CHAPTER 2

"You're late." Bess' father growled slightly under the weight of the booze he'd consumed. Tim could only hold him back so long.

"My apologies, Father, the road was muddied and I had to slow down." Some inclination unknown to Bess' conscience prohibited her from telling her father of the highwayman. Perhaps it was the embarrassment of being caught in the act of carelessly riding alone. Perhaps it was because she didn't want her forest shortcuts to be invaded by other riders. Or, perhaps, she just wanted a few secrets of her own to bring a conspiratorial sparkle to her eyes.

In any case, her father would have little troubles believing her excuse about the mud, for in truth she had borne a race against the rain and the rain had won. Her long black hair ran in wet curls down her back and sticking to her face. Her skirts, now dyed brown on the bottom from the splashing of mud and sleet, had become completely saturated with rain, sticking to her legs in odd places. Drips fell in rhythm from the tassels of her wool shawl.

"And where'd you get that?" her father asked, slightly accusingly, pointing to the crimson ribbon she held intertwined in her fingers.

"Mrs. Bingley was selling them for a shilling; you needn't worry, I took it from my earnings." Shawn grunted somewhat in disapproval, but did not reproach her. "I'll be down in a minute after I change into something dry." She bounded up the stair before her father could say another word.

She would have to rush-the entire crowd of usuals were already sitting inside, and it was just about that time of day when Shawn tired from serving the guests and began generously serving himself.

Bess walked brusquely by the locked room that had been rented to the stranger, surprised to see that he had left it cracked open. She slowed slightly in her footsteps, enough for her to peak past the door and just be able to make out a man's profile backed by candlelight as he sat at the desk writing.

Sensing another's eyes on him, he looked up towards the door. Alarmed, Bess quickly continued her pace, kicking herself for her insatiable curiosity.

In record time Bess was back downstairs and serving ale, with a new red ribbon gleaming in her black hair. Wind battered against the shutters of the inn, shrieking through the cracks in the door.

"What? Has He come down to judge us in this tempest?" One drunkard cried in wonder.

By the end of the night, she was more tired than usual, and almost gave up the pots and pans altogether.

Shawn was again in his usual spot snoring, and the nobleman, who had quit his writings halfway through the evening, was sitting in what Bess was coming to find as his usual spot in the corner.

Scrubbing at a stubborn pot, she eyed him over the counter across the room.

"I would have thought that you'd have taken advantage of the lack of rain this morning and quit us." She observed questioningly. He took a deck of cards out of his bag, and in a fashion much similar to the coin, began turning the Jack of Spades over and over in his hand.

"I have yet some business in this part of the country." He said elusively, not bothering to look up. Bess tried another venue.

"Have card tricks replaced coins, then?" Bess said, observing the Jack in his hand.

"As I remember it, Madam, you have my coins." The Jack paused a second from its revolutions as he looked up at her. Bess smiled at the joke.

"So long as you still have enough to pay your tab." She sighed resignedly, quitting the dishes. The few mugs left could be washed in the morning. Drifting one by one to the assorted tables, she began snuffing them out as she went. Darkness began to take a dominion over the room. Bess walked toward the last candle, sitting peacefully in the nobleman's corner.

"I gather that this is my cue to retire?" he said, smiling slightly. Bess returned the smile.

"Well sir, you are welcome to continue with your cards in the dark, but I am afraid that I will be requiring payment if you intend to stay another night." He laughed, and began reaching for his coin purse.

Suddenly, the door burst open again, exposing the violent winds to the bar's interior. The candle was immediately snuffed. Angry and dripping with rain, an implicitly well-dressed man, complete with entourage, stomped into the room, leaving trails of water where they walked.

"I shall require a room for the night!" he boomed into the darkness. Bess hurried to shut the door against the gale.

"A minute please, let me light a candle. . ." Bess struck a match. Now, these were nobles.

The voice boomed again in the dark.

"Where's the master of the inn? Fetch him! The Earl of Rothbridge requires boarding." Candles lit, Bess saw that the other nobleman had already gone, leaving his night's fare on the table. Smart man. Bess sighed. She wished she could do as much.

Taking the candle in her hand, she made her way over to her wet and haughty customers. It looked as though the storm had roughed them up a bit more than they had wanted.

"I am the master of the inn, as far as management is concerned," she said with a measure of confidence. They eyed her suspiciously.

"In that case, on the order of King George, you are authorized to house me and my men for the night. We shall require five rooms." He said finally. Bess turned and rolled her eyes. They only had four rooms available-she would have to make due sleeping on one of the tables. They probably wouldn't even pay. She turned back to them and smiled.

"Granted. I'll show you to your rooms, then." On most occasions, she would have offered food and ale before they retired, but she had been disinclined from the start to offer them any favors. Up the stairs, through the hall, she deposited them one by one in the last of their rooms.

"We don't have five rooms left, so one lord will have to make due sleeping in my quarters." She said, forcing a smile. A few of the Earl's men returned her words with hungry glances. Again, Bess sighed inwardly at their presumptions.

"If you need anything then, I'll be downstairs." She gave a slight bow and walked downstairs, leaving them to sort out who slept where.

Back down at the inn, Bess snuffed out the last solitary candle, and collected the corner gentleman's twenty shillings payment and tip. Stretching out on the hard cold bench, it was hours before sleep finally overcame her.

Bess woke the next morning to the sound of footsteps down the stairs. It was still before the dawn. Sitting up curiously, she squinted into the darkness to see the silhouette of a French-cocked hat blocking the stairway entrance.

"Pardon the disturbance. I didn't intend on waking you." He said politely, walking gracefully with heavy-laden bags across the room.

"Finally taking your leave, are you?" she asked, sitting up.

"Sadly, circumstances press me to go elsewhere."

"And what circumstances would those be?"

"Urgent circumstances."

"You are far too vague for my liking, sir." Bess said sarcastically, standing to face him.

"I apologize." He said, crossing his arms at his chest. He took a step toward her, looking slightly amused.

"An apology is only sincere if it accompanies an explanation."

"That, I'm afraid, is something I cannot offer you."

She let out a small sigh of frustration. Shaking her head, she began setting up the chairs, though it was still far too early to do so. Instead of leaving he just stood there, watching her.

"I'm afraid to infer your reasons for such secrecy." She said finally, scrubbing down the tables. For once, Shawn had made it to his room before he had passed out. The dining room was completely empty of eavesdroppers.

"It's none of your concern." He said softly.

"It is if you stay at my inn." She said angrily.

"I'm not staying here any longer, so I state again, it is none of your concern."

Bess had stopped listening to his ambiguous explanations. "Around here, it's only common courtesy to at least have a name to accompany a person's face if they impose upon your hospitality. . ."

"Imposing on your hospitality! This is an inn! There is no such thing as imposing, so long as you pay the bill!"

"Yes, I'll admit, you did always pay your bill, moreso than needed. Is that why there was always a little extra left on the table when you went upstairs? To press me to not ask which name I should put in the register?"

"This is a country inn," he said patronizingly, "There is no register."

"It is still pertinent for us to know the names of those we serve." Bess said, her voice going quiet.

Bess was infuriating him, she could tell. Even she wasn't sure why she was making such a fuss. It might have been the haughtiness of last night's visitors, or maybe it was the ache in her back that accompanied sleeping on a narrow wooden bench. Perhaps this was merely an outlet for her to flow the last 20 years of frustrations into. Then again, she also had a feeling deep in her gut of loss, like the first ally that she had had in a long time was leaving her.

"What would your inn know of me?" he asked, mimicking her somewhat resigned tone. The sly smile was no longer present on his face.

"I would know what your business was in coming here in the first place! And if not that, at least your name." Bess said, standing still yet feeling the need to do something. She had run out of tables to scrub.

"My business is my own, there is no reason for you to-"

"I was robbed the other day." Bess interrupted, taking a few steps forward. He peered at her for a moment.

"You managed to leave the exact same amount that I lost on your table that night." Her tone was more objective than angry, but all the same she could see a small flash of fear in his eyes. Well, there was the answer she was looking for. "I'm not as empty-headed as some may think."

Just a few feet away, he looked at her with an expression of forced apathy. "That," he said, his words heavy, "Is a curious coincidence indeed."

He turned on his heel to leave. Bess sighed, and walked towards the kitchen, wondering what she had gained in her sudden loss of temper. She listened to his retreating footsteps for a moment as they stalled right before they found the threshold. Involuntarily, her head turned to see what had halted him. He was looking back at her.

"As you requested," he said, somewhat awkwardly, though he tried to hide it underneath the usual cordial apathy. "My name is Jack."

The door slammed.