The Matchmaker's Rogue
January 10, 2020 (ebook and print, Edwards and Williams)
Polished Jesslyn Chance has one of the most enviable positions in the little Regency coastal village of Grace-by-the-Sea. She is the hostess of the spa, arranging introductions and entertainments and playing matchmaker to the ladies and gentlemen who come to take the waters, promenade through the shops, and dance at the assembly. But when a rogue returns from her past, Jess finds herself suddenly at sea.
Always an adventurer, Larkin Denby left Grace-by-the-Sea to right the wrongful death of his father. Now he's back on a mission: to identify the mysterious Lord of the Smugglers who allegedly sails from Grace Cove and takes England's secrets to France. But Grace-by-the-Sea is the perfect little spa town, run by the still oh-so-perfect Jesslyn Chance. When the village's future is threatened, Jess must work with Lark to solve the mystery and protect the town's own. In doing so, the matchmaker of Grace-by-the-Sea may just find that the best match for her is the rogue who stole her heart years ago.
Grace-by-the-Sea: Where romance and adventure come home.
Grace-by-the-Sea, Dorset, England, May 1804
There was something to be said for routine and order. Most days.
One of the reasons Jesslyn Chance loved the village of Grace-by-the-Sea is that it rarely changed. The same hot mineral water had been bubbling out of the limestone cliffs since before the Romans had landed in the little horseshoe-shaped cove below. The same families fished from the cove, farmed the chalk Downs above, worked at the spa, married at St. Andrew's Church, and had babies who grew up to marry and have more babies.
For the last hundred years, the same sorts of people, from young misses nervously awaiting their come out to venerable military gentlemen nursing war injuries, had come to drink the spa waters and bathe in the sea. The village had grown up to cater to the needs of its guests, boasting shops and conveniences few of its size ever managed. It was all very civilized.
Until you introduced a rogue.
She didn't notice him when he first strolled into the Grand Pump Room. The columned space, which served as the social center of the spa, was already crowded. She could only catch glimpses of the light blue walls and bronze wall clock across from her.
And she had been busy welcoming the other arrivals-a pair of spinster sisters, hair pulled back from their wrinkled cheeks; a weathered-faced general who'd served in India; and a mother and daughter fresh from London, their pale muslin gowns proclaiming the latest fashion. She guided the general to Lord Wesley Featherstone for conversation and pointed out an eligible bachelor to the mother and daughter, who promptly inveigled an invitation.
She thought perhaps the elderly sisters might enjoy her aunt Maudlyn's company, as her aunt had yet to take up her place at the harpsichord in the southwest corner of the Pump Room. But her tiny aunt positively vibrated with excitement, standing on the toes of her black leather half boots.
"It's him," she whispered to Jess as they stood behind the tall desk holding the Welcome Book that listed everyone who had ever visited the spa. "The pirate."
Oh, was it pirates today? She'd thought it trolls now. Maudie was given to odd fancies like that. She'd once proclaimed their friend Abigail Archer a mermaid in disguise, and she was equally certain Napoleon's agents were hiding in the Vicar Mr. Wingate's wardrobe. Her tendency to whimsy was one of the reasons the Spa Corporation had made Jess the official hostess of the spa a year ago instead of her older aunt. The other reason was pity, but Jess chose not to dwell on that.
"And where is this pirate?" she asked, attempting to look serious. "Do you mean Admiral Walsey there by the fountain? I could see him with a cutlass between his teeth." Perhaps twenty years ago. The four stone of pounds the good Admiral had gained since then might prevent him from climbing the ropes these days.
Maudie shook her head so hard her grey curls bounced against her round cheeks. "Not the Admiral." She pointed at the man approaching through the crowd. "Him."
"Oh." It was all Jess could manage as she took in the confident strut, the cocky smile, the gleam in those brown eyes. Him? Now?
Maudie nodded as if she had noticed the change in Jess. "You see it, don't you? He's a pirate, a rogue. He's out to steal our greatest treasure."
Jess took a deep breath and raised her head. "Larkin Denby is no pirate. His mother and sisters live in Upper Grace. Very likely he's merely here for a visit."
Maudie dropped back onto her soles in a rustle of black bombazine as he came to stand on the opposite side of the mahogany desk from them. "Rubbish. He's here to cause trouble."
Jess was only glad Lark either hadn't heard her aunt or had decided not to answer. His head was bowed so that she could only see the crown of his golden-brown hair, and he seemed to be studying the names of the others who had come before him. Was he as nervous as she was at the thought of renewing their acquaintance? Or had he forgotten her completely in the eight years since they'd parted? Did men remember their first loves?
Best to remember her role now. She wasn't a girl on her first Season, unsure of herself and filled with awe of the world. This was her spa. She was the one in control.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Denby," she said, launching into her prepared speech. "Welcome to the spa at Grace-by-the-Sea. I am your hostess, Miss Chance, and this is my assistant Mrs. Tully. If you have any questions or would like an introduction, you have only to ask."
His head snapped up. Though he held her gaze only a moment, as was proper, she felt as if he were memorizing every feature, from the blond curls clustered around her face to her gloved hands resting on the table beside the book. His smile bloomed, and something inside her bloomed with it. "Miss Chance. How nice to see you and your charming aunt again."
A simple statement, hardly threatening, yet a dozen ways to escape rushed in on her. She kept her smile in place. She had no reason to run. She'd welcomed nearly a thousand guests, first as a volunteer, then as an assistant to her father, and now in her own right. She arranged introductions, friendships, courtships! On any given day, she kept as many as three dozen people healthy and happy, and that didn't count her younger brother, Alex, or her aunt.
"And hostess now," he continued. "But of course you'd want to serve beside your father." He glanced around as if seeking the spa's physician.
Jess's throat tightened, but her voice came out all politeness. "My father passed away a year ago, sir. We are without a physician at present."
His gaze swung back to her, softening. "I'm sorry to hear that. Your father was a good man."
He'd been a great man, one sorely needed. She could never fill his shoes, and Alex did not seem to want to try.
"Thank you," she said. "Allow me to reacquaint you with the spa." She picked up the carefully worded pamphlet from the Corporation and offered it to him.
"The water is poured from nine to four Monday through Saturday, noon to three on Sunday. Bathing is on the low tide and by appointment. Tea is served at four Monday through Saturday and one on Sunday here in the Grand Pump Room, and we close early every Wednesday for an assembly in the evening in rooms just up the hill. I do..."
"Hope you'll join us," Maudie finished for her, and rather breathlessly at that.
Lark accepted the pamphlet from Jess. His fingers touched hers, as briefly as his glance. She had to fight to keep from snatching back her hand.
"I look forward to it, ladies," he said. He turned and continued his stroll about the room.
Jess took another deep breath, feeling as if she'd been wanting air for the last few moments. What was wrong with her? She'd been pursued by two other men in the time since Larkin Denby had shaken the chalk soil from his boots and ridden away from Grace-by-the-Sea. Neither of those courtships had been successful, of course, but she'd realized that her skill lay in matching others. And she had to deal with men every day-visitors to the spa, shopkeepers in the village. None were quite that handsome, that confident, but still.
She raised her chin. "Two hours yet until tea," she told her aunt, attempting to return things to normal. "Are you pouring today, or shall I?"
But Maudie started around the tall desk as if intent on chasing after their newest guest. "You can pour. I'll be watching Mr. Denby. I tell you, there's something odd about him."
Jess caught her arm to keep her from accosting him. Such a scandal would cost them their positions, and where would they be then?
"Mr. Denby will get on with the others famously," she assured her aunt, letting go of her cautiously. "Look, he's talking with the general like a gentleman." The two men chatted, strangers making idle conversation as so many of their guests did. Then Lark moved on, leaving the general smiling as he rubbed the paunch straining his waistcoat.
"Mr. Denby doesn't fit in the spa," Maudie argued. "He doesn't look the least bit ill. He has no limp, no squint, no sign of a scrofulous cough."
"Neither did most of our visitors to arrive this summer," Jess pointed out. "Not everyone comes to the spa because they are ill." She tidied the stack of pamphlets, noticed her hands were trembling, and shook them out. At this rate, her aunt might suggest that Jess take the waters!
But Maudie had narrowed her grey eyes over her sharp nose. "We have few enough healthy ones. You have only to ask the Corporation."
She had no need to ask. The state of their visitors had been a constant topic of conversation at the monthly council meetings she was expected to attend. Famous spas like inland Bath or Lyme Regis farther along the coast brought people for the society as much as the healing waters. Despite improvements Jess had suggested and the presence of two great houses nearby, the spa at Grace-by-the-Sea had never achieved such fame among the wealthy and titled. They catered instead to the gentry and yeoman class. The reason remained more of a mystery than Lark's reappearance.
Though his reappearance was something of a mystery. He'd come alone, without mother or sisters. She spoke to them on occasion when they came to the assemblies. None had mentioned him being estranged from them. He'd originally left the area to seek his fortune. Grace-by-the-Sea had been too small for a man looking for adventure and advancement.
So, why return now? The only adventure here was the potential meeting of two hearts, and he'd forsaken that.
"Be that as it may," Jess said with a stern look at her diminutive aunt, "you may not harass the Newcomers. You promised."
Maudie humphed. She had developed the taxonomy of visitors years ago. Regulars were like family; Jess knew their stories, their reasons for coming each summer to the spa, their hopes and fears for the future. Irregulars had come often enough to be remembered; they were acquaintances with the possibility of becoming friends. Newcomers were the strangers, the ones first visiting the spa. It remained to be seen what would become of them.
She could not see Lark ever becoming a Regular. His story wouldn't be sad enough, his needs consuming enough, that their little company would satisfy, in the end. As before, he would be in her life as briefly as a wave cresting the shore. This time, she would make sure he left as little mark.
So, Jess was in charge of things now. Lark hadn't expected that. Just because he hadn't been ready to marry eight years ago at the tender age of twenty didn't mean another man wouldn't have leaped to offer for Jesslyn Chance in the meantime. She was pretty, she was clever, and she had a unique ability to tell people what they didn't want to hear, in a way that had them thanking her for it. Couple all that with a respectable family, and she would never lack for suitors.
Just not him. He'd been too young to settle down before, and his work was too dangerous now. He would not want to leave a wife behind the way his father had left his mother. Bad enough that she was a widow, but then, so was his oldest sister. The war tended to leave more than soldiers and sailors as casualties.
He excused himself from a conversation with a portly former general. While the fellow had admirable experience plotting strategy, his questionable health made it unlikely he was the man Lark sought. He was also far too obvious with his booming voice and portentous manner. The man Lark had been sent to discover would be subtle, used to living in the shadows, a spider awaiting a fly.
Perhaps that was why Lark had protested this assignment.
"Tarry in the spa? What possible good can that do?" he'd asked Commissioner Franklin at Weymouth only two days ago as he'd stood before the man's desk in an office overlooking the harbor. "I was needed in Kent. There are two thousand ships and nearly one hundred thousand troops massing across the Channel. We cannot afford for smugglers to pass information to them."
The commissioner had snorted, bushy grey brows bristling. "We've been told Napoleon brags about having smugglers in his pay, but it isn't just Kent that's in danger from his invasion. Smugglers ply the waters off Dorset as well, bringing out information and bringing in spies along with their duty-free goods."
"And you think that they sail from Grace Cove?" Lark pressed. "I've visited Grace-by-the-Sea some years ago, sir. It did not seem the sort of place to attract a criminal class."
"The very fact that you are known in the area is why you were chosen for this assignment," his superior insisted, thick body leaning back in his padded chair. "We've tried everything else-revenue cutters off the headland, dragoons along the shore. It's time for something different, something unexpected, from the Excise Office. You're one of the best Riding Officers we have, you can pass for a gentleman, and your presence will not be remarked upon."
He wasn't so sure about that. His mother had moved him and his two younger sisters to the village just north of the area, Upper Grace, after his father had died. He'd spent his youth riding the Downs, sneaking off to the shore. And one memorable summer, he had accompanied his mother to the spa and met the golden-haired Jesslyn Chance. Some might recall that. Besides, if word got back to his mother and sisters that he was in the area and had failed to stop by, there would certainly be remarks.
"I am your devoted servant, sir," he told the commissioner. "But surely there are other ways to identify these smugglers than to spend my time sipping the waters."
"I don't care if you sip them, dunk yourself in them, or pour them on the ground," the commissioner had replied, face tight and eyes steely. "Our source says the man we're after sails from Grace Cove, and we have reason to believe he moves among the gentry, perhaps even the aristocracy. Where else would you expect to find him but at the spa?"
Glancing around the Grand Pump Room now, he could not help but doubt the wisdom of this assignment anew. The spa at Grace-by-the-Sea was peace itself. Pastoral scenes decorated the arched ceiling; white wicker chairs waited with open arms along the blue walls. With the creamy stone fountain in one corner, waters sparkling in the sun shining through the nearby windows, and the white-lacquered harpsichord in another, the place resembled nothing so much as a conservatory in a great house.
The people crowding the space seemed just as benign. A few looked ill, their faces pinched, their shoulders stooped, their steps slow. More were intent on conversation and company rather than a cure. They laughed, they exchanged pleasantries, they took the waters. It was entirely too civilized. He wanted to shout at them, splash them with water from the fountain, throw the precisely folded pamphlets into the air, anything to wake them up to the impending danger.
"Is there something you need, Mr. Denby?"
It appeared he'd circumnavigated the room again. His booted feet had stopped of their own accord before the tall desk, the Welcome Book, and Jesslyn Chance. Her aunt, Mrs. Tully, had gone to pour some water for two elderly women who were obviously sisters. He had seen their names in the Welcome Book. He'd hoped the book would give him some clue as to a possible suspect, but the long list of names had only proven that the spa was as popular as his superior had intimated. Jess might have been able to point him in the right direction. A shame he could not confide in her this time, but the fewer who knew his purpose, the better. While many decried the lawlessness of smuggling, a good percentage welcomed the lower-cost commodities the Free Traders brought in. Those who worked for the Excise Office were not always appreciated, or safe.
But would Jess confide in him? She still looked as sweet as he remembered. Her thick blond hair was pulled back in a high bun, but curls danced about her cheeks. Her lips were as warm a pink as those little shells his sisters used to collect from the shore. Her curves showed to advantage in a high-waisted cotton gown printed in blocks of pink and white and topped with a modest white collar.
Yet it was her eyes that drew him. Large, wide-spaced, and a delicate blue, they made her look as if she were perpetually amazed by the world around her. He and Jess had been close when he'd visited eight years ago, the only two people that young at the spa then. They'd spent every day together, talking, walking, dancing at the assembly, attending church. Nothing had come of it. Nothing could come of it. They were too different-her content with life, him determined to see and do more. Still, perhaps she would indulge in a little gossip now.
"Mr. Denby?" she persisted in that soft, lilting voice. "Might I be of assistance?"
He smiled at her. "I believe you may, Miss Chance. I'm staying at the Mermaid for a few days, and I find myself wondering what to do for entertainment."
"It depends on what you find entertaining."
Said in such a disarming tone, he should not hear iron beneath the words, yet he did. She was being polite but letting him know she expected him to respond in kind. This was no time for coy comments, teasing remarks. She was no longer the young lady looking for companionship to while away the summer.
He inclined his head. "I meant no disrespect. But Grace-by-the-Sea always appears to be one of those quiet little villages where all seems placid, peaceful on the surface. I wonder whether there could be a current below."
"I believe it's called an undertow," she said with a bright smile. "And you will find none of that here. Grace-by-the-Sea is as sheltered as our cove. There hasn't been a murder in the area in more than sixty years, and our magistrate, Mr. Howland, hasn't had an offense worthy of holding over for the Assizes during his five-year tenure. I fear if you crave excitement, you shouldn't have returned."
He shared that fear, but he could only hope she was mistaken, for his future, the future of the village, and likely the future of the nation depended on there being something very wrong at Grace-by-the-Sea.
And it was his job to prove it.