Old Barn near Brancaster
Three horsemen pulled out of the trees before the Old Barn. Harness jingled,
faint on the night breeze, as they turned their horses' heads to the west.
Clouds shifted, drifted; moonlight shone through, bathing the scene.
The Old Barn stood silent, watchful, guarding its secrets. Earlier, within
its walls, the Hunstanton Gang had gathered to elect a new leader. Afterwards,
the smugglers had left, slipping into the night, mere shadows in the dark.
They would return, nights from now, meeting under the light of a storm
lantern to hear of the next cargo their new leader had arranged.
"Captain Jack!" As he swung his horse onto the road, George
Smeaton frowned at the man beside him. "Do we really need to resurrect
"Who else?" Mounted on his tall grey, Jonathon Hendon, better
known as Jack, gestured expansively. "That was, after all, my nom
"Years ago. When you were dangerous to know. I've lived the last
years in the comfortable belief that Captain Jack had died."
"No." Jack grinned. "He's merely been in temporary retirement."
Captain Jack had been active in more devil-may-care days, when, between
army engagements in the Peninsula, the Admirality had recruited Jack to
captain one of his own ships, harrassing French shipping up and down the
Channel. "You have to admit Captain Jack's perfect for this job -
a fitting leader for the Hunstanton Gang."
George's snort was eloquent. "Poor blighters - they've no idea what
they've let themselves in for."
Jack chuckled. "Stop grouching - our mission's proceeding better
than I'd hoped, and all in only a few weeks of coming home. Whitehall
will be impressed. We've been accepted by the smugglers - I'm now their
leader. We're in a perfect position to ensure no information gets to the
French by this route." His brows rose; his expression turned considering.
"Who knows?" he mused. "We might even be able to use the
traffic for our own ends."
George raised his eyes heavenwards. "Captain Jack's only been with
us half an hour and already you're getting ideas. Just what wild scheme
are you hatching?"
"Not hatching." Jack threw him a glance. "It's called seizing
opportunity. It occurs to me that while our principal aim is to ensure
no spies go out through the Norfolk surf, and perhaps follow any arrivals
back to their traitorous source, we might now have the opportunity to
do a little information passing of our own - to Boney's confusion, needless
George stared. "I thought, once we'd investigated any recent human
cargoes, you'd shut the Hunstanton Gang down."
"Perhaps." Jack's gaze grew distant. "And perhaps not."
He blinked, and straightened. "I'll see what Whitehall thinks. We'll
need Anthony, too."
"Oh, my God!" George shook his head. "Just how long do
you imagine the Gang will swallow your tale of us being landless mercenaries,
dishonourably discharged no less, particularly once you take full command?
You've been a major for years, landed gentry all your life. It shows!"
Jack shrugged dismissively. "They won't think too hard. They've been
looking for months for someone to replace Jed Brannagan. They won't rock
the boat, at least, not soon. We'll have time enough for our needs."
He twisted, glancing back at the third rider, a length behind to his left.
Like himself and George, a native of these parts, Matthew, his long-time
batman, now general servant, had merged easily into the smuggling band.
"We'll continue to use the old fishing cottage as our private rendezvous
- it's secluded and we can guard against being followed."
Matthew nodded. "Aye. Easy enough to check our trail."
Jack settled in his saddle. "Given the smugglers are all from outlying
farms or fishing villages, there's no reason they should stumble on our
Checking his horse, Jack turned left, into the narrow mouth of a winding
track. George followed; Matthew brought up the rear. As they climbed a
rise, Jack glanced back. "All things considered, I can't see why
you're worrying. Captain Jack's command of the Hunstanton Gang should
be plain sailing."
"Plain sailing with Captain Jack?" George snorted. "When
Kit Cranmer sat with her nose to the carriage window, feasting on the
landmarks of memory. The spire atop the Custom's House at King's Lynn
and the old fortress of Castle Rising had fallen behind. Ahead lay the
turning to Wolferton; Cranmer was close at last. Streamers of red and
gold coloured the sky in welcome; the sense of coming home grew stronger
with every mile. With a triumphant sigh, Kit lay back on the squabs and
gave thanks, yet again, for her freedom. She'd remained 'cabin'd, cribb'd
and confin'd' in London for far too long.
Ten minutes later, the entrance to the park loomed ahead in the gathering
dusk, the Cranmer arms blazoned on each gatepost. The gates were open
wide; the coach trundled through. Kit straightened and shook old Elmina
awake, then sat back, suddenly tense.
Gravel scrunched beneath the wheels; the carriage rocked to a halt. The
door was pulled open.
Her grandfather stood before her, proud head erect, his leonine mane thrown
into relief by the flares flanking the large doors. For one suspended
moment, they stared at each other, love, hope and remembered pain reflected,
over and again, between them.
And the years rolled back. With a choked "Gran'pa!", Kit launched
herself into Spencer Cranmer's arms.
"Kit. Oh, Kit!" Lord Cranmer of Cranmer Hall, his beloved
granddaughter locked against his chest, could find no other words. For
six years he'd waited for her to come back; he could barely believe she
Elmina and the housekeeper, Mrs Fogg, fussed and prodded the emotion-locked
pair inside, leaving them on the chaise in the drawingroom, before
the blazing fire.
Eventually, Spencer straightened and mopped his eyes with a large handkerchief.
"Kit, darling girl - I'm so glad to see you."
Kit looked up, tears unashamedly suspended on her long brown lashes. She
hadn't yet recovered her voice, so she smiled her response.
Spencer returned the smile. "I know it's selfish of me to wish you
here - your aunts pointed that out years ago, when you decided to go to
London. I'd given up hope you'd ever return. I was sure you'd marry some
fashionable sprig and forget all about Cranmer and your old grandfather."
Kit's smile faded. Frowning slightly, she wriggled to sit straighter.
"What do you mean, Gran'pa? I never wanted to go to London - my aunts
told me I had to. They told me you wanted me to contract a fine alliance
- that as the only girl in the family, it was my duty to be a credit to
the Cranmer name and further my uncles' standing." The last was said
Spencer's pale gaze sharpened. His bushy white brows met in a thunderous
Kit winced. "Don't bellow." She'd forgotten his temper. According
to Doctor Thrushborne, his health depended on him not losing it too often.
Pulling free of his arms, she went to the fireplace and tugged the bell-pull.
"Let me think." Her gaze on the flames, she frowned, long-ago
events replaying in her mind. "When Gran'ma died, you locked yourself
up and I didn't see you again. Aunt Isobel and Aunt Margery came and talked
to you. Then they came and told me I had to go with them - that my uncles
were to be my guardians and they'd groom me and present me and so on."
She looked directly at Spencer. "That was all I knew."
The flame in the old eyes holding hers so intently was all the proof Kit
needed of her aunts' duplicity.
"Those conniving bitches! Those witches dressed up in silks and furs.
Those hellborn harpies! The pair of them are nothing but-"
Spencer's animadversions were interrupted by a knock on the door, followed
by Jenkins, the butler.
Kit caught Jenkins' eye. "Your master's cordial, please Jenkins."
Jenkins bowed. "At once, Miss."
As the door closed, Kit turned to Spencer. "Why didn't you write?"
The pale old eyes met hers unflinchingly. "I didn't think you'd want
to hear from an old man. They told me you wanted to go. That you were
bored, buried here in the country, living with old people."
Kit's violet eyes clouded. Her aunts were truly the bitches he called
them. Until now, she'd never appreciated just how low they'd stooped to
gain control of her so they could manipulate her to suit their husbands'
ambitious ends. "Oh, Gran'pa." Sinking onto the chaise,
her elegant gown sushing softly, she hugged Spencer for all she was worth.
"You were all I had left and I thought you didn't want me."
Kit buried her face in his cravat and felt Spencer's cheek against her
curls. After a moment, his hand rose to pat her shoulder. She tightened
her arms fiercely, then drew back, eyes flaming with a light Spencer,
for one, remembered all too well. She rose and fell to pacing, skirts
swishing, her vigorous strides well beyond society's dictates. "Ooooh!
How I wish my aunts were here now."
"Not half as much as I," Spencer growled. "Those mesdames
will get an earful from me when next they dare show their faces."
Jenkins noiselessly entered; coming forward, he offered his master a small
glass of dark liquid. With barely a glance, Spencer took it; absentmindedly,
he quaffed the dose, then waved Jenkins away.
Kit paused, slender and elegant, before the mantelpiece. Spencer's loving
gaze roamed her fair skin, creamy rather than white, unmarred by any blemish
despite her predilection for outdoor pursuits. The burnished curls were
the same shade he remembered, the same shade he'd once possessed. The
long tresses, confined in plaits at sixteen, had given way to cropped
curls, large and lustrous. The fashion suited her, highlighting the delicate
features of her small heart-shaped face.
From age six, Kit had lived at Cranmer, after her parents, Spencer's son
Christopher and his French emigree wife, had died in a carriage accident.
Spencer's gaze dwelled on the long lines of Kit's figure, outlined by
her green carriage dress. She carried herself gracefully, even now, when,
in focused anger, she resumed her pacing. He stirred. "God, Kit.
Do you realize we've lost six years?"
Kit's smile was dazzling, resurrecting memories of the tomboy, the hoyden,
the devil in her blood, and his. "I'm back, now, Gran'pa, and I mean
Spencer leaned back, well-pleased with her declaration. He waved at her.
"Well, miss - let me see how you've turned out."
With a chuckle, Kit curtsied. "Not too deep, for after all, you are
just a baron." The twinkle in her eye suggested he was the
prince of her heart. Spencer snorted. Kit rose and dutifully pirouetted,
arms gracefully extended as if dancing.
Spencer slapped his knee. "Not bad, even if I say so myself."
Kit laughed and returned to the chaise. "You're prejudiced,
Gran'pa. Now, tell me what's happened here."
To her relief, Spencer obliged. While he rattled on about fields and tenants,
Kit listened with half an ear. Inside, she was still reeling. Six years
of purgatory she'd spent in London, for no reason at all. The months of
misery she'd endured, when she'd had to come to grips with the loss, not
only of a beloved grandmother, but effectively of her grandfather as well,
were burned into her soul. Why, oh why had she never swallowed her pride
and written to Spencer, pleaded with him to allow her home? She'd almost
done it on countless occasions but, deeply wounded by his apparent denial
of her, her pride had always stubbornly intervened. Inherently truthful,
she'd never dreamed her aunts had been so deceitful. Never again would
she trust those who professed to have her welfare at heart. Henceforth,
she silently vowed, she'd run her own life.
Gazing at her grandfather's white mane, Kit nodded as he told her of their
neighbours. The six years had wrought their inevitable changes, yet Spencer
was still an impressive figure. Even now, with his shoulders slightly
stooped, his height and strength made a definite impact. His patrician
features, the hooked nose and piercing pale violet eyes shaded by overhanging
brows, commanded attention; from his rambling discourse, she gathered
he was still deeply involved with county matters, influential as ever.
Inwardly, Kit sighed. She loved Spencer as she did no other on earth.
And he loved her. Yet even he was demonstrably fallible, no real protection
against the wolves of this world. No. If she was to come to grief, she'd
rather it was self-inflicted. From now on, she'd make her own decisions,
her own mistakes.
Later that night, finally alone in the bedroom that had been hers for
as long as she could remember, Kit stood at the open window and gazed
at the pale circle of the moon, suspended in night's blackness over the
deep. She'd never felt so alone. She'd never felt so free.
Kit was astonished at how easily she slipped back into her Cranmer routine.
Rising early, she rode her mare, Delia, then breakfasted with Spencer
before turning to whatever task she'd set herself for the day. The afternoon
saw her riding again, before evening brought her back to her grandfather's
side. Over dinner, she'd listen to his account of his day, giving her
opinions when asked, shrewdly interpolating comments when she wasn't.
Between them, the six years of separation were as though they'd never
From that, Kit took her direction. It was useless to wail and gnash her
teeth over her aunts' perfidy. She was free of them - free to forget them.
Her grandfather was in good health and, she'd learned, would remain her
legal guardian until she was twenty-five; there was no chance of her aunts
interfering again. She would waste no more time on the past. Her life
was hers - she would live it to the full.
Her daily tasks varied from helping Mrs Fogg about the house, in the stillroom
or the kitchen, to visiting her grandfather's tenants, all delighted to
welcome her home.
Her heart soared as she rode the far-flung acres, the sky wide and clear
above her, the wind tugging at her curls. Delia, a pure-bred black Arab,
had been a gift from Spencer on her eighteenth birthday. As he'd taught
her to ride and had always taken enormous pride in her horsemanship, she
hadn't placed any undue emphasis on the gift. Now, she saw it as a call
from a lonely and aching heart, a call she had not, in her innocence,
recognized. It only made her love Delia more. Together, they thundered
over the sands, Delia's hooves glistening with wave foam. The sharp cries
of gulls came keening on the currents high above; the boom of the surf
rumbled in the salt-laden air.
Word of her return spread quickly. She dutifully sustained visits from
the rector's wife and from Lady Delsingham, the wife of a neighbouring
landowner. Kit's tonnish grace impressed both ladies. Her manner
was assured, her deportment perfection itself. In the faraway capital
she might hold insultingly aloof, but at Cranmer, she was her grandfather's
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