The wind whipped her tresses around her face as she stood atop the cliff and surveyed the scene below. He took her breath away as he rode up the beach toward her. Both men were, in fact, equally as striking, but her eyes rested on her husband who held the stiff carriage of one with a distasteful and difficult task to perform.
It was not in Ana’s nature to follow and spy on her husband but after he had left the house this morning with Ethan for their morning ride, she felt herself restless and anxious at the outcome of this day. Her stroll had started as a simple examination of the gardens but she had been so deep in thought that she hardly noticed when her feet had eventually wandered across the fields,inexplicably drawn to the water.
They had talked into the night, plotting and planning, predicting outcomes for which neither of them had firm answers. Ethan was physically well but his mind was not recovering quickly. He might never quite return to the vibrant and fearless youth whom Christian recalled before the start of the war, but then, as Ana had tried to point out, none of them were the same witless young braves who had sensed adventure over danger. Now, they all knew better.
Society had judged them all harshly. As Ana trawled the recesses of her mind for the years of ballroom gossip she had been forced to endure she realised that all of four of these young men had been maligned in some way. Ethan’s disappearance had been the cause for much speculation. Deemed both foolhardy and easily swayed, he was spoken of as a youth who had forgotten his duty to his family as the heir to the Earldom. Worse, when the stories had started to filter back regarding his demise and incarceration, his name was often whispered as one who had potentially turned traitor. James was jocular, witless and secretive. More than once, Ana had seen his mother looked at with pity for being encumbered with the wild child who would never settle down. Elliot was a cad and a scoundrel, born with the world at his feet and arguably wasting it by resisting the countless women who threw themselves at him in the marriage mart. Worse by far was his passion for politics and industry. Mama’s and their daughters were willing to forgive his dalliances with trade on the basis of his being the next Duke of Carrick but his hobbies were unseemly. Christian, too, was now tainted with trade but that was to be expected of someone of his station. However, he was standoffish and proud, far more proud than a bastard son of a Duke had any right to be. Then there were the rumors of his connections with France and the harem of women who lived in the village near the Grange. He might have been a decorated sea captain but there was always speculation that he, too, was a spy.
Ana was beginning to understand them all differently and wondering how they might right their reputations with society while simultaneously questioning if it were even worth the bother. Elliot would eventually become Carrick and no one would question any of his activities. James worried her. She hoped that he might find some peace in his life as she suspected he had so much more to offer than simply being an extra in the lives of the house of Carrick. However, Ethan and Christian were her main concern now. Christian had brought all of the survivors of that terrible battle, many of them women and children, to England and settled the majority at his own estate. They would possibly never be accepted in the social circles of Faversham but they were safe and housed, fed and educated at Christian’s expense. Her heart swelled with love as that thought warmed her.
Absentmindedly, she watched as the men arrived at some agreed to point on the sand and dismounted, tying their horses to a tree branch that overhung the water. They sank to the sand and sat with arms resting on bent knees, looking out to sea. Willing them to begin talking, she could tell that they were in silence, their bodies poised for sound. She sighed, her anxiety mixed with resignation as she hugged her cloak closer around her shoulders.
The wind was balmy this time of year as it blew in from the southeast in gentle waves. The sun, high in the sky, blessed the ground with a warming glow and Ana breathed deeply as she sat down upon a rock. She kicked off her shoes and stockings, allowing her toes to luxuriate in the long, thick grass beneath her feet. Basking in the sunlight, gave her a moment of solace from the tension of their long night time conversation.
Christian had calmed somewhat in the early hours and made sweet, passionate love to her as the dawn broke across the sky. Their bodies had been fused in the agony and ecstasy of problems shared and she knew that her willingness to join with him was a large part of the balm for his shattered soul. She had also become patently aware that she had not had a headache since before their trip to France and that in itself was a miracle. Her husband was the antidote she had not known she required and she was quite thoroughly addicted to his healing powers. This made her even more determined to heal the rift between her husband and the Kavanaghs.
Something had happened between Kate and Christian that had caused animosity. Deep in her core she knew this to be true but Kate had never been particularly forthcoming about the friendship between the two families in her formative years and Christian refused to speak of it. Instead, his mouth would form a grim line as he announced repeatedly that this too, was not something for which he ever expected forgiveness and she was better to let bygones be bygones. He did indicate that the matter would be resolved one way or another and that he would never stand in the way of Kate’s friendship with her.
Pulling the letter she had received that morning from her pocket, she began to read Kate’s words.
My dearest Ana,
I cannot begin to explain my grief at the distance your marriage has put between us. I know that much of this is my doing. I had thought for the longest time that Christian was amongst a large group of old childhood friends who had forsaken my brother, believing him a traitor and happy to see him rot in a French prison. Thanks in large part to my renewed acquaintance with house of Carrick, I know better. I am still somewhat horrified that the Captain engaged in entrapment to ensure that you wed, however, I am more convinced by your most recent missives, that he is becoming more worthy of you. I shall reserve my final judgment on that matter for a time when we shall meet again, I hope soon.
There are many things in my life that have changed in recent weeks. Things that are better explained face to face. We have ensured the safety of our cargo and will be returning soon to London, as there is much work to be done to secure the future, both for myself and for those I hold dearest. It is my dearest wish that you should meet me there so that I might offer my congratulations and apologies to you all in person.
Of course, I understand your need for privacy. There are those who would seek to invade that privacy even in the South West of England. One must take particular care to keep a distance from local issues when one is protecting one’s heart. Call this a warning from one who knows.
I hope that we shall not be apart for much longer. I remain, as always, your dearest friend and confidante.
The letter had arrived just after Christian and Ethan had set out this morning. The more she read it, the more Ana understood that Kate was trying to summon her to London, although she had no idea of the purpose. Why was her friend was being so secretive, not mentioning Mia or Nick or even Elliot directly? The letter held menace, the warning of an imminent threat. But from what? What were these local issues? The thought of there being a spy in their midst was almost laughable given what she had learned about her husband and his family in recent weeks. Could Kate have meant the harpies of Faversham? Was it as simple as a social issue? Surely not. Kate was nothing if not scathing of the judgments of the ton, having fallen victim some fairly wild speculations about her own life over the past few years. Why had she referred to cargo? Did she really mean Mia and Nicholas? And if so, who did she think might intercept this letter?
The wind picked up and blew the fichu from around her neck, tossing it wildly across her face. Ana carefully placed the letter under a small pile of stones to her left before removing her shawl and allowing it to drop to the ground behind her. For the next few minutes she concentrated her efforts on righting her decolletage in the face of an uncooperative breeze. So busy was she and so wild had the wind suddenly become that she did not hear her assailant until it was too late. Letting out a scream, she flailed against the hands that sought to subdue her. The attacker held her dangerously close to the edge of the cliff.
“You’ll shut yer gob, if ye know what’s good for ye.” Stale hot breath growled in her ear. Ana did not still for a moment, her feet kicking at the man’s legs impotently as she cursed herself for removing her boots. Using the only weapon available to her, she screamed out Christian’s name before the man hit her in the side of the head and the darkness overtook her.
Down on the beach, the two men had been engaged in deep conversation, or at least, Christian had. Ethan, on the other hand, had listened to Christian’s words offering no comment or question, his face impassive as he stared out to sea. The more he talked, the less hope Christian had that Ethan would be prepared to forgive or even accept what Christian might be saying was a truth as he believed it to be. However, Christian, usually so stoic and reserved, found himself talking more and more, telling every aspect of the story in brutal detail in ways that he had not revealed to Ana the night before. The more he spoke, the more Ethan appeared to withdraw and the more desperate Christian became to make amends. As his story neared an end, a lump formed in Christian’s throat. He felt sure that his friend would never speak to him again after this day. That all had been for naught and that the horrors of his past would haunt him until the end of his days, marring his marriage and scarring his soul.
“I understand that this changes everything between us. If it is your desire, I shall make arrangements to take you to London forthwith.” Christian felt quite resigned to not being able to see his friend’s recovery through. Disappointment was the sour taste on his tongue that he had learned to live with for most of his life. This rejection was nothing new but it smarted, like the sting of a fresh wound, all the same.
There was a long silence where Ethan looked at the horizon. Finally, he replied, “There is nothing there for me. I have no desire to return to London.”
Christian noted that it was neither rejection nor acceptance, neither forgiveness nor accusation. Ethan’s quite stoicism was eerie in the face of the tale Christian had just told. Perhaps he needed to press Ethan further. The Earl of Kavanagh could not simply bury his head in the sand and pretend that he did not have a life, responsibilities and duties to perform. Kate had managed the estates rather well in his absence but her time was running out. If Ethan did not return to London and his rightful place in society by the end of the year, then the title and all properties and estates would revert to the crown in the absence of an heir. The desire to tell Ethan about Nicholas sat at the tip of Christian’s tongue. Would the knowledge of a son encourage his friend from this endless melancholy?
“Ethan… there is more that I need to tell you…” Just then, a sound rang out across the bay, the faint scream of a woman all but swallowed up by the wind. Ethan held up a hand to stop Christian from saying any more. Turning his head to listen for a mere second, he was up on his feet quickly and looking up at the cliff behind them.
“There!” Ethan called out before taking off at a run toward the rocks. Glancing up, Christian saw a flash of blue that disappeared quickly out of sight. But it was the scream of his name that had him scouring the cliffs longer. Christian went straight to the horses and noted that Ethan was halfway up the cliff face before he had mounted. He tethered Ethan’s horse to his and hoisted himself into the saddle.
“I’ll meet you at the top.” Christian called out and Ethan nodded in acknowledgment without slowing his climb.
Heart pounding and senses alert, Ethan was sure-footed as he scaled the cliff face, arriving at the top in time to see, far in the distance, two men, one large, the other small, make their way through the long grasses to a waiting wagon. Without hesitation, Ethan set off on foot, running as fast as he could, in pursuit. However, running in hessians was nowhere hear as efficient as bare foot and they were gone before Christian had ascended the horse track. Without slowing, Ethan kept pace, heading toward the road hoping to at least get their direction.
Glancing around, Christian saw the pile of his wife’s belongings on the ground. He jumped down and scooped them up, feeling the warmth clinging to the cloak. Inhaling deeply he was assailed with the lavendar scent of his wife. Fear clutched his heart. The flicker of the note paper seeking to escape the stones piled atop it caught his eye and he released it, scouring Kate’s words. A curse escaped his lips and he scooped up the rest of her belongings and remounted his horse, commanding it to gallop after Ethan.
They caught up with each other near the coast road, Christian slowing down enough to allow Ethan to scramble atop his mount. Both men hurtled off at full speed after the direction of the carriage but by the time they arrived at the outskirts of Faversham, they feared their pursuit was fruitless. The roads forked in four different directions, one of which would arrive eventually in London, one that descended into Faversham, the one they had arrived on and one that wound down to the coast just before the mouth of the river.
Circling their horses, the two men searched the road for fresh tracks but since the traffic was heavy in and out of Faversham on a market day like today, it seemed impossible to determine which way their quarry might have gone.
“Dammit!” Christian waved the note at Ethan. “Kate knew something might happen. Why the hell didn’t Ana tell me?”
Ethan grabbed the letter from Christian’s hand and scanned it quickly before raising his eyes in disbelief. “Kate’s alive?”
Confusion and shock crept over Christian’s features. In all the weeks that Ethan had been here, they had never spoken directly to him about Kate. Ana had determined that, while Kate was absent from London and the Ravensthwaite properties, there was no point in pushing Ethan to go home. And then there was the problem that Kate, an unmarried woman, was traveling around the countryside with Elliot, a self-proclaimed rogue. While some might deem Mia a chaperon, of sorts, there would be wild speculation about Kate’s reputation if their current circumstance were ever to become known. Christian and Ana, both, had reckoned that this knowledge might be enough to aggravate Ethan’s current state of mind. So by tacit agreement they had tried not to mention her too much. They intended not to explain the details, but there was never a deliberate intention to mislead Ethan, however, Christian understood in this moment, that mislead him they had.
“Of course she’s alive.”
“But you said that the ship had gone down. That all aboard had been lost. When Mallet had reported my family had been killed, I assumed…”
“That Kate was with them?” Christian watched as Ethan allowed his horse to circle, the beast sensing his rider’s agitation. “Did James not talk to you about any of this?”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Christian regretted them. James had struggled to even make himself recognised to Ethan. Of course that conversation was unlikely to have taken place. The question was, would Ethan have recovered quicker if he and Ana had talked about her? Ethan was still struggling to get his horse under control and Christian reached out to grasp the reins.
“Ethan, Kate is alive and well, and anxious to see you.”
“If she is so anxious to see me then where the hell is she?” There was no easy answer for that. Christian didn’t know definitively, where they had gone or why they had left. Although he had his suspicions. How could he explain that Kate, a young, unmarried woman was at the moment in the company of his brother somewhere north of the Scottish border, doing God-only-knows what? More importantly, time was of the essence and he needed this conversation to be over so that they could concentrate on finding Ana.
“I don’t know where she is now.” Partially true. “What I do know, is that she has been agitating the members of parliament and whoever she could get to listen, to try to come and find you for years. She has never given up hope that you would return home alive. Hell, she even asked Ana to board my ship alone and request a meeting with Blackheart.”
Ethan, who had kept his gaze focused on the ground up until this point, glanced quickly up at Christian. The intensity burned behind his eyes as he searched for the truth in Christian’s face. Christian held his stare, willing his friend to see the truth. That his sister and his friends continued to fight on his side. Just when Christian thought he might be getting through to him, Ethan’s eyes shifted and looked over Christian’s shoulder to the distance.
“There.” Christian turned and saw that Ethan pointed to a cloud of swirling dust in the distance. Peering in the direction his friend indicated Christian gave a single nod closely followed by a kick of his heels in his horse’s flanks. Fear gripped his heart, a deep gnawing anguish in his gut, as they raced down the road toward the coast. What if he was too late? What if they got her aboard a waiting ship before they reached the shoreline? And if this was yet another attempt on Ethan’s life, what the hell did they hope to gain by abducting Ana? He cursed that she had become a pawn in a much larger political game, one of which he wanted no part and which he feared they were powerless to win. Then another fear struck him with full force. At any time in the past five years, this could have been Nicholas. Whoever the puppetmaster was, Christian suspected he would have had no qualms in killing the boy if he had known of his existence.
Riding hard toward the water, Christian hoped and prayed that they had deduced correctly. He scoured the horizon searching for the boat that must be waiting somewhere to carry his wife off shore to God knew where. Fighting to keep heart and mind together, he sprinted into the lead, urging his horse on at a breakneck pace, Ethan close on his heels.
They rounded a corner to discover the wagon, abandoned on the side of the road. They dismounted in a fluid motion and Ethan ran to check the wagon. He turned back to face Christian.
“Empty.” Christian held a hand up to silence him and turned toward the sound of the ocean. At present their sight line was blocked by the trees that lined the edge of the beach. They moved with stealth to a position where they could view the beach undetected. Two figures were ambling over the sand toward a small rowing boat. The larger man threw the load he was carrying into the boat and began pushing it out into the breakwater. The other man was checking the shoreline with a gun trained on the inside of the boat. He hadn’t seen them.
Christian ran back to the saddle bags and took out his rifle. He might have one clear shot at the men before they entered the water properly. Racing back, he threw himself into loading the gun and preparing to take aim.
“You can’t shoot. He might kill Ana.” Ethan grasped the barrel of the rifle and pushed it down and away from them both.
“And if we reveal ourselves, he will kill her anyway.” Desperation and fear edged Christian’s tone. The situation was untenable. Ana had become his whole raison d’etre. To lose her was unthinkable. “I can’t let them leave with her.”
Ethan gave him a look that showed both understanding and disdain. Well, Ethan could think him a fool but life without Ana was no longer possible. It hadn’t been from the moment she had set foot on his ship looking for an audience with Blackheart. There was simply no future for him without her and it was that thought that had him moving through the trees toward the beach.
Ana had come to, almost immediately as her body hit the floor of the wagon. Head throbbing, her initial instinct was to lie completely still, as if the slightest of movements might trigger such pain that she would be rendered unable to rise from her bed for days. However, when she understood not only where she was but what had occurred, and that she was not falling victim to a vexation, she chose to keep still, so as not to alert her captors. Breathing evenly, she resisted the urge to crack her eyelids, relying instead on her senses to understand when they were getting closer to the water.
There was no talking in the wagon but given how narrow the space was, she was quite certain that there could be no more than one person in the tray of the wagon with her. Another would be driving. Certainly, as the wagon started to descend a hill, the terse instruction given by the man nearest to her and the answered grunt from the driver, indicated that she was correct. Ice froze in her veins when she recognised the first voice as Jackson Hyde’s. When the wagon drew to a stop and a large figure hoisted her over his shoulders, she made her body as slack and heavy as possible, hoping that this alone would slow him down. Once she was head down, over the man’s shoulders, she permitted herself a quick look at her surroundings. They were near the opening to the tunnels near Faversham, she was quite sure of it.
With a grunt, she was thrust into the bottom of a rowing boat. The boat was tossed back and forth in the small waves, each movement allowing her a moment to make subtle movements to organise her skirts so that she could move when required. She observed her abductors, two men, who were both preoccupied with getting the boat safely out beyond the breakwater. Pressing her palms against the wet wood, she tensed her body in preparation. As she gingerly felt around in the bottom of the boat, she held her breath as she located and wrapped her hand around the handle of an oar.
Grating of sand changed to a glide and thump.
“‘Urry up, get in.” The large man issued the instruction and the boat dipped further into the water as Hyde jumped into the boat. The blighter had a pistol in his hand, coward that he was, and she determined that she would at least find some way to relieve him of his weapon.
Ana briefly considered the opportunity at hand. Without hesitation, she hefted the oar up with one fluid a movement and she swiped at Hyde’s arm with as much force as she could muster. The unexpected movement caught him unawares and the gun went flying several feet in the air and a fair distance out into the water.
“You stupid bitch!” The large man reached into the boat and pressed a heavy palm over her throat, forcing her back down into the base of the boat. Hyde, who had screamed like a girl at her attack, was rubbing his arm as he looked out to where the gun had sunk under the water. The large man’s words called his attention back to her.
“No. Don’t hurt her.” For a moment Ana thought he might be showing some innate humanity. “I shall be the only one who puts marks on her body.” The look of pure evil in his eyes stilled her. The big man jumped into the boat and pushed her into a seated position so that he could gain access to the oars. The quick insertion of the row-locks slowed him for only a moment and then he began the dip and pull that would carry them to whatever destination Hyde had in mind.
A large wave crashed into the boat and swung them sideways for a moment. Hyde lost his balance momentarily and Ana was forced to grip the sides of the boat to stop herself from falling. Hyde concentrated completely on her, watching, she supposed, to see that she did not attempt another attack. The other man was looking back over his shoulder, trying to right the direction of the boat into the waves. Therefore neither man could see the two horsemen racing across the sand toward them. Just as Ana had no doubt that it was Christian and Ethan riding to rescue her, she also had no doubt that if the boat made it past the breakwater, their efforts might prove fruitless. So when the second wave hit them full force and swung them off course, she used gripped the edge of the boat and threw all of her weight to tip the boat and its inhabitants over.
Despite the warmth of the summer, the water was icy cold on her skin and her sodden skirts immediately weighed her down. Worse still, they had traveled further than she had expected and the water was over her head. She began to sink like a stone below the icy froth, her unprepared lungs filling with the salty brine. Panic set in and she kicked hard, using her arms and legs as best she could to propel her to the surface. When she broke through, she gasped for air before another big wave crashed over her head and dragged her under once more. The pressure inside her head and chest caused terror to take over and she felt her energy flagging. With no hope of gaining the surface again, Ana prayed that Christian would find peace and mourned the family and life that she would never live with him. The simple thought of not having his children energised her to try for the surface once more but when she tried to kick out she discovered that her dress had snagged on a rock. Tugging hard took away the last of her strength and air and she felt herself losing consciousness.
Christian had seen the moment when Ana had knocked the gun out of the man’s hand. Both he and Ethan took off at a run, launching themselves onto their horses without the aid of the stirrups. Once more, Christian’s heart pounded out of his chest as the horses thundered over the low tide sands toward the water. The boat was making progress out through the waves and he despaired of making it to them without having to swim. Confidencet in his abilities was one thing, but full-hardy attempts to out-swim the momentum of an oarsman at full-tilt was another. However, that did not slow him down.
When the boat swung around the first time, he saw the fear and recognition on Ana’s face. He also felt his anger rising at the sight of Hyde sitting in the bow of the boat, struggling to keep his balance. The loaded rifle was still in Christian’s hand and he didn’t think twice about raising it and taking aim. Assessing who presented the most immediate danger, Christian watched as the boat swung around a second time and Ana use the momentum to throw herself and everyone else overboard. Pulling up his horse, Christian balanced and took aim at the larger man, shooting him cleanly through the chest. Blood spread quickly through the water, as the man’s body tipped and rolled him face down.
Glancing around, Christian saw that Ethan had run Hyde down and had the spluttering man by the scruff of the neck as he dragged him ashore without dismounting. However, when Christian searched the water he could no longer see Ana anywhere. Panic choked his throat and he resisted the urge to launch himself into the water. Finally, some distance away, he saw the blue of her dress as the top half of her body broke the surface. Relief turned quickly to fear when he realised that she was not lifting her head, her arms floating listlessly outstretched in the water.
“Ana! No!” The horse was moving before he understood his own instructions. The progress was slow but they made it to her side. Reaching into the water, he dragged with a loud grunt, hoisting her up over the horse. Her skirt ripped from the bodice as he did so but he was beyond caring for her modesty. He turned and directed the horse back to the beach, as quickly as he could.
Leaping off the horse, he carried Ana down with him and placed her on the sand, away from the water. Tears flooded his eyes and his body was chilled with fear as much as the cold of the water. Placing his palms on her chest, he pushed gently but firmly, hoping that she might breathe for him. Nothing happened. It took a moment before he understood that the anguished sobbing were from his own mouth.
“Ana! My darling, please. Please don’t leave me.” His arms slipped under her armpits and he dragged her limp and cold body against his, hoping that his warmth might revive her. “Please, please.”
Crying in earnest, he wrapped his arms around her torso and squeezed her tightly back against his chest. Praying hard, he begged God to help her, to help him. He knew he was unworthy, he knew that he had committed sins and must make amends but not with her life. Not with his precious Ana. Somewhere in the wordless prayer and guttural tears, her tiny frame shuddered and coughed. Releasing his grip, he allowed her to move and heave, sensing that she needed room. Her body heaved again, expelling a substantial flow of liquid and bile. Christian rubbed her back and held her so that the foreign substance could be emitted with as much ease as possible. She coughed a little more at his urging and his body flooded with relief as she began to breath more than expel.
Hugging her close, Christian offered up prayers of gratitude in silence. Ethan had found a way to secure Hyde and had him thrown over the back of his horse before moving in to check on Christian and Ana. The touching scene stilled him. This was not the man he remembered from his youth. The Christian he knew was cold and distant with people he didn’t know well. He kept to himself, wanting to cause no pain or problem for his family. The Christian he knew belonged only to the sea, and even that was a begrudging mistress. This Christian was a man who was crying for his soul. For the woman he loved above all else. This Christian had found a love that he vowed would never exist in this life for him. Ethan found himself praying that Ana would live and fighting back his own tears when she took her first shuddering breaths. He wanted this. He ached for it for himself. It was with deep sadness that he knew Mia had forever robbed him of that opportunity.