Sylvia sat at the dressing table in her bedchamber, staring at the flame of the single lit candle. Her meeting with Captain Ruford was only a few hours away. Cold dread settled in the pit of her stomach.
There was one way to avoid meeting with Ruford ever again. She fingered the tattered letter that lay among the hairpins and ribbons on her dressing table. Now that her year of mourning was over, Uncle Walcott had invited her to come back and live with him. His wife was busy with the new baby - their tenth - and their governess had left without giving notice. She was the fifth to depart in as many months. Walcott was confident Sylvia would prefer his well-maintained house in Manchester to Jimmy's decaying manor in the wilds of Dorset.
Unpaid servant, or smuggler. Surely there had to be more options?
She tossed the letter into a drawer and slammed it shut.
She picked up her hairbrush and ran it through her unruly curls, preparing for her meeting on the beach. Realizing her fingers were trembling, she balled them into fists in her lap. She would not allow Captain Ruford to unnerve her like this.
How would she fend him off this time? She must find some way to deter his advances, and curtail his cheating them, without putting their business relationship in jeopardy. Her men, and their families, were relying on her to keep some small amount of money coming into their pockets for food on their tables, thatch on their roofs.
There had to be a way. She would have to look beyond her upbringing as a genteel young lady, her education in how to be a dutiful wife, mother, and run a household. Those traditional skills had proven useless when it came to hiding casks of brandy, transporting the goods to their customers past the noses of the Revenue agents, or finding customers in the first place. Her less conventional skills, like knowing how to stop the bleeding of a dagger wound, had proved invaluable of late. She would have to go further, be even more unorthodox.
She would have to think like a smuggler. Act more like a smuggler.
What did a smuggler do that she did not?
She glanced out her window. The crescent moon was hidden by clouds, with enough rain and wind blowing to make even the most determined Revenue agent prefer to stay by his own hearth. A perfect night for landing illicit cargo.
Right about now, her men would be gathering in the taproom of the Happy Jack for a pint before setting out for their vigil on the beach in the storm, waiting for the signal, when the real work would begin.
She'd join them. A half-pint might settle her nerves. They might be surprised at first to see her, but she had no doubt they'd try to make her feel welcome.
She grabbed her bonnet and left her room.
She paused outside the door to Montgomery's bedchamber. After a moment's hesitation, she entered and felt her way to the desk near the window, and opened the top drawer. There, just where she'd put it after his funeral, was the short dagger he'd always kept tucked inside his boot.
The steel was cold in her hands. Heavy. She'd never concealed a knife on her person before. Had never so much as gutted a fish. But in the thirteen months since her husband's death, she'd had to do a lot of things she'd never thought she would. Like lead a group of smugglers.
Her men all carried a knife or two, as well as a pistol.
She tucked the knife into her half-boot. After a cautious step, and an adjustment to make sure she wasn't going to cut her own ankle, she strode determinedly down the stairs.
Galen was in the front hall, preparing to leave for her weekly cribbage game with Mrs. Spencer. Three of her men were there as well, waiting to escort Sylvia down to the beach.
“Evening, my lady.” Monroe tipped his hat as she came down the stairs, and stepped back so that his bulk didn't block the hall. Trent and Corwin also doffed their hats.
“Slight change in plans,” she called as she joined them. “I feel like going down for a half-pint.“
“Beg pardon, missy?” Only Trent called her that.
“Excellent suggestion, m'lady.” Monroe tugged his hat down around his ears. “I could do with a pint meself on a night like this.“
Sylvia grabbed her basket, already loaded with her pistol, bandages and other medical supplies, and they headed out into the night.
The group split up when they reached the Happy Jack. The men entered the taproom, while Galen went around to the kitchen door. Sylvia followed, to learn from Mrs. Spencer what the reaction of the inn's patrons had been to the cheese Sylvia had traded in exchange for other supplies this afternoon. The cupboard had been frightfully empty. As she stepped indoors, memories of her encounter with the two strange gentlemen came flooding back.
The one who'd introduced himself, the viscount, was obviously a gentleman in every sense of the word. His companion was something else entirely. Her cheeks heated at the memory of how the rogue had touched her. He'd managed to take something as innocuous as tying the ribbons of her bonnet and turn it into an attempt at seduction. She might have been flattered by his attentions, had he not made her feel as though she were being stripped bare by his eyes.
His soulful brown eyes...
The inn's kitchen was warm chaos, as usual. Spencer and his daughter hurried to fill orders for the villagers in the taproom, and Mrs. Spencer caught Galen up on the latest gossip. Sylvia took off her bonnet, torn between listening to the ladies and joining her men in the taproom.
“You can't be none too careful these days.” Mrs. Spencer wagged her finger. “Them city fellows think they can get away with anything. Got no right harassing good country folk.” She had to raise her voice at the end, to be heard over a sudden commotion outside. “Time to put my feet up for a spell.” Mrs. Spencer gestured for Galen and Sylvia to follow her to the private parlor, with an invitation for a nip of sherry.
Before they had taken a step, the kitchen door burst open and slammed against the wall, quivering on its rusty hinges. Four men clustered on the stoop, a large cloth bundle at their feet.
Hayden kept the door from swinging shut again. “I caught one, my lady!”
“What do you mean, you caught him? I caught him!” Doyle poked Hayden in the chest. “'Twas my blow that knocked him out.“
“We all caught him, you twits.” Baxter, ever the voice of reason, gave both men a shove backward.
Sawyer stepped up into the space vacated by Doyle and Hayden. With his stooped shoulders, Sylvia hadn't seen him at first. “What would you like us to do with the bugger, my lady?”
“Him, who?” Sylvia looked from one weathered face to another. She shared a glance with Galen, who looked just as puzzled.
“A Revenue agent, my lady.” Doyle gave the lump at their feet a jab with his toe.
“He's been sniffing around all afternoon, asking all sorts o' questions.” Sawyer took off his cap, ran gnarled fingers through his short silver spikes, and slipped his cap back on.
Monroe came to the taproom doorway, tankard in his hand, saw the bundle, and called for Trent and Corwin.
Sylvia clutched her bonnet, her knuckles white. They'd had a few close calls with the local Revenue agent, but so far no confrontations. Their operation was too small to pay any attention to when there were much larger, more dangerous gangs to contend with. Last month a Revenue man had been found facedown in Worbarrow Bay, a knife in his neck.
“Didn't want this one interfering tonight.” Baxter gave the lump another kick. “Sawyer wanted to slit his throat and dump him in the bay.“
“Did not. Wanted to tie him on his horse, point him at the cliff, and slap the mount's flank.“
“That's not very nice to the horse,” Doyle muttered.
“He didn't come on no horse,” Hayden interrupted. “Spencer said so.“
“We could still take him up to Worbarrow,” Corwin suggested.
“Gentlemen!” Sylvia shouted. All the men were instantly still, their full attention on her.
In the sudden quiet, they heard a low groan emanate from the bundle of muddy cloth at their feet.
Sylvia set her bonnet on the table. “We may be desperate, but we are not the Worbarrow Bay gang. No blood will be shed, do you understand?“
All seven men clutched their hat or cap to their chest, nodding. A chorus of reluctant “Yes, my lady,” and “Aye, milady,” echoed through the kitchen.
Sylvia nodded. “Take him into the parlor, and we'll see how badly he's injured. Then we'll decide what to do with him.” She turned to Mrs. Spencer. “If you don't mind?“
“Not at all. Haul 'im to the parlor, lads!“
The seven men, each old enough to be her father or even grandfather, picked up part of the flour-dusted bundle and scuttled through the doorway, down the back hall, and into the parlor. Mrs. Spencer hurried ahead to toss a sheet over the sofa before they set down their dirty burden. The men grumbled and pushed each other, and Sylvia heard more than one muttered curse as they untied the knots.
Finally they all stepped back, ropes and various flour sacks in their hands, and Sylvia had her first look at the man on the sofa.
Blast. She should have known. It was the rogue who'd accosted her this afternoon.
Before today, she'd almost forgotten what a handsome, healthy young man could look like. Well, perhaps not so healthy anymore. Better see what damage, if any, her men had done to him.
On his left side, knees drawn up, wrists still together though no longer bound, his body just fit between the arms at the ends of the sofa. The dusting of flour made him look like a statue, hard and cold as marble. She clucked with impatience, fished a handkerchief out of her reticule and dampened it with water from the vase on a side table, and began to wipe his face. His long lashes brushed his cheeks, hiding his eyes that had distracted her so much during their first encounter.
“Careful, my lady, he's a wily one.” Doyle rubbed his shin.
“I'm sure we can subdue him again if necessary.” Sylvia watched the stranger's chest rise and fall to confirm he was still breathing. He wore an embroidered waistcoat and fine linen cravat, and his shoulders were encased in finest wool, an elegant dark brown before it had been defaced by the flour.
She knelt beside the sofa and returned to cleaning his face. Strong jaw, chiseled nose, high cheekbones, full lips set in a mouth that looked like it smiled often. She remembered how he'd smiled at her this afternoon, remembered how her stomach had fluttered.
He was in need of a shave, but aside from the stubble his skin was smooth, not lined by weather or time. He appeared to be only a couple years older than she, at least a decade younger than her husband had been. Montgomery had smelled of the ocean, of salty air and hemp ropes. The only scent emanating from the stranger, aside from the flour, was a hint of sandalwood soap.
She tipped more water onto the handkerchief and smoothed the hair near his brow, revealing a rich chestnut brown. Not a single thread of gray marred his temple.
All the Revenue men she'd seen or heard of were much older than this. Sylvia slid her gaze down the rest of his body. Light brown breeches hugged his well-formed legs, the fabric equally as fine as his coat, both with perfectly neat stitching. His boots, with the tops turned down, showed some wear but had recently been well polished. Sylvia recognized the same style and material of footgear that Montgomery had once bought in London, at a cost that would have fed the fully staffed household for a month.
No government agent earned enough to dress this well.
“Blast,” she whispered, sitting back on her heels. Her men had meant well, but they'd assaulted and kidnapped a gentleman. The man might be a rake, but he was innocent in their match of wits with the Revenue men.
“Is the bugger dead, then?“
She held up one hand, halting the flood of questions from the men clustered around her. “He's not dead. He's also not a Revenue agent.“
“How can you be sure?“
“Sounded like one to me, asking so many bloody questions.“
“It ain't a coincidence he showed up the same night a shipment is due.“
She ignored them all, and set about discovering why he hadn't moved or made any sound since the moan on the doorstep. She ran her hands down his limbs, checking for broken bones. He gave a slight twitch as she passed her hand over his right shoulder blade, but she felt nothing give where it shouldn't. Even in his relaxed state, she could feel sleek muscles. His hands were callused. Not those of a man who performed harsh labor, but neither was he an idle gentleman of leisure. He must have been unconscious before they tied him, fortunately, because there were only the faintest of marks from the rope on his wrists.
The irony of the situation was not lost on her. Earlier, she'd been irked by his attempted liberties, merely touching her chin unnecessarily while tying her bonnet without her permission, and now she was running her hands all over his body.
Satisfied there were no broken bones, she slid her fingers through his hair, which was just a little longer than was fashionable, ignoring its silky softness as she searched for a lump or soft spot. There, on the back of his head. Not the mushy give of a broken skull, thankfully, but her fingertips came away covered in a sticky mix of blood and flour.
His left hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. Sylvia gasped. She looked beyond her fingers, past his strong grip, to his eyes. Wide open, the color of rich chocolate, they stared at her unblinking.
“What the hell are you doing?” His voice was low and intense, the rich timbre even smoother than she remembered. The cultured accent confirmed his social status as gentleman.
“Checking that they didn't accidentally bash your skull in.” Knowing the men were still clustered around her, Sylvia was able to keep her voice steady. He was young and strong, but they had him outnumbered eight to one. Ten, if Galen and Mrs. Spencer joined in. Both hovered near the doorway, ready to call for assistance if needed. The tiny parlor was already crammed full of people.
Still gripping her wrist, the stranger slowly sat up and swung his legs over the sofa. He glanced at the men. “Step back, or I'll snap her like a twig.“
She heard their intake of breath, felt their indecision. “You'll do no such thing.” She swung her free hand to the side of his head and shoved him back down to the sofa. Being a gentleman, he hesitated to use his strength to retaliate against a woman. She used that hesitation to jump up to her feet and plop down on his chest.
Who knew that years of minding her rambunctious cousins would come in so handy? The fact that he was undoubtedly still woozy was also in her favor. She'd once kept her fifteen-year-old cousin down like this for five minutes, until he'd promised to stop trying to kiss the upstairs maid.
Conscious of his hand around her wrist, she forced a smile and met the stranger's shocked gaze. “No one is going to hurt you, sir, and you are not going to hurt anyone, either. Am I clear?“
He gave a brief nod, and glanced at the men.
She glanced at them also, though the stranger shifted beneath her, and she felt his free hand touching her lower back. Quite low. Her stomach gave a slight flutter. His silent message was a warning that he could unseat her if he chose. “Am I clear?” She stared at them until all had nodded in agreement. She looked back at the stranger. “You see? No one means any harm. This was all a terrible misunderstanding.”
“Can't breathe,” he wheezed.
Sylvia hopped to her feet. Only then did he release his grip on her wrist. She turned sideways, her gaze darting between her men and the stranger as he slowly sat up again.
Tony filled his lungs with air and took in his surroundings. The woman hadn't been that heavy, and he'd rather enjoyed the unusual perspective, but he didn't like being at such a disadvantage.
After a moment of being upright, he stopped seeing two of everything. He eyed the people gathered before him - seven old men plus the young woman in gray. He blinked. They must have hit him rather hard that it took him this long to recognize the pretty widow from this afternoon, the one he'd been searching for. The one he'd stayed behind to pursue. The very same one who'd been sitting on his chest just moments ago.
What a wasted opportunity.
She still wore half-mourning, a plain gray gown that had seen better days, with no ornamentation whatsoever. The men surrounding her, however, were ornamented with pistols and daggers, and even a cutlass or two.
“You're smugglers.” He shook his head, and regretted it immediately as his vision blurred for a moment. “How could I have been so stupid? Dark and stormy night, deserted inn on the coast … what else could be going on?” He held his fingers to his temples, hoping to ease the throbbing.
“What are we going to do with him, my lady?”
The voice was hushed, but Tony recognized the stoop-shouldered speaker as one of the first men who had come into the taproom earlier. Tony looked the group over again, and realized all of them had been in there.
The widow addressed him. “I'm afraid they mistook you for someone else, sir. How is your head?“
“Rather have another hangover than this.” He touched the back of his head, found the lump, and winced. His fingertips were now as bloody as hers.
“Scalp wounds have a tendency to bleed dreadfully,” she said, as though she dealt with them on a regular basis. “Galen, please bring my basket. Mrs. Spencer, could I trouble you for some warm water?“
Tony followed her gaze in time to see the only other females in the room, the innkeeper's wife and an ancient matron in the black and white bombazine of a housekeeper, turn and leave. The ruffians in the room shifted, blocking the exit. Though could one call this group “ruffians,” at their advanced age?
He stood up, his knees threatening to buckle. Only a group of ruffians could have knocked him about so easily. The old codgers did have the advantage of surprise, and had blinded him at the start.
It was a poor sop to his ego.
The widow darted forward, her hand under his elbow to steady him. He rested his clean hand on her shoulder while the floor danced a jig.
Once the floor settled, and the contents of his stomach seemed willing to stay put, he tried speaking again. “Since you say this was a mistake, I'll just go up to my room if you all don't mind. We are still at the Happy Jack Inn, are we not?“
He felt her stiffen, but she didn't reply.
“Afraid we can't let you do that.” The men each took a step closer, forming a semicircle around Tony and the woman.
“Hayden's right.” The young woman turned her troubled gaze on Tony. She stood close enough for him to inhale her soft lavender scent, and see flecks of gold in her green eyes. “You'll need to stay here, at least for a few hours, until we're, um, finished.“
“And then what?” Perhaps he'd rather not know.
She flinched. He felt it. The hair stood up on the back of his neck.
“Can't have no witnesses, my lady.” Tony didn't recognize the low voice.
She stiffened again, raised her chin. “I said we shall have no bloodshed.“
Tony looked over at the men, noticing again the abundance of weapons on their persons, thrust into boot tops and belts or sashes at their waist. Harmless old codgers, indeed. “I have no interest in your affairs, good sirs, legal or otherwise. If you are in any danger, it is not from me.“
No one relaxed. At least three of the men rested their hands on a knife handle or butt of a pistol stuck through their belt. Oh, hell. How was he going to get himself out of this one?
The woman at his side spoke up. “We'll leave him here, and Mr. Spencer will make certain he doesn't go anywhere while we're … busy, and then he can return to his room.” A low murmur went up, and a few more men reached for their knives. She noticed, too. “And tomorrow he'll be on his way, out of our village, never to return.” She looked up at him. “Isn't that right, sir?“
“Perfectly agreeable plan. I have no objection to waiting here. The sofa was quite comfy.” His smile felt a bit forced, but his skull was pounding, and the men still looked ready to use their knives. “Tomorrow I'll be on my way toward Weymouth.” The floor was threatening to tilt again. Tony kept his hand on the woman's shoulder.
Noticing his wobble, she reached out a hand to his waist, probably with the ridiculous notion she could help keep him from sinking to the floor.
Noise from the doorway made the men turn.
“I thought you were going to join us for-” The speaker, a lad of about eighteen, cut himself off at the sight of Tony and the woman. He, too, had a pistol thrust through his belt, and a cutlass at his waist. A black scarf almost covered his bright red hair. “What are you doing to Sylvia?“
Ah, the woman had a name. Strong, yet feminine. Suited her. “I am doing nothing to her. She, however, is keeping me from pitching face-first to the floor.“
The lad looked ready to continue his interrogation, his brows drawn together, but the two women returned just then, bringing a basket and basin of water to Sylvia.
“Please sit down, sir.” Sylvia urged Tony back to the sofa.
He allowed himself to be maneuvered down. Perhaps from this angle he would seem less of a threat to the men. Mrs. Spencer shoved aside a vase on the small table to make room for the supplies.
Sylvia used both hands on the side of his face to point his chin toward the floor. Her hands were warm, her voice soft and steady. “This will only take a moment.“
“The lad needs a restorative cup of tea, he does,” the housekeeper announced. She patted him on the knee. “Be right back.”
The men rearranged themselves again after her departure, their boots just visible in a ring around the sofa as Tony stared at the floor. Better than watchdogs. He closed his eyes to concentrate on Sylvia's ministrations.
Her touch was gentle, working a damp cloth through the hair at the back of his head, washing away the blood. He'd noticed the gold band on her third finger. Had he been mistaken about her status as widow, and this lot was simply guarding her in her husband's absence?
“What is this, straw?“
Tony looked up, but Sylvia pushed his head down again. She was slowly carding her fingers through his hair. Might have been pleasant, soothing even, under other circumstances.
“Good heavens, what did you hit him with?”
He heard the irritation in her voice, and silently seconded it.
“'Twas a pitchfork.“
“From Spencer's stables.“
“He wouldn't go down, elsewise.“
Tony raised his head. “I would have responded to a simple request.” Sylvia pushed him down again.
“Be glad it wasn't the fork they use for muckin' out the stalls.” Laughter rang out.
“Hush, all of you.” Sylvia patted his shoulder. “What's done is done. Mrs. Spencer, I need to borrow a pair of scissors. There are still buttons on the bandage.“
Tony tried to look over his shoulder. “You're not cutting up a shirt on my behalf, are you?“
Sylvia touched his jaw, pushing him back into position. “What better use for Montgomery's shirts, hmm?”
“Who is Montgomery?“
“My late husband.“
Mrs. Spencer briefly stepped into his line of sight as she retrieved scissors from a mending basket. Just what he needed, more sharp blades in the room.
A few snips, one button bounced on the floor and was retrieved by a guard dog, then Tony smelled something other than lavender wafting from Sylvia, an earthy and medicinal scent. Moments later she pressed against the back of his head and began winding a cloth around his skull.
“A bandage isn't necessary, madam. I've had worse injuries that healed just fine.“
“Quiet, laddie, and let the lady tend.“
Sylvia finished winding the bandage and tied it off, but he still felt her hand on the back of his skull, pressing on the bandage, though she finally let him raise his head. “You needn't wear it for long. Just a little while, to let the herbs do their work.” She leaned forward as she spoke, her words soft against his ear. Warmth began to spread through him, radiating from her hand on his head.
Tony stiffened. Here he was on a sofa, a beautiful woman putting her hands all over him. What would a real rake do under these circumstances?
A real rake would never be surrounded by seven old codgers. He sighed.
The housekeeper came back, handed him a full teacup, and sat on the sofa beside him. “So, laddie, are you married?“
He paused, the cup halfway to his mouth. “No.“
“Promised to anyone? Drink up, lad, drink up.” She urged the cup toward his mouth.
Tony swallowed. And coughed. “There's tea in your brandy.“
“That's the restorative part. Anyone you're about to be promised to?“
“Galen, no.” Sylvia had removed her hand but stayed close to the sofa. He felt her increased tension.
“My lady, yes. Here's the perfect solution, dropped on our doorstep, practically in your lap.“
Their positions were entirely wrong for him to be in anyone's lap, but the suggestion certainly piqued his interest. As long as the lap was the lovely Sylvia's.
He downed another swallow of the tea-laced alcohol. He'd swiped enough from his brother's cellar to recognize fine French brandy. Made perfect sense, since he was among smugglers.
“What harebrained idea are you getting at, you old fool?” The eldest of the codgers took another step forward.
The housekeeper turned her steely gaze on the men in the room. “That good-for-nothing captain has been wanting to lift my lady's skirts, but even the likes of him wouldn't dare poach on another man's property.“
Tony heard the gasp from Sylvia behind him, could practically feel the embarrassment radiating from her. This time the room didn't tilt when he moved his head. He wasn't sure whether it was the brandy, the herbs on the bandage, or simply the passage of time, but he was feeling much better. Better than she felt, at any rate, given her troubled expression.
“Galen, just what are you suggesting?” The redheaded interrogator took a step closer.
“The captain has been getting a might fresh,” one of the men said. Others nodded.
“Damned insulting, what he does.“
“I'd call the bugger out if I were a few years younger.“
“If it were up to me, I'd just take my knife and cut off his b-“
“Gentlemen, please!” In her agitation, Sylvia had rested her free hand on the back of the sofa, her fingers gripping the upholstery.
Without conscious thought, Tony reached up and patted her hand. At his action, the housekeeper's eyes widened. She smacked his knee, practically chortling with glee. He resisted the urge to rub his stinging flesh. “I'm not sure I understand what it is you have in mind, madam.“
“Simple, laddie. You're going to help protect our lady from that nasty piece of work captain by pretending to be her new husband.“