1813, Kent, England
The sound of horses skidding to a halt on the drive before the dowager house was enough to drown out the sedate tick-tock of the clock on the mantle. Enough to make the man testing the rosettes carved in the wainscoting all too aware that he was merely a tick or a tock away from the hangman.
The revenuers had been closer than he’d thought. Not a pleasant realization for a man in need of patience as well as time.
Where was the bloody damn catch? It had been too long since he’d used it. He’d been but a boy then, a visitor to the estate. Now he was a man on the run from the Crown’s watchdogs.
Fists fell on the main door one story below. A loud voice called to the servants to “open in the name of the King.” He could hear the butler’s steps cross the main hall, moving a bit quicker than his usually sedate stride. Had the seneschal seen him slip in the back way? Would he stand aside for the hue and cry, letting the revenue men trample through his mistress’s home while she was away?
The man’s fingers moved along the carvings, testing, searching by feel for the once familiar catch.
Below, the main door opened. The sound of men pushing inside the house – weapons rattling, footsteps loud – echoed up the staircase and into the room. Soon the soldiers themselves would follow, and when they did, he’d be nothing but fodder for the gibbet.
Yet it was at that juncture, in the blessedly brief mark of time between one tick of the clock and the next, that his fingers remembered the way. The following tock was louder than the click of the hidden latch releasing. The cleverly concealed knob turned easily, as if well maintained, although time had long passed for the need of the closet’s original use.
With mere moments to spare, the disguised door swung outwards. Rather than open upon an empty cubbyhole, it opened to display a startled face. A quite lovely female face framed by wheat-gold curls and studded with eyes the same shade of azure as the pimpernels that grew in his mother’s garden.
The young woman seated on the narrow bench inside the narrow cabinet bolted to her feet, her sweetly bowed lips parting in surprise at seeing him. The sprigged muslin of her gown swayed softly with her movement, as did her curls, but not a sound escaped her, for which he breathed a sigh of relief.
Below in the house’s entry, the King’s men bustled past the butler.
“Search these rooms,” the officer in charge ordered. “You men take the kitchens and cellars. Sergeant, you and I will comb the next floor then proceed to the servants’ rooms in the attics. I want this fellow alive, mind, but club him if you must. Call out when you have him.”
Seconds remained before capture. There was nothing for it, the man realized as he spared a glance back toward the open parlour door. He swung back to face the beauty. “Pardon me, my lady,” he murmured softly, and swiftly stepped within the tiny cabinet sized niche. With barely a moment to spare, he pulled the door shut, cloaking them both in the ink of shadow.
Earlier that day…
Jack Girard flinched as a revenuer’s shot whistled out of the fog and past his head. The ball nicked the old tricorne of the man next to him, sending it flying into the surf.
“Run!” Jack urged.
“But the boat!”
“The Devil take the bloody boat,” Jack snarled. “Save your bleedin’ neck.”
The man took him at his word and vanished into the heavy mist leaving Jack alone beside the craft. The sound of the fellow’s retreat over the loose stone beach faded quickly. Then the fog closed in around him, leaving Jack with the grating noise of the prow shifting where it rested on the rough shingles. That and the lap of each new wave that rushed to shore were all that proved he was still bound to the earth.
Crouched in the shallows, his trousers soaked, his boots filled with cold sea water, Jack waited quietly, listening for the King’s men and wondering what in blazes had happened to the men of the land-party who had given the all clear signal. The cloaking mist couldn’t hide a man’s approach on the beach any more than it had the fleeing smuggler’s retreat, and yet the hushed sound of his own breathing was what seemed loud and betraying.
If he lived through this night – nay, this morn – he would be best served to walk away from the trade. Both his trades. Neither had ever guaranteed his survival, but the adventure, the danger, the thrill, had sufficed. And his luck had held. After events in Gravelines this trip, it appeared his quotient of luck was nearly spent.
When a man in the ill-fitting uniform of the Preventive Water Guard materialized suddenly from the fog, Jack was relieved his current wait was over.
Oddly enough, the man looked surprised to find he wasn’t alone, so Jack took advantage and planted him a facer.
The bloke’s nose broke, spilling warm claret down the front of his jacket as he staggered back with a yowl of pain, trying to regain his footing on the damp, loose stone of the beach. Then he crumpled to the ground when the crown of his head met the swiftly descending cudgel wielded by one of the previously absent batmen from the land-party.
“All clear now, mon capitain,” the new arrival announced, grinning as he gave a sloppy salute.
“Took you long enough,” Jack muttered, stooping to lift the unconscious man’s ankles as the preventive man’s assailant tossed his weapon aside and snugged his hands under the fellow’s arms.
The batman chuckled as they dragged the downed man above the tideline before dropping him. “You know I’d never let the hangman get hold of your pretty neck, you damn caper merchant. Both wife and mother would go on something fierce over the loss of their tea supply should your visits end. You’ve got them spoiled.”
“Them spoiled?” Jack snorted at the idea and tromped back toward the sea. “And here I thought I was risking my life just to keep you supplied with French brandy.” Wading into the surf, he snagged the hempen tie line of the boat before putting his shoulder to the task of pushing the vessel free of the shingle.
Without being asked, his companion followed his example, careless of the ruin of his boots or coat, both far finer than those of any other batman in all of Britain.
But then, so were his, Jack knew. Coarse as the cloth of his coat was, the tailor had done a fine job, although it had taken an extra keg of Dutch gin to ensure that the fit wasn’t too close to preclude whatever manual labor might be required of a man engaged in free trading. Gin would not assuage his bootmaker should he stride into the shop though. The man would no doubt weep over the state of his sadly abused footwear.
The moment the sleek craft bobbed free, the batman tossed his cudgel aboard and swung himself over the side, neatly dodging the furled sail. “Devil-a-bit,” he drawled, his voice now that of a drawing room dandy. “It’s to enhance my reputation as a host, as any black hearted free trader like yourself should know.”
Jack shook the sea from his heels, pulling himself aboard as well. “And who introduced me to my first Deal boatman?” he demanded.
His friend allowed the fingertips of his left hand to rest over his heart, gracing the now damp front of his weskit. “Dear fellow, that would, without a doubt, be me. Should you not vow undying comradeship in appreciation?”
“I should probably just shoot you,” Jack snarled, beginning to loosen the sail.
“No doubt a wise choice, but one that would deprive you of my ever-delightful company,” the batman declared, then dropped his foppish act. “Need assistance bringing the boat into the cove?”
The craft was a trim little carvel, small at just 20 feet with a forward set mast, the hull painted as dark as a moonless night. It didn’t carry much in the way of cargo compared to the larger luggers, but it was swift, able to dash to the French coast a bare twenty-five miles away, or maneuver into narrow waterways where the tonnage of the King’s chase boats could not follow. It could be rowed by a team of men, but when the wind blew, there was no blockade capable of stopping him, no Water Guard sloop he couldn’t outrun. If necessary, he could indeed sail the craft alone, but with dawn soon to break, having a ready hand to help was preferable.
“What I need is a competent swabbie, but as I’m lumbered with a dallying aristo, I suppose you’ll have to do,” Jack said.
Far from dampening the batman’s amusement, the comment gave him another reason to chuckle. “Damned right you do, you bloody import. Other than our little contretemps here, how did things go this run?”
Much as any other run, Jack thought. Adrenaline had pumped euphoria through his system, pushing fear ahead of it. The wind had been biting, stinging as he tacked the small boat before it, sailing further from customhouse officials on one shore toward revenuers on the next, each irate enough to kill him rather than face him. Particularly on the open waters of the Channel.
But then no one relished taking on a Deal smuggler once they set sail. Even Lord Nelson had depended upon them as pilots. Put one in a boat specifically crafted by Deal shipbuilders for smuggling and there wasn’t a Crown patrol sloop capable of catching them on Channel waters.
And he ought to know, Jack admitted. Once the Honorable Alston Langden had introduced him to his first smuggler during a between term visit to Kent from Eton, the die had been cast. Rather than concentrate on gambling, horses, and drinking as other boys on school holiday were inclined to do, he’d spent his time getting to know every creek and beach on the Deal and Dover coast, along The Downs and up past the Sandwich Flats until landmarks on the landscape were recognizable even on the darkest night. He’d become a spotsman while yet at Oxford, being the man responsible for bringing in a ship to the safest locale, signaling the lander from the sea.
The lander. His lander and current batman, the fellow who looked nothing like a smuggler, but most definitely like the London beau he was despite the rough cloth of his coat, the dark swathe of the stock encircling his throat or the scuff marks on his now waterlogged custom-made jackboots.
Of course, they were two of a kind, he and Alston. Men breed for a life of luxury who had taken to free trading for reasons that only in part had to do with a craving for adventure, or danger.
The hell of it was, they could have had that by joining the Army.
But neither had.
Alston, now Baron Langden, worked hand-in-glove with local smugglers out of patriotism, not, as he often claimed, for the tea that filled his womenfolk’s dainty china cups or the brandy that nested in the cellars of his ancestral estate.
However, the same couldn’t be said of him, Jack knew. Not entirely. He did it to survive.
Or so he told himself for each trip run, each cargo taken on.
Each sealed missive carried.
It was the missives that would get him killed much more than the customs-free oilskins of tobacco or bolts of silk and lace that he carried. The one resting next to his skin now had the same power – even after he passed it to the Crown’s spymasters in London.
“How was the run? A bit of trouble on either side of the Channel, actually,” Jack said as the wind caught the newly released sail. “Are you sure that was the only King’s man on the beach tonight?”
Alston looked uncomfortable a moment. “No, but he was the only one on this stretch. I had the men fan out searching for any others that might have gotten by us. You’d think Deal men could see through a bloody fog and be alerted to a prowling patrol. Perhaps he was alone, looking to catch a man or two to win accolades with his commander.”
“Or he was a Deal man himself,” Jack suggested.
“A bloody traitor to his kin, then,” Alston declared with feeling. “Deal town takes care of its own, Jack.”
Over his head, the sail snapped as it filled with the morning breeze. The fog was thinning, which was fine as long as a patrol cutter wasn’t waiting for him to reappear. Jack grinned at the idea. He would almost welcome a race, his fast, clean built craft against the Water Guard’s more lumbering ship.
Alston’s smile was as reckless as Jack felt, but that was one of the qualities that had drawn them together as boys, what held them friends as men.
“Aye,” Jack said, “Deal men stick together. But I, mon ami, as you so often remind me, am not a man of Deal.”
Miss Emily Vale nearly choked on the sip of normally calming tea. Carefully, she placed the delicate china cup back on the saucer before her on the breakfast table. It took a concerted effort of will to keep the two from rattling against each other as her hand shook in fury. For the first time in her privileged life she was tempted to resort to extremely vulgar language. Unfortunately, she knew not a single term that combined terseness with the appropriate lucidity, to fling at her normally sensible father.
Thus, it was a tame but fervently felt retort Emily bit back as she schooled her features to conceal, she hoped, the desire to respond hotly. No matter what the provocation, a lady maintained proper decorum at all times.
Or rather what passed for decorum in her immediate family of late. In other words, a modicum of feeling would not be seen as amiss.
“I beg your pardon, Father. Pray tell me you did not use my name and the word marriage in the same sentence this early in the day.”
“What the devil has the time of day to do with it?” Sir Nigel Vale demanded, barely glancing up from his plate.
“I would not have the prospect of such a lovely one ruined by such a foul circumstance,” Emily said, for the day was in fact quite a fine one.
The early morning mist had lifted, and the sun had pushed its way past the clouds to spill in soft grandeur over the riot of blooms in the garden. The breeze creeping through the open windows was fresh and alive with their delightful scent. One couldn’t wish for a more perfect Kentish day.
But it was ruined for her now. There was no going back. No trill of birdsong, hum of bee, or pastry treat from the kitchens would return the pleasure of the day. Sir Nigel had used the word. Marriage! What could he have been thinking to even suggest such a state to her?
As if he had heard her thoughts, her father gave an indelicate snort. “Past time you wed, Emmie,” he said. “Everyone will think you beyond your last prayers.”
Perhaps in London they would, but she was quite content in the Weald where meeting a member of The Ton, other than the Langdens, was highly unlikely.
“What if they do?” Emily declared. “It matters not one whit to me, as you very well know, sir. Confess, the idea was not of your own generation but planted and nourished by Octavia.”
“Your stepmother has your best interests at heart,” Sir Nigel countered.
Emily doubted it. After doing without a wife for more than a dozen years and being quite content, her father had suddenly taken it into his head to “add another filly” to his stable. It had come as quite a surprise to her that he even considered such a thing for, until he had gone off to Tunbridge Wells to visit his sister, the only females her father considered worthy of a glance had all been four footed, and preferably hoofed, be they equine or bovid.
No, his widower’s existence had come to an end because Octavia had fancied his indecently ample income and flattered him into a walk to the altar. The resulting shift in their domestic arrangement had not been comfortable for Emily, who had been mistress of the household for much of her life.
Still, she had thought they had all settled into the new hierarchy at the Hall nicely, Octavia jockeying her way into duties she fancied yet leaving the drearier ones in Emily’s capable hands. But this…this blatant announcement was beyond all comprehension!
“The fellow is the son of Octavia’s godmother,” Sir Nigel said, before popping the last rasher of bacon in his mouth.
“Then why didn’t she marry him?” Emily demanded. “Was the connection one of blood as well as sanctity?”
“Hasn’t a feather to fly with, or she would have considered the match,” her father allowed, apparently unconcerned that his bride was of an avaricious bent. “And he’s French – well, half French – into the bargain. Seeing as Octavia’s first husband was killed while fighting Boney, monsieur’s ancestry didn’t sit right with her.”
“However, such a flawed gentleman will suit me quite well, is that what she told you?”
“He’s only half French,” Sir Nigel insisted, “and there is a title. You’ll be a countess.”
As if she cared a fig for that, Emily thought. “All it will cost is my freedom and the £10,000 in Funds I inherited from Mother.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Emmie. The man’s a comte and you know as well as I do that peers of any realm don’t care what their wives do once the heir has been foaled. You’ll have all the freedom any woman could wish.”
But, once marriage papers were signed, very little say in her own life. It was not to be borne.
“I’m not one of your mares or ewes to be bred willy-nilly to the first corpulent, balding, continental to sniff in my direction, Father.”
“How do you know whether he’s run to flesh and is balding?” Sir Nigel demanded defensively.
Emily regretted her choice of words on the instant. The description fit her stubborn sire quite snuggly, after all. But the words were said and couldn’t be taken back.
“He must be,” she said. “He’s willing to take me for a bride.”
“Balderdash. You’re a lovely young woman. Any man would be fortunate to have you to wife.”
Which was only partly true, Emily allowed. Her lone season in London had proved that. Although her antecedents were respectable, her coloring in fashion, her form willowy and graceful, she had discovered very quickly that it wasn’t her countenance, figure or disposition that would entice a man. It was about shillings, guineas, and pence per annum. It quite put her off in regard to what passed for romance in their set.
“Well, I will have none of it,” she declared firmly. “I am six and twenty, long past my majority, therefore, if I choose to be an undutiful daughter and embrace spinsterhood, I shall do just that. Tell Octavia’s comte to go elsewhere for his sustenance. I will have nothing to do with him.”
Recognizing the wheedling tone of his voice, Emily pushed back her chair and left the room swiftly, her skirts whispering in reflected agitation.
Quite familiar with her father’s disposition, Emily hastened her steps. It would do well to take herself out of shouting distance. He would recover his equilibrium more quickly if she were not in sight.
Or she hoped he would. At times, her father was like a stranger, such as when he’d suddenly remarried. Quite out of character! And this sudden desire for her to nab a title, even a foreign one, be it within her reach? Obviously, Octavia was behind this fancy, though it was anyone’s guess who would take care of the various household tasks Octavia shunned if they married her off.
Rather than enable her father, or his reinforcements in the form of her stepmother, to persist further, Emily hastily gathered her shawl and while yet tying her bonnet in place, slipped out the garden door and set out across the grounds. Perhaps the gentleness of the day would calm her. And if it failed to do so, a brisk walk would ensure her a sympathetic ear and the friendly advice of their nearest neighbor to the east. But it was not toward the Langden manor house that she turned. No, comfort and guidance could not be found with young Lady Langden, who was increasing, and unfortunately frequently ill. No, what she sought could be found at only one place.
The dowager house.
Lady Sibyl Langden was in complete agreement over the draconian way her own goddaughter was being treated. But Emily had known she could rely on her mother’s oldest friend to take her side.
“If only Mother hadn’t left us,” Emily sighed. “I am sure she would never have countenanced such a hastily arranged proposal.”
“No, Leda would have supported you, although it would have driven her to worry that you would never have a home of your own,” the dowager Lady Langden commented. “And although without Octavia’s intercession there would be no whisper of his existence, I’m sure your mother would also have been very curious to meet this comte. Only half French, you say?”
Emily nodded and took a sip from her teacup. “This is quite delicious, ma’am. Free-trader’s stock?”
Lady Langden smiled softly, breathing in the scent arising from her own cup before enjoying a bit of the delightful brew herself. “Of course. What else do you know of this man Octavia has put forth for consideration?”
“Nothing! Not even his name, but then that is probably my own fault. I’m afraid I bolted from the table rather than continue the conversation. Father was working himself up to one of his few rages. In fact, once Octavia learns of my resistance, I’m sure she will add to the hullabaloo and have him riding me down like some defenseless fox.”
“My dear Emily! Surely not!”
Emily sighed in resignation. “I’m afraid the situation simply cries out for dramatics, ma’am, but Sir Nigel is too complacent a man to actually do that, isn’t he? However, I would not put it beyond him to hunt me down and drag me back. I must be patient and let time work its wonders on his disposition. He will soon have a new stud he fancies or a new breed of sheep he wants to consider and the matter of whether I need, much less want, a husband will be forgotten. I shall simply have to stay out from under Octavia’s eye as much as possible for a few weeks. By then her rackety comte will have found himself another heiress who will cut me out of the running.”
Lady Langden nodded in agreement, but as she was about to offer the plate of biscuits once more, there was a quick rap at the parlour door.
“A message from the manor house, my lady,” the butler intoned, stepping into the room, a silver platter in his hand. When he offered it to her, Lady Langden whisked the folded missive upon it up and gestured him away.
“Oh, bother,” she murmured upon reading the message. “Winifred is ill again. At times I wonder what Alston saw in her, she is such a sickly creature.”
Emily laughed lightly. “You are simply piqued that you must set aside my troublesome self for your daughter-in-law, ma’am. We both know why Alston offered for her; Winifred is charming, lovely to behold, and worships the ground he walks on.”
Lady Langden sighed. “True, but Leda and I had always hoped that Alston and you would make a match.”
“But as I am none of the things Winifred is, there was never a chance of that happening,” Emily said. “He has always been more of a brother to me, as you know quite well.”
“Then he should have brought more young men home to tempt you from spinsterhood,” Lady Langden declared and got to her feet. “You’ll be all right here without me? I would not force you to return home until you are ready, dearest.”
Emily got to her feet and brushed her cheek against that of her hostess. “Fear not, ma’am. Should Sir Nigel take to his horse set to drag me forth I can always make use of the priest’s hole within this very room.”
“You recall where the catch is hidden?” Lady Langden asked.
Emily laughed. “Dear Lady Sibyl! How could I possibly forget? I used the clever devise often enough as a child. Sometimes even without your knowledge!”
The hue and cry was unexpectedly swift, Jack thought. He and Alston had adjourned to the breakfast parlour for a well-deserved and leisurely meal once the boat was safely hidden. He had barely begun to break his fast at Langden Manor when one of the tub-carriers’ sons arrived breathless with news.
“M’lord,” the boy gasped as he slipped past the footman determined to block his entrance to the room. “Da and some others run into revenuers ‘fore the casks was hid.”
Alston hastily swallowed a bite of food. “Are the men safe?” he demanded.
The lad nodded as he gulped a hasty lung full of air. “Aye, but the soldiers are a lookin’ fer Mister Jack, sir. I was hidin’ in the loft and heard the officer say he wanted the spotsman in partic’lar, though he didn’t know yer name, sir,” the boy added, turning to Jack. “I come as quick as I could ta tell ya.”
Alston was out of his chair and fishing a shilling from his pocket nearly before the lad finished. He clasped a grateful hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Thank your da for me, lad,” he said, passing the child the coin. “Now hie you to the stable and tell the head groom he’s had you working hard for him this past week and that you’ve not been home in days. That should convince the remittance men that you’ve nought to do with any smuggling activities.”
The boy had barely tugged his forelock and mumbled a quick, “thank ye, sir,” when Jack got to his feet.
“Seems our brave lad last night was indeed a Deal man, one who recognized me though I thought him a stranger,” he said. “Which horse do you not mind my stealing?”
“None of them!” Alston declared. “Safest place for you right now is Mother’s house. Do you recall how to open the way into the priest’s hole?”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Jack said and, taking a final bite of marmaladed bread, headed for the front door.
He nearly crashed into Lady Sibyl Langden on the doorstep.
“Jack!” she gasped, grasping his arms for balance. “Whatever are you doing here?”
Grinning, he kissed her cheek quickly. “Hopefully avoiding arrest by taking cover in your parlour, ma’am,” he called back and slipped out of the manor house.
“But, Jack!” she cried. “You should know that…”
Whatever she had been about to say was lost as he slipped into the gardens, taking a covert path to the dowager house.
It appeared she had erred in believing her father had arrived to drag her home, Emily decided as the tall, startlingly attractive, and quite forward, gentleman slid into the priest’s hole with her and closed the door.
“Sir!” she hissed as darkness descended on them.
She felt him shift position slightly, then his breath caressed her cheek. “Hush, my lady, ere they hear.”
They? Who –? Then she wondered no longer as loud footfalls sounded in the hall and a harsh voice snapped a command.
“The window, sergeant,” a stranger directed upon entering Lady Langden’s parlour. His voice sounded quite near, as though he stood just without the hidden door. “Since it is open see if our man could have escaped that way.”
“Yes, sir.” The second man’s voice was fainter, as if he had turned away.
Well, that explained who her co-tenant in the clandestine closet was. He was a free trader fleeing from the remittance men. A much more interesting appearing one than the rough fellow who delivered her father’s smuggled twists of tobacco. As a true woman of Kent, it behooved her to guard his safety. Not merely for the sake of her father’s vice but for the sake of her wardrobe, which benefited from the silks and laces that arrived in the dead of night as well.
From what little she had seen of him before the door shut them in together, he appeared to be a gentleman. Of course, she doubted a true gentleman would have forced his presence on her even with the King’s men on his heels. Nor would he brush words so intimately across her cheek, his whisper alone setting her nerves alive.
In a nice way, of course. A very nice way.
Although it was impossible to see him in the darkness of the priest’s hole, she was quite aware of every purposefully shallow breath he took. Of his stance. Of necessity he straddled her, one booted foot wedged next to each of hers, trapping her between his thighs.
How improperly intimate being so was! And how intriguing.
The narrow quarters made it impossible to keep a distance between them. He had slipped perforce twixt the wall and where she stood. Wedged chest to breast, there was little breathing room for either of them. She could regain her seat, Emily supposed, but as he already loomed over her in the dark, standing was preferable, even though it left a mere finger’s width of space between them. There was only so much looming any person could abide, even if the one looming was rather a fascinating specimen.
She had caught but a glimpse of him before he joined her in the narrow space, yet she could recall quite well how attractive he had appeared. She had had no idea that tall, broad shouldered men with wildly tumbling dark hair would appeal to her, as she could not recall ever having met one prior to this experience. This one quite filled the spare area of the closet with his presence. She could feel the heat of his body through the layers of his clothing. The mere realization had Emily feeling overly warm and languid. Of its own accord, her body swayed nearer his.
As she wavered, the free trader’s arms enfolded her, drawing her against him, steadying her. No doubt he feared she would faint or make a sound. She was not of such a milquetoast disposition to do either; she was a Vale! But to reassure him that neither event would occur, she slipped her arms around his waist and rested her cheek against his broad chest. She was becoming as forward as her mysterious companion!
And quite enjoying that freedom.
She had been a country miss far too long, lacking even glimpses of eligible gentlemen, much less enjoying an opportunity to converse, to dance, to flirt with one. And here was the result. She was locked in a stranger’s arms and reveling in the sensation immensely! What a wicked young woman she was. She should merely be enduring the situation, not luxuriating in how safe she felt gathered close in his embrace.
Safety was a nebulous quality in their situation, of course, for should either make the slightest noise, the King’s men would drag them both before the magistrate. She would be considered an accomplice simply because she shared the ancient crevice with him. It mattered not whether she was nestled against him by choice or by circumstances not of her own choosing; she was there and no doubt looking quite content as she suffered the familiarity of their current embrace.
Thus, it was with a satisfied sense of maidenly martyrdom that she rubbed her cheek against the front of his rough coat. Doing so allowed her to luxuriate in the cool touch of the dark stock he wore at his throat, and to breathe in the tantalizing scent of him. It was a mingling of aromas: of the sea, of tea, strong spirits, tobacco.
And of orange marmalade.
It really was too bad of him to be a free trader, an outlaw, rather than a proper gentleman. It was the hint of marmalade that made it difficult to fault him. One could hardly be frightened of a man who reminded one of a leisurely morning spent at the breakfast table.
And yet he was no doubt a dangerous fellow, a desperate one. Beneath her cheek his heart thudded quickly. He might have mastered the quickness of breath that the situation had brought to her, but he could no more calm that treacherous organ than she had managed to calm her own.
Of course, it wasn’t the sound of his heart that kept her distracted, but rather the novelty of being crushed in such a strong embrace. Despite the danger of discovery, Emily found it quite difficult to remember the reason they had taken up residence in the priest’s hole.
But the voices of the men in the outer room soon brought her back to reality.
“Nothing, sir,” the man on the far side of the room said.
“Nor here,” the officer answered.
Emily heard the doors of an armoire close, then the slap of the ancient tapestry on the outer wall as it fell back into place. He had looked for a hidden door then. She prayed he would look for one no further.
“But someone was here recently,” the officer continued. There was a rattle as a china cup and saucer were lifted. “The tea is still warm.”
Despite the need for silence, Emily sucked in a startled breath. In response, the smuggler’s hand cupped the back her head gently, pressing her face against his coat briefly as a reminder of the need for silence. Emily tightened her own grip around his waist, leaning into him, seeking the sense of comfort and safety his mere presence afforded her. She thought his fingers tangled briefly in her curls when she did so, but then the tenderness of the touch was gone leaving her wondering if she’d imagined it.
“Plate of biscuits, too, sir,” the sergeant said in the outer room. “But then the butler told us Lady Langden had been called to the manor minutes before we arrived.”
“Then why hasn’t the staff cleared her morning tea things? They can’t expect her to return shortly,” the officer said. “And who was she entertaining? There are two cups showing usage.”
How fortunate she had been to grab up her bonnet and shawl before dashing into hiding, Emily thought. Of course, she had done so because her father would recognize both and know she was there. But if she had not, the men of the Water Guard would have found them and wondered why a younger woman was not in the house. The bonnet was, after all, not the sort of chapeau a widow of mature years, such as the dowager Lady Langden, would be seen wearing. Why, oh, why had she given no thought to the betraying teacup though?
“Shall I call her ladyship’s man then, sir?”
Emily felt the free trader grow even stiller in consternation. Surely if he was familiar enough with the house to know how to access the niche they currently shared, he knew Lady Sibyl Langden’s servants would never give him away. This was Kent, for heaven’s sake!
But then, if he were caught as the result of a tea tray, it would be her fault, not the word of a Langden domestic. Or she would feel that it was. Such a small thing was a telltale teacup, and yet in this instance so life threatening.
Emily wished that Alston Langden’s ancestor had been thoughtful enough to see to the installation of a spy hole when constructing the priest’s hole. She wanted to see the revenuer’s expression. She was sure that the gentleman within whose embrace she rested had a similar desire. However, sound was the only sense they were allowed in following the events in the room without. It would have to suffice.
“Yes, do send the fellow up,” the officer said, his snapped order little muffled by the plaster and timber that sheltered their covert niche. “I’ll await him here whilst you check the servants’ quarters.”
“Oh, dear,” Emily murmured into the free trader’s coat, her voice barely audible.
But he heard, for his lips brushed against the crown of her head before he whispered, “Hush.” His breath stirred her hair and seemed to linger, the lone word sounding almost tender.
How right such a sensation seemed with his arms around her and hers around him. Such was the way lovers stood. Or she supposed they did and wished suddenly that he were not a stranger and that she had not left evidence of her hasty flight for the revenuers to find. How wrongly she had judged the portent of horses thundering down the drive.
“You wished to speak with me, sir?” The butler’s voice was composed, obsequious as his silent footsteps had been.
“Yes. You said Lady Langden was called to the manor house shortly before our arrival? Had she a visitor before she left?”
“Miss Vale, sir, her goddaughter. The Vale estate borders Lord Langden’s to the west.”
“Ah, then it was a not a gentleman who was being entertained.”
“No doubt Miss Vale left with Lady Langden,” the officer said.
Emily held her breath, for the staff knew quite well she had not left. She would have informed them had she done so. While she trusted none to give her away to her father – they never had in the past when she’d been a girl eluding his displeasure – she could not expect any of them to do so when questioned by officers of the Crown, even though she had not broken any law of the land. At least, not any law that the people of Kent recognized. Abetting free traders on the Downs or in the Weald nearly counted as a privilege of landowner, tenant and tradesman alike.
“I could not say, sir,” the butler intoned.
Emily wilted with relief against her gentleman smuggler. He held her upright with effortless ease, his very presence a comfort to her.
It seemed an eternity before the sergeant returned to report. Even longer before the King’s men could be heard leaving the house, then the muted sound of the horses’ hooves on the gravel drive as the troop trotted away.
It was only when silence reigned once more that the free trader released his tender hold, easing her out of his arms.
Jack wasn’t sure whether to be relieved when the men of the Water Guard left, or to be disappointed.
“Merciful heavens,” his lovely companion whispered faintly as he freed her. Her own arms hesitated a moment before slipping from about his waist. “I was quite sure that fellow would be able to hear my heart beating, it did so so loudly.”
Her voice was as hushed as a wave lapping at a beach, both cultured and bewitching. Her breath caressed his jaw as tenderly as would a lover’s. Beneath his cheek, her hair had been silken, an aromatic treat akin to a field of wildflowers. And the curves crushed so closely to his chest only moments before had stirred the sort of daydreams that only an unencumbered man had the right to dream. The loyalty of his men and the demands of the men in London meant he was not such a man.
Still Jack wondered who she was; wished he had a Christian name, not merely an overheard surname, by which to call her. But they were strangers forced to share the narrow space by circumstance. To abide awhile longer in each other’s sphere.
For his part, Jack was in no hurry to end the enforced intimacy they currently shared.
“Between us we kept both your heart and mine muffled I believe, my lady,” he murmured.
“How indelicate of you to say so,” she answered, but he could hear a smile in her voice. What an uncommon young woman she was! “I don’t suppose it would be safe for you to leave yet. They might have left a man behind.”
If they were convinced that he still lurked somewhere nearby, no doubt they had.
“I don’t suppose that my leaving our covert would be a wise decision either,” she said. “If I popped into sight after they made such a thorough search they would be sure to turn the house topsy-turvy seeking what had been overlooked.”
“Would you mind biding a while longer then?” Jack asked. “The quarters are not, I am sure, what you are used to.”
“I am merely not used to sharing these quarters, sir,” she murmured. “But as the circumstances were somewhat pressing…”
Pressing. An unfortunate choice of word, Jack felt considering how well his body recalled the feel of hers held close. His treacherous libido had responded to her nearness instantly, refusing to subsist despite the threat to their safety. Or perhaps because of it. The danger inherent in the situation and her calm acceptance of his intrusion – another ill-chosen word – had simply worked their spell.
“Quite,” Jack said. “I will not intrude on your solitude any longer than necessary, Miss Vale.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she assured, then stilled. “You know my name.”
“I believe mention of it was made in the outer room,” he reminded.
“And you are so unkind as to make use of it without my leave,” she said. “I think it only fair that you reward me with yours, sir, so that we are evenly matched.”
Her tone was flippant, and though quite at odds with their situation, endeared her to him. As if her silence had not done so already. But give her his name he could not.
“It is too dangerous for you to know, my dear, as I’m sure you are aware.”
She sighed dramatically. “How bad of you, Sir Smuggler, to remind me. As I am in for a penny already, could I not be in for a pound? It would make me the equal of our absent hostess, whom I suppose knows you well for you to make such free usage of the uncommon features of her parlour.”
Another sigh escaped her. “But I suppose you are in the right. How despicable,” she declared in a frustrated whisper and shifted her stance. There was a tug on the front of his waistcoat. Then another.
“We seem to have a further problem, sir,” Miss Vale said. “It appears that a button of yours is holding the ribbons of my gown captive.”
“Apparently it is more than my attitude that is despicable,” Jack murmured. “Can you loose them?”
“I could if I could see them,” she answered, “which, of course, I cannot. Our sojourn in this closet must be likened to one of nature’s caprices, conjoined at the…well, conjoined very inappropriately. Pray, do attempt to reason with your so forward button, sir.”
It wasn’t the button that appeared to be forward, to his mind, but the gentle rise of her breast pressing against his chest. He should leave the tangled ribbons to her mercies. Should. But even as he thought the word, his hand had glided up her torso, skimming past her ribs to find the spot where their clothing seemed mated.
When his knuckles brushed against the lace of her modest fichu, and then the warmth of her skin where the dipping neckline of her gown fell away in a confection of lace and ribbons, her breath caught a moment.
At least she could breathe. Jack doubted he was capable of doing so. Her skin was as smooth as smuggled silk, but much more enticing. He was barely aware of the ribbons upon which he worked blindly, particularly when she swayed against him.
And in that instant, the ribbon and button parted ways.
It was impossible to step back. Equally impossible to release her. He gathered her hands in his, holding them captive against his chest, then bent toward her. “Forgive me,” Jack whispered across her lips before he kissed her.
Forgive him? Emily wanted to thank him!
She had known all along that it was perilous to consort with him. In the normal course of things, he would never have crossed her path, and if he had not, she would never have had this moment to treasure.
His hands were warm and rough where the pad of his thumb caressed the backs of her fingers. His mouth brushed lightly against her lips, the touch tender with a hint of hesitation.
She had never been kissed in such a manner by any man, but as their breath mingled Emily knew she did not want this man to stop. To the Devil with propriety, she thought and rose on her toes so that she might kiss him back.
Each gentle touch of his mouth on hers was exquisite torture. He but sampled, retreated and came back for another taste, each renewed advance titillating her more. His breath was sweet, warm, and capable of robbing her of her will. Not that she cared. The moment, the sensations, were too exquisitely delightful to evade. Her breath quickened until she felt she was gasping for air. And yet she wanted nothing more than to press her lips to his, to answer each caress in a like manner. When his mouth traced a trail across her cheek to find the sensitive area just below her earlobe, Emily knew she was lost. Of their own accord her arms slid up his chest and over his shoulders. Her fingers entwined in his hair as her head tipped back in an act of surrender. Her breath left in a long, contented sigh.
“My dear Miss Vale,” he murmured, the words a caress in themselves, gliding as they did across her skin. The scratch of his evening’s growth of beard felt exotic against her cheek. She thought he smiled, his lips curving gently against the corner of her mouth before reclaiming her.
He tasted of orange marmalade rather than merely forbidden pleasures. Surely that was both wrong and delightful for she would never again be able to enjoy it without the thought of him intruding on her thoughts.
Then such musings fled as his mouth retraced the path along the curve of her cheek to her ear before forging a new trail down the arched length of her bare throat. Each breath she now took seemed fast and shallow; breathing naturally was beyond her. Purring though…oh, yes, that fit the occasion wonderfully.
There was no doubt this time. He had indeed smiled, and all because she had forgotten herself and made a sound. An oddly blissful sound. Emily decided she wished to make it over and over whilst in the free trader’s arms.
He responded to it quite satisfactorily by lifting her off her feet. The once light touch of his kiss turned demanding and hungry. Inexperienced as she was, Emily found an answering hunger filled her body and mind.
This time there was nothing tentative, teasing, or tempting in the way they came together. Time lost meaning, but it was moving swiftly by. Soon these stolen moments would be part of the past, and never, never to be repeated. They were the golden ring for which she’d no idea she even searched, but grab it now she would, holding each kiss, each clandestine caress, a treasure in her heart.
He was as breathless as she when they at last parted.
“Damn this cursed cabinet,” he said, his whisper harsh with frustration. “I want to see you with more than just my touch.”
Emily’s fingers flitted across his face, experiencing a like need. The glimpse she had had of him before the door shut had been far too brief. She had no idea what the color of his eyes were, or whether his hair was black or brown, only that it was dark and had been tossed by the wind. In that moment she almost envied the wind, but the elements would never be able to hold him as she did, touching him to communicate a mysterious longing she could not name.
Perhaps it was the darkness around them that made her careless of every stricture she had ever learned. “Just kiss me,” Emily whispered. “Save something for the morrow.”
But she knew as well as he that this was all the time they would be allotted. Their time was brief, these moments sacred. His hold did not loosen, nor did his attentions cease. Warm and possessive, his lips retraced the journey they had taken earlier along her throat to linger in its hollow.
She was drowning in delightful sensation. As a new wave of feeling washed over her, Emily decided Fate was a cruel mistress. Just hours past she had been determined never to wed, but to cling to that stand would now deprive her of something she hadn’t known existed. It had taken a smuggler’s caresses to show her what she would be missing.
But there was no guarantee that a nameless half-French comte could thrill her as this equally nameless free trader did. No guarantee at all.
And so, her hands in his hair, Emily dragged the smuggler’s lips back to hers and gave herself up to the ecstasy of his kiss. This time, brief as it was, would be all she could treasure in the future. It needed to be burned deep into her mind, into her flesh.
Perhaps even her soul.
Jack knew he was damned when the door swung open.
“Emily,” Alston Langden greeted with supercilious aplomb. “Jack. Mother was curious as to how the two of you faired over use of our priest’s hole, but I see a compromise was reached.”
Reluctantly, Jack allowed his fair companion to regain her feet, sliding slowly down his body as she did so. Exquisite torture but, from now on, so was knowing her name. Emily Vale. A woman who harbored the qualities he admired most in a female yet found so infrequently.
She was brave, for had she not accepted his need of a covert and willingly shared hers with him?
She was loyal; a true woman of Kent since she had tumbled to his profession easily enough yet saw fit not to renounce him to the King’s men.
She delighted in the ridiculous, for he could think of no other woman of his acquaintance who would be playful in the aftermath of a sticky situation.
And the lady was not only astonishingly passionate, she was beyond lovely. Now that he could admire her as light flooded the narrow cabinet, he could enjoy what he had only glimpsed earlier.
Her hair was the gold of the fields as harvest grew near, each curl arranged by an angelic hand to draw attention to her eyes, though its perfection was mussed for having had his fingers buried in such soft wealth. Surrounded by long curving lashes, the shade of her eyes did indeed rival that of a blue primrose blooming alongside a country road, although the color was far from as common as the pimpernel. He had already memorized the natural sculpting of her form, of her face, but seeing it rather than just touching – tasting – it was a delight in itself. Each sensation was now imbedded in his mind and given a name. Miss Emily Vale, a lady he would not soon forget.
Miss Vale sighed, but this time in exasperation rather than passion. “How could we not, Alston?” She swept a bonnet and shawl from the narrow board seat behind her in the niche then extended one hand to Alston as she slipped passed Jack to exit the priest’s hole. “Your accommodations are so lacking in entertainments that your guests must find ways to entertain themselves.”
“I concur,” Jack said, following her from the narrow quarters. “I was quite fortunate that your other guest was Miss Vale.”
Alston tucked her hand in the crook of his arm, covering it protectively with his own. “Yes, Em’s always been a game little pullet, haven’t you, sweetling. You’re lucky it was Jack that needed hiding. Lord knows what sort of game some other rascal would have proposed to cure your ennui.”
Considering his old friend’s expression held a warning about continuing to play any sort of game with Emily Vale, Jack nodded shortly in acknowledgement. Their interlude would fuel his dreams for weeks to come, but by necessity it had been slated to be of short duration, never to be repeated.
“Oh, do stop playing protective older brother, Alston,” Miss Vale pleaded, withdrawing her hand from Langden’s clasp. “You are not a blood relation, only one of fondness. And after our contretemps with the revenuers, I find myself quite in need of a reviving cup of tea.”
“I’m surprised you aren’t demanding a brandy!” Alston declared, sounding tried by her attitude.
Brandy would normally be his own choice, but Jack was thinking longingly of his interrupted breakfast now. “Perhaps luncheon?” he suggested. “Miss Vale has been quite the trooper in a situation not of her choosing.”
“Don’t you believe it, my lad,” Alston warned. “She’s a hellion when she wishes to be disagreeably pigheaded.”
“Pigheaded!” the lady in question exclaimed.
“Quite,” Alston said. “Best we all return to the manor rather than linger. I saw every last man of the Guard off the property before seeking you out, so we’ve no need for any batmen to ward us.”
“I would be quite relieved at the news,” Miss Vale declared as she set the bonnet in place and proceeded to tie the ribbons at a fetching angle beneath her ear, “if I had any idea of what such a person actually does. A light repast does sound like a delightful idea though. Will your lady wife mind, Alston?”
“She’ll be none the wiser,” he admitted. “Bit under the weather. I’m sure Mother has requested Cook find a crumb or two to sustain you both.”
“At least you got to finish your breakfast,” Jack said.
Alston gestured for Emily Vale to proceed them from the room. “Ah, yes. I’m afraid your own plate was hastily tossed to the pigs. Couldn’t be too careful now, could we? But they only concentrated on the dowager house. I wonder why?”
“Tipped off by one of our own men, I would say. At least they didn’t appear to know about the priest’s hole,” Jack murmured. “Neither the officer nor any of his men sounded the walls for it.”
Miss Vale was halfway down the stairs, but at that she stopped and turned back toward them. “They knew there was some covert space,” she said. “I heard the officer toss the tapestry on the far wall back as if he were looking for something.”
Jack exchanged a look with his friend. The game had entered a new phase then, one where it made any further runs far too dangerous for either of them to pursue.
“Blast it!” Alston snarled in frustration. “Then you’d best be off to London directly to finish our business there.”
“Most directly,” Jack agreed, but when he moved to pass Emily Vale on the stairs, she caught his sleeve.
“Must you?” she whispered. She sounded frightened for him. Him! The cad who’d taken advantage of her good nature and the romance of their circumstance, stranded as they had been so long in each other’s arms in a narrow closet.
Jack gathered her hands in his, raised them to his lips. “I must,” he murmured. There was a dangerous missive to be delivered and a change in his circumstances to concoct. He was only of use to the British spymasters as a spotsman for the coast around Deal and that directly opposite it in France, for bringing a boat in on a dark night was a very specialized trade. If the men of the Preventive Water Guard caught him, the only person he would be worth something to would be the hangman who collected a fee for every free trader lynched. The intelligencers in London wouldn’t save him. Wouldn’t even acknowledge him.
“Steal the bay stallion from my stable, then,” Alston said. “He’ll outrun any King’s patrol and still give you a bit of panache upon reaching town.”
“You realize the bay will be lost to you if I do? There can be no bringing him back without raising an alarm,” Jack cautioned.
“I used the word steal, did I not?” Langden clasped him on the shoulder. “Safe travel, my friend.”
Jack released Emily’s hands. “Then I’ll steal him for the panache. Bon chance, mon ami,” he said, and left.
The week following Emily’s adventure with the free trader was flat by comparison but more nerve wracking than those first minutes with him in the priest’s hole. That achievement could be laid at Octavia’s door though. Each of Emily’s refusals to even entertain the notion of marriage fell on closed ears. As if nothing had been said to deter her, Octavia swept ahead with plans to invite her godmother and the half-French comte to Vale House.
“Such a shame that company in the country is so scarce at this season,” her stepmother fretted at dinner. “If only we could have gone to town, things could have been arranged so much more to my liking.”
“And why is that, my dear?” Sir Nigel asked, although Emily noted her father’s attention did not stray far from the slices of beef on his plate. He excelled at holding a conversation while at table, yet rarely paid heed to the answers. He certainly was turning a deaf ear to her arguments.
“Because it is the height of the season, husband,” Octavia declared. “Think of the entertainments that the comte could escort Emily to. The theatre, the balls.”
Emily ran one finger around the edge of the crystal wine glass before her. “I would by far prefer to visit a lending library,” she said, “and in no one’s company save that of my maid.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Octavia snapped. “You will give the impression that you are a bluestocking with such talk.”
Emily raised her goblet as if proposing a toast. “Then a bluestocking I shall be from this moment hence. I shall learn Greek and bury myself in the study of ancient texts.”
Octavia frowned at her sharply. “Sir Nigel, I believe your daughter is inebriated. Too much wine on an otherwise empty stomach.”
“No,” Emily insisted, carefully replacing her barely touched wine glass on the table. “I am beyond reason for I must be nothing but an ancient wraith, haunting the corridors in the hope that someone – anyone – will hear what I have been saying.”
“And what is that, Emmie?” her father asked.
If she weren’t a lady, Emily knew she would give into the nearly overwhelming temptation to scream. “I’ve said over and over again that I refuse to entertain the notion of marriage with a pocket poor Parisian pariah I have never met!”
Sir Nigel nodded over his meal. “If you want to learn Greek, I’ll see if the vicar knows of a chap interested in tutoring you. Just don’t go spouting it around my prized ewe. No telling what sort of lamb she’d drop if frightened by some foreign jabbering.”
Emily wilted in her chair. Had her father ever paid her one tenth of the attention he did to the livestock on the estate? She’d wager he could recognize the bleat of every ewe, the neigh of every mare on the estate, but he rarely heard one word she said.
She might as well jabber in a dead language for all he knew of her!
“Such dramatics are quite unattractive in an unmarried miss,” Octavia said. “They are also an indication that your father has failed to provide you with the sort of company a young woman should have. The sort of company that can be found only in London. Unfortunately…” Her stepmother’s voice turned sharp and shrewish. “…taking us to town is not in your father’s plans.”
“It’s Spring, wife,” Sir Nigel declared, exasperated that she would even suggest they leave the estate at such a crucial time. “We’ve foals and lambs ready to drop!”
“And a daughter to launch. Well, relaunch,” Octavia nearly snarled. “Do you not want to see her happy and settled?”
“She is happy and settled here with us, aren’t you, Emmie?”
“Deliriously happy,” Emily agreed, although she doubted anyone believed her.
“You just think you are,” Octavia snapped. “Once M’sieur le Comte and his dear mama arrive you’ll soon find your mind turning to the idea of a home of your own, Emily. You see – ” She smiled slyly. “—he is quite an attractive man, and still quite young. Barely three and thirty.”
“And poor as a church mouse,” Emily murmured.
Octavia allowed a small smile to curve her lips. “But French.”
“Half-French,” Emily corrected.
“Ah, my dear stepdaughter,” Octavia nearly purred, “do you not realize that a man who is merely half-French is half again as romantic as any Englishman alive? Which you will discover on the morrow when your intended and his dear mama arrive for a visit. I trust we can have the marriage papers drawn up by next week this time.”
Octavia could trust to such an idiotic idea all she wished, Emily thought, a short while later, as she made her way through the woods towards, she hoped, salvation. She would not be swayed by her family in the matter of bestowing her hand, but if the determined look in Octavia’s eye was any indication, simply turning away one prospective husband would not be enough. She must be prepared to send a steady stream of them away or ensure that they kept their distance. Which meant she must find her own way out of the dilemma.
It would take desperate measures. She simply prayed that the one person she needed to accomplish the deed had returned to the Weald.
And that she had guessed correctly where he might be found.
The peacefulness of the Spring day was a balm to Jack’s spirits. He had left the road behind, allowing the rumble of vehicles and the plod of beasts of burden to fall away, replaced by the call of birds in the newly budded trees, the rustle of small animals in the brush, and the jangle of his horse’s bridle. As much as he loved the sea, it was the relative quiet of the Langden woods that were a balm to his soul.
And he was in urgent need of such comfort, brief though it might be.
Every lope of his mount’s gait had taken him further from London, yet it brought him nearer an uncertain future. Or was that his true destiny? Once he had thought himself destined to remain a spotsman and a courier between spy masters, but both “professions” had begun to pale. Had begun to be far too dangerous for the man he was just realizing himself to be.
The time in London had been trying, not merely with the lords he served, but with his long-widowed mother as well. She, in particular, had been adamant about showing him where his true duty lie.
A shame it quite crushed his natural joie de vivre.
He was the last of his name, she reminded, and as a fond parent, she had found a young woman of wealth for him to wed. The daughter of a prosperous man of trade, no doubt, who would think him a fine bargain at any price. The fact that his mother was quite coy and would give him no further details nearly made him think kindly of the hangman. When he pleaded pressing business with Alston in Kent to escape her presence, his mother promised to send further details to Langden Manor, for their destination was quite near his friend’s estate. He would soon “know all” she promised, a happy lilt in her voice.
The announcement rang his death knell. Once it would not have sounded so, for he had always known the time would come when he must shoulder his duty, but that had been before he savored the lips of Miss Emily Vale.
A shame his time with her had been so brief, their acquaintance never to be furthered. Fate had leveled him with a facer worthy of a professional boxer in giving him a glance of what his life could have been like in other circumstances. But Emily was a lady of the Quality and he had nothing to offer her but a worthless name, hardly the stuff from which futures could be built.
Yet she lingered on his mind, enough of a distraction that he was nearly upon his destination before he recognized the familiar – and close – scent of smoke in the air.
Jack pulled his mount up in the lee of a thicket, bending low over its neck, listening for Nature’s warning signals. But the birds chirped on, unconcerned even by his presence. If there were other men about, waiting to take him, he doubted such would be the case. As he was a careful fellow by need, Jack quickly dismounted and looped the reins about a sapling. The horse would be content to graze on the fresh shoots of the forest floor, but he could not chance it wandering off. Or making a sound too near the ancient thatch-roofed hut.
Few recalled its existence for, until he had begun to use it, the building had stood vacant. Previously it had housed estate gamekeepers, but the most recent tenant had been Alston’s elderly nurse. Her tenancy had ensured repairs were made and a level of comfort installed. Jack doubted the gamekeeper had merited the Elizabethan castoffs from the main house that now furnished the place, or the deep feather mattress he had come to appreciate.
The cottage had become his private retreat, being close enough to the cove where his boat was hidden, yet far enough away from regularly trafficked paths to draw no attention.
It had attracted someone’s interest now though for a soft tendril of smoke curled lazily from the chimney.
Careful of the bracken, Jack stole nearer the shanty.
The broad, sturdy oaken door looked capable of fending off a battering ram, but the cottage was no fortress. It was pleasant, welcoming, with thick, rippled panes of glass and a large stone fireplace.
Jack crept closer until his back was pressed against the cool grey stones from which the building had been constructed. Late afternoon sunlight spilled into the single room, holding the first of evening’s shadows at bay, allowing him to clearly see the interior. It was as tidy as when he’d left it days earlier, but there was one addition he had never thought to incorporate, and yet looked right at home.
Seated on the feather filled ticks of the elegantly carved bedstead was Miss Emily Vale.
Emily leaped to her feet when the cottage door creaked open further and the shadow of a man appeared. Back lit by the sun, his features dappled in shade, he was tall and broad of chest and shoulder. He wore dark clothing, but it was of finer cloth than she’d seen him in before, and the stock about his neck was tied in the sort of intricate knot favored by dandies in London rather than the simple sort preferred in the provinces. He had also acquired a ring, a signet worn on his right hand. When last they met, he had worn no jewelry and his jaw had been naturally shaded by a night’s growth of stubble. That too had changed, for he was clean shaven and quite breathtakingly handsome, she felt, though the thrill that shivered through her had absolutely nothing to do with his improved appearance.
Jack closed the door behind him. “Was Lady Sibyl’s priest’s hole occupied, Miss Vale?”
“I made no effort to check its availability, sir. Since sharing its convenience with you, inhabiting it alone would have seemed quite flat.”
He grinned. “I quite agree and have sworn to give up such coverts in the future if at all possible. I take it you bearded Alston to reveal what other holes I might be found in?”
Emily looked down at the hat dangling in her hands and found she had unknowingly twisted the brim out of shape. “Actually, no. He wouldn’t have divulged the information in any case, Jack. He would have thought me up to no good.” She glanced up, meeting his eyes. “He can be infernally condescending when one most wishes him not to be.”
“Quite top lofty,” Jack agreed and gestured toward the lone chair in the room. “Please be seated and tell me to what I owe the honor of this visit, Miss Vale.”
She did not move from her stance by the bed. Doubted that the proposal she intended to make could be said from a seated position. Not the way she was feeling. The moment of truth had arrived, and it appeared her courage had not accompanied it. But push on she must, regardless.
Emily took a deep breath, endeavoring to muster a modicum of pluck. “Desperate measures, sir. Most desperate measures.”
The words were barely said when pluck panicked and fled, leaving her to face him alone, and so she turned and gestured toward the hearth, prevaricating. “I hope you do not mind my starting the fire. It was already laid, but waiting for the flint, and the room was chilled.”
“‘Tis Langden’s property, not mine. Do with it as you will. And please, my dear, sit!””
He smiled as he said it, but the flippancy of the remark made it more difficult for her to…to…well, use him.
Rather than take the seat he indicated, Emily lowered herself to perch on the edge of the bed once more. “Langden’s, yes,” she agreed, “but I doubt Alston visits here since Nurse’s passing. I am simply relieved that I surmised correctly where you might stay when in the area.”
“And why was that of interest, dear one?” he asked, flipping the tails of his coat up before relaxing in the chair she had ignored. “Those desperate measures you mentioned? Were you questioned by the King’s men?”
Emily shook her head. “I confess, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the way in which we met, but everything to do with why I was hiding that day. You see…” She took a deep breath, then looked down at the bonnet in her hands once more. “You see, my father and stepmother are trying to manipulate me into a marriage not of my choosing.”
Jack stretched his legs out and crossed his booted ankles, relaxing. His mouth curved in amusement. “Ah, I have stepped into a folk tale, I see. The fair maiden in need of rescue comes to the lowly free trader for succor. Is it to be a midnight sail to the Continent with your maid at your side, or have you found a position as a governess to a family in the Low Countries?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Jack,” Emily nearly snapped. “I am not a woman interested in a romantic seeming adventure. I have come so that you might ruin me.”
The request slipped out unbidden along with her temper. Emily clasped a hand belatedly to her lips, as if doing so might take the words back.
Jack cleared his throat, as if having difficulty breathing. “So that I might what?”
“Ruin me,” she repeated faintly, then rushed into an explanation of her reasoning. “Oh, Jack, don’t you see it is the only answer to my predicament? The horrid comte and his mother arrive tomorrow, so there is little time to waste. I only hope the fact that he is half-French does not mean he only half minds about such things.”
Jack looked thunder struck, which she felt was understandable. She had not eased into the proposition as planned but had loosed it like an ill-pitched cricket ball.
“A half-French comte?” he said.
His voice was oddly pitched, as if he were strangling. She wondered whether the intricately tied neckcloth was wound too tightly about his throat.
“Yes,” she said. “Apparently he hasn’t a farthing to his name and is eyeing my £10,000 in Funds.”
“£10,000!” Jack still sounded quite unlike himself. “And his name?”
Emily put her bonnet aside on the coverlet. “Do you know, I don’t believe anyone has mentioned it. My stepmother Octavia simply calls him the comte, although considering he is her godmother’s son, she must have called him by name when they were children. But it little matters and time is of the essence. Now that I have blurted out my need, there is no going back, so how shall we begin?”
If a revenuer materialized in the doorway and shot him through the heart, Jack doubted he would be nearly as surprised as he was by Miss Emily Vale’s request.
Compared to cheating the hangman’s noose, escaping capture and no doubt torture in France as a spy, then dealing with the lords in London and his mother, her dilemma appeared almost anticlimactic.
And yet, in part, it was his own.
“Begin?” he asked, then cleared his throat, trying to rid it of the obstruction that made his voice appear hoarse.
Emily stood up, shook her skirts out, then looked patiently – hopefully – at him as she linked her hands together before her. “I am an innocent in these matters, but I am confident that you are not, Jack. My knowledge consists entirely of barnyard observations, for I am at heart a country miss. Is commerce between a man and a woman much different?” Chatter though she might, Emily couldn’t be still. Her hands moved apart, fidgeted restlessly so that she touched her cheek, her throat, and the lace fichu that sheltered the gentle rise of her breast.
“Quite different,” he murmured, distracted by her every gesture. She was no more a country miss, than he was…well, what he appeared to be.
She smiled brightly, if nervously, at him. “I knew I had chosen well. You are a man of experience.”
He had no experience of strong-minded – wrong-minded – misses worth £10,000 a year though, so he made no move toward her. Instead, he leaned forward, forearms on his thighs, and worried the signet ring on his finger.
“What exactly is it you object to the most in this proposed marriage? The man’s bloodline?”
Emily waved off such considerations as if chasing a bothersome fly. “Nonsense. Within two generations of the Conqueror’s arrival, every peer in England was half French, if not more. Having French blood in a family tree is part of being British.” The more she talked, the less she appeared to recall the impropriety of her request and relaxed once more in his company.
Jack wished he could be as easy in hers. “His lack of fortune then,” he pursued.
Emily sat once more on the edge of the counterpane. “I would prefer to be courted for my wit than for guineas, but since I have never met the fellow, we both know that is not what he will find alluring about my person,” she said. “I learned my true worth during my season in London, you see, and am quite content to remain a spinster than to exchange my income for a worthless title.”
He couldn’t let the matter rest there, however. “Worthless because it is French?”
Emily gave him a look that said she had thought better of him. “A man’s worth is not in a title, Jack. It is in his deeds.”
“And yet you ask me to play the blackguard.”
She was instantly contrite. “No, never,” she vowed. “My knight errant, my rescuer.”
“Your ravisher,” he said, giving it the name others would apply. “You would be shamed, Emily, stripped of the chance of a brighter future.”
She dropped her eyes, preferring to watch her fingers worry themselves than to look at him. “There is no bright future wed to a man of whom I know nothing,” she whispered. “There is only this desperate venture.”
Jack watched her, waiting for her to realize she had erred, waiting for her to flee. “You know nothing of me either, chérie. Not even my name.”
She stared at him for two long heartbeats, then stood once more. “I know enough,” she said and held her hand out to him trustingly. “Come, Sir Smuggler. Lead me further into this folk tale of my choosing. The setting is right, is it not? And I do need to be freed from the spell that has been cast.”
A spell had most definitely been cast, he thought, but it was Emily, not her contriving stepmother, who had spun it around him. Jack’s fingers closed protectively around hers as he rose to tower over her.
“The boon you seek then, fair princess, has one stipulation. We proceed no further until you swear to abide by it,” he said, allowing the backs of his knuckles to gently trace the curve of her cheek.
Her face tilted up to his, oh, so trustingly. “And it is?”
“That you award your hand in marriage to the comte without reservation.”
Emily pulled back, but not entirely from his arms. “No! Jack! You cannot mean that!”
“You can have no future with a paltry free trader, my dear, and you will need a husband.”
“I will not!” she insisted hotly, then subsided. “Oh. In the event that…” Her voice trailed off in embarrassment.
“In the event that,” Jack repeated. “Your word, my lady?”
She stared at the intricate folds of his neckcloth rather than meet his eyes. “Can I not wait to see if there is a necessity? Could I not wed you if there is?”
“‘Tis the comte or we do not proceed.”
Emily sighed and murmured something under her breath.
“I will wed the odious comte,” she said, then look up into his face. “But I will not like doing so.”
Jack avoided her glare through the simple expediency of studying her golden curls as he combed his fingers through them. “You might also find he isn’t that bad a fellow, dear one.”
“You are being an offensive taskmaster, Sir Smuggler. Do you then whip your rowers when becalmed upon the water?”
He chuckled, delighted that her natural resilience had returned. “Repeatedly,” he said. Then, cupping her face between his hands, he tilted it up, leaned forward and kissed her.
Emily breathed a sigh of relief, melting beneath his touch. Her lips parted, welcoming him home. For she was exactly that to him – the only woman with whom he had ever contemplated spending a lifetime.
There was little time for subtlety or leisurely exploration. The sun was already beginning to slip lower on the horizon. She would need to be returned safe, if not entirely whole, to her father’s keeping before it disappeared. And so he swept her up, cradling her against his heart before laying her on the bed.
She watched him, silent for once, as he stripped free of jacket, weskit, neckcloth, and boots. Then he was beside her on the bed, one hand resting lightly on her flat stomach, the other supporting his weight so that he might gaze at her.
“There is still time to change your mind, my dear,” he offered, though if she did the blood pulsing through his body would take its revenge. Even if she became his, there would be no rest that night. Thoughts of her in the bed, the scent of her on the pillow, would haunt him.
Emily smiled softly and tentatively placed her hand on his chest. “Once not long ago I felt the beat of your heart pressed to mine,” she said. “I would repeat the sensation, Jack. I would build memories upon it.”
He caught her hand and pressed an ardent kiss into the palm. “When you lie with your comte on your wedding night, insist that he take time to teach you…”
She leaned into him, kissed him. “No, do not bring him to this bed, Jack. I beg you.”
“Tell him to go slow, to show you all the wonders that I cannot,” he said. “You must be home by dark. We must skip ahead to the finale, chérie.”
“To the moment of our parting,” she murmured. “Oh, Jack. Why did we not meet under other circumstances?”
“‘Twas not to be, Emilie.” He let her name roll from his tongue, giving it the inflection a Frenchman would, and followed it with foreign words of love he hoped she could not follow. And with each word he kissed her, lips, throat, and breast through layers of rich cloth. His hand slid ever so slowly down her body, learning it, teasing it, moving ever closer to the heat hidden beneath her skirts.
When his fingers slowly tugged her skirt up, Emily’s hands were in his hair, her mouth on his urgent and desperate. “Jack.” The sound of his name was husky, pleading, but he took what time he could, gliding from her stockinged calf to the tender underside of her knee, working ever closer to the goal. The treasure she would bestow.
“Jack!” she cried when he shifted, his knee between her thighs, and fumbled with his trousers.
He stilled. “You wish to stop?” It would be difficult, but if she had changed her mind, he would find a chilled stream to cool his ardor. He was, despite current appearances, still a gentleman.
“No,” Emily moaned. “I wish you would hurry!”
“The time,” he said.
“Damn the bloody time,” she hissed. “I cannot take much more of this delightful torture!”
Jack chuckled and held her tight. “My dear Miss Vale! Such indelicate language,” he teased, then slowly, ever so slowly, pushed home.
The universe exploded. Surely that was what had happened, Emily thought as her senses spiraled back to earth. Above her, Jack shuddered a final time, then rolled aside.
She stared at the cottage rafters, watching shadows cast by the firelight dance there in celebration. It was good that they could for she was exhausted and doubted it would be possible to move for a fortnight or more.
“This was the quick version?” she asked idly.
“The abbreviated version,” Jack countered.
“Then the un-abbreviated version will most likely kill me,” she murmured, and rolled her head against the pillow to look at him. “Thank you, Jack.”
“Thank me by marrying the comte,” he said.
Emily sighed deeply. “Yes, Jack.”
He laughed, the sound beginning deep in his throat before rolling forth. She thought she had never heard a more joyful sound. “Come, minx. It’s time I saw you back to your father’s property.”
Where on the morrow she would tread closer to becoming another man’s property, Emily thought. Unless…
“I mistrust that gleam in your eye, Miss Vale,” Jack said, moving from her side. “It bodes ill for the hapless comte.”
“It does not,” Emily insisted. “You have made me promise to give him my hand, to agree to a marriage. If he wishes to withdraw the offer upon finding I am ruined…”
“Which was your original plan.”
She nodded as she sat up. “I will offer him freedom in exchange for his silence.”
“He will keep to his word,” Jack said. “Only a foolish man would relinquish your hand, my dear.”
“So, you are a fool, sir? I offered it to you, if you recall.”
Jack slipped the stock back around his neck and tied its wrinkled folds in a simple knot. “I am a blackguard, a smuggler of little means lucky to escape the hangman’s attentions. You deserve better, chérie.”
Emily was quiet a moment more, judging whether she was making a mistake in saying what was in her heart. “I love you, Jack. Lord knows why or how it happened so quickly, but I love you.”
He had shrugged back into both weskit and jacket as she debated. Now he took her hands and raised them to his lips. “As I do you, dear one. My heart was given that day in the priest’s hole when you kept silent. But—”
“But I must wed another.”
“You must wed your comte,” he said, then released her. Minutes later she sat behind him on his horse as they picked their way nearer Vale House.
Octavia drove the servants to a frenzy the next afternoon, finding fault with one small item after another. The table must be set just so, the meal flavored just right, and Emily’s appearance must be critiqued as it might appear to a Continental eye.
As her stepmother twitched yet another piece of lace on her gown, Emily could stand it no longer. “Does the comte slink to us from some lair in France this day?” she demanded. “Or has he abided on British shores the past dozen or more years?”
Octavia straightened. “Far more than a dozen, Emily. His dear mama insisted that he be schooled in England, of course. He was at Eton long before the Terror claimed his father and continued to Oxford from there. In all but title, he’s as British as you or I.”
“Which means all those sly comments about how romantic a Frenchman could be were balderdash,” Emily said.
“Such language,” Octavia tittered. “You spend far too much time in the barn with your father.”
“And what will the comte expect me to do with my spare time? I am a poor needlewoman but an excellent midwife for either ewe or mare.”
Octavia’s expression was stricken with horror. “Do not, I beg you, mention such a thing in Forcalquier’s presence. I have not seen him in years, but sincerely doubt he has any interest in personally raising livestock!”
“But – ” Emily began, only to be halted when her stepmother raised an imperative hand.
“A carriage and team!” Octavia cried as the sounds of arrival drifted in through the open window. “They are here at last! Quickly, Simon,” she said to a waiting footman. “Find Sir Nigel and drag him, if you must, here to the front parlour.”
Emily drifted nearer the window hoping to catch a glimpse of her future spouse, but with the carriage door open he was faced away from her as he helped his mother alight.
A moment later her father bustled into the room, mopping his brow. Seeing her peering down on the arrivals, he sidled up next to her. “Does he pass muster, daughter?”
“It is early days yet,” she answered.
Events followed quickly. She recognized the stately tread of the butler’s step on the stairs, the rustle of a woman’s gown, a murmured word of French.
“The Countess de Forcalquier,” the butler intoned as a petite woman with impossibly dark hair swept into the room.
“Octavia! Oh, it has been far too long, goddaughter!” the countess cried.
So this was her future mother-in-law, Emily mused. A social butterfly, no doubt a darling of The Ton, and dressed in a gown that would severely wound the £10,000 in Funds.
The man with her lagged behind in the hall, no doubt allowing his mother the stage, but then his moment came.
The Vale family butler cleared his throat and announced in a well-rehearsed voice, “M’sieur Franchot Jacque Eduard Girard, Comte de Forcalquier.”
Emily’s lips parted in shock. “Jack!” she breathed as the familiar form of her disreputable free trader entered the room. He was dressed in splendor near the equal of his mother’s, the dark coat, striped waistcoat, buff pantaloons and gleaming Hessians making him seem almost a stranger.
“Jack?” Octavia gasped. “You know each other?”
“Through my old school friend Alston Langden,” Jack answered. He crossed the room with long easy strides, stopping only when he stood before Emily. “I was not sure until we turned into the drive that the despicable half-French upstart and I were one in the same, but I had hoped,” he murmured and raised her hands to his lips.
“And yet you made me promise to wed whether he were you or not.”
“Damnably noble of me, wasn’t it?” Jack grinned. “Am I forgiven? Will you marry me?”
Emily glanced at her still gaping stepmother, at her cautious father. “It depends,” she said. “What do you intend to do with my £10,000?”
“Fritter it away raising horses,” he said, “although Langden has pressed me to consider sheep as well.”
“And your boat? Are you giving up the sea?”
“Just the trade, my dear. A frippery fellow like myself needs a yacht, don’t you think?”
“So, you intend to wed me for my money?” Emily asked.
Jack’s eyes warmed when he grinned at her. “Hang the blasted Funds,” he said. “I intend to marry you for love. Will you have me?”
“I will,” she announced. “You see, I made a sad bargain with a slippery smuggler that I would wed a comte.”
“Then it seems, my dear, that you must,” Jack said, and kissed her.
In Memory of Phillip Waltho of Eastbourne
for his aid and enthusiasm
in gathering information on English smugglers
along the Channel.
And to Janet Hafner for lending him out.
Copyright © 2009 Beth Henderson
Originally Published by 3 Media Press
First E-Book printing 2010, new edition 2020
Cover artwork ID 128441565 © Traci Vanover | Dreamstime.com
Cover design Beth Daniels
Published by 3 Media Press, Bardstown, KY
All characters and situations bear no resemblance to persons living or dead or actual events but are merely creations of the author’s fevered mind. Copies, reproductions, excerpts, etc. of this work for any reason must be made through arrangements with the author. This work is protected by international copyright law.