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Authors: Stephanie Laurens

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BOOK: Captain Jack's Woman
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Kit saw sympathy in Amy’s brown eyes and, smiling ruefully, shook her head. “There’s no earthly point feeling sorry for me, for I don’t feel the least sorry for myself. What man do you know would allow me the freedom I presently enjoy—to go about as I please, to be myself?”

“But you don’t do anything scandalous.”

“I see no point in inviting the attentions of the gabblemongers, and I would never bring scandal to my grandfather’s name. But I recognize no restrictions beyond those. A husband would expect his wife to behave in accord with certain strictures, to be at home when he was, not riding the sands. He’d expect me to follow his dictates, have my world revolve about him, when I’d be wanting to do something quite different.”

Amy frowned. “I can understand your disillusionment, but we vowed we’d marry for love, remember?”

Kit smiled. “We’d marry for love—or not at all.”

Amy flushed, but, before she could speak, Kit went on, her tone one of acceptance:
“You’re
marrying for love;
I’m
not marrying at all.”

“Kit!”

Kit laughed. “Don’t fuss so, my dearest goose. I’m enjoying myself hugely. I promise you—I don’t
need
love.”

Amy held her tongue but, to her mind, love was the very thing Kit did need to make her whole.

K
it spent the following two days paying visits to various tenants’ wives, hearing about their families, their troubles, renewing the women’s direct contact with Cranmer Hall, which had lapsed since her grandmother’s death. Yet between the chatter-filled visits, she brooded, surprised at herself yet unable to shake free.

Discussing love with Amy had been a mistake. Ever since, she’d been restless. Until then, Cranmer had seemed the perfect haven. Now, something was missing. She didn’t appreciate the feeling.

Luckily, the next day was too busy for brooding, filled instead with preparations for the dinner Spencer had organized to reintroduce her formally to their neighbors. Kit managed to squeeze in a ride in the afternoon but returned in good time to change.

The guests arrived punctually at eight. Waiting to greet them at the drawing room door, Kit stood beside Spencer, impressive in a silk coat and white knee breeches, his white mane wreathing his proud head. His expression was one of paternal pride, for which Kit knew she was directly responsible.

She’d chosen her gown carefully, rejecting fine muslins and low-cut satins in favor of a delicate creation in aquamarine silk. The free-flowing material did justice to her slender length; the neckline was scooped and scalloped as befitted her age but remained high enough for propriety. The color heightened the glow of her burnished curls and drew attention to the creaminess of her skin.

Her eyes sparkled as she curtsied to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Marchmont, and his wife, drawing an appreciative look from his lordship.

“Kathryn, my dear, it’s a pleasure to see you back in the fold.”

Kit smiled easily. “Indeed, my lord, it’s a pleasure to be back and meeting old friends.”

Lord Marchmont laughed and tapped her cheek. “Very prettily said, my dear.”

He and his wife moved into the room to make way for the next guests. Kit knew them all. She couldn’t help comparing the real joy she felt in such a simple affair with the boredom she’d found in the elaborate entertainments of the
ton.

The Greshams were the last to arrive. After exchanging compliments with Sir Harvey and Lady Gresham, Kit linked her arm in Amy’s. “Where’s your George?” At her suggestion, the Greshams’ invitation had included Amy’s betrothed. “I’m dying to meet this paragon whose kisses get you hot and wet.”

“Sssh! For heaven’s sake, Kit, keep your voice down.” Amy’s eyes were fixed on her mother’s back. Perceiving no sign that her ladyship had heard, she switched her gaze to Kit’s teasing face. And sighed. “George had to cry off. It seems he’s still on duty—assigned to some special mission.” Amy grimaced. “He does steal time to drop by now and then, but it’s hardly what I’d hoped—I haven’t seen much of him in the last few weeks.”

“Oh,” was all Kit could find to say.

“But,” added Amy, drawing herself up, “it will only be for another few months. And at least he’s safe in England, not facing the French guns.” Smiling, she squeezed Kit’s arm. “Incidentally, he said he was most desirous of making your acquaintance.”

Kit looked her disbelief. “Did he really say that or are you just being loyal?”

Amy laughed. “You’re right. What with his apologies for not being able to accompany us, I’m afraid we never got around to discussing you.”

Kit nodded sagely. “I see. Too feverish for sense.”

Amy grinned but refused confirmation. Together, they strolled among the guests, chatting easily. The conversation in the drawing room revolved around farming and the local markets, but once they were all seated about the long dining table, the talk shifted to other spheres.

“Hendon’s not here, I see.” Lord Marchmont sent a glance around the table, as if the recently returned Lord Hendon might have slipped in unnoticed. “Thought he would be.”

“We sent a card, but his lordship had a prior engagement.” Spencer nodded to Jenkins; the first course was promptly served, footmen ferrying dishes from the kitchen.

Pondering a dish of crab in oyster sauce, Kit realized it was rather odd of Lord Hendon to have a prior engagement. With whom, when all the surrounding families were here?

“Pity,” Spencer continued. “Haven’t met the fellow yet.”

“I have,” replied Lord Marchmont, helping himself to the turbot.

“Oh?” said Spencer. All paused to hear his lordship’s response.

Lord Marchmont nodded. “Seems a solid sort. Jake’s boy, after all.”

Jake Hendon had been the previous lord of Castle Hendon. Kit’s memory supplied a hazy figure, broad, powerful, and extremely tall with a pair of twinkling grey eyes. He’d taken her for a ride on his stallion when she’d been eight years old. She couldn’t recall having met his son.

“What’s this I hear about Hendon’s appointment as High Commissioner?” Sir Harvey glanced at his lordship. “Another attempt to stamp out the traffic?”

“So it appears.” Lord Marchmont looked up. “But he’s Jake’s boy—he’ll know how to pace his success.”

All the men nodded, comfortable with that assessment. Smuggling was in the Norfolk blood; control was one thing, suppression unthinkable. Where else would they get their brandy?

Lady Gresham looked pointedly at Lady Marchmont. “Amelia, have you met this paragon?”

Lady Marchmont nodded. “Indeed. A most pleasant gentleman.”

“Good. What’s he like?”

Amy and Kit exchanged glances, then rapidly looked down at their plates. While the men ignored the very feminine question, the ladies fastened their attention on Lady Marchmont.

“He’s tall, just like his father. And he’s got the same odd hair—you remember, Martha. I believe he’s been in both the army and the navy, but that might not be right. It doesn’t sound normal, does it?”

Lady Gresham frowned. “Amelia, stop beating about the bush.
How much
like his father is he?”

Lady Marchmont chuckled. “Oh, that!” She waved dismissively. “He’s as handsome as sin, but then, all the Hendons are.”

“Too true,” agreed Mrs. Cartwright. “And they can charm the birds from the trees.”

“That, too.” Her ladyship nodded. “A silver-tongued devil, he is.”

Lady Dersingham sighed. “So pleasant, to know there’s a personable gentleman about one has yet to meet. Heightens the anticipation.”

There were nods of agreement all around.

“He’s not married, is he?” asked Lady Lechfield.

Lady Marchmont shook her head. “Oh, no. You may be sure I asked. He’s only recently returned from active service abroad. He still carries a wound—a limp in his left leg. He said he expected to be very much caught up in executing his commission as well as taking up Jake’s reins.”

“Hmm.” Lady Gresham’s gaze rested on Kit, seated at the end of the table. “Thinks he’ll be too busy to find a wife, does he?”

Lady Dersingham’s gaze had followed her ladyship’s. “Perhaps we could help?” she mused.

Kit, busy conveying her compliments to their chef via Jenkins, did not catch their assessing glances. She turned back to see the ladies Gresham and Dersingham exchanging satisfied nods with Lady Marchmont.

As the ladies’ attention returned to their plates, Kit caught a quizzical glance from Amy. Briefly Kit grimaced, then looked down, eyes gleaming cynically. A silver-tongued devil as handsome as sin sounded far too much like one of her London suitors. Just because the man was tall, wellborn, and not positively ugly, he was immediately considered a desirable
parti!
Stifling an unladylike snort, Kit attacked her portion of crab.

S
hortly after eleven, the coaches rumbled down the drive, well lit by a full moon. Beside Spencer on the steps, Kit waved them away, then impulsively hugged her grandfather.

“Thank you, Gran’pa. That was a lovely evening.”

Spencer beamed. “A rare pleasure, my dear.” Arm in arm, they entered the hall. “Perhaps in a few months we might consider a dance, eh?”

Kit smiled. “Perhaps. Who knows—we might even entice this mysterious Lord Hendon with the promise of music.”

Spencer laughed. “Not if he’s Jake’s lad. Never could stand any fussing and primping, not Jake.”

“Ah, but this one’s a new generation—who knows what he’ll be like.”

Spencer shook his head. “As you get older, my dear, one thing becomes clear. People don’t really change, generation to generation. The same strengths, the same weaknesses.”

Kit laughed and kissed his cheek. “Good night, Gran’pa.”

Spencer patted her hand and left her.

But once in her room, Kit couldn’t settle down. She let Elmina help her from her gown, then dismissed her; enveloped in a wrapper, she prowled the room. The single candle wavered and she snuffed it. Moonlight streamed in, shedding more than enough light. Thinking of Spencer’s dance, Kit bowed and swayed through the steps of a cotillion. At its end, she sank onto the window seat and stared out over the fields. In the distance, she could hear the swoosh of the waves, two miles away.

The odd emptiness remained, that peculiar feeling of lack that had settled deep inside her. In an effort to ignore it, she fixed her senses on the ebb and surge of the tide, letting the sounds lull her and lead her toward slumber. She’d almost succumbed when she saw the light.

A flash of brilliance, it flared in the dark. Then, just as she’d convinced herself she’d imagined it, it came again. There was a ship offshore, signaling to—to whom? On the thought, the muted reflection of an answering flash from beneath the cliffs gleamed on the dark water.

Kit searched the blackness, separating the darker mass of the cliffs from the background of the Wash. Smugglers were running a cargo on the beach directly west of Cranmer Hall.

Within minutes, she’d pulled on her breeches and bound her breasts in the cloths she used for support when riding. She pulled a linen shirt over her head and shrugged on her coat without stopping to tie the shirt laces. Stockings and boots followed. She jammed on her hat, remembering to wrap a woollen scarf about her throat to hide the white of her linen. She headed for the door but paused at the last. On impulse, she turned back and crossed to where, above a dresser against the wall, a rapier with an Italianate guard lay in brackets, crossed over its belted scabbard. It was the work of a minute to free both. Seconds later, Kit slipped out of the house and headed for the stables.

Delia whinnied in welcome, then stood quietly as Kit threw a saddle onto the black back, expertly cinching the girth before leading the mare, not into the yard where the clop of iron-shod hooves would rouse the stablelads, but into the small paddock behind the stables. Swinging into the saddle, she leaned forward, murmuring encouragement to the mare, then set her directly at the fence. Delia cleared it easily.

The black hooves effortlessly ate the miles. Fifteen minutes later, Kit reined in under cover of the last trees before the cliff’s edge.

Fitful clouds had found the moon. Her senses straining into the sudden darkness, Kit heard the soft splash of oars, followed by an unmistakable “scrunch.” A boat had beached. In the same instant, a jingle from her left drew her eyes. The moon sailed free, and Kit saw what the smugglers on the beach beneath the cliffs couldn’t see. The Revenue.

A small troop was picking its way across the grassy headland. For a full minute, Kit watched. The soldiers were armed.

What crazy impulse prompted her she never knew. Perhaps a vision of fishermen’s children playing under nets on the beach? She’d seen such a sight just that afternoon, while riding past a fishing hamlet. Whatever, she pulled her scarf high, covering nose and chin, and yanked her hat down. Drawing Delia around, she set the mare on a silent course parallel to the shore. There was no pathway where the Revenue were headed. Kit knew every inch of this stretch of coast, the section she most frequently visited on her rides. She left the Revenue behind but didn’t turn Delia to the shore until she was out of their sight. The clouds were unreliable; she couldn’t afford to be seen.

Once on the beach, she turned the mare’s head for the smugglers, a dark blotch on the shore. Praying they’d realize a single rider was no threat, she galloped directly toward them. The dull drubbing of Delia’s hooves was swallowed by the crash of the surf; she was nearly upon them before they realized. Kit had a momentary vision of stunned faces, then she saw moonlight flash on a pistol’s mounts. Struggling to turn Delia, she all but snarled in fright: “Don’t be a fool! The Revenue are on the cliff. They’re some way from a path, but they’re there. Get out!”

Wheeling Delia, Kit glanced back. The smugglers stood frozen in a knot about their boat. “Go!” she urged. “
Move—
or they’ll nail your hides to the Custom House in Lynn.”

Afterward, she realized it was her use of the shortened name for the town, a habit with locals, that prompted them to turn to her. The largest took a tentative step toward her, warily eyeing Delia and her iron-tipped hooves. “We’ve a cargo here that’s got nowhere to go. All our blunt’s sunk in’t. If we don’t get it out, our families’ll starve.”

Kit recognized him. She’d seen him that afternoon at the hamlet, busily mending nets. Fleetingly, she closed her eyes. Trust her to stumble onto the most helpless crew of smugglers on the English coast.

She opened her eyes, and the men were still there, mutely begging for help. “Where are your ponies?” she asked.

“Didn’t think we’d need’em, not for this lot.”

“But…” Kit had always thought smugglers had ponies. “What were you going to do with it then?”

“We normally put stuff like this in a cave up beside the knoll yonder.” The big man nodded southward.

Kit knew the cave. She and her cousins had played in it often. But the Revenue troop was between the smugglers and the cave. Moving the goods in the boat was impossible; with the moon out they’d be seen.

On the other hand, a boat could be a perfect distraction.

“Two of you. Take the boat out to sea. You’ve got nets in it, haven’t you?” To her relief, they nodded. “Get the cargo out. Put it close to the cliffs.” She glanced at the cliffs, then up at the moon—a large cloud swept up and engulfed it. Thanking her guardian angel, Kit nodded. “Now! Move!”

They worked fast. Soon, the boat was empty. “You two!” Kit called to the pair elected to remain with the boat. The surf was pounding in; she had to yell to be heard. “You’re out fishing, understand? You pulled in here for a break, nothing more. You don’t know anything about anything except fish. Take the boat out and act as if you really are fishing. Go!”

A minute later, the oars dipped and the small boat struggled out through the surf. Kit wheeled Delia and made for the cliff.

The large man was waiting for her there. “What now?”

“The Snettisham quarries.” Kit kept her voice low. “And no talking. They must be close above us. Head north and keep in the lee of the cliff. They’ll be expecting you to go south.”

“But our homes are south.”

In the blackness, Kit couldn’t tell who’d said that. “Which would you rather—being late home or ending in the cells beneath the Custom House?”

There was no further argument. Huffing and puffing, they followed her. Once they were clear of where she’d seen the Revenue, Kit found a path to the cliff top. “I’m going to find out where they are. There’s no sense in walking into an ambush with your arms full.”

Without waiting for their opinion, she set Delia upward. She followed the cliff edge back toward the soldiers, keeping under cover. She was in a stand of oak waiting for the next spate of moonlight to study the area ahead when she heard them coming. They were grumbling, loud and long, having belatedly realized they were nowhere near a path downward. The moonlight strengthened, and she could see them gathering in a knot in the middle of the grassy expanse directly in front of her.

A shout came from the cliff’s edge. “There’s a path here, Sergeant! What are we to do? The boat’s gone, and there’s nought to be seen on the sands.”

A burly man nudged his horse to the cliff and looked down. He swore. “Never mind that now. We saw that boat. Half of you—down onto the sand and go south. The rest keep to the cliffs. We’re bound to come up with them, one way or t’other.”

“But south’s Sergeant Osborne’s region, Sergeant.”

The burly man cuffed the speaker. “I know that, fool boy! But Osborne’s out to Sheringham way, so’s it’s up to us to police this ’ere stretch. On you go, and let’s see what we can find.”

To Kit’s delight, she saw them split, then both groups head south. Satisfied, she returned to the small band trudging doggedly northward, still on the sands.

“You’re safe. They’ve gone south.”

The men downed their burdens and sat on the sands.

“Thanks be we only had one boatload.” The speaker glanced toward Kit and explained: “Normally we have a lot more.”

The large man, who seemed to be their spokesman, looked up at her. “This quarry you spoke of, lad. Where be it?”

Kit stared. It had never occurred to her that they wouldn’t know Snettisham quarries. She and her cousins had spent hours playing there. It was a perfect hiding place for anything. But what if she took them there?

Delia pranced sideways; Kit gentled her. “I’ll give you directions. You won’t want me to know exactly where you’ve stowed your goods.” Using the mare’s nervousness as an excuse, Kit backed her up. At least one man had a pistol.

“Hang about, lad.” The large man stepped forward. Delia took exception and danced back. He stopped. “You’ve got nothing to fear from us, matey. You saved us back there, no mistake. Smugglers’ honor says we offer you a cut of the booty.”

Kit blinked. Smugglers’ honor? She laughed lightly and drew Delia around. “Consider it a free service. I don’t want any booty.” She set her heels to the sleek black sides and Delia surged forward.

“Wait!” The panicky note in the man’s voice made Kit rein in and turn. He stumbled through the sand toward her, stopping when he was close enough to talk. For a moment, he stared at her, then looked to his companions. In the dim light, Kit saw their emphatic nods. The spokesman turned back to her.

“It’s like this, lad. We don’ have a leader. We got into the business thinking we could manage well enough, but you saw how ’tis.” His head jerked southward. “You thought fast, back there. I don’ suppose you’d like to take us on? We got good contacts an’ all. But we’re not good on the organization, like.”

Disbelief and consternation warred in Kit’s brain. Take them on? “You mean…you want me to act as your leader?”

“For a slice o’ the profits, o’course.”

Delia shifted. Kit glanced up and saw the others hoist their burdens and draw nearer. She didn’t need to fear a pistol while they were so laden. “I’m sure you’ll manage well enough on your own. The Revenue just got lucky.”

But the big man was shaking his head. “Lad, just look at us. None of us knows where these quarries of yours be. We don’ even know what’s the best road home. Like as not, as soon as we’re back on the cliffs, we’ll run slap bang into the Revenue. And then it’ll all be for nought.”

The moon sailed free and Kit saw their faces, turned up to her in childlike trust. She sighed. What had she got herself into now? “What do you run?”

They perked up at this sign of interest. “Show ’im, Joe.” The big man waved the smallest one forward. The man shuffled over the sand, one wary eye on Delia. He smiled up at Kit as he drew near—an all but toothless grin—then stopped beside the mare and peeled back the oilskin enclosing the packet he bore, a rectangle about three feet long and flatish. Grubby hands brushed back layers of coarse cloth.

Moonlight glimmered on what was revealed. Kit’s eyes grew round. Lace! They were smuggling Brussels lace. No wonder the packages were so small. One boatload, carried to London and sold through the trade, would surely feed these men and their families for months. Kit rapidly revised her assessment of their business acumen. Organizationally hopeless they might be, but they knew their cargoes.

“We sometimes get brandy, too, depending.” The big man had drawn closer.

Kit’s eyes narrowed. “Nothing else?” She’d heard there were things other than goods brought ashore in the boats.

Her tone was sharp, but the man’s face was open when he answered: “We ain’t done no other cargoes—this’s been enough t’present.”

She could sense their entreaty. Her Norfolk blood stirred. A leader of smugglers? One part of her laughed at the idea. A small part. Most of her unconventional soul was intrigued. Her father had led a band for a short time—for a lark, he’d said. Why couldn’t she? Kit crossed her hands over her pommel and considered the possibilities. “If I became your leader, you’d have to agree to doing only the cargoes I think are right.”

They glanced at each other, then the big man looked up. “What cut?”

“No cut.” They murmured at that; behind her muffler, Kit smiled. “I don’t need your goods or the money they’ll bring. If I agree to take you on, it’ll be for the sheer hell of it. Nothing more.”

A quick conference ensued, then the spokesman approached. “If we agree, will you show us these quarries?”

“If we agree, I’ll take over right now. If not, say so, and I’ll be off.” Delia pranced.

The man sent a glance around his companions, then turned back to her. “Deal. What moniker do ye go by?”

“Kit.”

“Right then, young Kit. Lead on.”

It took them an hour to reach the quarries and find a suitable deserted tunnel to use as a base. By then, Kit had learned a great deal more of the small band. They contracted for cargoes through the inns in King’s Lynn. Whatever they brought ashore, they hid in the cave for a few nights before transferring it by pack pony to the ruined abbey at Creake.

BOOK: Captain Jack's Woman
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