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Authors: Stephanie Laurens

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BOOK: Captain Jack's Woman
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Kit perked up. “So much the better. If there’s four of us, and the three of you are large, then the danger will be minimal.” She cocked an eyebrow at Jack, waiting for his next argument.

Her attitude, of patiently awaiting his next quibble in the calm certainty that she’d top it, brought a wry and entirely spontaneous grin to Jack’s lips. Damn it—she was so cock-sure she could pull the thing off, he’d half a mind to let her try. She wouldn’t find the Blackbird at all to her liking; maybe, after her first trip there, she’d be content to let him manage their contacts on his own.

His thoughts reached Kit. She smiled, only to be treated immediately to a scowl.

Hell and the devil! He was going mad. Jack fought the impulse to groan and bury his head in his hands. The effort of ignoring his besotted senses, and the pressure in his loins, was sapping his will. If only she was angry or frightened or flustered, he could cope. Instead, she was calm and in control, perfectly prepared to sit smiling at him, trading logic until he capitulated. He could render her witless easily enough, but only by unleashing something he was no longer sure he could reharness.

“All right.” His jaw set uncompromisingly. “You can come with us next Wednesday night provided you do exactly as I say. Only I know your little secret. I suggest we keep it that way.”

Content with having gained her immediate goal, Kit nodded. She was perfectly prepared to do as Jack said, as long as she could learn, firsthand, of the cargoes on offer. If there was any “human cargo,” she’d have time to sound the alarm without risking her little troop, and, if possible, without endangering Captain Jack or his men, either.

Pleased, she reached for her hat. “Where do we meet?”

Engaged in an inventory of all the dangers attendant on taking Kit to the Blackbird, Jack shot her a decidedly malevolent glare. “Here. At eleven.”

Kit grinned, then hid her face with her muffler. Her mood was buoyant; she wished she dared tease him from his grouchy attitude, but her instinct for self-preservation hadn’t completely deserted her.

Jack slouched in his chair. This wasn’t how this meeting was supposed to have gone, but at least she was leaving. He watched her assume her disguise and decided against going to the stable to help her with her horse. She could saddle her own damned mare if she was so keen on playing the lad. He acknowledged her flippant bow with something close to a snarl, which didn’t affect her in the least. She seemed impervious to his bad temper—thrilled, no doubt, to have got her way. The door shut behind her, and he was alone.

Jack stretched but didn’t relax until the sound of the mare’s hooves died. He wasn’t looking forward to Wednesday—the potential horrors were mind-numbing. To cap it all, he’d have to watch over her without letting on it was a
her
he was watching. Freed of Kit’s inhibiting presence, Jack groaned.

K
it’s initiation into the dim world of the Blackbird Tavern was every bit as harrowing as Jack had anticipated. Sidelong, he studied the top of her hat, all he could see of her head as she sat at the rough trestle beside him, her nose buried in a tankard of ale. He hoped she wasn’t drinking the stuff; it was home brewed and potent. He had no idea if she was wise to the danger. The fact that he wasn’t sure of her past experience only further complicated his role as her protector. And Young Kit certainly needed a protector, even if the blasted woman didn’t know it.

She’d seemed oblivious of the stir her appearance at his elbow had caused. Garbed in severe black, her slim form drew considering glances. Luckily, the Blackbird’s patrons were not given to overt gestures. He and George had made straight for their usual table, taking Kit with them. He’d wedged her between the wall and his own solid bulk. The curiosity of the motley crew who’d taken shelter within the Blackbird’s dingy walls on this drizzily June night washed over them, Young Kit its focus.

“Where the hell’s Nolan?” George growled. Sitting opposite Kit, he nervously eyed the section of the room within his orbit.

Jack grimaced. “He’ll be here soon enough.” He’d warned both George and Matthew of Kit’s heritage but continued to keep her sex a secret. Her coloring was so obvious it was impossible not to comment; to them, she was Christopher Cranmer’s bastard son who lived at the Hall under Spencer’s wing. Over “the stripling’s” wish to join them in negotiations over cargoes, George’s tendency to watch over youngsters had been of unexpected help.

He’d agreed Kit should accompany them. “If the place serves to put the lad off smuggling, so much the better,” he’d said. “At least in our company he’ll see a bit more of life in greater safety than might otherwise be afforded him.”

It was a view that had not occurred to Jack—he wasn’t sure he agreed with it. Certainly, George had not foreseen the interest Young Kit would provoke. Like him, both George and Matthew were edgy, nerves at full stretch. The only one of their company apparently unaffected by the tension in the room was its cause.

His gaze slid to her once more. She’d lifted her head from the tankard, but her gaze remained on the mug, cradled in both hands. To any observer, she gave every appearance of unconcerned innocence, idly toying with her drink, completely ignorant of the charged atmosphere. Then he noticed how tightly her gloved fingers were curled about the handle of the tankard.

Jack smiled into his beer. Not so ignorant. With any luck, she’d be scared witless.

Kit was certainly not unaware of the cloying interest of the other men in the room. The reason for it she found distasteful in the extreme, but she could hardly claim she hadn’t been forewarned. For all she knew, Jack was relying on her disgust to make her balk at similar excursions in the future. But as long as the men in the room stared and did nothing, she couldn’t see any real reason for fear. She’d been stared at aplenty, and far more overtly, during her Seasons in London. And Jack was only an inch or so away, on the crude bench beside her, an overwhelmingly large body that radiated warmth and security, reassuring with its aura of commanding strength governed by steely reflexes.

A stir by the door heralded an arrival. Jack looked over Matthew’s shoulders. “It’s Nolan.”

The agent went to the bar and ordered a tankard, then, after scanning the room, made his way without haste to their table. He drew up a rough stool and perched at Jack’s left, his eyes going to Kit. She’d raised her head at his approach and returned his stare unblinkingly.

Nolan’s eyes narrowed. “You two in league?” He asked the question of Jack.

“A merger. To our mutual benefit.”

Jack smiled, and Kit was very glad he didn’t smile at her like that. The thought brought a shiver, which she sternly repressed.

“What does that mean?” Nolan didn’t sound pleased.

“What it means, my friend, is that if you want to run a cargo into North Norfolk, you deal with me and me alone.” Jack’s deep voice was steady and completely devoid of emotion. In the hush, it held a menacing quality.

Nolan stared, then switched his gaze to Kit. “This true?”

“Yes.” Kit kept it at that.

Nolan snorted and turned to Jack. “Well, leastways that means I won’t have to deal with young upstarts who skim a man’s profit to the bone.” He turned to receive his tankard from a well-endowed serving wench, and so missed the inquiring glance Jack threw at Kit. She ignored it, letting her gaze slide from his, only to fall victim to the serving wench’s fervent stare. Abruptly, she transferred her attention to her tankard and kept it there.

Once Jack and Nolan were well launched on their dealings, Kit looked up. The serving girl had retreated to the bar but her gaze was still fixed, in a drooling fashion, on her. Under her breath, Kit swore.

“Twenty kegs of the best brandy and ten more of port, if you can handle it.” Nolan paused to swill from his tankard. Kit wondered how he could; the stuff tasted vile.

“We can handle it. The usual conditions?”

“Aye.” Nolan eyed Jack warily, as if unable to believe he wasn’t going to push the Gang’s cut higher. “When do you want it?”

Jack considered, then said: “Tomorrow. The moon’ll be new—not too much light but enough to see by. The delivery conditions the same?”

Nolan nodded. “Cash on delivery. The ship’s the
Mollie Ann.
She’ll stand off Brancaster Head after dark tomorrow.”

“Right.” Pushing his tankard aside, Jack stood. “It’s time we left.”

Nolan merely nodded and retreated into his beer.

Hurriedly standing, Kit found herself bundled in front of Jack. Matthew led the way and George brought up the rear. Their exit was so rapid that none of the other customers had time to blink. Outside, she, Jack, and George waited in the road while Matthew fetched their horses. Even in the gloom, Kit sensed the meaningful look Jack and George exchanged over her head. Then they were mounted and off, across the fields to the cottage.

There, they all sat around the table. Jack poured brandy, raising a brow in Kit’s direction. She shook her head. The few sips of ale she’d taken had been more than enough. Jack delivered his plans in crisp tones that left Kit wondering what he’d been before. A soldier, certainly, but his attitude of authority suggested he hadn’t been a trooper. The idea made her grin.

“How many boats can your men muster?”

Jack’s question shook her into life. “Manned by two?” she asked. When he nodded, she replied: “Four. Do you want them all?”

“Four would double our number,” put in George.

“And double the speed we could bring the barrels in.” Jack looked at Kit. “We’ll have all four. Get them to pull inshore just west of the Head—there’s a little bay they’ll likely know, perfect for the purpose.” Turning to Matthew and George, he discussed the deposition of the rest of the men. Kit listened with half an ear, glancing up only briefly when George left.

Matthew followed. “G’night, lad.”

Kit returned the words with a nod and a smile, hidden by her muffler. As soon as the door shut behind him, she tugged the folds free. “Phew! I hope the nights don’t get too warm.”

Replacing the brandy bottle on the sideboard, Jack turned to stare at her. In a month, long before the balmy nights of August, she wouldn’t have need of her muffler. In a month, she wouldn’t be masquerading as a smuggler. In a month, she’d be masquerading as his mistress. The thought brought a frown to his face. He’d still be masquerading, too, for he couldn’t tell her who he was until his mission was complete. With an inward sigh, Jack focused on the present. “I take it you were edified by the company at the Blackbird?”

Kit lounged in her chair. “The company I could do without,” she admitted. “But everything passed off smoothly. Next time, they’ll recognize me’, and I’ll be less of an attraction.”

Jack’s exasperated look spoke volumes. “Next time,” he repeated, drawing a chair to the other side of the table and straddling it. “I assume you’re aware that the only reason you came off safely was because George and Matthew and I were there, rather too large to overlook?”

Kit opened her eyes wide. “I hadn’t anticipated going there alone.”

“Christ,
no!”
Jack ran his fingers through his hair, the golden strands catching and reflecting the lamplight. “This idea of yours is madness. I should never have agreed to it. But let me educate you on one point at least. If you’d made the slightest slip back there, unwittingly led one of the men to believe…” Jack struggled to find the right words for his purpose. One glance at Kit’s open face, her eyes clearly visible now that she’d removed her hat and muffler, made it clear she wasn’t entirely
au fait
with the way things were in dens of iniquity. “Led them to believe it’d be worthwhile to make a push for you,” he continued, determined to bring her to a sense of her danger, “then we’d have had a riot on our hands. What would you have done then?”

Kit frowned. “Hid behind a table,” she eventually conceded. “I’m no good with my fists.”

The answer overturned Jack’s deliberate seriousness. The idea of her delicate hands bunched into fists was silly enough; the notion of them doing any damage was laughable. His lips twisted in a reluctant grin.

Kit smiled sweetly. Immediately, all traces of mirth fled Jack’s face, replaced by the scowl she was starting to believe was habitual. Dammit—he could smile, she knew he could. Charmingly.

Go on! Make him smile.

Shut up,
Kit told her inner devil.
I can’t afford a tussle with him

if he touches me, I can’t think and then where will I be?

Flat on your back, with any luck,
came the unrepentant answer.

All I want is a smile,
Kit told herself, repressing the inclination to scowl back. “You worry too much,” she said. “Things will work out; it’s only for a month.”

Jack watched as she wound her muffler loosely into place and jammed her hat Over her curls. He knew he should put his foot down and end her little charade, or at least restrict it to those areas he believed inevitable. He knew it, but couldn’t work out how to do it. He argued and she returned a glib answer, then smiled, scattering his wits completely, leaving only an urgent longing in their place. He’d never worked with a woman before; socially, they were a push-over but professionally—he obviously didn’t have the knack.

The scrape of her chair as she stood brought Jack’s gaze back to Kit’s face. “Until tomorrow, then.” She smiled and felt a distinct pang of irritation when Jack glared back. Deliberately, she sauntered to the door, allowing her hips full license in their sway. She paused at the last to raise a hand in salute; his scowl was now definitely black. Her teeth gleamed. “Good night, Jack.”

As she closed the door behind her, Kit wondered if the low growl she heard was from the distant surf or a somewhat closer source.

 

The run was her first taste of Jack’s planning in action. All went smoothly. She was the main lookout, stationed on the cliff above and to the east of the bay into which they ran the goods. In answer to her protest that surely any danger would come from the west, Jack had pulled rank and all but ordered her to the headland. She had a fine view of the beach. Her men were there. They dropped the cargo, then, together with the others in boats, pulled out into the Roads and headed straight home. The land-bound smugglers transferred the barrels to pack ponies, and the cavalcade headed inland. This time, Jack chose to hide the cargo in the ruins of an old church.

Overgrown with ivy, the ruins were all but impossible to discover unless you knew they were there. The old crypt, dark and dry, provided a perfect spot for their cache.

“Who owns this land?” Kit turned to Jack, sitting on his stallion beside her. They’d pulled back into the trees to keep watch over the gang as they worked, unloading the barrels and carting them down the steps to the crypt.

“It used to belong to the Smeatons.”

Jack’s tone suggested it no longer did. “And now?” Kit asked.

She knew the answer before he said, “Lord Hendon.”

“Do you have a fetish of sorts, to constantly operate under the new High Commissioner’s very nostrils?” Delia sidled to avoid the grey’s head. Kit swore, and reined the mare in. “I wish you’d make your horse behave.”

Jack obediently leaned forward and pulled Champion’s ears. “Hear that, old fellow?” he whispered
sotto voce.
“Your advances are falling short of the mark. But don’t worry. Females are contrary creatures at the best of times. Believe me—I know.”

Kit ignored the invitation to take exception to his statement, quite sure there’d be a trap concealed amongst his words. In their few exchanges since the previous night, she’d detected a definite edge to Jack’s remarks; she assumed it sprang from a corresponding sharpening of his temper. “You were about to tell me why you use Lord Hendon’s lands.”

Jack’s lips twisted in a smile Kit couldn’t see. He hadn’t been about to do any such thing but hers was a persistent curiosity, one he should perhaps allay. She was also a persistent distraction, a persistent itch he couldn’t yet scratch. But soon, he vowed, soon he’d attend to her as she deserved. The vision of her bottom, swaying in deliberate provocation as she’d walked to the door of the cottage, wasn’t a sight he was likely to forget. “Sometimes, the safest place to hide is as close to your pursuer as possible.”

Kit thought about that. “So he overlooks you while searching farther afield?”

Jack nodded. The men came out of the crypt; the last barrels had been stowed. Jack urged Champion forward.

Within minutes, the gang was scattering, ponies led off, other men disappearing on foot. Soon, the only souls left were Kit, Jack, Matthew, and George. They waited a few minutes, to make sure all the men were safely away. Then George nodded to Jack. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

George rode into the trees. At Jack’s signal, Matthew drew away, to wait for him just beyond the clearing.

BOOK: Captain Jack's Woman
3.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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