Captain Jack’s Woman / A Gentleman's Honor
The Old Barn near Brancaster
Three horsemen pulled out of the trees before the Old Barn. Harness jingled, faint on the night breeze, as they turned their horses’ heads to the west. Clouds shifted, drifted; moonlight shone through, bathing the scene.
The Old Barn stood silent, watchful, guarding its secrets. Earlier, within its walls, the Hunstanton Gang had gathered to elect a new leader. Afterward, the smugglers had left, slipping into the night, mere shadows in the dark. They would return, nights from now, meeting under the light of a storm lantern to hear of the next cargo their new leader had arranged.
“Captain Jack!” As he swung his horse onto the road, George Smeaton frowned at the man beside him. “Do we really need to resurrect him?”
“Who else?” Mounted on his tall grey, Jonathon Hendon, better known as Jack, gestured expansively. “That was, after all, my nom de guerre.”
“Years ago. When you were dangerous to know. I’ve lived the last years in the comfortable belief that Captain Jack had died.”
“No.” Jack grinned. “He’s merely been in temporary retirement.” Captain Jack had been active in more devil-may-care days, when, between army engagements in the Peninsula, the Admirality had recruited Jack to captain one of his own ships, harassing French shipping up and down the Channel. “You have to admit Captain Jack’s perfect for this job-a fitting leader for the Hunstanton Gang.”
George’s snort was eloquent. “Poor blighters-they’ve no idea what they’ve let themselves in for.”
Jack chuckled. “Stop carping-our mission’s proceeding better than I’d hoped, and all in only a few weeks of coming home. Whitehall will be impressed. We’ve been accepted by the smugglers-I’m now their leader. We’re in a perfect position to ensure no information gets to the French by this route.” His brows rose; his expression turned considering. “Who knows?” he mused. “We might even be able to use the traffic for our own ends.”
George raised his eyes heavenward. “Captain Jack’s only been with us half an hour, and already you’re getting ideas. Just what wild scheme are you hatching?”
“Not hatching.” Jack threw him a glance. “It’s called seizing opportunity. It occurs to me that while our principal aim is to ensure no spies go out through the Norfolk surf, and perhaps follow any arrivals back to their traitorous source, we might now have the opportunity to do a little information passing of our own-to Boney’s confusion, needless to say.”
George stared. “I thought that once we’d investigated any recent human cargoes, you’d shut the Hunstanton Gang down.”
“Perhaps.” Jack’s gaze grew distant. “And perhaps not.” He blinked and straightened. “I’ll see what Whitehall thinks. We’ll need Anthony, too.”
“Oh, my God!” George shook his head. “Just how long do you imagine the Gang will swallow your tale that we’re landless mercenaries, dishonorably discharged no less, particularly once you take full command? You’ve been a major for years, landed gentry all your life. It shows!”
Jack shrugged dismissively. “They won’t think too hard. They’ve been looking for months for someone to replace Jed Brannagan. They won’t rock the boat-at least, not soon. We’ll have time enough for our needs.” He twisted, glancing back at the third rider, a length behind to his left. Like himself and George, a native of these parts, Matthew, his longtime batman, now general servant, had merged easily into the smuggling band. “We’ll continue to use the old fishing cottage as our private rendezvous-it’s secluded, and we can guard against being followed.”
Matthew nodded. “Aye. Easy enough to check our trail.”
Jack settled in his saddle. “Given the smugglers are all from outlying farms or fishing villages, there’s no reason they should stumble on our real identities.”
Checking his horse, Jack turned left, into the narrow mouth of a winding track. George followed; Matthew brought up the rear. As they climbed a rise, Jack glanced back. “All things considered, I can’t see why you’re worrying. Captain Jack’s command of the Hunstanton Gang should be plain sailing.”
“Plain sailing with Captain Jack?” George snorted. “When pigs fly.”
Kit Cranmer sat with her nose to the carriage window, feasting on the landmarks of memory. The spire atop the Customs House at King’s Lynn and the old fortress of Castle Rising had fallen behind them. Ahead lay the turning to Wolferton; Cranmer was close at last. Streamers of twilight red and gold colored the sky in welcome; the sense of coming home grew stronger with every mile. With a triumphant sigh, Kit sat back against the squabs and gave thanks yet again for her freedom. She’d remained “cabin’d, cribb’d and confin’d” in London for far too long.
Ten minutes later, the entrance to the park loomed ahead in the gathering dusk, the Cranmer arms blazoned on each gatepost. The gates were open wide; the coach trundled through. Kit straightened and shook old Elmina awake, then sat back, suddenly tense.
Gravel scrunched beneath the wheels; the carriage rocked to a halt. The door was pulled open.
Her grandfather stood before her, his proud head erect, his leonine mane thrown into relief by the flares flanking the large doors. For one suspended moment, they stared at each other, love, hope, and remembered pain reflected over and over between them.
And the years rolled back. With a choked “Gran’pa!” Kit launched herself into Spencer Cranmer’s arms.
“Kit. Oh, Kit!” Lord Cranmer of Cranmer Hall, his beloved granddaughter locked against his chest, could find no other words. For six years he’d waited for her to come back; he could barely believe she was real.
Elmina and the housekeeper, Mrs. Fogg, fussed and prodded the emotion-locked pair inside, leaving them on the chaise in the drawing room, before the blazing fire.
Eventually, Spencer straightened and mopped his eyes with a large handkerchief. “Kit, darling girl-I’m so glad to see you.”
Kit looked up, tears unashamedly suspended on her long brown lashes. She hadn’t yet recovered her voice, so she smiled her response.
Spencer returned the smile. “I know it’s selfish of me to wish you here-your aunts pointed that out years ago, when you decided to go to London. I’d given up hope you’d ever return. I was sure you’d marry some fashionable sprig and forget all about Cranmer and your old grandfather.”
Kit’s smile faded. Frowning slightly, she wriggled to sit straighter. “What do you mean, Gran’pa? I never wanted to go to London-my aunts told me I had to. They told me you wanted me to contract a fine alliance-that as the only girl in the family, it was my duty to be a credit to the Cranmer name and further my uncles’ standing.” The last was said with contempt.
Spencer’s pale gaze sharpened. His bushy white brows met in a thunderous frown. “What?”
Kit winced. “Don’t bellow.” She’d forgotten his temper. According to Dr. Thrushborne, his health depended on his not losing it too often.
Rising, she went to the fireplace and tugged the bellpull. “Let me think.” Her gaze on the flames, she frowned, long-ago events replaying in her mind. “When Gran’ma died, you locked yourself up, and I didn’t see you again. Aunt Isobel and Aunt Margery came and talked to you. Then they came and told me I had to go with them-that my uncles were to be my guardians and they’d groom me and present me and so on.” She looked directly at Spencer. “That was all I knew.”