Had there not been an audience, perhaps with a bit of gentle prodding Elanore might have willingly admitted to her grandmother exactly what she felt about Edmund. Instead Elanore stiffened and with a terse, “No, he has not” turned her attention back to polishing the shoes.
It was impossible for the young woman to maintain any sense of dignity while polishing boots. Her sense of kindness and friendliness was taxed even further when Mrs. Reyes mistook Elanore’s silence as an opportunity to express her opinion on the matter.
To her mortification, the older women began to talk openly and foolishly about other young prospects for Elanore, occasionally soliciting the input of Mr. Wyte, who glowered with disapproval throughout the topic of conversation.
She was relieved when they all departed — the cleric with his gift of boots and the neighbor who promised to return in the morning. Elanore, angered and out of sorts, excused herself to prepare some additional medicines for the children at the inn.
Meanwhile at the pub, the cheerful and irrepressible Giles was charming the good saloon master with a story or two about the latest brew being served down in Crossroads. He had only spent a brief time at the home of the storekeeper Ormond. The young lad was asleep, and unable to receive the letter intended for him. After procuring some trinket at the shop at his master’s bequest, he had stumbled into the pub to see what information might be had about various ongoings in town.
He was there, listening to the general flow of conversation and trying to determine whether the good Mayor had, in fact, said anything about the strange things on the road. Although the Count likely did not care too much whether a few drunks here and there were eaten by dark creatures, he did. Cleverly, he confided in one particularly drunk looking set of folks about the latest gossip from their neighboring town to the south. A good storyteller, he managed to weave into this false story a series of rumors regarding animals disappearing due to dark things. It was fairly easy to plant a suggestion among such types the resulting need to carry lanterns at night. Given that there was not much else to do in Winchester in the winter except talk, he felt confident that through these gentlemen enough people would hear the message to show more caution.
His good deed accomplished, he moved off to the inn, intending only to stop long enough to post a few letters and inquire after business at the inn. The innkeeper’s husband was a polite but somewhat obtuse sort of man who could be relied on to always reveal a little too much about the number and nature of guests at the inn.
This man, Jacob, was typical of most of the ordinary folk in town – unguarded, curious, and a bit free with talk. Jacob related a considerable bit of information without much thought. “We have a new boarder as well as a few other persons who came in just this morning. They are ordinary sort of folk, most likely trying to make their way north or with business at the guild hall.” He shrugged. Neither profit nor merriment was likely expected from these guests. “However,” Jacob perked up slightly. “There is a lady from the north.” He whispered somewhat loudly, “Has a nice figure, I think.” The old man winked broadly, clearly aware of Giles’ reputation as a lady-killer.
“Really,” Giles shivered at this unexpected news. He did not quite expect to have new people in town to investigate. The weather should have deterred travelers from entering the town. He would have to make sure he hurried his message off and returned as quickly as possible. He did not want to leave Wolfram alone very long.
“The lady rode in on a fine sleigh,” Jacob whispered. “She keeps to herself, although she dines downstairs from time to time.”
“From the north, eh?” Giles mused aloud. “There is that one settlement up there.”
“Yes, dangerously close to the rumored dragon nesting grounds.”
“Maybe she’s a dragon,” Giles chuckled.
“Pah,” Jacob’s hands shook slightly. Talk of dragons seemed to make most folks uneasy. “Dragon’s don’t walk about on two legs, that’s for sure. She just seems to be a bit of a rich eccentric lady, the way she’s dressed. Can’t tell if she’s young or old, that one.” Without warning, Jacob placed his hand on his arm. “There she be now, coming down the stairs.”
Giles turned his head around, as did other folk in the receiving room. Ladies were not a common presence in this town, and men were not so impolite as to ignore them when they appeared.
Her dark colored gowns rustled as she navigated the stairs, her pointed boots kicking up the skirts around her. As she came fully into view, Giles’ mouth quirked up into a bit of an amused expression once he saw the hat and heavy veil that obscured her features from the casual onlooker.
The effect on the room was interesting, to say the least. Some of those lounging about immediately lost interest (for a woman who hid her face certainly must be homely), and others stared (wondering what secret the woman wanted to keep.) Whatever her reasons for donning such garb, Giles was not the sort of man who cared about speculating from a distance. Seeing the woman take a seat at a table in the corner, he strode over and sat down at her table.
“I was told you are looking for a ride into the next town,” Giles flashed a charming smile as he lied outright. His keen eyes probed the heavy veil, trying to capture a glance of the woman at closer range. He could not see much, except part of the woman’s mouth. And regarding that mouth — all he could see was that his smile was not exactly returned.
Giles was not the sort of man to be deterred by indifference on part of a lady and so fished about for something amusing to say. “A sleigh is much too cumbersome to take further south,” he added glibly while continuing his studies of the woman from across the table. “The roads become somewhat hilly and a careless move could topple you and your sleigh.”
“Is that so,” came a low, throaty response. “And you, sir, are an expert rider?”
“Yes, I am,” he said automatically. Normally, he would rather enjoy such an innuendo-filled exchange, but he had an odd feeling that something was not quite right. He couldn’t smell her or sense her in any way. “I do know my way around well,” he finished, staring at the only part of the woman that could be viewed.
“I suspect you do,” the woman showed a flash of white teeth. “You have displayed your talents very well. But I am not interested in your expertise, sir.”
Giles should have felt challenged by such impertinent remarks. Had this been another woman who had rebuffed his services, he might have persisted a bit more with conversation. But his senses told him to back away. He stood abruptly, wanting to hurry along his way. He had played a little too long with this strange creature. “If you change your mind, leave a message with the innkeeper.”
Like a wolf with its tail between its legs, he disappeared out the inn as quickly as he could.
* * *
When the Count’s messenger finally arrived at the Winchester home, neither he nor the honored recipient of that message was in much of a cheerful or sociable mood.
The older lady of the home greeted Giles, her eyes wary and sharp. “I have seen you before, young man. You frequent the inn and pub on occasion.”
“My duties for the Count frequently take me to various places,” Giles said, somewhat apologetically. “It is a duty that brings me here today to speak to the young lady.”
He could smell the young lady in question before she emerged from a room down the hall, her eyes suspiciously watery. As she recognized the coachman, her eyes widened for a moment.
The grandmother gave both of them a suspicious look. “Elanore, why don’t you receive this messenger in the front parlor? If I’m needed, I’ll be in the kitchen.”
Elanore did not look at all pleased to see him. As she led him to the parlor, she took up her position at the window. Somewhat coolly, she inquired. “I trust that the Count is in good health?”
Giles frowned slightly, wondering at the reason for the prickly reception. He presumed the Count may have been clumsy or too forward the last time he had seen the girl. “Yes, he is fine, Miss Redley. He has many things on his mind as of late. Otherwise he would have called. He is most anxious to maintain his acquaintance with you.”
“Indeed, he seems to have been busy,” she said archly, ignoring the compliment the man had dropped. “Mr. Ormond told me of their run-in when I stopped by this morning to see to his injuries.”
Giles winced, understanding now the reason for the chilly reception. “The incident was the result of a misfortunate misunderstanding. Guild members have previously trespassed onto the Count’s lands, claiming to track creatures. However, my lord does not tolerate hunting on his lands. He had made that position clear on more than one occasion.”
Her eyes snapped at him. “Edmund is not that sort of man. And the injury was serious. The young man will not be able to perform active duties for a while in his guild or at home.”
Miss Redley’s outrage made her magnificent—changing her from girl to woman before his eyes. He wondered if Wolfram had seen this Miss Redley when he had visited earlier and also sensed a faint change to the air around her. “I have told my lord as such, and he has every intent of making amends to the family. I do know of the young man and stopped by to see him a short while ago. He rests well, according to his father.”
That statement did not fully soften her anger. “Edmund provides the most for the family. Even a minor setback for him means less bread for their table. But I suppose someone in the Count’s position with servants cannot understand the struggles of most families in this town.
Giles shook his head. “No, you are mistaken. He isn’t like the itinerant lords who come and go as they please. You do not understand how much responsibility he feels for this land.”
“I hope that responsibility extends to its people,” Elanore responded in kind, folding her hands primly in front of her.
It was at this point, Giles gave up completely on the idea of lying to the lady as to how ardently the Count admired her. He had a fairly good indication that Miss Redley had not fully recovered from the incident between the Count and the Ormond boy.
Aware of his terrible luck thus far with the woman, Giles stopped dallying and took out a small envelope and handed it to the lady.
She, in kind, cracked open the wax seal and took out the card inside. After scanning the few lines of script, Elanore looked up, puzzled. “An invitation for tea?”
An invitation for tea was not exactly the tactic he would have preferred his lord use to solicit the aid of this young woman. Giles had wanted to give the girl the trinket he had purchased at the shop but, under the current circumstances, he was worried the trinket might be politely and firmly refused. “Hastings’ suggestion,” Giles muttered. “My lord is interested in your opinion on something. He wishes to consult with you and your grandmother.”
Elanore gave him a wry look, one that revealed her uncertainty as to the wisdom of such a meeting. She had really no reason to willingly walk into the man’s home, except that she still owed the Count a debt for his earlier assistance.
For a long moment, however, she hesitated. Giles did not quite know what to do if the woman refused. He was afraid that the Count, irritated and annoyed, might order the girl and her grandmother whisked away under the cover of darkness or some other foolishness.
To his relief, Miss Redley nodded. “I will speak to my grandmother this very moment. When would it be best to call?”
As soon as possible,” he answered quickly.
The lady blinked in surprise. “Then, tomorrow it shall be.”