Excerpt from The Dragon's Bride
An earl, a smuggler, a bold lady, and a lost treasure, all in Regency Devon.
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May 1816 The south coast of England
The moon flickered briefly between windblown clouds, but such a thread-fine moon did no harm. It barely lit the men creeping down the steep headland toward the beach, or the smuggling master controlling everything from above. It lightened not at all the looming house that ruled the cliffs of this part of Devon -- Crag Wyvern, the fortresslike seat of the blessedly absent Earl of Wyvern.
Absent like the riding officer charged with preventing smuggling in this area. Animal sounds -- an owl, a gull, a barking fox -- carried across the scrubby landscape, constantly reporting that all was clear.
At sea, a brief flash of light announced the arrival of the smuggling ship. On the rocky headland, the smuggling master -- Captain Drake as he was called -- unshielded a lantern in a flashing pattern that meant "all clear."
All clear to land brandy, gin, tea and lace. Delicacies for Englishmen who didn't care to pay extortionate taxes. Profit for smugglers, with tea sixpence a pound abroad and selling for twenty times that in England if all the taxes were paid.
In the nearby fishing village of Dragon's Cove, men pushed boats into the waves and began the urgent race to unload the vessel.
"Captain Drake" pulled out a spyglass to scan the English Channel for other lights, other vessels. Now that the war against Napoleon was over, navy ships were patrolling the coast, better equipped and manned than the customs boats had ever been. A navy cutter had intercepted the last major run, seizing the whole cargo and twenty local men, including the previous Captain Drake.
A figure slipped to sit close to him, one dressed as he was all in dark colors, a hood covering both hair and the upper face, soot muting the pallor of the rest.
Captain Drake glanced to the side. "What are you doing here?"
"You're shorthanded." The reply was as sotto voce as the question.
"We've enough. Get back up to Crag Wyvern and see to the cellars."
"No, David. Maisie can handle matters from inside the house, and Diddy has the watch. I need to be out here."
Susan Kerslake meant it. This run had to succeed or heaven knew what would become of them all, so she needed to be out here with her younger brother, even if there was nothing much she could do.
For generations this area had flourished with smuggling the main enterprise under a series of strong, capable Captain Drakes, all from the Clyst family. With Mel Clyst captured, tried, and transported to Botany Bay, however, chaos threatened. Other, rougher gangs were trying to move in.
The only person in a position to be the unquestioned new Captain Drake was her brother. Though he and she went by their mother's name of Kerslake, they were Mel Clyst's children and everyone knew it. It was for David to seize control of the Dragon's Horde gang and make a profit, or this area would become a battleground.
He'd had to take on the role, and Susan had urged him to it, but she shivered with fear for him. He was her younger brother, after all, and even though he was a man of twenty-four, she couldn't help trying to protect him.
The black-sailed ship on the black ocean was barely visible, but a light flashed again, brief as a falling star, to say that the anchor had dropped. No sign of other ships out there, but the dark that protected the Freetraders could protect a navy ship as well.
She knew Captain de Root of the Anna Kasterlee was an experienced smuggler. He'd worked with the Horde for over a decade and had never made a slip. But smuggling was a chancy business. Mel Clyst's capture had shown that, so she kept every sense alert.
At last her straining eyes glimpsed the boats surging out to be loaded with packages and half-ankers of spirits. She could just detect movement on the sloping headland, which rolled like the waves of the sea as local men flowed down to the beach to unload those small boats.
They'd haul the goods up the cliff to hiding places and packhorses. Many would carry the goods inland on their backs to secure places and to the middlemen who'd send the cargo on to Bath, London, and other cities. A week's wages for a night's work and a bit of 'baccy and tea to take home. Many would have scraped together a coin or two to invest in the profits.
To invest in Captain Drake.
Some of the goods, as always, would be hidden in the cellars of Crag Wyvern. No Preventive officer would try to search the home of the Earl of Wyvern, even if the mad earl was dead and his successor had not yet arrived to take charge.
Susan was temporary housekeeper up at Crag Wyvern, but as soon as the new earl sent word of his arrival she'd be out of there. Away from here entirely. She had no intention of meeting Con Somerford again.
The sweetest man she'd ever known, the truest friend.
The person she'd hurt most cruelly.
Eleven years ago.
She'd only been fifteen, but it was no excuse. He'd only been fifteen, too, and without defenses. He'd been in the army for ten of the eleven years since, however, so she supposed he'd have defenses now.
She shivered in the cool night air and turned her anxieties on the scene before her. If this run was successful, she could leave.
"Come on, come on," she muttered under her breath, straining to see the first goods land on the beach. She could imagine the powerful thrust of the oarsmen, racing to bring the contraband in, could almost hear the muttering excitement of the waiting men, though it was probably just the wind and sea.
She and David had watched runs before. From a height like this everything seemed so slow. She wanted to leap up and help, as if the run were a huge cart that she could push to make it go faster. Instead she stayed still and silent beside her brother, like him watchful for any sign of problems.
Being in command was a lonely business.
How was she going to be able to leave David to his lonely task? He didn't need her -- it was disconcerting how quickly he'd taken to smuggling and leadership -- but could she bear to go away, to not be here beside him on a dark night, to not know immediately if anything went wrong?
And yet, once Con sent word he was coming, she must.
Despite treasured summer days eleven years ago, and sweet pleasures. And wicked ones...
She realized she was sliding again under the seductive pull of might-have-beens, and fought clear to focus on the business of the moment.
At last the first of the cargo was landing, the first goods were being carried up the rough slope. It was going well. David had done it.
With a blown-out breath, she relaxed on the rocky ground, arms around her knees, permitting herself to enjoy the rough music of waves on shingle, and the other rough music of hundreds of busy men. She breathed in the wind, fresh off the English Channel, and the tense activity all around.
Heady stuff, the Freetrade, but perilous.
"Do you know where the Preventive officer is?" she asked in a quiet voice that wouldn't carry.
"Gifford?" David sent one of the nearby men off with a quiet command, and she saw some trouble on the cliff. A man fallen, probably. "There's a dummy ship offshore five miles west, and with luck he and the boatmen are watching it, ready to fish up the goods it drops into the water."
Luck. She hated to depend on luck.
"Poor man," she said.
David turned his head toward her. "He'll get to confiscate a small cargo like Perch did under Mel. It'll look good to his superiors, and he'll get his cut of the value."
Lieutenant Perch had been riding officer here for years, with an agreeable working relationship with the Dragon's Horde gang. He'd recently died from falling down a cliff -- or being pushed -- and now they had young, keen Lieutenant Gifford to deal with.
"Let's hope that satisfies him," Susan said.
He gave a kind of grunt. "If Gifford were a more flexible man we could come to a permanent arrangement."
"Damn nuisance. Can't you use your wiles on him? I think he's sweet on you."
"I don't have any wiles. I'm a starchy housekeeper."
"You'd have wiles in sackcloth." He reached out and took her hand, his so solid and warm in the chilly night. "Isn't it time you stopped working there, love? There'll be money aplenty after this, and we can find someone else who's friendly to the trade to be housekeeper."
She knew it bothered him for her to be a domestic servant. "Probably. But I want to find that gold."
"It'd be nice, but after this, we don't need it."
So careless, so confident. She wished she had David's comfort with whatever happened. She wished she weren't the sort to be always looking ahead, planning, worrying, trying to force fate....
Oh yes, she desperately wished that.
She was as she was, however, and David didn't seem to accept that she had a strange unladylike need for employment. For independence.
And there was the gold. The Horde under Mel Clyst had paid the late Earl of Wyvern for protection. Since he hadn't provided it, they wanted their money back. She wanted that money back, but mainly to keep David safe. It would pay off the debts caused by the failed run and provide a buffer so he wouldn't have to take so many risks.
She frowned down at the dark sea. Things wouldn't have been so difficult if her mother hadn't set off to follow Mel to Australia, taking all the Horde's available money with her. Isabelle Kerslake. Lady Belle, as she liked to be known. A smuggler's mistress, without a scrap of shame as far as anyone could tell, and without a scrap of feeling for her two children.
Susan shook off that pointless pain and thought about the gold. She glanced behind at the solid mass of Crag Wyvern as if that would spark a new idea about where the mad earl had hidden his loot. The trouble with madmen, however, was that their doings made no sense.
Automatically she scanned the upper slit windows for lights. Crag Wyvern served as a useful messaging post visible for miles, and as a viewing post where miles of coast could be scanned for other warning lights. Apart from that, however, it had no redeeming features.
The house was only two hundred years old, but had been built to look like a medieval fortress with only arrow-slit windows on the outside. Thank heavens there was an inner courtyard garden, and the rooms had proper windows that looked into that, but from the outside the place was grim.
As she turned back to the sea, the thin moon floated out from behind clouds again, silvering the boats on the water, lifting and bobbing with the waves. Then the clouds swept across the moon like a curtain, and a wash of light drizzle blew by on the wind. She hunched, grimacing, but the rain was a blessing because it obscured the view even more. The sea and shore below her could have been deserted.
If Gifford had spotted the dummy run for what it was, and was seeking the real one, he'd need the devil's own luck to find them tonight. Let it stay that way. He was a pleasant enough young man, and she didn't want to see him smashed at the bottom of a cliff.
Lord, but she wished she had no part of this.
Smuggling was in her blood, and she was used to loving these smooth runs that flowed with hot excitement through the darkest nights. But it wasn't a distant adventure anymore. t was need now, and danger to the person she loved most in the world-
Was that a noise behind her?
She and David swiveled together to look back toward Crag Wyvern. She knew he too held his breath the better to hear a warning sound.
She began to relax, but then, in one high, narrow window, a candle flared into light.
"Trouble," he murmured.
She put a hand on his suddenly tense arm. "Only a stranger, that candle says. Not Gifford or the military. I'll deal with it. One squeal for danger. Two if it's clear."
That was the smuggler's call -- the squeal of an animal caught in the fox's jaws or the owl's talons -- and if the cry was cut off quickly, it still signaled danger.
With a squeeze to his arm for reassurance, she slid to the side, carefully, slowly, so that when she straightened she wouldn't be close to Captain Drake. Then she began to climb the rough slope, soft boots gripping the treacherous ground, heart thumping, but not in a bad way.
Perhaps she was more like her brother than she cared to admit. She enjoyed being skilled and strong. She enjoyed adventure. She liked having a pistol in her belt and knowing how to use it.
As well that she had no dreams of becoming a fine lady.
Or not anymore, at least.
Once, she'd been caught up in a mad, destructive desire to marry the future Earl of Wyvern -- Con Somerford, she'd thought -- and ended up naked with him on a beach....
She physically shook the memory away. It was too painful to think about, especially now, when she needed a clear mind.
Heart beating faster and blood sizzling through her veins, she went up the tricky hill in a crouch, fingers to the ground to stay low. She stretched hearing and sight in search of the stranger.
Whoever the stranger was, she'd expect him to have entered the house. Maisie might have signaled for that too. But Susan had heard something up here on the headland, and so had David.
She slowed to give her senses greater chance to find the intruder, and then she saw him. Her straining eyes saw a cloaked figure a little darker than the dark night sky. He stood still as a statue. She could almost imagine someone had put a statue there, on the headland between the house and the cliff.
A statue with a distinct military air. Was it Lieutenant Gifford after all?
She shivered, suddenly feeling the cold, damp wind against her neck. Gifford would have soldiers with him, already spreading out along the headland. The men bringing in the cargo would be met with a round of fire, but the smugglers had their armed men too. It would turn into a bloody battle, and if David survived, the military would be down on the area like a plague looking for someone to hang for it.
Looking for Captain Drake.
Her heart was racing with panic and she stayed there, breathing as slowly as she could, forcing herself back into control. Panic served no one.
If Gifford was here with troops, wouldn't he have acted by now? She stretched every quivering sense to detect soldiers concealed in the gorse, muskets trained toward the beach.
After long moments she found nothing.
Soldiers weren't that good at staying quiet in the night.
So who was it, and what was he planning to do?
Heartbeat still fast, but not with panic now, she eased forward, trying not to present a silhouette against the sea and sky behind her. The land flattened as she reached the top, however, making it hard to crouch, making her clumsy so some earth skittered away from beneath her feet.
She sensed rather than saw the man turn toward her.
Time to show herself and pray.
She pulled off her hood and used it to wipe the soot around so it would appear to be general grubbiness. She tucked the cloth into a pocket, then stood. Eccentric to be wandering about at night in men's clothing, but a woman could be eccentric if she wanted to, especially a twenty-six year old spinster of shady antecedents.
She drew her pistol out of her belt and put it into the big pocket of her old-fashioned frock coat. She kept her hand on it as she walked up to the still and silent figure, and it was pointed forward, ready to fire.
She'd never shot anyone, but she hoped she could if it was necessary to save David.
"Who are you?" she said at normal volume. "What is your business here?"
She was within three feet of him, and in the deep dark she could not make out any detail except that he was a couple of inches taller than she was, which made him about six feet. He was hatless and his hair must be very short since the brisk wind created no visible movement around his head. She had to capture a strand of her own hair with her free hand to stop it blowing into her eyes.
She stared at him, wondering why he wasn't answering, wondering what to do next. But then he said, "I am the Earl of Wyvern, so everything here is my business." In the subsequent silence, he added, "Hello, Susan."
Her heart stopped, then raced so impossibly fast that stars danced around her vision.
Oh Lord. Con. Here. Now.
In the middle of a run!
He'd thought smuggling exciting eleven years ago, but people changed. He'd spent most of those years as a soldier, part of the mighty fist of the king's law.
Dazed shock spiraled down to something numb, and then she could breathe again. "How did you know it was me?"
"What other lady would be walking the clifftop at the time of a smugglers' run?"
She thought of denying it, but saw no point. "What are you going to do?"
She made herself draw the pistol, though she didn't cock it. Heaven knew she wouldn't be able to fire it. Not at Con. "It would be awkward to have to shoot you," she said as firmly as she could.
Without warning, he threw himself at her. She landed hard, winded by the fall and his weight, pistol gone, his hand covering her mouth. "No squealing."
He remembered. Did he remember everything? Did he remember lying on top her like this in pleasure? Was his body remembering...?
He'd been so charming, so easygoing, so dear, but now he was dark and dangerous, showing not a shred of concern for the lady he was squashing into hard, unforgiving earth.
"Answer me," he said.
She nodded, and he eased his hand away, but stayed over her, pressing her down.
"There's a stone digging into my back."
For a moment he didn't respond, but then he moved back and off her, grasping her wrist and pulling her to her feet before she had time to object. His hand was harder than she remembered, his strength greater. How could she remember so much from a summer fortnight eleven years ago?
How could she not? He'd been her first lover, and she his, and she'd denied every scrap of feeling when she'd sent him away.
Life was full of ironies. She'd rejected Con Somerford because he hadn't been the man she'd thought he was -- the heir to the earldom. And here he was, earl, a dark nemesis probably ready to destroy everything because of what she'd done eleven years ago.
What could she do to stop him?
She remembered David's comment about feminine wiles and had to fight down wild laughter. That was one weapon that would never work on the new Earl of Wyvern.
"I heard Captain Drake was caught and transported," he said, as if nothing of importance lay between them. "Who's master smuggler now?"
"Mel Clyst escaped?"
"The smuggling master here is always called Captain Drake."
"Ah, I didn't know that."
"How could you?" she pointed out with deliberate harshness, in direct reaction to a weakness that threatened to crumple her down onto the dark earth. "You were here for only two weeks." As coldly as possible, she added. "As an outsider."
"I got inside you, Susan."
The deliberate crudeness stole her breath.
"Where are the Preventives?" he asked.
She swallowed and managed an answer. "Decoyed up the coast a bit."
He turned to look out at the water. The sickle moon shone clear for a moment, showing a clean, strong profile and, at sea, the armada of small boats heading out for another load.
"Looks like a smooth run, then. Come back to the house with me." He turned as if his word were law.
"I'd rather not." Overriding her weakness was fear, as sharp as winter ice. Irrational fear, she hoped, but frantic.
He looked back at her. "Come back to the house with me, Susan."
He made no threat. She had no idea what he might be threatening, but a breath escaped her that was close to a sigh, and she followed him across the scrubby heathland.
After eleven years, Con Somerford was back, lord and master of all that surrounded them.
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Pictures of places in Devon similar to this location.
The Dragon's Bride is part of a trilogy of stories
THE DEMON'S MISTRESS
THE DRAGON'S BRIDE
THE DEVIL'S HEIRESS
The complete trilogy is available in print as as an e-book as THREE HEROES.
It is also part of the long-running Regency series about the Company of Rogues.
All the Rogues books are now available in print and as e-books.
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