The barkeeper shuffled around the tables, stepping over a few wandering feet. Grumpy and tired from the day’s work, he placed the tray of food on the table and went back to get the ale. Hopefully, they were the last of the tavern’s customers that needed serving.
His wife had left him some hours ago to close the shed and bring in the clothes she had washed, but she was yet to return. He knew it was no doubt because of the rain.
Placing the mugs, he collected his money and returned to his stack of drinks. Just then, a heavily bearded man with a hat on his head and a large black coat draped over his frame, opened the door and walked in. Beads of raindrops fell from his clothes and beard. More came from his hat and coat as he took them off and hung them on a rack beside the door. The whole tavern grew still, everyone seemingly taken by the strange-looking man.
Huge and intimidating, he walked boldly towards the only vacant table left in the tavern. His wet hair covered most of his face, and he seemed to move, based on instinct rather than sight. Seated gracefully on his seat, he raised his head to catch the stares of a group of thuggish looking men in knights’ armor seated at the opposite corner.
Ignoring them, he motioned to the barkeeper with his hands, as if he was giving a signal. Soon they all went on with their chattering. The barkeeper rang a little bell, and a young lady of no more than sixteen came out from an adjacent room. The barkeeper whispered something in her ear, and she left to return with a large plate of chicken wings, a plate of sauce, bread, and a mug of ale. She placed them down before the strange man’s table. He made a grunting noise shooing her away.
One of the knights, Little Billy, stood up from his seat, slamming his mug on the table. He was almost bald, save for the few strands of dirty hair that clung to his scalp. He was tall, big, and muscular. His beard came down in an arch and was tied at the middle like that of an old wizard, but on him, it made him appear menacing.
He walked towards the barkeeper, intimidating him with his height and build.
“Why were we given lesser portions of food when you clearly had so much for a common beggar?”
The bartender felt his hands shake beneath the napkin he held so tightly. Little Billy was not one to be trifled with, not even by other knights of his equal ranking. He knew this, and so did everyone else whose eyes he felt watching him.
“He’s a regular here. He always pays beforehand, and truly we served you and your party the best of what little we had,” the barkeeper replied.
“Well, my friends and I want some of what you just gave that beggar, and we want it now. On the house!” Little Billy demanded, much to the cheers of his friends.
The barkeeper closed his eyes for a moment, thinking of what to do or say. He knew he was in a dire situation. There was only a little bit of food left, and that was what he planned for his family as the rain was still falling in torrents and the woodshed must have had its fill of water. Cooking at this hour and with such resources would simply mean sleeping with a hungry belly.
“Let the barkeeper be!” came the croaky voice of the stranger.
Little Billy steered his head in the direction from whence the voice came. His friends stopped laughing, and there was an uneasy tension within the tavern.
“Did you just say something, stranger?” he asked.
The stranger took his time in replying. He dropped the last piece of meat onto the now empty plate of half-eaten bones. He wiped his hands with the napkin on the table and seemed to be searching for something on the floor.
Satisfied, he looked straight into Little Billy’s eyes and repeated himself. “I said, let the barkeeper be.”
At that, Little Billy scowled his face so hard his brows were almost touching. His friends, seeing his mood, stood up in unison to fight. The remaining customers remained seated. None seemed to be in the mood to interfere.
Provoked and in the company of his friends, Little Billy walked towards the stranger; strength, hatred, and boiling rage in every step. In a few seconds, the gap between Little Billy and the stranger was closed, and he stared down at the man, waiting for the next provocation so he could be justified as he unleashed his wrath.
“Say one more thing stranger, and you will feel the might of the renowned knight that can kill a hundred men with his bare hands, Sir Bill Murphy; the bone breaker!” said one of the little men that accompanied the acclaimed knight.
“Is that so?” replied the stranger.
He raised his head into the light, and only then did the men see his face. Their eyes met his, and the look on their faces changed dramatically from one of intimidation to that of recognition and fear. Tracing the hard unmistakable line that was a scar on his face, the men realized immediately whom exactly they were threatening.
One by one, his friends backed off, sneaking out of the tavern until only Little Billy was left standing. He stood there motionless and afraid, with his head bowed in remorse and regret. The stranger got up from his seat and walked past Little Billy and towards the barkeeper.
“He’ll pay for the meal. Goodnight Fredrick,” he said and proceeded to get his coat.
The barkeeper bowed his head in respect and gratitude at the greeting. To him, it was pretty obvious that Little Billy had not guessed who he was insulting.
The customers were still quiet, unrecovered from the spectacle that had seen the mighty Billy stop short on making quick work of the stranger that was now leaving.
The rain had stopped now, and the moon and stars were beginning to display their breathtaking splendour.
“Goodnight, Lord William,” the barkeeper muttered barely audibly.
The church was full to its capacity and even had some souls seeking penance, those most especially without a title that comes with an automatic seat reservation, standing at the far corners of the large building.
A young lady was seen clad in black with a shawl over her head as the older lady beside her bowed her head in prayer with the voice of the minister echoing through the large hall and over her head.
The Bishop blessed the holy bread, raised it high, so that all who looked upon the body of the one and true Christ may rise along with him and be worthy of his love and salvation. He muttered some words and proceeded with the ritual of the Holy Eucharist.
Isabel Montgomery, the young lady, closed her eyes and prayed for the forgiveness of her sins. She felt the overbearing presence of the lady beside her and forced herself to remain focused, just as her mother had taught. Although completely overwhelmed by sorrow and grief, she compelled her aching heart to plead the blessings and guidance of the merciful God.
Done with her prayers, she raised her head high, stood, and went to receive the body of her savior. The bread felt stale and moist on her tongue, but she accepted it wholeheartedly. The walk back to her seat was more of instinct than will. Her thinking was gone. Her reasoning was gone. All that remained was the singular thought of the holy flesh about to find its way into her bowels and grant her immunity from the forces of evil and darkness that plagued the earth.
The rest of the mass mattered far less to young Isabel as the Bishop led it to a close. Towards the end, the congregation was reminded of the passing of the Montgomery family and how huge a loss it was for the community, county, and nation.
More plaudits were given to her dead parents whose bodies had only arrived the previous day and were going to be lowered into the grave the next day. Isabel detested these announcements, even more so now that it concerned her more personally than ever.
One by one, sympathizers came to offer their condolences while she was forced to remain seated, accepting them. She offered them a smile in return for their prayers and well wishes.
Once the last group was done offering their sympathy, she excused herself and exited the church. Outside, the sun was not yet out, and the clouds promised impending rain. Without her mother to act as her chaperone, Aunt Mariam had taken her place. Aunt Mariam was the oldest residing member of the family that was not really related to them by blood. She had been her mother’s friend for as long as she could remember. Moreover, even though she was more of a family member than an outsider, Isabel found it still discomforting to walk the entire distance back home knowing her mother would not be around anymore.
Nevertheless, it gave her time to think. Her parents had been strong pillars of the community; highly active in the church, owners, of various large farms that employed and paid nearly a hundred of the townsfolk. Her father was a nobleman and had befriended Dukes, Counts, and Barons too numerous to number.
They had traveled for the wedding of a cousin in a distant country, and on their return, had been unfortunate to encounter a raging storm that overturned and wrecked their ship. Only a few had survived. Now, their bodies laid in the morgue, being bathed with chemicals to reduce the stench of their rottenness.
Isabel shook her head at the displeasing thought. Tears welled in her eyes, but she bathed them away as she made the walk home. Aunt Mariam had not said much during the walk from the church, and Isabel was grateful for it.
There was the sound of hoofs and wheels as Isabel looked up to see a man riding a horse and a carriage being drawn by another. Together, they looked like travelers, but she recognized the man riding the lone stallion. He was a Baron and went by the name Lord William Gregory. He was very popular in the province as a man of brute strength and immoral character.
There were tons of rumors circulating that he never went to church, that he frequented the ladies of the night, and his drinking and gambling habits. He truly had the most scandalous reputation.
This was the first time she was this close to him in public. Even without any other physical pointer, the long scar on his face was a telltale sign that he was a man that lived close to danger.
For the briefest second, their eyes met, and Isabel saw the stern look on his face and the unending depth of his eyes. She hurriedly looked away. Best to let sleeping dogs lie. No use thinking about someone else’s business. She already had enough on her plate with her brother and all.
The clouds were angry now and were sure to pour out the contents of their belly anytime soon. Isabel thought herself wise she had not forgotten to bring along her umbrella.
The rain started just as they were entering the estate. It was as though some unseen forces had held it at bay until the last moment.
“Let me take that off you,” Aunt Mariam said and left with the wet umbrella.
Isabel stared around the now empty house. Once upon a time, there was always something to look forward to, a ball, a feast, Thanksgiving, an anniversary, a promotion. Now Isabel sometimes caught the hidden stares of a few maids. There was no one to give them orders or tell them what to prepare.
She wondered where her brother was. Usually, when the head of the family becomes absent or unavailable, the first son takes up the responsibility of taking care of the house or estate. However, ever since their parents had traveled, her brother, George, had not been around to do anything seemingly responsible.
The next day would be the funeral ceremony of their late parents, and Isabel could already feel her shoulders cringing under the weight of both the emotional and physical pain of their absence. Sitting down, she laid her head back on the chair.
She did not know when she closed her eyes until she felt something warm covering her body. Opening her eyes, she found Aunt Mariam covering her with a thick cloth.
“Easy, my lady,” she said. “The weather is a bit chilling, and it would be best not to catch a cold tonight.”
Isabel was about to protest, but Aunt Mariam’s firm hands stilled her.
“Rest, My Lady. You know you’re going to need it for tomorrow’s ceremony.”
“But who is going to take care of the preparations? George has not been around for how long, and I don’t even know what to do!” Isabel whimpered.
“Do you honestly think that I would allow you bear the burdens alone? I have been like your sister ever since you were a little babe, have you not learned anything in all your nineteen years? And besides, left to you, what do you hope to accomplish in just a day?”
Isabel could not deny that what Aunt Mariam said made perfect sense. There was no use in arguing with her. However, she still felt guilty at letting her handle everything but knew there was little she could do to change anything.
All she could hope for was that once her brother returned, he would take responsibility for managing their property. From there they would decide on what next to do.
As Isabel drifted off to sleep, she felt a little spark of hope burning within her. Maybe, not all was lost yet.
The funeral ceremony sped much faster than Isabel had hoped. By early noon, the ceremony was nearly over. Isabel greeted and welcomed the sympathizers that had made it to the estate. They were all given food and drinks. She noted the presence of some powerful Dukes and Earls.
The Archbishop had also been in attendance but had left early with regard to some duties. If only the love and sympathy shown here were enough to bring back her parents, maybe then she would have been more appreciative.
Isabel glanced around in search of her brother, but he was nowhere to be found. She called on some of the guards and maids to help secretly search for her brother but was later told that he had left in the company of his friends some moments ago.
Isabel was sure it had not taken long for him to leave once the ceremony had ended. George had not even been on time. The Bishop had already begun the service when he had sneaked inside.
Calming her growing rage, she managed a smile or two for the few guests that were still present. Soon the rain began to fall in light showers, while the rest of the visitors took their leave. It was not long before a heavy downpour came crashing down and the sound of raindrops on the roofs seeped into corners of the house.
Aunt Mariam came to speak to her.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“I am fine; I only need some time to rest and think. Thank you, Aunt Mariam, for your help in planning everything and taking care of the house until now. Only the heavens know what would have happened had you not been around to oversee the affairs,” Isabel replied.
“You need not thank me, My Lady. Had your mother still been alive, none of these would be necessary. Moreover, you did a lot too, yourself. I noticed you managed to keep a smiling face on, even when you seemed tired and weary,” Aunt Mariam commented.
“You noticed?” she asked, trying to keep her voice down. “If you noticed, surely others might have too.”
Aunt Mariam patted her shoulder in reassurance.
“Don’t worry My Lady; it is only the years I have spent with you that allows me to see your uneasiness. Fear not, you were amazing in hiding your displeasure,” Aunt Mariam consoled.
“By the way, I haven’t seen the young master in quite some time. Even for the funeral, he managed to come late.”
“I haven’t seen him since he left. And it bothers me. How do we help him if he is presently in an unfavorable situation?” Isabel asked, more angry than worried.
“The young master has his friends, and they seem to have his interests at heart too. I am sure they wouldn’t let anything wrong befall him in their presence!”
Aunt Mariam watched as Isabel’s face gained some color, and her heart gladdened.
Even as she had said those words, she prayed within her heart that George be safe. His recent disappearing acts had not only caused worry for her but also maids and servants as well.
Earlier that day, Lord William Gregory watched as the foolish young man left hurriedly with his friends. The young man had just lost half of his estate, but still, he refused to give up. It was morning already, and he needed to have a bath and a change of clothes. Not that he cared for his physical appearance. His hair had grown past its usual boundary, and the hair on his face had not seen a razor for several days.
Fredrick changed the mug of ale before the Baron and silently made his way back to his stand. William took the mug and drank a grateful gulp. It felt good to drink after acquiring more property. Hopefully, the stupid lad would see some sense and never gamble again.
He vaguely remembered he had an event that he was required by status to attend. A beloved family of the community had just lost both parents in a shipwreck and they were having a funeral service. William frowned as he thought of the insincere love and sympathy the children would be receiving.
He hated death. He hated the fact that there was nothing one could do concerning the inevitable finality that only death could bring. No amount of trying, or hiding, or even riches could stay the hand of death. A thought crossed his mind and no sooner had it appeared than he flung it aside, slamming his fists on the table in the process.
William bowed his head in resignation. Death was close to him, pushing, breathing, so close that he could almost feel its cold embrace.
It had not taken long to him, but soon the stupid lad was back. However, this time, without any of his much more reasonable friends. The Baron stared at him long and hard. He stood there, before his table, panting and wet. No doubt the lad had entered into the rain and ran as fast as he could just to return in time.
“What do you want kid? I have already told you to bring me the deed to your house. So what are you doing here?” the Baron demanded.
The young man stood there, staring at the Baron. It was clear that he was obviously intimidated, but there was a strong sense of determination in his defiant posture. With shaky hands, he unhooked the pouch he carried and handed the Baron the deeds to his family’s estate.
“I challenge you one more time. This time, if I win, I get all my family’s estate back as well as the property of my other friends that they lost to you,” the young man said.
The Baron closed his eyes and rubbed his beard as he considered the young man’s request. It seemed the young lad had yet to learn anything about how harsh life could be. And the fact that he was doing all of this just days after his parents had died infuriated him. It was clear that his other friends had learned the bitter truth of losing, but this spoilt brat was so pampered he did not realize the magnitude of what he was about to do.
The Baron closed his eyes to try to control his rage. There was only one way to discipline young children that had no idea of how cruel the world might be.
When the Baron raised his head, he had a smile on his face.
“If you do win, I promise to give you all of your property as well as those of your friends. But, on one condition.”
He paused to see if the impact of his words would show on the lad’s face. The boy was indeed struggling to keep his composure. His hands shook now and then; his face looked even sweatier than when he came into the tavern drenched in rain.
“On the condition that, since it would cost me all of my earnings if I lose, then, if I win, apart from taking the rest of your property contained in this deed, you lose the rights to all your titles. Do you accept?”
The demand was unreasonable. The stakes were too high. The Baron secretly prayed that the boy would sense the intensity of this wager and beg rather than gamble. There was no need for him to be a hero. All he had to do was beg. If only he would simply beg.
Contrary to the Baron’s hopes, the lad looked even more determined, and once he saw the look in the boy’s eyes, he knew he had been wrong from the beginning; this lad would need to be taught about the evils in the world.
Bold and determined, the young man extended his arm in agreement. The Baron simply gave a mocking laugh and joined him in the agreement. Then he signalled to the barkeeper to bring two mugs of ale.
Once the ale was present, he asked the barkeeper, “Fredrick my good man, did you by any chance listen to the conversation between me and this young man here?”
“Yes, My Lord,” he answered.
“And can you once again bear witness to this deal should any matter arise to its validity?” the Baron asked again.
“Yes, My Lord,” the barkeeper answered again.
“Good. Thank you Fredrick, that will be all.” Turning to the young lad he said, “Let us begin!”
Isabel sat listening to her brother recount the absurd tale of how he had lost the family not only their property but also their dignity and honor. It took all of her willpower not to lash out at her brother who for all the wrong reasons looked more despicable than ever.
One of the manservants had found him drunk and drenched by the rain, wandering close to the gate and had helped him into the estate. They had alerted Aunt Mariam who had been with Isabel at the time. Once they had him brought into the house and close to a fire, he had begun apologizing.
A further inquiry had caused him to divulge how he had begun spending some of the money got from the inheritance with his friends. They had only been drinking at first when one of them had made a wager with the Baron and lost.
George, in all his childish benevolence, had insisted on reclaiming his friend’s property and had ended up losing all the money he had on him. Then trying to win the money back, he wagered on assets and property. In the end, he had lost everything, trying to win back something. Now, the Baron could be on their neck anytime soon to demand his right to claim his winnings.
The first thing Isabel had done once she heard he had lost the house was to land a right-handed slap on her brother’s cheek. But once she heard everything, especially the fact that the Baron could arrive anytime to chase them out, she gave up on her brother’s salvation.
To her, he was only a little bit away from being dead to her. Isabel knew her brother was in no position to do anything more to save the family. She knew she had no way of trusting him with anything from then on.
Sad and dejected, she ran to her room and cried herself to bed.
A few hours later, she woke up with a mild headache, and all the events of the past two days flooded her mind. Her hands shook as she remembered her mother, Catherine, and all the different times her mother had taken care of situations she thought were too difficult.
Isabel wiped the tears that had been threatening to fall. She looked herself up in the mirror. Her eyes were a bit swollen and sore from all her crying. She loved her brother so much, but his foolishness had cost the family the only thing their parents had left them.
Isabel thought long and hard. With their parents gone, the inheritance they left behind was all they had. Letting their inheritance fall into the hands of that notorious Baron was the worst thing that could have happened at this moment.
Slowly but surely, Isabel realized that if anyone were to change the fate of the family, it would be her. Right now, her brother was of no use, and this was not a matter that Aunt Mariam could intercede on their behalf. She simply lacked social standing.
No! If anyone had the littlest chance of overturning the stupid wager, it was she.
Fuelled by her conviction and determination, she peeped through the curtains to see that there was daylight already. Good, she thought. She had only one thought in her mind, and that was to get back her inheritance from the Baron, William Gregory, no matter how bleak the situation looked. At least if she should leave now, there was little chance that she would be seen by anyone. The day had yet to break fully.
Quickly, Isabel ran out of her room and down the stairs, taking them two at a time. Aunt Mariam came out, just as Isabel dashed out through the door and into the stables.
“Get my horse ready for me!” Isabel ordered the stable boy.
He looked at her, puzzled. In all his time of service to the Montgomery household, Isabel had developed a habit of taking a horse for riding anytime she pleased and without any forewarning. However, this time around, she looked like she was in such a hurry; he was prompted to address her.
“I have a matter to discuss with Lord Gregory,” Isabel replied.
“My Lady, I advise against it. The Baron is a man of ill reputation, and his character justifies the rumours that swell around town. At the very least, allow Lady Mariam to accompany you. Please, My Lady, I plead with you!”
“Jack, your family has served mine for many years, and I can even remember growing up to see you here at the stables daily. What makes you believe I have not given thought to all you say? For now, I will have to reject your advice,” Isabel said and climbed the saddled horse.
By the time Isabel was out of the stables, Aunt Mariam was close at hand. Isabel noticed she was panting, having crossed the distance in such a short time. Following quickly after her, she found Isabel on her mounted horse and about to take off.
“My Lady, where are you heading to at this time? Or, wait, let me accompany you!” Aunt Mariam screamed as she rushed to Isabel.
All Aunt Mariam wore was her nightwear and a scarf wrapped around her neck and arms. Isabel, on the other hand, was a bit more prepared. There was no need endangering Aunt Mariam any more than was necessary.
“Don’t worry, Aunt Mariam. I am going to get our family out of the mess that my brother has put us in. Take care of the house until I return. I won’t be long!” Isabel yelled back.
And with that, she was gone. She pushed the horse as fast as it could go. Galloping past the streets and onto the road that would lead to the estate of the Baron, Lord William Gregory.
The thought of what her servant had said pestered her as she rode towards the Baron’s abode. She could not stop thinking about what the rumors said about the mysterious Lord. How could a Lord such as himself fall to such a level?
She had oftentimes wondered if all the rumors were true. Did he really frequent ladies of the night? Most men were guilty of drinking and gambling. However, did he not know that as a Lord he was to be of an upright character? What must have happened to him to cause him to fall to such levels of depravity?
Suddenly, she looked up to see the outline of a large estate in the distance. It covered as much land as four times that of her family’s estate. Surrounded by forests and trees, the Gregory estate was like an alien amid so much greenery.
Unconsciously she began rethinking her actions. What if coming to the Baron’s house had been a mistake. Suddenly, the impact of her actions seemed to dawn on her, and there was a swell in her throat. Was not this the same step her brother had taken that had ended up backfiring and he had lost everything in the end?
Would the same fate befall her? How could she hope to do any better at convincing this Lord of handing back all their property than her brother who had tried and failed woefully? The fear now gnawed at her heart, and she forced the horse to slow down to a trot.
She had not given this as much thought as she would have liked. What would she say to the Baron that could possibly change his mind? Or rather, what could she offer?
Exasperated, she looked up to the clouds in search of an answer. She prayed to her parents if they could hear her. A tear fell off her eye and onto her cheeks.
As though in answer to her prayer, a cool breeze accompanied by a gentle wind swirled around her, calming her racing heart. Something deep within her moved, and she felt a gratifying satisfaction.
There was no need to think of what to do now. She would confront the Baron, and then the words would find a way to reach his heart. No man was made of stone. Moreover, what more could she lose?
With her conviction once again strengthened, every other thought evaporated out of her mind. Charging down the road, she rode like a bull that had marked its target and would get to it. However, no one was going to succeed in stopping her. She was going to get back her father’s property, no matter what it took!
“A Secret Deal with the Devilish Baron” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Isabel’s world turns upside down when she finds out her brother lost everything in gambling with the most notorious Baron in town. Fierce like a tiger, she storms into the Baron’s estate to regain her pride and property, but instead of the scandalous scoundrel she expected to meet, she finds a broken man trying to hide his scars. Will she eventually be the one to heal his broken soul?
The rumors of his bad behavior make the Baron a person to be feared. When he gets to see Isabel, intrigued by her reckless personality, he has an offer for her; she must become a companion to his ailing sister, and live in his estate until he says otherwise. But with every moment he shares with this passionate lady, Baron’s bad manners turn into admiration for her…and more. Will he be able to handle this sizzling passion?
Isabel surprisingly finds out that everything in the Baron’s estate is not as it seems to be. As time goes by, she finds herself falling for the Baron’s charm, but not before she berates him for his ignoble behavior. Will she be able to make him open his heart to love again? While everything seems to be going out of control, can Isabel take the reins and steer her life towards the future she dreams of?
“A Secret Deal with the Devilish Baron” is a Regency romance full of passion, love, and intrigue. If you like fierce heroines and heartbroken lovers, then you’ll adore Lucy Langton’s Regency tale.
“A Secret Deal with the Devilish Baron” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.