The Hare and Ewe Public House, Wheatton
Rob Wilkens came in acting like a bug on the edge of a hot kettle the morning the duke left the Hall. We all knew it would be thus and had warned him, but he would insist on taking a job in the big old barn that is Eversham Hall. Fancied the footman’s livery, he did.
“His Grace always leaves as soon as he gets wind the duchess is coming back,” we warned him. I warned him. Warren the blacksmith warned him. Peck from up at the Hall warned him. Hell, even his mother warned him. The Duchess of Murnane is a harpy and that’s a fact.
“She left with some Italian count this time,” he had answered, fool that he was. “Maybe she won’t come back. Italy is so far from Wiltshire, she may as be going to the moon,” he said.
That were two years ago, when the duke came back and his cousin Rand married the Indian woman before they returned to Canada. Lots o’ folks took work at the Hall. His Grace always fills the jobs after she leaves, not that he has to. There are always them that are stupid enough to take her coin until she works ’em half to death, gives ’em the sharp edge of her tongue one time too many, or poisons ’em with her lies.
In the case of comely lads like Rob, she does worse, at least worse for the innocent ones. Some of ’em take what she offers and laugh behind her back, strutting around yard like roosters who got one over on their fellows. Danny Sullivan, though, he fancied himself in love with the woman. When she used him and moved on, she fired him for complaining. His father claimed the gun that killed him was an accident from cleaning the thing, but there were those who thought otherwise.
“What are you going to do?” Warren asked Rob that morning.
“What can I do? My mother needs the coin I send,” Rob said glumly. Danny’d been his friend. I hoped that made him think hard about working there.
“I can be wary, but—” he raised his hands looking helpless.
“What can she do if she comes after you and you say no?” One of the farmers asked him.
“She’ll fire him,” Peck said. “He may as well quit first.” Peck would know. Tough old bastard was too much gristle for the lady’s taste, so he stayed on during the comings and goings, trying to keep things up for the duke’s sake.
We all like the duke well enough, but the county could use his attention. Between the duchess’s outrages and his boy’s illness, he don’t pay much attention to the estate, much less the neighborhood. Even when he’s here he hares off to London often enough, with some government work. “Affairs of State,” Peck called it. It wasn’t like the old days when at least Miss Catherine, she who’s now a countess, lived over at Songbird Cottage and Squire Archer across the river.
“You in charge now?” I asked Peck.
“I can’t manage the books and such, but I keep the boys working,” Peck answered, “Them as stay on. His Grace hired another steward. Starts next week before she comes.”
We all stared into our ale for a while after that. She goes after the stewards first. We figured this one wouldn’t last a year.
“So,” Peck said to Rob, “Are you quitting or staying? Old Banks will help you duck out of her attention.” We all knew the butler, Banks, was useless against the duchess. Rob did too. Peck raised his tankard and gave Rob a sly look over the top before he took a sip. “You can just take what she offers. Some do.”
Rob shuddered. “Makes me feel dirty just thinking about being used like that.”
Ellen the barmaid snorted when she slammed down three tankards of ale on our table. “Now you know how the lasses feel when you sniff under their skirts.” She sashayed away with her nose in the air, and Rob’s eyes followed her across the room.
I glanced at Ellen and back at him. “I can use a lad willing to work hard,” I said, though I didn’t know it until that very moment. “I can’t pay the Hall’s wages, but I’ll hire you.”
He stared into his drink a while, then gazed over at Ellen standing in the kitchen door. “Thank you kindly Mr. Doughty. I think I’ll take you up on that.”
The Duke of Murnane’s cousin Rand is the hero of Caroline Warfield’s The Renegade Wife. The duchess caused a rift between the two of them in their youth before moving on to other game. The duke appears in that book and also its sequel, The Reluctant Wife, coming in April 2017. The duchess does not, but her pernicious influence permeates both books.
About The Renegade Wife
Desperate and afraid, Meggy Blair will do whatever it takes to protect her children. She’d hoped to find sanctuary from her abusive husband with her Ojibwa grandmother, but can’t locate her. When her children fall ill, she seeks shelter in an isolated cabin in Upper Canada. But when the owner unexpectedly returns, he’s furious to find squatters disrupting his self-imposed solitude.
Reclusive businessman Rand Wheatly had good reason to put an ocean between himself and the cousin that betrayed him. He just wants the intrusive woman gone, but it isn’t long before Meggy and her little ones begin breaking down the defensive walls he’s built. But their fragile interlude is shattered when Meggy’s husband appears to claim his children, threatening to have Rand jailed.
The only way for Meggy to protect Rand is to leave him. But when her husband takes her and the children to England, Meggy discovers he’s far more than an abuser; what he’s involved in endangers all their lives. To rescue the woman who has stolen his heart, Rand must follow her and do what he swore he’d never do: reconcile with his aristocratic family and finally uncover the truth behind all the lies. But time is running out for them all.