Melanie Grey discovers a lot more than seclusion when she takes up her duties as housekeeper at Lord Jarrow's home. Faced with gunshot wounds in the middle of the night and the house invaded by blundering excise men on the trail of smugglers, she begins to see that no one is exactly innocent.
Before Melanie could say another word, the bedchamber door opened. She gazed helplessly across the bed to the door. The blue damask bed curtains fastened back to the bedposts allowed her a clear view as Mangerton stepped inside the bedchamber. He closed the door and stood with his shoulders pressed against the wood.
‘How are you, Adam?’
‘Quite well, thank you.’
‘He’s nothing of the sort,’ snapped Melanie. ‘He’s merely being polite.’
Mangerton lifted his brows and considered her before returning his attention to the man in the bed. ‘You have visitors, Adam. The Excise Officers are here to see you. If I refuse them, they’ll no doubt force their way in.’
‘But—̓ Melanie’s intended rebuke trailed away as the Master spoke.
‘Let them in.’ The Master dropped one eyelid in a laborious wink aimed at Mangerton. ‘Say it was a shooting accident between us yesterday. I shall be barely conscious. Already I feel dizzy.’ He closed his eyes and let his head roll to one side.
‘You all seem to take this very lightly.’ Melanie glanced in disbelief at the three of them in turn, and then focussed on Jarrow. ‘Sir, you have missed two days of life because of your fever. You are not at all well.’ She looked to the older woman for corroboration. ‘Is he, Mrs Dawkins?’
But Mrs Dawkins never answered. Straight-backed in her plain dark gown, her hands folded in her lap, she sat on the opposite side of the bed to Melanie, her ample hips overflowing the elegant gilt chair by the Master’s bedside. She wasn’t looking at the Master; head turned, she was gazing at the door with something Melanie could only describe as expectation shining in her blue eyes.
Mangerton stepped aside, and the Excise men entered the room. With a hiss of indrawn breath, Melanie retreated to the tall windows behind her. The gaungers looked entirely out of place in the elegant bedchamber. Graceless men, well-fleshed and suspicious, they glared about them as if expecting an armed ambush. They had failed to remove their hats when entering a gentleman’s residence and now, because her initial agitation had hardened into dislike, the omission annoyed her. No doubt it was a calculated part of the insolence that clung to every movement they made.
They approached the canopied bed, not caring that their muddy boots left a dark trail across the pale carpet, and halted a yard behind Mrs Dawkins. ‘Lord Jarrow?’
No response came from his lordship. Melanie glanced at the Master, and then hastily bit her lip and swallowed the snort of unexpected laughter. Mouth open, eyes closed, one elegant hand splayed across the bed sheet, the Master feigned sleep.
The older gaunger tapped Mrs Dawkins’s shoulder. ‘Wake him, woman.’
Colour creeping into her cheeks, determination in the thrust of her jaw, Mrs Dawkins twisted her neck in order to glare at him. ‘That I will not. The poor bairn has only just dropped off to sleep. And keep your voices down in case ye wake him.’ Her sharp tone told everyone she would brook no nonsense. She frowned. ‘What do ye want wi’ him?’
The Excise men exchanged glances.
Hearing the Master described as a bairn added to Melanie’s sense of being caught up in some strange game. Her gaze flickered from Mrs Dawkins to the gaungers and on to the Master. Framed by the blue quilted headboard, his skin was very nearly as pale as the frilled white pillowcase behind him and that caused her some anxiety. One of the gaungers moved around the bedpost, bent over the foot of the bed and grasped the sleeping man’s foot through the bedclothes. He shook it, hard.
The Master’s eyes popped open. On an indrawn breath, he groaned with heart-rending realism.
Posted by Jen Black, http://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com
Far After Gold, Fair Border Bride and Reluctance.