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Early March 1809
The pale winter's day was nearly over when Lady Angelica Lennard arrived at Holly House. She had been anxiously anticipating this moment for hours, but now she was here she was almost reluctant to climb down from the carriage.
"I'll knock on the door, my lady," said her coachman. "Thank you."
As she waited for the door to open, Angelica glanced quickly around. It was too dark for her to see much, but she was acutely aware of how isolated the house was. It was situated a few miles south-west of Arundel, on the flat, windswept coastal plain of West Sussex. There wasn't another house within half a mile. It was an ideal place for a master smuggler to set up his headquarters.
Angelica suppressed a shiver. She was used to the teeming bustle of London and, even without the possibility that she was walking into a smuggler's lair, she would have found the absence of visible human life disturbing. There was not even a light showing from one of the windows to suggest the house was occupied.
It wasn't raining but there were heavy clouds in the sky, and an icy wind wrapped her skirts around her legs and tugged at her bonnet. She did her best to ignore the discomforts of the weather. She was conscious of her maid's dour presence beside her. Martha had made no secret of her disapproval of this errand. Angelica was equally determined not to reveal her own misgivings.
The front door opened and a maidservant looked cautiously out into the gloom, lit from behind by a pale light in the hallway. Angelica summoned up her courage and stepped briskly forward.
"Good evening," she said pleasantly. "Am I correct in believing that this is the residence of Mr Benoît Faulkener?"
"Yes, ma'am." The girl looked at her suspiciously. "Good! My name is Lady Angelica Lennard. I would like to speak to your master, if you please," said Angelica firmly.
"The master's not at home " 'Then perhaps you would be so kind as to allow me to wait for him?" Angelica took another step towards the girl. She'd come this far; she was determined not to be turned away when she was so close to her goal.
"Oh, I don't know " 'What is it, Tilly?'An older woman appeared behind the maid, and the girl gladly gave way to her. "Good evening, ma'am." Angelica introduced herself again. "I would be grateful if you would allow me to wait for Mr Faulkener."
"Is my son expecting you?'The woman spoke with a hint of a French accent. She was in her early fifties, and her dark hair was greying, but she studied Angelica with shrewd brown eyes.
"No, ma'am.'Angelica replied steadily, although her heart was pounding a nervous tattoo within her chest. "He does not know me. I have come to deliver a letter to him from my father. It is very important."
Mrs Faulkener looked thoughtfully at her visitor for a few more seconds.
The shadowy bulk of the carriage rose up behind Angelica, but the light from the hall illuminated her face and picked out gold highlights in her blonde hair. She was very pale, and her expression seemed strained, but her candid blue eyes met Mrs Faulkener's gaze with an almost innocent steadfastness. The Frenchwoman nodded slightly.
"It must be important to have brought you all this way," she said. "Come in, my lady. Tilly, direct the coachman to the stables."
"Thank you.'Overwhelmed with relief that she had so far been successful in her mission, Angelica followed her hostess into a sitting room at the back of the house.
"You must be cold, sit by the fire." Mrs Faulkener spoke in a brisk but not unwelcoming voice. "Would you like some tea?" She tugged on the bell pull. "You are very kind,'Angelica said awkwardly. Now that the first moment of confrontation and relief was over, she was feeling increasingly ill at ease.
The sitting room was comfortable but unpretentious. It contained two armchairs on either side of the fireplace, a small, well-polished sideboard, and an occasional table beside one of the armchairs. The chairs were upholstered in rich, russet brown, but they were slightly shabby and old-fashioned. It was a room for living in, not for show, and it offered a welcome contrast to the bleak, dark, lonely field outside.
All the same, Angelica could not feel entirely comfortable. It was clear from the neat pile of linen, the scissors and pin-cushion that she had interrupted Mrs Faulkener in the middle of doing her mending. It was an unexpectedly mundane scene to discover in a smuggler's house, and Angelica was thrown off balance. It had never occurred to her when she set out to find Benoît Faulkener that anyone else would be involved in their meeting, or that she would be forced to engage in social niceties with a member of his family while awaiting his arrival.
"I'm so sorry to intrude upon you like this," she said impulsively. "I really didn't mean to. It's just "
"I met your father once, several years ago when he was visiting Sir William," said Mrs Faulkener calmly. "My late husband was a doctor in Arundel. The Earl is a very fine gentleman. Ah, Tilly — " she turned her head as the maid came into the room ' — Lady Angelica will be spending the night with us. Please prepare a room for her. We would like some tea, and no doubt her maid is also hungry."
"Yes, m'm.'Tilly glanced at Angelica curiously, and then retreated with appropriate discretion.
"Oh, no!'Angelica leapt to her feet in agitation. "I'm sure I needn't put you to so much trouble. I only wish to speak to Mr Faulkener and then "
"You came down from London, did you not?" Mrs Faulkener raised an enquiring eyebrow. "And Benoît will not return home for several hours. You can hardly travel back in the middle of the night."
"But there must be an inn " said Angelica helplessly. "There are several," said Mrs Faulkener equably. "But you will be much more comfortable here."
For a moment Angelica felt uncharacteristically daunted. She had been mistress of her father's household for several years since the death of her mother, she was used to being in command; but there was something rather disconcerting about the Frenchwoman's self-assurance.
Then Mrs Faulkener smiled, the expression softening the rather severe lines of her face.
"I will be glad to have your company at dinner," she said. "I doubt if Benoît will be back in time, and I get so bored when I have to eat alone."
It was after nine o'clock when Benoît Faulkener finally returned to Holly House.
Contrary to her expectations, Angelica had enjoyed a surprisingly relaxed meal with Mrs Faulkener. The French-woman had been a pleasant, undemanding hostess and, much to Angelica's relief, she had asked no awkward questions. But after dinner, when there was nothing to do but return to the sitting-room and wait for Benoît Faulkener, Angelica had become increasingly nervous.
She had to control a start when at last she heard a door bang and muffled voices in the hall. Mrs Faulkener nodded to her reassuringly and went quickly out of the room.
Angelica stood up instinctively and turned towards the door. Her mouth felt dry and she moistened her lower lip with her tongue before catching it nervously between her teeth.
Despite the cascading blonde curls, which had inspired her name as a baby, and which had never darkened as she grew older, there was nothing ethereal about her appearance. At the moment she was pale with anxiety, but under normal circumstances her cheeks were rosy and her blue eyes merry.
She was very well liked, but she had never been considered a classic beauty. Her personality was too forceful, her mouth was too wide and she laughed too readily. In addition, and most regretfully, her figure was considered a trifle too robust. It was true that she had a trim waist and long, slim legs, but she moved with an energy and determination which offered no concessions to the die-away airs fashionable among some of her contemporaries.
It was impossible to imagine that a zephyr of wind could carry her away like thistledown — or that she would find such an experience to her taste. Angelica preferred to keep her feet firmly on the ground.
She was dressed now in an elegant but suitably understated gown of soft blue silk which seemed unexpectedly vivid against the predominantly brown furnishings of the sitting-room. Martha had insisted on packing an adequate supply of clothes for her mistress's foolhardy mission, and now Angelica was grateful.
The dress had a modest neckline, but it was gathered in beneath her full breasts by a narrow ribbon which hinted at the voluptuous figure hidden by the demure folds of her skirts. She had thrown a long, fringed stole over her shoulders, and her glowing blonde hair was pinned up in a classical chignon of curls. Although she didn't know it, she shone like a candle in the shadows of the little room. All in all, she was as ready as she ever could be to confront a smuggler in his own home, but she felt uncharacteristically unsure of herself — and completely unprepared for the coming encounter.
She gasped as she remembered something, and snatched up her reticule. She dragged out two letters and cast the reticule aside, swinging hastily back to face the door as she heard footsteps approaching the room.
The door opened and the candles flickered in the sudden draught. Long dark shadows swooped up and down the walls as Benoît Faulkener entered the room. Angelica caught her breath, her hands gripping the letters painfully hard as she fixed all her attention on her host, trying desperately to divine what kind of man he was.
He closed the door quietly and returned her gaze with equal curiosity but considerably less intensity. He was tall, slightly over six foot, lean and sinewy, with a deceptive, whipcord strength. His hair was raven black and his skin tanned. He had high cheekbones and a slightly aqui-line nose. There were small creases at the corners of his eyes, as if from squinting through bright sunlight and sea-spray. His mouth was firm yet sensitive, but it gave away few secrets.