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  • Miss Delphine’s Dangerous Game


London, England, 1812.

“You’d better come quickly, Delphine, he’s dying,” Bessie called out, hurrying to meet Delphine, who had just returned to the inn from running errands on the docks.


She put down her basket, pulled off her bonnet, and followed the maid up the backstairs of the inn to her father’s bedroom. When she had left, he had been sleeping, but now Delphine could hear him coughing and spluttering, choking in the throes of agony.


“Father, try to lie back. Open the window, Bessie, then fetch some water from the pump,” Delphine cried out, rushing to her father’s side, and putting her arm around him.


He lay back on the cushions, his eyes wide, his breathing short and erratic. Spittle was running from his mouth, and Delphine pulled out her handkerchief to dab at his moist lips. He had been ill for some time, but in the past few days, his condition had grown worse, and Delphine feared this was the end.


“I… I can’t go on,” he gasped, but Delphine shook her head and squeezed his hand in hers.


“Nonsense, Father. You’re as strong as an ox. You can go on. I know you can,” she replied, even as she felt uncertain of her own words.


The doctor had told her there was nothing more he could do, though Delphine was not certain the doctor had done much, save pocketing the large fee he had charged. There had been tonics prescribed, and much speculation, but nothing had worked. Delphine’s father had complained of stomach cramps two months previously, and his condition had deteriorated rapidly from there.


“No, Delphine, I can’t,” he groaned, as Bessie returned with a cup of water, standing in the doorway with an anxious expression on her face.


“Thank you, Bessie. Tell Alice to prepare a broth – Father always likes that,” Delphine said, trying to ignore the fact of her father’s despair.


He had been a constant presence in her life, and the thought of losing him was too much to bear. Together, they ran The Seven Bells – a handsome inn in the City of London – just as her grandfather and her great-grandfather had done before them. To imagine the inn without her father behind the counter in the taproom was simply impossible. He was its landlord, the confidant of so many. The inn was a place where many an aristocrat and rich gentleman had sought refuge from the wagging tongues of the outside world. It had a certain reputation in the City of London, a place of discretion, where those who wished for privacy could have it. Delphine did not know what she would do if her father died, and she was left to run the inn alone.


“No broth. I don’t need anything, just my daughter,” Delphine’s father groaned.


“But you must eat something, Father. Please, try to drink a little water. It’ll do you good,” Delphine said, but her father shook his head and gave her a weak smile.


“Water pumped out of that filthy river. No, I’d rather have a sip of wine, my favorite vintage, you know the one,” he said, squeezing her hand.


Delphine nodded, glancing at Bessie, who hurried off to fetch the bottle of wine from the cellar. Delphine’s father was something of a connoisseur, and the cellar was filled with dusty bottles of the finest vintages. Delphine sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed, still clutching her father’s hand in hers. She was trying hard not to cry. She knew the inevitability of what was to come, even as the thought of it filled her with dread. She and her father had always been close. Her mother had died when she was very young, and it was her father who had dried her childhood tears, encouraged her in her childhood ways, and helped her grow into the woman she now was. She loved him with all her heart, and could not bear to see him suffer so.


“Father…you…” she began, but her father interrupted her.


“It’s my time, Delphine. A sip of wine and my daughter – what more could I ask for as I close my eyes for the last time,” he said.


Delphine could no longer hold back the tears, which rolled down her cheeks, as she clung to her father, who tried to comfort her.


“I can’t do it, Father. I can’t do what you do. I can’t,” she exclaimed, knowing the burden of responsibility which would be hers when her father died.


She would be the landlady of the inn, with all the duties it entailed. The thought of it terrified her, even as she knew it was unavoidable.


“But you can, Delphine. You’re ready. You’ve done it whilst I’ve been confined to this accursed bed,” he reminded her, giving her a weak smile.


Bessie now returned with the wine bottle and a glass. She poured some out and handed it to Delphine, who helped her father to drink from the glass. His hands were trembling so much he could not hold it steady, but having taken a sip, he gave a sigh of deep satisfaction.


“Don’t leave me, Father,” she whispered, but her father’s eyes were now closed.


His breathing was becoming labored, and it was as though he had made his peace and was now ready to depart this world.


“I love you, Delphine,” he whispered, and with that, he breathed his last.


Delphine wept, and the glass fell to the floor where it smashed. Bessie hurried forward to comfort her, throwing her arms around Delphine, and the two women mourned the passing of her father.


“Oh, ma’am, I’m so sorry. He was such a good man,” Bessie exclaimed, pulling out her handkerchief to blow her nose.


“I don’t know what I’ll do without him, Bessie. I can’t…oh, he can’t be gone,” Delphine replied.


But as she stared down at her father’s lifeless body, his eyes closed, his breathing ceased, she knew a chapter of her life had ended. He was no longer the landlord of The Seven Bells, no longer the confidant of so many, no longer the cheerful face at the barrel. All of that now fell to her, and she knew her father wanted it to be hers.


“I’ll do my best, Father. I promise,” she vowed.

Chapter 1

“William Thomas Ivory, Landlord and Publican of The Seven Bells. Born 8thDecember 1750, died 4th June 1812. Aged 62,” the headstone read.


Delphine had had it erected shortly after her father’s burial a month ago, in the churchyard of Saint Mary-le-Bow, and she had visited it every day since. The churchyard was only a short walk from the inn, and she would come and sit by the grave and talk to her father. She would often bring a posy of flowers, and she always made sure the gravestone was clean and brushed. She did not want it to fall into decay like those around it, where moss and lichen covered the memory of those interred below.


I won’t ever forget him, she promised herself, rising from the ground in front of the grave where she had been sitting for the past half an hour.


It was a warm summer’s day, and a gentle breeze was blowing from the river as Delphine walked back towards The Seven Bells. The weeks following her father’s death had passed like a dream, and Delphine still expected to find him sitting behind the counter in the taproom or rolling barrels up from the cellar. Her father was the inn, and the inn was her father. News of his death had been greeted with much sadness by those who knew him, and a subscription had been raised to allow for a fitting memorial in his memory.


Delphine was grateful for the kindness of so many, but in truth, she felt lost without her father – lost, and unable to see where her future lay. The inn, of course, continued as it had always done. It had been her grandfather who had first turned a back street hovel into a handsome coaching inn, one frequented by the great and the good, as well as the poor and lowly. It was a fine building; whitewashed, with the window edges painted in blue. A large sign above the door depicted the seven bells of its namesake, and an arch to one side led to stables at the rear.


The inn was well known amongst London society as a place of refuge and privacy. Rooms could be taken with no questions asked, and there was always an aristocrat or two who would come in from the countryside to take refuge from a scandal, whilst others came simply for the comfort of a place to stay in London, with good food and a fine wine cellar. Delphine had seen all of life during her childhood growing up there, and her father had often commented that the inn was a world in itself, a place where every side of life found its place.


And now it’s all mine, Delphine thought to herself, sighing as she let herself in through the kitchen door from the stable yard.


Delphine had always known that responsibility for the inn would one day be hers. Her father had told her as much from an early age. She had no siblings, and there was no one else to whom the responsibility could pass. The inn was hers. It would soon be her name above the door – “Delphine Ivory, licensed purveyor of spirits.” She had so far resisted removing the sign with her father’s name on it. To do so seemed a finality, one she was unwilling to accept, even as she knew she had to do so eventually.


“Was everything all right up at the churchyard, ma’am?” Bessie asked, as Delphine entered the kitchen.


Bessie Buttersworth had been the inn’s maid and housekeeper for twenty years. She lived in the attic, along with the cook, Alice Ducker, and did everything from changing the beds to serving the guests their meals. She was a kind and faithful creature, and Delphine relied on her, not only for her work, but for her friendship, too.


“I scraped some of the moss off from the base. It grows so quickly. It’s no wonder the other graves are falling down. There’s no one to care for them. It’s so sad,” Delphine said, shaking her head as she sat down at the kitchen table and sighed.


“I’ll make you a cup of tea, ma’am. It’s not good for you to go up there every day to the churchyard. They say a person who clings to death isn’t far from it themselves,” Bessie said, shaking her head and tutting.


Delphine knew what they said, but she did not care. She wanted to feel close to her father, and visiting his grave each day allowed her to be so. She knew she was clinging to what she had lost, but it was the only way she felt able to cope with the overwhelming sense of sorrow she was feeling. Life was lonely for Delphine, and despite her responsibilities and the busyness of her life, she felt terribly alone, even as she knew she had Bessie and Alice to support her.


“I don’t know what else to do, Bessie. I can’t just stop feeling like this,” Delphine replied.


Bessie looked at her and shook her head.


“It takes time, ma’am. It won’t happen overnight. But I’ve got something to take your mind off your troubles,” the maid said.


Delphine looked at her curiously.


“Yes…what is it?” she asked, and Bessie smiled.


“It’s the earl and the marquess, ma’am. They arrived whilst you were out,” she replied.


Delphine rolled her eyes. This was the last thing she needed. Robert Grantham, the Earl of Paxton, and Jacob Rollins, the Marquess of Renfrew, came as a pair. They were the closest of friends, but also the worst of combinations. They would arrive unannounced on a whim and take rooms at the inn for as long as their fancy desired. Their presence usually caused disruption on a grand scale – everything had to be just so. The earl liked his eggs cooked in a certain way and had particular feelings regarding goose feather pillows, the marquess demanded hot water at all hours and drank only a certain type of coffee, they ordered carriages to take them here and there, and returned when they pleased, expecting refreshments, sometimes in the middle of the night. Delphine sighed.


“I see…” she said, shaking her head.


But it was not only the particular demands of the highly strung aristocrats which caused her to bemoan their arrival but also their feelings towards her, for both the earl and the marquess held a torch for Delphine. They had both asked her to marry them on no less than a dozen occasions, and on each of those occasions, it had been her father who had refused on her behalf.


He would always give them the same answer.


I can’t have my daughter getting married. She’s got work to do here.”


Polite but firm, always said with such an affable smile, one could hardly take offense to the dismissal. he would say, brushing off the proposals with a smile.


But without her father there to speak for her, Delphine wondered how she would deal with the inevitable advances of her guests. 


“I’ve put them in their usual rooms. No doubt we’ll soon hear from them,” Bessie said, and just as she spoke, the bell from the front bedroom jangled in the kitchen.


“That’ll be the marquess calling for his hot water, I presume?” Delphine said, as Bessie rolled her eyes.


Delphine knew she had no choice but to welcome her guests. She wondered what had brought them from their country estates and how long they intended to remain in London – whatever the reasons and however long they remained, Delphine knew it would be a trial. The earl and the marquess were not bad men. They were simply tiresome, and in her present condition, Delphine was by no means prepared for their arrival.


“He’ll be wanting something particular for his dinner, too, no doubt,” Alice said, appearing from the pantry where she had been sorting out the inn’s store of jams and preserves.


She was a homely-looking woman with a round red face and gray curly hair covered with a cloth cap. She wore a black dress and white apron, which was stained and marked through its many years of service.


“He always does,” Delphine replied with a sigh, rising to her feet and brushing down her dress.


It was time to face her public. Her father had once told her that running an inn was like performing in a theater. There was a backstage, where chaos and strife could rain, but once one stepped through the doors into the taproom or the parlor or the dining room, the performance had begun. There was no chance for rehearsal, and the script was one’s own.


“Ah, Delphine, there you are,” the earl said, as Delphine emerged from the kitchen into the parlor.


It was a large room, with windows facing onto the street. Tables and chairs stood all around, and a large hearth took up the far wall. A fire was kept blazing there – even in the summer – and the walls were covered with all manner of pictures and paintings, so that the room had a homely and welcoming feel. The earl was sitting in an armchair by the window, but the sight of Delphine caused him to rise, and there was no doubt in Delphine’s mind that the earl was pleased to have caught her first, before his companion had had a chance to speak with her.


“My Lord…how…good it is to see you here,” Delphine said, always aware of her performance, even as the truth of her words was open to question.


“My dear Delphine, how sorry I was to hear of your father’s death. I had Mass said for him,” the earl replied.


He was unusual amongst the English aristocracy for professing the Catholic faith. A tall man, with bright blue eyes and a high forehead. He was much older than Delphine, his hair going gray, and his face somewhat lived in, even as he remained in full possession of his faculties. He was a patron of the arts, and frequented the London theaters, even as his own abilities at musical performance left something to be desired.


“You’re very kind, my Lord. Do you intend to stay in London long?” she asked, hoping the answer would be a resolute no.


“I don’t know as yet. But it’s always a pleasure to be here with you. I know it’s not the same without your father. You’ll be all right, I’m sure,” he said, and he took her hand in his and raised it to his lips.


At that moment, a crashing sound, followed by a cry caused them both to jump, and Delphine turned to find the marquess – a portly man whose clothing was always ill fitting owing to his own vanity – rolling from the staircase leading up to the bedrooms. He had fallen, and Delphine rushed to his side.


“Goodness me, my Lord. Are you all right?” she exclaimed, as the marquess looked up at her in a dazed state.


“I came to see where the hot water was. Is Bessie bringing it?” he asked, seemingly unaware of what had just occurred.


“You’ve just fallen down the stairs,” Delphine said, as she and the earl helped the marquess to his feet.


He laughed and looked around him.


“Oh…so I have. Where’s the hot water?” he asked, just as Bessie came running from the kitchen to see what the fuss was about.


“I just heard a terrible…oh, you’ve dealt with it, ma’am,” the maid said, curtseying to them all and blushing.


“Just the hot water, please, Bessie,” Delphine replied, rolling her eyes – the next few days were going to be a trial indeed, of that, she was certain.


“My dear Delphine, how pleased I am to see you,” the marquess said, as Delphine helped him into a chair by the window, and Delphine began to wonder if his falling down the stairs had merely been an act to garner her attention.


“I’m sure I’m very pleased to see you, too, my Lord,” she replied, as the earl cleared his throat.


“Your condolences, Jacob,” the earl said, and the marquess blushed.


“Ah…yes, forgive me. We were both very sorry to hear about the death of your father,” he said, adopting a somber tone.


“You’re both very kind. I hope you have a pleasant stay in London. If there’s anything we can do to make your comfortable…” Delphine said, allowing her words to hang in the air.


She knew the earl and the marquess would have no qualms in making their wishes known.


“The hot water,” the marquess ventured, just as Bessie emerged again from the kitchen carrying a steaming jug.


“I’ll take it up for you at once, my Lord,” the maid said. Delphine was thankful to the maid for her swiftness in providing that which the marquess desired.


There would be many more requests of this nature in the days and weeks to come.


“We’re staying for a while. You’ll be pleased to know,” the earl said, smiling at Delphine, who nodded and returned his smile through gritted teeth.


“And do you have plans whilst you’re in town?” she asked, hoping there was something specific which had brought them there and would keep them occupied for the duration.


“Oh…the usual round of soirees, balls, dinners. It’s all very exciting, the sort of thing one does when one moves in the circles we do,” the marquess said, as he rose to his feet.


“But I’m sure we’ll be very comfortable here, as we always are. I wonder…could the cook oblige us with some of her delicious mutton chops? The anchovy sauce…it’s simply delicious,” the earl said.


Delphine nodded. She could hear Alice’s voice when she told her of the earl’s request. But for now, she merely smiled and edged towards the kitchen door.


“I’m sure something can be arranged, my Lord,” she said, and with a curt bow, she retreated from the parlor.


“They’re just the same as always,” Bessie muttered, as she returned a moment later with the empty water jug.


“I think we’re in for a busy few weeks,” Delphine replied, shaking her head.


“They always make more work, but I suppose they keep us in business, and for that, we must be grateful,” Bessie replied pragmatically.


Her words reminded Delphine of something her father had once told her.


“The guest comes first, Delphine. It’s the guest that puts food on the table, and fuel on the fire. Treat them well, and they’ll come back,” he had said, and that was precisely what Delphine intended to do.


Chapter 2

“Anchovy sauce, more anchovy sauce – I’ve never known a man to eat gravy in such a quantity,” Alice said, tutting as Bessie entered the kitchen with an empty sauce boat calling out for a replenishment.


Delphine had found Alice’s reaction to the earl’s request for mutton chops with anchovy sauce to be as she had expected, but the request had been fulfilled, and the earl had ordered seconds.


“It’s delicious, worth the ride from Oxfordshire alone. I could eat it every night,” he had said.


Delphine had not recounted these exact words to Alice, who planned her menus meticulously and would not take kindly to the earl ordering the dish each evening. But she had obliged that first night, and the mutton chops and anchovy sauce had been duly produced.


“The marquess wants more potatoes,” Bessie said, and Delphine spooned out another half dozen boiled potatoes from a simmering pot on the range.


It had been a busy evening, for they were almost full, and all of their guests were dining at the inn, along with those who made The Seven Bells their regular watering hole.


“I’ll take them to him, you bring the sauce,” Delphine said, and the two of them hurried out of the kitchen, into the parlor, and through to the dining room, where a clamor of voices filled the air.


“Excellent mutton…delicious sauce…will you pass the salt cellar?” said the guests, who were sitting at various tables around the room, some alone, some in groups, but all tucking vigorously into their food.


Delphine felt glad to be continuing her father’s legacy, even as she felt like a gracious swan, desperately kicking its legs beneath water, whilst remaining calm and serene on the surface. There was so much still for her to learn, and so much that could easily go wrong. Her father had dealt with the financial affairs of the inn himself, and the administrative side of the business largely remained a mystery. Delphine was not good with figures, and she feared making some dreadful mistake in the conduct of her affairs. But with the dinner service in full swing, she had little time to think of such matters, as the earl addressed her.


“I want something specific for breakfast,” he said.


A lesser person might have uttered an exasperated cry at these words. The pudding had not yet been served, and already the marquess was talking about his breakfast. But Delphine was not like that. She remembered her father’s words, and nodded, offering the earl her full attention.


“If I can get it for you, I certainly will,” she said, and the earl smiled.


“Kippers. Smoked kippers. I saw a place that smokes them on the way here, and it set my mind to it. Kippers or herring. I don’t mind which, served with bread and butter and a poached egg,” he replied.


As luck would have it, Delphine knew the place the earl spoke of – a smokehouse in the shadow of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Alice did not like cooking kippers for breakfast. She complained the smell lingered – which it did – but Delphine wished only to be obliging, and she nodded to the earl, who clapped his hands together in delight.


“I know the place, I’ll get some for you,” she said, and it seemed the earl was appeased – until another request entered his mind, that is.


“You’re too good to them, ma’am. No wonder they keep coming back,” Bessie said, as they returned to the kitchen a few moments later.


Delphine knew the maid was right. She always made sure her guests had what they wanted. It was a trait her father had employed, too, one he had learned from his own father before him. That was why the inn was so popular, ensuring that men like the earl and the marquess returned there frequently.


“Well…my father entrusted the inn to me, and I want to make sure I do right by him,” Delphine replied.


The rest of the evening passed in a whirl. Alice had made a steamed treacle pudding with custard, and all of their guests commented on how delicious it was. The earl and the marquess sat up late drinking brandy, and it was not until the bells of Saint Paul’s had chimed the midnight hour that they finally went to bed. Delphine knew she would have to rise early if she was to buy the kippers for the earl’s breakfast, but there was still a great deal to do, and now she, Bessie, and Alice began to prepare the inn for the next morning.


“I hope I’ve got enough eggs,” Alice said, counting through a basket.


“Two dozen – that’s more than enough. Mr. Simmonds isn’t having breakfast. He’s leaving first thing, and the two Miss Aldershotts don’t eat them,” Bessie said.


Delphine was scrubbing the kitchen table, and Bessie had just made a pot of tea for them – as was their custom. At the end of a long day and before bed, the three women liked to sit down to a cup of tea and catch their breath. It was a hard life, and they were always on their feet. There was always another job to do or a task to see to.


The life of an innkeeper never stops.


It was something Delphine’s father used to say.


“And I’ve kippers to poach in the morning, too,” Alice grumbled, shaking her head and tutting.


“He’ll only want them once. You know what he’s like. He gets these ideas into his head and that’s that. It was black pudding last time,” Delphine said, stifling a yawn as she sat down at the freshly scrubbed table.


Alice came to sit opposite her, and Bessie brought the pot of tea and placed it in front of them, along with three china cups and saucers.


“We never get any peace when they’re here. There’s always some demand or other. They want this and that, fetch this, carry that. I feel sorry for their servants. It must be a relief for them when they go away. Where do they both live?” the maid asked, as she poured out the tea.


Delphine smiled. The earl and the marquess had made it their business to inform her at great length of their domestic situations and had gone to pains to tell her that – under no circumstances – were they interested in pursuing marriage in their respective districts.


“The earl has an estate in Oxfordshire. Paxton Hall, I believe it’s called, and the marquess resides in Windsor. They went to Eton together, and then Cambridge. They’ve been friends their whole lives long. They come as a pair. I think they’d be lost without one another,” she said, smiling at the thought of the earl and the marquess, who, despite their many faults, had something of an endearing quality to them.


“But they can’t remain like that forever, ma’am. It’s you they keep coming here to see. And one – or both – are going to be disappointed,” Bessie replied, shaking her head.


Delphine sipped her tea. The matter of the earl’s and the marquess’ affections had long puzzled her. She did not know what two ageing aristocrats should see in the daughter of an innkeeper. Their worlds were hardly akin, and Delphine could think of nothing worse than being married to a noble. The inn was her life – now even more so – and she had no intention of giving that life up, not for an earl, or a marquess, or anyone.


“Both, I think. But let them have their fun, I suppose. I can hardly refuse them to stay here, and they do spend a lot of money,” she said.


Both the earl and the marquess were liberal with their pocketbooks. They drank the finest wines in the cellar, they stabled their horses at the inn, and demanded unusual foods at odd hours – all of which came at a price.


“Just don’t let them take advantage of you,” Alice said, wagging her finger at Delphine, who smiled.


“I won’t. Don’t worry. They’re harmless enough – if somewhat tedious at times. They’ll both ask me to marry them, and I’ll refuse them both, too,” she said, causing Bessie and Alice to glance at one another with worried looks on their faces.


“Do you think…will you marry, ma’am? We hate to see you without your dear father. The two of you were so close, but now he’s gone, you need someone to take care of you,” Bessie said.


Delphine sighed. She knew they were only trying to help, but the subject of marriage was not one she wished to discuss. As far as Delphine was concerned, she wanted only to continue her father’s legacy. She had known suitors in the past – not least the earl and the marquess. Working in her father’s inn entailed a certain amount of attention from the opposite sex. But Delphine had never been interested in such attentions and was content with the thought of living out her life, just as she was.


“I don’t need anyone. I don’t need someone to take my father’s place. I don’t need a man to take care of me,” she replied, fixing the maid and the cook with a stern gaze.


“You might not need it, ma’am, but it would make you happy, I’m sure,” Bessie replied.


Delphine rolled her eyes. Alice had lost her sweetheart at sea many years before, and it had always been her greatest sorrow not to have married. Alice had never expressed interest in a man, nor had she ever lamented the fact. Between them, they knew little of the ways of men, and Delphine was content for that to remain so.


“Right now, what would make me happy would be to go to bed. Come now, we should retire. It’ll be morning before we know it, and I’ve got to get up early and find the earl his kippers,” Delphine replied.


They finished their tea, snuffed out the kitchen candles, and locked up for the night. The inn was quiet, and Delphine made her way to bed, holding aloft a candle to light the way. Her bedroom was in the attic, and she could hear the earl snoring in the room below. She climbed into bed with a weary sigh, pulled the blankets over her, and yawned. It had been a long day, and more of the same was to come the next. Not for the first time, she wondered if this was truly the life for her. Her father had entrusted her with the inn, but the choice to stay or go was hers.


But I made a promise, she told herself, and with refresh resolve, she fell into a deep sleep.


Chapter 3

Fermony Grange, Berkshire

“You’re not leaving are you, my Lord?” the butler asked, as Maximilian snatched up his traveling cloak and hurried across the hallway.


“There’s nothing to keep me here, Dalton. Nothing at all. Tell my father I’ve left, and have my things sent on. They can find me at…oh. What’s the name of that place where father stays in town?” Maximilian asked, as the butler looked at him with a concerned expression on his face.


“The Seven Bells, in London, my Lord. But…to leave so suddenly. Are you sure?” he asked, and Maximilian nodded.


“I can’t remain here a moment longer. I won’t remain here a moment longer. Not after what she’s done. I’m leaving, and that’s final,” he exclaimed, wrapping his cloak around him and buckling the clasp at his neck.


“But my Lord…where will you go after The Seven Bells?” the butler asked.


Maximilian had not thought the matter through. All he knew was he had no intention of remaining at Fermony Grange a moment longer.


“I don’t know. I don’t care. I’ll stay at The Seven Bells until you send my things. Perhaps I’ll go to the continent, or north to Scotland. Anywhere but here,” he replied, and pulling on his riding boots, he marched out of the door, followed by his father’s butler, who continued in his persuasive overtones.


“But my Lord, your father…he’ll want to know why you’ve left so suddenly. He’ll be terribly upset,” Dalton said, hurrying after Maximilian, who was marching towards the stables.


“He’ll soon know why I’ve left. It’ll be the talk of every drawing room in the tonby tomorrow. What she’s done,” Maximilian replied.


He could barely speak her name, even to himself. He would not speak her name, not out loud. Maximilian was humiliated, and Lady Frances Stott was laughing behind his back. The butler’s face fell.


“Your betrothal, my Lord? Has it…” he began, and Maximilian nodded.


“It has, Dalton. Spectacularly so,” he replied.


They had reached the gates of the stables, which lay on the far side of the house. Fermony Grange was a rambling, ivy-covered house, which had been the seat of the Barons of Fermony for ten generations. It had been Maximilian’s home his entire life, but the events of the previous few days had left a bitter taste in his mouth, so much so, he could no longer bear the thought of residing in the district and finding himself the object of the ridicule and gossip that he knew would follow.


For a man to find himself humiliated by the woman he had loved and believed loved him was the cruelest of blows, and the insult Maximilian had suffered was enough for him to distrust all women for the rest of his life. He wanted to go far away – to the continent, to the New World, to anywhere he could forget his troubles and make a new start. Frances had broken their engagement, and she had done so with the revelation she loved another man and would be married to him by the end of the summer.


“My Lord…your father should be told. It’s right that you tell him,” the butler said, but Maximilian’s mind was made up.


“No, Dalton. He’ll find out soon enough. I’m leaving. My decision’s final. Goodbye,” Maximilian replied, before calling out for one of the stable boys to bring him a mount.


The horse was saddled and brought forth. Rain was in the air and the skies were gray and cloudy. But Maximilian did not care. He wanted only to get away, to escape from his humiliation and hide away somewhere he would neither be known nor recognized. London was the obvious choice, and The Seven Bells was a name he had often heard his father speak of.


“My Lord, I beg you to reconsider,” the butler exclaimed, but Maximilian flung himself into the saddle and urged the horse into a gallop from the stable yard.


“Have my things sent on after me, Dalton. To The Seven Bells,” he called out, as the sound of the horse’s hooves echoed across the forecourt in front of the house.


Fermony Grange lay in Berkshire, a day’s ride from the capital, and Maximilian rode hard, spying the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral by the time the early evening had arrived. He was weary – not only from the ride, but from everything that had happened to him in the days gone by. His humiliation had been cruel and entirely unexpected. He had believed Frances to be in love with him, and despite what she had done, his own feelings for her remained.


I was a fool not to see it coming, he told himself, and not for the first time.


There had been the ball at the home of Sir Alfred Blenkinsopp, when Maximilian had seen Frances and the man – Lord Douglas Benn – walking together in the garden. He had refused to believe it then, but the signs had been there. The way she looked at him, the way he looked at her, the strange excuse they had made as to why they walked arm in arm – the stone in her shoe… Maximilian had believed it, or rather, he had not dared to believe the alternative. But the previous day, Frances had come to him and told him of her desire to marry Douglas and to break her engagement with Maximilian.


She’s welcome to him, he thought to himself, as he rode through the streets of London, searching for The Seven Bells.


He knew it lay in the shadow of Saint Paul’s, on the south side, and as he came to the steps of the cathedral church, he chanced on two well-dressed gentlemen hurrying past.


“Excuse me, sirs, I say, do either of you know the way to The Seven Bells inn?” he asked.


The two men looked at one another and smiled.


“Oh, yes,” one said, nodding his head.


“We certainly do,” the other replied.


They had a certain eccentricity about them. One was tall, the other short, one was thin, the other rotund, one had hair, the other was bald. They were each dressed in tailored frock coats, with cravats at the neck, and well-polished shoes – though both pairs were splattered with the mud of the city.


“I’m looking for a room tonight and heard of the inn’s reputation,” Maximilian said.


The two men looked at one another and nodded.


“We’re staying there ourselves. We’ll take you. You’re not…a friend of the landlady, are you?” the short one said.


Maximilian thought this to be a strange question indeed. He knew nothing of the landlady and wanted nothing to do with her save take one of her rooms for however long it took for Dalton to send him his things.


“I don’t know any landladies,” he replied, feeling a certain sense of exasperation at the odd behavior of the two men.


“That’s excellent then,” the tall one said, and they both bowed together before beckoning Maximilian to follow them.


“Do you stay often at The Seven Bells?” Maximilian asked.


“Oh, yes. But forgive us…we’ve not even introduced ourselves. My name is Robert Grantham, and this is Jacob Rollins,” the tall man said, offering his hand to Maximilian, who was leading his horse by the reins.


“Maximilian Blane,” Maximilian replied, shaking hands with both men, who now looked at one another excitedly.


The Maximilian Blane? Son of the Baron of Fermony?” the one called Jacob exclaimed.


Maximilian sighed. He had not wanted to be known in London, and whilst it was doubtful that news of his failed betrothal had yet reached the drawing rooms of the capital, he knew it would only be a matter of time.


“That’s right, yes,” Maximilian replied.


“But we know your father – and he knows us. I’m the Earl of Paxton, and this is the Marquess of Renfrew,” the one called Robert said.


This news surprised Maximilian. He had not thought the two gentlemen – as well dressed as they were – to have aristocratic credentials. He had heard of the Earl of Paxton and of the Marquess of Renfrew, though he knew nothing of them, even as they now escorted him in the direction of The Seven Bells.


“You’ll find the inn a most convivial place to spend a few nights. We come to stay here often. We’re close personal friends of the landlady, you see,” the earl said, sounding somewhat haughty, as though a friendship with the landlady was a privilege enjoyed only by a few.


Maximilian thought this was a strange turn of phrase. A landlady was not usually on friendly terms with an earl and a marquess, and he wondered what the true nature of their relationship might be…


“Is that so?” he said, and both men nodded.


“She’s a delightful creature. Miss Delphine is her name. She recently lost her father. It’s such a tragedy. But she’s doing a sterling job as innkeeper,” the marquess said.


They were in sight of the inn now. It was a handsome building, whitewashed and with the window edgings painted blue. A large sign hung over the door, depicting seven bells on a blue background, and in the lower windows, Maximilian could see men drinking ale and conversing. He led his horse into the stable yard, followed by the earl and the marquess, who seemed intent on escorting him inside.


“Are you here on business?” the earl said.


Maximilian had not thought of a suitable explanation for his flight from Berkshire, and he merely nodded and gave some vague explanation as to seeing his father’s lawyer.


“I don’t know how long I’ll remain in London,” he said, as the earl and the marquess followed him towards the door of the inn.


“You’ll find The Seven Bells a hospitable place,” the marquess said, and the earl nodded.


“Very hospitable,” he repeated.


Maximilian was growing tired of their company. They were a strange pair, and he was uncertain as to their motives. He stepped through the door of the inn and found himself in a comfortably furnished parlor, where a babble of voices filled the air, and a woman bustled back and forth, fetching drinks to a group of men sitting in the window.


“And two more ales, Bessie, my dear,” one of them called out.


“Is that the landlady?” Maximilian asked, turning to the earl and the marquess, who both shook their heads.


“No, good heavens, no. That’s just the maid, Bessie. I don’t know where Miss Delphine is,” the earl replied, gazing around him with a disappointed look on his face.


Once again, Maximilian thought it odd to hear the aristocrat refer to the landlady is such familiar terms, but the maid now came hurrying over to him with a welcoming smile on her face.


“Is it a room for the night you’re wanting, sir?” she asked, and Maximilian nodded.


“For several nights, if possible. I’ve come to London on business. I’m having my things sent on from Berkshire. A bed and full board, if you please,” he replied.


The maid nodded and turned to consult a large ledger which sat on a table next to the door.


 “That’ll be two shillings a night, sir. What name shall I put?” the maid asked.


“Blane, Maximilian Blane,” Maximilian replied.


The maid’s response was non-committal, she had clearly not heard of him, and to Maximilian’s amusement, she appeared to be ignoring the earl and the marquess, who continued to loiter nearby.


“Shall I show you to your room, sir?” she asked, and Maximilian nodded.


“I’d be very grateful. I’ve stabled my horse in the yard. I hope that’s all right?” he said, and the maid nodded.


“Quite all right, sir. This way, please,” she said, pointing Maximilian towards a staircase which led off from the parlor.


“We’ll see you shortly. Do join us for a drink,” the earl called out, and Maximilian gave a vague affirmation, not wishing to find himself embroiled in the company of the two men, who settled themselves down at a table by the fire.


Maximilian followed the maid upstairs to a landing, and when they were out of sight of the earl and the marquess, she turned to him with a sympathetic gaze.


“You’ve had to endure the attentions of our two most persistent residents, I see, sir,” she said, and Maximilian could not help but smile.


“I met them by chance on the steps of Saint Paul’s. I asked them for directions, and they seemed only too happy to oblige,” he replied.


The maid rolled her eyes.


“Yes, they would be. The earl and the marquess. The poor mistress has no end of trouble with the pair,” she said, tutting and shaking her head.


The more Maximilian heard about the landlady, the more intrigued he felt. She sounded like a formidable woman, and Maximilian wondered why the earl and the marquess should so admire her when she clearly had not the time of day for either of them.


“She tolerates them?” he enquired, as the maid led him along the landing to a door at the far end.


She produced a bunch of keys and proceeded to select one, turning to Maximilian and nodding.


“She’s too good to them. She is. I’d sling them out. But the mistress…no, she runs around after them, always seeing to their needs, appeasing their wants. She’s like that with all her guests, though. You’ll see, nothing’s ever too much trouble. The other day, she was up with the cock crow hurrying to the smokehouse for kippers – and then the earl complained there were too many bones in them. What does he expect, of course they’ve got bones in them. They’re both in love with her, of course,” the maid grumbled, shaking her head as she opened the door.


It led into a comfortably furnished room with a large bed, a washstand, an armchair and a small table. The window looked out over the stable yard, so that Maximilian would be able to see the comings and goings – and keep an eye on his horse. He thought the maid overly familiar, though he could hardly speak in defense of the earl and the marquess, given his own first impressions of them.


“Is there something about her that should cause them both to be?” Maximilian enquired, now feeling even more curious about the landlady, an image of whom was slowly being formed in his mind.


“They’re both mad, that’s what. Not that the mistress isn’t a pretty young lady who could have any man she desired, but because they think she might choose one of them. Whenever they come here – and it’s frequently – they make a grand gesture, or a proposal, or some foolishness. She lost her father just over a month ago, and I’m worried they’ll do something to upset her, not that I wish to judge them, of course, but they cause no end of mischief,” the maid said, shaking her head.


“I’m sorry to hear that. Is she…will they…does she have someone?” Maximilian asked.


The maid looked somewhat indignant and nodded.


“She has me and Alice – that’s the cook. We manage well enough. Now then, sir. You’re welcome to dine any time after six o’clock this evening. We serve breakfast early or late, depending on your preference. If you need hot water, then please come and ask. We’ve had some warm nights lately, but if you need an extra blanket, we’ve plenty in the store. I hope you’ll be very comfortable with us,” she said, and curtseying to Maximilian, she left the room.


Maximilian surveyed his surroundings. It was a comfortable room, and he could see why his father had chosen to stay there on occasions when he had visited the capital. He glanced out of the window and could see his horse stabled below, peering out from one of the stalls. He sat down on the bed and lay back with a sigh. It felt strange to have fled Berkshire so quickly and arrived in London under such circumstances.


He thought of Frances, and of his own humiliation at her hands. Maximilian had no desire to see her again, and he wondered if he would ever be able to trust another woman for as long as he lived. She had betrayed his trust and made him the laughingstock of the district. She would know soon enough of his disappearance, but would she care? She had told him she loved him, and accepted his proposal, whilst all along embroiling herself in a clandestine relationship with Douglas Benn. It made him sick to think about it, and he cursed the day he had laid eyes on her.


The foolishness of the heart, he told himself, shaking his head and vowing never to fall in love again so long as he lived.


Chapter 4

Maximilian was surprised when he opened his eyes and found that darkness had fallen. He had fallen asleep, and he did not know what time it was or for how long he had slept. He sat up and looked around him. The room was dark, but moonlight was coming through the windows, and he could hear a babble of voices from the taproom below. Hoping he was not too late for dinner, he got up and felt his way to the door, opening it to find the landing lit by candles burning in sconces on the wall.


I hope there’s still something to eat, he said to himself, as he made his way downstairs.


The atmosphere in the parlor was merry. An accordion player was sitting by the hearth playing tunes on a battered old instrument, and several groups of men were sitting playing cards. A pleasant scent of cooking wafted from the kitchen, and the remnants of a meal lay on a table in the corner. Bessie was bustling back and forth, and she smiled at Maximilian, who nodded to her.


“Something to eat, if you please,” he said.


“Rabbit stew and parsley dumplings. Will that be all right?” she asked.


Maximilian shrugged. It was a more rustic choice than he was used to, but his stomach was rumbling, and it seemed he had no choice but to be grateful for what was offered.


“Very well,” he said, just as a familiar voice called to him from the far side of the room.


“My Lord, come and join us,” the earl called out, and Maximilian sighed.


He had hoped to eat his dinner in peace, and now he looked over to see the earl and the marquess beckoning to him. Reluctantly, he joined them at the table, and Bessie brought a large plate of rabbit stew with four parsley dumplings sitting on top. Maximilian had to admit it smelled delicious, and he took up his knife and fork and attacked the plate with vigor.


“Do you find your quarters adequate?” the marquess asked.


The two men were drinking ale, and the marquess had the top button of his breeches undone, suggesting the two had already eaten.


“They’ll do, yes,” Maximilian replied.


“We always have the same bedrooms. Facing the front of the inn. Very comfortable,” the earl said.


Maximilian was not particularly interested in the details of their accommodation. The bed was adequate, the room comfortably furnished. He needed nothing more than that to satisfy his needs.


“The landlady makes certain of it,” the marquess interjected.


“Do you always speak so readily of the landlady?” Maximilian asked, for it seemed the earl and the marquess could converse on no other topic, and that whatever they said, the talk always returned to the woman whom Maximilian had yet to lay eyes upon.


“She’s worth speaking readily of. You wait and see. But…we wouldn’t want you to think…” the earl began, but the marquess interrupted him.


“To think you were interested in her,” he said.


Maximilian stared at them incredulously. They were quite the strangest characters he had ever encountered, and he wondered what on earth should possess them to question him in such a way.


“Interested? I’ve never met her. I know nothing about her. It’s hardly suitable grounds for interest, is it? Besides, I’m finished with women,” he said, setting down his knife and fork and pushing his plate away.


The earl and the marquess looked at one another with what Maximilian could only term as relief.


“A sadness in your own life, perhaps?” the earl asked, but Maximilian had heard enough.


He was tired and did not relish the thought of recounting his treatment at the hands of Frances to these two oddities.


“It’s complicated,” he replied, rising to his feet, but as he did so, the door to the kitchen opened and into the parlor came a woman who attracted the attention of all.


“Ah, Miss Delphine – come and meet your new guest,” the marquess called out, beckoning the woman to join them.


* * *

It had been a long day for Delphine. She had risen early to run errands and had spent the morning in the kitchens helping Alice. In the afternoon, she had gone to visit her father’s grave, where she had laid a posy of flowers and sat for a while telling him about the earl’s request for kippers and lamenting the responsibilities which were now hers. The rest of the day had been spent seeing to the accounts and ensuring the inn could pay its way for another month. She had only just finished and was grateful to Bessie for keeping the show going whilst she was otherwise engaged.


“Just one new guest this afternoon, ma’am. A gentleman by the name of Maximilian Blane. He’s here for a few days on business. I don’t know how long he’ll be staying here,” Bessie said, as Delphine entered the kitchen.


“I’ll speak to him at dinner. Did the rabbit stew go down well with the guests?” she asked, and Alice nodded.


“I made parsley dumplings to go with them. I’ve saved you a plateful,” she said, and Delphine smiled.


“What would I do without the two of you?” she said, smiling at them both.


Having hastily eaten her supper, Delphine stepped out into the parlor to greet her guests. Almost immediately, the sound of the marquess’ voice came from the far side of the room.


“Ah, Miss Delphine – come and meet your new guest,” he called out.


Delphine smiled to herself. She felt sorry for the new guest if he had found himself under the influence of the earl and the marquess. They would keep him up all night drinking or bore him half to death with their dull stories and anecdotes. Delphine turned to find the marquess beckoning her towards him. He was sitting with the earl in the snug by the fireplace, and Delphine could see a man at their side. Well dressed and with a handsome face, he looked up as she approached.


“Maximilian, your landlady. Miss Delphine, this is Maximilian Blane, son of the Baron of Fermony,” the marquess said.


Maximilian rose from his chair and gave her a curt bow.


“A pleasure to meet you, I’m sure. I’m grateful to you for your hospitality,” he said, and Delphine smiled.


She was used to greeting strangers, and as such was used to gaining the measure of a person almost immediately. But the man who stood before her was hard to read. He wore a disinterested expression, and it seemed he was only saying what was expected of him. She wondered who he was. She had never heard of the Baron of Fermony, nor his son.


“You’re most welcome. I trust you found the room to your liking?” she asked.


He nodded.


“It’ll do, yes,” he replied.


“Good…and your dinner? I’ve just tried the parsley dumplings myself. They’re quite delicious,” she said, and the man nodded again.


“I liked them well enough, though I’m not used to eating rabbit,” he said.


Delphine’s face fell. She liked her guests to be happy, and she was not convinced her new guest was entirely so.


“Perhaps there’s another dish you’d like,” she replied smoothly, thinking back to the mutton chops and anchovy sauce favored by the earl.


“There’s really no need,” the man replied.


“Kippers for breakfast, perhaps?” the earl ventured.


“You complained about the bones,” Delphine replied, for she was growing tired of the earl and the marquess, whose constant demands were wearing her down.


“I don’t care for kippers. I don’t like the taste,” the man replied.


An awkward silence fell, and Delphine began to stack the plates on the table.


“You’re here on business, I understand. Do you return to the country or go on from here?” she asked.


Every guest at the inn had a different story to tell. Some were gentleman of leisure, with plans to tour the capital’s sights, others had business or were traveling on to the continent. Some, like the earl and the marquess, only wished to make mischief. She hoped her new guest was not cut from the same cloth as his fellow aristocrats. But he shook his head and rose to his feet.


“No, I plan to travel abroad. I’ll remain here until my things are sent on. That’s all,” he said, and with a curt nod of his head in their general direction, he crossed the parlor and hurried up the stairs.


“A strange man,” the marquess said.


Delphine gave him a withering look.


“Have you said something to him?” she asked, knowing how difficult the earl and the marquess could be.


“What could we possibly say to him, my dear?” the earl replied.


Delphine sighed. She did not know what to make of her new guest, but it would not have surprised her if the earl and the marquess had been purposefully difficult towards him. They hated competition – both from one another and anyone else. They each believed in their own chances of securing Delphine’s affections, and any hint of threat was greeted with robust rebuttal.


“You sent Mr. Hardwick packing,” Delphine reminded them.


Mr. Hardwick had dared invite Delphine to the theater with him one evening the previous year. The earl and the marquess, having got wind of this pleasantry, had hounded the man to the point of madness, and he had left, vowing never to return. Delphine had gone to the theater anyway and had refused to speak to either the earl or the marquess for a week.


“He was different,” the marquess replied, though he made no attempt to explain why.


Delphine shook her head, glancing at the stairs and wondering if she should try to make a more favorable acquaintance with her new guest before bed.


“What do you know about him? I’ve never heard of him before, not his father, although…oh, I wonder…did he stay here once or twice, perhaps?” Delphine asked, thinking back to the name of Blane, and believing she had once hosted a man of that same name.


“I believe so, yes, and I believe he’s running away,” the earl said, with a knowing look.


Delphine hated it when the earl and the marquess spoke in cryptic terms. They liked to think they knew things and that they possessed information which others did not. This they lauded over others with an annoying sense of superiority. Delphine gave him another one of her withering looks.


“And what’s he running away from?” she asked.


“Love, of course. Why else do men runaway? He’s going to the continent, he’s fleeing. It’s either love or money, and since he seems to have plenty of money, I can only presume he’s been spurned,” the earl replied.


The marquess nodded in agreement.


“We’ve not ascertained his full story, of course. But…well, it’s simple enough to tell, don’t you think?” the marquess said.


Delphine did not think it so. Another of her father’s rules had been to avoid speculation.


Our guests deserve our discretion, he would say, and it was another rule Delphine tried to keep.


It did not matter why the man had taken a room at the inn. That was not for Delphine to concern herself with. What he did with it, and why he was there, was of no consequence.


“I’m sure I don’t have a clue why he’s here. What does it matter?” Delphine replied.


She had finished stacking the plates now and was glad for an excuse to return to the kitchen.


“Did you see him? The new guest, I mean?” Bessie said, as Delphine set the plates down on the kitchen table.


“I spoke to him briefly. He’d had the benefit of making the acquaintance of the earl and the marquess,” Delphine replied, shaking her head and smiling.


“Yes, they arrived together. I felt quite sorry for him. They’d talked to him all the way here from the steps of Saint Paul’s. Still, it’s his business whose company he keeps,” Bessie replied.


Delphine began to wash the plates in a bucket of water by the stove. Despite remembering her father’s words, she could not help but wonder as to the reason for their new guest’s arrival. Was he, as the earl had suggested, fleeing from love?


“I’m sure we’ll know all about him soon enough if the earl and the marquess have anything to do with it,” Delphine said.


Alice turned to her from the stove and tutted.


“They’re a terrible pair, those two. He was in here earlier, asking me to make more anchovy sauce for his dinner tonight. I told him he could wait until next week when it’s on the menu again.


“We must try to be accommodating, Alice. The two of them may try our patience, but they pay their bills on time, and leave a handsome tip behind them,” Delphine said, raising her eyebrows at the cook, who tutted.


“Anchovy sauce, indeed…and if I hear another word about the bones in those kippers…what does he expect? A fish without bones?” she said in an exasperated tone, shaking her head as she turned back to the stove and clattered the pots and pans.


“I’m sure it’s merely a compliment to your cooking, Alice. People come from far and wide to taste your dishes,” Delphine said.


“They can stay far, that’s all I’ll say. Those two…” Alice said, and she shook her head again as Delphine glanced at Bessie and smiled.


“I’ll take in the steamed pudding. It’s a shame the baron’s son didn’t stay down any longer. Marmalade pudding. It’s one of your best recipes, Alice,” Bessie said, picking up the large plate on which sat a steaming marmalade pudding in all its glory.


“I’m sure the earl and the marquess will find something wrong with it,” the cook replied with a sniff.


Bessie rolled her eyes and took up the plate, whilst Delphine followed with a stack of bowls and spoons. There was a merry atmosphere in the dining room, even as she felt sorry their new guest had not remained. The more she thought about him, the more intrigued she was, and as she served out the pudding to the earl and the marquess, Delphine could not help but ask them further questions.


“Do you really think he’s fleeing from love?” she asked, placing a bowl of steaming marmalade pudding in front of the earl.


“Undoubtedly, my dear. His sort always does. A rogue, that’s what he is. Yes, a fop, a rake, a womanizer. He’s left a trail of destruction and broken hearts behind him. You don’t want to get mixed up with him. Not for one moment,” the earl replied, taking up his spoon and digging into his pudding with gusto.


Delphine gave a wry smile. It would suit the earl and the marquess to portray the new arrival in the most disparaging way possible. They believed every man who crossed the threshold of the inn was a threat to their own hopes of romance. But Delphine had no intention of romancing either of the two men, who, despite their wealth, offered little else by way of attraction. Delphine had not grown up in aristocratic circles. She was used to work and working hard. The idle life of the aristocracy held no interest for her, and she was not about to become a lady who paid calls on other ladies who had equally little to do.


“He only arrived today. I don’t know anything about him. He probably won’t stay for more than a few nights. He’s having his things sent down,” Delphine said.


The earl and the marquess looked at one another.


“Let’s hope he doesn’t stay too long, my dear,” the marquess said, as Delphine rolled her eyes.


“Another spoonful of that delicious pudding, but tell the cook it needs more sugar to balance the tartness. Oh, and I’d like deviled kidneys for breakfast, if you please,” the earl said.


Delphine made no reply, spooning out the pudding before returning to the kitchen.


“He wants deviled kidneys for breakfast,” she said, as Alice turned towards her.


“I’ll devil him…” she said, scowling at Delphine, who could not help but laugh.


“And the earl says the pudding was delicious, but needed more sugar,” Delphine added, as Alice snatched up a large spoon and shook it towards the door into the dining room.


“More sugar! I’ll give him more sugar…” she exclaimed.

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