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Jack grinned, inordinately pleased to hear his name on her lips. “I’ll let you go if you promise to do as I ask.”

Kit frowned. Was he threatening her? It was an effort to put her thoughts into words. Particularly when he looked as if he’d like to eat her. Slowly. “What do you mean?” She asked.

“Be Young Kit for two months. After that, we’ll arrange your retirement.”
And you can start your next assignment

as my mistress.
Jack smiled into her beautiful eyes. He was sure they’d turn deepest violet when she climaxed. He was looking forward to conducting that experiment.

Kit couldn’t steady her breathing. She shook her head. “It’ll never work.”

“It’ll work. We’ll make it work.”

The idea was tempting, very tempting. Kit struggled to get a grip on the situation. “What if I won’t?”

Jack’s brows rose but he was smiling—that devilish smile again. Then he sighed dramatically and stopped stroking her palms. Kit relaxed, relief surging through her. Only to be overridden by panic when he raised her hand to his lips and kissed one fingertip. Her lips formed an O of sheer shock.

Watching her, Jack nearly laughed. No reaction to him? If she was any more responsive she’d be climbing the walls. “If you won’t join me in a business venture, we’ll just have to consider what other type of…partnership we can enjoy.”

Kit stared at him in undisguised horror.

Jack turned her hand over to press a kiss to her palm. He felt her entire body tense. “The first thing we’ll have to investigate is whether this aversion of yours is any more than skin deep.” Involuntarily, his gaze dropped to her shirt and his mind shifted to a contemplation of the delights it concealed. Just a single thickness of material was all that protected her breasts from his hungry gaze. And his ardent attentions. Almost, he wished she’d hold firm to her resolve not to be Young Kit. At least long enough to make a little persuasion necessary.

Kit’s mind was sluggish. Aversion? Her aversion? Here she was, in a flat panic lest he realize just how very attracted she was, and he thought she held him in aversion? She almost laughed hysterically. If she hadn’t been so frightened by her response to him, she would have. Having him so close drained her willpower; every little attention he bestowed only made matters worse. Another few moves and he’d have her egging him on. The idea of what would happen if he kissed her brought her to a rapid decision. “All right.”

Jack hauled his gaze back to her face and his mind back to her words. “All right?”

Kit heard the disappointment in his voice. He’d have carried out his threat with enthusiasm. “Yes, all right, damn you!” She pushed hard at his hands. “If the others agree, I’ll be Young Kit, but only for a month. Until my men settle in with your gang.”

Jack’s sigh was heartfelt. Reluctantly, he released her. Before moving off her, he smiled winningly, directly into the large eyes lit by violet sparks. “Sure you won’t change your mind?”

The look he got set him chuckling. He rolled to her side and lay back on the pillows, content for the moment. Her capitulation wasn’t exactly complimentary, but he’d a month to work on that.

Beside him, Kit lay still, struck by the revelation that, although he was still close, now that he wasn’t touching her, her mind was functioning again. Recalling her uncertainties about the Hunstanton Gang’s cargoes, she remembered what had led her to such questions. “I take it you’ve heard about Lord Hendon, the new High Commissioner, and his interest in the trade?”

Jack managed to suppress the start her words gave him. What had she heard? He settled his hands behind his head and spoke to the ceiling. “It’s well known the Revenue are working out an excess of zeal about Sheringham.”

Kit frowned. “That’s not what I meant. I heard that Lord Hendon has been appointed specifically to take a greater interest in the traffic.”

From under his lashes, Jack watched her profile. “Who told you that?”

“I overheard someone tell my grandfather about it.”

“Who?”

“The Lord Lieutenant.”

Jack pursed his lips. It wasn’t exactly the message Lord Marchmont had been sent to deliver, but it was close enough. He was sure the Lord Lieutenant would have communicated his message accurately but if Kit had been flapping her ears at a distance, she might not have caught the whole of it. He couldn’t imagine the two peers openly discussing such business in front of Spencer’s housekeeper. “If that’s the case, we’ll have to keep a close eye on his lordship’s activities.”

Kit snorted derisively and sat up. “If he ever actually stirs himself to anything that can be so described. I’m beginning to think he’s gone to ground in that castle of his and just issues orders to the Revenue from his daybed.”

Jack looked at her in amazement. “What makes you think that?”

“He’s never seen about, that’s why. He’s been here for a few months, yet most people haven’t sighted him. I know because Spencer gave a dinner party. Lord Hendon was invited but had a prior engagement.”

The disgust in her voice made Jack blink. “What’s wrong with that?”

Kit’s lip curled. “A prior engagement with whom—when all the surrounding families were at Cranmer that night?”

Jack looked much struck, a fact Kit missed. She found the glass of brandy, now empty, amid the covers and, with the trailing ends of her muffler, ineffectually dabbed at the small stain where the dregs had spilt in their tumble. Suddenly, she giggled.

“What’s funny?”

“I was just wondering if I should pity the poor man, when he finally condescends to make a public appearance. The ladies of the neighborhood are all so
anxious
to meet him. Mrs. Cartwright has designs on him as a husband for her Jane, and Lady Marchmont—” Kit broke off, horrified by what she’d nearly said.

“Who’s Lady Marchmont got in mind for the poor devil?” The laughter bubbling beneath the smooth surface of Jack’s voice was encouraging.

“Someone else,” Kit replied repressively. “And I don’t envy the chit one bit.”

“Oh?” Jack turned a fascinated eye on her. “Why’s that?”

Kit was enjoying the unexpected sensation of sitting beside Jack, feeling oddly at ease and totally unthreatened, despite the panic of only minutes ago. For some inexplicable reason, she was quite sure he intended her no harm. His conviction that he could make her welcome his advances was frightening purely because she knew it was the truth. But when he wasn’t engaging in that sort of play, she felt completely at one with him, perfectly ready to share her opinion of the new High Commissioner. She pulled an expressive face. “From all I’ve heard, Hendon sounds a dry old stick, positively fusty.” She studied the glass in her hand. “He must be fifty and he limps. Lady Marchmont said he was ‘Hendonish’ but I’ve no idea what that means—probably stuffy.”

Jack’s brows had risen to considerable heights. He could have informed Kit precisely what “Hendonish” meant—she’d just been treated to a sample, albeit restricted—but he didn’t. He was too taken up with grappling with a sense of outrage. “You’ve met the man, I take it.”

“No.” Kit shook her head. “Hardly anyone has, so he can hardly take exception to our visions of him if they’re unfairly unflattering, can he?”

And that, thought Jack, was a deucedly difficult argument to counter.

A sudden shriek of wind brought their situation forcibly to Kit’s mind. Heavens! Here she sat in Captain Jack’s bed, with him beside her, chatting the night away. She must have rocks in her head! She wriggled toward the edge of the bed. “I must go.”

Long fingers encircled her wrist. Jack didn’t exert any great pressure, yet Kit didn’t fool herself into thinking she could break free. “I take it we’re agreed, then. Your men and mine to join from now on.”

Kit frowned. “If the others agree. I’ll have to ask them. I’ll meet you at the quarries as we planned and tell you what we’ve decided.”

She glanced at Jack. His face was blank, his expression unreadable. But she sensed he didn’t like her conditions. Unconsciously, she tilted her chin.

Jack pondered her defiant expression and considered the advisability of pulling her to him and kissing her into agreement. Her lips were temptation incarnate, soft and full and devastatingly feminine. Particularly in their present half pout. Abruptly, he dragged his mind from its preoccupation. What she’d suggested was fair enough, but he didn’t trust her in the quarries. He’d a shrewd suspicion she knew them better than he did. “I’ll agree to wait two nights for your answer on the condition that you, personally, bring it to me here—not at the quarries.”

Kit forced herself not to look down at the hand trapping hers or at the long body stretched at ease on the covers. She needed no demonstration to understand her vulnerability. She looked into Jack’s eyes and read cool determination in their depths. Did it really matter if she came here again?

How deliriously dangerous,
her wilder self purred.

“Very well.” The hand about her wrist was withdrawn. Kit stood. Then immediately sank back on the bed, blushing furiously. Her bands were still undone. She couldn’t ride back to Cranmer with them about her waist; and she didn’t fancy the idea of stopping along the way to get undressed and do them up.

It took Jack a moment to work out the reason for her blush. Then he laughed, a low chuckle that set Kit’s nerves skittering. He sat up. “Turn around and let me do them up for you.” When Kit sent him a scandalized look, he grinned wickedly. “I undid them, after all.”

At his teasing tone, Kit blushed again and reluctantly turned about, wriggling to work the bands into position. What else could she do? He’d already seen her naked back—and her seminaked front, too. She felt his weight shift on the bed, then he rolled up the back of her shirt.

“Hold them where you want them tied.”

Kit slipped her hands beneath her shirt to settle the bands over her breasts. “Tighter,” she said, as she felt him cinch the ends only just tight enough to stay up.

An unintelligible mutter came from behind her, but he tightened the knot.

“More.”

“Christ, woman! There ought to be a law against what you’re doing.”

Kit took a moment to work that out, then giggled. “There won’t be any permanent damage.”

The knot was tied, just tight enough, and her shirt pulled down. Kit stood and tucked the shirt into her waistband, then shrugged on her coat before winding the muffler tight about her nose and chin.

Lounging on the bed, Jack watched the transformation critically. Even knowing she was a woman, he had to admit her disguise was good. “Your mare’s in the stable out back, keeping company with my stallion. Don’t get too close to him; he bites.”

Kit nodded. She found her tricorne in the corner by the bed and crammed it over her curls. “You didn’t say where we are.”

“About two miles north of Castle Hendon.”

Beneath her muffler, Kit’s lips twisted wryly. Jack seemed a man very much after her own heart. “You do like to live dangerously, don’t you?”

Jack smiled brilliantly. “It keeps boredom at bay.”

With a regal inclination of her head, Kit sauntered to the door.

Jack grinned. With her husky voice and the mannish airs she assumed with such ease, he was confident they’d manage her charade for the requisite month.

At the door, Kit paused. “Until the night after tomorrow, then.”

Jack nodded, his expression leaching into impassivity. “Don’t try to disappear, will you? Your men might do something rash. And I know where to find you.”

For the first time that night, Kit confronted the side of Captain Jack that had, presumably, made him the leader of the Hunstanton Gang. She decided she wasn’t going to give him the joy of knowing how unnerving she found it. With a nourish, she swept him a bow before unlatching the door and pausing on the threshold to say, “I’ll be here.”

Then she left.

In the cottage, Jack dropped back onto the pillows and fell to a contemplation of the first woman to have ever left his bed untried. A temporary aberration but a novel one. He was deep in dreams when the quick clop of hooves told him Kit was on her way. With a sigh, he closed his eyes, wishing that Young Kit’s month of service was already past.

N
ext morning, Lord Hendon, the new High Commissioner for North Norfolk, visited his Revenue Office in King’s Lynn, accompanied by his longtime friend and fellow ex-officer, George Smeaton.

His long limbs elegantly disposed in the best chair the Office possessed, his shoulder-length hair confined by a black riband at his nape, Jack knew he looked every inch the well-to-do gentleman lately retired from active service. His left leg was extended, kept straight by the discreet splint he wore under his close-fitting breeches. He’d carried such an injury for months after the hell of Corunna; the splint jogged his memory into a limp, increasing the overt difference between Lord Hendon and one Captain Jack.

One long-fingered hand languidly turned a page in the Office’s logbook, the sapphire in his signet ring catching the light, splintering it through prisms of blue. His ears were filled with the drone of Sergeant Tonkin’s explanations for his continuing lack of success in apprehending the smuggling gang operating between Lynn and Hunstanton. George sat by the window, a silent witness to Tonkin’s performance.

“A devilish wise lot, they are, m’lord. Led by one of the more experienced men, I’d say.”

Jack suppressed a smile at the thought of what Kit would say to that. He made a mental note to tell her when she returned to the cottage. Listening with apparent interest to Tonkin’s summation, he was very aware that just the thought of that problematical female had been enough to instantly transform his body from listless lassitude to a state of semiarousal. Deliberately, he focused on Tonkin’s words.

A burly, barrel-chested individual, Tonkin’s coarse, blunt features were balanced by cauliflower ears. Since Tonkin’s reputation was murky, bordering on the vicious, Jack had sent the efficient Osborne out of the area of their operations, leaving Tonkin to bear any odium as a result of the continuing high level of traffic. “If we could just lay hands on one of this ’ere lot, m’lord, I’d wring the truth from ’im.” Tonkin’s beady eyes gleamed. “And then we’d string a few up on our gibbets—that’d teach ’em not to play games with the Revenue.”

“Indeed, Sergeant. We all agree this gang’s got to be stopped.” Jack leaned forward; his gaze transfixed Tonkin. “I suggest, as Osborne is engaged around Sheringham, you concentrate on the stretch of coast from Hunstanton to Lynn. I believe you said this particular gang operates only in that area?”

“Yes sir. We ain’t never got a whiff of ’em elsewheres.” Trapped beneath Jack’s penetrating stare, Tonkin shifted uneasily. “But if you’ll pardon the question, m’lord, if I’m to send my men down this way, who’s to watch the Brancaster beaches? I swear there’s a big gang operating thereabouts.”

Jack’s face expressed supercilious condescension. “One thing at a time, Tonkin. Lay the gang operating between Hunstanton and Lynn by the heels, then you may go baring off after your ‘big gang.’”

His insultingly cynical tones struck Tonkin like a slap. He came to attention and saluted. “Yes, m’lord. Is there anything else, m’lord?”

With Tonkin dismissed, Jack and George quitted the Custom House. Crossing the sunny cobbled square, George adjusted his stride to Jack’s limp.

Artistically wielding his cane, Jack struggled to ignore the stirrings of guilt. He hadn’t told George about Kit. Like Matthew, George would disapprove, insisting Kit be retired forthwith, somehow or other. Basically, Jack agreed with the sentiment—he just didn’t see what the “somehow or other” could be, and he was too experienced an officer to put the safety of a single woman before his mission.

The other matter troubling his conscience was a sinking feeling he should have behaved better with Kit, that he shouldn’t have stooped to sexual coercion. Henceforth, he’d ensure that his attitude toward her remained professional. At least until she retired from the gang. After that, she’d no longer be tangled in his mission, and he could deal with her as personally as she’d allow.

Fantasizing about dealing with her personally had kept him awake for much of last night.

“Lord Hendon, ain’t it?”

The barked greeting, coming from no more than a yard away, startled Jack from his reverie. He glanced up; a large man of advanced years was planted plumb in front of him. As his gaze took in the corona of curling white hair and the sharp eyes, washed out but still detectably violet-hued, Jack realized he was facing Spencer, Lord Cranmer, Kit’s grandfather.

Jack smiled and held out his hand. “Lord Cranmer?”

His hand was enveloped in a huge palm and crushed.

“Aye.” Spencer was pleased to have been recognized. “I knew your father well, m’boy. Marchmont spoke to me t’other day. If you need any help, you need only ask.”

Smoothly, Jack thanked him and introduced George, adding: “We were in the army together.”

Spencer wrung George’s hand. “Engaged to Amy Gresham, ain’t you? Think we missed your company, some nights back.”

“Er—yes.” George rolled an anguished eye at Jack.

Jack came to the rescue with consummate charm. “We were sorry to miss your dinner, but friends from London dropped by with news of our regiment.”

Spencer chuckled. “It’s not me you should be making your excuses to. It’s the ladies get their noses out of joint when eligible men don’t join the crowd.” His eyes twinkled. “A word of warning, seeing you’re Jake’s boy. You’d do well to weather the storm before it works itself into a frenzy. Fighting shy of the
beldames
won’t scare them off—they’ll just try harder. Best to let them have their try at you. Once they’re convinced you’re past praying for, they’ll start off on someone else.”

“Great heavens! It sounds like a hunt.” Jack looked taken aback.

“It is a hunt, you may be sure.” Spencer grinned. “You’re in Norfolk now, not London. Here they play the game in earnest.”

“I’ll bear your warning in mind, m’lord.” Jack grinned back, a rogue unrepentant.

Spencer chuckled. “You do that, m’boy. Wouldn’t want to see you leg-shackled to some drab female who’s the dearest cousin of one of their ladyships, would we?” With that dire prediction, Spencer went on his way, chuckling to himself.

“The devil!” Jack heaved a sigh. “I’ve a nasty suspicion he’s right.” The memory of Kit’s words, uttered while she’d been sitting on his bed last night, echoed in his brain. “Fighting shy of society seemed a wise idea, but it looks like we’ll have to attend a few balls and dinners.”


We’ll?
” George turned, eyes wide. “Might I remind you I’ve had the good sense to get betrothed and so am no longer at risk? I don’t have to attend any such affairs.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed. “You’d leave me to face the guns alone?”

“Dammit, Jack! You survived Corunna. Surely you can fight this engagement unsupported?”

“Ah, but we haven’t sighted the enemy yet, have we?” When George looked puzzled, Jack explained: “Lady Whatsit’s drab cousin. Just think how you’ll feel if I get caught in parson’s mousetrap, all because I didn’t have you to watch my back.”

George pulled back to eye the elegant figure of Lord Hendon, at thirty-five, a man of vast and, in George’s opinion, unparalleled experience of the fairer sex, consistent victor in the amphitheaters of
ton
nish ballrooms and bedrooms, a bona fide, fully certified rake of the first order. “Jack, in my humble opinion, the ladies of the district haven’t a hope in hell.”

*     *     *

There was no moon to light the clearing before the cottage door. Kit stopped Delia under the tree opposite and studied the scene. A chink of lamplight showed beneath one shutter. It was midnight. All was still. Kit slackened her reins and headed Delia toward the stable.

In the shadow of the stable entrance, she dismounted, drawing the reins over Delia’s head. The mare tossed her head sharply.

“Here. Let me.”

Kit jumped back, a curse on her lips. A large hand closed about hers, deftly removing the reins. Jack was no more than a dense shadow at her shoulder. Unnerved, her wits frazzled by his touch, Kit waited in silence while he stabled Delia in the dark.

Were there others about? She peered into the gloom.

“There’s no one else here.” Jack returned to her side. “Come inside.”

Kit had to hurry to keep up with Jack’s long strides. He reached the door and entered before her, heading straight for the table to take the chair on the far side. Irritated by such cavalier treatment, Kit bit her tongue. She closed the door carefully, then turned to survey him, pausing to take stock before sauntering across the floor to the chair facing his.

He was scowling again, but she wasn’t about to try for one of his smiles tonight. Pulling off her hat, she unwound her muffler, then sat.

“What’s your decision?” Jack asked the question as soon as her bottom made contact with the chair seat. He’d been steeling himself for this meeting for more than twenty-four hours; it was galling to find the time had been wasted. The instant she’d appeared on his horizon, the only thing he could think of was getting her back onto his bed. And what he’d do next. He wanted this meeting concluded, and her safely on her way, with all possible haste.

From her expression, he knew his frown didn’t meet with her approval. Right now, she didn’t meet with his. She was the cause of all his present afflictions. Aside from the physical ramifications of her presence, he was having to cope with untold guilt over his deliberate support of her hoax.

He hadn’t told Matthew or George. And now he was uncomfortably aware of Spencer, previously a shadowy figure he’d had no difficulty ignoring, transformed by their meeting into a flesh-and-blood man, presumably with real affection for his wayward granddaughter, even if she was illegitimate. Impossible to tell him, of course. What could he say? “A word in your ear, old man—your bastard granddaughter is masquerading as a smuggler”?

Dragging his gaze from Kit’s lamplight-sheened curls, Jack stared into her violet eyes, alike yet quite different from Spencer’s.

Kit’s response to Jack’s abrupt question had been to pull off her riding gloves, with infinite slowness, before glancing up to meet his gaze. “My men have agreed.” She’d met her little band earlier that evening. “We’ll join you as of now, provided you let us know what the cargoes are beforehand.” It was her condition; the fishermen had been only too glad to accept Jack’s offer.

Impassivity overtook Jack’s scowl. Why the hell did she want to know that? His mind ranged over the possibilities but could find none that fit. “No.” He kept the answer short and waited for her reaction.

“No?” she echoed. Then she shrugged. “All right. But I thought you wanted us to join you.” She started to draw her gloves back on.

Jack abandoned impassivity. “What you ask is impossible. How can I run a gang if I have to check with you before I accept a cargo? There can be only one leader, and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m it.”

Kit leaned one elbow on the table and cupped her chin in that hand, keeping her eyes on his face. It was a very strong face, with its powerful brow line and high cheekbones. “You should be able to understand that I feel responsible for my little band. How can I tell if you’re doing right by them if I don’t know what cargoes you’re accepting or declining?”

Jack’s exasperation grew. She’d hit on the one argument he couldn’t, in all honesty, counter. If she’d been a man, he’d have applauded such a reason—it was the right attitude for a leader, of however small a troop. But Kit wasn’t a man, a fact he was in no danger of forgetting.

Artfully, Kit continued. “I can see it might prove difficult to keep an agent waiting for confirmation. But if I was with you when you arranged the cargoes, there’d be no time lost.”

Jack shook his head. “No. It’s too dangerous. It’s one thing to fool semicivilized fishermen; our contacts are not of that ilk. They’re too likely to penetrate your “disguise—God only knows what they’ll make of it.”

Kit received the assessment coolly, drawing her gloves through her fingers. “But you deal mostly with Nolan, don’t you?”

Jack nodded. Nolan was his primary source of cargoes although there were three other agents in the area.

“I’ve already met Nolan without mishap, so I doubt there’s any real danger there. He’ll accept me as Young Kit. Seeing me with you will confirm we’ve joined forces, so he won’t go trying to contact my men behind your back. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it—a monopoly on this coast?”

Jack made no comment. There wasn’t any he could make; she was dead on target with her reasoning, damn her.

Kit smiled. “So. Where and when do you make contact?”

Jack’s expression turned grim. He’d been maneuvered into a corner and he didn’t like it one bit. Their meeting place had been expressly chosen to be as unilluminated as possible, to ensure Nolan and his brethren had little chance of recognizing him, or George or Matthew. He was most at risk—he’d learned long ago that effectively disguising the streaks in his hair was impossible—so they’d found a venue where the light was always bad and keeping their hats on raised no eyebrows. But taking Kit to a hedge tavern frequented by local cutthroats and thieves was inconceivable.

“It’s out of the question.” Jack sat up and leaned both elbows on the table, the better to impress Kit with the madness of her suggestion.

“Why?” Kit fixed him with a determined stare.

“Because it would be the height of lunacy to take a woman, however well disguised, into a den of thieves.” Jack’s growl was barely restrained.

“Quite,” Kit affirmed. “So no one will imagine Young Kit to be anything other than a lad.”

“Christ!” Jack ran long fingers through his hair. “I wouldn’t give a
sou
for Young Kit’s safety in that place—male or female.”

For a minute, Kit stared at him, incomprehension stamped on her fine features. Then she blushed delicately. Determined not to lower her head, she let her gaze slide to a consideration of the brandy bottle. “But you’ll be there. There’s no reason why any of them should…”

“Proposition you?” Jack kept his voice hard and matter-of-fact. If there was any possibility of scaring her off, he’d take it. “Allow me to inform you, my dear, that even I don’t frequent such places alone. George and Matthew always accompany me.”

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