The 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 him?"
"Who else?" Mounted on his tall grey, Jonathon Hendon, better known as Jack, gestured expansively. "That was, after all, my nom de guerre."
"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 to say."
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 real identities."
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 pigs fly."
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 was real.
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 with contempt.
Spencer's pale gaze sharpened. His bushy white brows met in a thunderous frown. "What?"
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 to stay."
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 been.
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 granddaughter.