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May 1814. Sennlack Cove, Cornwall
The shriek of gulls swooping overhead mingled with the crash of waves against the rocks below as Lady Honoria Carlow halted on the cliff walk to peer down at the cove. Noting with satisfaction that the sea had receded enough for a long silvered sliver of sand to emerge from beneath its high-tide hiding place, she turned off the path onto the winding track leading down to the beach.
Honoria had discovered this sheltered spot during one of the first walks after her arrival here a month ago. Angry, despairing and brimming with frustrated energy, she'd accepted Aunt Foxe's mild suggestion that she expend some of her obvious agitation in exploring the beauties of the cliff walk that edged the coastline before her aunt's stone manor a few miles from the small Cornish village of Sennlack.
Scanning the wild vista, Honoria smiled ruefully. When she fled London, she'd craved distance and isolation, and she'd certainly found it. As her coach had borne her past Penzance towards Land's End and then turned onto the track leading to Foxeden, her great-aunt's home overlooking the sea, it had seemed she had indeed reached the end of the world.
Or at least a place worlds away from the society and the family that had betrayed and abandoned her.
One might wonder that the sea's violent pummelling against the rocky coast, the thunder of the surf, and the slap of windblown spray and raucous screeching of seabirds could soothe one's spirit, but somehow they did, Honoria reflected as she picked her way down the trail to the beach. Maybe because the waves shattering themselves against the cliff somehow mirrored her own shattered life.
After having been hurtled onto the rocks and splintered, the water rebounded from the depths in a boil of foam. Would there be any remnants of her left to surface, once she had the heart to try to pull her life back together?
Though Tamsyn, Aunt Foxe's maid, had tacked up the skirts of her riding habit, the only garb Honoria possessed suitable for vigorous country walking after her hasty journey from London, the hem of her skirt was stiff with sand when she reached the beach. Here, out of the worst ravages of wind, she pulled back the scarf anchoring her bonnet and gazed at the scene.
The water lapping at the beach in the cove looked peaceful, inviting, even. She smiled, recalling lazy summer afternoons as a child when she'd pestered her older brother Hal to let her sneak away with him to the pond in the lower meadows. Accompanied by whichever of Hal's friends were currently visiting, dressed in borrowed boy's shirt and breeches, she'd learned to swim in the weed-infested waters, emerging triumphant and covered with pond muck.
The summer she turned seven, Anthony had been one of those visitors, Honoria recalled. A familiar nausea curdling in her gut, she thrust away the memory of her erstwhile fiancé.
She wouldn't tarnish one of the few enjoyments left to her by recalling a wretched past she could do nothing to change.
Resolutely focusing on the beauty of the cove, Honoria considered taking off her boots and wading into the water.
With spring just struggling into summer, unlike the sun-warmed pond back at Stanegate Court, the water sluicing in the narrow inlet from the sea was probably frigid.
As she glanced toward the cove's rock-protected entrance, a flash of sun reflecting a whiteness of sail caught her attention. Narrowing her eyes against the glare, she watched a small boat skim toward the cove.
A second boat popped into view, apparently in pursuit of the first, which tacked sharply into the calmer waters of the cove before coming about to fly back toward open water. In the next instant, the following boat, now just inside the rocky outcropping that separated cove from coastline, stopped as abruptly as if halted by an unseen hand. While the first boat sailed out of sight, she saw the dark form of a man tumble over the side of the second skiff.
The boat must have struck a submerged rock, Honoria surmised as she transferred her attention from the little vessel, now being battered by the incoming waves, to the man who'd been flung into the water. Seconds after submerging, the man surfaced, then in a flail of arms, sank again.
Curiosity changed to concern. Though the waters of the cove were shallow at low tide, the man would still need to swim some distance before he'd be able to touch bottom. Had he been injured by the fall—or did he not know how to swim?
She hesitated an instant longer, watching as the man bobbed back to the surface and sank again, making no progress toward the shallows.
Murmuring one of Hal's favourite oaths, Honoria looked wildly about the beach. After spotting a driftwood plank, she swiftly stripped off bonnet, cloak, jacket, stockings, shoes and the heavy skirt of her habit, grabbed up the plank and charged into the water.
Still encumbered by chemise, blouse and stays, she couldn't swim as well as she had in those childhood breeches, probably not well enough to reach the man and bring him in. But she simply couldn't stand by and watch him drown without at least trying to wade out, hoping she could get near enough for him to grab hold of the plank and let her tow him in.
Shivering at the water's icy bite, Honoria pushed through the shallows as quickly as the sodden skirts of her chemise allowed, battling toward the struggling sailor.
She had about concluded in despair that she would never reach him in time, when suddenly, from the rocks far above the water at the trail side of the cove, a man dove in. Honoria halted, gasping for breath as a rogue wave broke over her, and watched the newcomer swim with swift, practiced strokes toward the downed sailor. Moments later, he grabbed the sinking man by one arm and began swimming him toward shore.
Relieved, she turned to struggle back to the beach. Only then did she notice the string of tubs bobbing near the cliff wall on the walk side of the cove. Suddenly the game of racing boats made sense.
Free-traders! Tethered in calm cove waters must be one of the contraband cargoes about which she'd heard so much. The first boat had apparently been trying to lead the second away from where the cargo had been stashed under cover of night, to be retrieved later.
Weighed down by her drenched clothing, Honoria stopped in the shallows to catch her breath and observe the rescuer swim in his human cargo.
Her admiration for his bravery turned to appreciation of a different sort as the man reached shallow water and stood. He, too, had stripped down for his rescue attempt. Water dripped off his bare torso, from his shoulders and strongly muscled chest down the flat of his abdomen. From there, it trickled into and over the waistband of his sodden trousers, which moulded themselves over an impressive—oh, my!
Face flaming, Honoria jerked her eyes upward, noting the long white scar along his ribcage and another traversing his left shoulder, before her scrutiny reached his face—and her gaze collided with a piercing look from the most vivid deep blue eyes she had ever seen.
She felt a jolt reminiscent of the many times when, shuffling her feet over the Axminster carpet in Papa's study after receiving a scolding about her latest exploit, she touched the metal door handle. Enduring that zing of pain had been a game, a silent demonstration to herself that she had the strength to bear chastisement stoically, despite Mama's disdain and Papa's disapproval. Though more lately, it had fallen to her eldest brother Marcus, de facto head of the family since father's last illness, to deliver the reprimands.
There the resemblance ended, for the jolt induced by this man was both a stronger and a much more pleasant sensation. Indeed, she felt her lips curve into a smile as she took in the sharply crafted face and the dripping black hair framing it, sleek as a seal.
Even had he not just recklessly leapt off a cliff into swiftly moving tidal water, his commanding countenance with its determined chin, high cheekbones and full, sensual lips, would have proclaimed him a self-confident man of action. One strongly muscled arm still towing the coughing, sputtering mariner, the rescuer strode through the shallows, carrying himself with an aura of power that, like the long scars on his chest and shoulder, hinted of danger.
A commanding man, she saw belatedly, who was now subjecting her to an inspection as intense as hers of him had been.
'Well, lass,' he said as he approached, his amused voice carrying just a hint of a lilt. 'Is it Aphrodite you are, rising out of the sea?'
Honoria's face flamed anew as his comment reminded her she was standing in ankle-deep water, the soggy linen chemise that clung to her legs and belly probably nearly transparent.
Tossing a 'well done, sir,' over her shoulder, she turned and ran. Upon gaining the shore, she dropped the plank and hastily donned her sandy cloak, her numbed fingers struggling with the ties. By the time she'd covered herself and bent to retrieve her jacket, skirts and shoes, a crowd of men was walking toward her along the narrow beach.
Accomplices of the free-traders, come to help move the cargo inland, she surmised as she chose a convenient rock upon which to perch and put on her shoes. She'd just seated herself to begin when the first of the men reached her.
Suddenly she realized their attention was fixed not on the rescuer or the cargo waiting in the cove waters—but on her. She could almost feel the avid gazes raking her body, from the seawater dripping from the loose tendrils of hair to her bare feet, the curiosity in their eyes overlaid by something hotter, more feral.
Horror filling her, she shrank back. Instead of the windswept cliffs, she saw the darkness of a London town-house garden, while the cawing of seabirds was replaced by exclamations of shock and surprise emanating from the path leading back to a brilliantly lit ballroom.
Eyes riveted on her, men closed in all around. Their gazes lust-filled, their lips curled with disdain or anticipation, their hot liquored breath assaulting her as she held the ripped edges of her bodice together. Anthony, disgust in his eyes, running up not to comfort and assist but to accuse and repudiate.
Panic sent her bolting to her feet. Boots and stockings in hand, ignoring the protest of the handsome rescuer who called upon her to wait while he deposited his coughing cargo, she pushed through the crowd and ran for the cliff path.
Gabriel Hawksworth's admiring gaze followed the honey-haired lass fleeing down the beach. After pulling the half-drowned mariner onto the shore, he straightened, breathing heavily, while the man at his feet retched up a bounty of Cornish seawater.
An instant later, some of the villagers reached them. Quickly dragging the man inland, one held him fast while another applied a blindfold and a third bound the man's hands.
Gabe shook off like a dog, chilled now that his drenched body was fanned by the wind. To his relief, darting toward him through the gathering crowd was Richard Kessel, his old Army friend 'Dickin,' owner of the vessel of which Gabe was currently, and temporarily, the master.
'That was a fine swim you had,' Dickin said, handing Gabe his jacket. 'Mayhap ol' George will be so happy you saved his new revenue agent, he'll take a smaller cut of the cargo. Though the villagers hereabouts won't be too fond of your lending him assistance. Being a newcomer, our soggy friend—' Kessel nodded toward the man being carried off by the villagers '—is far too apt to point a pistol at one of them— and you, too, if he'd known who it was that rescued him.'
'Aye, better to have let the sea take him,' declared another man as he halted beside them.
'Well, the sea didn't, Johnnie,' Dickin said, 'so 'tis no point repining it.'
'Perhaps someone ought to give the sea a hand,' the man muttered.
'No thanks to you, the sea didn't oblige, little brother,' Dickin shot back. 'What daft idea was it to call for the cargo to be moved inland in full daylight, with a new man on patrol? 'Tis nearly asking for a scrabble.'
'I knew if the revenuer followed Tomas—not likely most times, as little as these English know the coastline—Tomas would still be able to lead him off the scent,' John defended.
'Aye—nearly drowning the man in the bargain,' Dickin said.
'What care you if there is one King's man less?' his brother replied angrily. 'Besides, I'm the lander on this venture. 'Tis my place to decide how, when and where the cargo gets moved.'
'If you're going to put our men and boats at risk, mayhap you shouldn't be the lander,' Dickin replied.
'Threatening to have Pa ease me out of operations?' John demanded.
'Nay, just trying to jaw some sense in your head,' Dickin said placatingly.
'Well, landing's my business, not yours, and best you remember it,' John said. Turning away, he called for the men holding the bound and blindfolded revenue agent to throw him into one of the carts.
After watching the brother pace away, Gabe said, 'Promise me, Dickin, the revenuer will get safely back to town? What happens on the high seas is up to God. I'd hate to abandon you still needing a replacement skipper for the Flying Gull, but I'll not be a party to murder.'
''Tis a most inconvenient conscience you've developed of late, Gabe my lad,' Dickin remarked.
'We used to share the same scruples,' Gabe replied. 'You'd never have shot a French prisoner back on the Peninsula. Nor have left one for the partisans, though Heaven knows the Spaniards had reason enough to torture the French.' Smiling anew at the irony of it, Gabe continued, 'Our former enemies… with whom you now trade for brandy, silk and lace!'
'True,' Dickin acknowledged cheerfully. 'But war is war and commerce is commerce.'
'Still, it wasn't sporting of Tomas to sail so close to the cliffs. He knows where that underwater ledge is. Our new revenuer obviously didn't.'
Kessel shrugged. 'His own fault, giving chase in daylight. If he wishes to hamper the trade, he'll have to get to know the coastline better.'
'Or try to follow us at night, when we, too, show a healthier respect for the rocks.'
'I doubt any of the revenuers wish to test the sea after dark,' Kessel replied. 'Few enough Cornishmen have your fool Irish daring. Or your expertise with a boat.'
'I'll ignore that jab at my heritage and accept your compliments on my skill,' Gabe said with a grin.
'Sure you'll not consider staying on once Conan's fit to resume command of the Gull?' Kessel asked. 'You've probably earned enough already from your cut of the profits to buy your own boat. We could make a good team, just as we did fighting Boney's best! Unless you've changed your mind about returning home to be your brother's pensioner?'