Tempting Taffy – Meara Platt

“WHO ARE YE, lass?” Gavin Carstairs, Marquis of Falkirk, demanded of the maid who was busying herself about his guest chamber shortly after his arrival at Hartland Abbey. She was going through his bags to unpack his clothes and stack them neatly in the massive wardrobe that took up a corner of the large room. But he was still on edge and did not want anyone fussing with his belongings just now. A fire had been lit in the enormous hearth, casting the room in a warm, golden glow that made this girl look almost ethereal as she turned toward him in surprise. When she approached to bob a quick curtsy before taking her leave, he felt an unexpected warmth flow through him. He dismissed the response. Surely, it had nothing to do with the girl. His body was merely warming to the welcome heat of the room, for he’d traveled long on this cold, winter’s day and was half frozen upon arrival. “His Grace assigned me to tend to your guest quarters, my lord,” she said while staring at her toes. “The Duke of Devon?” This was his home and Gavin was not so much a guest as a man on the run and needing a safe place to hide. “Leave the rest for my valet and get out,” he said, irritated with himself for his body’s inexplicable response to the girl. “As you wish, my lord. And what of your son’s belongings? Shall I leave those for him as well?” Her head remained bowed as she spoke. Indeed, she appeared to be modest and obedient, as any good servant ought to be. But Gavin sensed her irritation.

It was nothing he could point to exactly. Her tone was demure and there was no defiance in her expression. She was not even looking at him as she cleared her throat and added, “Although I’m not certain your valet will be able to attend you any time soon considering his leg was broken during last week’s attempt on your life and you left him to recuperate in York.” He frowned. “Ye heard about that?” She nodded, still not looking up at him. “Everyone here at Hartland knows of it by now. News travels fast. Bad news especially. Thank goodness you and your little boy were not injured.” He studied her more closely.

“What’s yer name, lass?” “Taffy, my lord.” He knew it was quite forward of him, but he needed to have a look at her face. She appeared fairly young, perhaps no more than twenty. Certainly not beyond her early twenties. She had a nice figure, that much was obvious, even though her maid uniform was unremarkable. It was of plain homespun, black wool and shapeless. The white linen apron over it was tied in a neat bow at her waist and gave the only hint of her slender figure. He reached out and tucked a knuckle under her chin to raise her gaze to his. The splendor of her aquamarine eyes took him by surprise. They were lovely, shaped like a cat’s, and there was a surprising gleam of intelligence behind them.

Her lips were also nicely shaped, their color a natural, deep pink, and she had an aquiline nose that tipped upward to a point at the end. She had good cheekbones and a firm chin, not one of those weak ones that disappeared into one’s throat. No, Taffy had well defined features, and he suspected she also had well defined opinions to match. “Will that be all, my lord?” “No.” He had an urge to tug the unsightly mobcap off her head and gain a clear view of her hair. The few curls peeking out from under it were the color of dark fire. “Tell me what ye have heard. We were attacked in York last week, but we only arrived here less than an hour ago. How can ye possibly know what occurred?” “Well, your coach driver is related to one of the maids in service here and he told her what had happened. We all realized at once that something was wrong because you were missing your valet.

The very one you just mentioned.” She arched an eyebrow and regarded him dubiously. “He with the broken leg. Which is why I took on the added role of putting away your clothes. I’ve done the same for your son.” She pointed to the wardrobe. “You’ll find your little boy’s belongings neatly stowed in there. I’m almost done with yours, but I can put it all back so that one of the butlers on staff can deal with the chore, if you prefer. I assure you, beyond this little task, I need have nothing more to do with you.” He tried not smile, and indeed ought to have been displeased by her comeuppance, but he found her insolence refreshing.

Well, it wasn’t insolence so much as bluntness. “Do go on. I’m sure ye have more to say.” “It isn’t my place, my lord.” She tried to bow her head again, but he still had his hand under her chin and would not allow her to look away. “I want to hear it all. Do not be afraid of me. I will not be angry nor will I hurt ye.” But he did drop his hand to his side, once again irritated with himself for touching the lass, albeit innocently. “Even if the coach driver had said nothing, we all would have immediately suspected something was amiss.

It is doubtful the heir to the Duke of Inverness would ever travel alone. Indeed, you arrived without the entourage one would expect surrounding you. Also, you arrived just after Christmas, missing the Duke of Devon and his family, as well as all the festivities. The family is no longer in residence now that Twelfth Night has come and gone, and yet here you are. The only guest in this big, rambling home.” She paused a moment, but proceeded at his nod. “When you descended your coach, you held your little boy’s hand. Not only that, he was clinging to you and you were allowing it. The poor lad was scared out of his wits, wasn’t he?” “Indeed, he was and still is.” She met his gaze squarely.

“We will keep a vigilant eye on him, my lord. No one will harm your little boy while he is here. But there is something that troubles me deeply.” He folded his arms across his chest. “What is it, lass?” “If someone is attempting to take your life, then why are you keeping your son close to you? Wouldn’t he be safer apart from you, at least until your assailant can be apprehended?” The lass did not mince her words. He ought to have chastised her for overstepping, but he liked that bit of spirit in her. More important, he liked that she was alert and thinking of Rafe’s safety. He could take care of himself, but the boy was only five years old. Helpless and vulnerable. He cast her a mirthless smile.

“This madman, whoever he may be, seems bent on killing him as well as me, so I thought it best to keep him close. It is far from ideal, but far worse for me to be apart from the lad if this crazed villain went for him first.” Her expression softened. “I see, my lord,” she said, releasing a shaky breath. She nibbled her lip a moment. “I did not know this part of it. I was not aware. Of course, your heart would never recover from such a thing. You’ve come to the right place. We know who belongs and who does not.

We’ll keep a sharp eye out for any strangers. As for your son, we’ll all watch over him and protect him as though he were our own.” “Taffy, that would ease my mind greatly.” She gave a curt bow, and believing herself dismissed, turned to walk to the hidden panel that led down the servants’ stairs. But he stopped her. “Dinna go, lass. Continue putting the rest of my things away. My apologies for snapping at ye when I entered.” “Not at all, my lord. You have good reason to be wary.

” She cleared her throat. “Since I am to remain, then um…about your weapons…” His eyebrow shot up in surprise. “Och, does anything escape yer notice? How did ye find them?” “Quite by accident. I heard them rattle beneath the false bottom of your bag when I tried to move it closer to the wardrobe. But I didn’t touch them.” He groaned. “Nor shall ye. Are we clear on that point?” Her lips were pursed again. “Since I will be attending to your son during your stay, would you consider telling me where you plan to hide them? It would be helpful for me to have this information if the unknown assailant does manage to get in here.” She held out her hands that appeared small and delicate.

“I doubt I’d get very far trying to fight him off with my fists.” Were all the Hartland maids as unusual as this girl? He doubted it. She was clever, observant, ready to risk her own life to protect his son. If confronted by this elusive villain, he almost believed she would be able to bring him down all on her own. They now stood a short distance apart. He dug into his pocket and retrieved a shilling he’d tucked in there earlier today. Without warning, he tossed it to her and was not surprised when she easily caught it with one hand. She stared at the coin in dismay. “My lord, I cannot accept this!” “Keep it. I have no doubt ye’ll earn it ten times over.

This is something appropriately given at the end of my stay, isn’t it? Consider it an early token of my appreciation for yer good services. For yer good services toward my son and nothing more,” he stressed. “I dinna mean it any other way, lass.” Some lords thought it was their privilege to impose themselves on household staff, especially housemaids as beautiful as this girl. He’d never behaved so boorishly and was not about to start now. The point of tossing her the shilling was to test her alertness. As he suspected, she was quick to respond. Quicker than most trained soldiers. Indeed, among the best. Blessed saints.

She was no mere servant. Who was she really? CHAPTER TWO TAFFY RALSTON HAD handled assignments for the Duke of Devon before, so she was no stranger to his beautiful home, nor was she surprised when Homer Barrow, the head of the Bow Street agency for whom she worked, had asked her to remain at Hartland Abbey on a new mission. She had been told they were to protect the duke’s good friend, the Marquis of Falkirk. Only she hadn’t realized the marquis was a relatively young man, perhaps in his early thirties, if that. Nor had she expected him to be as handsome as he was. Her heart had never fluttered over a man before, certainly never one she was assigned to guard. But this marquis was nothing short of magnificent. Big, muscled body. Full head of dark hair. Piercing blue eyes.

Merciful heaven, and that brogue! She fanned herself with her hand, suddenly needing to cool down despite the wintery chill. This big Scot could melt the ice and snow on a frozen mountain top with one steamy look. But she shook out of the thought, knowing she had to maintain complete concentration on her mission, especially now that little Rafe was unexpectedly with his father. The boy was an adorable miniature of the marquis. Dark hair and bright blue eyes. His face was still soft and round, but Taffy knew he would grow into an exceptionally handsome man with the same rugged features his father had. She had not been assigned to guard young Rafe, but how could she not take on this task as well? Everyone believed only the marquis would be here. She would send word at once to Mr. Barrow. Until she received her new instructions, she would include father and son in her assignment and protect both.

Presently, the boy was in the parlor having warm milk and honey cake. Several footmen were there to attend him, but Taffy was eager to make his acquaintance and establish a rapport. His presence changed everything, and although she did not have many years of experience as a Bow Street runner, she had excellent instincts. Those very instincts warned that the marquis’s unknown enemy would go for the boy first. If the point was to make the marquis suffer, then nothing could be worse than watching his precious son die before his eyes. But it would not happen. Indeed, not if she had any say in the matter. That villain would have to kill her first. “Master Rafe,” she said, bobbing a curtsy to the five year old who was quietly enjoying his honey cake. “When you are finished, it will be my pleasure to show you up to your quarters and ready you for bed.

” The boy nodded, looking up at her with big, trusting eyes. “Where’s my papa?” She knelt beside him. “I’m sure he will join you upstairs shortly. I think he wanted to take a tour of the house and grounds before it grew too dark outside. You shall share his bedchamber, so you needn’t worry. He’ll be right beside you while you sleep, snoring like a goose.” He giggled when she made honking sounds to imitate his father. “Do you promise?” he asked, his voice achingly sweet as he took her outstretched hand. “Yes, Master Rafe. I promise.

Your father will be there with you, and whenever he is not, I shall be. Do you like to play games?” He nodded. “What games do you like to play? Spillikins? Battledore? Bilbocatch? Marbles? The house is well stocked, and you and I shall amuse ourselves however you wish. Or if you prefer, I can read to you. Would you like to stop by the library and choose some books?” He nodded. “My father used to read to me, but he doesn’t any more.” “Perhaps he will start again soon. He is a very busy man. However, I am sure you are always topmost in his thoughts.” She grabbed one of the smaller candelabra to light their way as they walked to the library.

The halls were kept well lit, an extravagance permitted while the marquis remained with them. But there was little activity. The house was big and empty now that the family was not in residence. Taffy ignored the eerie chill running up and down her spine, not liking that so many parts of the house were unoccupied. She would speak to the housekeeper about adding a few more footmen here and there. She hid her trepidation and distracted the boy by keeping him engaged in conversation. All the while, she maintained a sharp eye out for any moving shadows. Her heart raced at every corner turned. Perhaps she was being too cautious, but it was in her nature. In all likelihood, this enemy was not hiding here, lying in wait.

It was too soon. The marquis had only arrived a short while ago. Who was to say his assailant even knew where he was? Still, she kept a small step ahead of young Rafe in order to shield his body from anyone springing out at them. All was quiet and they reached the library without incident. She did not think the villain would be in there or even be able to approach the house unnoticed until well after sundown. But she took nothing for granted. “Let’s pick out a few books,” she suggested. “What stories do you like best?” He shrugged. “Let’s choose a few. Do you like swords and magic? Knights on horses? Sailing ships?” He nodded in response to all of these suggestions, so she picked out four books because that was as many as she could tuck in one arm while she held the candelabra in the other.

“My hands are full, Master Rafe, so I cannot hold your hand as we return to your bedchamber. But I would like you to grab onto my apron strings while we walk. Will you do this for me?” He regarded her earnestly. “Yes. Can we read the story about the boy and the sword first?” “Yes, of course. It is an excellent choice.” She knocked lightly before entering the guest chamber since the boy shared it with his father and she did not wish to walk in on him unannounced, especially if he was disrobing. That would be quite something. She was not unaffected by his good looks. And to see him without his clothes? She’d probably swoon.

Certainly drop the books on her toes. The candelabra, too. And now, she could not even think about the bed without taking a deep breath. Rafe would be sharing that grand four-poster with the magnificent man. The maids were already in a flutter over him. More than one comment had been made in passing about wishing it was they, instead of the little boy, sharing that massive bed. Taffy frowned when her heart began to flutter. What was wrong with her? She wasn’t the one going to slip beneath the covers with the marquis. He’d already told her that he was not the sort to romp with the maids on staff. This ought to have put her mind at ease, but his honorable nature only made him more attractive to her.

The laird was a gentleman and respected those who were lesser in stature. Did the man have any flaws? She knocked again, this time louder, and cautiously led the boy in when no one responded. After setting down the books and candelabra, she did a quick turn about the room, checking the large wardrobe, peering under the bed, and behind the drapes. “What are you doing?” the boy asked. “Just looking around.” She retrieved the boy’s nightshirt and woolen socks from the wardrobe and set them on the bed, then poured water from the ewer into a basin. Wash cloths and soap were neatly set out beside the basin. She washed the boy’s hands and face, especially his hands since they were sticky from the honey cake, and then helped him out of his clothes into his nightshirt. He hopped onto the bed, sticking his feet over the edge as she rolled the socks over his wiggling toes. A warming brick had been placed at the foot of the bed, but Rafe was too short to reach close to the heat it gave off.

However, he would be quite comfortable. One of the footmen had recently stoked the fire and left enough wood beside the hearth to allow the marquis to keep it going through the night. “Let me tuck you under the covers and then I shall read to you.” He scrambled under the counterpane and grinned at her in expectation. “What is the boy’s name in the story?” “His name is Arthur.” She brushed a few stray curls of dark hair off his brow. “But I have an idea. What if I call him Rafe instead?” The boy liked that idea, especially when ‘Rafe’ drew the sword from the stone and became England’s next king. Taffy embellished the scene, taking up the fire iron and pretending it was the sword. “When young Rafe pulled out the sword, it began to hum so loudly, the noise could be heard throughout the hills into the neighboring villages.

Everyone ran toward the highest hill where the boy stood with sword raised high in his hand.” She raised the fire iron as she read. “Three cheers for King Rafe! Hip, hip, hurrah! Hip, hip, hurrah!” Rafe called out the final cheer. “Hip, hip, hurrah for me!” They both laughed heartily as she returned the fire iron to its proper place. When she turned back toward the bed, she noticed the marquis standing in the doorway, his arms folded over his chest and a warm smile on his face. “Thank ye, lass,” he said with a surprisingly humble sincerity. She blushed and stared down at her toes. “It is my pleasure, my lord. Master Rafe is a wonderful boy.” “Aye, he is that.

” He moved into the room, simply dominating it with his presence. “Rafe, what do ye think? Time to sleep. Taffy will finish reading the story to ye tomorrow.” The boy looked disappointed, but he nodded. “Yes, Papa.” “That’s a good lad. Ye ought to get yer rest. We’ve had a long day. I’m sure Taffy has, too. Ye’re dismissed, lass.

We’ll see ye in the morning.” “Yes, my lord.” She would need to be alert and at her best in the days to come. If she could have guarded them by night, she would have done so. But Mr. Barrow had several other runners positioned outside the main house and their responsibilities were to stand watch from sunset to sunrise. All Taffy needed to do before retiring to her own bed was take a turn along the ground floor and make certain all the doors and windows were securely locked.

.

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