The rain was coming down in torrents, drenching Isaac within the few minutes it beat him. Isaac had seen the dark clouds gather steam as he rode to the old tavern on Piccadilly Street in the north of Coventry. So he had sped up his steed, riding like a man chased. He was unable to outrun the rains, though, and it came down hard on him when he was still a good distance from the tavern. On another day, he would have led his horse into one of the nearby sheds and stayed there till the rain stopped. A lot of people stood under the sheds and inside stalls by the side of the road. Most held hands close to their bodies inside their coats or covered their heads with hats to deter the water from dropping onto their faces.
“Damn this rain” Isaac swore.
The day had started as brightly as any in Coventry, blue skies, a few white clouds, and lots of sun. The dark clouds surfaced from nowhere, well not anywhere that Isaac had seen. They were running across the sky very quickly, and Isaac knew once he noticed their speed that they would bring heavy rain.
“Fast grey clouds mean thunderstorms,” his father always said.
“Father is always right,” Isaac muttered as he finally stopped his horse in front of the tavern.
There was no stable boy or warden to receive him and help keep his horse, so Isaac had to dismount and find a dry spot to tie his horse to. He did all of this with a quick resoluteness, eager to get out of the cold and rain into the warm room of the tavern. He supposed that the tavern would have a good number of people by this time. Men gathered there to share stories, laugh, and keep away from the cold outside.
Isaac though, was not there to share stories. He much preferred the solitude of his bedroom in their house close to the town square, where he could lay between thick sheets and slowly sip a cup of warm tea made by the cook. He was here to meet his father to find out more information, if he had gathered any, and to discuss what means they could use to get the damning information they needed. The tavern didn’t serve tea, but they did serve brandy, and that was good enough for him, maybe better.
Isaac walked to the door and pushed it open, embracing the waft of warm air that greeted him. The tavern was raucous and full of people, not what he thought he would meet but exactly how he needed it to be.
Isaac walked in and moved to the hangers by the side of the door. There was a young boy standing by the hanger. The boy was almost hidden under a great coat that reached past his boots and a hat too large for his small head. Isaac walked up to him and touched him on the shoulder. It was only when the boy raised his eyes that Isaac noticed he was shivering.
“Hello lad,” he said, digging up a smile for the frail-looking boy.
“Hello sir,” the boy answered, giving Isaac a toothy grin.
“I want to drop my coat here. Can you help me look after it?” Isaac said.
There were a lot of coats hung on small pins, and there was apparently no one looking after them. Most men just assumed other men would be faithful and pick their own coats. Isaac could also have done that, but he needed something else from the boy.
“Yes, you can. I’m not going anywhere,” the boy said.
Isaac nodded and rubbed the boy on the shoulder.
“Thank you, son. What’s your name, lad?” Isaac asked him.
“Earl,” came his answer.
“All right, Earl, I’m Isaac, Isaac Ollerton.”
“It’s nice to know you, Mr Ollerton.”
Isaac was surprised and impressed by the boy’s courage and manners. He had always liked sharp, young boys.
“It’s nice to know you too, Earl. But I think I might need your help.”
The boy’s eyebrows rose, and his eyes widened. It was obvious he was eager to provide help to such an older man.
“I need to find my father, Sir Francis Ollerton. He is a slim man of average height and a long moustache, with a great love for black hats. He would have come here wearing a black, thick great coat and would have immediately been asking for a glass of brandy.”
The boy shook his head. He had seen no one of such description enter the establishment. Isaac looked around. There were many men in the room, some sitting in solitude but most gathered in small groups, speaking too loudly and sharing hearty laughs. His father would not be found among them. Isaac observed the three men who were sitting alone, and none of them looked remotely like his father. Mr Francis Ollerton was not yet here.
“I think I might have come too early,” Isaac whispered to himself.
Or father is running rather late.
Isaac rubbed the boy on the shoulder again.
“I’ll be sitting by the counter, Earl. Please, if a man of similar description comes into this place, tell him that Isaac is waiting for him at the counter,” Isaac told the boy.
The boy nodded.
“I’ll do just that, Mr Ollerton,” Earl answered.
Isaac nodded and turned to find a seat. He moved gradually between tables, taking care not to hit any of the men that sat around.
It has to be the rain. This place isn’t normally so full.
It might have also been the rain that delayed his father. Sir Francis Ollerton was not a tardy man. He detested such bad traits. It was such strict rules of character and his appointment as a knight by the King that favoured him in the eye of the High Regent who named him the Spymaster. His father had been largely successful in the role, helping the government solve many formerly unknown crimes. He had employed Isaac as a worker in his office, and they both worked on many cases. Everything was going fine until they decided to look into the reported clandestine activities of Lord Reginald Talbot, the Earl of Coventry.
“Mary,” one bald-headed man shouted with a drunken tang. “Bring us two more pints of that good beer, will you?”
Isaac looked at the woman he summoned. She was a tall woman, almost as tall as he was, Isaac supposed. And she had a slim, slender face with the pinkest of cheeks. She had a white habit on her head and looked really tired. Her dress had a white centre strip flanked by black fabric, and there was a stain streaked across the centre that looked like dried beer. She nodded to the man and turned back to get the drinks from behind the table. One of the shoulder pads of her gown slipped off her shoulder, and Isaac saw flawless white skin that must have been very well taken care of. When she stood up again, she was holding two brewing cups and walked purposefully around the counter to the table across the room. For a room so stuffy and with so much work done and a lot more to do, she showed no falter and dropped the cups with an assurance that intrigued Isaac.
“You’ve had quite a lot,” he heard her say.
“Just keep them coming, Mary,” the man replied and immediately started guzzling the freshly delivered drinks.
The young woman smiled, and deep dimples appeared in both cheeks. She shook her head and started walking back to the table. As she walked past Isaac, she must have felt his eyes on her because she turned to him and asked, “Would you want anything to drink, Mister?”
Isaac was tongue tied and just shook his head solemnly. His response didn’t take away her smile. She only nodded and walked back to her former position. Isaac still couldn’t take his eyes off this lady. It wasn’t until she got back to her seat and saw him staring at her again that he hurriedly looked away. He looked down at his nails and prayed that his neck didn’t turn red with blushing.
This is surely the most beautiful woman in all of England.
They had called her Mary. Isaac was smitten by the poise she managed to show despite working in a rough establishment such as this and as a lowly barmaid. She was incredibly attractive, and Isaac imagined how she would look if she was dressed in fine apparel and given the right make-up.
“She would be astonishing,” Isaac whispered to himself.
He felt warmth blossom in the pit of his belly, and he raised his eyes to look at her once more. She had stood up and was pouring a drink from a bottle into a cup. The habit was slipping off her head, so she pulled it off to release very dark hair. Despite her formerly covering it, her hair seemed to be wet, and so it glistened in the light of the tavern.
“What are you staring so hard at?”
Isaac turned his head. It was his father, standing behind him and looking drenched. Sir Ollerton still had a smile for his son, though, and Isaac stood up to properly shake his father. He stayed on his feet till his father moved to the stool beside him and perched on it. The man took off his wet black hat and dropped it on the counter in front of him.
“Father, you are drenched,” Isaac said.
“The ball took longer than I presumed. And then I stayed a bit more to see if I could gather any information. All these culminated in me riding in the whipping rain.”
His reply was whispered, reminding Isaac of the importance of secrecy in their line of work. Isaac suspected there was no need for whispers though, as the tavern was so noisy, they could shout and others would still not hear them.
“Any new titbits?”
Sir Francis Ollerton shook his head.
“That Lord is as slippery as they come,” Sir Ollerton said almost in anger.
“But he was present at the ball now, wasn’t he?” Isaac asked.
His father paused before he replied, looking to his side as Mary walked towards them to take two empty cups. She stood in front of them, although behind the counter and bent to do something with the cups that they could not see. She seemed entirely unconcerned with what they were saying. Isaac nudged his father.
“You can speak, Father.”
His father seemed to ponder more on the possibility of the barmaid listening to what they were saying. He nodded as if to say, “All right, she isn’t listening in the least.” To Isaac, Mary was completely oblivious to their discussion and posed no threat to their confidentiality.
“He was. But the man is incredibly secretive now and even more so when characters like me are in the same place with him. I would have had more success getting a duck to bark today.”
Isaac laughed. That was an extreme comparison.
“Well done with the boy at the door,” Sir Ollerton suddenly said.
Isaac turned back to look towards the door. The boy was still there but was seated on a stool now and appeared completely engorged in the activities within the tavern. Isaac noticed that he was still shivering.
He needs a warm meal.
“Yes, I supposed it would make it easier for you to find me,” Isaac responded.
“You were surprised that you didn’t meet me, weren’t you?”
“Unpleasantly surprised; I had left the garden party in a rush because of the rain. I suppose we could have just met at home if we had known it would rain so much,” Isaac answered.
His father nodded and looked back to the boy at the door.
“Hello,” he called to Mary, the barmaid.
She looked up immediately and came closer.
“Do you serve anything like hot soup?”
“Yes, we do.”
Her voice was strong and sonorous, and she met Isaac’s father’s piercing gaze with cool confidence.
“Can you provide a steaming bowl for that boy by the door? He’s been of great help to us,” Sir Ollerton said.
“Earl?” she asked, raising her gaze to look at the shivering boy.
“Yes, Earl,” Isaac quickly interjected, knowing his father would not know the boy’s name.
Mary smiled, and Isaac saw the dimples appear once again.
“Thank you, Misters,” she said and walked around into a door that was by the side.
“You know his name?” Sir Ollerton asked Isaac.
“Yes, he made it known to me when I was describing you to him,” Isaac replied.
His father nodded, just as Mary came out of the room. It had to be the kitchen because she was carrying a steaming bowl now and was walking past them. Her eyes met Isaac’s, and she nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Is that her son?” Sir Ollerton asked.
Isaac shook his head. He did not know of that but registered the slight disappointment that gripped him when his father said that. Isaac realised he would much prefer that Mary wasn’t Earl’s mother. He wondered why that was. He watched her hand the bowl over to the boy whose eyes widened greedily. The boy smiled and took the bowl, continuously repeating thanks to her. Isaac couldn’t hear from across the room, but it was easy to note that this was what he was saying. He saw her point to them, and the boy’s eyes soon met theirs. The boy took off his hat and gave a rather ungraceful and exaggerated bow. It was funny to Isaac, and he soon saw a wide smile on his father’s face too. Mary was soon across the room and almost back with them.
“Thank you, misters. That boy has not had a good meal for quite some time,” she said.
“Is he your son?” Sir Ollerton asked.
Isaac was not surprised that his father did that. The man had shocking confidence and rarely played around. Instead, he preferred to strike right at the heart of the matter, going straight to the point.
“No, no, not at all,” Mary answered, almost blushing. “But he’s here a lot is all.”
Isaac almost gave a sigh of relief. His eyes met hers, and she smiled before curtseying and walking into the kitchen.
“Well, he really is hungry. That much is obvious,” Sir Ollerton said.
He had been looking back at the boy while Isaac had been focusing on Mary’s now absent figure. Isaac quickly turned too, lest his father noticed his liking for a barmaid. The boy was guzzling down the soup with enviable gusto. The spoon dipped rapidly into the bowl and straight into his mouth. He ate so quickly a lot spilled.
Isaac shook his head. The boy was hungry, probably so most of the time. Isaac didn’t much like this realisation and was eager to change the subject of conversation.
“Since you didn’t make many findings …”
“Any findings,” his father corrected.
“Any findings, then there wasn’t much need for us to be here in the first place,” Isaac completed.
His father nodded. They had only agreed to meet in a tavern because they had been sure Sir Ollerton or any of his spies would be able to glean some information or incriminating evidence at the ball which the Earl was also attending. They suspected that if the Earl were desperate to retrieve anything stolen from him, he wouldn’t think to seek the Spymaster at a lowly tavern such as this. So here, Sir Ollerton could pass the document or whatever indicting entity they had gotten to his son who would take it home or any other place, for safe keeping. But as his father had buttressed on, they had found nothing.
“The problem lies in the fact that the Lord has been aware of all our spies. His ability to see through pretence is rather uncanny,” Sir Ollerton said.
“Maybe we have to find better men,” Isaac suggested.
The door to the kitchen slid open, and Mary came out. She was carrying a tray and walked slowly past them. Sir Ollerton, who had been about to speak beforehand, kept quiet till she was at the other end of the table.
“She’s not listening to us, Father,” Isaac said.
“It would appear so,” Sir Ollerton replied. “My wariness comes from years of secrecy.”
Mary came back towards them and didn’t return to the kitchen. She dropped the empty tray at the end of the counter and bent her head low, almost hiding it entirely behind the wooden surface. Isaac couldn’t see, but it looked like she was scribbling something.
She can write? I’m shocked.
He turned to look at his father, who had also been observing her. His father’s eyes showed the same admiration that Isaac was feeling, but the man made no comment. Isaac felt a small tug on the sleeve of his shirt that made him turn. It was Earl, looking ruddy-cheeked and far happier.
“Thank you very much, Mr Ollerton, Sir Ollerton,” the boy said.
He wasn’t shivering anymore and had the empty bowl in his hand.
“No, thank you, Earl. You helped my father find me,” Isaac said.
Earl smiled and bowed again. Isaac smiled as his father patted the boy on the shoulder before the boy turned and started to walk back to the doorway. Isaac looked back in front. If Mary had seen Earl approach them, she gave no sign.
“I don’t think it had much to do with the quality of spies we use. It’s the character of the man. He’s a very smart man and is making me look somewhat foolish. There have only been claims of his thieving from the purse of the count and his involvement in the importation of illegal items, but there has been no concrete evidence pointing to this. All of the accounting is processed by his office before submission to the High Regent. There is no possibility of detecting anything.”
His father stopped to look around once again, to ensure that no one could hear what he was saying.
“Another unsavoury part of this episode is that the only man who was willing to stand as a witness against him is now dead.”
“His former Right-hand man?”
“Yes, he’s been ill for quite some time now and couldn’t quite make it,” Sir Ollerton said.
Isaac shook his head and rubbed his hand on his forehead.
“All this news is really quite depressing,” Isaac commented.
“I agree. I’d love to have something strong now. I really could use it,” Sir Ollerton said.
He signalled to the barmaid. Her eyes caught the flicking motion of his hand, and she approached them. As she came closer, Isaac saw a glimmer of light that got caught in her eyes. It quite clearly showed him the colour of her eyes. They were brown, kind, dog brown eyes. Isaac smiled benignly. Her eyes were the same colour as his.
“We’ll have a measure of brandy each,” Sir Ollerton said.
She nodded and walked to the shelf.
“We have already made our way here. We could as well make good use of the time we spend here,” Sir Ollerton said.
Isaac smiled. His father was right.
“So what do we do now?” Isaac asked.
“About the Lord?”
“We wait, Son. If we can wait long enough, we will find a way,” Sir Ollerton said.
“There is a very good possibility that the Lord is involved in even more crimes than those you already know of,” Isaac said.
His father nodded. He picked up his hat, which had dripped most of its water off and waved it in the air. Some drops of water flew off the hat and into Isaac’s face, but they were very minute, so Isaac cleaned them off with one swipe of his hand.
“He’s a malevolent character, that man.”
The cups dropped in front of them with a soft thud. Both men raised their heads, surprised with the sudden clatter. None of them had seen Mary approach with the cups.
“Did I startle you? I’m sorry. I didn’t quite mean to,” Mary apologised.
“No, do not bother. You’ve done nothing wrong,” Isaac answered.
She smiled and went back to what she was doing. Isaac noted the pinkness of her lower lip. It was slightly smaller than the upper one. It was also deliciously attractive.
“What do you ponder upon?”
Isaac turned to face his father. He raised the cup of brandy to his mouth to shield his eyes from his father’s gaze. He couldn’t possibly tell his father that he had been thinking about the beautiful barmaid who just served them. His father would blanch. The man had recently been suggesting to Isaac to strike up a relationship with the High Regent’s daughter. Isaac found her only mildly interesting. There was a long distance from the status of a High Regent’s daughter to the lowly status of a common barmaid.
“Nothing, Father, only the difficulties faced in this case,” Isaac answered.
His father nodded. Isaac suspected the man didn’t quite believe that lie. They both took sips from their cups. Isaac felt the hot liquid burn over his tongue and flow slowly through his throat, spread around his chest, and then settle in the pit of his belly. The sensation was warm like a small fire had been lit inside him and was consequently warming him up. Isaac took another sip, a smaller one, but he did it to keep the warmth flowing.
“There are only two ways of getting this man.”
“Whatever way it is, the High Regent wants it to be ironclad when we catch him. He wants there to be no possible defence for him,” Isaac’s father said.
“The more unlikely way is that we get one of the Lord’s close workers to turn on him. Someone like his new Right-hand man,” Isaac suggested.
“We’ve tried that severally, son. This man fosters incredible loyalty.”
“Or these workers also make huge gains off the illegality and therefore find no reason to stop it,” Isaac added.
Sir Ollerton nodded. He was in obvious agreement.
“Or if we can find someone that can find a way to wiggle himself into the inner caucus of this man,” Isaac said.
His father took another sip from the cup of brandy in his hand. He looked to have taken too much because he grimaced before replying, “We have tried that many times. This man lets no one in.”
“Or we’ve not found a man good enough,” Isaac said.
His father shook his head. This time, he was in obvious disagreement.
“Some men realise the amount of danger in the actions they take and therefore take all precautions to prevent the appearance of any loophole. This man is such. I don’t think sending a man to try to wiggle himself into his court will work.”
Isaac nodded. He didn’t like the realization, but he feared his father was speaking the truth. Isaac tried to pacify himself with another sip of the warm brandy but raised the cup to his mouth to find it empty. He dropped it with a noisy clatter, slightly annoyed at the speed with which the drink finished. His father eyed him with an understanding look.
“Hello,” Sir Ollerton called to the barmaid.
She raised her head and moved closer to them.
“Sorry, what’s your name? I don’t want to keep saying hello or waving unnecessarily,” he said.
“Mary, her name is Mary,” Isaac rapidly answered.
His answer drew surprised stares from both his father and Mary. Isaac realised the error in his rapid blurt and attempted to save his face.
“I heard when the man at the other end called her,” he quickly added.
His father nodded and turned back to the barmaid who had a far bigger smile than she had worn since Isaac entered the tavern.
“Bring us two more measures, Miss Mary,” he said.
Mary nodded and took their empty cups away. Sir Ollerton was focusing on his hat and pulling out a small fibre, so Isaac cast furtive glances at Mary. She was gazing at him too and smiled wider when their eyes met. She dropped her gaze back to the drinks in her hand and started to make her way back to them.
“Thank you,” Sir Ollerton said.
“Thank you,” Isaac also said, despite how reluctant his tongue was to speak.
Both men cradled their drinks in their hands and kept mute. Each one satisfied with his busy thoughts and the feel of the warm liquid that was intermittently passed down their throats. There was a sudden noise from behind them, and both looked back. Someone had just come in, and he had blasted the door open. He was a popular figure because there were a lot of jeers as he came in. The rain still beat down hard, and Isaac supposed that he and his father might find themselves spending much more time at the tavern.
“So what do we do?” Isaac finally asked, bringing them back to the matter he knew both were thinking about but didn’t want to speak of.
“I don’t know, Son. I don’t know.”
Isaac sighed. He took another sip for lack of something else to do.
“I think I might have met my match,” Sir Ollerton said.
Isaac looked at his father. He doubted that. He had known Sir Ollerton all his life, and the man had never met a case he couldn’t crack. He did see the strain of this case on his father.
The man had four permanent creases on his forehead that became deep wrinkles whenever he smiled or frowned. There hadn’t always been grey streaks in his moustache, but those had slowly become a mainstay as the years went by. His hair was brown, and thinning rapidly, but Isaac never thought of his father as balding. It sounded a denigrating feature for a man so regal. His face had deep pits and depressions where tufts of beards grew, but that didn’t depreciate from his pleasing appearance. At fifty-seven years of age, Sir Francis Ollerton was still strikingly handsome.
The good life of working with Regency and a great avoidance of stress found in places like this must have helped a lot.
This thought made Isaac attempt to think about how Mary, the barmaid, would appear had she been high born. She had a natural carriage and poise that oozed proper culturing, along with a beautiful face that caught attention.
“She would be sought after by all and sundry,” Isaac muttered under his breath.
His father’s eyes flew to him but quickly returned to the cup in front of him. Isaac looked outside and noticed that the rain was beginning to lessen. It would soon be time that they left here and went home. Mary came back to stand in front of them but was bending over. She looked like she was back to what she had been writing before.
“So we have no proof, no insider, and no man that can possibly infiltrate. All we have are bogus claims of this man’s possible crimes,” Isaac said.
His father nodded sadly. They didn’t have anything.
“What about a woman?”
Isaac and Sir Ollerton started and raised their heads. It was Mary that had spoken, but she was still looking down at what she was doing, and they weren’t sure she had been talking to them.
Who else could she be speaking to?
“Were you speaking to us, Miss Mary?” Sir Ollerton asked.
Mary lifted her eyes and met Isaac’s father’s gaze.
“Yes, Mr …”
“Sir Ollerton, Sir Francis Ollerton,” he said.
Isaac noted her eyes widen in admiration on her discovery that his father was a knight.
“Yes, I was speaking to you, Sir Ollerton.” She admired him but was not fazed by his status. She still offered the same cool gaze.
“I do not understand,” Sir Ollerton said.
“I’m sorry if seems I’ve been eavesdropping, but I’ve been working here, and I could not but hear your discussion since you’ve come. I think you would find a woman a better infiltrator than a man. No one pays attention to women. I would have suggested servants, but I presume this man keeps important information away from servants.”
Alarm flared in Isaac, and he could see the same thing in his father’s eyes. This was a matter of utmost secrecy, and a common barmaid had been able to glean information from everything they had been saying. Isaac saw his father turn to look at him. The man didn’t know what to say.
“Thank you for your advice, Miss Mary. I think it’s a bright one,” Isaac said.
“Yes, thank you. We are done here. How much is our bill?” Sir Ollerton rapidly said.
Isaac looked through the open window at the other end of the room and noted that the rain had stopped. He couldn’t tell if there was still a slight drizzle coming down, but they would surely be able to go home in this weather.
He turned to look again at Mary as she took their cups away. He doubted that she would go around saying all she heard to people. She didn’t look to be such a chatterbox or one for word on the dit. But their action was not unfounded. This wasn’t a matter that was meant to be overheard by barmaids. This was no ordinary barmaid though. As to that, he was assured. His father rapidly paid their bill, and they made their way to the exit. Just before Isaac stepped out, he looked out to see Mary watching them as they left.
“Goodbye, Mr Ollerton,” Earl said as they walked past him.
Isaac waved to the boy and stepped out. Wordlessly, they both mounted their horses and started the slow ride home. Isaac turned back to look at the tavern. He had a premonition that this wouldn’t be the last time he would be here.
The oddness of the rapid exit of the old knight and the younger man, who had to be his son, never occurred to Mary again till she was done with the day’s work and was in the privacy of her small cabin. She had been summoned by a customer on another table just as they were stepping out and had gone straight to attend to him.
Then, Madame Mackle, the owner of the tavern and her employer, had arrived from where she went. Madame Mackle had managed to complicate things for Mary when she arrived, getting her to start cleaning the kitchen even while men still ordered drinks. Mary was not surprised by the actions of her boss. She was used to it. Madame Mackle always made things harder, not easier.
“Why aren’t the potatoes already prepared?” Madame Mackle screamed when she entered the kitchen.
Mary was carrying a tray of full cups and could not answer immediately. She quickly took the tray to the customers and was rushing back when she heard her name screamed from the kitchen.
Mary walked quickly behind the counter and through the door that led into the kitchen. Madame Mackle looked incensed, and her veins stood out from her neck.
“Why didn’t you answer?”
“I was attending to someone, ma’am.”
“You’re always attending to someone,” Madame Mackle said with as much spite as she could muster.
Mary, meanwhile, noted how true the statement was despite that it was aimed as a jibe.
“Come here this moment and prepare these potatoes. Aren’t we going to eat dinner tonight? Or do you want to have me prepare dinner for you and your daughter?”
Mary had given no response and immediately started peeling the tubers. She would leave the roots to serve and take away empty cups, collect money, and serve soup whenever a customer needed it, and then rush back to it. All the while, Madame Mackle sat on the chair behind the counter, watching. When it was late in the evening, she went upstairs into her bedroom, ordering Mary to clean up the entire tavern and kitchen before she went to sleep that night. Immediately she left, Mary went into the kitchen and scooped a serving of soup for her daughter. She went into the door to the left of the kitchen and took the shortcut to the back of the tavern. Her cabin was a one-room structure, separated from the rest of the building. Mary went to the door and knocked.
“Who’s there?” a small voice answered from within.
“It’s me. Please open, Rebecca.”
The door opened to reveal a small girl with her mother’s eyes but a wider brow and bolder mouth.
“Mama,” Rebecca said and moved closer to wrap her small arms around Mary’s legs.
“Now be a darling and let mama pass. You know I have to get back to work,” Mary said.
Rebecca left her legs and allowed her mother to come into the small room. It was a room of bare furnishings: a straw bed, a rickety chair, and a mat. Their clothes were folded, or placed in a heap at the left end of the room, if dirty. Mary and her daughter had a few coats, and those were the only clothes she hung. There was a single window into the room, but it was closed. Mary had closed it when she came just before the rain started. Rebecca had been asleep then, and Mary deemed it better to let her sleeping daughter be.
“I’ve brought dinner,” Mary told her and placed the bowl on the floor.
“Thank you, Mother. I was famished,” Rebecca told her.
Mary smiled. Her lessons were starting to take effect on Rebecca. She was starting to use words like ‘famished.’
“I need to go now, Rebecca,” Mary said, getting back to her feet.
Rebecca’s eyes looked up, and she paused eating despite just claiming she was famished.
“Can I come after I’m done with my meal?”
Mary frowned. Normally she prevented her daughter from making appearances at the tavern except in situations where it could not be avoided. But night was approaching, and most of the men had left. By the time Rebecca was done, the tavern might as well be empty. She could very well be the only one left in there.
“All right, you can come. But make sure to wear your coat, dear. It’s cold outside, and I wouldn’t want you catching a cold.”
Rebecca smiled widely and returned her attention to the soup in front of her. Mary watched her daughter for a few moments before leaving the room. She went back into the almost empty tavern and took all plates, bowls, and cups off the tables. She swept the entire place and went back into the kitchen. She finished up the potatoes and served dinner into a plate that she took upstairs. She tapped gently on Madame Mackle’s bedroom door.
“Is that you, Mary?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mary replied.
“Come in,” Madame Mackle answered.
Mary walked in and dropped the plate on the table just adjacent to the door. Madame Mackle’s bedroom was a large room. She had a large bed four times the size of Mary’s, two tall mirrors hanging on opposite walls and a table and chair where she did her rare reading. Her windows were covered today by her rose patterned curtains with beautifully crafted drapery making the room even darker than the evening dictated. There was a small wooden sculpture on her reading table.
Mary remembered that the sculpture used to be on the table of Lord William. Lord William had given it to Madame Mackle when she was leaving his house. This was before Mary also left.
“I saw Mister Henry Steele today,” Madame Mackle said.
Mary lifted her head slowly and saw the wicked smile on Madame Mackle’s face. She was doing this intentionally.
“He was as lively as always. He asked about you, and I told him that you were faring well. Or are you not?” Madame Mackle asked.
Mary gave no verbal reply and only nodded her head. Mary was tempted to ask if he asked about his daughter, Rebecca, but she decided she wouldn’t give her boss the pleasure of another wicked answer. So she just nodded and turned back to leave.
“I might see him tomorrow once again. Don’t you have any message to pass to him?” Madame Mackle asked.
Mary shook her head. Henry had gotten her pregnant and had left her and the child when she gave birth. She had been unable to continue as a maid for Lord William, who was a wonderful man and had been forced to work for Madame Mackle.
“I don’t. I do have a message for Lord William, just that I am sending him my greetings,” Mary said.
She almost smiled when Madame Mackle frowned and turned up her nose.
“Hmmmph,” she grunted and nodded.
Mary opened the door and went back to the stairs. On getting to the final step, she rested her back on the wall, and memories flooded back to her. Mary remembered when she first met Madame Mackle at Lord William’s house.
“Mary, this is Mackle. She’s the cook and a senior house staff. You will defer to her,” Lord William told her.
Mary had curtseyed. Madame Mackle didn’t even deign to look at her. She just dropped the tray of lemonade she brought for the Baron and started to go away. Mary ran after her.
“Madame Mackle,” she said in the corridor.
The bigger woman turned back with a nasty scowl.
“You are not under any condition to call my name without a requisite need. When I need you, I’ll summon you. When I don’t, be wise to stay out of my way.”
With that, she turned and went to the kitchen. Mary was not a kitchen help but was employed to clean the house and the immediate environs. After a short time, she became rather great at staying out of the mean woman’s way. She wasn’t pained when the woman left. She only wondered which man had seen her fit to marry.
“He must be as blind as Lord William’s cat,” one of her fellow maids said one day. It was a joke that stuck, for Lord William had a one-eyed cat.
“Well, things went awry after that. I’m working for her now,” Mary said to herself. And the man that was supposedly blind was now dead.
Mary took the last step into the tavern and made her way to the kitchen. She met Rebecca standing in front of the stack of pots.
“Mother, I was looking for you,” Rebecca said.
“I went to see Madame Mackle,” she replied.
She bent and picked up her daughter, carrying her in her arms. She took her outside and placed her on the counter.
“Sit still. I’ll be back very quickly.”
Mary finished up the cleaning and placed every item at its correct position. When she was satisfied that Madame Mackle would not wake up the next morning to complain about the kitchen, she walked out and shut the kitchen door. She went to her daughter, who was playing with some cups on top of the counter.
“Can we go now?” Rebecca asked, looking up to her mother.
“Yes, dear,” Mary replied and carried her daughter once again.
Her daughter was her closest and best friend, and despite the age gap, they spoke about a lot of things.
“Did you do your sums today?” Mary asked her as she walked down the aisle.
Rebecca shook her head. Mary frowned, purposely showing displeasure at Rebecca’s laziness.
“I tried to, but I kept falling asleep. And when the rain started, it became too noisy,” Rebecca explained.
“Hmmph,” Mary grunted.
“I’m serious. I’ll do them tomorrow,” Rebecca offered.
“What if I’m too busy tomorrow to help you?”
“I can do my sums myself. I’m a big girl now.”
Mary chuckled. Yes, she was getting bigger, growing faster than Mary could understand. But she was a long distance from a big girl. She wasn’t and wouldn’t be for quite a while. Mary decided to humour her daughter despite her opposing thoughts, using it as an avenue to train her a bit before they slept.
“So you’re a big girl,” Mary said.
She went to the main tavern door and noted that it wasn’t locked, just as expected.
“You’ll need to come down, big girl,” Mary said.
“Okay,” her daughter replied.
Mary stooped to drop her five-year-old form on the ground then she stood back up. She picked up the thick wooden slot beside the door and placed it into its home, firmly jamming the tavern door. She did the same for the lower slot before turning once again.
“Are we finished?” Rebecca asked.
“Yes, of course.”
They walked back to the kitchen and took the shortcut out to the back.
“So you know big girls can spell things, Rebecca.”
“I know that, Mama. I can spell things.”
“’So spell, ‘Malice’, without mistake.”
“Maaa – leese,” Rebecca said in an attempt to pronounce the word.
Mary corrected her and gave her three chances to spell. None of her spellings were correct, and Mary was correcting her as they were returning into their cabin. Rebecca was eager for another attempt to spell, upon entering, but Mary was tired and desperate to sleep.
“We need to sleep, dear,” Mary said.
She undressed quickly and wore her satin nightgown. It was a gift from Henry, one of the things she hadn’t destroyed in a mad rage.
“But can we spell tomorrow?” Rebecca asked as they lay side by side on the straw bed.
It was far from comfortable and was a long distance from the soft bed she used to sleep on in Lord William’s house. But that was years ago, and she was used to this new sleeping condition.
“Yes, dear, we can spell tomorrow.”
“Okay, good night, mama.”
“Good night, daughter.”
Both of them lay silent after that, Mary, tired and eager for sleep to overtake her and deaden her to the world and her worries. But tonight, after attempting to catch sleep for a good while, it didn’t come. Mary could not but think back to the activities of the day, and that was when she remembered the old knight and his son.
She remembered the alarm on the face of Sir Ollerton and the way he rapidly stood up to leave. Only the seriousness of the situation had prevented her from laughing but now that it was in retrospect, she could not help laughing. Mary laughed and looked to her side. Rebecca was already asleep.
The son, Mr Ollerton, was a different case. She had noticed him from the first instant he came in. She had first seen him talking to Earl at the door. He was wet and dripping and spoke a lot to Earl before hanging his coat. He had deep brown hair that was well cropped and a shadow of a moustache over his upper lip. His face had no creases, unlike his father’s, although they shared the similar high cheek boned look. But his eyes did not demand like the knight’s; instead, they enraptured and allured. His stare had made her feel hot and overly conscious many times.
“He’s handsome,” Mary admitted to herself.
She liked the way he took his drink in sensible sips and possessed the demeanour to laugh even while he and his father were talking about serious issues. She had stayed close to them because of him.
Mary, her name is Mary.
That would inform her that he was just as interested in her as she was in him. But Mary was wise to such wiles. She had fallen for them once from another high standing man. She wasn’t going to repeat it. Her words had chased them, but Mary saw how he looked back longingly at her when he was leaving. He would come back. Mary hoped she would be prepared to withstand his charm. She had failed to do that once, and it had cost her quite a lot.
“The Irresistible Allure of a Lady Spy” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
When Isaac Ollerton and his father, known as the Spymaster, almost come to a dead end with their case, a young and irresistibly beautiful barmaid has an idea they haven’t even thought of. It looks preposterous at first but the more they think about it, the better it sounds. Isaac is an ambitious young man, willing to follow his father’s path and become a good spy. He’s attracted to powerful women and knows how to handle them. But will he be able to cope with the charms of this mysterious Lady?
Mary Warwick leads a simple life, working hard as a barmaid at the tavern Mr. Ollerton and his father frequent. She had seen the life of the regents and is still gathering herself from being cast away from the house of one. However, an unprecedented proposal is about to change everything. Is she willing to risk everything and give in to passion?
When love blossoms in the most unlikely situation, it can threaten to sabotage the entire case. What happens when demons from Mary’s past refuse to leave? Is love strong enough to last or do the obstacles manage to destroy every piece of it?
“The Irresistible Allure of a Lady Spy” is a Regency romance full of mystery, love and action. If you like mysterious heroines and revengeful former lovers, then you’ll adore Henrietta Harding’s Regency tale.
“The Irresistible Allure of a Lady Spy” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.