Lilstock Priory, Somerset
Thomas rode out through the gates with the sun glistening on the frosted grass and sparkling in the dewdrops decorating the still bare branches.
His horse was a pale gray he’d bought some months previously, when traveling with Roland on one of his visits to the abbey. Their route had taken them through Bridgewater, and he’d found the dappled gray there. The gelding was mature, strong, very much up to his weight, but also steady, a necessity given his physical limitations; he could no longer be certain of applying sufficient force with his knees to manage the horse in stressful situations.
Silver—the novices had named him—was beyond getting stressed. If he didn’t like something, he simply stopped, which, in the circumstances, was entirely acceptable to Thomas, who harbored no wish whatever to be thrown.
His bones already had enough fractures for five lifetimes.
As he rode down the road toward Bridgewater, he instinctively assessed his aches and pains. He would always have them, but, in general, they had sunk to a level he could ignore. That, or his senses had grown dulled, his nerves inured to the constant abrading.
He’d ridden daily over the last month in preparation for this journey, building up his strength and reassuring himself that he could, indeed, ride for the four or five days required to reach his destination.
The first crest in the road drew near, and a sense of leaving something precious behind tugged. Insistently.
Drawing rein on the rise, he wheeled Silver and looked back.
The priory sat, gray stone walls sunk into the green of the headland grasses, with the blue sky and the pewter of the Channel beyond. He looked, and remembered all the hours he’d spent, with Roland, with Geoffrey, with all the other monks who had accepted him without question or judgment.
They, more than he, had given him this chance—to go forth and complete his penance, and so find ultimate peace.
Courtesy of Drayton, he had money in his pocket, and in his saddlebags he had everything he would need to reach his chosen abode and settle in.
He was finally doing it, taking the first step along the road to find his fate.
In effect, surrendering himself to Fate, freely giving himself up to whatever lay in wait.
Thomas stared at the walls of the priory for a moment more, then, turning Silver, he rode on.
* * *
His way lay via Taunton, a place of memories, and of people who might, despite the disfigurement of his injuries, recognize him; he rode straight through and on, spending the night at the small village of Waterloo Cross before rising with the sun and continuing west.
Late in the afternoon on the fourth day after he’d ridden out from the priory, he arrived at Breage Manor. He’d ridden through Helston and out along the road to Penzance, then had turned south along the lane that led toward the cliffs. The entrance to the drive was unremarkable; a simple gravel avenue, it wended between stunted trees, then across a short stretch of rising open ground to end before the front door.
He’d bought the property years ago, entirely on a whim. It had appealed to him, and for once in his life he’d given into impulse and purchased it—a simple, but sound gentleman’s residence in the depths of Cornwall. In all his forty-two years, it was the only house he’d personally owned, the only place he could imagine calling home.
A solid, but unimaginative rectangular block constructed of local bricks in muted shades of red, ochre, and yellow, the house consisted of two stories plus dormers beneath a lead roof. The windows of the main rooms looked south, over the cliffs to the sea.
As he walked Silver up the drive, Thomas scanned the house, and found it the same as his memories had painted it. He hadn’t been back in years—many more than the five years he’d spent in the priory. The Gattings, the couple he’d installed as caretaker and housekeeper, had clearly continued to look after the house as if it were their own. The glass in the windows gleamed, the front steps were swept, and even from a distance the brass knocker gleamed.
Thomas halted Silver at the point where the track to the stable met the drive, but then, in deference to the old couple who he hadn’t informed of his impending arrival, he urged Silver nearer to the front steps and dismounted. Despite the damage to the left side of his face and his other injuries, the Gattings would recognize him, but he didn’t need to shock them by walking unheralded through the back door.
Or clomping, as the case would be.
Retrieving his cane from the saddle-holder that the stable-master at the priory had fashioned for it, then releasing Silver’s reins, Thomas watched as the big gray ambled a few steps off the drive and bent his head to crop the rough grass. Satisfied the horse wouldn’t stray much further, Thomas headed for the front door.
Gaining the small front porch, he was aware of tiredness dragging at his limbs—hardly surprising given the distance he’d ridden combined with the additional physical effort of having to cope with his injuries. But he was finally there—the only place he considered home—and now he could rest, at least until Fate found him.
The bell chain hung beside the door; grasping it, he tugged.
Deep in the house, he heard the bell jangling. Straightening, stiffening his spine, adjusting his grip on the silver handle of his cane, he prepared to meet Gatting again.
Footsteps approached the door, swift and light. Before he had time to do more than register the oddity, the door opened.
A woman stood in the doorway; she regarded him steadily. “Yes? Can I help you?”
He’d never seen her before. Thomas blinked, then frowned. “Who are you?” Who the devil are you were the words that had leapt to his tongue, but his years in the priory had taught him to watch his words.
Her chin lifted a notch. She was tallish for a woman, only half a head shorter than he, and she definitely wasn’t young enough—or demure enough—to be any sort of maid. “I rather think that’s my question.”
“Actually, no—it’s mine. I’m Thomas Glendower, and I own this house.”
She blinked at him. Her gaze didn’t waver but her grip on the edge of the door tightened. After several seconds of utter silence, she cleared her throat, then said, “As I’m afraid I don’t know you, I will need to see some proof of your identity before I allow you into the house.”
He hadn’t stopped frowning. He tried to look past her, into the shadows of the front hall. “Where are the Gattings? The couple I left here as caretakers?”
“They retired—two years ago now. I’d been assisting them for two years before that, so I took over when they left.” Suspicion—which, he realized, had been there from the outset—deepened in her eyes. “If you really were Mr. Glendower, you would know that. It was all arranged properly with…your agent in London—he would have informed you of the change.”
She’d been smart enough not to give him the name. As she started to edge the door shut, he replied, with more than a touch of acerbity, “If you mean Drayton, he would not have thought the change of sufficient importance to bother me with.” With a brief wave, he indicated his damaged self. “For the last five years, I’ve been otherwise occupied.”
At least that served to stop her from shutting the door in his face. Instead, she studied him, a frown blooming in her eyes; her lips—quite nice lips, as it happened—slowly firmed into a thin line. “I’m afraid, sir, that, regardless, I will need some proof of your identity before I can allow you into this house.”
Try to see things from the other person’s point of view. He was still having a hard enough time doing that with men; she was a woman—he wasn’t going to succeed. Thomas stared at her—and she stared back. She wasn’t going to budge. So…he set his mind to the task, and it solved it easily enough. “Do you dust in the library?”
She blinked. “Yes.”
“The desk in there—it sits before a window that faces the side garden.”
“It does, but anyone could have looked in and seen that.”
“True, but if you dust the desk, you will know that the center drawer is locked.” He held up a hand to stop her from telling him that that was often the case with such desks. “If you go to the desk and put your back to that drawer, then look to your right, you will see a set of bookshelves, and on the shelf at”—he ran his gaze measuringly over her—“about your chin height, on the nearer corner you will see a carriage clock. In the front face of the base of that clock is a small rectangular panel. Press on it lightly and it will spring open. Inside the hidden space, you will find the key to the center drawer of the desk. Open the drawer, and you will see a black-leather-covered notebook. Inside, on the first leaf, you will find my name, along with the date—1816. On the following pages are figures that represent the monthly ore tonnages cleared from the two local mining leases I then owned.” He paused, then cocked a brow at her. “Will that satisfy you as identification?”
Lips tight, she held his gaze steadily, then, with commendable calm, replied, “If you will wait here, I’ll put your identification to the test.”
With that, she shut the door.
Thomas sighed, then he heard a bolt slide home and felt affronted.
What did she think? That he might force his way in?
As if to confirm his incapacity, his left leg started to ache; he needed to get his weight off it for at least a few minutes, or the ache would convert to a throb. Going back down the three shallow steps, he let himself down to sit on the porch, stretching his legs out and leaning his cane against his left knee.
He hadn’t even learned her name, yet he still felt insulted that she might imagine he was any threat to her. How could she think so? He couldn’t even chase her. Even if he tried, all she would have to do would be to toss something in his path, and he would trip and fall on his face.
Some people found disfigurement hard to look upon, but although she’d seen his scars, she’d hardly seemed to notice—she certainly hadn’t allowed him any leeway because of his injuries. And, in truth, he didn’t look that bad. The left side of his face had been battered, leaving his eyelid drooping, his cheekbone slightly depressed, and a bad scar across his jaw on that side, but the right side of his face had survived with only a few minor scars; that was why he’d been so sure the Gattings would know him on sight.
The rest of his body was a similar patchwork of badly scarred areas, and those relatively unscathed, but all that was concealed by his clothes. His hands had survived well enough, at least after Roland had finished with them, to pass in all normal circumstances. The only obvious outward signs of his injuries were his left leg, stiff from the hip down, and the cane he needed to ensure he kept his balance.
He was trying to see himself through her eyes, and, admittedly, he was still capable sexually, but, really, how could she possibly see him as a threat?
He’d reached that point in his fruitless cogitations when he realized he was the object of someone’s gaze. Glancing to the right, he saw two children—a boy of about ten and a girl several years younger—staring at him from around the corner of the house.
As they didn’t duck back when he saw them, he deduced that they had a right to be there…and that they might well be the reason for his new housekeeper’s caution.
The little girl continued to unabashedly study him, but the boy’s gaze shifted to Silver.
Even from this distance and angle, Thomas saw the longing in the boy’s face. “You can pat him if you like. He’s oldish and used to people. He won’t bite or fuss.”
The boy looked at Thomas; his eyes, his whole face, lit with pleasure. “Thank you.” He stepped out from the house and walked calmly toward Silver, who saw him, but, as Thomas had predicted, the horse made no fuss and allowed the boy to stroke his long neck, which the lad did with all due reverence.
Thomas watched the pair, for, of course, the girl trailed after her brother; from their features, Thomas was fairly certain they were siblings, and related to his new housekeeper. He’d also noticed the clarity of the boy’s diction, and realized that it, too, matched that of the woman who had opened the door. Whoever they were, wherever they had come from, it wasn’t from around here.
“Nor,” Thomas murmured, “from any simple cottage.”
There could, of course, be many reasons for that. The role of housekeeper to a gentleman of Mr. Thomas Glendower’s standing would be an acceptable post for a lady from a gentry family fallen on hard times.
Hearing footsteps approaching on the other side of the door, rather more slowly this time, Thomas picked up his cane and levered himself back onto his feet. He turned to the door as the woman opened it. She held his black notebook in her hand, opened to the front page.
Rose looked out at the man who had told her what date she would find in the black-leather-covered notebook in her absent employer’s locked desk drawer—a drawer she knew had not been opened during all the years she’d been in the house. Hiding her inward sigh, she shut the book and used it to wave him in as she pulled held the door wide. “Welcome home, Mr. Glendower.”
His lips twitched, but he merely inclined his head and didn’t openly gloat. “Perhaps we can commence anew, Mrs….?”
Her hand falling, Rose lifted her chin. “Sheridan. Mrs. Sheridan. I’m a widow.” Looking out to where Homer and Pippin were petting Glendower’s horse, she added, “My children and I joined the Gattings here four years ago. I was looking for work, and the Gattings had grown old and needed help.”
“Indeed. Having added up the years, I now realize that was likely to have occurred. I haven’t visited here for quite some time.”
So why had he had to return now? But Rose knew there was no point railing at Fate; there was nothing for it but to allow him in, to allow him to reclaim his property—it was his, after all. She no longer had any doubt of that; quite aside from the date in the book, she would never have found the hidden compartment in the clock if he hadn’t told her of it. She’d handled the clock often enough while dusting, and had never had any inkling that it contained a concealed compartment. And the clock had been there for at least the last four years, so how could he have known? No, he was Thomas Glendower, just as he claimed, and she couldn’t keep him out of his own house. And the situation might have been much worse.
Stepping back, she held the door open and waited while, leaning heavily on his cane, he negotiated the final step into the house. “Homer—my son—will bring up your bags and stable your horse.”
“Thank you.” Head rising, he halted before her.
She looked into eyes that were a mixture of browns and greens—and a frisson of awareness slithered down her spine. Her lungs tightened in reaction. Why, she wasn’t sure. Regardless, she felt perfectly certain that behind those eyes dwelled a mind that was incisive, observant, and acutely intelligent.
Not a helpful fact, yet she sensed no threat emanating from him, not on any level. She’d grown accustomed to trusting her instincts about men, had learned that those instincts were rarely wrong. And said instincts were informing her that the advent of her until-now-absent employer wasn’t the disaster she had at first thought.
Despite the damage done to his face, he appeared personable enough—indeed, the undamaged side of his face was almost angelic in its purity of feature. And regardless of his injuries, and the fact he was clearly restricted in his movements, his strength was still palpable; he might be a damaged archangel, but he still had power.
Mentally castigating herself for such fanciful analogies, she released the door, letting it swing half shut. “If you’ll give me a few minutes, sir, I’ll make up your room. And I expect you’d like some warm water to wash away the dust.”
Thomas inclined his head. Stepping further inside as the door swung behind him, he reached for the black notebook she still held. His fingers brushed hers, and she caught her breath and rapidly released the book.
So…the attraction he’d sensed moments earlier had been real, and not just on his part?
He felt faintly shocked. He hadn’t expected…straightening, he raised his head, drew in a deeper breath—and detected the fragile, elusive scent of roses.
The effect that had on him—instantaneous and intense—was even more shocking.
Abruptly clamping a lid on all such reactions—he couldn’t afford to frighten her; he needed her to keep house for him, not flee into the night—he tucked the notebook into his coat pocket and quietly said, “I’ll be in the library.”
One glance at the stairs was enough to convince him that he wouldn’t be able to manage them until he’d rested for a while.
“Indeed, sir.” His new housekeeper shut the door, and in brisk, no-nonsense fashion informed him, “Dinner will be ready at six o’clock. As I didn’t know you would be here—”
“That’s quite all right, Mrs. Sheridan.” He started limping toward the library. “I’ve been living with monks for the last five years. I’m sure your cooking will be more than up to the mark.”
He didn’t look, but was prepared to swear she narrowed her eyes on his back. Ignoring that, and the niggling lure of the mystery she and her children posed, he opened the library door and went in—to reclaim the space, and then wait for Fate to find him.