This time Melody was determined to get to the innkeeper first. It was the innkeeper’s wife, though, who spied the bedraggled group entering her establishment and sent her husband away to tend to the crowded taproom. In Mamie Barstow’s experience, sporting nobs always attracted a certain type of women, and she wasn’t having any of it, not at her inn. She stood guarding the front door, arms folded across her chest.
“Good day, ma’am,” Melody began. “Your inn looks to be a pleasant place, and my companion and I are sorely in need of rest and refreshment. I hope that you can accommodate us.”
On closer examination, Mrs. Barstow recognized quality. The young woman with such cultured accents was standing proud as a queen, just as if she didn’t look like she’d been dragged through a hedge backward, and the companion was brandishing a knitting needle aloft like a saber charge. The old wreck of a carriage would have been in fashion thirty years ago, but the driver would have been old even then. Whatever this odd lot was, they weren’t loose women; light-skirts fared better. Still, they did not belong at her inn, not today.
“I’m sorry, miss, but you can see there’s a big to-do this afternoon. The place is overbooked as it is, and some of the gentlemen are like to get above themselves, if you know what I mean.”
Nanny snorted. “Hanging’s too good for the likes of them. Attacking honest women in broad daylight. Ravaging the countryside. Spare the rod, and use a butcher’s knife, I say.”
Mrs. Barstow’s mouth hung open, and the door was about to shut. Melody quickly withdrew the roll of coins from her reticule. As she unwrapped her bona fides she raised her chin. “I believe some of your guests are already castaway, but we have no choice. There has been a mishap with the carriage, and we are left here until it can be repaired.”
“Oh dear, and no work likely to get done soon, with every man jack in the town out to watch the fight. Still, every bed is spoken for, and some doubled as it is.”
“Heathens,” Nanny muttered.
“Please, ma’am, we just require a quiet place away from the public view.” Melody jingled a few coins together.
“I suppose I could let you have our own rooms for a bit. Mr. Barstow can bunk with the stable lads, and I’ll share with the maids, for all the sleep we’ll be getting this night. It won’t be what you’re used to, I swear, but you’ll be safer here than out on the road.”
Melody was used to sharing a room with four other girls; last night she’d shared a bed with Nanny. “I’m sure that will be fine.”
“And mind, I haven’t got a spare girl to be fetching and carrying for you, and I’ll be too busy cooking and serving, what with all these gentlemen to feed.”
Nanny puckered up her mouth as if she had swallowed a lemon. “No way I’d let some tavern wench take care of my chick.” Melody quickly added another coin to the handful she rattled.
“There’s some pigeon pie left from luncheon, nothing fancy. And there’s always stew and a kettle on for tea. I suppose it will do, if you just stay out of the public rooms.”
Nanny swore to lock the windows, put chairs across the doors, lay her body across the sill if need be, to keep her lady in and all the depraved sons of Satan out. Shaking her head, Mrs. Barstow led them down the hall past the taproom. Nanny pulled Melody’s hood so far down over her eyes she couldn’t see, and so as a result nearly stumbled right into a broad gentleman in a spotted Belcher tie. He put up a quizzing glass and asked, “What have we here?” He got an enlarged eyeful of Nanny’s Gorgon glare and a sharp knitting needle in his breadbasket.
Mrs. Barstow hustled them through the dining room, thankfully empty now, and beyond into the kitchen where two young girls in neat aprons were peeling vegetables. Past the pantry was a half landing and there, to everyone’s relief, was the door leading to a tiny sitting room with a sofa and chair, and an even smaller bedroom. Mrs. Barstow twitched a faded quilt into place on the bed, and Nanny pulled all the curtains closed. Soon there was food and blessedly hot water and Nanny’s snores almost drowning out the commotion in the taproom and the rattle of pots and pans in the kitchen.
Melody spent some time trying to sponge off her cape and unsnarl her hair before lying down to nap. Her mind was too unsettled, though, and the noises were getting louder and more distracting. She wished she had her luggage from the carriage so she could change her gown, or at least retrieve one of those Minerva Press novels from her trunk. Perhaps if she could just locate Toby in the yard, she could find out how long repairs would take or if he could fetch in the bags. Mrs. Barstow was still in the kitchen, however, up to her arms in pastry dough. She waved the rolling pin in the air and gave Melody such a scowl that the younger woman scurried back to her rooms. Maybe she could spot Toby from the window and get his attention.
When she opened the curtains in the sitting room, Melody had to take her shoes off and stand on the sofa to see out, the window being so high. Because the little apartment was up a landing, she found herself looking down on the inn’s rear courtyard, with stable blocks forming the other three sides to the square, and, good grief, the entire clearing was filled with shouting, shoving men! She leaped off the sofa. What if anyone looked up and saw her?
Don’t be a goose, she told herself, they are all more interested in what’s going on than in looking around at the scenery. Furthermore, enough of them must have seen her walking at the head of her little caravan en route to the inn for her to be a laughingstock as it was. So just what was going on? She hopped back up.
One man was standing in an open area at the center of the courtyard, ringed by rough wooden benches all filled with workingmen in coarse smocks sitting next to gentlemen in lace-edged linens. Behind them stood more so-called sportsmen, and in the last rows the carriages were arranged, with the Corinthians in their top hats and many-caped driving coats looking down on the proceedings from their lofty perches. Melody could not pinpoint the two racing curricles from the morning anywhere; perhaps they had landed in a ditch. She did see serving girls carrying trays of mugs, and men collecting sheaves of paper, and one person in a frieze coat making marks on a big board.
And still the man in the clearing stood curiously alone.
He was an enormous man, she could see even from this distance, with a red face and black mustachio. The crowd roared when he took off his leather jerkin and shook one huge fist at them. The muscles in his arms and chest poured over each other in layers, dark, hairy, sweat-dampened layers. What an education Miss Melody was getting!
“Al-bert,” the crowd chanted, “Al-bert.” Albert, obviously the local favorite, circled his little clearing, waving. Then he stood, his hands on his wide hips, waiting. And waiting some more. The noises from the benches grew louder, with whistles and foot-stampings joining the shouts. Some of the men started tossing their mugs at one another. Scuffles broke out, and the serving girls ran back toward the kitchen, screeching. The man Melody identified as the innkeeper, the one wearing an apron and tearing his hair out, tried to separate the brawlers and get others back in their seats.
Then, when it looked like the inn yard would turn into a free-for-all, a stern voice that was obviously used to command called “Halt!” There was a moment of silence, and Melody could see a high-crowned beaver hat come gliding into the clearing next to Albert. It was easy to tell where the hat had come from: all heads were turned toward the back where a gentleman was standing in an elegant high-perch phaeton. He was handing his coat to his companion, untying his neckcloth as he stepped down from the carriage as casually as if he were going for a stroll in the park. He was fair-haired and tanned and, although the distance was too great, Melody just knew he was bound to be handsome, with such assurance.
The crowd took up a new chant now: “Cor-ey, Cor-ey, Cor-ey,” and she lost sight of him in the mobs. When he reappeared, he was stripped to his boots and buckskins, and Melody was right. He was beautiful. Where Albert was all hulking thew and flab, Corey was like a Greek god in a garden, rock hard, sculpted, sun-kissed.
He was also inches shorter than Albert and half his girth. He was going to get killed.