Miss Bancroft smiled at him. The gesture wasn’t all that dazzling, but it transformed her into a near beauty. When he sent a quick glance at his wife, her attention was fixed on William, for he, too, stared at the woman as if seeing her for the first time. “It was a bit difficult to discern at first, Lord Hadleigh,” she began. Her gaze dropped to the snuffbox. “You see, we went off the theory Mr. Marsden had about the leaves mentioned in the riddle as the pages of a book. There aren’t all that many in here.” She waved a hand about, presumably to encompass the whole of the office. “However, there was quite a fat volume sitting innocently on one of the occasional tables near that sofa there.” Another gesture directed his attention to the opposite end of the cozy room where a grouping of furniture rested. It had been a particular favorite spot of his father’s. “I found it rather an odd choice, Farming in an Age Beyond Cattle, for an earl to have pulled out and set nearby as if he’d read it time and time again.”
“I don’t recall my father being a proponent for or against cattle or farming,” Drew said, much to himself.
“Exactly!” William nodded at the young lady. The fervor of the treasure hunt glimmered in his eyes. “Neither Father nor Uncle had a blessed clue about any of that. It was left to the tenants’ responsibility. Pray, continue, Miss Bancroft.”
A blush washed over her cheeks. “Well, when I went to thumb through the book, someone had cut a square within the pages. The volume was deep enough to allow quite a nice hideaway and nestled inside the hollowed area was this snuffbox.”
“How marvelous.” Finn wheeled himself over to the desk. Interest lined his expression. “As far as I know, Father didn’t take snuff. Do you mind if I have a look inside?”
“Please do. I had the honor of discovering it, but a Storme should read the next clue, if there is indeed one inside.” She carefully handed the snuffbox to him.
“Isn’t she just a brick?” William asked of the room at large. “Huzzah, Miss Bancroft.”
The blush on her cheeks deepened. “Thank you, Mr. Storme.”
“Inspector Storme, if you please,” he said in a softer voice and followed it with a grin.
She ducked her head but didn’t respond.
What the hell is going on under my own roof? It’s rather as if Cupid has made an appearance instead of Father Christmas.
But Drew took up a position behind Finn’s chair to peek over his brother’s shoulder. “Whenever you’re ready, Brother.”
With a shaking hand, Finn opened the lid of the snuffbox. There were no aged tobacco leaves inside. However, there was a rolled scrap of paper tied off with the same type of ribbon as the first clue. “Indeed, huzzah, Miss Bancroft.” After handing Drew the pieces of the snuffbox, Finn proceeded to slip off the ribbon and then unroll the note. “‘Congratulations. It seems the Storme family is growing as strong as their namesake.’” He glanced over his shoulder. “We are that, aren’t we?” he asked a low whisper.
“Indeed. It’s been hard-won at times,” Drew managed around a suddenly tight throat. He laid his free hand on Finn’s shoulder. “Hard-won and extremely fortunate.” There was no embarrassment when he caught William staring at him with a mix of speculation and jealousy in his eyes. He’d grown as a man and a person since the summer, and now there was no shame in showing the general company who he truly was. “One thing about us Stormes. Our feelings and emotions run deep. They can either be destructive or cleansing, and that’s entirely our decision.”
“Duly noted,” William said with a curt nod. “Please read the next riddle, Finn.”
“‘Here’s your third clue: This room in the hall is all well and good, for it contains the heart of the house as well as the food. But hidden somewhere in this wonderous place, is a spot where the ashes and soot tend to gather. Careful else you find yourself burned and be mindful of the folks who are waiting their turn… to eat. Amidst the hustle and bustle you’ll see, a mountain of treats made for Christmas Eve, but pay your dues to the one who has remained true lest you be hungry as church mice tomorrow.’”
From his side, Sarah giggled, and the sound went straight to his groin. “I believe that I may know the room in question.”