Rhys St. Maur, newly Lord Ashworth, was a broken man.
By the age of twenty, he’d fractured his left arm twice—once in a schoolboy brawl at Eton, and then again during an army training drill. Cracked ribs…he’d lost count of those. Fists driving through barroom haze to connect with his face had snapped the cartilage in his nose a few times, leaving him with a craggy profile—one that was not improved by his myriad scars. Since sometime around his thirtieth birthday, the little finger on his right hand just plain refused to bend. And in damp weather like this, his left knee throbbed with memories of marching through the Pyrenees and surviving the Battle of Nivelle unscathed, only to catch a Basque farmer’s hoe to the knee the next morning, when he left camp for a predawn piss.
That left knee was on fire tonight, sizzling with pain as Rhys trudged through the granite heart of Devonshire, leading his horse down the darkened road. The moisture in the air kept dithering between fog and rain, and the night was thick with its indecision. He couldn’t see but a few feet in front of him, which was why he’d decided to dismount and lead his horse on foot. Between the poor visibility and the surrounding terrain littered with chunks of stone and boot-sucking bogs, the risk of fatal injury was too great.
For the horse, that was. Rhys wasn’t in the least concerned for himself. In fact, if he thought this godforsaken moor had any chance of claiming his own life, he’d cheerfully saddle his gelding and charge off into the gloom.
But it wouldn’t work. It never had. He’d just end up with a lamed or dead horse, another broken rib perhaps, and the same curse that had haunted him since boyhood: unwanted, undeserved, and wholly wasted good luck.
No matter what misfortune befell him, this or any night, Rhys St. Maur was doomed to survive it.
The wind’s low moan played his spine like a fiddle string. Behind him, the gelding balked. With a reassuring shush for the beast’s benefit, Rhys marched on, turning up the collar of his coat to keep out the mist.
Yea, though I walk though the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…
He’d been walking through this valley for a long, long time. Trod so far into death’s shadow he’d felt his feet turning to dust in his boots, the breath in his lungs burning acrid as sulfur. A living ghost, that’s what he was. He’d returned from war to a newly-inherited barony, and his sole duty now was to haunt the English aristocracy. Hulk awkwardly in the corners of their parties, terrify their delicate young ladies, and cause the gentlemen to rub their temples self-consciously as they tried not to stare at the gnarled scar marring his own.
As Rhys rounded a sharp curve in the road, a vaguely familiar sight emerged from the gloom. If he’d read his landmarks right, this had to be it. The tiny village of Buckleigh-in-the-Moor. At this distance, just a meager constellation of amber pinpricks against the black night.
The horse, scenting straw and safety, picked up his pace. Soon the cluster of stone and cob buildings came into focus. It must not be as late as it felt. A fair number of the cottages still showed light through their windows—yellow eyes peering out from beneath thatched-roof hats.
He halted in the center of the road. Wiping the moisture from his eyes, he squinted in the direction of the old inn. Fourteen years he’d been gone, but the same sign still creaked on its chains above the door. It read, in retouched gilt letters, “The Three Hounds.” Below the words, the pictured trio of dogs remained at perpetual attention. A burst of coarse laughter rattled one of the inn’s unshuttered windows. Old Maddox was still doing a brisk trade, then.
Though his mount stamped with impatience, Rhys stood motionless facing the inn. Finally, he tilted his face to the sky above it. Fog covered the village like cotton-wool, obscuring the craggy tors that loomed high on the steep slope beyond. Without their ominous shadow, the village of Buckleigh-in-the-Moor—this hated place he’d been running from since before he could remember—it almost appeared…quaint. Charming. Welcoming.
And at that fool notion, Rhys almost laughed aloud.
This place would not welcome him.
No sooner had he formed the thought, than the inn’s front door swung out on its hinges, tossing a shaft of light and warmth into the courtyard. The dull wave of laughter he’d heard earlier now swelled to a roar of excitement—one punctuated with a crash of breaking glass.
“You bastard son of a bitch!”
Ah, now that was the sort of reception he’d been expecting. But unless the old superstitions were true and some witch had foretold his arrival, Rhys knew the words couldn’t have been meant for him. No one was likely to recognize him at all—he’d been just seventeen years old when he’d been here last.
Pulled forward by curiosity and the smells of ale and peat smoke, he approached the open door, stopping just outside.
The tavern was cramped, and much as Rhys remembered it. Just big enough to hold a small bar, a half-dozen tables, a mismatched assortment of chairs and stools, and—on this particular occasion—complete pandemonium.
“That’s it! Pound ‘im good!”
Two neckless apes faced off in the center of the room, spitting and circling one another as the onlookers pushed aside tables and chairs. The taller of the two brutes took a clumsy swing that caught nothing but air. The momentum carried him into a startled onlooker’s arms. That man took exception and shoved back. Within seconds, the room was a blur of fists.
Standing unnoticed in the shadowed doorway, Rhys shifted his weight. An echo of bloodlust whispered in his ear. As a younger man, he would have hurled himself into the thickest knot of violence, eager to claw and punch his way back out. Just to feel the surge of his racing pulse, the slice of broken glass scoring his flesh, the tang of blood in his mouth. The strange, fleeting sensation of being alive.
But he wasn’t that young man anymore. Thanks to the war, he’d had his fill of both fighting and pain. And he’d long given up on feeling alive.
After a minute or two, the peripheral scrabbling defused. Once again the two louts faced off, huffing for breath and clearly hungry for more. They chuckled as they circled one another, as though this were their typical Saturday night fun. It probably was. Wasn’t as though life on the moor offered a wealth of amusements other than drinking and brawling.
Now that he studied their faces, Rhys wondered if the two might be brothers. Or cousins, perhaps. The taller one had mashed features, while the shorter sported a beaky nose. But their eyes reflected the same empty shade of blue, and they wore identical expressions of willful stupidity.
The shorter one picked up a low stool and taunted his opponent with it, as if baiting a bull. The “bull” charged. He threw a wild punch over the stool, but his reach fell short by inches. To close the gap, Bull grabbed a brass candlestick from the mantel and whipped it through the air, sucking all sound from the room.
Beak threw aside his stool, and it smashed to splinters against the hearth. With Bull’s attention momentarily diverted, Beak dove for a table still set for a meal. Half-empty dishes and bread crusts were strewn over white linen.
Rhys frowned. When had old Maddox started bothering with tablecloths?
He stopped wondering about it when Beak came up wielding a knife.
“I’ll teach you to raise a club to me, you whoreson,” he snarled.
Everyone in the room froze. Rhys ceased leaning against the doorjamb and stood erect, reconsidering his decision not to intervene. With a brass club and a knife involved, someone was likely to get seriously injured, or worse. As tired as he might be of fighting, he was even more weary of watching men die.
But before he could act, a series of sounds arrested him where he stood.
Crash. A bottle breaking.
Plink, plink, plink. Glass bits trickling to the floor.
Thud. Beak collapsing to the table unconscious, rivulets of wine streaming down around his ears.
“Harold Symmonds, you’ll pay for that wine.” A slender, dark-haired woman stood over Beak’s senseless form, clutching what remained of a green-glass bottle. “And the tablecloth too, you great lout.” She shook her head and tsked. “Blood and claret will never come out of white linen.”
“And as for you, Laurence—” She wheeled on the second man, threatening him with the broken bottle’s sharp glass teeth. Though he was twice as big as the barmaid and a man besides, Laurence held up his hands in surrender.
In fact, every man in the room had gone still. As though they all feared the harsh discipline this tiny barmaid might dole out. Interesting. To a man like Rhys, who’d spent several years commanding soldiers, that snap to attention spoke volumes.
Jabbing the bottle at Laurence, the barmaid backed him up against the wall. “’Twas your own master who brought that, you know.”
“This?” He stared at the candlestick in his fist. “It’s Gideon’s?”
“No, it’s the inn’s.” She wrenched the brass club away from the stunned brute and curled her arm, lifting it to eye level. “But Gideon delivered it. Hauled it and its mate all the way up from Plymouth just last week. The set came very dear, and I’ll thank to you keep your grimy mitts off the bric-a-brac.”
The thing must have weighed a stone, but it cost her no effort to heft the candlestick up on the mantel with one hand and nudge it back into place.
“There,” she said to herself, apparently satisfied with the symmetry. Standing back, she threw the jagged remnants of the bottle into the fire, and a wine-fueled blaze surged in the hearth.
The reddish flare illuminated the woman’s face, and Rhys got his first good look at her.
Holy God. She was beautiful.
Rhys had never been especially good with words. He couldn’t have described exactly what it was about this woman that made her appearance so striking. He just knew he’d been struck.
She had pale skin and dark hair coming loose from a thick plait. Her figure was slight, yet feminine. Her eyes were large and wide, but to discern their color he would’ve had to stand much closer to her.
He wanted to stand much closer to her.
Especially now that she was no longer armed.
Fury radiated from her slender form as she propped her hands on her hips and scolded the assembly. “It’s the same damned scene, again and again.” Her tone was sharp, but the voice beneath it was husky, warm. “In case you haven’t noticed, this inn is all we’ve got in Buckleigh-in-the-Moor. I’m trying to build a name for this place, make it a respectable establishment for travelers. Now tell me, how am I to make this inn fit for the Quality, what with you overgrown clods destroying my dining room once a fortnight?”
She swept an angry glare around the room, silently confronting each offender in turn. When her gaze collided with Rhys’s, he noted the first crack in her veneer of poise. Her eyelashes fluttered. That was the extent of her visible surprise. The rest of her remained granite-still as she said, “And all this in front of a guest.”
Rhys sensed every head in the room swiveling to face him. But he couldn’t have torn his gaze from the barmaid’s if he’d tried. Jesus, what a woman.
Between the travel and the damp, his body had been grousing at him all night. He wouldn’t have believed one more part of him could stiffen…but evidently it could. His riding breeches pulled snug across his groin. He’d gone hard enough to rival that brass candlestick. He hadn’t reacted so intensely to a woman since he’d been a randy youth. Perhaps not even then. His heart pounded. Blood surged through his veins, carrying orders to his every limb. He felt his whole body tightening, mustering strength, readying for a purpose. A very specific, very pleasurable purpose.
Damn. He felt alive.
Still holding his gaze, she said steadily, “Now put this place to rights.”
Rhys blinked. He didn’t recall this woman—he couldn’t possibly have forgotten her—but had she somehow recognized him? Was she calling him out for his gross negligence as lord? It would be a fair enough accusation. If there was anything that needed putting to rights in Buckleigh-in-the-Moor, the responsibility should be his.
But as the men before him lurched into motion, scraping chairs and tables against the slate floor as they dragged the furniture back into place, Rhys realized her words hadn’t been meant for him. He was almost disappointed. He would have liked to put things to rights for her. Starting with that mussed dark hair.
With an impatient sweep of her fingers, she tucked a lock behind her ear. “Welcome to the Three Hounds,” she said. “Are you coming in, or aren’t you?”
Oh, he was coming in. He was most definitely coming in.
Rhys stepped forward and closed the door behind him.
Before he could acknowledge her welcome, the barmaid’s attention jerked away. “Not there, Skinner. Left side of the hearth.”
Skinner hurried to obey. All six burly feet of him.
“I’ve a horse outside,” Rhys said, once he had her attention again.
She nodded and summoned a twiggy youth from the bar. “Darryl, see to the gentleman’s horse.” To Rhys she said, “Will you drink whiskey, sir?”
“I’ve rabbit stew and mutton pie.”
His stomach rumbled. “I’d welcome both.”
“Have a seat, then.”
Rhys crossed to a table, lowered his weight onto the most sturdy-looking of the chairs, and accepted a tankard of ale from her hand.
He sipped at the cool ale, watching the barmaid and her band of reformed pugilists clear the room of debris. No wonder this place still did a brisk business. To Rhys’s recollection, old Maddox had never kept barmaids this fair, nor this fierce.
She kept stealing looks at him, even as she swept broken glass from the floor and rolled up the soiled linen tablecloth. There was an intriguing softness to her gaze.
That couldn’t be right. Perhaps she was looking at someone else. Under the guise of stretching, Rhys rotated his neck and turned an unhurried glance about the room.
No. There was no one else.
Everything about the woman—her bearing, her voice, the reactions she inspired—declared her strength. But her eyes were telling him something else. They spoke of hopes and fears and vulnerability, and Rhys had no idea why she’d be revealing all that to a complete stranger, least of all him—but he knew one thing. Those looks she kept giving him contained more direct human contact than he’d known in years.
She was touching him. From across the room, with her hands otherwise occupied, she was touching him. He felt it deep inside.
Rhys sipped his ale and pondered the queer nature of fate. He was a steadfast believer in destiny. There was no other way to explain the fact that his heart still beat. In his eleven years in the light infantry, he’d spent battle after battle charging headlong into the bloody fray, eager to meet his death. Only to be cruelly disappointed, when fate spared him once again. He simply could not die. But for once, maybe for once his wretched good luck was about to throw him a true boon.
As she bent to sweep splintered wood from the corner, he observed the gentle curve of her neck, the loose strands of hair at her nape. He could spend a very pleasant minute winding that lock of hair about his finger, counting how many times it would wrap around. Five, he guessed, or maybe six.
When she straightened and their eyes met again, he raised his ale in a silent salute. She smiled shyly before looking away. Odd, because she didn’t seem the shy type.
As if to prove the point, she called across the room, “Laurence, get Harry back in the nook where he belongs. He’s bleeding on my flagstones, and I just scrubbed them yesterday.”
Meredith. The name pulled a thread in his mind, but the memory unraveled before Rhys could grasp it.
Laurence slid an arm under the moaning heap that was Harry Symmonds and shouldered the unconscious man to his feet.
“Don’t ‘Meredith’ me.” She shooed them toward a secluded alcove with her broom. “So long as you’re going to behave like boys, it’ll be Mrs. Maddox to you.”
The ale soured on Rhys’s tongue. Mrs. Maddox?
Ah, hell. This young, strong, beautiful woman was married to old Maddox? Not a barmaid after all, but the inn’s landlady. So much for Fate throwing him a boon. He should have known better. There’d be nothing so beautiful for him on this earth.
A trencher of stew and a wedge of mutton pie appeared on the table before him. Rhys dug in, keeping his gaze stubbornly trained on the food rather than his lovely server. He didn’t pursue married women, no matter what sort of looks they threw him. Not to mention, if she was married to Maddox and making eyes at Rhys, the woman must be not only fickle, but daft and half-blind in the bargain.
He was hungrier than he’d realized, and he cleaned both plates in a matter of minutes. He’d always been a fast, efficient eater, even more so since the army. More than once in the year since he’d inherited the Ashworth title, he’d looked up from a finely-laid London dinner table to discover his table manners the object of intense, horrified scrutiny. Just another of his acquired traits that sent English ladies groping for their vinaigrettes.
He bolted the rest of his ale and carried the empty tankard to the bar for refilling. Mrs. Maddox had disappeared for the moment, and a gap-toothed young man stood behind the counter. Rhys recognized him as the youth she’d charged with stabling his horse. What was his name again? Dylan? Dermott?
“Darryl Tewkes, at your service, sir. Will it be another ale?”
The young man took the tankard from Rhys, and his left eye creased at the edge as he did it. Rhys couldn’t tell if it was a wink or some sort of nervous twitch. The latter, he hoped, when the eye flashed shut a second time. He had an amusing look to him, this Darryl Tewkes. Sharp nose, pointy ears. Like one of the piskies old moorfolk still believed in.
“Yours is a fine horse, sir,” Darryl went on, handing him a mug of fresh ale. “I’ve seen him settled in well. He’s unsaddled, watered. I’ll go back out to brush him down and give him hay in a minute or two.” Rhys nodded his approval and raised his drink.
“Does he have a name, sir? The horse?”
He wiped his mouth with his cuff. “No.” He never named them, not anymore.
“Will the gentleman be staying long in the neighborhood?” Darryl asked.
“Just one night.”
At the outset, Rhys hadn’t been sure how long he’d stay. But now he knew—one night of this place was all he could take. In the morning, he’d ride up the slope and take a long, slow look at what he’d come to see. And then he’d leave. Surely he could hire a steward or land agent to come tend to any matters here that needed attention. That was what titled gentlemen of means did, wasn’t it? Where he’d go after that, Rhys had no idea. Wherever fate took him, he supposed.
“One night?” Darryl’s eye gave an eager twitch. “Sir, you must stay more than one night. One night isn’t anywhere long enough to see the local attractions.”
Rhys frowned. Attractions? There were local attractions?
The younger man’s eyebrows rose. “I give tours to travelers,” he said, his face brightening. “Two hours, or half a day. Best value for your coin is my full-day Mystic Moor excursion, complete with guided commentary and a picnic lunch.”
Rhys chuckled at the image of genteel travelers picnicking in the shadow of Bell Tor. He hoped they took precautions against the ravens. He cleared his throat and asked, “What sort of attractions?”
“Why, it’s a mystical trip through time, you see.” He made a grand, expansive gesture. “I’ll start by taking you round to the ancient burial cairns, and the abandoned tinners’ works from centuries past.”
Rhys was well familiar with those sights. They looked remarkably like random piles of stone.
“Then there’s the old monks’ crosses. And Bell Tor, of course. On a clear day, you can see—”
“Even more rocks?” Rhys grunted, still unimpressed.
“Oh, but that’s nothing. I haven’t yet told you the best part of the tour. The haunted ruins of Nethermoor Hall.”
Now he had Rhys’s attention. “Haunted ruins, you say?”
Darryl settled both elbows on the counter and leaned forward, as though he didn’t dare speak too loud. “Yes. Nethermoor Hall. The cursed House of Ashworth. Generations of evil flourished in that house. Till one summer night fourteen years ago, when it burnt to the ground in an unholy conflagration. My tour ends there, just as the hour turns toward dusk. Sometimes, if you listen sharp, you can hear the crackle of flames, or catch a whiff of brimstone on the wind. That blaze was the judgment of God, folk say. After that night, the family was never heard from again.”
“What happened to them?” Rhys asked, surprised to hear the question come from his lips. He had to credit the younger man. Darryl did have a knack for spinning tales. “I mean, you spoke of haunting.”
“Ah yes. Well, the old Lord Ashworth’s ghost hasn’t been seen. He never returned to Devonshire. Died just last year—somewhere in Ireland, I think. Lady Ashworth, she died several years before the blaze. There are some folk here—the ones with the touch—who’ve seen her ghostly form hovering high above the ruined house. As though she’s still pacing the upstairs corridors. But it’s the son people see most often.”
Rhys choked on a mouthful of ale. “The son?”
“Aye. He was a wild youth, always making trouble. Churned up the moor with his reckless rides. Folk say he had bit of devil in him.”
“And he died in this fire?”
“Not precisely. He nearly perished—should have died, by accounts. But even though he survived, it’s like he left a ghostly imprint on Nethermoor Hall. People spy his phantom wandering the place, especially on warm summer nights. They’ve even seen him gallop across the moor on a spectral horse, flames licking at his heels.”
Rhys blinked at the youth, unsure whether to be amused, bemused, offended, or…mildly concerned. Outlandish as Darryl’s tale might be, parts of it held the faint ring of truth. All these years he’d spent feeling half alive, could it be because he’d left some ghost of his adolescent self behind? He shook his head to dispel the fool notion. This Dartmoor fog must be creeping in through his ears, muddling his brain.
“So.” Darryl leaned forward and waggled his eyebrows. “The tour. Are you man enough? Do you dare risk an encounter with Rhys St. Maur, the living phantom of Bell Tor?”
A smile tugged at Rhys’s lips. Now this could prove amusing. Before he could decide just how to respond, a figure joined Darryl’s on the business side of the bar.
Mrs. Maddox, he corrected himself.
“Darryl,” she said, clouting the youth on the back of the head, “you idiot. This is Rhys St. Maur. Lord Ashworth now. You’re talking to your ‘living phantom,’ live and in the flesh.”
Darryl’s pale face went whiter still as he stared at Rhys, jaw working to no audible effect. At least his eye had finally ceased twitching.
The youth swallowed hard as Rhys braced his arm on the bar and leaned forward. Until their faces were just inches apart. And then, when he was certain Darryl was paying very close attention, he lowered his voice and whispered…