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The fog clung close to the coast, so gray and heavy and icy-wet that it seemed like an extension of the sea itself, risen up into the night sky solely to increase the misery of any shivering creatures it might touch. This fog had stolen away the moon and stars along with all earthly landmarks, and even the great rush and crash of the waves seemed muffled and muted. It was a night fit for neither Christian man nor beast, and certainly not for a lady.
But for Fan Winslow, it was the most perfect night imaginable.
"Keep the light covered, Bob," she said briskly to the man on the horse beside her. "Even in this murk, I won't have the risk of a glimmer to betray us."
Dutifully the man tugged at the hinged window on the tin lantern swinging from the stake in the sand, the awkward bulges in his coat betraying the pistols in his belt. Though there was seldom any trouble, they were always armed; in this trade, it would be foolish to take the risk of doing otherwise. Now only the tiniest pinpricks of light showed through the punched holes on the back of the lantern, and Fan nodded her approval, drawing her black cloak more closely around her huddled shoulders.
Faith, as if that could keep out more of this wretched cold! The fog would always have its way, icy fingers that could creep through the woolen layers of petticoats and stockings and mittens and shawls under her cloak. The only real warmth came from the sturdy little horse beneath her, for Pie's shaggy rough coat had been bred for weather like this. Fan wasn't as fortunate, and she pulled the scarf higher over her face, trying to preserve some semblance of a ladylike complexion, even as the salty wet chill made her cheeks ache and her eyes tear, and plastered the few loose curls of her hair like clammy seaweed against her forehead and neck.
Yet still she and Bob Forbert waited on the beach, steadfastly staring out into the fog to where the little boat must be, squinting so hard to see what Fan prayed would be there that her exhausted eyes teared from the effort. Except for those careful few who knew the truth, no one would guess her place by day at Feversham Hall, or understand the risk she took by coming here on this night, and on scores of others like it.
Furtively she puffed her breath against the rough wool of the scarf pulled over her mouth, hoping to warm herself however she could, and twisted the reins in her cold-numbed fingers. It was a perfect night for their trade, exactly the weather she always prayed for.
A fog like this kept secrets as surely as the grave itself.
But how long had she been standing here by the sea, the spray that blew towards them like tumbled flakes of snow? Had it been one hour, two, even three? She could reach for the heavy watch she wore at her waist, but to do so would make her look weak and unsure of herself, as if she hadn't planned and anticipated every last detail of this night. She couldn't let Bob sense her uncertainty. She couldn't let him, or any of the others, ever see her be less than absolutely confident.
But hadn't Father taught her that, never to show doubt to those who depended upon her? These folk are our people, Father would say, his black brows bristling with seriousness, these are the Winslow Company. They're our responsibility, and you must be ready to put them first. That's how it's always been for us Winslows, daughter. We must be brave, be sure, be true. We must, my girl, else we'll never hold their respect and their loyalty, nor shall we deserve it.
But then Father would never have imagined her in his place here on the beach, waiting with the lantern and pistols and praying that she'd said the right things to make the men follow....
"Leastways they'll be no red coats after us tonight, mistress," said Bob, spitting in the sand as an extra measure of contempt. "Nor blue Navy ones, neither. None of them bastards'd take their fat rumps from the hearth in this cold."
"They're all fair-weather rogues, true enough," said Fan. "Let them stay by their hearths, I say, and leave us honest folk to ourselves."
It had been a warm, clear night early last summer, the air full of the sweet scent of hay and new clover, when Father had let a bellyful of unwatered French brandy at the Tarry Man in Tunford rob him of his common sense. Off he'd stumbled towards the marshes and the beach with his old friend Tom Hawkins, the pair of them bellowing wicked songs about the king beneath the bright crescent moon, certain that there'd be a boat coming in from Boulougne.
And to her sorrow, it was the last she or anyone else had seen of either her father or Tom. Some said they'd drowned and been washed out to sea. Others were sure they'd been murdered, shot dead and their bodies hidden away by some rival company. There was even one version, still popular at the Tarry Man, that they'd simply hopped aboard some vessel for France on a whim, and were there now, drinking their fill of brandy and chasing the ladies and blithely turning their backs on their old lives.
Yet the stories were no more than guesses, without any proof one way or the other. All that Fan knew for certain was that her father had never come back, and that she missed him dreadfully, and that ever since that night, she'd been standing here in his place, waiting and hoping and praying for his return.
"There, mistress, there be the boat!" exclaimed Bob, pointing out through the fog. "Just like you said it would be, mistress! Just like you said!"
Fan nodded again, hiding her relief. She hadn't been nearly as certain that Ned Markham would risk bringing the Sally in on such a night, but now she could see the bobbing yellow light on the sloop's prow for herself. The pattern of the signal was the same they'd always used: one quick flash, two slow.
Fan leaned forward to uncover the face of her own lantern, and answered the signal in reverse with two slow flashes, one quick. Then, at last, Fan uncovered her flame and let the beam shine bright and steady, a kind of makeshift lighthouse here on the beach. The Sally's pilot would need such a signal, for without the lantern's light, he'd have the devil of a time guessing exactly where lay the mouth of the narrow channel called the Tunford Stream.
On the far side of the dunes the others were waiting, the trusted Company men with the horses, as well as the porters and carriers hired for the night. They all would work together with the Sally's crew in well-practiced efficiency, bringing seven hundred pounds of China tea ashore without paying a single penny to the Customs House or the Crown.
She watched the boat drawing close, the sail just visible through the mist and fog. The tedium of waiting here on the beach was nearly done, and the next few hours would fly by, a race against the dawn. If everything went as planned, she would see the last pony, laden with tea, off over the hills before the night began to fade on the eastern horizon, and be back at Feversham with the cock's crow, and so weary she'd barely be able to climb the back stairs to her bed.
"Who be takin' our tea this time, mistress?" asked Bob, hopping up and down beside her with excitement, or maybe the cold. "The innkeeper in Lydd, same as last week, or that new bloke clear from London?"
"Hush yourself, Bob," ordered Fan sharply, appalled he'd speak so freely. "Haven't I told you before to keep your peace about our affairs here?"
Excerpted from The Silver Lord by Miranda Jarrett Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.