But she despised the man-both on her own account and on that of the stranger whom he had tried to trap by using a woman-if the story was to be believed, that was. It was altogether likely that the stranger had made off with all the man's valuables.
"A mouse!" Freyja cried, gasping and clasping her throat. "A mouse ran across my bed."
There was a great to-do as a few ladies screamed and looked about them for chairs to stand on and a few men dashed into the room and went on a spirited mouse-hunt, under the bed, behind the washstand, behind the wardrobe, under the truckle bed, among Freyja's bags.
Freyja meanwhile was forced into maintaining a part quite unfamiliar to her. She shuddered and looked helpless.
"I daresay you dreamed it, ma'am-my lady, I mean," the innkeeper said at last. "We don't often have no mice in the house. The cats keep 'em out. If there was one, he's gone now, right enough."
Alice had arrived in the midst of the commotion, all wild-eyed terror, probably imagining what she would say to the Duke of Bewcastle-or, more to the point, what he would say to her-if her mistress's throat had been slashed from ear to ear while she was sleeping elsewhere than the room where she was supposed to be.
"Your maid will stay with you, my lady," the landlord said as the other guests drifted away, some indignant at having been so rudely awakened, others clearly disappointed at not having witnessed a mouse caught and executed for its transgression in having run across a bed with a human in it.
"Yes. Thank you." Freyja thought she sounded suitably pathetic.
"I'll sleep on the truckle bed, my lady," Alice announced bravely after everyone else had left and the door was closed. "I am not very afraid of mice, not as long as they stay on the floor. You wake me if it bothers you again and I'll chase it away." She was obviously terrified.
"You will go back to your bed, wherever it was," Freyja told her. "I would like to sleep for what remains of the night."
"But, my lady-" Alice began.
"Do you think I am afraid of a mouse?" Freyja demanded scornfully.
Her maid looked understandably mystified.
"Well, I didn't think you were," she said.
"Go." Freyja pointed to the door. "And may this be the last interruption any of us suffers for the rest of this night."
As soon as she was alone, she hurried to the window, put her head out, and peered downward, fearful of what she would see. He was a rogue and a villain and deserved whatever was coming to him. But surely not death. No, she would feel sorry, even a little guilty, if that had been his fate.
There was no sign of either the stranger or his boots or his coat.
It was then that she noticed the ivy growing thick on the walls.
Well, that was a relief anyway, she thought, closing the window and turning back into the room. Perhaps now she could expect a few hours of peaceful sleep.
But she stopped suddenly before she reached the bed and looked down at herself.
That whole scene-or series of scenes-had been enacted while she was clad in nothing but her nightgown, her feet bare and her hair loose and in a voluminous bush of tangled waves down her back.
And then she smiled.
And then chuckled.
And then sat on the edge of the bed and laughed aloud.
The utter absurdity of it all!
She could not remember when she had enjoyed herself more.
Joshua Moore, Marquess of Hallmere, was on his way from Yorkshire, where he had been staying with a friend, to spend a week with his grandmother, the Dowager Lady Potford, in Bath. He could name a dozen other places he would rather be without even stretching his mental faculties, but he was fond of his grandmother and he had not seen her for five years.
He left his horse at a livery stable, found the correct house on Great Pulteney Street, rapped the door knocker against the door, and noted with amusement how the expression on the face of the manservant who opened it changed from one of practiced deference to a look of haughty disdain.
"Sir?" he said, half closing the door and blocking the gap between it and the door frame with his black-clad person. "What might be your business?"
Joshua grinned cheerfully at him. "See if Lady Potford is at home and ask her if she will receive me, will you?" he asked.
The servant looked as if he were about to inform him without even bothering to check that his mistress was from home.
"Tell her that it is Hallmere," Joshua added.
The name obviously meant something. The man's expression underwent another change, becoming a blank, polite mask as he opened the door wide, stood to one side, and bowed.
"If you would wait here, my lord," he murmured.
Joshua stepped onto the black-and-white marble checkered floor of the hall and watched the servant-no doubt the butler-ascend the stairs, his ramrod-straight back bristling with polite disapproval, and disappear from sight. No more than two minutes later he reappeared.
"If you will follow me, my lord," he said from halfway down the stairs. "Her ladyship will receive you."
Lady Potford was in a square, pleasingly appointed sitting room overlooking the wide, classical elegance of Great Pulteney Street. She was still slim and straight-backed and fashionably clad and coiffed, Joshua saw as he strode into the room, though her hair was grayer than he remembered. It was, in fact, quite white at the temples.
"Grandmama!" He would have stridden all the way toward her and caught her in his arms if she had not lifted a lorgnette from a fine gold chain about her neck and raised it to her eyes, looking pained as she did so.
"My dear Joshua," she said, "how foolish of me to have imagined that acquiring the title must surely have made you respectable. It is no wonder Gibbs was wearing his most woodenly incommunicative expression when he came to announce your arrival."
Joshua cast a rueful glance down at himself. Although his coat and pantaloons were decent enough, his Hessian boots lacked all shine and still bore traces of mud from last night. So did his coat actually. His shirt was yesterday's and wrinkled. Much of it was hidden beneath his coat, of course, but there was the lamentable absence of a neckcloth to make it look marginally respectable or a waistcoat to hide more of it. He was also without a hat or gloves. He had not shaved since last evening-or combed his hair for that matter. In plain terms, he must look quite remarkably disreputable. He must look like someone who had just staggered away from an all-night orgy.
Of course, he had kissed two different women last night, but on neither occasion was he given the time or chance to indulge in anything resembling an orgy-more was the pity.
"I ran into a spot of bother at an inn last night," he explained, "and escaped literally as you see me. I did manage to rescue my horse from the inn stable, but, alas, I was forced to abandon all my possessions. My valet will doubtless rescue them and bring them on here later. It is not the first time he will have awoken to find me already flown."
"As I can well believe," Lady Potford said tartly, dropping her lorgnette on its chain. "Well, am I to be given a kiss?"
He grinned, took the remaining three strides toward her, caught her up in his arms, swung her once about, and kissed her heartily on the cheek as he set her back on her feet. She shook her head, half in exasperation, half in acknowledgment that she might have expected as much of him.
"Saucy boy," she murmured.
"It is good to see you, Grandmama," he said. "It has been a long time."
"And whose fault is that?" she asked severely. "You have been gallivanting all over the Continent for years, if gossip and your infrequent letters have reported matters correctly, though how you could have done so while the wars were still being fought I shudder to imagine. It is a pity that it took the death of your uncle to bring you home to England."
The death of his uncle had brought Joshua his title and property and fortune-and all the burdens that came with them.
"It was not quite that, Grandmama," he said. "It was the end of the wars that brought me back to England. With Napoléon Bonaparte imprisoned on Elba and Englishmen free to roam about Europe at will again, there was no more fun to be had from dodging danger."
"Well, no matter," she said, shaking her head again. "You are home now, whatever the reason-or almost home, at least. It is as it ought to be."
"I have no intention of going to Penhallow if that is what you have in mind," he told her. "There are too many other places to go and other experiences to be lived."
"Oh, do sit down, Joshua. You are too tall to look up at." She seated herself. "You are the Marquess of Hallmere now. You belong at Penhallow-it is yours. You have duties and responsibilities there. It really is time you went back there."
"Grandmama." He grinned at her as he took the chair she had indicated and ran one hand ruefully down the stubble of one cheek. "If you intend to preach duty at me for the next week, I shall have to ride off into the sunset in search of another scrape to get into."
"You doubtless would not have to look far," she said. "Scrapes seem to come riding in search of you, Joshua. Your eyes are bloodshot. I suppose you did not sleep last night. I will not ask what else you did do last night apart from riding toward Bath in such a shockingly disheveled state."
He yawned until his jaws cracked-a most unmannerly thing to do in a lady's presence-and at the same moment his stomach rumbled quite audibly.
"You look an absolute mess, Joshua," his grandmother observed bluntly. "When did you last eat?"