At first glance The Old Grange scarcely looked like the picturesque ruins, steeped in mist and legends, that Miss Eustachia Ripley had assured Mama would awaken even Miss Libba Wadsworth's long dormant talent for sketching. Nor did it look like the desirable leasehold that Miss Ripley promised would offer entree to the First Circles of English Society. It was one of those overgrown farmhouses that had been added to over the years in order to accommodate additional generations of sons and daughters until better opportunities beckoned. Back home, in the Hudson Valley, it would have been converted into a hotel or rooming house, in order to accommodate such tourists in the Catskills as could not afford the grandeur the great Mountain Houses offered. Here, on border between Devon and Cornwall - or as Miss Ripley insisted on putting it, on the border between this world and the Other - the situation was more delicate. It was not as if the ladies that currently occupied the crumbling ruin that was the New Grange were in enough financial embarrassment to set themselves up as landladies - nor was there even the slightest hint that they were offering anything so vulgar as a quid pro quo round of introductions in connection with the lease, but it was well known that the old Earl had left things in such a state that the year's mourning had already passed, without the heir to the title having been sorted out. And now that the ladies were in half-mourning, what better excuse for their return to Society than to oblige introduce an American protegee with Vanderbilt connections?
Or so Miss Ripley had presented her case back at Braddock House, as she also presented the letter of introduction from Cousin Cornelia. A six week stay. Six weeks of title and husband hunting. It was no secret that Libba would rather have been guillotined. But strangely, it was Mama who looked askance at the idea. Mama, who had spent the past five years wangling invitations to any party that might include gentlemen susceptible to a debutante whose main charm was that she was the daughter of the richest quarryman in the Hudson Valley. "These Hardcastles," Mama demurred. "How exactly are they connected to Cousin Cornelia? Are they the same family as that English gentleman who visited years ago..."
Mama flushed as her voice trailed off, but Miss Ripley dismissed her objection with a wave. "Oh, he was the cadet branch. This is the Earl's family itself. Quite different. There will be no possible cause for embarrassment. In fact, the on dit is that they have broken with him entirely."
But Mama looked unconvinced. Even more strangely, it had been Papa whose face grew wistful. "Tavistock," he said. "Right on the border of Cornwall. Been wanting to see the place for some time now."
Miss Ripley turned on him, her hands clasped with a rapture that befitted her status as the local poetess. "Why, Mr. Wadsworth, I never thought you had a penchant for romantic landscapes."
"I don't," Papa said. "I care about tin. Tin mines all over the place in Tavistock. That's the sort of landscape I care about."
Well, at least the house was clean, and had been prepared for them - a cold collation laid out in the kitchen, and the rooms freshly turned. And at least it didn't sway - as everything else that had brought them from New York to Tavistock, from the steamship to the railroad to the hired carriage. Libba slunk upstairs after dinner intent only on throwing herself onto a bed that didn't move.
If she had been less intent, she might have noticed the faint flush of cool air that came from beneath the door. Or heard the muffled curse and quick footfall as she touched the handle. Instead, she threw open the door to see a man etched in the moonlight of her open casement window, a dark muffler obscuring his face. One of the famed Cornish smugglers, stepped straight out of one of Miss Ripley's legends? It didn't seem likely. None of Miss Ripley's stories had mentioned exploits as undignified as having gotten hopeless entangled in the heavy curtains.
"Stop," Libba said with an aplomb she did not feel. "Or I'll shoot."
He stopped. And surveyed her. "Have you really a gun?" he asked curiously.
"I'm American," she said. "I'm sure you've heard the rumors."
"A derringer tucked in the lace of your bosom, as they're said to do in the saloons out west?" he mused. At last he disentangled himself, and ceremoniously raised his hands. "Then I must confess myself the prisoner of the possibility alone. I am yours to command, Miss..."
"Then I command you to remove the scarf and walk downstairs to explain yourself to my father."
"Are you quite certain?" he asked. "I've experience of such scenes you know, and they're deucedly uncomfortable all around..."
"My father is not a man given to making scenes," she informed him.
It was, in fact, an understatement. Papa evinced no more reaction to his daughter forcing a sheepish looking man clutching a muffler into his presence than to cast a long look at his dusty riding breeches. "Housebreaking in boots?" he said. "You must not have been long at this game."
"I can explain."
"I gather that's why she brought you here."
"She said she had a gun tucked in her bosom," the man said. "I'm beginning to believe she lied."
"Ought to be grateful for that," Papa said. "The girl's never fired a gun in her life. She's likely to have killed you."
The man forced a smile. "Then I am profoundly grateful for her duplicity."
His hair was overgrown, and he was in need of a good razor. But his boots were first quality and cared for, if worn and dusty. And from what Libba knew of English accents, he spoke like a gentleman.
"And what were you doing upstairs?" Papa continued his grim critique. "Silver, such as it is, is down on this floor. Unless you were planning to abduct my daughter."
"No!" The man seemed to notice that perhaps his vehemence was more than unflattering. "I mean, not that the young lady isn't charming, and I wouldn't be delighted to make her acquaintance under circumstances other than gunpoint..."
"Better off abducting the silver," Papa said, a glint of affection warming his eyes. "Give you less trouble. Libba's got a steady head on her shoulders. She can take care of herself."
"So she has so aptly proved."
"Enough with the parlor talk," Papa said. "Explain yourself. Why are you here?"
The man drew a deep breath. "Orchids," he said.
And unflappable as Papa might have been at being confronted with an intruder having been captured not entirely at gunpoint, that single word made him pause. "Orchids?" he repeated. "You were trying to steal a flower?"
"Roots, actually," he said. "Rare crate of dendrobiums smuggled over here from Borneo. Didn't dare bring them straight into London; Sander would have snapped them up for one of his auctions, and where would we have been then? So we arranged a drop-off here. Unfortunately, my... contact was unaware the house was to be let. I assume that's why he never showed."
"You're a smuggler?" Papa asked, sizing him up in patent disbelief. "This is what Cornwall's famous free traders look like now?"
"An orchid hunter," the man corrected him. "Although sometimes we are forced to use similar means. For all their delicate beauty, it's a down and dirty business."
Then was a long, incredulous silence. Then Papa laughed. "Well, that's certainly a better excuse than your being driven to evade her Majesty's excise in order to put food on the table for your aging mother and widowed sister with her brood of orphans..."
"I assure you, sir..."
"And I can tell you what your assurances are worth," Papa snorted. "But it doesn't matter. Go. And don't let me see you around here again."
"Thank you, sir. But although I know it sounds odd, sir..."
A glint of humor lit Papa's eyes. "It sounds more than odd; it sounds like a damned pack of lies. Just your good fortune that I come from that peculiar class of the American gentry they like to call robber barons, and there ought to be honor among thieves, wouldn't you say?" As quick as it was there, the humor was gone. "But if I catch you around my daughter or this house again, I'll horsewhip you straight to the magistrate, ye hear?"
The man opened his mouth to argue, then thought better of. "Yessir," he said, turning toward the window that was open to the night air. "Much obliged, sir. I'll be on my way, then, shall I?"
"Save us all a bit of gossip if you'd be so obliging as to leave by the door," Papa said.