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Billowing black clouds edged with slivers of white boiled about the moon sporadically concealing its light. The sloop, having begun its journey on lightly tossed waves, now ploughed through ever larger whitecaps as it neared the chalk-white cliffs of the English coast.
Having avoided the Channel patrols, which were either hastening to port or out to open sea to weather the gathering storm, the men aboard strove to deliver their cargo before finding a safe harbour. Not an easy task in this danger-filled year of 1800.
On the sloop's deck, clad in oilskins, the men laboured to hold a steady course and cast worried glances towards shore. A twinkle of light, followed by a second, and then a third, rewarded their vigilance. Smiles appeared on the grim-faced men. They eased the sails and manoeuvred the sloop as close to shore as they dared in the rough seas.
Hooped barrels were hurriedly lowered over the sides into rowboats. With hushed tones and muffled oars, they were brought to shore.
"Best head for the safety of Folkestone's harbour," the tall dark man, his features concealed by his oilskin hood, bade the captain.
"Aye, and ye'll be for a warmed bed," the weathered man grinned widely.
"Each of us has his own trial to bear," the other returned dryly, a hint of a smile slightly easing the fatigue on his features. "Farewell. A safe port be yours."
Bidding each other farewell, they shook hands in mutual respect and friendship.
The dark man glanced about as the captain climbed into the rowboat. He noted that all the casks were gone from the sandy shore, borne away by silent-footed men. The local gentry are assured their brandy forthe season, he thought. With a wave to his friend he turned and strode from the beach.
Familiar with the lay of the land, he kept a steady pace up the rocky incline and into the tall grass and shrub-dotted terrain. With certainty he halted before a leaning pine and knelt, then unearthed a leather pouch. He pulled off his oilskin, rolled it into a tight bundle, and exchanged it for a heavy woollen cloak. This done, the dark man pushed the pouch back and hurriedly pushed the sandy soil atop it.
The sharp report of a Brown Bess, carried from the beach by the wind, jerked the man's head about. "Excise men," he cursed undoing the cloak and fastening it about him.
Crouching low, he ran a short distance inland but then realized that soldiers were closing in on the beach from all sides. Doubling back at a much slower pace, the cloaked figure edged his way to the officers' secreted mounts.
A long march and an equally lengthy wait in the chilling wind had dulled the only guard's sense of duty. He stood to one side, leaning sleepily upon his Brown Bess.
One of the horses nickered and shied when the dark figure passed it.
"Quiet now," the soldier reprimanded, not bothering to look around. He straightened as two shots sounded farther down the beach.
The stealthy figure slunk up behind the guard and brought his pistol down in a swift, decisive blow, rendering the man senseless. After untying all the mounts, keeping the best for himself, the man swung into the saddle and drove the horses down the beach towards the sounds of the rifle shots. Scuffling men separated and dashed to safety as the horses galloped across the beach.
Three captured men gained their freedom in the pandemonium. Officers bellowed commands, demanding their steeds be captured and the prisoners retaken. The dark man driving the horses let loose a deep, mocking laugh as he passed them and disappeared into the darkness.
Heading across country, he made for a farm he had visited previously, certain a fresh mount could be obtained. To his consternation a loud voice commanded him to halt when he entered the farmyard. Reining his mount about, the man spurred away, a rifle ball whistling past his shoulder. His concern grew when thudding hooves bespoke pursuit. Fatigue fled. The challenge of evading his pursuers spurred the man.
His last moments in France had been similarly spent. The French general Napoleon Bonaparte, recently freed from the restraint of the Directory by his coup d'etat, had ordered the arrest of any suspicious person. This despite the fact that a majority of the people had approved his action by electing him First Consul. A certain M. Lanier had used this edict against the rider.
Stymied in his original intent, the cloaked figure headed for Folkestone. He had long ago become familiar with all of the coastal villages and towns for just such an emergency. Several places for concealment existed if he could but put more distance between him and those doggedly pursuing him. Taking a zigzag course, he slowly drew away from them.
Relief came when he sighted twinkling lamplights in the distance. The first cold drops of rain fell as he gained the edge of the town. Passing through the tight lanes between the outer cottages, the man made for the more heavily populated section of Folkestone.
He drew his cloak closer, to ward off the steadily increasing rain, and slowed his mount. The sound of an approaching carriage halted him in a lamp lit area of the town. Vaulting from the saddle, he slapped the foam-covered steed on the rump, sending it down the street, and then ducked into the shadows.
A hurried examination assured him that his pistol was loaded and, more importantly, dry. He tucked it loosely in his waistband, readily available if the need arose.
May the gentleman within be foxed, asleep, or both, he thought as he waited for the carriage to pass. The sight of a lone, nodding guard beside the driver brought a smile to his lips.
Lunging from the shadows when the carriage came abreast, he pulled its door open and sprang inside, pulling his pistol free as he thudded into the far corner of the seat. To his surprise, the person he confronted was not a lone, sleeping gentleman.
A very angry, very feminine voice challenged him.
"What do you mean by this? A robber is supposed to halt a coach, not vault into it like a madman. I have no money. You may just as well depart as you came."
The dim light of the streetlamps the coach passed provided glimpses of the occupant. Her smooth complexion and bright-eyed look bespoke a young woman. Far too young for the white-edged spinster's cap showing beneath her modest bonnet. Her dress was conservative and for the most part covered by a serviceable pelisse, devoid of geegaws and furbelows.
"But madam, it is raining," he said and lazily waved his hand at the water-streaked windows of the carriage.
A quick indrawn breath at sight of the pistol in his hand was the young woman's only sign of dismay. She relaxed, realizing that for some reason she did not feel threatened. Interest pricked, she strained to get a better look at this high-handed rogue.
His cloak, held by a leather thong, had fallen to one side when he had tumbled into the seat. She saw he wore plain leather riding breeches and the knee-high jackboots common to men of the road. His full white shirt was open, revealing a dark-haired, masculine chest. Her cheeks grew heated at such an intimate sight.
The young woman hurriedly raised her eyes to his face. Disappointment flared, for the hood of the cloak remained up. She could not see his features plainly.
Wondering briefly at her composure in this situation, the young woman was distracted from her ruminations when the man gracefully crossed his legs and settled more comfortably against the squabs. His abrupt entry and the pistol still pointed at her were at odds with the air of gentility with which he carried himself.
The man grinned broadly upon observing her inspection of his person.
Her colour mounted, and anger replaced curiosity. "If you are a gentleman, I bid you to depart as you came," she ordered.
"But a gentleman would never have entered as I," he answered, amused. He released the pistol's hammer and laid it on the seat between them.
The reminder of the pistol tempered the young woman's anger. She repressed the reprimand almost on her lips and repeated instead, "I have no money."
"But I do not mean to rob you." He leaned back in the seat. "Do you oft travel alone?"
The rogue means to stay, she decided, and turned her thoughts to a course of action. Mayhaps I can distract his attention and gain hold of the weapon, she thought and immediately put the idea into action.
"My uncle who lives in Ashford has taken ill and has summoned me to nurse him. He is impatient in all things and demanded I come at once. Thus he sent his coach for me." She spoke in even, measured tones and moved her gaze from the man to the pistol and back to him.
"It would be regrettable if you did not reach this uncle. Or if some mishap occurred to you or perhaps to the driver or guard," he warned, surmising her intent.
The implied threat stayed her plan. What manner of man is this? Curiosity pulsed strongly.
"We shall arrive at the tollgate soon," he said, glancing out the window. "Let your coachman pay the fee and pass on. No harm shall come to you or your uncle's servants. I wish only to ride with you a short distance."
"Is there no coach you can hire?" she asked icily.
"Ahhh, many." The man smiled.
A sudden clamour ahead of the carriage caused him to take up his pistol and pull the hammer back. The coach slowed and came to a halt before the tollgate. Lanterns bobbed about the windows as soldiers swarmed around the vehicle.
Looking inside, the sergeant gaped at the sight of a couple locked in a fierce embrace. Then he burst into good-humoured laughter as the man within waved him to be gone while refusing to free his companion's lips.
The sergeant slammed the door shut without a word and ordered the driver to pay the toll and drive on. "I'd give a month's wages to be that man," he told the men with him. "He'll have too brief a journey from the looks o' it. A willing wench on a night like this be what we all need."
Tossing rueful glances at the departing coach, the soldiers huddled against the rain and awaited the next person or carriage. The smuggler they had followed had yet to be taken.
Inside the carriage the young woman stared at the man who still had his arm about her, although he had removed the pistol's point from her side. It had all happened so quickly. The suddenness of his embrace, the pistol nudging her ribs, the pressure of his lips. She allowed her thoughts to wander briefly over the pleasantness of the latter, then called herself to order.
Elizabeth Jeffries, the least you could have done is gone into a strong fit of hysterics. Any lady worthy of her genteelness would have fainted, Elizabeth admonished herself, frowning.
But then, I never faint, she thought exasperatedly as she met the man's quizzical gaze.
"I have held many women in my arms," he said, "but none ever thought to frown. Mayhaps you would like to swoon?" he offered. "Or scream?" he ended, perplexed and piqued to have elicited neither offence nor pleasure.
Sensing he expected a comment from her, Elizabeth offered, "It was ... interesting."
A hint of affront entered his voice. "Interesting?"
"Was it to have been more?" Miss Jeffries questioned as he withdrew his arm.
"I am certainly relieved to hear it was not dull," he snorted.
"A strange man leaping into my carriage could never be dull ... at least I don't think so. You are the first to have ever done it," Elizabeth returned, calmly straightening her bonnet.
Cursing silently at the darkness which prevented him from seeing her features, the intruder began to reassess his opinion of the young woman. He took great pride in his perception since his life oft depended upon the correctness of such appraisals.
The young woman beside him was a mull of contradictions. She dressed like any number of the young misses from the country abounding in London. Yet she travelled alone, which bespoke a note of daring or experience. Her lack of interest, response, or even repugnance at being kissed by a stranger prompted him to dismiss her as a lady of the "other sort," but her voice and words were far too strong for the usual delicate young miss. His pride tweaked, he couldn't decide whether to ignore her or learn more about her.
"Are you a smuggler?" the young woman asked, breaking the silence, her tone calm and even, as though asking if he would take tea.
"No," he answered gruffly, shaking his head in wonder at this unusual female--a type he had never before encountered.
"A thief then?"
"I think not," he answered coldly.
"You would certainly be the one to know. Why, then, did you fear being discovered by the soldiers?"
"Young ladies should never speak to strangers," he told her quellingly. "If you must, would you not rather know of the latest style of dress in Paris?"
"Gowns are of no special inter--," she paused as understanding dawned. "Paris? Are you an Ã(c)migrÃ(c)?" she said, a note of loathing in the last word.
"Do I sound like one?"
"No," she answered slowly, vexed not only because he was laughing at her, but also because she felt an uncommon attraction to him.
Giving way to his curiosity, he asked, "Why do you wear a spinster's cap beneath your bonnet?"
"Gentlemen do not ask such intimate questions of ladies," Elizabeth retorted primly.
"But I thought we had agreed I was not a gentleman," he noted with mock seriousness. "Perhaps I need to prove it," he added and leaned towards her.
"No," she replied swiftly and drew back. "I permitted the first kiss merely to ... to prevent you from shooting some innocent person," Miss Jeffries told him haughtily, her spine very rigid.
"Ahh, the nobility of womanhood." He sighed derisively, his earlier fatigue suddenly returning. He stifled a yawn as he settled back in his corner.
Sensing his exhaustion, the young woman pulled a squab from beside her. "Take this." She tossed it to him.
"For, a rogue such as I?"
"Then be less high-handed and leave my presence soon," she snapped irritably, angry at not reining in her impulse.
A deep chuckle answered her.
What has come over me, she thought, thinking of this man's ... this rogue's ... comfort?