The Captain and His Innocent(9)

By: Lucy Ashford

 There, the cobbles were well swept, with stacks of logs for burning, and bales of hay for the horses, all neatly piled under shelter. Several farms belonged to the estate, and the equipment for the usual winter jobs had been gathered there also for his tenants to collect: tools for fencing and ditching work, shovels and pickaxes.

 He noted it all automatically; yes, this what he had to concentrate on now. Saving the estate. Saving the livelihoods of the men, and their families, who depended on him. But all the time, he was thinking, too, that the rumours were true—that Lord Franklin Grayfield had returned from abroad with a French girl. An orphan, they said, and a distant relative, whom Lord Franklin had taken into his care.

 But Lord Franklin, as far as Luke knew, was not a man given to sudden, sentimental gestures of generosity. So why go to the trouble of bringing this girl—this relative—back to London? And why did Lord Franklin almost immediately decide to banish the girl to the Kent countryside?

 Of course, there would be gossip aplenty for Luke to listen to and sift through for himself, in the taverns of Bircham Staithe harbour, or in the larger ale houses of Folkestone a few miles away. There always was gossip about a rich, clever and ultimately mysterious man like Lord Franklin. There was already gossip about this girl, too—Luke had heard from people who’d glimpsed her in London that her name was Elise Duchamp and that she was pretty, in a French sort of way. But they hadn’t told him that she went around carrying a pistol in her pocket and quite clearly knew how to use it. No one had mentioned that.

 And as for ‘pretty’—was that the way to describe her rich dark curls, her full mouth and slanting green eyes? Was it her mere prettiness that had sent a jolting kick of desire to his blood—and had urged him, with age-old male instinct, to draw her slender body close, so he could feel the feminine warmth of the curves he just knew would lie beneath that old, shapeless cloak?

 She was intriguing, in more ways than one. There was considerably more to her than met the eye. Take, for example, that compass.

 Luke Danbury let out a breath he hadn’t even realised he was holding. He was passing the stables now, mentally registering that the horses were secure for the night. A couple of them gently whickered as he paused to stroke their noses, murmur their names. A moment later he was opening the stout door that let him in to the back of the house, inhaling the familiar scents of stonework and smoke from the fires as he walked through the flagged hall to the low-beamed dining room at the very heart of the old building.

 The sound of cheerful voices told him before he even entered that Tom, the two Watterson brothers and Jacques had settled themselves extremely comfortably around the vast oak table, eating Mrs Bartlett’s hot beef stew and drinking some red French wine.

 Eagerly they welcomed Luke and pulled out a chair for him, while Mrs Bartlett, Tom’s wife, came hurrying from the adjoining kitchen to ladle out a dish of stew for him. Jacques poured Luke a glass of the wine.

 ‘What detained you, my friend?’ asked Jacques curiously. ‘We were beginning to think you might have gone into town, to find yourself a pretty girl.’

 Tom was blunter. ‘Did you find out if Lord Franklin was in the coach?’

 ‘He wasn’t.’ Luke drank half his wine and put his glass down. ‘Apparently he’s still in London.’

 ‘Then who were the girl and the old woman?’

 ‘The girl’s a relative of Lord Franklin’s. The other one’s her companion, I believe.’

 Tom nodded wisely. ‘Ah. The orphan he’s said to have taken into his care—which must have been a surprise to everyone, cold-blooded fish that he is. I heard rumours that she’s pretty. Is she?’

 ‘She certainly does her best not to be.’ No more. No need to say any more.

 ‘She’s French, they say,’ announced Josh Watterson eagerly. ‘That’s interesting.’

 ‘Maybe.’ Luke poured himself more wine and the others concentrated again on their food—all except for Jacques, who was watching him sharply.

 Monsieur Jacques, Luke’s men called him. He’d been a soldier, captured by the English and condemned to rot as a prisoner of war—until Luke freed him. ‘And I pay my dues,’ Jacques liked to explain to Luke’s companions. ‘I help my friends as they help me.’

 It was to pay back his debts that Jacques now ran his small sailing ship with skill and bravado between the coasts of France and England on dark and misty nights such as this. But Jacques was frowning in puzzlement as he pushed his empty plate aside and said, ‘Why, my friend Luke, would Lord Franklin suddenly discover a young French relative? Why didn’t he know of her before? Surely, wealthy families such as his have their ancestry well documented for generations back?’

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