1798, Sussex Coast
As the clouds cleared, revealing the moon shining high in the night sky, Kit cursed under his breath. He had counted on cover of darkness until they safely made landfall. Under the relentless beam of the nearly-full moon, the Sea Wolf would be in full view as she stole into the remote cove, and that was the last thing he wanted. Surely his luck would hold. After all, it always had until now.
Casting a glance over his shoulder at the two huddled figures on deck, he gestured them to go below. “Allez, vite”. Placing a finger over his mouth, indicating silence, he returned his anxious gaze to the shore line. No sign at present of the Revenue cutter, but there was time yet. He knew he was under surveillance.
“All quiet for the moment, John.” Kit’s voice was barely a whisper, showing no signs of the tension and mounting excitement he always felt when they neared home with a cargo. He almost wanted to be pursued. Faith, at least it made him feel he was alive.
Even as he spoke though, he caught a glimpse of a sail just off to starboard, approaching fast. “I think they’re onto us, John.” Kit felt the rush of excitement in his blood as the Sea Wolf wheeled hard. “We have the wind in our favour, we can still make it.”
John, Kit’s Captain, and only companion on these night runs, peered anxiously through his spyglass.
“They’ve spotted us, Master Kit.” Keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the course, John showed no outward sign of worry – Kit would get them out of it if the worst happened and they were boarded. The greatcoat his master wore did nothing to hide the muscular strength of the man underneath, but it wasn’t just Kit’s height that gave him that air of command. It was the piercing blue-black eyes under those formidable black brows, the thin-lipped determination above that strong jaw that made John fear for any of Kit’s foes. He was not a man to cross, that was for sure. Almost, John could pity the cutter’s crew. “They’ll know where we’re headed.”
Kit laughed softly, viciously. “Of course they know. But we’ll have time to unload before they reach us. I’ll go and make sure our French friends are ready.”
The revolution in France was over, and the Terror, the mass slaughter of the French aristocracy which had included King Louis and his queen, Marie Antoinette, was over too. But the émigrés, seeking shelter from the new regime, continued to flee to England.
The killing was not yet finished. It would go on, under one banner or another, for years. War was inevitable, and likely to be waged with England again, as anyone who even half understood the volatile new French state could see. War would signal an end to these trips. But in the meantime, Kit was happy to do what he could to rescue those émigrés who made it to the French coast. He took no political sides, but believed one should live and let live.
It took but a brief moment below decks to address the two refugees. The Frenchmen listened with due respect. Kit was well-known amongst what was left of the aristocracy as an efficient and courageous rescuer. Well known, also, for taking no payment, accepting no thanks. Addressing the men in flawless, if curt, French, Kit told them to be ready for a quick getaway. The thrill of the chase, the need for speed, the challenge of outwitting the customs men, gave a glow to his hard, handsome countenance.
He was as dismissive of the threat as he was of the men’s attempts to thank him. Kit prided himself on doing this job well, down to the last detail. He had promised them safe passage and no-one was going to prevent him keeping that promise. In this secret life, Kit allowed himself a sense of honour that his public persona had no part of.
A post-chaise would be waiting to take the émigrés to London. They would be off his hands, and it was unlikely that he’d ever see them again. The thrill was in the rescue, that was enough. They would have to sink or swim without him once he had safely landed them in England.
As he had predicted, the wind was in their favour, and the clouds too, played their part, scudding back across the moon to hide the yacht as she closed in on her berth. By the time the customs cutter came close enough to hail them, the émigrés were dispatched, with haste and brief adieu’s, to the waiting chaise. A final reminder from Kit that, should they happen to meet again, under no circumstances were they to acknowledge him, and the Frenchmen were gone. Keeping his smuggling life separate from his life in London was more important to Kit than he cared to admit. As Kit, he could be free. In London, he was somewhat more constrained.
The other cargo, a mere half dozen kegs of French brandy, was safely stowed in the false floor of the boat house. Kit took his time responding to the hails from the Revenue ship.
“Well, Lieutenant Smith, we meet once more.” His smile was sardonic. He knew he’d won again, and he knew too, that the Riding Officer would make no move to search the Sea Wolf now. Lieutenant Smith would need more than a suspicion of smuggling before taking action against the Earl of Rasenby, owner of almost all the land in the surrounding area.
“Another night fishing expedition, Lord Rasenby?”
“As you see, Lieutenant.” Kit indicated the box that John was unloading. “May I offer you something to keep out the cold? Or perhaps a share of my catch for your supper?”
Lieutenant Smith bit down a retort. No benefit, he knew, in riling his lordship. It was more than his job was worth. “Thank you my lord, but I have a job to do. No doubt we’ll meet again one fine night.” Lieutenant Smith consoled himself with the knowledge that at least his informant had been reliable. Next time, mayhap, Lady Luck and the weather would be on their side.
“No doubt.” As he turned to give final instructions to John, the sparkle died from Kit’s eyes, and a slight frown marred his handsome countenance. ‘Twas always thus. The thrill of the chase made him glad to be alive, but after, he felt drained of energy, listless, and reluctant to return to the tedium of his other life.
It had been close tonight, perhaps too close. It wasn’t fair to continue to expose John to such danger, and if he was honest, the excitement was beginning to pall. Kit had been smuggling for years, for the fun of it – brandy usually, silks sometimes. The human cargo had been a more recent addition, but the smell of war was in the air now, and the scent of change for France in the wind. The need for his services was coming to an end.
Nodding absently to John, and slipping him the usual doceur, Kit saddled up his patient horse and headed back across the marshes to his estate. One more run, he promised himself, then he would have to look for something else to distract him. One more run, then maybe he would take up his sister Letitia on her offer to find him a suitable bride, and settle down to a life of domesticity.
Lightly touching the sides of the black horse with his heels, Kit laughed out loud. He didn’t know which he found funnier. The thought of Letitia’s face at being asked to supply a willing bride. Or the thought of the poor, faceless bride, at being asked to wed and bed the most notorious rake on the ton.
London, two weeks later
“You’re surely not going out in that attire, Amelia?” The Honourable Clarissa Warrington looked aghast at her younger sister. “You’re positively indecent, I swear I can see through your petticoats.”
Amelia, the younger by six years, and at eighteen in full possession of her glowing beauty, simply laughed. “Don’t be such a frump. It’s all the rage, dampening your petticoat a little. You’d know that Clarrie, if you got out once in a while.”
“I’ve no wish to go out in the company you keep Amelia. And if you’re not careful, you’ll find that you soon get the sort of reputation that goes with dampened underskirts. To say nothing of the fact that you’ll likely catch cold, too.”
“Typical Clarrie, ever practical, I never catch cold. Now do give over and fix my hair for me.” Amelia turned the full force of her huge cornflower blue eyes on her sister and pouted. “No-one does it like you, and it’s so important that I look nice tonight.”
With a sigh, Clarissa picked up the brush. She could never stay angry with Amelia for long, even when she felt in the right of it. Amelia was attending yet another party with her friend Chloe and Chloe’s mama, Mrs Barrington. Clarissa received the same invitations, but almost always declined. Aside from the cost, she had no wish to spend the night dancing with dull men who bored her to death with their insipid conversation. Or worse, having to join in with the obligatory female bickering and simpering.
Amelia was different. The latest styles and colours, who was likely to marry whom, were to her of the greatest importance. And it was just as well, thought Clarissa wryly, deftly arranging her sister’s hair, that she found it all so entrancing. Marriage was the only thing Amelia was good for, really. Clarissa loved her sister, but she was not blind to her limitations. How could she be, after all? Amelia was exactly like their mama.
Marriage was in fact becoming a necessity for Amelia. Not, as their mama hoped, because she would make a fabulous match. With such a miniscule marriage portion, that was unlikely in the extreme. No, marriage was a necessity for Amelia because she had neither the skills nor the inclination to earn her own living. On top of all this, Clarissa suspected that Amelia was falling into compromising company. If she was to reach the altar unsullied, a wedding must be arranged sooner rather than later.
“Who are you so desperate to impress tonight then, Amelia?”
Amelia giggled. “I don’t think I should tell you. You’re so straight laced, Clarrie, you’d be sure to run to mama.”
“That’s not fair!” Clarissa carefully threaded a ribbon through Amelia’s golden locks. “I’m not a sneak, and you know it. I wouldn’t run to mama.” No, indeed she wouldn’t, she thought sadly. For mama would be sure to say that Clarrie was a fusspot, and that Amelia knew her own business. In fact mama, the widowed Lady Maria Warrington, would probably not even have the energy to say that much.
Lady Maria had been disappointed in life from an early age, and constant disappointment had taken its toll. Married to a younger son, then left a penniless widow not long after Amelia’s birth, Lady Maria drifted through life with as little effort as possible. Only cards, and the thought of the brilliant match her beautiful younger daughter would one day make, brought any animation to her face. At the slightest sign that any sort of effort would be required from her, she wilted, and even on occasions took to fainting fits. Lady Maria had relied on her practical, pragmatic elder daughter for as long as either of them could remember.
Traces of Lady Maria’s beauty could still be detected beneath her raddled skin, but the years had not been kind. Amelia took after her, but Clarissa’s own deep auburn hair and vivid green eyes came from her father’s side of the family. Clarissa barely remembered papa, and the little she knew came from Aunt Constance, his favourite sister. Questioning mama simply brought on tears.
Aunt Constance, alone of papa’s family, had never disowned them, and had always taken an interest in Clarissa. It had been Aunt Constance who funded Clarissa’s schooling, and encouraged her reading – histories, politics, and even romances. Aunt Constance could not like mama, and had little success with Amelia, who refused to study anything beyond the pianoforte, but she doted on Clarissa, and was fond of telling her stories of papa as a child.
A final twist to her sister’s coiffure ensured that one golden lock fell artfully over her shoulder. Amelia’s thin muslin dress was of palest pink, her little satin evening slippers dyed to match, as was the ribbon in her hair, dressed in the newly fashionable Grecian knot. Perhaps Amelia’s figure was a little too full to look it’s best in the high-waisted style which still seemed so strange to people of their mother’s generation, but Clarissa could see that no gentleman would cavil at being faced with such a lush display of curves.
“There! You look lovely, Amelia.”
“Yes, I do, don’t I?”
Amelia preened in the mirror, and Clarissa sighed. Really, her sister was displaying all too much of her ample curves, even if the low décolleté was all the rage. “You don’t think that perhaps a fichu…”
The scornful look was answer enough. “Oh, very well. I hope you won’t get goose bumps!” Clarissa tried to introduce a lighter note. There would be no getting anything out of Amelia if she was in the least lecturing. “At least tell me who your beau is. For you’ve made such an effort, there must be one.”
“Well, I don’t know if I will, Clarrie, you’re bound to disapprove.”
The coy look that accompanied this challenge told Clarissa that Amelia was actually bursting to tell. Perversely, she decided not to pursue the matter. “Of course, Amelia, I respect your confidence.” She turned to leave.
“No, no, I’ll tell. Well, a little. Clarrie you just won’t believe it. I think, I’m certain – well, almost certain – that Kit Rasenby is interested. What do you think of that then?”
“Kit Rasenby? Amelia, you don’t seriously mean the Earl of Rasenby? Surely you are mistaken?”
“Well I’m not, actually.” Amelia pouted. “He is interested. At the Carruther’s ball last week he danced with me three times. That’s twice more than any other lady. And he sat next to me at tea. And then I met him at the theatre when we went to that boring old play you were so desperate to see. You know, the one with that old woman in it.”
“You mean Mrs Siddons?” Clarissa had been keen to attend the theatre that evening. Lady Macbeth was the part for which Mrs Siddons was most famed. But Lady Maria had had one of her turns, and Clarrie had to stay home to burn feathers under her nose and dab lavender water on her temples. Clarissa was used to self-sacrifice, even though she had long ceased to believe that these ‘turns’ of her mama’s were anything more than habit. But missing the great Mrs Siddons had been a trial.
Amelia had no further interest in Mrs Siddons. “Yes, well, Rasenby came to our box particularly to see me. And he spoke to no-one else. Chloe said he had eyes only for me all night.”
“You mean he was eyeing you from the pit?” Clarissa’s tone was dry. Gentlemen did not eye respectable ladies from the pit. The type of ladies eyed from the pit were not likely to be those offered matrimony.
“And then, today,” Amelia continued blithely, “when he stopped to talk with us in the park, he asked most particularly if I would be at the Jessop’s ball tonight. So of course, I know he has intentions.”
“Amelia, you know what those intentions are likely to be? You do know of the Earl of Rasenby’s reputation?”
A toss of golden curls and yet another pout were the response.
“Amelia, I’m serious.” Clarissa may have spurned most of the invitations she received, but no-one could be unaware of the reputation of the Earl of Rasenby. He was a hardened gamester and an incurable womaniser. He was enormously rich and famously handsome. (Although Clarissa was sceptical about this – in her view, the rich were invariably good looking.) Lord Rasenby’s mistresses were notoriously beautiful and expensive, and despite endless lures and traps, he remained determinedly unattached. Quite the perfect Gothic villain, now she thought of it.
“For Heaven’s sake Clarrie, do you think I’m stupid? Of course I know of his reputation. Better than you, I expect, since you’re such a prude no-one would dare tell you the plain truth. But I know he likes me. A lot! I just know!”
Nothing more could be gained from Amelia, and Clarissa went to bed extremely worried. Her sister was both young and naïve, and could all too easily fall victim to the likes of Rasenby. The company Amelia was keeping, never mind her lack of dowry, was likely to ensure that any offer would be strictly dishonourable.
And if Amelia was offered a carte blanche by someone as rich as Rasenby, she would take it. Clarissa turned restlessly in her bed. It was so hard to be genteelly poor, she could understand the temptation. To a girl like Amelia, the choice between a brief career swathed in furs and silks and showered in diamonds, or a safe marriage with a no more than adequate income was an all too easy one. But life as Kit Rasenby’s mistress would be very short-lived. Amelia’s charms were those of novelty and freshness, not like to entertain so jaded a palate as Rasenby’s for long. And who would have Amelia then? There was only one way to go, and that was down. Amelia must marry soon, preferably someone who would take her firmly in hand. But such a person was like to be too staid and too poor for Amelia. Even supposing she did meet this paragon, would she even look at him, when dazzled by Rasenby’s wealth?
If Amelia was ruined, Clarissa would be ruined by association. Even finding a post as governess, something to which she was daily trying to resign herself, would be difficult. At twenty-four, Clarissa had set her sights on self-sufficiency as the only way to give her some element of the freedom she craved. Aunt Constance’s offer of a home was tempting, but Clarissa knew in her heart that it would mean tying herself to another obligation, even assuming mama was settled with Amelia.
Clarissa had always been the sensible one. Beside her sister’s vivaciousness and dazzling looks, which had been apparent from a very early age, she felt plain. Her green eyes and dark auburn curls were no match for Amelia’s milkmaid perfection. She had settled compliantly into the role of carer. When Amelia tore her dress, Clarrie stitched it. When Amelia fought with her friends, Clarrie made it up for her. And as she grew older, when Amelia wanted to attend parties and make her debut, Clarrie scrimped and saved to provide her with the dresses and hats and all the other bits and pieces that she needed.
For years now, Lady Maria’s hopes had been pinned on Amelia making a match which would save them from poverty. Having no wish to become a burden on Amelia’s future household, and having no desire to find herself a suitable match, Clarissa had started, discretely, looking around for a genteel position. Surrendering her own chance of matrimony was no sacrifice, for she had never met a man who had caused her heart to flutter. In fact, she had never met a man she had found interesting enough to want to get to know better in any way.
Clarissa’s pragmatic front concealed a deep romanticism which the practical side of her despised, but which she was unable to ignore. She longed for passion, love, ardour – despite trying to convince herself that they didn’t really exist! She dreamed of someone who would love her for herself, value her for what she was, not for her looks or her lineage (which was good, even if papa’s family did refuse to own them) or even her dowry. Someone to pledge himself to her for always. Happy ever after was hardly in vogue though. Clarrie’s dreams were out of kilter with the ways of the real world. Marriage vows were taken very lightly these days – once an heir had been provided – with affection provided by a lover rather than a husband. Clarissa couldn’t help but find such attitudes abhorrent, even if it did mean being mocked for her prudishness.
Reconciling these two sides of her nature, the practical and romantic, was difficult. Even when embroiled in reading one of the Gothic romances she adored, Clarissa found herself thinking that her own good sense would be of a lot more use in assisting the hero than the tears and fainting fits of the heroines. But resourcefulness was not a quality valued in a female, real or imaginary, nor was it much sought after in a wife. Since it seemed unlikely, in any event, that she would ever be given the opportunity to play the heroine, Clarissa had resigned herself to becoming a governess, a role which would certainly require all her resourcefulness. On that determined note, she finally fell asleep.
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