Read an Excerpt
By Gail Ranstrom, Tracy Montoya
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Gail Ranstrom
All rights reserved.
Southeast Coast of England
The night, with a new moon and a steady driving rain, was made for thievery. The rising wind made a moan that drowned the creak of straining oarlocks in a turbulent sea and muffled the whisper of furtive voices. Honest men would be home in their beds. Honest women, too. But not Emily Nevins.
She stood toe to toe with Captain Jacques Reynard, shouting over the wind and masking her fear with an extra measure of defiance. "You gave your word that you would bring wine. I have a buyer for wine, but I cannot find a market for so much lace."
The small man's pale blue eyes narrowed, and his lips drew back in a snarl. He leaned forward in an effort to intimidate her and was doing a fair job of it. "Moutard! You must be thankful for what I bring you, no?"
"No." She held her ground, ignoring her maid's firm warning tug at her sleeve and the burn of fear in her stomach. If she were not so desperate, she'd not be here. Reynard was a Frenchman. Her country's enemy. A ruthless smuggler known for perfidy. "Our bargain was for wine, Captain Reynard. And I, sir, need the cash the brandy will bring — by tomorrow. My buyer has cash for that, but he has no need of lace."
Hands palm up, Reynard gave her a typically Gallic shrug. "I 'ave what I 'ave. Tonight I 'ave lace, not wine."
She would fall to the bottom of the smuggler's route if she refused delivery, and she couldn't afford to lose her favored place. Neither could she afford to pay for lace she could not sell by tomorrow.
"Yes or no? I do not 'ave time to dally. Every minute at anchor is another for your navy to close in."
She calculated Reynard's need to dispose of the lace against her own desperation. "I ... I'll take it," she conceded. "But not at your price. Twenty pounds for the lot, Captain."
"Zut! I can get twice that!"
"Not tonight. If you want to unload and return to La Havre, you will have to take my offer."
"Sacre bleu!" He looked heavenward with a dramatic sigh, oblivious to the rain that trickled down his neck. "You drive the 'ard bargain, Anglaise."
Taking the smuggler's distress as acceptance of her terms, she nodded to Simon Bart, the lanky man standing behind her holding her father's flintlock pistol at the ready. "Pay the man, Simon."
She took the pistol while Simon reached into his pocket and brought forth a pouch containing their dwindling hoard of cash and counted the coins into the smuggler's hand.
"Voilà!" Reynard exclaimed, his lips drawing back in a smile that revealed yellowed teeth. "Now I am the wealthy man. I make to you the loan, no? You will 'ave coin for your needs, eh?"
Emily was startled by such an offer. "You would make me a loan?"
"Mais oui. Business, n'est-ce pas? You pay the usury."
Simon, all six and a half feet of him, leaned over her shoulder and whispered in her ear. "Miss Emily, you'd best not make a bargain wi' the French devil. That one scares me, miss."
Her maid, Bridey Sullivan, agreed, whispering, "He's a canny one, miss."
Reynard scowled at them. "She 'as already made the bargain with the devil, Mr. Bart. 'Ave a care, lest the devil come to collect, eh?"
Simon moved forward as if to challenge the veiled threat, but Emily stepped between them. "Load the lace on the dray, Simon, and take it to the tunnels. We shall look for buyers in the morning."
She turned back to the Frenchman and gave him a tentative smile. For all his diminutive stature and his unexpected offer of a loan, the smuggler had treachery written in every line of his body. She did not dare give him a reason to come looking for her.
"I appreciate your offer, Captain Reynard, but I cannot compromise our business arrangement."
"As you wish, Anglaise. Next trip — the brandy, eh?"
"Next time," she agreed, a sinking feeling settling in her heart. Deprived of the profit she so desperately needed tonight, she now found herself in dire straits. She would need another solution for tomorrow.
* * *
Finding her way as much by memory as by sight, Emily stumbled up the bluff. Her black skirts, heavy with rain and mud, trailed behind her like a broom, obscuring her tracks. "Curse the night and the man." She tilted her head to one side and twisted her dark hair to wring out the rain.
"Captain Reynard? Aye, miss. He's a wily one, an' make no mistake about that," Bridey murmured, her carrot red hair hanging in wet strands to frame her heart-shaped face.
"Not Reynard — Henry Dodge. What more could he do to complicate my life?"
"Hush, miss. The fairies will hear you."
Emily gave a rueful smile. Her maid was the paradoxical Irish mix of pagan superstition and Christian faith, and she likely did believe such a statement would tempt the fairies to mischief.
She sighed. Henry Dodge. The bane of her existence — if one did not count Captain Reynard. If her late father had had any notion of how Mr. Dodge would misuse his trusteeship over the Nevins women, he would have killed Dodge before he'd appointed him to the position. Her mother had drummed the lesson into Emily's head that they dared not owe Mr. Dodge so much as a farthing, because he would use their debt to control Emily and her little sister, Lucy.
Mother's last warning to Emily as she and Lucy departed on that ill-fated trip to Scotland six years ago had been, "You and Lucy must keep out of his clutches, sweetling, or suffer the consequences." And then she had blushed. Emily could only imagine what she had been hinting at, and it had chilled her to the bone. Chilled her still when she thought of her beautiful little sister. And now she was certain Dodge was up to some skullduggery to lengthen his trusteeship.
She was so close. Just a few more months, and she would inherit.
She shivered under the weight of her sodden cape and trudged along, her steps making alternate squishing and sucking noises on the muddy path up the face of the embankment. Beside her, Bridey slipped and flailed her arms in an effort to catch her balance. Emily gasped and reached out to steady her.
"You shouldn't have come tonight, Bridey. It's too dangerous. Should the king's men discover us — "
"Enough of your nay-saying, miss. It is dangerous for you to face Reynard and his minions alone. We've all got our secrets, miss. Tush! Carrying the weight of Oak Hill all by yourself and no one the wiser — it just isn't fair."
Emily stared into the darkness. Fair? What did fair have to do with it? In the three years since Bridey had come to Oak Hill Farm, she had learned just how weary Emily was of carrying the weight of Oak Hill all by herself. Nothing had been fair since Papa died and Mama had been thrown from her horse.
"If the crown did not raise the taxes and the lenders compound the interest on the mortgage every time I spin around, Papa's provisions would have been adequate. But it is my family, my estate, my responsibility, and thus my problem."
Meantime, her life was in danger every time she met the smugglers. Every time she sold the goods she'd gotten from them. But she could not worry about that now. One problem at a time. And tomorrow's problem was to find enough money to pay Mr. Dodge the quarterly tenant farmers' rents, tax, and mortgage money.
Just a few more months ...
A raindrop trickled down her neck and made her shiver anew. After tomorrow's payment, if she could just come up with the last of the taxes and interest when they were due, she would inherit her father's estate free and clear. She would be able to pay all their debts. She could stop smuggling, and nothing else would matter. She could become Lucy's guardian and bring her back from Scotland. Even after a generous dowry for Lucy, there would be enough to sustain and care for Oak Hill. Her touchstone. Her home. Her very heart.
"Well, we'll not be caught, Miss Emily, never worry your pretty little head over that. I only worry that we'll have enough to satisfy that nasty prig, Mr. Dodge."
"You were not here then, Bridey, but I still recall how, when I could not pay the increases several years ago, he loaned me the money from his own pocket. It took me two years to pay him back. I do not want to risk another disaster like that, especially when we are so close to being free of him."
She topped the last knoll to see the manor house and outbuildings of Oak Hill Farm illuminated by a flash of lightning. It was past midnight and she glanced toward a faint light in the window of the little cottage behind the manor — Bridey's cottage. She touched her maid on her shoulder.
"Go on to bed, Bridey. I won't need you again tonight."
"If you're sure, miss. I'm fair on my last legs, I am."
They parted, and Emily cut across the broad sweep of lawns that separated the manor house from the ocean bluffs. No need to keep to the woods surrounding Oak Hill Farm, since neither man nor beast would be out in this weather.
At the kitchen door, she removed her father's pistol from the deep pocket sewn into the seam of her cloak, hung the sodden garment on a peg in the small cloak room, then stripped away her muddy clothes and slipped into a brocade wrapper left on a peg for just such purposes. She left her muddy clothes on the floor for tomorrow.
She went to the lantern in the kitchen window and turned the wick high and low three times to signal Bridey that she was safely home, then extinguished the light.
She padded to the library on bare feet to complete her last bit of business for the day. After replacing the flintlock in the desk drawer, she turned to the bookcase behind the desk and tripped a spring hidden by a nondescript tome at one end. The bookcase pivoted open, revealing a narrow windowless room with a steep stairway down to a collapsed tunnel that had, nearly two hundred years ago, led to a secret opening in the shrubbery above the bluffs. The tunnel had been built to shield British watchmen and signalers during the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada. The signal station was long gone, but Oak Hill Manor had been built atop the ruins and the tunnels.
Sighing, Emily retrieved a small metal cash box from a shelf in the hidden room and brought it back to the desk. She poured herself a draught of brandy before opening the box. A lump formed in her throat when she finished counting. Not enough! She needed more by tomorrow afternoon when Mr. Dodge arrived to collect.
Five and twenty pounds short. In a reckless — almost hopeless — gesture, she drank her brandy in a single gulp and let the heat spread through her before taking the cash box back to the secret room. By her calculations, she'd need three pipes of wine; one pipe of madeira; two hogsheads of brandy; various assorted gallons, pints, and bottles of cognac; and five dozen bottles of claret to make her final payment next time.
She lifted another box from the shelf and opened the lid. The glitter of gems twinkled in the candlelight. So few left. If there were only another way! She selected a small brooch set in gold with tiny glittering diamonds around a baroque pinkish pearl. Soon all the family treasures would be gone. Tears stung her eyes, and she wiped at them with the sleeve of her robe. Keeping the brooch in her hand, she replaced the little jewelry box on the shelf, then pushed the bookcase back in place.
Tense and nervous, she rarely slept after a visit by the French smugglers. Seeking anything to occupy her mind, she selected a copy of Shakespeare's sonnets she knew by heart from the bookshelf and went to curl up in a chair in front the waning fire. Mesmerized by the glow of embers, the book lay open in her lap as she fondled the brooch, committing it to memory — the only place it would exist for her after tomorrow. It was her favorite piece, and the only one with enough value to pay Mr. Dodge.
"Five and twenty pounds," she muttered. She was waging a losing battle. No matter how much money she raised from selling Oak Hill's produce at market, it was never enough. Only the smuggling allowed her to keep afloat in the sea of debt. That, and the sale of her mother's jewels.
Lord, how weary she was of being lonely and afraid. Afraid of Henry Dodge on the one hand, and Jacques Reynard on the other. Afraid of being exposed as a smuggler, of losing everything she had fought so hard to keep, and the certain knowledge that she would live alone the rest of her life to protect her sister and her own carefully constructed lies.
She yawned and pulled her robe closer. A dull lethargy stole over her, deepened by fatigue, the warmth, the brandy, and the fact that she'd resolved herself to the solution of her problem.
Please Lord, just two months and no disasters ...
A cold puff of wind lifted damp tendrils on the back of her neck and elicited a shudder. The candles flickered and died in the sudden draft as the room narrowed to the dim glow of the fireplace.
She glanced over her shoulder to catch the glint of the firelight off metal — a pistol pointing at her head.
"Do not force me to hurt you, miss," a shadow-figure shrouded in a deep hooded cloak whispered from the draperies beside the window. "Turn around and keep your back to me."CHAPTER 2
Terrified, Emily whirled in her seat, her attention riveted on the barrel of cold steel aimed at her temple. This was what she reaped from trafficking with smugglers! A nastier, more treacherous group there never was!
The pounding of hooves penetrated her numbed consciousness. A moment later, sharp rapping at the door broke the hypnotic hold of the stranger's gun. She stood and spun to look in the direction of the front foyer, the forgotten copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets sliding from her lap and landing with a dull thump on the carpet.
"Open for the King's men!" came the call beyond the door.
The barrel of the intruder's pistol pressed into the small of her back. His breath was warm against her cheek as he leaned over to whisper in a slow, soft tone. "Do not turn around. You've seen nothing — heard nothing. Do you understand?"
His voice calmed her, but the pressure against her spine told her he meant every word. She swallowed hard, fought back her fear, and took a deep fortifying breath. Thus braced, she nodded. A firm hand on her shoulder guided her to the front entry.
"You know the price of betrayal?"
She could guess. She turned the knob, her mind working to form a plan. First, survival. Using the door to shield the fact that she was clad only in a robe, she peeked around the panel and feigned confusion. Soldiers stood outside, pistols drawn and swords unsheathed.
A captain stepped forward. "Sorry to disturb you, miss. We've been chasing a spy. He disappeared a few miles back. Have you heard or seen anything unusual?"
A spy! Not one of the smuggler's crew out to thieve back my goods! Relief mingled with trepidation. This cast a different light on matters, but she was not safe yet. Matters could, in fact, be worse. "A spy? La! Nothing like that here, sir."
She did not recognize these soldiers as being from the garrison at Hastings. Their uniforms were unfamiliar. Their pursuit must have taken them far afield. She could use this to her advantage. She blinked and continued. "I hoped you were the physician. We sent for him hours past."
"Miss." The captain bowed. "I offer my apologies in advance. I fear I must search your house. The man we are chasing is a murderer. He left the body of one of our own men in the mud alongside the road. Did you know a man named Erickson, miss? Leon Erickson?"
"N-no, sir," Emily shivered. The barrel pressing into the small of her back was suddenly more sinister than a moment before. He was a traitor — and now she knew he was a killer, too.
Risking death at the hand of a spy, or hanging when the captain discovered her muddy clothes in the cloak room, she nodded. "But of course you must search. A man has his duty, after all." She made a move to swing the door open to admit him, then stopped when the pressure against her spine increased and the hand moved to her waist to draw her closer. The spy's cold, rain-sodden cloak pressed against her back, and she shivered. She wedged the door with one foot to keep it from opening wider. "Oh, one small matter, Captain."
Excerpted from Sweet Treason by Gail Ranstrom, Tracy Montoya. Copyright © 2013 Gail Ranstrom. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.