About the book
Slapped with the truth or kissed with a lie?
Spirited maid Josephine Murton has had enough.
In the service of the Hadley family since birth, she’s been in love with Frederick, the Duke of Chescrown’s son, all her life. But years of rejection and unrequited love have taken their toll and when a charming new servant arrives at the manor, Josephine is determined to leave the past behind.
Frederick Hadley, Marquess of Pentford, is a man who carries his title with pride. Determined to uphold the family’s spotless reputation, he renounces his feelings for Josephine, invoking the social gap between them.
However, anonymous letters addressed to his mother threaten to shatter that pristine image. Amidst a wild goose chase to get answers before the culprit acts on their threats, Frederick risks losing not only Josephine but also his very own birthright.
“Catch me if you can!” Josephine Merton called over her shoulder to her friend, Frederick Hadley, as she raced around the side of the manor house, Frederick close on her heels. She was ten and Frederick was three-and-ten, so his legs were quite a bit longer than hers, and he caught up to her in very little time. He tackled her to the ground, and the pair of them rolled down the grass embankment, stopping just before they reached the pond.
“I win,” he proclaimed as they both laughed breathlessly in delight. Frederick stood and helped Josephine to her feet. They brushed the debris from their clothes and smiled at one another. He reached out and pulled a blade of grass from her riotous red curls.
They had been friends for as long as either of them could remember. Josephine’s mother had been a maid at Chescrown Manor for longer than Josephine had been alive. In fact, she had been born in the servants’ quarters. Frederick was the son of the Duke and Duchess of Chescrown, Marcus and Aurora Hadley. Though he was high above her station, Josephine had been the only child within the manor house that was close to Frederick’s age.
“Oh, look! A pen and her cygnets,” Josephine exclaimed, pointing out across the pond to a mother swan and her newly hatched offspring floating across the water’s surface.
Frederick grinned at the sight. “Mother will be most pleased.”
The sound of a horse’s hooves pounding up the drive drew their attention. The man was riding as if his very life depended upon it. “I wonder what that is about?” Josephine queried, cocking her head to the side.
“Let us go and find out,” Frederick suggested, taking her hand in his. He led her up the slope and into the house through the servants’ entrance. They snuck up the back stairs, through the dining room, and stopped just inside the doorway that lead to the entrance hall. They peeked around the corner and spied a man with dusty boots standing there with his hat in his hand. He shuffled from one foot to the other as though he were nervous about something.
“That is Mr. Hanson. He is one of my grandfather’s men,” Frederick whispered.
The butler, Mr. Johnson, entered the hall and addressed the man. “The Duke and Duchess will see you now, Mr. Hanson.”
“Thank you,” Mr. Hanson replied, then followed the butler into the Duchess’ favorite drawing room.
The children crept forward and pressed their ears to the drawing-room door. “Your Grace, Your Grace,” Mr. Hanson was saying, “I come bearing sad tidings. Your father, the Marquess of Pentford, has died. As you are aware, your son, Lord Frederick Hadley, is his grandfather’s only surviving male heir. As such, he is now the Marquess of Pentford and bears all the wealth and responsibility that goes with the title.”
Frederick squeezed Josephine’s hand. When she looked over at him, she saw tears in his eyes. She knew that he had loved his grandfather dearly and had spent a great deal of time with him at Pentford. Josephine squeezed his hand in return, hoping to offer some form of comfort.
“Father is dead? How?” The Duchess’ voice sounded as if she were crying as well.
“I am sorry, Your Grace. He died in the night, quietly as he slept,” Mr. Hanson explained, the tone of his voice making it evident that he too was sorrowed by the news he carried. “As the young Marquess is still in his minority and Your Grace’s heir to the dukedom, he will obviously remain here at Chescrown. At Your Grace’s discretion, I can remain on at Pentford to attend to the Marquess’ affairs until he comes of age.”
“Yes, of course, Mr. Hanson. You were my father’s most trusted man. I appreciate your willingness to continue on under my son,” the Duchess answered, sniffling.
“It is my honor, Your Grace,” Mr. Hanson replied. Josephine could just imagine him bowing at that moment, though she could not see it through the thick wooden door. Bowing to the nobility was what people of her and Mr. Hanson’s station did.
“We will prepare to make the journey to Pentford immediately. After the funeral, I will take time to go over the books with you, Mr. Hanson,” the Duke stated, his voice reverberating with authority.
“Of course, Your Grace,” Mr. Hanson replied. “I will make sure to have the house ready for your arrival.” Footsteps heralded Mr. Hanson’s coming, and the children scurried back out of sight. The drawing room door opened, and Mr. Hanson exited. Mr. Johnson saw him to the door.
“Johnson,” the Duke’s voice called from the drawing room.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Mr. Johnson answered, returning to the room.
“Find my son and bring him to me here. There is much to discuss,” the Duke commanded.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Mr. Johnson bowed and exited the drawing room once more. The butler came to stand before the dining room door. “Lord Frederick,” he spoke as if he had known they were there all along.
Frederick and Josephine stepped out from behind the dining room door. “Yes, Mr. Johnson.”
“You are wanted in the drawing room,” Mr. Johnson informed him. In an uncharacteristic moment, the butler laid his hand on Frederick’s shoulder in sympathy, then straightened up, turned, and led the way to the drawing room, leaving Josephine standing in the hall alone.
Twelve Years Later
Josephine wiped the perspiration from her brow as she paused from scrubbing the entrance hall floor. The day was abnormally warm for an English summer, and she wished more than anything to leave her chores and jump in the nearby pond. Her black maid’s uniform was soaked through with sweat and clung to her most annoyingly. She loosened the buttons at her collar and fanned herself with her hands.
“Attempting to fly away, are we?” Frederick’s amused voice asked from the library door.
She looked up and smiled. “If only I could.”
His dark brown eyes crinkled as he chuckled. He moved forward, took her hand, and helped her to her feet. “Walk with me.”
“I am not finished with my duties,” she protested, looking down at the half-mopped floor.
“Leave it,” Frederick instructed. “It will still be here when you return.”
“Yes, it will,” she retorted unenthusiastically.
Frederick chuckled. “One would think you did not like your job, Miss Merton,” he teased.
Josephine dropped into a mock curtsy. “I am grateful to Your Lordship,” she replied in jest.
“Of course you are,” Frederick sarcastically replied, rolling his eyes. They smiled at each other, then walked outside. He led her over to the pond and rustled through the plants at the water’s edge until he found what he was looking for. “She was a little late this year,” he stated, revealing a nest of swan’s eggs.
“Oh, how wonderful! I was afraid she had been killed,” Josephine exclaimed as she knelt to get a closer look at the white oval shells. The mother made a sound of protest from the pond below, so they backed away to allow her to return to the nest.
Seeing the swan made Josephine think of the day that Frederick became a Marquess twelve years before. He had gone into the drawing room the fun-loving friend of her childhood; he had come back out the Marquess of Pentford. Their world was never the same again. The carefree days of playing around the estate had ended when he had been forced to take on a role far above his maturity.
Their open physical affection for each other had also ended. It had been the last day that he had held her hand other than to assist her to rise. Had she known it was to be their final carefree day, she would have grabbed him and held him back from entering the drawing room. At the very least, she would have hugged him. She had done neither.
When she had asked why everything had changed so drastically between them, he had answered that his father had explained to him his new responsibilities. Running amuck with a servant girl was not appropriate behavior for a nobleman. They had remained friends, but it had been within Frederick’s new parameters, not the loving companionship that Josephine had so greatly depended upon. She knew deep down that Frederick missed it too, but he was a man of honor, and honor dictated that he keep his distance.
On occasion, he would surprise her with something as he did today with the swan’s eggs, but the older they had grown, the less time they had spent together. When he had come of age, he had taken on the full responsibilities of a Marquess. He had also begun considering paying court to the unwed ladies of the ton. When she had asked why he felt the need to rush into marriage, he had replied that Pentford needed an heir, and it was his duty to marry well for both his and his father’s estates.
“I miss you,” she murmured, avoiding his eyes by watching the pen gather her eggs back beneath her body.
“I miss you too,” he replied. When she glanced up, she found him studying her. “I will be leaving for Pentford again on the morrow.”
“So soon? It feels as if you have just returned.” She watched as he ran his hands through his wavy brown hair in frustration.
“That is because it is true,” he replied. “We have been having difficulty with poaching on the estate. The gamekeeper and I have been going out regularly in an attempt to capture the thieves.”
“They are most likely hungry, Frederick. Can you blame them for resorting to theft rather than allow their families to starve?” Josephine looked up into his brown eyes to see if her words had any impact in changing his thinking.
“I provide for all of the people within my care,” Frederick answered indignantly.
“I know that you do, but there are many outside of your care that are not so well provided for. I am not saying that all poachers are starving, but if you catch the men, please bear what I have said in mind. There are many suffering throughout the country,” Josephine reminded him, laying a hand on his arm.
Frederick looked down at her hand, and she removed it, unsure as to his feelings on the matter. He had made it quite clear over the years since his inheritance that nothing could ever exist between them but friendship. “You are right, of course. The Napoleonic Wars have left many people with very little to maintain themselves. I will bear what you have said in mind when deciding the thieves’ punishment.”
“That is all I ask,” Josephine nodded her head in acceptance and turned to walk beside him back to the house.
“Thank you for reminding me that there are many people still in need of aid and compassion,” Frederick stated with respect. “It is easy to forget the struggles of others when you live as I do.”
“Do not worry. I will always be here to knock you down when you need it.” Josephine grinned and stuck her foot out to trip him.
As Frederick lost his balance, he grabbed ahold of Josephine, and the pair went rolling back down the slope towards the pond. As they hit the water, Josephine let out a yelp of surprise, then sank to the bottom weighted down by her dress. Her foot snagged on a root as she attempted to push herself back up to the surface. She moved about to remove it, but it held fast pinned between the root and a rock.
Josephine bent over and attempted to unlace her shoe, but she struggled with the knotted laces in the sodden mud that encased it. Her lungs burned from the lack of air, and she felt as if her eyes were bulging out of her head. Her heart raced with panic, and she felt the edges of her vision going black. If she passed out, it would be the end. She struggled with all of her strength to break free, but it was not enough. The world began to fade. and her mouth opened. She was unable to stop the water that rushed in choking the life from her body.
Frederick surfaced and wiped the water from his eyes. He chuckled at her audacity and looked about with the intent of splashing her in the face as payment for tripping him. “Where are you, imp?” When he did not find her, he grew concerned. They had hit the water together, but he had lost her with the impact. “Josephine? Josephine!” He yelled her name, concern growing with every passing moment.
Where are you, Jo? In his fear, his mind reverted back to his childhood pet name for her. His father had always said she played as rough as a boy, so Frederick had decided she needed a boy’s name and had dubbed her Jo. She, in turn, had called him Rick, but she had not done so in years. “Jo!” No response.
Frederick began to flounder around in the water, feeling about with his hands and feet but found nothing. He moved deeper and deeper until he could no longer touch the bottom. He dove down beneath the surface and felt about. He resurfaced for air, then quickly submerged to continue searching. His hand grabbed ahold of something that felt like hair. He moved closer and felt a face.
Jo! She was not moving. His heart raced as he grabbed her under the shoulders and pulled. She did not budge. He tried again to no avail. Swimming down further, he felt his way down her body to her legs and found her foot wedged. He tried to remove it but could not. He attempted to untie her shoe but failed again. Remembering the knife he always had tucked into his boot, he retrieved it and sliced through the laces. Her foot slipped free, and he pulled her up to the surface.
Hauling her to shore, he threw her onto the bank. The impact of her body hitting the ground knocked the water out of her lungs, and she began to cough up the dirt-tinged liquid. Frederick crawled up beside her, breathing heavily. Hovering over her, he waited to make sure she was breathing before he lay back in the grass in relieving exhaustion.
“That is what I get for tripping a nobleman,” Josephine gasped out once the coughing had ceased.
“I do not find it amusing, Jo. You nearly died,” Frederick panted, shooting her a reproachful look.
“And you saved me,” she remarked, studying his face. “You haven’t called me Jo for some time.”
“I am not ashamed to admit that you had me quite concerned.” Frederick met her eyes and was instantly lost in their limpid black depths. From the time they were children, all she had had to do was look at him with those eyes, and he had done whatever she wished. All but one thing. He could not, under any circumstances, allow himself to love her as more than a friend. Anything more was impossible as his station forbid it.
“As was I,” Josephine replied, turning her head to stare out over the water. “How many times did we swim in this pond as children without a single moment of worry, and now every time I see it, I will be reminded how close I came to death. Were it not for you …”
“You are alive, and that is what matters,” Frederick consoled her, placing his hand on top of hers.
Josephine turned back to look at him and nodded. “You are right.”
Frederick stood and assisted her to her feet. She wobbled for a moment, and he wrapped his arm around her waist to steady her. The warmth of her body soaked through the cool wetness of her drenched clothing. “Let us get you dry before you fall ill.” Frederick had never known Josephine to be seriously ill a day in her life, but he had needed an excuse to put distance between them before temptation got the best of him.
“Yes, I suppose we should,” Josephine sighed, turning back towards the manor house. They walked side by side for a time until they reached the entrance hall. Without a word, they each parted ways, Josephine to the servants’ quarters and Frederick to his bedchamber.
Frederick passed his father on the way to his room. The Duke looked his son up and down wrinkling his nose in disgust. “You smell of fish and mud. Been frolicking about with that servant girl again, have you?”
“Yes, Father. I am afraid we took a bit of a tumble into the pond while inspecting a swan’s nest,” Frederick admitted, shrugging out of his sodden jacket. “I apologize for my unpleasant state. I will change and join you in the library to discuss the affairs of the estate momentarily.”
“See that you do not keep me waiting,” the Duke admonished, then continued on his way. “And take a bath,” he threw over his shoulder as an afterthought.
“Of course, Father,” Frederick answered with a smile and entered his dressing room.
His valet, Mr. Withers, awaited him with dry clothes. “I have taken the liberty of ordering a bath for you, My Lord. The heated water should arrive any moment.”
“Observant as always, Mr. Withers. Thank you.”
“Not at all, My Lord. I simply happened to see you and Miss Merton take a tumble into the pond as I passed by the window.” Mr. Withers assisted Frederick in removing his soaked clothing and took them away to be washed.
Footmen arrived with the promised hot water, and Frederick washed himself from head to toe before donning the dry clothes his valet had selected for him. Not wishing to keep his father waiting any longer, Frederick hurried down to the library. He found his father there already poring over the books.
The Duke looked up at his son and smiled. “You have done well for yourself at Pentford. I can see that when I pass on, Chescrown will be in good hands.”
“Thank you, Father,” Frederick nodded his head in appreciation of his father’s words. The Duke had never been generous with compliments, so Frederick knew he meant what he said. “Are you satisfied with the handling of Aunt Rebecca’s annuities?”
“Yes, all appears to be in order there as well. Naturally, it would have been better for all if she had married, but it was never to be. Your mother’s father was always generous with his funding, and I see you have carried on in the same tradition,” the Duke noted, sighing over his sister-in-law’s unwed state.
Frederick’s Aunt Rebecca had been born with clubfeet and had suffered from it her entire life. Persons with physical deformities were not encouraged to be a part of polite society, and so she had lived a solitary, private life in a cottage on the edge of her father’s estate. Monies had been apportioned for her to provide for her care as was the custom for unwed female relatives.
“I shall pay her a visit upon my return and deliver this month’s annuity in person. She should be made aware of the poaching difficulties we have been having,” Frederick informed his father, sitting down in a chair across from the Duke’s desk.
“Quite so,” the Duke nodded in agreement. “We would not wish her to be caught unawares by the villains responsible.”
They spent the next hour going over the ledgers from both the Pentford and Chescrown estates. When they were done, Frederick left the library and entered the hall. The floor had been finished, and all evidence of Josephine’s presence had been removed. He hoped she had recovered from her near-drowning incident without further complications. To ensure that she had, Frederick went in search of her mother. He found her in the dining room preparing for luncheon.
“Mrs. Merton,” Frederick greeted cordially. “Excuse me for the interruption. I was hoping to ascertain if Josephine is well after our fall in the pond.”
“Yes, she will be fine. Thank you for saving my daughter’s life. I owe you a great debt, My Lord,” Mrs. Merton answered, curtsying deeply in gratitude.
“Not at all. ‘Tis my fault. I grabbed her as I fell. ‘Twas unthinking of me and I am most sorrowful for it,” Frederick admitted feeling ashamed for his part in the ordeal.
“Josephine told me she tripped you, but I thank you, all the same, My Lord.” Frederick nodded his head in acknowledgement of her words, then left the room.
Josephine awoke panting and terrified. She had dreamed she was drowning once more, only this time Frederick had not been there to save her. She sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She coughed, clutching her chest in pain. It had felt so real. She looked up and found her mother sleeping soundly. Most women with children did not live in the servants’ quarters of a great manor house, as they usually lived in their own crofts with their husbands. Josephine’s mother had been the exception to the rule.
Josephine’s father had died before she was born. The butler, Mr. Johnson, and the head housekeeper, Mrs. Sands, had decided that it would be best for all concerned if the pregnant Mrs. Merton returned to the manor house. On the day she was born, her mother had named her Josephine after her father, Joseph. From that moment forward, Josephine had lived in the manor house, sharing a room with her mother.
Not wishing to wake her mother, Josephine lay down and tried to go back to sleep. Her mind swirled with the pain and panic she had felt as she drowned.
Had it not been for Frederick, I would be dead. Of course, had I not tripped him, it would never have happened in the first place. ‘Twas my own foolishness that nearly killed me.
Josephine shook her head in exasperation at herself.
She had been in love with Frederick since they were quite small. When they were children, she had hoped that he returned her affections, but once Frederick had inherited his title, it became quite clear that he did not. Josephine’s heart ached for the wonderful days of their childhood. She missed the boy she had loved so fiercely and who she was certain had loved her back.
He will be gone again upon the morrow, and I will not see him for days, mayhap weeks.
Josephine rolled about restlessly hoping to find a comfortable position that would allow her to return to sleep. She did not like the turn her thoughts were taking and wished to succumb to the oblivion of slumber. Unrequited love hurt, and she had spent too many nights in tears over the years to succumb to them now.
No more tears, ever! It is time to move on. He has made his intentions perfectly clear. There is no place for you in his heart now or ever. In spite of her chastening thoughts, Josephine cried herself to sleep.
The next morning Frederick awoke, broke the fast, then left Chescrown for Pentford. As he rode, his thoughts were on the troubles that awaited him. An inordinate number of deer had been taken from the estate, as was evidenced by the piles of innards they had found being ravished by dogs. The poachers were shooting the deer and gutting them where they dropped. The number now totaled six and Frederick was not about to allow a seventh, if he could keep from it.
He attempted to cool his anger by reminding himself of what Josephine had said the day before. She is right. It could be a matter of starvation, but I cannot imagine if that were the case, they would take so many, so quickly.
Most poachers spread out their kills to make it less noticeable, but the perpetrator of these crimes had exercised no such caution. Frederick could not figure out how the men were evading his efforts at capture.
Frederick was hoping that he would have better luck this time around. He had sent a letter to a friend of his grandfather who had served in the military requesting names of possible trackers. He had received a reply along with the soldier’s contact information and had immediately written to inquire as to his availability for employment. Frederick had been most pleased when he had received a missive at his father’s estate accepting the position. Frederick was on his way to meet the soldier now.
When Frederick reached Pentford, he was met by his loyal man, Mr. Hanson. “The gentleman you inquired about has arrived, My Lord, and awaits you in the library.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hanson,” Frederick dismounted and handed his horse off to a groom. Mr. Hanson and Frederick entered the manor house and joined their guest in the library.
“Lieutenant Buckworth?” Frederick asked, taking in the tall, erect stature of the dark-haired man before him.
“Yes, My Lord,” the lieutenant answered, bowing. He tucked his hat beneath his arm and stood, back straight as an arrow.
“Buckworth… that is an unusual name,” Frederick noted, attempting to remember if he had ever heard the like before.
“Yes, My Lord. I was pressganged into the military as a lad. When they took me, they beat me about the head. When I awoke, I had no recollection of who I was or where I had come from. One of the men who were with me said that I had been taken in the village of Buckworth, so that was the name I was given. When I was finally able to return many years later, I was unable to ascertain who my family had been as no one remembered me, and many men and boys went missing during the war.”
“I am sorry for your loss, Lieutenant. My grandfather’s friend tells me that you are an excellent tracker. Do you believe yourself capable of tracking the poachers I wrote to you about?” Frederick asked, his brow raised in inquiry.
“Yes, My Lord.” The Lieutenant stood even taller, addressing Frederick as if he were a superior officer.
“Very well,” Frederick nodded his head in affirmation. “Let us arm ourselves and prepare for the hunt.”
The three men walked over to the gun cabinet on the far wall of the library, and Frederick unlocked the case. He retrieved a rifle and ammunition for each man. They went to the stables, saddled fresh horses, and set out in search of their prey. The three of them spread out but kept within sight range of one another using hand signals to communicate which direction to go as needed. When Lt. Buckworth came upon fresh tracks, he signaled for Frederick and Mr. Hanson to join him.
“It looks as though there are more than one of them,” Lt. Buckworth announced, pointing out the hoofprints. “They are attempting to cover their tracks, but you can see here the path they took.” Lt. Buckworth remounted, and the three of them moved forward together following the trail.
As they rode through the forest, all was eerily quiet. It was as if the birds and squirrels knew something was amiss and were waiting to see what events would transpire. The hairs on the back of Frederick’s neck itched, and he reached up to rub the feeling away. It was as if he could feel their eyes on him, heralding misfortune. He held his gun at the ready, scanning the forest tree by tree.
Lt. Buckworth lifted his hand in a signal to halt, and he dismounted once more, examining the ground. The sound of a twig snapping turned their heads to find a beautiful red deer standing staring at them. Her muscles tensed, twitching with fear. At the exact moment, she turned to bound away, the sound of gunfire splintered the air. The deer staggered, ran forward a short distance, then collapsed to the ground.
“The brazen…” Frederick began but was interrupted by Lt. Buckworth’s hand motioning for him to keep quiet and to get down. Frederick and Mr. Hanson obeyed, dismounting and kneeling down next to the soldier.
“I do not believe they know we are here or they would have shot at us by now. If we wait here in this dense copse of trees, perhaps they will reveal themselves,” he whispered.
“How could they not know we are here?” Frederick asked, his brow wrinkling in doubt. “Three horses is not exactly inconspicuous.”
“I could be wrong, but we should wait and see regardless,” Lt. Buckworth replied, peering through the trees in the hope of his words manifesting themselves.
Frederick stared out at the fallen deer, and his anger grew. His grandfather had carefully managed the Pentford estate lands for nearly a century. It was all he had left of the man that had been so dear to him, and he was not about to let a few criminals destroy his grandfather’s legacy by killing off the deer population. The King had hunted these lands with his grandfather, the late Marquess, and Frederick hoped to one day play host to the Prince Regent.
There was little to no noise alerting them to the poacher’s approach. It was as if they had emerged from the forests as ghostly shades from the trees themselves. They wore long scarves about their faces prohibiting Frederick from ascertaining their identities, but they did not appear to know that anyone watched them. They acted as if they had all the time in the world as they slowly approached the deceased animal.
One of the men kicked it with his foot to ensure that the deer was dead, then they set to work gutting the creature. Lt. Buckworth motioned for Frederick and Mr. Hanson to step forward guns raised. “Halt in the name of the King,” Lt. Buckworth commanded.
The poachers barely glanced at the three of them before going back to their work. Frederick and Mr. Hanson looked at each other with raised eyebrows, silently questioning one another as to what was happening. The sound of a cocked pistol from behind caused them to turn around, while the lieutenant kept an eye on the others. “What is going on back there?” Lt. Buckworth asked with a steely edge to his voice.
Frederick turned to find the barrel of a gun pointed at his head. “We are surrounded,” he informed the lieutenant nervously. “I would not make any sudden movements.”
Lt. Buckworth turned to the side still keeping his gun aimed at the men gutting the deer. “I see what you mean,” he replied, warily eyeing the men who held them at gunpoint. “Correct me if I am mistaken, but poachers do not usually lie in wait for their pursuers.”
“You are correct,” Frederick answered, contemplating whether to take a step back or to remain as he was. He did not wish to do anything that would cause the man to shoot him. “What do you want?” he asked him. The man did not answer.
The poachers finished gutting the deer, lifted it from the ground, and carried it off. The men holding the three of them at gunpoint remained for some time, then they too silently faded into the forest. “What was that?” Mr. Hanson breathed. The poor man was shaking as his eyes darted to and fro in fear that they might return.
The lieutenant searched the ground in the direction they had gone attempting to pick up a trail. He motioned Frederick over and pointed to a blood trail. They followed it for a short distance before it disappeared. “Where did they go?” Frederick asked, scanning the ground around them.
“I do not know,” the soldier shook his head confounded. “I have not seen such tactics used by poachers before.”
“It is almost as if…” Frederick began.
“They were veterans. There is no doubt about it, but even so, they would have had to have been a very special group of soldiers. I have not seen the like exercised by very many men in my entire career.” Lt. Buckworth scratched his head, tipping his hat back with the gesture. “They did not appear to be frightened in the slightest to have been discovered.”
“No, they did not,” Frederick agreed frowning. “I do not understand what just transpired here.”
“Nor do I,” Lt. Buckworth replied. “I will go on ahead and see what I can find, but it would be best if you returned to the safety of the manor house, Your Lordship.”
“I agree with the lieutenant, My Lord,” Mr. Hanson interjected, having calmed somewhat.
Frederick shook his head. He did not wish to leave the soldier to face armed criminals alone. “No, I will accompany you.”
“With the utmost respect, My Lord, you have not yet produced an heir. If you were to die in the pursuit of these men, there would be no one to carry on your grandfather’s legacy, and that would be a true crime.”
Frederick met Mr. Hanson’s eyes for a moment and saw the genuine concern there. He knew Mr. Hanson was right, but it bothered him to retreat. “Do not risk your life. If you feel that you are in danger in any way, return to Pentford immediately,” he instructed the soldier.
“Yes, My Lord,” Lt. Buckworth promised, bowed, and mounted his horse. He rode in the direction that the blood had been pointing before it disappeared.
“Let us return then,” Frederick sighed resigned. Frustrated at having to turn back and confused by the poachers’ behavior, he remained silent in thought on the way back to the house.
Entering the library, he walked over to the desk and pulled out his grandfather’s journals. He had vaguely remembered his grandfather writing about poaching incidents before he had died, but it had been nothing like today. He knew going back over the accounts would most likely not help him, but he remembered a name being mentioned that might. He scanned the pages and found what he was looking for. “Christopher Smythe.”
“My Lord?” Mr. Hanson inquired, coming to peer over his shoulder at the page. “I do not believe an old poacher such as Mr. Smythe would be responsible for what transpired today. He swore to give up poaching after your grandfather caught him. His family was starving, and he couldn’t feed them, so he turned to hunting for meat. Your grandfather forgave him his crimes and instead of having him arrested, the late Marquess paid him to protect the forest.”
“Grandfather was a generous benefactor to many during his lifetime,” Frederick noted with a smile.
“Yes, he was. Mr. Smythe was so grateful to be allowed to remain free and to be provided with an income that he served your grandfather faithfully until his death. He never poached another animal again,” Mr. Hanson explained, shaking his head.
“No, he is not involved, but he knows the estate, and having once been a poacher himself might be able to offer some insight into what we witnessed today,” Frederick replied. “Do you know where he currently resides?”
“Yes, I visit him on occasion. His wife passed away some time ago, and his son is away at sea. I would be happy to take you there and make the introductions, My Lord,” Mr. Hanson offered, moving around the side of the desk to take a seat across from Frederick. “In all the years I was with your grandfather, I have never seen anything like what we experienced in the forest. I believe the lieutenant is correct in his assessment of the poachers’ former occupation. It was wise to hire him, My Lord.”
“I agree,” Frederick nodded. “I believe it would be wise to keep him on for a time until this issue has been settled.” He handed Mr. Hanson his grandfather’s journal. “Take a look at the bottom of the page. Grandfather writes that Mr. Smythe used his connections within the local community to keep further poaching from occurring. Instead, Grandfather worked with Smythe to ensure that the people were cared for in other ways.”
“It is your hope that Mr. Smythe will have maintained those connections,” Mr. Hanson observed.
“Yes. I have done what I could to care for our people here at Pentford, but it has been pointed out to me that there are many suffering that do not fall under our care. I was prepared to meet a starving frightened man, not a group of well-organized criminals.” Frederick frowned in thought. “A group of that size cannot pass entirely unnoticed. Someone must have seen them.”
“I will ask about at the tavern, My Lord. Perhaps someone would be willing to share what they have seen for a bit of coin,” Mr. Hanson offered.
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Hanson. Let us go and speak with Mr. Smythe and see what he has to say first.” Frederick arose from his chair, and Mr. Hanson followed suit. “We should inform the household staff to provide for Lt. Buckworth upon his return.”
“I will see to it,” Mr. Hanson replied and left the library.
They met in the stables and rode out for Mr. Smythe’s residence. Upon their arrival, a grey-haired man emerged from the thatched stone cottage. “Mr. Hanson,” he greeted with a smile.
“Mr. Smythe, good to see you. May I introduce Frederick Hadley, Marquess of Pentford. Your Lordship, this is Mr. Christopher Smythe.”
“It is a pleasure to finally meet, Your Lordship.” Mr. Smythe bowed in greeting. “Please, dismount and come inside. I just put some water on for tea.” He motioned for them to follow him as he reentered the house. Frederick and Mr. Hanson tied their horses and entered the cottage. “Please, forgive the state of things. My wife kept a much better house than I ever could.”
“Not at all. Think nothing of it,” Frederick waved Mr. Smythe’s concerns away. “Mr. Smythe, we have come on a matter of urgency pertaining to poaching on the Pentford estate.”
“You do not believe it to be me, do you? I can assure you that it is not I.” Mr. Smythe looked from Frederick to Mr. Hanson, concerned.
“No, absolutely not, Mr. Smythe,” Mr. Hanson reassured him. “His Lordship has come in need of your experience.”
Mr. Smythe nodded his head in understanding. “How may I be of assistance, Your Lordship?”
Frederick described what had transpired in the forest. “Have you seen or heard of anything that might lead us to those involved?”
“No, I have not, but I would be more than happy to inquire on your behalf,” Mr. Smythe offered, handing them each a cup of tea.
“Thank you, Mr. Smythe. Your help would be most appreciated.” Frederick took the cup. It was too hot to hold, so he set it down on the table. “We were thinking of asking if anyone might know anything at the village tavern.”
“It might be best if I inquire first before you do so. If the poachers know that you are looking for them, it will be much harder to get information from anyone in the village. People tend to remain silent if they feel threatened,” Mr. Smythe advised, joining them at the table.
Frederick nodded. “I see. I will refrain from questioning anyone until you have had a chance to do so.”
“I will go to the tavern upon your departure and send word once I have discovered anything of worth,” Mr. Smythe promised.
“Thank you,” Frederick replied, then rose. “I appreciate your help in this matter.”
“Anything for the grandson of His Lordship,” Mr. Smythe arose and walked them both out to their horses. Frederick felt guilty for not staying long enough to drink his tea but believed it was best to have the issue resolved as soon as possible.
Frederick and Mr. Hanson returned to Pentford to find Lt. Buckworth awaiting them in the library. “What did you discover?” Frederick asked as he walked through the door.
“The trail ended, Your Lordship. I was unable to find anything of note,” the lieutenant admitted regretfully. “I would like to speak with the people who live in the area and see if any of them might have witnessed the poachers’ activities.”
“We have someone making inquiries in the village as we speak. As soon as he has completed his investigations into the matter, I would be glad to have your help. In the interim, I would appreciate it if you would remain here at Pentford. I would like to set up a schedule of men to guard the forest as best we can.” Frederick moved over to his desk and sat down.
He pulled out writing materials and began making a list of the estate’s men that would be fit enough to aid in their quest. He sketched a rough map of the estate, then divided the men into groups, marking the places he felt would be of most use to place a guard on the map. He included himself among the men. “Is that wise, My Lord?” Mr. Hanson asked noting his name on the paper.
“Wise or not, Mr. Hanson, I plan to be out there with my men,” Frederick replied meeting his gaze. Mr. Hanson nodded and backed away. Heir or not, Frederick was not about to allow the men within his care to suffer danger while he sat safely in the manor house.
The men took shifts patrolling the forest. Frederick supplied them with weapons to protect themselves in hopes that they would have enough time to use them. It had been disconcerting how swiftly and silently the poachers had encircled them before. Frederick had had no time to do anything other than stand and wait to see what would happen next. He did not plan to fall victim to such a thing twice. He had managed to walk away the first time, he was not so sure such good fortune would be his again.
Frederick doubted that the men would return twice in one day, but he preferred to be cautious and sent men out into the woods immediately. He went about his other duties seeing to the estate’s affairs. Come nightfall, Frederick went out to take up his post. Mr. Hanson had greatly protested Frederick placing himself in such a position, but after a time was forced to accept the wishes of his lord and master.
As Frederick sat in the darkness scanning the outline of the moonlit forest, his thoughts turned to Josephine.
I hope she is well. She came so close to death, and such frightening events are seldom endured without some discomfort physically and emotionally.
Frederick knew the feeling all too well after the day’s events. He had not particularly cared for being at the end of a gun barrel.
The thought of either of them dying and leaving the other behind was too much. They had never been without each other for more than a few weeks in their entire lives. He could not imagine his life without her and sincerely hoped he would never have to suffer such a fate. When they were children, they had made a pact to grow old together, and Frederick still held that promise in his heart. No matter who they married, they planned to have their children grow up together, just as they had.
Sometimes I long for those innocent childhood days of yore, but it does no good to dwell in the peaceful frivolities of the past. As a nobleman, I have responsibilities that far outweigh any other desires I might have.
A twig snapped behind him causing him to whirl around, bringing his gun up level with a pair of pale blue eyes.
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