Major Gregory Phillip House, Esq., doctor and barber-surgeon attached to the 21st Regiment of Foot of His Majesty King George the Third’s Army looked out over the rolling hills of New Jersey and bit back a sigh of annoyance. He sat tall in the saddle, a lean figure in scarlet and white, curly powdered hair carelessly tied back with a black ribbon. The afternoon sun made him squint, and the dank smell of the nearby river annoyed him.
He didn’t want to be here.
In his estimation, all of the Colonies were a backwater posting, lacking any refinement or recreation befitting an officer, and certainly without charm. The year in Boston had been tolerable, but the further inland one went, the less civilized the population, and here in Princeton . . . the less said, the better. House shifted on his mount and looked back over at the wagon hauling his gear, wincing as it bounced over the rutted road. He feared for the brandy and port within the trunks, and hoped that the journey to Plainsboro Manor wouldn’t take much longer—neither his spirits nor his backside could take much more abuse.
*** *** ***
Mistress Cuddy was too damned pretty to have such a shrewish tongue, House deduced after the first five minutes of their initial conversation. Her vociferous objections to stabling the eight horses of the Regiment had been heard by everyone within a mile radius of Plainsboro Manor, and House noted how the rest of the household looked just as stubborn about it as she did. Not that it mattered—the Quartering Act was still the law. He would pay for his own lodging, of course, but that wouldn’t begin to offset feeding the new animals.
Not his concern though—that was the department of Colonel Vogler and the rest of the Hessians currently running amok over the fields outside on their way to the neighboring estate. He looked over the bedroom and adjoining sitting room while Mistress Cuddy stood in the doorway, her arms crossed under a lovely expanse of exposed bosom. “It’s all we can spare,” she grumbled at him, glaring.
“And exactly where is your husband?” he asked abruptly. He’d heard the story at the tavern up the road, but wanted confirmation from her.
Mistress Cuddy stiffened. “At. Sea.” Came her swift and ominous reply. “We rise early here at Plainsboro, Major. Breakfast is at six sharp, dinner at noon and supper, six again. I’m sure you’ll find your own amusements in town.”
“All that way, where there’s so much to disrupt here?” he replied, as much to annoy her as anything else. Her lips tightened, and he added in a milder tone, “I’ll be seeing patients in the sitting room—unless you want a quick education in male anatomy, you’ll keep the doors shut to your parlor, Mistress.”
“Oh my education is complete in that meager department, Major. Get a few of your men if you need your furniture moved, and for God’s sake wipe your feet.” With that, she turned from the doorway in a flounce, leaving him to stare after her, his smirk thoughtful.
She was a beauty, if overly snappish, but that didn’t bother House in the least. Generally a sharp tongue was indicative of a sharp mind as well, and if all else failed, the view of her breasts would give him some amusement. It had been a long time since the sweet warmth of Mistress Warner back in Elizabethtown, he mused, yet the effort of thawing out Mistress Cuddy looked far from worth the exertion.
*** *** ***
He was an arrogant insufferable son of a bitch, Annalisa Miriam Cuddy decided to herself. The fact that he was paying—albeit grudgingly—for his lodging didn’t offset the facts of the matter in the least. Doctor House was a Royalist pain in the ass, and too sharp for his own good health. His presence meant more soldiers and that put everyone on the farm on edge.
She’d heard about him too, from Brenda the cook, and Janoski, the tavern keeper of the Green Pine just up the road. “Smart, but knows it. Tends to drink and gamble. Likes music.”
Mildly interesting, but it was his politics she was concerned about. The last thing she needed under her roof was some Tory loyalist with subjugation on his mind. Cuddy wondered if he’d been planted at Plainsboro on purpose; if word of certain clandestine activities here had been reported. Already the maids had been through his belongings and reported nothing of particular interest, save some risqué engravings and a great deal of alcohol along with a goodly supply of opium and herbal tinctures.
In short, nothing unusual for a military doctor.
They reported a packet of letters as well, most of them in a feminine hand, but those were of no interest to Cuddy—whatever affairs of the heart Doctor House had were his own. He spent enough time ogling her and her maids to be a nuisance, but so far he hadn’t bothered to proposition any of them yet.
Still, with a little care and some luck she’d be able to keep her affairs from his inquisitive nature. Her staff was loyal to her; that much Cuddy knew, and she had a few friends in high enough places to keep Doctor House in line for the moment.
*** *** ***
“So where is he now?” James Wilson asked quietly, walking by Cuddy’s side down Piper Lane. He carried her basket for her, and already it held a sack of flour and three lobsters in it. She motioned to the candlemaker’s shop before she spoke.
“Making his rounds at the camp on the other side of the river. He’ll be back sometime in the afternoon, demanding brandy and then will serenade us with that violin of his,” Cuddy groused.
“He plays badly?”
“No, he’s quite good, but some nights he doesn’t stop until well after midnight,” she sighed. “It’s hard to settle the household down when he does that.”
James gave a knowing half-smile. “I’d have thought the distraction helpful, for--certain matters.”
“If only to mark where he is, there IS that,” Cuddy agreed reluctantly. “At least he doesn’t wander around the property much after dark. I’m tempted to dose him with his own laudanum at times, but he’d figure it out.” She stepped into the shop and nodded familiarly to the girl behind the counter, who pulled a small burlap sack from the shelf behind her.
“Ah, Mistress Cuddy, your week’s worth of bayberries. Any wax or stands today?”
“Not else today, Mary,” She replied, dropping her coins on the counter. “Thank you.”
James gallantly loaded the candles into the basket, and followed Cuddy out again. He shot a glance up the street, toward the printers and spoke low to her. “There’s a meeting tonight at the shop, if you can make it. If not, leave a candle in your window and I’ll let the others know.”
She nodded absently. “I’ll make it. What about Chase?”
“He should be there, unless they hold him up at the Dockmaster’s again. Make sure you’re not followed if you come, ‘Lisa. We don’t need trouble; not now.”
She shot him an impatient look. “I said I can handle House—you just make sure you’re not followed. Colonel Vogler isn’t as stupid as the Hessians he commands, you know.”
“No, but he’s a sound sleeper,” James winced a little. “And a heavy snorer.”
*** *** ***
Up in the library, he watched Mistress Cuddy dismount from the wagon and stride in, basket on her arm, confident and preoccupied. By the look of it, she’d gotten supplies and dinner all in one trip--expedient of her. The man on the wagon with her was a stranger, and House felt a prickle of interest war a bit with a stab of jealousy, particularly in light of the other man’s dimpled smile.
House set his book aside, turned from the window and made his way down the stairs, taking in the two of them in the foyer, speaking in low tones. “Mistress Cuddy . . . you bring, light, food and . . ?” he stared at the man pointedly. The man bowed courteously and smiled up at him.
“James Wilson, of Hitchcock House, yonder. Your neighbor, currently hosting your commanding officer.” There was something in the way he said it that made House smile; clearly Vogler’s charms had not gotten any better in the last week or so.
“Lucky you,” House replied, reaching the foot of the stairs. “I’m sure he’s the bon vivant and sterling conversationalist I remember so well.”
“I’m afraid not,” Wilson replied lightly. “His exchanges with me are measured out like sugar—one spoonful at a time, lest too many words get in the way.”
“German efficiency,” House couldn’t help replying with a smirk. Wilson smiled back, and between them, Cuddy arched an eyebrow.
“You’re back early, Doctor House—nobody dying of bad mushrooms or tainted rat?” she asked.
House sighed. “Two cases of snakebite, stitches for a poor card player, and a late season run of dysentery brought on by an idiot drinking water out of a slops bucket. I was thinking of heading to the Green Pine this evening—join me?” he offered to Wilson, who looked slightly stricken.
“I’m afraid I have a dinner appointment in town this evening. Another night, perhaps,” came the gallant counteroffer as Wilson avoided glancing at Cuddy. Keenly House looked from one to the other, but didn’t say anything, and turned to his sitting room. Cuddy waited until the door closed, then shot Wilson a glance and nodded.
*** *** ***
Foreman’s Printers was located on the far end of Piper Lane, and there were only a few shops with lights in the windows after sunset; nevertheless Cuddy reached the back door half an hour after saddling up at Plainsboro. She’d ridden it many times, only being stopped once by the night watchman, who hadn’t recognized her at the time.
She dismounted and tied Honor up, then knocked discreetly at the back door. Foreman appeared, holding a lantern, his expression concerned. “Were you followed?”
“No,” Cuddy replied impatiently, following him inside. The tiny backroom was already crowded, and the men there turned to look at her, some nodding politely. Carefully Cuddy looked around: Robert Chase, Master of the Morgan G., golden-haired and handsome in his fine linen frilled shirt and blue wool coat; James, of course; Henry Jacob of Jacob and Sons, bearded and distinguished, clay pipe already in hand, and next to her, wiping his fingers clean of ink, Eric Foreman. She took a seat at the table and waited as the rest of the men sat as well.
“You have a guest these days, Mistress Cuddy—care to enlighten us?” Foreman began, his tone slightly impatient. He was always that way though; supportive of the Cause if only for economic reasons, and far more eager to get on with his business than to discuss politics.
“Doctor-surgeon for the Twenty-First across the river,” Cuddy replied. “Smart, sulky and could be trouble for his sheer nosiness.”
“Loyalist?” Chase asked, pulling out a flat packet of parchment from some inner pocket of his cloak. Cuddy gave a shrug.
“Hard to say. He’s not interested in politics in the least, and although I’ve heard some damning remarks about his commanding officer, I think it’s more a matter of personal dislike than disloyalty. House will need watching though—as I said, he’s sharp.”
“Can you handle it?” Wilson murmured. Cuddy nodded, her smile tight.
“He’ll be kept in line. So what’s the news?” she asked in turn, and with that, Chase broke the seal on the packet, unfolded it and scanned the page, grinning.
“Dispatch from Boston—looks as if our cousins up north have been busy . . . again.”
Foreman rolled his eyes. “More shouting. Would that they’d take a page from us and get to the action of the thing. This revolution would be over by Christmas if Boston did more than try to argue the King to death.”
“They make a fine diversion though,” Henry pointed out as his lit his clay pipe. “And because of them, nobody looks to New Jersey. Read us the news, Chase.”
Chase did, keeping his voice low in the lamplight. Cuddy listened thoughtfully and when he was done, she looked around the group, grinning. “Well . . . if it’s information they want on the troops, then we’re in a perfect position to supply it.”
Foreman nodded crossing his strong arms over his chest. “Enough comings and goings in the process of feeding them alone. I take it you can pull more from your . . . guest?”
“I’ll try. James, you’ve got the more likely source—“ she looked at her neighbor. He gave a slight shake of his head.
“Vogler’s not much for conversation, and he locks up all his personal papers, but I can try. Maybe a few of his underlings would be willing to chat, if approached the right way. In the meantime, we need to keep a low profile in light of the news from Boston.”
“Agreed,” Henry replied, exhaling smoke. “I might make a visit out your way tomorrow, Mistress, and see what sort of man this House is. And on my way back, I might take the river route and have a look at the camp.”
“Good idea,” Cuddy replied. She rose from the table and looked around at the men once more. “Don’t forget, gentlemen--my dinner party is set for next week, and all of you are invited to Plainsboro for it—we dine at seven.”
Nods all around made her smile, and she reached for her cloak before slipping out the door.
*** *** ***
House tugged on the reins lightly; Repsol was a cantankerous mount, prone to drifting if not kept in check. The big piebald snorted and moved back onto the road; House took in the night air, trying to clear his head. Cards at the Green Pine had proved a minor distraction at best, and neither of the wenches had been tempted by his winnings.
Their loss, he sourly decided, his gain.
He was bored. The latest missive from Stacy had been full of tears and hot promises, but he doubted she’d find the excuse to come south, away from the gimlet eye of her solicitous husband, Mark. No, there was nothing much to do but lance boils and dose bad bellies until the next skirmish with the locals. A few of the books in the manor library were still tempting, though, and he’d learned from one of the maids that Plainsboro had a harp in the attic; with a little tuning, he could master it, House was sure.
Hoof beats broke into his thoughts, and he looked up to see a horse cantering across the tree line on the other side of the road, moving between the oaks and heading for the fields. Curious, House pulled Repsol to a halt and watched.
The figure road towards Plainsboro, and circled wide of the main drive. House reached back to give the piebald a swat; the horse broke into a gallop, moving along the road swiftly. House wasn’t sure if he could intercept the other rider, but he was determined to try, even as he pondered who it might be. A courier for himself from the regiment? A secret lover of Mistress Cuddy’s?
That latter thought was annoying, and House figured if it was Wilson, all the worse. Still, the humiliation of the moment would be enjoyable, so he urged the big horse faster, and reached the stables in time to note the open door nearest the kitchen. Moving with stealth, House dismounted and slipped inside, listening carefully.
The horses stirred, but his ear caught footsteps just inside the first stall, where the bay mare usually stood. He paused a moment, and his nose brought him the scent. Reaching out, he snagged the arm of the figure and pulled hard; a warm and curvy body collided with his. House grinned, enjoying the contact as he snaked one hand around her waist and another over her mouth. “Good evening, Mistress . . . out late, are we not?”
Before her sharp little teeth could break the skin of his fingers he pulled his hand away from her soft lips. Cuddy snarled. “Get your hands OFF me, Sir!”
“You’re warm, and the night is cool . . .” House observed. He bent his head to her hair, sniffing. “And you smell of tobacco—not a scent I’ve associated with you previously.”
“And you reek of spirits and tobacco yourself, House—though I’m surprised not to find cheap scent on you as well!” Cuddy snapped. “Janoski’s doxies too busy for you tonight?” She tried to pull away from him, but House had strength in his long arms and kept her back pinned against his chest as he managed a mock-sigh.
“Feisty, aren’t you? Not your most lovable quality, you know. Still, it was a good night at cards and I’m feeling generous. I might keep your rendezvous quiet, if offered the right incentive.”
This brought renewed struggling, but House tightened his grip, grinning in the dark. The sensations she was creating were delightful, although Mistress Cuddy didn’t seem to be aware of her effect just yet. He leaned down to breathe in her ear, speaking softly. “Christ! Unless you want me to drag you up into the hayloft, stop, woman! What I want in exchange for my silence is nothing more than the harp in your attic.”
“Wh-what?” Cuddy turned her head and glared at him in the dim light. House smiled, his teeth very white for a moment.
“The harp. I’m sure you’re all tired of my violin solos, and it’s too much to expect a harmonium or clavichord out here in the Ninth Ring, but I did hear tell of a harp.”
In his arms, Cuddy went still; he took a chance and loosened his grip on her, aware of how even tousled and angry, she aroused him.
Especially tousled and angry, House amended to himself. She pursed her lips and gave a slow nod, reaching up to brush some loose strands from her face. “The harp. Fine. You want to play it, you’re welcome to it. Just let me go and we’ll both forget tonight.”
“Forget? Unlikely,” House murmured. “But as a gentleman, I’ll keep mum about it, certainly.”
“You are NO gentleman,” Cuddy ground out, freshly infuriated. House dipped his head and recklessly kissed her, hard. She flailed, hands beating on his shoulders for a moment, but her blows had no effect, and after a few long moments she seemed to submit.
House yelped when her teeth sank into his lower lip, and he jerked away from her, cursing lightly. Cuddy shot him a withering look and stormed away, leaving him in the dark of the barn to dab at his wounded mouth.