Christian paced the floor in the library for a good half an hour before pouring himself a glass of brandy. He tossed the contents down his throat, allowing the slow burn to settle before refilling the cut crystal tumbler. As he watched the swirl of fiery liquid coating the inside of the glass, he resisted the temptation to curse his friend. Ethan Kavanagh had haunted Christian’s every waking moment for the past six years, and most of his sleeping ones. Reminders of him were everywhere. God, he still had nightmares where he would wake, screaming and sweating from the mistakes they had all made. The years since Ethan’s ‘disappearance’ had been full of misinformation and misdirection, as the Home Office made blunder after awful blunder, trying to locate him in the network of French jails. They had been told variously that he had escaped with a group of political insurgents, been deported to the Americas and was dead in a Bourdeaux brothel, the victim of a knife fight. There was never any definitive proof, and boat after boat had returned from France having failed to bring him home. Finally, a year or so ago, it had been rumored that he had turned traitor, having joined forces with spy networks of the French government. The upper management of the Home Office had chosen, in their wisdom, to believe this last. Only Haverstock, a spymaster of unparalleled skills, resisted the rumor and innuendo. He had officially agreed not to commit any further resources to locating and rescuing Ethan. Unofficially, he gave James carte blanche to do what he could, which included making use of Captain Blackheart, where appropriate.
No, Christian had never forgotten Ethan and the plans that he was currently making had been in the works for nearly eighteen months, long before the Home Office had wiped their hands of the affair. To this end, Christian had given James command of the Ruby Queen to ensure that their planned excursions went ahead. For 2 years, their key informant had been moving through the locales of the Dutch traders, acting as a customs official and shifting as needed to avoid detection. For the last 2 weeks, the informant had gone missing and when Christian had been waylaid by his wedding to Ana, James had captained the Ruby Queen and gone in search of them. Nothing had come of it, as the ship could only sail under its official capacities and their other French contacts had grown skittish about making contact with an English boat in French ports. Now James and the entire crew of the Ruby Queen were missing and Christian didn’t have a clue where to start looking for them. Blackheart needed to do what he could and that would mean leaving England for at least two weeks. Christian had been working up to tell Ana of these plans.
However, Ana asking tonight in the way that she did, opened a jealous wound that Christian did not know existed. Christian emptied the decanter into his glass for a third time and slumped into the leather arm chair. The brandy tasted bitter now, which seemed fitting. The more he drank, the more he convinced himself that the object of his every desire from the moment he had laid eyes on her, was in love with his friend. He tossed the glass into the fire, feeling some release in the shatter of glass and ignition of alcohol.
The first day aboard the ship, when she had made an attempt at storming his cabin, his desire for her had been instantaneous. A purely physical response to the distinctly male urges she awakened within him. She was so determined and fiery, defiant and beautiful causing his palm to twitch with the desire to put her over his knee. When they had kissed in the carriage, he was undone by her passion. He knew innocent when he saw it and Ana had had it written all over her face. But when she had thrust her small body up against his, her sex seeking out his, he had lost all sense of time and place. And when, in that kiss, she had opened herself so fully to his barely contained lust for her, he instinctively knew he had found someone who could share his darker side. The thought of her, submitting so completely had unsettled him. No, he had no doubt that Anastasia had physical desires that he could sate. But he did not fool himself; that was not love.
Love was what happened in the hours between night and day, when his dreams were full of her. Love was in the unhinging need to protect her from all the evil of the world. Love was in the vain hope that he could be the man that she deserved. Love was in the quiet moments when the smile she turned upon him, lit her eyes like stars bursting through a night sky. Love was in the creamy soft details of her face, the languid silk of her skin against his, the blush of innocence and the lustre of her hair escaping from its clasp as she went about her day. Love was in quietly holding her hand and the soft lilt of her voice as she bid him goodnight. Love was in the challenge and passion of her thoughts as she voiced her desires and disagreements. And from the moment he had entrapped her at the ball, any semblance of love had all but disappeared from her. Any hope that she might return his feelings had slipped away into the night. He was a fool!
Ana held strong to her love. He could see that she felt so terribly let down by those she loved dearly. Kate and Sir Raymond had disappointed her when they had not stood against him and she was struggling with their decision. He was not blind to that particular change in her. A man like Ethan would have united them all, not divided them as he had done. This thought must permeate Ana’s waking moments as she wandered around this empty house. Ethan would have completed her, not destroyed her. Whatever might happen once Ethan was returned to English soil, Christian would not stop searching for his friend. If Ana loved Ethan then he would deal with it when the time came. Somehow, he would mend the rift between Ana and her father. Kate would be more of a challenge, but if he brought Ethan home, perhaps there was a chance of some sort of forgiveness from her. He needed so desperately to set Ana’s world to rights and then, he would let the cards fall as they may.
Right now, it was time for Blackheart to sail again.
“Who goes there?” The voice called out as the small group of riders approached the rocks at the mouth of the inlet. Lantern signals had already been made so the voice was reasonably confident that the group approaching was exactly who they expected. It paid to be safe.
“We ride at midnight.” A voice boomed back.
“Tis a wild night for carousing.”
“Not for a Lord on his lands.” The code had been stated and the group re of horsemen relaxed their approach.
“Cap’n. Tis good you are here.” A beefy hand reached out to shake Christian’s as he clambered down from the rock shelf to the sand at the mouth of the cave.
“Our shipment has arrived, Briggs?” Christian reached back to help the cloaked woman over the rocks with Taylor checking her footing in the rear.
“Aye. The cargo’s been transfered and she’s ready to go, Cap’n.”
Christian nodded and without speaking again, the group pushed a small row boat into the water and made their way out over the waves. Within a few minutes they had reached the ship anchored in the bay and without a sound the schooner headed out of the secluded inlet and out across the channel.
Ana was up early, hoping to catch Christian before he rode out for the day. Dressing simply, she made her way down to an empty morning room. Almost simultaneously, Mrs Jones backed into the room laden with the silver tea salver, and Ana wondered if the woman had some sort of sixth sense.
“Mrs Jones. Have you seen the Captain this morning?” Mrs Jones paused for a fraction of a second then moved to the sideboard and placed the tray down.
“No, M’Lady. He was gone before I came up from below stairs. But I’m sure that he will be out around the estate again.” Ana had a sixth sense of her own but still had no idea why the woman would lie to her. Schooling her disappointment at Christian’s continued avoidance and the housekeeper’s lies, she walked to the sideboard and poured herself a cup of tea before moving to the table to sit. Mrs Jones dished a plate of freshly made kedgeree, placed it before Ana then started to leave the room.
“Mrs Jones.” Ana spooned a mouthful of food and waited for Mrs Jones to acknowledge her. “I should like to ride to Faversham today. Do you think you could send the groom a message to saddle a horse for me, please?”
“Shouldn’t you prefer to take the carriage, M’Lady?” There was a warning in the question that Ana chose to ignore.
“No, thank you. I feel I need some exercise. A ride will do me good.” Ana continued to eat, her eyes focused on the plate. She didn’t, however, miss the look of consternation on the other woman’s face.
“Very well, M’Lady. Of course, the local village is quite well appointed if you should need anything. There is no need to travel to Faversham.”
“No, I shall go to the village on another occasion. Faversham shall suit my needs today.” Mrs Jones looked like she wished to say more but held her tongue.
The groom had saddled a strong mount for her, probably as a way of discouraging her to go further than the boundaries of the Grange estate. She sensed Mrs Jones’ hand in that decision and wondered once again, why the woman would not want her to leave the immediate district. However, Ana was a more than competent horsewoman and well acquainted with city life. With the groom’s guidance she had arrived in the small town quite quickly. She was impressed at the layout of the buildings and the small range of shops that were available given the remoteness of the area. The southeastern district was new to her but she was enjoying both the proximity to the fresh sea air and the wild austerity of the landscape. However, being in the town would give her a better feel for the pulse of the district. She was certain that Christian must be known in a harbor town like Faversham and if he was intent upon going about his business, then it was incumbent upon her to make herself known to the local gentry. She was, after all, a Viscountess now.
“I shall only be an hour or so.” The groom led the horses away and Ana made to cross the street when she noticed a group of women staring at her. She waved an acknowledgment but they turned away as one and walked into the church grounds. Frowning, she turned down the main street. It was an odd sort of reaction but she knew that sometimes newcomers were not easily accepted in a small town. Perhaps, she should seek them out later and invite them to the Grange for tea. Relishing the freedoms that she was now afforded as a married woman, Ana struck out on her own, sticking to the main streets and traveling from shop to shop at her leisure. Nevertheless, when she turned to look back up the street, she noted that the groom was hovering a few feet back. She smiled at the man before continuing along her way.
Ana wandered the few shops without a particular purpose except to introduce herself as the Captain’s wife. She had spent part of her morning, carefully inking her new calling cards and was prepared to take any invitations that might come her way. Only, everywhere she went she was met with reservation or downright hostility, as she handed over her ticket. On one or two occasions, she noted that the receiver would toss the card to the ground before she had even left the store. She wondered if perhaps Christian’s icy reserve and antisocial habits wasn’t the cause; her husband could be quite taciturn. After purchasing some ribbons, she made her way to a coffee shop. As she took her seat, the bell rang announcing a new customer. To her surprise the new arrival was Mrs Jones. The murmur of voices ceased as the housekeeper made her way to Ana’s table.
“Good morning, Lady Grey. May I join you?” The woman was forthright, Ana would give her that. Given how unusual her morning had been, the way she was eyed with suspicion and disdain as she walked through the streets of town, she couldn’t help but welcome the woman’s advances. A small nod was all that was needed to bring Mrs Jones to the table. The maid served their coffee without saying a word, even though Ana had seen the same girl laughing and making conversation with other patrons.
“Are you enjoying your visit to Faversham?” Mrs Jones looked like she knew the answer already. Somehow Ana was going to have to pick the woman’s brains regarding the strange attitudes she had encountered. Mrs Jones didn’t pause for Ana’s answer but picked up the cup and carefully raised it to her lips.
The murmur of voices had resumed enough for Ana to be sure that they could not be overheard. “Yes. The town is very pretty and surprisingly busy.” She refused to say anything else about the strange attitudes that she sensed. Not yet, anyway.
“The bastard Captain’s new mistress, no doubt.” Two women were seated at the table adjacent to Ana’s. They were smartly, if somewhat unfashionably attired, so she was sure that they must be wives of important local landowners or businessmen. Both women paused their cups at their lips, as they leaned in to talk in raised whispers. “I hear she was a servant. Rising above her station, thinking to marry the son of a Duke. A failed naval captain, if you please. She’ll be another slut, like the others. Probably leave her brats all over the countryside and run back to the city. More for his collection of waifs and strays. Wouldn’t be surprised if she’s foreign, like the others.”
A titter of laughter filtered through the room as everyone overheard the shocking words. Ana began to choke on her mouthful of coffee and Mrs Jones was up and out of her seat, clapping Ana on the back before helping her to stand. Ana straightened her riding jacket with two quick tugs before turning to the ladies’ table. Being bested by these shrews was not on her list of things to achieve today. She drew herself up, walked over to their table, and stood with her back slightly to the woman who had been talking, while facing her friend. She had a few tricks in isolating the enemy up her sleeve and she wasn’t afraid to use them.
“Good afternoon, Ladies.” She spoke with as much clarity and enunciation as she could muster. These harridans would understand that she was, at the very least, one of them. “I wondered if I might introduce myself. I am Lady Grey, wife of Captain Lord Grey, Viscount Trevelyan.” She watched their mouths drop open, one of them allowing her cup to slide onto the saucer with an unseemly clink of china. Goodness, Christian really didn’t use his title, did he? Ana continued, “Lord Grey and I have recently arrived from our wedding at the Duke of Carrick’s Bellevue estate and I have not yet, had time to present my card but I should very much like to extend and invitation for you to attend tea at the Grange, very soon. I am at home on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.”
Ana did not think much about what their answer might be. Good grace and manners would prevail. Plus she was sure that they would come out of morbid curiousity, if nothing else. Whatever reason they felt justified to malign Christian, she would make it her mission to maintain his social standing.
They made no eye contact as they left, exiting the coffee house with the tinkle of the doorbell sounding in their ears. As they climbed into the carriage, Ana chanced a glance back at the windows of the coffee shop and noticed one of the women crumpling what appeared to be Ana’s calling card in her hand and throwing it on the floor. Luckily, Mrs Jones had brought the carriage from the Grange, the groom having attached Ana’s horse and his own to the back for the return journey, handed Ana inside. Nothing was said as they drove out of town, although Mrs Jones was ready with a crisply monogrammed handkerchief when Ana’s tears began to fall.
Twenty minutes from town Ana raised her head. “What did they mean like the other ones?”
There was a moment’s pause as Mrs Jones considered her reply. Ana held her gaze, desperately wanting an answer to her question. And desperately dreading what that answer might be.
“Unfounded rumor and gossip, Ana dear.” The use of her first name was not lost on her. Mrs Jones was placating a small child. She knew the tactic well. “Some people have nothing better to do with their time.”
“I take it from that little display that Captain Grey does not make it his business to socialize with the good people of the parish.”
Mrs Jones smiled and looked out the window. “The good people of the parish leave a little to be desired.” Then she turned her body to face Ana with a smile. “Let me take you back through the village and you will see a different story.”
Ana nodded and soon the carriage slowed its approach down a pretty country lane. Children were laughing and running about outside a thatched cottage as they pulled to a stop. There was a squeal of recognition as Mrs Jones descended. A pretty young woman ushered the children into a line on their approach, and Ana was taken by how happy, healthy and well-presented the children all were.
“Look children, it is the Captain’s new wife. What do you say?” The woman spoke with a soft French accent and as a group the children gave an odd assortment of bows and curtsies.
“Good day, M’Lady.” Their voices rose as one in a sing song tone. Ana laughed at their enthusiasm.
“Good day, everyone. Thank you so much for your lovely welcome.” A very small girl smiled sweetly at Ana, shyly holding out her hand toward her. Ana glanced at Mrs Jones who gave a quiet nod, then took the little girl’s hand and gave it a gentle shake.
“You are very pretty, M’Lady.” The little girl’s earnest compliment touched Ana’s heart.
“As are you. What is your name?”
“Therese, M’Lady.” The young woman moved forward and captured the children’s attention.
“Now children. Inside. It is time to begin our numbers.” The children bowed and curtsied to Ana again before disappearing obediently inside the cottage.
“A school?” Ana turned to Mrs Jones in surprise. The other woman merely smiled.
“Yes, Captain Grey insists that the village children are all educated. Mademoiselle Dalcrois teaches them and, in return, the Captain allows her to stay in the cottage and pays her a wage. Ana tried not to let her smile drop. Miss Dalcrois was a very pretty woman, with yellowish blond hair and fair skin. A young woman like that, living on the Trevelyan estate would be a temptation to any red-blooded male. Perhaps Christian had ‘other’ arrangements with Miss Dalcrois. Ana’s heart sank.
They walked further down the lane and entered the inn. The innkeeper, a rounded and cheerful woman, bustled over to them, ushering them to a table by a window before bringing them a pot of tea. Mrs Jones exchanged pleasantries and in the course of the conversation Ana learning that the woman was another widow, who was known by all as Madame Fleur.
“Do you know the Captain, personally?” Ana was prying but she had an awful feeling that Christian’s reputation with the local gentry might not be unfounded. Madame Fleur bent over the table revealing her ample bosom and a wide smile as she poured the tea.
“Yes, M’Lady. It were he that owned the inn and saw fit to employ me after my Hectoire died.” Another trace of a French accent. Ana was more than curious.
“Were you originally from France?” Ana had no reservations about the amount of French citizens in Christian’s employ but she was beginning to see why the rumor-mill touted him as a French spy, as well. However, with a conveniently located house on the southeastern coast, an estate of French nationals and connections with Captain Blackheart, perhaps Christian really was a spy.
“Aye, M’Lady.” Ana inwardly laughed at the woman’s attempts to sound more…British. She was doing it rather well. “It has been five years that I have lived here, though. This is my home now.”
A shiver went down Ana’s spine. Yet, another reference to five years ago. It seemed that the skirmish off Calais was a cause for Christian to take it upon himself to change the populated landscape of Southeastern England. Ana was not dull enough that she had not understood that there must be a connection. She had not heard of this skirmish but it obviously had had a large impact on the local community if not the district of Thanet.
After taking tea and hearing more about Christian’s generosity, Ana and Mrs Jones climbed back in the carriage and returned to the Grange.
“Pardon my curiousity, but you don’t sound French, Mrs Jones.” The woman smiled at her lap.
“That’s because I’m not. Not everyone he has helped as been a French exile, Mrs Grey.” How did she always seem to know what Ana was talking about? No wonder she was such a valued servant to Christian. It seemed that she could anticipate his every need. That particular thought caused a lump to form in Ana’s throat. Mrs Jones was slightly older than Christian, but she was still a very attractive woman. Ana poked at her eye as if something was lodged there. It would serve her right if there was.
“Where might I find out more information on the battle itself, Mrs Jones?” Ana hoped that there might some records in the library at the Grange. From the look on the housekeeper’s face, she knew she would be out of luck.
“You would have to ask the Captain, and to my knowledge, he does not speak of it. It is one of the conditions of his generosity that we don’t speak of it either.”
That last comment instantly undid all of the good will that Ana had been disposed to feel for her husband. Was he paying these people for their silence? Holding them all to ransom? And since they were for the most part, severely disadvantaged by their circumstances, the thought that he could be using some sort of coercive power over them all made her feel ill. She said nothing more until the carriage pulled up in front of the house.
Excusing herself, she went with the groom to ensure that her mount was taken care of. The opportunity to brush down a horse, something she only did when she was at her family’s country manor, might give her some time to think. Taking her time with long and leisurely swipes of the brush down the horse’s coat, Ana thought about her day. The upper classes of the district did not have much time for Christian. Those women had obviously never heard him use his title either, which was his prerogative but that, too, seemed strange. The rumors of his spying, piracy, and debauchery were not entirely unfounded but there was something about that skirmish that unsettled her. He had found it necessary to look after several victims of that battle and she was intrigued as to what might have occurred. Only, her recalcitrant husband would not let anyone speak of it.
When she had finished, Ana wandered across the drive toward the house, deep in thought. As she approached the building, she almost didn’t notice a small dark-haired boy carrying a full water pail from the kitchen out to the vegetable garden. He began to pour the water over the plants carefully, giving each one just enough to sustain it. Ana moved toward him and he looked up at her like a startled deer. She paused, not wanting to frighten him but he dropped the pail and backed away quickly. When she was about to call out to him, he turned to run. Hurrying toward him, she watched as he disappeared quickly around the corner of the house. When she arrived around the corner herself, he was nowhere to be seen. Ana searched through the garden for a few minutes but there was not trace of him. Angrily, she marched into the kitchen door.
“Mr LeClerc. Did you see a small boy come from the kitchen, earlier?” The chef, who was stirring a big pot of stew, did not stop his work.
Instead he muttered, “No, I ‘ave not seen, any boy.”
His rudeness did not phase Ana. The man was clearly busy, for a start.
“Well, can you tell me, do we have a small boy working in the kitchen here at the Grange?”
This time the man threw down his wooden spoon and wiped his hands on his apron. “I ‘ave no room for small boys in my kitchen. If a small boy has been ‘ere, then ‘e is clearly somewhere ‘e oughtn’t to be!”
The chef growled out his words as if he were warning Ana off.
“Monsieur LeClerc. Can you please tell Mrs Jones that I would like to see her in my study as soon as she is free?”
The chef grunted his ascent and nodded his head as Ana turned to leave. She carried on up the servant stairs into the main house, stripping off her gloves and hat as she went. Stomping up the stairs in a most unladylike fashion, she forewent a change of clothes and made her way to her study. With an angry toss of her riding jacket across to the small chaise, she walked to the window and looked out. If a small child was working here, then she would tear strips off Christian upon his return. She did not hold with child labor under any circumstances, even if the child was one of his French orphans. In London, Ana had campaigned vigorously with the ladies auxiliary to have laws drawn up that would forbid the use of children as laborers in mines and the burgeoning manufacturing industries. It was bad enough that the very young of poor and working class families were forced into work to keep family farms afloat but she would be damned if she would employ a small child in her own home. That child could only have been four or five years old.
A knock came at the door and Mrs Jones entered. “You called for me, M’Lady.”
Ana noted that Mrs Jones had made the time to change from her riding clothes to her work uniform. The woman looked quite put together and calm as she faced her mistress. Ana knew she was in the right on this occasion but she still felt somewhat at a disadvantage with her own attire. She didn’t let that slow her down.
“Mrs Jones. I am very concerned that I have seen a young child working in the house gardens.”
“No, M’Lady. You must be mistaken. There is no child working here.” Mrs Jones didn’t even have the courtesy to look dismayed. Not even a small flare of her eyes to give her away. Still Ana did not believe her. She had seen the child with her own eyes, even if Mr LeClerc had been too busy to notice him.
“Do not lie to me, Mrs Jones. I saw a young child not fifteen minutes ago, carrying water from the kitchen to the vegetable garden.”
Mrs Jones’ eyes went cold and hard. “And I am telling you, Ana, that you are mistaken. We do not employ children here at the Grange. The Captain would not have it.”
Her tone and words were so convincing that Ana started to back down. “But I saw…” Having been standing with her hands firmly planted on the desk, she now sat down slowly in her chair, feeling foolish. Goodness me. What had she seen? Palming her forehead, Ana took a deep breath, stood up and began to pace. This could not be happening.
“If you have no further need of me, M’Lady.” Mrs Jones turned stiffly and left the room. Ana paused and watched as the door closed with a loud click. What had she done? Ana had one friend here at the Grange and she had just accused her of lying. Her thoughts flew back to all the years of unfounded accusations at the hands of her mother, and she wanted to weep. This was the stress of the wedding. The massive upheaval and change in her life. It did not have to be a sign of anything else. Still, fear struck Ana’s heart as she sat back down at her desk. The shattered memories of Ana’s childhood began to coalesce, sending a stream of visions and half forgotten memories, once suppressed, back to her. Her mother, accusing Ana of stealing her jewelery, hiding household items under her bed and accusing the servants of selling the silverware , chasing after a young man across an open field in her nightdress. A man who, as far as they were aware, did not exist.
Holding her head in her hands, Ana leaned her elbows on the rosewood desk as she thought about the conclusions she had jumped to today. So quickly, without proof or reason. Christian was avoiding her, Mrs Jones was lying to her, the townspeople did not like her or respect her husband, the school teacher was Christian’s mistress, and he was both a French spy and a blackmailer. Now, she had seen a ghost. Ana felt her head starting to pound. It was stress. It had to be. Her mother was at least ten years older than this before she started her decline.
On unsteady legs, Ana rose from the desk, her eyes glazed and unseeing. If this was the beginning then she would have to tell Christian so that he knew what to expect, and soon. She didn’t want to think about his disappointment when he understood that his life was now tied to a madwoman. She stood at the window and looked out across beautiful gardens towards the distant sea. At least, she might find some peace here. If she got to know the tenants, became part of their lives, they might take care of her in the same way that her father’s tenants continued to take care of her mother. Bringing her back to the house when she wandered too far. Sitting with her during the days and trying to make her life as familiar and normal as possible. If this was to be her lot, then she would need to put in the time on the estate, to ensure that Christian did not have to deal with her alone. And there could simply be no children. Ever.
The answer came to her in a flash. There had been no consummation, nothing that would tie them together. With the Duke’s assistance, they could appeal to the courts to have the marriage annulled. Christian could still be free. And with that thought the tears began to flow. Christian could still be free, to take her heart with him when he went. Then it wouldn’t matter how soon the darkness would descend upon her mind, without Christian, there would be no more light.