John was tired, dusty, and frustrated by the time his Brougham pulled up in front of The Withered Spoon. It was now late afternoon—nearly evening, he imagined—and the strain of sitting in the carriage for most of the day was evidenced by his aching back and numb buttocks.
He stepped out of the Brougham and stood on solid ground at last. He placed his hands on the small of his back and leaned backwards slightly in a attempt to mitigate the stiffness.
"Are you all right, sir?" Raines said as he stepped down from the driver's seat.
"Just a bit stiff is all, Raines," John replied. "Nothing a good meal and beverage won't go a long way towards curing."
Raines eyed the building suspiciously. "Seems an unlikely spot for one such as yourself to making a stop."
"Oh, I've heard it spoken of quite highly," John said. "Very good food, I'm told. And I'm to understand that a colleague of my father's is staying here."
It was a lie, but only a small one. There was certainly a colleague of his father's here, but he actually owned the place.
"Oh, well, then, far be it for me... I'll just take the carriage 'round back, then, sir, shall I?"
"Very good, Raines. Thank you."
John watched as Raines resumed his seat at the front of the carriage and shook the reins. It suddenly occurred to John how very appropriate his driver's name was. Odd that he hadn't thought of it before.
As the Brougham moved off down the street, John turned his attention to The Withered Spoon. It was a plain building, just a whitewashed stone wall with a weathered oak door and a carved sign hanging above. It was neither menacing nor particularly inviting. It just ... was.
As he pulled on the tarnished brass handle, a warmth met his face, and a strangely compelling aroma met his nostrils. He opened the door the rest of the way and stepped inside.
The place was dark, as so often these establishments were. The windows were grimy, so the only real light came from the oil lamps hanging on the walls and the candles on the tables.
To his left, a long counter ran almost the entire length of the wall, stopping at the rear only enough to allow a barman or barmaid to get in or out. In the middle of the room and to his right was a collection of old tables and chairs that looked as if they had been assembled from all the nations of the earth.
Most of the tables were occupied, and the rhythmic hubbub of eating, drinking, and conversation rippled over him like a picnic blanket in the wind. There was a certain homeyness to the place, and John's trepidations were swiftly replaced by a reacquaintance with his hungry stomach.
"Well, don't just stand there, luv. Gawkin' at everyone. Come in and sit down."
John quickly gathered his wits and glanced to his left. The voice had been that of the barmaid. She stood behind the counter, arms akimbo, head slightly cocked, looking at him as if he were some newly-discovered species of mushroom.
He stepped towards her. She was pretty, in a world-weary kind of way, though her eyes possessed a glint that spoke of an impishness beneath. A stray blond lock had managed to find it's way out from beneath her bonnet, a fact John found oddly charming.
"I'm, uh, looking for Mister Witherspoon," John said to her.
"Are you now?" she said, her tone playful, mischievous. "Well, Sir Robert is upstairs at the moment, but I can fetch him for you if you like."
John frowned at her. "Sir Robert?" he asked.
She laughed. "Oh, we all call him that. He gets a bit uppity sometimes, he does, and we like to bring him back down to earth."
"Indeed," John said, lacking any other response. "Well, if you wouldn't mind—"
"No need now," she said, looking towards the back of the room. "Here he comes."
John looked in the direction of her gaze. Sure enough, a fairly corpulent man of late middle-age was huffing and puffing his way down the stairs.
"Thank you," John said to the barmaid as he began moving towards the back of the room.
As the inn's proprieter reached the bottom of the stairs and paused to catch his breath, he looked up to find John bearing down upon him with a certain amount of urgency.
"Aye, that I am."
John put out his hand. "John Broddington."
Witherspoon's eyes widened. "Broddington, ye say?"
John nodded. "I believe you know my father."
Witherspoon took his hand and shook it. "Indeed I do, lad. Indeed I do. So I'm thinking ye must have something for me, then."
"Have something...?" John felt a tightness in his abdomen as he let go of the other man's hand. "No, actually. I ... I was rather hoping that I'd ..." His thoughts were beginning to race. "You mean you haven't ...?"
"Haven't what, lad?"
"There's been no messenger here today?"
Witherspoon frowned and shook his head. "No. No messenger. I was rather hopin' that was you."
No messenger. He'd had an uneasy feeling about that for some time. He'd seen no man on horseback pass him on the way to London, but he'd also fallen asleep a couple of times during the trip, so he thought he must have just missed seeing him.
Evidently that was not the case. So whatever it was his father was sending to Mister Witherspoon had not yet arrived.
Voices from the stairway drew his attention. He glanced up to see shoes and skirts descending the steps in a swirl of leather and fabric. All of it was familiar to him.
When the face appeared, he was still shocked, even though he'd already known who it would be.
"Lorrie?" he said, his brow creasing even further. "What are you doing here?"
She stopped mid-step as she spied him. Her face seemed to lose a hint of its color.
"John," she after after a moment's hesitation. "I could well ask you the same question."
"Well," Witherspoon said, "you two obviously know each other."
"Yes," John said, giving him a sharp look. "We do."
"What's the hold up?" came another voice from the stairs.
Lorrie looked up. "I'm sorry," she said, moving the rest of the way down the staircase.
Another set of shoes and skirts descended after her. John watched, curious about the identity of this other woman, though not quite as curious as he was about why Lorrie was here.
When the face cleared the landing, John froze. He was unable to fully take in what he was seeing. The fine garments could not disguise this woman's strangeness. Her hair was a glistening copper colour John had never before seen. Her eyelids were painted a greenish color, and her spectacles were framed with swirling brown, cream, and orange.
Lorrie smirked. "John, I'd like you to meet Rebecca."
Rebecca stepped forward and extended her hand.
John couldn't take his eyes off her. She was unlike any person he had ever encountered.
She was also the most radiant thing he had ever seen.