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England's Lake Country, 1887
"All I want is to be left alone to run my own life and tend my business in peace. Is that too bloody much to ask?" Mariah Eller muttered as she pulled her cloak tighter against the wind-whipped rain and squinted, trying to make out the lights from the Eller-Stapleton Inn. There were at least a dozen things she'd rather be doing at nine o'clock on a rainy October evening most involving a glowing fire and toasty slippers.
"Hurry, miz!" The boy with the lantern looked back anxiously and halted for her to catch up. "Pa said they wus about to blow the winders out."
"They'd better not touch my blessed windows," she declared, wishing the threat didn't sound so thin in her own ears. She motioned the boy forward on the darkened gravel path that led from her house to her inn. "That glazing cost me a fortune. I'm in hock up to my" She pulled her icy hands inside her cloak. "If they lay one finger on that glass"
She'd do what? Scold them? Send them to bed without supper? What could she possibly do to a group of men who were drinking, out of control and bent on destruction?
The sprawling Eller-Stapleton Inn, a coaching stop for travelers on the way north, was miles from the nearest town and constable. Ordinarily she and her staff took care of their own problems. Her capable innkeeper, Mr. Carson, maintained order with his razor-like glare, beefy arms and redoubtable old musket.
But something about this situation exceeded his unflappable grasp.
It must be bad indeed.
Taking a deep breath, she dashed the last few yards through the puddles in the backyard and through the open kitchen door. She stood for a moment taking her bearings, her long cloak dripping water on the worn flagstone floor. The inn's staff was collected around the glowing stone hearth at the far end of the kitchen. They greetedher with "Thank the Lord, yer here" all but Carson, who seemed little relieved by her presence.
"Since when do you need help to deal with a few drunk gentlemen?" she said, lowering her hood and wiping rain from her face.
"The wretches grabbed Nell," Carson said, pointing to the inn's cook and one of the serving women, who were huddled with their arms around young Nell Jacoby. The little chambermaid's face was as white as her eyes were red. "Kissed an' groped heracted like they meant to have her right on the damned tabletop, fergive th' French."
His square, usually pleasant face burned dull crimson and his blocky shoulders were thick with tension.
"Wild as March hares an' gettin' wilder. I'd 'ave bounced the lot, except" it clearly pained him to say "I seen a crest on one gent's snuffbox. And my boy says there be a coat o' arms on the chase coach that brought their guns an' baggage."
Noblemen. Mariah groaned. It would be.
"Who are they? Did they not give names?" she asked, hoping they had refused. By law, an inn's patrons had to identify themselves and sign a register to obtain lodgings.
"They give names, all right." Carson glowered, reaching for his big leather register and opening it to the current page. "Jus' not their own."
"Jack Sprat and Jack B. Nimble," she read aloud. "Union Jack. Jack A. Dandy. Jack Ketch. Jack O. Lantern." She swallowed hard against the lump those names left in her throat. "Clever boys."
Worrisome boys, too, she realized. Giving no names meant taking no responsibility. Apparently they did intend to blow her windows out tonight.
Lord, how she hated titled men "gone a-hunting." Turned loose on a distant countryside, they felt free to vent every base impulse and indulge every low urge their otherwise "exemplary" lives denied them. When worse came to worst, as it often did, no mere innkeeper could manhandle them with impunity. Which left only the dicey art of diplomacy.
Dealing with powerful men behaving badly required a unique set of skills sleight-of-hand, humor and whopping doses of honesty and flattery. It was like walking a tightrope. She looked at the apologetic expectation in Carson's face and her heart sank. She had no noble neighbor to call for help, no well-born husband to step in on her behalf. It was up to her. She was going to have to be very, very good on that tightrope tonight.
Removing her soggy cloak, she handed it off to Carson's son to hang by the door, then glanced down at what she wore. Her tailored navy woolen jacket, white blouse sans frills, and fitted gray wool skirt weren't exactly ideal for disarming drunken noblemen, but she had no time to change.
"I need a mirror, a fiddle player and a bottomless bowl of wassail" her eyes glinted with the resentment she had to harness "spiked with the strongest rum we've got."
Nodding with relief, Carson sent his son to fetch Old Farley the stableman and his fiddle, then ordered the scullery maid to get a mirror from the staff living quarters. Bursts of raucous male laughter rolled down the passage from the public room, interspersed with the sounds of metal cups crashing on the floor, calls for more drink and howls for the innkeeper to "send that ripe little maid back out here."
Mariah looked at the faces turned her way and summoned all her determination. This was her business, her home, her life. Her people depended on her. She had to defend them with the only resources she had: her nerve and her wits.
The mirror arrived and she loosened and repinned her thick honey-colored hair into a freer style, removed her jacket and unbuttoned the blouse at her throat. She wasn't a great beauty, but her mercurial and exacting husband had often bragged that men turned to look at her a second time when she smiled. Running a finger over her teeth and pinching her cheeks, she checked the mirror. Her eyes shone with a confidence that surprised her.
"Stay awake, Carson, in case I should need you, and keep the drink coming." After downing a gulp of the brew being prepared for their guests, she picked up a bottle of her best rum and strode into the public room.
Her strategy was both simple and risky: find the leader, engage him and enlist his aid in keeping things under control while the lot drank themselves into harmless oblivion. If that failed, she'd scream bloody murder and Carson would come running with his faithful musket, Old Blunder.
Six men, mostly young, all well-dressed, were sprawled on benches and chairs around the flickering hearth at the far end of the inn's oak-paneled public room. There were no other patrons present, which was odd, given the miserable weather and the fact that the register showed every sleeping room in the inn was occupied. The men's behavior had apparently cleared the room.
At close range she could both see and smell their careless affluence. Glinting gold watch chains and Corinthian leather boots sandalwood soap and brandy-flavored tobacco muddied chairs and tables where they propped their feet ash from their cigars on her polished floor empty ale cups abandoned on table, floor and hearth.
"More to drink, gentlemen?" she asked, striding toward them. The two facing her straightened and the others turned to see what had captured their interest. She paused a few feet away and gripped the bottle in her hands.
"Well, well. What have we here?" The closest man, a round-faced fellow with pomaded hair, looked up at her with sly speculation.
"I am the owner of this establishment, sirs, and as such, your hostess." On impulse, she made a deep, sardonic curtsey. Sensing she had taken them off guard and intending to capitalize on it, she looked up straight into a pair of golden eyes set in a strongly chiseled face.
She froze for a moment, absorbing the fact that the man's dark hair was given to waves, his skin was sun-burnished, and his broad, full lips curled languidly up on one side. As their gazes met, his half smile faded and his eyes darkened. With interest. His stare dragged across her skin like a match, igniting something she seldom experienced these days: anticipation.
Suppressing a shiver, she jerked her gaze away and it landed next on a tall, fleshy man with thinning hair and a distinctive V-shaped beard.
The blood drained from her head.
She knew that face.
All of Britain knew it.
Merciful Heaven. Was it possible Carson hadn't recognized their future king?
Jack St. Lawrence froze with his ale cup halfway to his lips, his eyes fixed on the honey-haired beauty coiled into a deep curtsey a few inches from his outstretched legs. She was of middling height, but that was the only thing average about her. Her carriage was nothing short of regal; her abundant hair shone with fiery lights; her delicate face was clear and arresting, anddamnunderneath that starched blouse and fitted skirt she had curves that could make a bishop forget it was Sunday.
The pleasant ale-buzz in his head evaporated in a rush of unexpected heat. Then she looked up, and damned if she didn't have eyes as blue as a summer skybig, luminous pools of liquid get-lost-in-methat were returning his stare with what could only be called interest.
Before he could react, she jerked her head to the side and her gaze fell on Bertie. Jack watched her color drain and her eyes widen with recognition of the Prince of Wales. He'd seen that reaction before, from women of all ranks and stations. Surprise and awe, followed close on by eagerness.
Glancing at the rest of the prince's companions, he found them grinning, licking their lips, assessing her with lusty anticipation. Dammit. They were already half-sauced and getting rowdier by the minute. The last thing he needed was a sexual hot coal to juggle. He'd already had a close call with the little tavern maid who had brought them fresh pitchers of ale.
He had winced when they'd grabbed and fondled her, and was on the verge of intervening when the barrel-chested innkeeper appeared and roared for the girl to get back to her duties. Shocked by the innkeeper's interference, his companions had let the terrified girl scramble from the table and laughed it off as they turned back to their drinking.
He had heaved a silent sigh and downed another gulp of the brew he'd been nursing for the better part of an hour. He didn't relish having to rein in his companions. They could be a handful. Unfortunately, they were his handful. When he hunted with the prince, it was his responsibility to see that things never got too far out of hand.
The heir to Britain's throne and empire, Prince Albert Edward"Bertie" to his friendsleaned forward and looked the woman over, letting his gaze linger on her breasts before raising it to her face. He smiled, clearly pleased with what he saw. When he held out a meaty hand, she accepted it with aplomb and gave a second, rather charming dip.
"And you, good sir," she said, her lush mouth curving into a perfect cupid's bow. "Which 'Jack' would you be? Not Sprat, clearly."
Sweet Jesus. Had she just made reference to Bertie's girth? His companions gave low oooh's that slid into muffled laughter, which caused the prince to drop her hand and resettle his vest over his bulging middle with a sharp tug deciding whether to be a good sport about it.
Clearly in the grip of madness, the chit blundered on.
"No, no, don't tell me. Not Jack O. Lantern eitherfar too handsome for that. Nor Jack Ketchtoo lively. Nor Jack A. Dandythough you certainly are well-dressed enough for the part." She bit her lip and then eyed him with flirtatious appreciation. "Clearly, sir, a man of your superior aspect and august bearing could only be Union Jack."
A howl of approval went up from the others.
She produced a mischievous smile, which the prince returned.
"By damn, you're a perceptive wench, you are," he declared, grabbing her hand and using it to reel her closer.
"So I've been told, sir." She exerted just enough resistance to keep from being drawn down onto his lap. "And my 'perception' says that you and your company of gentlemen are in high spirits this evening."
A raw, male kind of laughter was their response. She was flirting with disaster. Literally. Jack straightened in his chair, tensing. If she didn't watch her step, she would find herself in serious trouble. Times five.
"I've taken the liberty of asking our innkeeper to prepare some of our special wassail for you. It's the finest for counties around." She swept the men with a playful grin. "Known far and wide to corrupt church deacons, improve the looks of spinsters and cure seven kinds of scurvy."
The prince's booming laughter brought a dazzling smile to her memorable features, tinged, perhaps, with a bit of relief.
"You say this is your inn?" the prince said, studying her. "The last time I was here, I was greeted by the owner himself. A fellow named Eller."
"Squire Eller was my husband, sir. Upon his death two years ago, the house and inn passed to me."
"You're a widow then." The prince raised an eyebrow and smiled.
Just then a large bowl of warm, spice-fragrant wassail arrived in the innkeeper's beefy arms, and the prince allowed the woman to pull away from him in order to serve it. Shortly, the sounds of a spirited fiddle wafted through the inn, growing louder as an old man appeared, warming up his strings.
Music. Jack studied the bold-as-brass widow with mild surprise. To soothe the savage beasts. Very smart indeed.
The old boy's first selection was appropriate: the lively, patriotic, "Drink Little England Dry." As the widow ladled out the wassail, she began to hum and then to sing. When she served the prince, she motioned for him to join her. He looked her over, as if deciding whether she might be worth the effort, then threw back his head and belted out the lyrics. His participation startled his companions. They glanced at each other and, as she served them, introduced themselves by their assumed names and joined in.
Soon all were singing and drinking except Jack, who scooted his chair back a few inches and watched the wily widow and his fellow hunters from beneath lowered lids. Clever she might be, but the odds were not in her favor. What was she thinking, flirting with them all?
As she handed him his cup and urged him to take up the verse, he met her eye and shook his headhoping she would take it as the warning it was. When she merely shrugged and went on to the next man, he buried his nose in his drink and wished that for once he could just get pissing drunk himself.