Toby Fesler Heathcotte
2009 release from www.mardelbooks.com
During the lull between noon and dinner trades, Alison went to her room and
washed up. She had intended to wear a fresh apron but impulsively switched into
a new magenta gown with white lace trim. Fingering the tight-fitting bodice,
she approved her image in the mirror and fluffed stray black hairs to lessen the
severity of the mobcap. She hurried back to the stairs, excited because the inn
was bringing in a great deal of money.
Her most recent stableman had turned up missing the day before. Such men seemed an untrustworthy lot who drank too much and smelled exceedingly bad. When Lainn returned, she would send him to the stable to groom and feed the horses as a gratis service to the inn guests. He could communicate with animals better than most people did with each other. Alison would wager no other inn frequented by Herr Moritz did the same.
Leaving the bedroom caught up in her own thoughts, Alison ambled down the steps. Halfway, she stopped, surprised to find an English soldier standing at the bottom of the stairs. He looked up, tricorn hat in hand, apparently waiting for her.
Tall and olive-skinned, he had a wide mouth and unruly black hair, streaked with gray and tied back with a white ribbon. He appeared at home in the perfectly fitted, claret uniform, impeccably pressed with gold braid shining. His voice trembled slightly. “Mrs. MacPhearson?”
“Yes, I’m Mrs. MacPhearson. May I help you?” Something about his cobalt blue eyes stopped her perfunctory customer smile. Alison could not take her gaze away from this stunning man.
“I’d like to rent a room.” The soldier’s rich, deep voice sounded familiar. “Do you have one available?”
“I’m so sorry. The inn is full for the night.” Alison expected him to turn and go through the open door, but he remained, flipping the black hat over and over.
Mr. Gallagher, Old Ferguson, and Mr. MacFee bundled through the door, arguing. Their dark wool jackets carried the scent of crisp autumn air and tobacco smoke.
“Evenin’, Alison.” Old Ferguson tipped his hat.
Closing the door behind them, Alison waited for the soldier to speak. She held her breath, sensing great importance in what he would say without knowing why. The aldermen’s voices faded into the dining room.
“Well, then,” the soldier finally said, “I don’t quite know what to do.” His melodic voice mesmerized her like a haunting ballad. “I need to stay in Corton for several days. Not sure for how long.” He raised an eyebrow. “Is there somewhere else I could stay?”
“The closest inn is in Lambsden, fifteen miles from here. However, if you don’t mind sharing with a Welshman, I could accommodate you.” Not normally reckless with customer relations, right now she would willingly allow the Welshman to leave in a fury if he objected. Most inns doubled up beds in busy seasons anyway. The soldier induced an unexplainable surge of excitement. She seemed almost to be two people, one responding to the soldier and the other watching her do so.
Lainn came up behind his mother and leaned against her skirts, peeking under her arm at the soldier. She tousled the boy’s hair absently, hoping she was not losing her mind. Never had she been so taken with a stranger.
“That will work quite well,” the soldier said with a sigh. “Perhaps later I could rent the room solely.” He stepped toward her, gesturing with the hat. “I’ll pay extra.”
“That won’t be necessary. Of course, you can have the room for as long as you like.” Relieved, Alison started to speak, but a jostling from behind distracted her.
Colin and several young men came through the door, talking to each other. One of them bumped against her, but they were intent on recounting a gruesome detail of the fighting cocks’ battles and did not notice her. The idiot brother tagged behind, shoulders slumped and boot toes dragging.
Squelching irritation at their presence, Alison glanced at the soldier’s epaulettes, wondering what to call him, and raised her voice over the young men’s. “I must find the Welshman and tell him, before I take you to the room. Do you have a horse, uh Captain?”
“Yes. And it’s Lieutenant.” He straightened and touched the tricorn to his forehead. “Lt. Thomas Whitfield, His Majesty’s Service.”
“Lainn will take your horse around to the stable for you, Lt. Whitfield.” Turning to her son, she said, “Take the soldier’s horse, please.” She waited for a response, but the boy remained pressed against her from behind. “Lainn?” He stared open-mouthed at the soldier. Alison bent to his ear and spoke softly. “Sweetness, what’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” Lainn whispered. “I just want to look at him. I remember him.”
Confused, Alison seemed to recognize the man too, but logic told her she did not know him. “Go take care of the horse.” She patted Lainn’s homespun-covered bottom. “Please.”
As the boy passed, he stopped, saluted the lieutenant, and skipped out the front door.
“Excuse him.” Alison smiled. “The boy seems enchanted by soldiers these days.” The closing door cast evening shadows across Lt. Whitfield’s face. Feeling strangely moved by his nearness in the dark hallway, Alison trembled as she lit a taper. Brushing against the rough fibers of his jacket, she murmured, “I’m sorry.” He smelled fresh and clean, reminding her of cherry blossoms in the spring. Alison longed to be enfolded in his arms, though she could scarcely admit the desire to herself. The fragile flame from the thin candle illuminated his face as he watched her, a gentle smile curling his wide mouth, as if he felt the same hunger. She blushed. “Please follow me.”
Alison made her way through the dining room, lighting lamps from the taper, acutely aware that the lieutenant followed her. She found the Welshman happily huddled with the businessmen. Lips puckered, he agreed to share his bed with the solider, though he rolled his eyes in what looked like veiled annoyance. The Welshman probably did not want to hurt his sale by showing irritation.
Looking bedraggled, Barbara dutifully filled tankards for customers. The aldermen, including a red-faced Mr. Gallagher, sat at a table, arguing. Colin and some young men played darts as they drank in the corner. At another table the accountant chatted with the Whigs from Salisbury. The entire group had been drinking all afternoon. One boisterously stood and raised his tankard, shouting, “To the King!”
The singer squawked the bellows of the bagpipes discordantly.
All the Whigs stood and held up their drinks, yelling, “To the King! Long live King George! Hail to Hanover!”
“Bring us a bowl of water,” Old Ferguson called.
When Barbara filled the request, the aldermen, with pointed glances toward the Whig businessmen, raised their tankards centered over the bowl of water and saluted, “To the King!”
The bagpipes trilled a riff. The aldermen winked and clapped each other on the backs. Although they appeared loyal to King George, Alison knew they saluted James Stuart. By toasting over a bowl, they surreptitiously called him the “king over the water” of the North Sea. James waited in Italy for his son Charles’s victory and restoration of the Stuart throne.
This public display of Jacobite loyalty enticed danger. Alison wished they would be more careful. They could declare allegiance if Charles came into England. So far he only marched through Scotland.
Eyeing the bowl of water, the Whig staggered toward the noisy aldermen. “You fucking Jacobites. You’ll plunge us into war over your blasphemous popery!”
Face gray from rheumy coughing, Old Ferguson clamored out of his chair. “Let me at him.” He tugged at his sword hilt. “Ye’ll wish ye’d never seen the light o’day.”
Leaping on a table, Colin screamed, “Go, old man. All for King James!”
Several youths scrambled up with him, laughing and shouting, “Hail to the bonnie Prince. Hail to Prince Charles. May the Jacobite standard wave forever.”
“Please, gentlemen, this is a quiet establishment!” Alison pleaded in a loud voice.
“Get out of the way, woman,” the Whig elbowed past Alison. Surprised, she fell against a table.
In a twinkling, the handsome lieutenant righted her, grabbed the Whig businessman’s shoulders, flipped him upside down on the floor, and anchored a sword blade over his heart.
Lt. Whitfield commanded, “Be silent or breathe your last.” Cocking his head at a dashing angle toward Alison, he raised an eyebrow and beamed like a mischievous boy. “What say you, my lady, shall the rascal live or die?”
Heat rushed through Alison’s loins, up her breasts and throat. Somehow she knew how his kiss would feel and caught her breath. Who was this man? Why did she want him so? Her gaze traveled from his face down the sword to the Whig, cringing on the floor, and she laughed. Turning thumbs up, she said, “Let him live, my lord, and thank you for your chivalry.”
“As you wish, my lady.” A stray hair falling down his forehead, Lt. Whitfield pulled the rapier back and sheathed it with a flourish, allowing the trapped Whig to scuttle away, huffing. Extending a wool-clad arm, Lt. Whitfield laughed heartily, piercing eyes hooded as they found Alison’s. His whole manner implied they had a private joke that he assumed she understood.
If Merlin himself had waved a wand over her, Alison could not have been more enchanted. The room fell quiet. All the revelers?Jacobites, Whigs, smugglers, and businessmen?must have been equally fascinated by the dashing officer.
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Alison laughed despite the danger that could come from such an open display of allegiance to the Catholic cause. Since Jacobites seemed to be everywhere, even in the English military, Prince Charles might be victorious. Alison felt a surge of hope for her countrymen and of delight for herself, that this remarkable soldier so cleverly entertained her.
“Call me ‘Thomas,’ I pray you.” He scooped Alison’s hand into his strong grip and brushing warm lips across her knuckles.
Although his skin felt rough, his touch was gentle. A current passed from his mouth to her hand, riveting her.
Uproar erupted in the inn’s dining room. Gallagher, MacFee, and the other aldermen clamored out of their chairs, surrounding Thomas. They slapped his back, congratulated him for subduing the Whig, and introduced themselves.
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