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Authors: Miriam Minger

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Regency, #General, #Historical Fiction, #Romance, #Historical Romance

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BOOK: Secrets of Midnight
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She nodded again, rushing forward when Donovan held out
the lantern.

"Here. You might need the extra light."

"Oh, yes, I'm sure we will. Birthing can sometimes
be quite a mess."

He swallowed hard at that comment and was gone,
disappearing into the dark as Corisande rushed back inside the tiny cottage.

But she wasn't there long. She waited five minutes, no more,
encouraging Peggy to give a last few groans and moans for good measure, then
Corisande, too, was galloping out into the black night, doing her best to force
back her fear that someone who meant her grave harm might yet be lurking as she
turned her thoughts to Oliver Trelawny and the
Fair Betty
.

 

***

 

"Ais now, Corie, you've lectured me enough for one
night. I know 'ee were worried, but I'm safe an' sound, 'ee can plainly see, an'
I've the finest cargo of French brandy moving ashore that Cornwall has ever
known! You'll soon see, too, that it was well worth it for me to wait those few
days in Roscoff until I had the stuff aboard when the gold guineas start
filling our pockets!"

"
And
the
coffers for the poor, Captain Trelawny," Corisande reminded him with mock
sternness, taking care to keep her voice down so it wouldn't carry across the
deep cove to shore, although Oliver didn't seem concerned at all that he wasn't
whispering. It was because the night was so dark, she knew, doubting herself
that any king's excisemen would be straying about on such a bleak evening as
Oliver threw a beefy arm around her shoulder.

"Ha! Those coffers will be filled to such
overflowing 'ee won't know what to do with it all!" Laughing heartily,
Oliver steered her to the cutter's starboard railing where his crew was
hoisting eight-gallon kegs over the side into waiting rowboats. "Go on
with 'ee now an' mind the landing, Corie, me brave girl! I want to be finished
here in no more than an hour's time so I can sail home to my Rebecca."

Corisande hesitated at the rope ladder, wondering if
she should mention to Oliver that someone had mimicked their signal to lure her
into danger earlier that night, but he seemed so eager to be on his way to
Porthleven harbor that she decided to wait. Instead she hauled her cloak and
skirt between her legs and clambered expertly over the side and down the
ladder, easing
herself
into a rowboat that she could
see from the pyramid of kegs was quite full.

"No more, no more, we don't want to capsize,"
she warned the two dark-clad men who settled down at once to their oars. She
signaled, and they pushed away from the sixteen-gun cutter, their small craft
quickly replaced by others waiting to be loaded and then rowed to shore.

As the boat lumbered through the calm waves, Corisande
peered at the black forbidding cliffs where she knew tinners armed with stout
cudgels and muskets stood watch to give warning if strangers should approach by
land or sea. In fact, everyone had been assembled and waiting at their places when
she'd arrived at the secluded cove and saw that the
Fair Betty
had, indeed, made it back safely from Brittany.

Which had convinced her at once that
the first lantern signal at ten o'clock had come from their own loyal men.
But the second? Somehow her attacker had known she would leave the house upon
seeing the signal, which meant, too, that he must know of her involvement in
fair trading. So either there was an informer among them, God help any fool who
betrayed their sacred trust, or somehow she and Oliver had been overheard at
the inn . . .

Corisande's dark thoughts scattered as the rowboat came
to a scraping halt upon the beach. She jumped out over the prow to keep her
shoes well out of the water, having no wish to explain any suspicious salt
stains to Donovan. Immediately a host of waiting hands unloaded the rowboat
while Corisande hurried farther up the beach to where a line of thirty pack
ponies waited patiently, two kegs apiece already strapped to their backs.

"Are you ready to go, John?" she whispered to
the tall, lanky farmer standing near the lead pony.

She got a nod, no more, the man as reticent as a clam,
which was a virtue in a smuggler.

"Head to Helston, then. Stanley Hawkins is waiting
at the Golden Lion to take every last keg off your hands. We want top price for
this load, though. Don't accept anything less, or we'll hear of it from Captain
Trelawny. Godspeed."

And so it went, Corisande rushing about the beach as
more heavily laden rowboats were hauled onto land, the precious kegs first counted
and then either strapped onto ponies or carried up and out of the cove along
winding stone-strewn paths to where carts and wagons waited to convey the
contraband throughout the Cornish countryside. At least half of tonight's
shipment would be sold outright to innkeepers like Stanley Hawkins or local
gentry friendly to the trade, while the rest of the kegs would be hidden in
caves, down deep wells, or stowed away in cellars and then dispatched later as
time and opportunity allowed.

"Godspeed, Tobias. Take care with that load, now.
Captain Trelawny says it's the finest brandy he's ever brought home from
Roscoff. Top price, don't forget."

Then to another, "We'll be expecting to see you
back from Falmouth by Thursday, Michael. Godspeed."

And still another: "Godspeed, Thomas. First,
Squire Bellamy in Marazion, then on to Penzance and the White Horse Inn with
the rest. Godspeed!"

Corisande was nearly exhausted by the time the last of
the kegs had faded with their silent bearers into the night, her legs cramped
from running back and forth across the sand and up and down the narrow cliff
paths so many times that she'd lost count. But she hadn't lost count of the
kegs, oh, no.

There were six hundred forty-two, and she never lost
track of the thirty different directions in which she'd sent them and how many
kegs with whom. Add to
that
two hundred pounds of
Dutch East Indies tea and six bales of Brussels lace, and her head felt crammed
with places, names, and numbers.

Usually now she would make her way to the church and
then neatly record everything in a ledger she kept under one of the altar
flagstones, partly so she wouldn't forget and partly to relieve her mind and
enable her to sleep. Oliver had long since turned the
Fair Betty
for Porthleven, the cutter never lingering after the
hold had been emptied, but heading back to the safety of the harbor. In fact,
he'd left a few hours ago; it always took three times longer to dispatch goods
than to unload the ship.

But tonight Corisande had no wish to head for
Porthleven even though she could have asked some of the tinners just now
drifting home from their lookouts to accompany her. Yet then they'd all have to
walk—most of the tinners had come on foot to the cove—and the sky was already
beginning to lighten to the east. By the time she finished with the account
book it would be light, and she couldn't risk Donovan arriving at the
Robbertses' to find her gone.

She would just have to risk riding back to the cottage
alone, although the prospect was daunting as Corisande untethered Pete from a
stunted tree and mounted. She took a cautious look around her, but it was still
so dark she doubted she would see any hint of danger until it was too late.
That thought made her kick Pete at once into a gallop, her thighs so sore that
it was difficult to grip his sides. Yet she urged him to run even faster.
Surely if she rode hard enough, no one would dare try to stand in her way to
stop her—

"Oh, Lord."

Corisande's hands froze at the reins as she heard a
second loud snort behind her, the sound only another horse would make. And she'd
been the only one with a horse left at the cove, all the pack ponies and carts
and wagons long gone. Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord.

She didn't glance behind her. She didn't breathe.
Instead she kicked Pete into a full run and rode as hard and as fast as she
ever had in her life, the gelding lunging powerfully beneath her.

Within moments, she'd made it to the Robbertses' tiny
cottage, thinking it the most beautiful place imaginable as she slid from Pete's
back and raced to the door. It was only then that she dared to glance behind
her, her heart stopping at the distant dark shape on horseback cutting to the
southwest and heading back as if to Porthleven.

God help her, why was she being followed? Who could
wish her harm? If not Jack Pascoe as Donovan had said—and that snake of a mine
captain made the most bloody sense of all!—then who?

Shaking with fear, Corisande ducked inside the cottage;
she gasped to find the two small rooms lit brightly, a cheery fire crackling in
the hearth, and candles glowing at windows shuttered against the night. And, as
if he'd been waiting for her, Morton Robberts, with a shy grin on his face, sat
at the table.

"The babe's come, Corie."

"The babe?" Incredulous, Corisande glanced
from him to the adjoining bedroom where Peggy lay cradling a tiny swaddled
bundle in the crook of her arm. "Oh, Morton, the babe?"

"Ais, indeed, our first little girl. I think my
Peggy wants to name her Corie Olivia, too, after all the excitement 'ee an'
your going to help Oliver Trelawny brought to our house. What do you think?"

Corisande was speechless, both elated and chagrined.
She threw off her cloak and ran into the bedroom, her terrifying ride all but
forgotten as she dropped to her knees beside the bed. "Ah, Peggy, is she
all right? She's come too soon, hasn't she? Oh, Lord, I'm so sorry—"

"Hush now, Corie, everything's fine. She's only a
few days
early,
and my Morton knew just what to do, no
trouble at all, thanks to him watchen 'ee the last time with our Jimmie. Isn't
that right, Morton?"

Corisande glanced over her shoulder, the young tinner's
face split from ear to ear in a proud grin that nonetheless held a good bit of
amazement at
himself
too.

"Ais, so I did, so I did. An' now you've something
to show Lord Donovan when he comes to take you home, eh, Corie?"

Corisande could but shake her head, grinning from ear
to ear, too, as Peggy invited her to sit upon the bed so she could welcome the
newest Robberts.

 

 

 

Chapter 23

 

Corisande fluttered open her eyes as the thin wail of a
babe started her awake.

For a confused moment, she stared at the rough
hand-hewn timbers some four feet above her head, unsure of her whereabouts
until another wail carried to her from below, the fretful cry of a newborn. At
once the previous night's events came flooding back to her, but she didn't
move. She was too sore. Instead she turned her head and smiled softly at the
two young boys still sound asleep in the crude crib next to her mattress,
Jimmie Robberts, all of one, his tiny thumb resting near his puckered mouth,
and his three-year-old brother, Morton, who shared his father's name, freckles,
and bright russet hair.

Such beautiful children, and now they had a new little
sister too. Corie Olivia. Corisande still couldn't believe it. She never would
have forgiven herself if anything terrible had happened, but fortunately all
was well.

Except that her body felt stiff as a board, she groaned
to herself, especially her legs. She wondered how she was ever going to get
down out of the loft. She barely remembered climbing up here, she'd been so
exhausted, and that couldn't have been more than a few hours ago. She'd fallen
asleep almost at the moment her head had touched the straw-filled mattress,
slumbering as soundly as if she'd been lying on the softest goose down. She
could have slept longer too. Ah, well. Maybe if she closed her eyes . . .

"Ais, 'tes a fine, fine thing 'ee did for us,
milord. I've been meaning to say something to you—I've seen 'ee nearly every
day at the mine but I s'pose this is as good a time as any. I was one of the
tinners 'ee spoke to that first morning 'ee came to Arundale's Kitchen with Mr.
Gilbert. It was just after dawn, an' I'd hiked in t' work my core. Might you
remember me?"

"Yes, I do. It was very brave of you to come forward
when most of the other men held back. Very brave."

Corisande stiffened, her eyes flaring wide.

Donovan was here already? Then again, she had no idea
what time it was—it could be almost noon for all she knew. And what was Morton
saying to him about Arundale's Kitchen? She raised herself on her elbows to
peep into the room below but she saw no one, realizing that the voices were
carrying to her from a small chink in the wall just above her head.

"It wasn't bravery, milord, but fear for my dear
Peggy and my children that made me speak out. We hardly had bread on the table
as it was, an' then for Cap'en Pascoe to cut our wages, I didn't know what to
do. I gave my food to Peggy for the babe—she was so sickly there for a time, I
thought I might lose them both. 'Course Corie—forgive me, milord, Lady
Donovan—tried to ease our way, bringing what she could to help us, God bless
her, but it wasn't just us suffering but all the tinners and their families.
Until 'ee came that morning, milord. I could tell just from talking with 'ee
that things were going to get better."

"You've my wife to thank for that, Morton."

"Ais, milord, I know, but I was watching 'ee with
Cap'en Pascoe. I saw 'ee talkers to him alone before I went down the shaft an'
I saw his face when he stormed away. He said nothing to any of us, but we knew,
milord, we knew something grand had happened. He just disappeared with no word
at all, an' we had no mine cap'en until Mr. Gilbert came back later and hired
Jonathan Knill to the job. An' then when we heard our wages were doubled an'
grain coming on Monday—"

"I said you've Lady Donovan to thank, man."

BOOK: Secrets of Midnight
7.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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