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Beck and Call
Beck and Call
Beck and Call
Livre électronique270 pages4 heures

Beck and Call

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Standalone M/M Regency romance in the servants' quarters

By returning to England, Edwin Harrow hoped to escape the treacherous lover and false accusations he left behind on the Continent. But when his secrets leave him open to blackmail, the worst thing he can do is fall in love with his blackmailer's brother, kind and gravely charming fellow servant William Bell.

After five lonely years as valet to a reclusive country squire, William is fascinated by prickly, standoffish Edwin. He suspects he wants more than Edwin is ready to give, but he cannot resist trying to break through that defensive shell.

And William has secrets of his own, namely his involvement in one of the literary societies recently driven underground by the political climate. When Edwin's messy past catches up with them, will it spell disaster for them both?

ÉditeurAnnick Trent
Date de sortie6 mai 2021
Beck and Call
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    Beck and Call - Annick Trent

    Book Cover

    Beck and Call

    A Romance Set in the 1790s

    Annick Trent

    * * *

    Published by Annick Trent, 2021


    Chapter One

    Chapter Two

    Chapter Three

    Chapter Four

    Chapter Five

    Chapter Six

    Chapter Seven

    Chapter Eight

    Chapter Nine

    Chapter Ten

    Chapter Eleven

    Chapter Twelve

    Chapter Thirteen

    Chapter Fourteen

    Chapter Fifteen

    Chapter Sixteen

    Chapter Seventeen

    Chapter Eighteen

    Chapter Nineteen

    Chapter Twenty

    Chapter Twenty-one


    Beck and Call

    A standalone M/M historical romance

    By returning to England, Edwin Harrow hoped to escape the treacherous lover and false accusations he left behind on the Continent. But when his secrets leave him open to blackmail, the worst thing he can do is fall in love with his blackmailer's brother, kind and gravely charming fellow servant William Bell.

    After five lonely years as valet to a reclusive country squire, William is fascinated by prickly, standoffish Edwin. He suspects he wants more than Edwin is ready to give, but he cannot resist trying to break through that defensive shell.

    And William has secrets of his own, namely his involvement in one of the literary societies recently driven underground by the political climate. When Edwin's messy past catches up with them, will it spell disaster for them both?


    Copyright © Annick Trent 2021

    All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

    This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

    Cover image by Dunraven Productions

    Copy editing by Midnight Owl Editors

    Proofreading by Remi House

    First edition: May 2021

    Chapter One


    On the outskirts of the village of Caldershaw lay a row of brick and slate cottages known as Wyatt's End, the last buildings before the open moorland. Near the first of the cottages, William Bell dismounted and tied his horse to a post. He glanced up and down the road, wishing his stomach would not churn so nervously. Strictly speaking, he was committing no crime, but he could not deny that the valet from the local manor had no good business visiting a weaver's cottage.

    No one was in sight except for a little boy napping under the hedgerow, a handkerchief over his face and a basket of apples on the grass beside him. William approached the first cottage and knocked on the half-open door, loud enough to be heard over the rhythmic clacks and creaks of a handloom within. A girl of twelve or so appeared, looked him up and down, and shouted over her shoulder, For you, Pa.

    The clacking stopped, and a voice inside answered indistinctly. When the girl stepped back, William took off his hat and ducked his head to enter the cottage.

    The door led directly to the loom shop, the machine itself taking up most of the available space, angled to catch the light from the windows. Clayton rose from his work and came towards William. He was a short man, several decades older than William, and with a squint born of countless hours spent threading his loom.

    Good day to you, Bell, he said with ill-concealed surprise, and William felt vaguely insulted.

    I said I'd come, he replied, despite the voice inside his head that was loudly insisting he should not have done so.

    Aye, that you did. So you're still willing?

    Steeling his resolve, William nodded. I'm leaving for Wiltshire on Tuesday week.

    Or rather, Mr Philip Paxton was leaving for a grouse-shooting party in Wiltshire, and as his valet, William was bound to accompany him.

    Sit you down, then. A wooden table stood by the fire, and Clayton moved aside a basket of carded wool to make room.

    William had never visited Clayton's home before. They had always met in Lancaster, mostly at the White Swan back in the days before William had stopped attending meetings of the reading society. It had become too dangerous to gather in large groups—even if they were only reading A Pilgrim's Progress or the Manchester Gazette instead of Paine or Spence.

    Clayton's daughter had joined two other children on the floor, one sorting clumps of fleece, the other two hand-carding. They had paused in their work, wool-covered paddles lying still in their laps, and their wide, curious eyes were fixed on William. He gave them a quick smile that he intended as friendly, but that probably served only to betray his nerves.

    Clayton drew a cloth bag from under the seat of his loom, then came to join William at the table. He up-ended the bag, and the contents spilled out across the table-top, coins jingling and thumping as they hit the wooden surface.

    It's twenty-three pounds, two shillings and sixpence altogether. He set to counting it out in front of William, coin by coin, until several neat stacks stood before them—the combined generosity of a few hundred families in the town of Lancaster and surrounding villages. Everything they could spare to help their fellows in distress, over two hundred miles south in London.

    Someone will meet you in Wiltshire—I'll write to say you're coming—and he'll take the money on to London. You'll meet him at the abandoned mill half a mile to the east of Aylesbury. That's less than two miles from the estate you said His Nibs would be visiting.

    Mr Paxton had been invited to a house party at the Earl of Warbury's country estate. William nodded, carefully memorising Clayton's instructions.

    You'll be setting off on Tuesday week, you say? Clayton went on. I'll write to tell them you'll be there at four in the afternoon on the 22nd of August. If he doesn't find you, he'll come again at the same time on the 24th and the 26th. He shot a grim glance at William. I suppose you'll have trouble getting away.

    Unfortunately, yes. William wondered briefly what it would be like to be a weaver. Their time was their own, and he was constantly at the beck and call of his master, Paxton.

    If you can't get there at all, you can also leave word for him at the Green Dragon in Aylesbury, Clayton added.

    How will I recognise him?

    He'll answer to the name of Tryphon, and you're to give yours as Athenion.

    William shifted uneasily in his seat. Secret names smacked of secret societies. Of sedition. For a moment, he regretted he had ever told Clayton that he would soon be travelling into Wiltshire.

    But it was no crime to carry around twenty-three pounds. Indeed, he often carried much more than that to settle Paxton's bills. The reckoning for one night's stay and dinner at an inn during Paxton's journey southward next week would be three months' wages for one of the Lancashire weaver families who had contributed to the collection.

    Twenty-three pounds. How far would that go to help the women and children in London, their menfolk in gaol for weeks or months now, caught up in the repression of other societies much more radical than their own?

    Clayton took a scrap of paper from a box in the corner and sharpened a pen. Turning to catch the light from the window, he made out a receipt in a slow, careful hand. Received £23/2/6 from Jos. Clayton, 8th August 1798.

    Unease knotted tight in the pit of William's stomach.

    He had been supplying the Lancaster branch of the reading society with Paxton's old newspapers for several years now, and he had even attended a few lectures, on the rare occasions he could get away—never when he knew the speaker would be overtly political, but only when the subject would be astronomical observations, the principles of inoculation, and the like. But he had been careful not to become more deeply involved. He had never gone around distributing parts of the Rights of Man in taverns, nor attended meetings with known agitators or radicals. And he had never been twisted-in, as they said—had never sworn an oath or anything of that nature.

    Now he was putting his name to a piece of paper that linked him to a man known to associate with much more radical elements. A man who had several times been taken up and charged with administering unlawful oaths and participating in unlawful assembly.

    Clayton sensed his hesitation. After I've shown the receipt to all those who contributed, I'll burn it.

    William swallowed, then nodded. He took the pen Clayton held out, dipped it in the inkpot, and signed Wm Bell.

    He did not linger after that, but took his leave of Clayton and left the cottage, the money heavy in his pocket. Outside, his horse—in truth it was Paxton's horse, of course—was chewing grass, waiting patiently.

    He could not like this, but he accepted that it was the quickest way to get the money to London. And that was a worthy cause. He knew nothing of the reading society members in gaol in London, not even their names, but those details did not matter. This was something that could have happened to someone he knew—it could have happened to him, and almost had done once, five or six years ago, when he'd been a young footman arrested for being in the wrong tavern at the wrong time. He'd been lucky: released the following day along with a whole crowd of his fellows after the magistrate decided their cases were not worth pursuing.

    The way back to Paxton Manor led across the moors, and a hesitant ray of sunshine ventured out from behind the clouds as William left the turnpike road at Bolton Cross and struck out across the moorland. It was several hours after noon. Paxton would soon be waking from an afternoon spent dozing over the newspapers in his study, but William thought he still had a little time before Paxton would ring for him.

    The sun was warm on his face, and he shook off his worries, enjoying being out in the open air. The gritstone crags and rough boggy hills around him were very different from the rolling downs of his native Hampshire, three hundred miles away to the south, but he had grown to appreciate them, and to consider them some compensation for the five lonely years spent here in Paxton's service.

    And today was not a day for feeling sorry for himself. In Wiltshire in two weeks' time there would be his brother Cyril, whom he hadn't seen in almost three years. There would be other valets too, the servants of other gentlemen guests. The company of his peers. His heart lifted.

    Half an hour later, he reached the manor. He left his horse in the stables and entered the house through the kitchen door. On the stairs he met the steward, Barnes, who seemed more than usually sober today. He eyed William with disfavour. Enjoy your ride this morning, Mr Bell? If only we all had the leisure to go gadding about the countryside all morning.

    William, who had been up since six that morning, ignored this. When he had first entered Paxton's service, he had been dismayed to find that his only social equal in the house was this cantankerous old sot, but five years' exposure to the man had inured him to it.

    Good afternoon, Mr Barnes, he said blandly.

    Barnes sniffed. Himself is awake and rung for you twenty minutes ago. The housemaid had to bring him his afternoon tea.

    William swore and hurried across the house to the east wing, where Paxton spent most of his time. Sometimes the manor's dark and empty corridors oppressed his spirits—so many rooms shut up and unused because Paxton never entertained guests. Today, with the prospect of a welcome—if temporary—escape to Wiltshire, he almost thought he could bear another five years in this house with equanimity.

    Chapter Two


    Two weeks later, William stood at the window in the attic room where he had been lodged, watching the busy coming and going of carriages on the forecourt far below. A post-chaise had just driven up the wide drive from the gatehouse, and a handsome travelling coach was being brought around to the stables, much like the carriage which had conveyed William himself here an hour earlier.

    The Earl of Warbury's country seat overflowed with guests. The servants' stairs were busy with maids running up and down carrying piles of linen, and footmen burdened with luggage. The attics were full of gentlemen's valets and lady's maids, the confusion and hustle-bustle a balm to William's lonely soul.

    From here, high up on the fourth floor, he could see beyond the carefully landscaped gardens to the open countryside. In the distance, the Aylesbury church tower was a dark spire on the horizon, and somewhere in that direction stood the old mill Clayton had mentioned. William touched his pocket, checking that he still had the twenty-three pounds he had carried so carefully from Lancashire. Tomorrow, if he could get away, he would go to meet the mysterious Tryphon.

    The clock at the entrance to the attics struck four, echoing through the warrenlike male servants' quarters, and William turned away from the window. He should just have enough time to seek out his brother Cyril before he needed to find his way across an unfamiliar house to Paxton's room and lay out his employer's dinner clothes.

    Out in the corridor, he stopped a passing footman. Do you know where they've put Mr Hythe's man?

    First room at the top of the east stairs, the man said without stopping, leaving William hoping he would be able to find his way back to the stairs he had come up.

    It was a left turn at that awkward corner under the steeply sloped roof, if he remembered correctly. Straight ahead at the point where the original sixteenth-century rafters half-blocked his path. With relief, he recognised the framed moralising text someone had hung on the wall for the servants' encouragement. The devil makes work for idle hands. He felt the sentiment might be more appropriately displayed in the drawing room than the servants' quarters, but he was grateful for the sampler now. He was sure he had passed it on the way in.

    When he reached the room closest to the stairs, the door stood ajar. He knocked and then pushed it open. The two men inside swung round to face him.

    One of them was William's younger brother, Cyril, who stood with a hand clapped to his nose, blood trickling between his fingers and down his chin, eyes wide and shocked.

    William! he exclaimed in a muffled voice. You—you've arrived.

    William would have liked him to seem a little happier. They were meeting for the first time in three years, after all. Instead, Cyril sounded like he had when they were both boys and William had caught him sneaking the cream from the milk.

    The other man in the room had been introduced to William half an hour earlier in the steward's room as the Viscount Leighland's valet Edwin Harrow. Short and dark, he stood in the shadow of the sloped gable roof, his mouth set in a thin, hard line. His fists were tightly balled, and two angry spots of colour burned in his pale cheeks.

    What the devil is this? William stepped towards his brother, ready to intervene if Harrow should hit Cyril again.

    It's all right, William, Cyril said, still speaking through the hand covering his nose.

    So far Harrow had neither moved nor spoken. His jaw tightly clenched, he stood glaring at them. Cyril and William were both tall, with a good six inches on Harrow, but Harrow did not seem the slightest bit cowed when faced with two much larger, heavier men. And he had just shown he packed a fine punch.

    I hope you have a damned good explanation for that, William snapped.

    Harrow's eyes narrowed, icy cold, but before he could speak, Cyril cut in.

    Leave it, William, will you? It's nothing. He fumbled in his pocket for a handkerchief. Harrow, get out of here, why don't you?

    Harrow did not move.

    What's going on? What happened, Cyril? William asked, looking from one man to the other.

    His brother shrugged, that same sulky gesture William had known since childhood. Nothing, I said. William—

    Harrow cut him off, his voice hard and flat. Why don't you mind your own business?

    It's a long story, Cyril put in before William could react. We're old acquaintances, Mr Harrow and I. Mr Harrow, allow me to present my brother Mr William Bell. His voice contained an odd tone, almost a note of warning.

    Harrow stepped closer to William, so close their faces were less than a foot apart. His eyes were very dark, with long black lashes framing them. William blinked at the anger there.

    Another Bell, Harrow said flatly. What a pleasure.

    He stepped back, turned on his heel, and left the room, his footsteps ringing hard on the wooden floor.

    William let out a breath he had not even realised he was holding. He stared after Harrow, mesmerised.

    Have you a handkerchief, William? Cyril asked, drawing his brother's attention back to him.

    William pulled out his handkerchief to replace the blood-sodden white cloth Cyril held pressed to his nose. He was careful not to get any blood on his white linens, nor Cyril's. That would be a professional disaster. They were both due to dress their employers for dinner in less than half an hour.

    What in God's name was that about, Cyril?

    Nothing. A stupid misunderstanding. I made a joke that didn't go over well. It's not worth repeating.

    William was not acquainted with Harrow—they had met for the first time that day—but he had not taken him for a man who went in for brawling. Harrow had looked trim and poised, clothes well-cut and worn with style, as befitted the valet of a fashionable, titled gentleman. But a moment ago he had looked like he would quite like to cut William's throat.

    Cyril dabbed at his nose. Don't make a big thing of this, William, please. I should not have said what I did.

    William frowned at him, unconvinced. Who started the fight, you or Harrow?

    It's a long story. Cyril gave him the same cajoling look he had been using on William since they were boys. Believe me, William, I appreciate your efforts to stick up for me, but you must realise I've been standing on my own two feet for years now. He turned over the handkerchief he held to his nose. It's good to see you. When did you get here?

    Reluctantly, William accepted the change of subject. An hour ago. You?

    Early this afternoon. Mr Hythe has been in London these last few weeks.

    Cyril was an indifferent letter writer, and he and William rarely corresponded. From his occasional missives, William had gathered that Mr Hythe lived on that nebulous border between gentleman and wealthy merchant, and spent most of his time travelling around England on business. The precise opposite of Mr Paxton, who had hardly moved from Lancashire in the five years William had been in his service. Paxton shunned company and rarely ventured further south than York, making the three days' journey to London once every few years at most, much to William's dismay.

    Watching Cyril dab at his nose, William frowned. You'll need ice on that if you want to be in Hythe's room in time to dress him for dinner.

    Cyril nodded glumly. They made their way down towards the kitchen, stopping to ask for directions from a lady's maid they met on the stairs. The back corridors were full of activity, and the other servants they passed cast curious glances at Cyril's bloody nose.

    William met their stares with a friendly smile. It had been years since he had attended a country house party of this size, and

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