Moira Trevithick and her brother have been bilked of their family fortune by Lionel March, so they masquerade at a country inn as the vulgar Lady Crieff and her stepson, with a plan to take the scoundrel for everything he owes them. But they’re not the only ones interested in March, and they look very suspicious to one well-born gentleman.
"I must say, it don't look the sort of place a well-greased villain like Lionel March would run to ground,” Jonathon Trevithick said doubtfully. “With all the blunt he stole from us, you would think he could afford to put up at the Pulteney, in London."
The two occupants of the carriage peered out the window at a quaint inn, whose bottom story was composed of flint and stone, its upper story of brick and timber, topped with a thatched roof. There were many such old buildings in this chalky corner of Kent, where native building materials were scarce and the builders had to improvise.
Despite its mongrel facade, the inn had the charm of antiquity. Red roses clambered up either side of the doorway. The windows were entirely concealed by a growth of yews. The sign suspended over the doorway showed a crude painting of an owl, with the words owl house inn painted in black on a gilt background.
"He must be hiding out. Unless he has turned smuggler, there is very little hereabouts to appeal to one of his habits,” Miss Trevithick replied, in accents that indicated Mr. March's habits were deep-dyed in worldliness.
Blaxstead, the village on the southeast coast of England where the carriage had stopped, was ideally situated for smuggling and little else, except perhaps fishing. It was a mile from the coast, but an estuary ran into the village. At high tide, a few fishing boats and one seagoing barge were to be seen. The Owl House Inn sat on a point of land overlooking the estuary, and beyond it, to the flat marshlands reclaimed from the sea. The sky was pearly gray, with a lowering sun tinting one patch of cloud to copper.
"What a wretched place,” Jonathon said. “I hope it don't take us long to steal back our money."
"You should not use the word ‘steal,’ Jonathon,” Moira said severely. “We are here to recoup what is rightfully ours. And once we leave this carriage, we have used our own names for the last time. There must be no slipups. I doubt Mr. March will recognize us, but you may be sure he remembers our names."
She cast a worried look at Jonathon. He was hardly old enough to act as her protector. A young lady her age really ought to have a chaperon. As she was posing as a widow, however, it was not strictly necessary. If anyone questioned it, she would behave in a haughty manner that left no doubt of her ability to chaperon herself.
Moira felt they were bound to create a commotion at the inn when they registered as Sir David and Lady Crieff. The titles suggested they were man and wife, yet Jonathon was obviously too young for the role. It would soon be known he was her stepson. Sir Aubrey Crieff had married a lady young enough to be his daughter. He had a son, David, by his first wife. Upon Sir Aubrey's death, David had assumed the “Sir."
Jonathon read her concern. “I do not like to think of a green girl like you posing as a dashing widow, Moira,” he said. “There might be some ugly customers putting up at a place like this. Smugglers are known as ‘owlers’ in these parts, because they work at night, I daresay. To judge by its name and location, this could be a smuggling inn."
"We shan't bother the Gentlemen, and they shan't bother us. This is our only chance to recover our money,” Moira said, her chin squaring in determination. “All I have to do is look haughty and wear the fine gowns we begged and borrowed. March is more likely to make up to a rich widow than to a provincial damsel."
Jonathon had little doubt March would be chasing after her, even without the added bait of a valuable jewelry collection. At least three of the fellows at home were tagging at her skirts, and that without a sou of dowry.
Moira was certainly a beauty. She took after Papa's side of the family, so March would not recognize a family resemblance. He had never met Mr. Trevithick. Moira's raven black hair and ivory complexion turned heads wherever she went. But it was her lustrous silver-gray eyes with lashes a yard long that were her real claim to beauty.
March had caught only a glimpse of Moira when she returned from her ladies’ seminary in Farnham for the funeral. He would not recognize that bawling schoolgirl with red eyes as Lady Crieff. He would hear the word “heiress” and see nothing but another fortune to be stolen.
Jonathon thought it was a wonder the way Moira had taken hold of the reins when her mama died, leaving her burdened with that wretched mortgage, and all their money gone. Mrs. Trevithick's sister had stayed with them for three years, but it was not the aunt who had run the ship. It was Moira, and she a mere chit of fifteen years at the time. Yes, if anyone could carry off this desperate charade, it was Moira.
Lionel March had never seen Jonathon at all, as he was away at school during the courtship and quarantined with chicken pox for the funeral. Jonathon had got his looks from the other side of the family. Like his mama, he had blue eyes and light blond hair. At sixteen years, he had attained a height of six feet but had not yet fleshed out either his frame or his face. He was at that awkward age when it was impossible for his jackets and trousers to keep pace with his ever-growing limbs. His particular bane was his nose, which had mushroomed overnight from a button to a fair-sized wedge, effectively removing any telltale likeness to his mama.
"Are you sure you will recognize him after all this time?” Jonathon asked.
"I would recognize his hide in a tanning factory,” Moira said, her voice hardening to bitterness.
"There is always his finger, in any case,” Jonathon added. “That bit missing off the small finger of his left hand."
Moira knew she would need no such clue. Lionel March's face was engraved in her memory. It had haunted her in a hundred nightmares. He had come like a spoiler into the simple lives of the Trevithicks, wreaking havoc. How could Mama have cared for him? He was the devil incarnate. Yet within the space of six weeks he had talked her mama into marriage, and Papa scarcely dead a year. If only she had been home…?
But Mama had been alone, and lonesome. No one in the neighborhood knew a thing about March. He had claimed to be a large landowner from Cornwall. His fancy wardrobe and carriage suggested money. Their relatives had warned Mrs. Trevithick to caution, but she had paid them no heed. She had rushed pell-mell into marriage with a man she scarcely knew, and within three months she lay dead in her grave.
It would not have surprised Moira if the villain had killed her, but it seemed March was at least not guilty of that. He had been in London on business when Mama took that tumble from her mount. It was only after the funeral that the Trevithicks learned the extent of his depredations on the estate. Papa had left the Elms unencumbered, with a dowry of ten thousand for Moira besides. The dowry was gone, and the estate had been mortgaged for fifteen thousand pounds. After the funeral, Mr. March had told the solicitor he was running up to London for a few days to arrange finances with his man of business.
He never returned. He had stolen twenty-five thousand pounds, and Moira had made a vow that she would recover it, if she had to follow March to Africa or the North Pole to do it. Their solicitor had told them the theft had been done legally. As their mama's husband, March had the right to manage-or mismanage-her monies as he saw fit. If the law could not help them, then they must help themselves.
It was only after his departure that the rumors began surfacing. It seemed Mr. March had bilked a certain young lord out of a fortune at cards six months before coming to the Elms, the Trevithick's family estate in Surrey. Before that, he had been promoting shares in a nonexistent gold mine in Canada. He had married a wealthy, aging widow in Devon and made off with her fortune-unfortunately after marrying Mrs. Trevithick, making both marriages legal. There was some possibility he might have other wives sequestered about the country as well, but if so, they had not come to light.
It was discovered he had used various aliases and disguises in his career. He had been a black-haired sea captain with whiskers, a blond, cleanshaven gentleman farmer from America, an Irish horse breeder, and, on one occasion, a bishop. But the villain in each case had one physical characteristic he could not change: He was missing the tip of the small finger on his left hand.
It had taken four years of inquiry, letter writing, and scanning the journals for reports of his victims, and at last it had paid off. The determination to catch him had been all that had kept her going through the lean years of scrimping and trying to keep the Elms afloat. Lady Marchbank of Blaxstead, a second cousin of Mr. Trevithick, had seen a stranger missing the appropriate bit of finger in a shop in her village. She had followed him and learned he was staying at Owl House Inn, using the name Major Stanby.
As this was such an out-of-the-way spot, she assumed he was in hiding from his latest victim. She had kindly invited the Trevithicks to put up with her at Cove House, but Moira, who was in charge of the expedition, had elected to stay at the inn, as that would give her greater access to March.
Over the past four years, the strategy for recovering their money had changed with the times. It was only last year that Moira had read the story of Lady Crieff, from Scotland. It seemed an aging baronet had married his shepherd's daughter, a female decades younger than himself. Upon his demise, the female had inherited an awesome collection of jewelry valued at one hundred thousand pounds. The reason the story had received such widespread attention had to do with the son, David, now Sir David Crieff. His lawyers had undertaken litigation to recover the jewels. As they were of more value than the family estate, the lawyers were claiming Sir Aubrey had been deranged when he had made the will. Naturally he would wish his son to be his major heir.