In the weak light of the carriage lanterns, Gavin Lawrence, Marquess of Effingham, pulled the hood of his billowing cloak more securely around his face and climbed from the aged vehicle into the pouring rain.
Michael, the driver, leapt from his unprotected seat, following his passenger toward the lighted inn. “You could have taken the public coach,” he pointed out, arguing as no real servant would have done.
“I could have flown in on vampire wings,” the marquess growled irascibly, with a distinctly foreign accent.
Hugging his jug and lingering beneath the roof overhang, Tipplin’ Tom blanched. The nobility hadn’t risked their lives and their vehicles on the rutted path to this humble village in decades. The menacing black barouche and those terrifying words seemed portentous. Gulping, Tom scurried back to warn the tavern’s inhabitants.
Unaware of their audience, Michael continued arguing vehemently. “This has gone far enough, Gavin! You’ve hid at sea these last years, nearly killing yourself to earn our passage. Now’s the time to assert yourself. You’re a highfalutin marquess over here! Just glare at the villagers and toss a few coins. They’ll bow at your feet.”
“I don’t want anyone bowing at my feet. I don’t want the damned title. I want a roof over our heads and a chance to earn something besides wormy biscuits. What I do with myself the rest of the damned time is no one’s business but my own.”
With the hood pulled low to disguise his features, the new marquess entered the dimly lit, low ceilinged tavern.
As he stomped through the doorway, the inhabitants cowered in far corners. None came forward to greet them or offer ale.
Scowling, Gavin glared at this reaction to his presence. They didn’t even know him, and already they acted as if he had three heads instead of just one slightly damaged one.
He’d grown used to averted gazes in the dismal seaside taverns he’d frequented these last years. He’d learned to walk alone. He didn’t need these puling, ignorant villagers. He just needed directions.
“And you wanted me to act the noble aristocrat?” he whispered to Michael, turning around to stalk back out.
“Coward,” his driver returned disrespectfully. But he strode into the tavern to ask directions while Gavin retreated to the waiting carriage as had been his preference from the first.
A little later, with a local driver perched upon the outside seat, the barouche returned to the road—just as the clouds opened and rain fell in torrents.
Inside, Michael shook out his soaked hat. No one had bothered relighting the carriage lamps, and only their dark silhouettes were visible in the gloom.
“You’ll need servants,” the slighter man answered Gavin’s silent protest about the new driver. “He’s a half-wit, but he knows how to find the manor.”
Gavin made a choking noise that might almost be a rusty laugh. “An auspicious beginning: a half-wit for manservant. I like your thinking.”
“If you mean to bury yourself out here in the middle of nowhere, I won’t be buried with you.”
Gavin threw off his hood and nodded understandingly. “You’ll do as you wish, as always. When have I ever interfered?”
Both of them could write volumes into the silence that followed, but they knew the words by heart and had no need of repeating them aloud or recording them for posterity. As the rain pounded and the carriage lurched and righted itself, they watched for the first sight of their new home.
Soaked and overgrown evergreens brushed the carriage doors. The right forward wheel hit a deep hole, then propelled itself out by the sheer force of the blow. Gavin clung to his walking stick and winced. He suffered a suspicion that they traversed the drive to his inheritance.
They rounded a curve and not even Michael’s vivid imagination could have conjured up the monstrosity looming before them. Silhouetted against the horizon, gabled roofs soared with medieval turrets, mixing with Roman arches atop a structure that sprawled across the hillside. Unused to English architecture, both men stared at the storybook fantasy as the carriage lurched to a halt.
Concurring with Gavin’s unspoken thought, Michael whispered, “Do you think we’ll find a sleeping beauty inside?”
Dropping his gaze from the outrageous roofline to the more mundane elements of land and foundation, Gavin shook his head. “If we do, she’s covered in thorns, and I’m too damned tired to hack my way through.” With a sigh, he kicked open the coach door, ignoring the etiquette of allowing his newly hired servant to unlatch it for him.
Instead of hitting a paved drive, his boot sank in foot-deep mud.
Torn from a long-rotted trellis, a rose cane swung out and snatched his hood.
In all that vast monstrous exterior, not a single light flickered to welcome them home.
* * * *
Later, staring into a fire created from a particularly odious bric-a-brac shelf and a kitchen stool, Gavin morosely contemplated the inheritance for which he’d spent these last years earning passage to England in a style that wouldn’t shame his unknown family.
The estate solicitors had informed him that he possessed female cousins of some sort. He’d notified the solicitors of the date of his arrival so he did not arrive unannounced. Not only had his unknown and unacknowledged family departed the estate before he arrived, they’d taken with them every servant and every sign of life. What remained was a deteriorating shell of a house requiring more wealth than he possessed.
Kicking at an elegantly carved and extremely filthy wing chair beside the fireplace, Gavin wondered how long the place had lain empty. Michael’s comment about finding a sleeping beauty didn’t seem far off the mark.
Filth coated every surface. Vines had crept in through windows. So far, he’d not discovered any evidence of leaking roofs or cracked walls, but the night was young and the rooms were dark. No doubt mice scuttled about in the walls and wind blew down chimneys. For this he’d bought a new suit of clothes and a carriage. He’d have better invested his limited resources in return passage.
On the far side of the room, with firelight gleaming off his auburn hair, Michael wandered the towering library, staring at the elaborately carved moldings layered in cobwebs and the dusty thick oak paneling of the walls. Books filled the shelves, and by the light of a candle, he pulled them off randomly, dusting them off and examining their contents.
Gavin could tell from his soft exclamations that he thought the place a treasure trove, but Michael had never been the practical type. One couldn’t eat books.
“In the morning, we’ll survey the lands,” Gavin said aloud, although he might as well talk to himself. Michael had no interest in land. “It’s early enough in the year to put in a crop. The solicitor’s letter said the main estate had no mortgage.”
“The solicitor’s letter said the estate had no funds,” Michael reminded him vaguely, lost in a tome of ancient origin.
The solicitor’s letter had left Gavin more than underwhelmed. Merely noting the firm had spent some years locating the closest heir to the title, it announced Gavin Lawrence as the eighth Marquess of Effingham and the heir to Arinmede Manor, as the prior marquess left only a female descendant. The letter invited him to visit at his convenience.
Gavin had known then that he couldn’t expect much. He had only to look to his father and grandfather to know the Lawrences of Arinmede and Effingham had little going for them beyond charm and good looks. But through the years of war, in the aftermath of disaster, Gavin had clung to that foolish letter. He had a family in England, a titled family and a home.
Until the letter’s arrival, he’d thought his father a liar. He knew his father to be a liar. But apparently he hadn’t lied about his origins. The solicitor’s letter proved that much.
The solicitor’s letter hadn’t lied any more than his father about the family inheritance. It had just left out a few pertinent facts.
He had spent these last years captaining ships and trading in foreign ports so he could earn enough money to put him right back where he was before, bankrupt and without family, except now he was faced with a foreign country and strangers with odd habits who knew nothing of him. He would have been farther ahead if he’d stayed in the States.
Glancing up at the coat of arms engraved in the wood above the fireplace, Gavin lifted his glass in salute to his long line of ancestors. At least this time, they’d left him a roof over his head.