles and bring him back to Gillam so they could finally be married and put all the rumors and gossip to rest, was madness.
She shook her head and started to walk a bit. Pacing was hardly ladylike, but considering the show she had just put on for that table of rather ordinary looking men, she doubted anybody would consider her ladylike anymore anyway. Not that she cared all that much, she didn’t know them enough to care, but she did want to be respected.
The crazed woman that had just marched into a pub and told an entire table of men what she was going to do, what Mr. Hammond would be expected to do, and then marched back out again without breaking composure was surely deserving of a little respect. But as for little Moira Dennison… she just wanted to curl up under some wagon and cry until her body no longer shook with fear.
Three days. It had been three days since she had left Gillam, and she was no closer to figuring out what she was going to do than she had been weeks ago. Being from a small village had its advantages she was sure, but at the moment she knew of none. The pitying looks she received when people thought she wasn’t looking, the way a room would quiet when she entered, the soft snickers of other girls when she went for a letter and returned empty handed… She had had quite enough.
What drove her to bits was that if these people had known just who she was, not who they thought she was, but who the rest of the world would see her as, they would not have pitied, gossiped, or snickered. She was wealthy enough to buy up the whole village, force them all out, and fill all of their homes with sheep, should she have had the desire. Or goats. Goats were notoriously meaner and would be better than sheep at keeping unwanted people from her property.
But sadly, she had no goats or sheep. All she had was money, and she had no idea what to do with it. It had not been a part of her life since she was very young, and she had not been informed of it until much later in her life, under sworn secrecy. Not even her aunt had been aware of the magnitude of Moira’s inheritance, only that there was one.