"I feel like tearing my hair out - not that that would do any good."
The dark hair in question fell in elegantly unruly locks about Jonas Tallent's handsome head. His brown eyes filled with disgusted irritation, he slumped back in the armchair behind the desk in the library of the Grange, the paternal home he would eventually inherit, a fact that accounted in multiple ways for his current, sorely frustrated state.
At ease in the chair facing the desk, Lucifer Cynster, Jonas's brother-in-law, smiled in wry commisseration. "Without intending to add to the burden weighing so heavily upon you, I feel I should mention that expectations are only rising with the passage of time."
Jonas humphed. "Hardly surprising--Juggs' demise, while being no loss whatsoever, has raised the specter of something better at the Red Bells. When Edgar found the old sot dead in a puddle of ale, I swear the entire village heaved a sigh of relief--and then immediately fell to speculating on what might be if the Red Bells had a competent innkeeper."
Juggs had been the innkeeper of the Red Bells for nearly a decade; he'd been found dead by the barman, Edgar Hills, two months ago.
Jonas settled deeper into his chair. "I have to admit I was first among the speculators, but that was before Uncle Martin expired of overwork and the pater went off to sort out Aunt Eliza and her horde, leaving the matter of the new incumbent at the Red Bells in my lap."
If truth be told, he'd welcomed the opportunity to return from London and assume full management of the estate. He'd been trained to the task throughout his youth, and while his father was still hale, he was becoming less robust; his unexpected and likely to be lengthy absence had seemed the perfect opportunity to step in and take up the reins.
That, however, hadn't been the principal reason he'd so readily kicked London's dust from his heels.
Over the last months he'd grown increasingly disaffected with the life he'd more or less fallen into in town. The clubs, the theaters, the dinners and balls, the soirees and select gatherings--the bucks and bloods, and the haughty matrons so many of whom were only too happy to welcome a handsome, independently wealthy, well bred gentleman into their beds.
When he'd first gone on the town, shortly after Phyllida, his twin sister, had married Lucifer, a life built around such diversions had been his goal. With his innate and inherited attributes, and, courtesy of his connection with Lucifer the imprimatur of the Cynsters, achieving all he'd desired hadn't been all that hard. However, having attained his goal and moved in tonnish circles for the past several years, he'd discovered that life on that gilded stage left him hollow, strangely empty.
In reality, unengaged.
He'd been very ready to come home to Devon and assume control of the Grange and the estate while his father hied to Norfolk to support Eliza in her time of need.
He'd wondered whether life in Devon, too, would now feel empty, devoid of challenge. In the back of his mind had hovered the question of whether the deadening void within was entirely an effect of tonnish life or, far more worrying, was the symptom of some deeper inner malaise.
Within days of returning to the Grange he'd been reassured on that point at least. His life was suddenly overflowing with purpose. He hadn't had a moment when one challenge or another hadn't been front and center before him, clamoring for attention. Demanding action. Since returning home and seeing his father off, he'd barely had time to think.
That unsettling sense of disconnection and emptiness had evaporated, leaving only a novel restlessness beneath.
He no longer felt useless--clearly the life of a country gentleman, the life he'd been born and bred to, was his true calling--yet still there was something missing from his life.
Currently, however, it was the missing link at the Red Bells Inn that most severely exercised him. Replacing the unlamented Juggs had proved to be very far from a simple matter.
He shook his head in disgusted disbelief. "Whoever would have imagined finding a decent innkeeper would prove so damned difficult?"
"How far afield have you searched?"
"I've had notices posted throughout the shire and beyond-as far as Plymouth, Bristol and Southampton." He pulled a face. "I could send to one of the London agencies, but we did that last time and they landed us with Juggs. If I had my choice, I'd have a local in the job, or at least a Westcountryman." Determination hardening his face, he sat up. "And if I can't have that, then at the very least I want to interview the applicant before I offer them the job. If we'd seen Juggs before the agency hired him, we'd never have contemplated foisting him on the village."
His long legs stretched before him, still very much the startlingly handsome, dark-haired devil who years before had made the ton's matrons swoon, Lucifer frowned. "It seems odd you've had no takers."
Jonas sighed. "It's the village--the smallness of it--that makes all the good applicants shy away. The countering facts--that when you add the surrounding houses and estates we're a decent-sized community, and with no other inn or hostelry in the vicinty we're assured a good trade--aren't sufficient, it seems, to weigh against the drawbacks of no shops and a small population." With one long finger, he flicked a sheaf of papers. "Once they learn the truth of Colyton, all the decent applicants take flight."
He grimaced and met Lucifer's dark blue eyes. "If they're good candidates, they're ambitious, and Colyton, so they believe, has nothing to offer them by way of advancement."
Lucifer grimaced back. "It seems you're looking for a rare bird--someone capable of managing an inn who wants to live in a backwater like Colyton."
Jonas eyed him speculatively. "You live in this backwater--can I tempt you to try your hand at managing an inn?"
Lucifer's grin flashed. "Thank you, but no. I've an estate to manage, just like you."
"Quite aside from the fact neither you nor I know the first thing about the domestic side of running an inn."
Lucifer nodded. "Aside from that."
"Mind you, Phyllida could probably manage the inn with her eyes closed."
"Except she's already got her hands full."
"Thanks to you." Jonas bent a mock-censorious look on his brother-in-law. Lucifer and Phyllida already had two children--Aiden and Evan, two very active little boys--and Phyllida had recently deigned to confirm that she was carrying their third child. Despite numerous other hands always about to help, Phyllida's own hands were indeed full.
Lucifer grinned unrepentantly. "Given you thoroughly enjoy playing uncle, that condemnatory look lacks bite."
Lips twisting in a rueful smile, Jonas let his gaze fall to the small pile of letters that were all that had come of the notices with which he'd papered the shire. "It's a sad situation when the best applicant is an ex-inmate of Newgate."
Lucifer let out a bark of laughter. He rose, stretched, then smiled at Jonas. "Something--or someone--will turn up."
"I daresay," Jonas returned. "But when? As you pointed out, the expectations are only escalating. As the inn's owner and therefore the person everyone deems responsible for fulfilling said expectations, time is not on my side."
Lucifer's smile was understanding if unhelpful. "I'll have to leave you to it. I promised I'd be home in good time to play pirates with my sons."
Jonas noted that, as always, Lucifer took special delight in saying that last word, all but rolling it on his tongue, savoring all that it meant.
With a jaunty salute, his brother-in-law departed, leaving him staring at the pile of dire applications for the post of innkeeper at the Red Bells Inn.
He wished he could leave to play pirates, too.
The thought vividly brought to mind what he knew would be waiting for Lucifer at the end of his short trek along the woodland path linking the back of the Grange to the back of Colyton Manor, the house Lucifer had inherited and now shared with Phyllida--and Aidan and Evan and a small company of staff. The manor was perennially filled with warmth and life, an energy--something tangible--that grew from shared contentment and happiness and filled the soul.
While Jonas was entirely comfortable at the Grange--it was home, and the staff were excellent and had known him all his life--he was conscious--perhaps more so after his recent introspections on the shortfalls of tonnish life--of a wish that a warmth, a glow of happiness similar to that at the Manor, would take root at the Grange, and embrace him.
Fill his soul and anchor him.
For long moments, he stared unseeing across the room, then he mentally shook himself and lowered his gaze once more to the pile of useless applications.
The people of Colyton deserved a good inn.
Heaving a sigh, he shifted the pile to the middle of the blotter, and forced himself to comb through it one last time.
* * *
Emily Ann Beauregard Colyton stood just beyond the last curve in the winding drive leading to the Grange on the southern outskirts of Colyton village, and peered at the house that sat in comfortable solidity fifty yards away.
Of worn red brick, it looked peaceful, serene, its roots sunk deep in the rich soil on which it sat. Unpretentious yet carrying a certain charm, the many-gabled slate roof sat over attic windows above two stories of wider, white painted frames. Steps led up to the front porch. From where she hovered, Em could just see the front door, sitting back in shadowed majesty.
Neatly tended gardens spread to either side of the wide front façade. Beyond the lawns to her left, she spotted a rose garden, bright splashes of color, lush and inviting, bobbing against darker foliage.
She felt compelled to look again at the paper in her hand--a copy of the notice she'd spotted on the board in the posting inn at Axminster advertising the position of innkeeper-manager of the Red Bells Inn at Colyton. When she'd first set eyes on the notice, it had seemed expressly designed to be the answer to her prayers.
She and her brother and sisters had been wasting time waiting for the merchant who'd agreed to take them on his delivery dray when he made his round to Colyton. Over the previous week and a half, ever since her twenty-fifth birthday when, by virtue of her advanced age and her late father's farsighted will she'd assumed guardianship of her brother and three sisters, they'd traveled from her uncle's house in Leicestershire by way of London to eventually reach Axminster--and finally, via the merchant's dray, Colyton.
The journey had cost much more than she'd expected, eating all of her meager savings and nearly all of the funds--her portion of their father's estate--that their family's solicitor, Mr. Cunningham, had arranged for her to receive. He alone knew she and her siblings had upped stakes and relocated to the tiny village of Colyton, deep in rural Devon.
Their uncle, and all those he might compel or persuade to his cause--that of feathering his own nest by dint of their free labor--had not been informed of their destination.
Which meant they were once again very much on their own--or, to be more precise, that the welfare of Isobel, Henry and the twins, Gertrude and Beatrice, now rested firmly on Em's slight shoulders.
She didn't mind the burden, not in the least; she'd taken it up willingly. Continuing a day longer than absolutely necessary in their uncle's house had been beyond impossible; only the promise of eventual, and then imminent, departure had allowed any of the five Colytons to endure for so long under Harold Potheridge's exploitative thumb, but until Em had turned twenty-five, he--their late mother's brother--had been their co-guardian along with Mr. Cunningham.
On the day of her twenty-fifth birthday, Em had legally replaced her uncle. On that day, she and her siblings had taken their few worldly possessions--they'd packed days before--and departed Runcorn, their uncle's manor house. She'd steeled herself to face her uncle and explain their decision, but as matters had transpired Harold had gone to a race meeting that day and hadn't been there to witness their departure.
All well and good, but she knew he would come after them, as far as he was able. They were worth quite a lot to him--his unpaid household staff. So travelling quickly down to London had been vital, and that had necessitated a coach and four, and that, as she'd discovered, had been expensive.
Then they'd had to cross London in hackneys, and stay two nights in a decent hotel, one in which they'd felt sufficiently safe to sleep. Although she'd thereafter economized and they'd traveled by mail-coach, what with five tickets and the necessary meals and nights at various inns, her funds had dwindled, then shrunk alarmingly.
By the time they'd reached Axminster, she'd known she, and perhaps even Issy, twenty-three years old, would need to find work, although what work they might find, daughters of the gentry that they were, she hadn't been able to imagine.
Until she'd seen the notice on the board.
She scanned her copy again, rehearsing, as she had for the past hours, the right phrases and assurances with which to convince the owner of the Grange--who was also the owner of the Red Bells Inn--that she, Emily Beauregard-no one needed to know they were Colytons, at least not yet-was precisely the right person to whom he should entrust the running of his inn.
When she'd shown her siblings the notice, and informed them of her intention to apply for the position, they had--as they always did, bless them--fallen in unquestioningly and enthusiastically with her scheme. She now had in her reticule three glowing references for Emily Beauregard, written by the invented proprietors of inns they'd passed on their journey. She'd written one, Issy another, and Henry, fifteen and so painfully wanting to be helpful, had penned the third, all while they'd waited for the merchant and his dray.
The merchant had dropped them off outside the Red Bells. To her immense relief, there'd been a notice on the wall beside the door stating "Innkeeper Wanted" in bold black letters; the position hadn't yet been filled. She'd settled the others in a corner of the large common room, and given them coins enough to have glasses of lemonade. All the while she'd surveyed the inn, evaluating all she could see, noting that the shutters were in need of a coat of paint, and that the interior was sadly dusty and grimy, but there was nothing she could see amiss within doors that wouldn't yield to a cloth and a bit of determination.
She'd watched the somewhat dour man behind the bar. Although he was manning the tap, his demeanor had suggested he was thinking of other things in a rather desultory way. The notice had given an address for applications, not the inn but the Grange, Colyton, doubtless expecting said applications to come through the post. Girding her loins, hearing the crinkle of her "references" in her reticule, she'd taken the first step, walked up to the bar, and asked the man the way to the Grange.
Which was how she'd come to be there, dithering in the drive. She told herself she was only being sensible by trying to gauge the type of man the owner was by examining his house.
Older, she thought--and settled; there was something about the house that suggested as much. Comfortable. Married for many years, perhaps a widower, or at least with a wife as old and as comfortable as he. He would be gentry, certainly, very likely of the sort they called the backbone of the counties. Paternalistic--she could be absolutely sure he would be that--which would doubtless prove useful. She would have to remember to invoke that emotion if she needed help getting him to give her the position.
She wished she'd been able to ask the barman about the owner, but given she intended to apply for the position of his superior that might have proved awkward, and she hadn't wanted to call attention to herself in any way.
The truth was she needed this position. Needed it quite desperately. Quite aside from the issue of replenishing her funds, she and her siblings needed somewhere to stay. She'd assumed there would be various types of accommodation available in the village, only to discover that the only place in Colyton able to house all five of them was the inn. And she couldn't afford to stay at any inn longer than one night.
Bad enough, but in the absence of an innkeeper, the inn wasn't housing paying guests. Only the bar was operating; there hadn't even been food on offer. As an inn, the Red Bells was barely functioning--all for want of an innkeeper.
Her Grand Plan--the goal that had kept her going for the last eight years--had involved returning to Colyton, to the home of their forebears, and finding the Colyton treasure. Family lore held that the treasure, expressly hidden against the need of future generations, was hidden there, at a location handed down in a cryptic rhyme.
Her grandmother had believed unswervingly in the treasure, and had taught Em and Issy the rhyme.
Her grandfather and father had laughed. They hadn't believed.
She'd held to her belief through thick and thin; for her and Issy, and later Henry and the twins, the promise of the treasure had held them together, held their spirits up, for the past eight years.
The treasure was there. She wouldn't--couldn't--believe otherwise.
She'd never kept an inn in her life, but having run her uncle's house from attics to cellars for eight years, including the numerous weeks he'd had his bachelor friends to stay for the hunting, she was, she felt sure, more than qualified to run a quiet inn in a sleepy little village like Colyton.
How difficult could it be?
There would no doubt be minor challenges, but with Issy's and Henry's support she'd overcome them. Even the twins, ten years old and mischievous, could be a real help.
She'd hovered long enough. She had to do this--had to march up to the front door, knock, and convince the old gentleman to hire her as the new innkeeper of the Red Bells.
She and her generation of Colytons had made it to the village. It was up to her to gain them the time, and the facility, to search for and find the treasure.
To search for and secure their futures.
Drawing in a deep breath, she held it and, putting one foot determinedly in front of the other, marched steadily on down the drive.
She climbed the front steps and without giving herself even a second to think again, she raised her hand and beat a sharp rat-a-tat-tat on the white-painted front door.
Lowering her hand, she noticed a bell pull. She debated whether to tug that, too, but then approaching footsteps fixed her attention on the door.
It was opened by a butler, one of the more imposing sort. Having moved within the upper circles of York society prior to her father's death, she recognized the species. His back was ramrod straight, his girth impressive. His gaze initially passed over her head, but then lowered.
He considered her with a steady, even gaze. "Yes, miss?"
She took heart from the man's kindly mein. "I wish to speak with the owner of the Red Bells Inn. I'm here to apply for the position of innkeeper."
Surprise flitted over the butler's face, followed by a slight frown. He hesitated, regarding her, then asked, "Is this a joke, miss?"
She felt her lips tighten, her eyes narrow. "No. I'm perfectly serious." Jaw firming, she took the bull by the horns. "Yes, I know what I look like." Soft light brown hair with a tendency to curl and a face everyone--simply everyone--saw as sweet, combined with a slight stature and a height on the short side of average didn't add up to the general notion of a forceful presence-the sort needed to run an inn. "Be that as it may, I have experience aplenty, and I understand the position is still vacant."
The butler looked taken aback by her fierceness. He studied her for a moment more, taking in her high-necked olive green walking dress--she'd tidied herself as best she could while at Axminster--then asked, "If you're sure…?"
She frowned. "Well, of course I'm sure. I'm here, aren't I?"
He acknowledged that with a slight nod, yet still he hesitated.
She lifted her chin. "I have written references--three of them." She tapped her reticule. As she did so, memories of the inn, and the notices--and their curling edges--flashed through her mind. Fixing her gaze on the butler's face, she risked a deductive leap. "It's clear your master has had difficulty filling the position. I'm sure he wishes to have his inn operating again. Here I am, a perfectly worthy applicant. Are you sure you want to turn me away, rather than inform him I am here and wish to speak with him?"
The butler considered her with a more measuring eye; she wondered if the flash she'd seen in his eyes might have been respect.
Regardless, at long last he inclined his head. "I will inform Mr. Tallent that you are here, miss. What name shall I say?"
"Miss Emily Beauregard."
* * *
"Who?" Looking up from the depressing pile of applications, Jonas stared at Mortimer. "A young woman?"
"Well…a young female person, sir." Mortimer was clearly in two minds about the social standing of Miss Emily Beauregard, which in itself was remarkable. He'd been in his present position for decades, and was well-versed in identifying the various levels of persons who presented themselves at the local magistrate's door. "She seemed…very set on applying for the position. I thought, all things considered, that perhaps you should see her."
Sitting back in his chair, Jonas studied Mortimer, and wondered what had got into the man. Miss Emily Beauregard had clearly made an impression, enough to have Mortimer espouse her cause. But the idea of a female managing the Red Bells…then again, not even half an hour ago he himself had acknowledged that Phyllida could have run the inn with barely half her highly capable brain.
The position was for an innkeeper-manager, after all, and certain females were very good at managing.
He sat up. "Very well. Show her in." She had to be an improvement over the applicant from Newgate.
"Indeed, sir." Mortimer turned to the door. "She said she has written references--three of them."
Jonas raised his brows. Apparently Miss Beauregard had come well-prepared.
He looked at the sheaf of applications before him, then tapped them together and set the pile aside. Not that he had any great hopes of Miss Beauregard proving the answer to his prayers; he was simply sick of looking at the dismal outcome of his recent efforts.
A footstep in the doorway had him glancing up.
A young lady stepped into the room; Mortimer hovered behind her.
Instinct took hold, bringing Jonas to his feet.
Em's first thought on setting eyes on the gentleman behind the desk in the well-stocked library was: He's too young.
Far too young to feel paternalistic toward her.
Of quite the wrong sort to feel paternalistic at all.
Unexpected--unprecedented--panic tugged at her; this man--about thirty years old and as attractive as sin--was not the sort of man she'd expected to have to deal with.
Yet there was no one else in the room, and the butler had returned from this room to fetch her; presumably he knew who she was supposed to see.
Given the gentleman, now on his feet, was staring at her, she dragged in a breath, forced her wits to steady, and grasped the opportunity to study him.
He was over six feet tall, long limbed and rangy; broad shoulders stretched his well-cut coat. Dark, sable-brown hair fell in elegantly rumpled locks about a well-shaped head; his features bore the aquiline cast common among the aristocracy, reinforcing her increasing certainty that the owner of the Grange sat rather higher on the social scale than a mere squire.
His face was rivetting. Dark brown eyes, more alive than soulful, well set under dark slashes of brows, commanded her attention even though he hadn't yet met her gaze. He was looking at her, at all of her; she saw his gaze travel down her frame, and had to suppress an unexpected shiver.
She drew in another breath, held it. Absorbed the implication of a broad forehead, a strong nose and an even stronger, squarish jaw, all suggesting strength of character, firmness and resolution.
His lips…were utterly, comprehensively distracting. Narrowish, their lines hinted at a mobility that would soften the angular, almost austere planes of his face.
She dragged her gaze from them, lowering it to take in his subtle sartorial perfection. She'd seen London dandies before, and while he wasn't in any way overdressed, his clothes were of excellent quality, his cravat expertly tied in a deceptively simple knot.
Beneath the fine linen of his shirt, his chest was well-muscled, but he was all lean sleekness. As he came to life and slowly, smoothly, moved around the desk, he reminded her of a predatory animal, one that stalked with a dangerous, overtly athletic grace.
She blinked. Couldn't help asking, "You're the owner of the Red Bells Inn?"
He halted by the front corner of the desk and finally met her gaze.
She felt as if something hot had pierced her, making her breath hitch.
"I'm Mr. Tallent--Mr. Jonas Tallent." His voice was deep but clear, his accents the clipped speech of their class. "My father's Sir Jasper Tallent, owner of the inn. He's currently away and I'm managing the estate in his absence. Please--take a seat."
Jonas waved her to the chair before his desk. He had to stifle the urge to go forward and hold it while she sat.
If she'd been a man, he would have left her standing, but she wasn't a man. She was definitely female. The thought of having her standing before him while he sat and read her references and interrogated her about her background was simply unacceptable.
She subsided, with a practised hand tucking her olive green skirts beneath her. Over her head he met Mortimer's gaze. He now understood Mortimer's hesitation in labelling Miss Beauregard a "young woman." Whatever else Miss Emily Beauregard was, she was a lady.
Her antecedents were there in every line of her slight form, in every unconsciously graceful movement. She possessed a small-boned, almost delicate frame; her face was heart-stoppingly fine, with a pale, blush cream porcelain complexion and features that--if he'd had a poetic turn of mind--he would have described as being sculpted by a master.
Lush, pale rose lips were the least of them; perfectly molded, they were presently set in an uncompromising line, one he felt compelled to make soften and curve. Her nose was small and straight, her lashes long and lush, a brown fringe framing large eyes of the most vibrant hazel he'd ever seen. Those arresting eyes sat beneath delicately arched brown brows, while her forehead was framed by soft curls of gleaming light brown; she'd attempted to force her hair into a severe bun at the nape of her neck, but the shining curls had a mind of their own, escaping to curl lovingly about her face.
Her chin, gently rounded, was the only element that gave any hint of underlying strength.
As he returned to his chair, the thought uppermost in his mind was: What the devil was she doing applying to be an innkeeper?
Dismissing Mortimer with a nod, he resumed his seat. As the door gently closed, he settled his gaze on the lady before him. "Miss Beauregard--"
"I have three references you'll want to read." She was already hunting in her reticule. Freeing three folded sheets, she leaned forward and held them out.
He had to take them. "Miss Beauregard--"
"If you read them"--folding her hands over the reticule in her lap, with a nod she indicated the references--"I believe you will see that I have experience aplenty, more than enough to qualify for the position of innkeeper of the Red Bells." She didn't give him time to respond, but fixed her vivid eyes on his and calmly stated, "I believe the position has been vacant for some time."
Pinned by that direct, surprisingly acute hazel gaze, he found his assumptions about Miss Emily Beauregard subtly altering. "Indeed."
She held his gaze calmly. Appearances aside, she was clearly no meek miss.
A pregnant moment passed, then her gaze flicked down to the references in his hands, then returned to his face. "I could read those for you, if you prefer?"
He mentally shook himself. Lips firming, he looked down--and dutifully smoothed open the first folded sheet.
While he read through the three neatly folded-identically folded-sheets, she filled his ears with a litany of her virtues--her experiences managing households as well as inns. Her voice was pleasant, soothing. He glanced up now and then, struck by a slight change in her tone; after the third instance he realized the change occurred when she was speaking of some event and calling on her memory.
Those aspects of her tale, he decided, were true; she had had experience running houses and catering for parties of guests.
When it came to her experience running inns, however….
"While at the Three Feathers in Hampstead, I…"
He looked down, again scanned the reference for her time at the Three Feathers. Her account mirrored what was written; she told him nothing more.
Glancing at her again, watching her face--an almost angelic vision--he toyed with the idea of telling her he knew her references were fake. While they were written in three different hands, he'd take an oath two were female--unlikely if they were, as stated, from the male owners of inns--and the third, while male, was not entirely consistent--a young male whose handwriting was still changing.
The most telling fact, however, was that all three references--supposedly from three geographically distant inns over a span of five years--were on the exact same paper, written in the same ink, with the same pen, one that had a slight scratch across the nib.
And they appeared the same age. Fresh and new.
Looking across his desk at Miss Emily Beauregard, he wondered why he didn't simply ring for Mortimer and have her shown out. He should--he knew it--yet he didn't.
He couldn't let her go without knowing the answer to his initial question. Why the devil was a lady of her ilk applying for a position as an innkeeper?
She eventually ended her recitation and looked at him, brows rising in faintly haughty query.
He tossed the three references on his blotter and met her bright eyes directly. "To be blunt, Miss Beauregard, I hadn't thought to give the position to a female, let alone one of your relative youth."
For a moment, she simply looked at him, then she drew in a breath and lifted her head a touch higher. Chin firming, she held his gaze. "If I may be blunt in return, Mr. Tallent, I took a quick look at the inn on my way here. The external shutters need painting, and the interior appears not to have been adequately cleaned for at least five years. No woman would sit in your common room by choice, yet it's the only public area you have. There is presently no food served at all, nor accommodation offered. In short, the inn is currently operating as no more than a bar-tavern. If you are indeed in charge of your father's estate, then you will have to admit that as an investment the Red Bells Inn is presently returning only a fraction of its true worth."
Her voice remained pleasant, her tones perfectly modulated; just like her face, it disguised the underlying strength--the underlying sharp edge.
She tilted her head, her eyes still locked with his. "I understand the inn has been without a manager for some months?"
Lips tightening, he conceded the point. "Several months."
Far too many months.
"I daresay you're keen to see it operating adequately as soon as maybe, especially as I noted there is no other tavern or gathering place in the village. The locals, too, must be anxious to have their inn properly functioning again."
Why did he feel as if he were being herded?
It was plainly time to reassert control of the interview and find out what he wanted to know. "If you could enlighten me, Miss Beauregard, as to what brought you to Colyton?"
"I saw a copy of your notice at the inn in Axminster."
"And what brought you to Axminster?"
She shrugged lightly. "I was…" She paused, considering him, then amended, "We--my brother and sisters and I--were merely passing through." Her gaze flickered; she glanced down at her hands, lightly clasped on her reticule. "We've been traveling through the summer, but now it's time to get back to work."
And that, Jonas would swear, was a lie. They hadn't been traveling over summer…but, if he was reading her correctly, she did have a brother and sisters with her. She knew he would find out about them if she got the job, so had told the truth on that score.
A reason for her wanting the innkeeper's job flared in his mind, growing stronger as he swiftly assessed her gown--serviceable, good quality, but not of recent vintage. "Younger brother and sisters?"
Her head came up; she regarded him closely. "Indeed." She hesitated, then asked, "Would that be a problem? It's never been before. They're hardly babes. The youngest is…twelve."
That latter hesitation was so slight he only caught it because he was listening as closely as she was watching him. Not twelve--perhaps a precocious ten. "Your parents?"
"Both dead. They have been for many years."
Truth again. He was getting a clearer picture of why Emily Beauregard wanted the innkeeper's job. But….
He sighed and sat forward, leaning both forearms on the desk, loosely clasping his hands. "Miss Beauregard--"
Struck by her crisp tone, he broke off and looked up, into her bright hazel eyes.
Once he had, she continued, "I believe we've wasted enough time in roundaboutation. The truth is you need an innkeeper quite desperately, and here I am, willing and very able to take on the job. Are you really going to turn me away just because I'm female and have younger family members in my train? My eldest sister is twenty-three, and assists me with whatever work I undertake. Likewise my brother is fifteen, and apart from the time given to his studies, works alongside us. My youngest sisters are twins, and even they lend a hand. If you hire me, you get their labor as well."
"So you and your family are a bargain?"
"Indeed, not that we work for nothing. I would expect a salary equal to a twentieth of the takings, or a tenth of the profits per month, and in addition to that, room and board supplied through the inn." She rattled on with barely a pause for breath. "I assume you wish the innkeeper to live on site. I noticed that there's attic rooms above, which appear to be unoccupied and would do perfectly for me and my siblings. As we're here, I could take up the position immediately--"
"Miss Beauregard." This time he let steel infuse his voice, enough so that she stopped, and didn't try to speak over him. He caught her gaze, held it. "I haven't yet agreed to give you the position."
Her gaze didn't flinch, didn't waver. The desk may have been between them, yet it felt as if they were toe-to-toe. When she spoke, her voice was even, if tight. "You're desperate to have someone take the inn in hand. I want the job. Are you really going to turn me away?"
The question hovered between them, all but blazoned in the air. Lips thinning, he held her gaze, equally unwaveringly. He was desperate for any capable innkeeper--she had that right--and she was there, offering….
And if he turned her away, what would she do? She and her family, who she was supporting and protecting.
He didn't need to think to know she'd never turned to the petticoat line, which meant her younger sister hadn't either. What if he turned her away and she--they--were forced, at some point, to….
No! Taking such a risk was out of the question; he couldn't live with such a possibility on his conscience. Even if he never knew, just the thought, the chance, would drive him demented.
He narrowed his eyes on hers. It didn't sit well to be jockeyed into hiring her, which was what she'd effectively done. Regardless….
Breaking eye contact, he reached for a fresh sheet of paper. Setting it on the desk, he didn't glance at her as he picked up his pen, checked the nib, then flipped open the ink pot, dipped and rapidly scrawled.
No matter that her references were fake, she was better than no one, and she wanted the job. Lord knew she was a managing enough female to get it done. He'd simply keep a very close eye on her, make sure she correctly accounted for the takings and didn't otherwise do anything untoward. He doubted she'd drink down the cellar as Juggs had.
Finishing his brief note, he blotted it, then folded it. Only then did he look up and meet her wide, now curious, eyes. "This"--he held out the sheet--"is a note for Edgar Hills, the barman, introducing you as the new innkeeper. He and John Ostler are, at present, the only staff."
Her fingers closed about the other end of the note and her face softened. Not just her lips; her whole face softly glowed. He recalled he'd wanted to make that happen, wondered what her lips--now irresistibly appealing--would taste like…
She gently tugged the note, but he held on. "I'll hire you on trial for three months." He had to clear his throat before going on, "After that, if the outcome is satisfactory to all, we'll make it a permanent appointment."
He released the note. She took it, tucked it in her reticule, then looked up, met his eyes--and smiled.
Just like that, she scrambled his brains.
That's what it felt like as, still beaming, she rose--and he did, too, driven purely by instinct given none of his faculties were operating.
"Thank you." Her words were heartfelt. Her gaze--those bright hazel eyes--remained locked on his. "I swear you won't regret it. I'll transform the Red Bells into the inn Colyton village deserves."
With a polite nod, she turned and walked to the door.
Although he couldn't remember doing so, he must have tugged the bell pull because Mortimer materialized to see her out.
She left with her head high and a spring in her step, but didn't look back.
For long moments after she'd disappeared, Jonas stood staring at the empty doorway while his mind slowly reassembled.
His first coherent thought was a fervent thanks to the deity that she hadn't smiled at him when she'd first arrived.