Truly a wife, p.1
Truly a Wife, p.1Part #4 of Free Fellows League series by Rebecca Hagan Lee
Truly a Wife
Rebecca Hagan Lee
Excerpt: Gilding the Lady
For my mother,
Alice H. Bolstridge,
who wants only the best for her children,
who knows that the chain of a mother’s prayers
can link her child to God,
and who understands and shares my writer’s soul.
“Perfect courage is to do without witnesses
what one would be capable of doing
with the world looking on.”
—François, Duc de la Rochefoucauld, 1613–1680
He had wanted to be a Free Fellow since he was seven years old. He had wanted to join their ranks and be a member from the first moment his cousin, Manners, had told him of the League and how it had come to be.
He had listened in rapt silence as Manners had confided his secret knowledge of the little band of blood brothers—all students at the Knightsguild School for Gentlemen—and their grand schemes and glorious purpose. The Free Fellows—Griffin, Viscount Abernathy, Colin, Viscount Grantham, and Jarrod, Earl of Westmore, had sworn an oath to remain unmarried for as long as possible in order to preserve their freedom so that they might fight for king and country against Napoleon and become England’s greatest heroes. He had listened to his cousin recount the League’s adventures, and Daniel, ninth Duke of Sussex, had vowed to become a Free Fellow no matter the sacrifice or how long it took.
And Daniel had kept the promise he’d made to himself so long ago. He had sat alone in his room at Eton and pretended he was part of the glorious circle of heroes-in-the-making at Knightsguild, paying no heed to the fact that the Free Fellows League was closed to all but the founding members. He bribed Manners for every scrap of information about the Free Fellows League the other boy could uncover, ultimately following Manners’s example by beginning to train for his first mission.
Daniel smiled. It had taken eighteen years, but he had finally earned the Free Fellows’ trust and become one of them. Nearly three years after being granted provisional membership in the Free Fellows League, he was about to assume command of the Channel operation. He was about to become a regular member of the band of smugglers he, Jarrod, and Colin had put together to cover vital operations.
That meant he would spend many long nights crossing the English Channel.
Unfortunately, that meant long hours in a boat. And Daniel hated boats. He didn’t mind water. And he truly enjoyed the seashore. But he hated boats. Any boat. Every boat. With a passion usually reserved for defilers of small children and animals.
But he hated weakness more—especially his own weakness. Daniel had yet to conquer the queasiness that assailed him each time he set foot in a boat.
Which was why he was about to spend the afternoon sailing the lake at his country estate.
He had become a member of the League, but he had one last fear to conquer before he could think of himself as a true Free Fellow, or a true hero …
“But screw your courage to the sticking-place
And we’ll not fail.”
—William Shakespeare, 1564–1616
A fortnight later
“Bloody hell!” Daniel, the ninth Duke of Sussex, cursed aloud as a rifle ball whizzed over his right shoulder, past his ear, and plopped into the choppy waters of the English Channel off the starboard bow of the Mademoiselle.
“The coast watch has spotted us, sir!” Billy Beekins, the grizzled old boatswain, shouted as the watch crew fired another rifle volley toward the skiff. “The bloody frogs are firing at us!”
Daniel glanced over his shoulder. It didn’t seem possible. The night was perfect for smuggling. It was after midnight, but the moon hadn’t risen and the stars were hidden behind a veil of clouds. The only light on the water came from the faint glow of the phosphorescent sea life below the surface. The crossing had been a little choppy, but the mission had gone without a hitch until now. His little band of smugglers had slipped silently into a sheltered cove south of the French port of Calais and deposited their colleague on the beach, retrieved the secret cargo and the military dispatches Colonel Grant had left for them, then began the return crossing.
He and Jarrod had meticulously planned the mission, and Daniel and the crew had executed it flawlessly until moments before, when they’d come under fire from the French side of the Channel.
Another rifle ball zinged past him—from across the port bow. “They’re not shooting at us,” Daniel shouted, pointing ahead toward the dark hulk that sailed into view. “They’re shooting at them!”
“Mary, Mother of God!” Billy Beekins crossed himself, as a British frigate—one of many such vessels assigned to patrol the stretch of coast between Dover and Brighton—glided out of a patch of fog, its bow slicing the waves as it cut through the rough water.
The little skiff was caught in the exchange of rifle fire between a British Navy frigate and the French coast watch, and now the frigate was bearing down on the smaller vessel.
He thought, at first, that the frigate had seen them when the clouds had suddenly lifted, but Daniel quickly realized that that wasn’t the case. Still, their choices were bleak. If the Mademoiselle stayed on her present course, the heavy frigate would ram her, but if she moved off course in either direction, it would be into the rain of rifle and musket fire from the sailors on board the larger ship and from the coast watchers on the French coast. “Hard, starboard!” He shouted the warning to the other members of the crew, then ducked as another ball whizzed past his shoulder.
“It’s going to be close!” Beekins leaned on the rudder.
“Everyone down!” Daniel instructed. “Brace yourselves!”
The Mademoiselle swerved hard to the starboard side to avoid colliding with the bow of the frigate. The wake from the frigate sluiced over the sides as the smaller vessel tipped, tilted, came perilously close to capsizing, then finally righted itself. The repeating flashes from the muzzles of the rifles on the French shore and from the deck of the frigate colored the night sky seconds before the sound of the balls whistling through the air all around them warned them of the danger.
“Jesus, Joseph, and Mary,” the boatswain swore as the muzzle flash along the rails of the frigate tripled. “We’re on their side!”
They were. But the Royal Navy had no idea the skiff or its crew existed. And Daniel knew they’d be arrested and charged with smuggling if it did. The fact that the English Duke of Sussex was captaining this particular boat and this particular band of smugglers at the behest of the B
They were smuggling for the good of the nation, but they were smuggling all the same. And they would suffer the same fate as any other band of smugglers apprehended by the British Navy. For the handful of gentlemen and government officials who knew of their existence would deny all knowledge of it should the Mademoiselle and her crew be captured.
Straining as he pulled the oars, Daniel listened as the heavy balls plopped into the water, sizzling as the seawater cooled the hot metal. He sucked in a breath as one heavy lead ball missed the channel and seared a path through his thick wool jacket, his waistcoat, his linen shirt, and the tender flesh of his side, tearing skin and muscle, pushing bits of wool and silk and linen into the groove along his ribs. The wound hurt like hell and burned twice as hot. Daniel bit his bottom lip to keep from yelping in pain as the lead ball exited his body and thudded against the floor of the boat. He felt the hot rush of blood fill the wound and soak his clothes as a sheen of perspiration coated his skin.
He slumped down against the side of the boat, praying for strength as the skiff rode out the storm, skimming over the waves and the hail of falling lead, praying they would remain undetected as the frigate directed its firepower toward the French coast.
“We’re clear, sir,” Beekins announced as he put distance between the sloop and the frigate and left the skirmish far behind.
“Anyone hurt?” Daniel asked, pushing himself up and onto his seat, gritting his teeth and groaning as he did so. He slipped his left hand inside his jacket and pressed it against the right front of his waistcoat, frowning at the size of the hole marring the brocade and the liquid warmth staining it.
“Shavers caught one through the flesh of the arm, sir,” the boatswain answered, “and Pepper’s got a new part in his hair, but the rest of us are fine.”
“Good,” Daniel pronounced, in a strange-sounding and embarrassingly weak tone of voice.
“What about you, sir?” Beekins inquired, a note of alarm in his voice in response to the Duke of Sussex’s thin reply. Of the four-man crew paid to smuggle upon request, only Billy Beekins knew that the man known to the crew as Danny Arthur was, in fact, Daniel, ninth Duke of Sussex.
“I took a ball in my side,” Daniel answered, sucking in another breath at the pain, then releasing it in a low hiss.
“How bad?” Beekins asked.
“I’m fairly certain it missed my vitals, but I’m losing quite a bit of blood.” For the first time in his life, Daniel was afraid he might disgrace himself by swooning, but he fought to maintain control and kept his hand firmly pressed against his left side to staunch the flow of blood.
“Pick up your oars,” Beekins ordered the rest of the crew. “And put your backs into it, boys. We need to make shore as quickly as possible, for Danny Boy needs a surgeon.”
“No,” Daniel said.
“But, sir …” Beekins began.
“No surgeon,” Daniel repeated more firmly. “Not here.”
“But, sir …” Beekins renewed his protest and tried again.
Daniel cut him off. “Are you acquainted with a trustworthy surgeon?”
“Then, it’s out of the question,” Daniel told him. “The risk is too great. We don’t know whom to trust, and it’s imperative that our cargo reach London as soon as possible.”
“You intend to travel all the way to London?” Beekins was aghast at the idea. “Tonight?”
“I must,” Daniel explained. “I have obligations I cannot shirk.”
“Someone else can accompany our cargo to London,” Beekins told him.
“Delivering the cargo isn’t my only pressing obligation,” Daniel insisted. “I have a social engagement later this evening that demands my presence.” Not to mention the marchioness to whom he’d extended his personal invitation.
“But your wound …”
“If your good wife will bind it well enough for me to make the journey back to town, I’ll find someone there to tend it.” Although he couldn’t see him in the darkness, Daniel turned toward the boatswain. “I have to return to town. I cannot miss this particular engagement.” Inviting Miranda to enter the lioness’s den, then leaving her alone to fend for herself, was unconscionable. Not that she couldn’t … He managed a brief grin despite the pain at the thought. Miranda was more than a match for the duchess. But he’d invited her to the party, and it was up to him to see that she enjoyed herself while she was there. And she would no doubt have his guts for garters for abandoning her when she caught up to him, because the dancing at the Duchess of Sussex’s gala was unrivaled and there were only a handful of men in London, of which he was fortunate to be one, with whom Miranda could dance without feeling awkward and graceless at towering over them. And as far as Daniel could tell, the only thing Miranda enjoyed more than dancing with him was sparring with him.
Beekins shook his head. “You’ll not be in any condition to enjoy it,” he warned.
“I don’t have to enjoy it,” Daniel told him. “But I do have to attend.”
Beekins blew out a breath. “If you insist.”
“Then I’ll see to it that the missus patches you up and that you’ve someone you can trust traveling alongside, watching your back.” Beekins thought that nothing short of an order to appear before the King or an invitation to dine at Carlton House with the Prince Regent could induce him to travel all the way to London after crossing and recrossing the Channel and being shot while doing it, but he wasn’t an aristocrat, and he wasn’t burdened by any of the social obligations or responsibilities young Sussex faced.
“Good enough. Thank you, Beekins.” Daniel closed his eyes and concentrated on the soft slap of the oars against the water as the crew of the Mademoiselle made its way to shore.
He only meant to rest his eyes a moment, but when he next opened them, it was to find Mistress Beekins staring down at him. Jolted awake, Daniel attempted to sit up. He still wore his boots and breeches, but he was missing his shirt, waistcoat, and jacket. “Where am I? How? What … ?”
“Not so fast, sir,” Mistress Beekins commanded. “I’ve another stitch or two to finish before I begin with the wrapping.” She finished sewing and carefully knotted and clipped her thread before she glanced back over her shoulder. “Here, help me get him up so I can wrap the bandage around him.”
“Beekins,” Daniel breathed as the boatswain and a young man he had never seen before hurried to oblige.
“Aye, sir,” Beekins replied, lifting Daniel into a sitting position, steadying him while Mistress Beekins wrapped a length of white fabric over the wound she had spent the better part of an hour cleaning and stitching. The young duke was lucky to be alive. The rifle ball had ripped a nasty gash along his right side, entering at the back and exiting at the front below his ribs, leaving an ugly hole in its wake. Beekins nodded toward his wife. “You know my wife. And this is my son Micah.”
“Madam. Micah.” Daniel’s face lost color, and perspiration dampened his entire body, as Beekins’ wife worked over him. “How long was I unconscious?”
“A little over two hours,” Beekins answered. “I brought you home with me,” he explained. “I carried you on my back.”
Daniel grunted in pain. “Where’s the cargo?”
“The pouches are here,” Beekins said. “As are your personal items.” He nodded toward Daniel’s leather purse and pocket watch lying on top of the bedside table. “And I stowed the rest of the cargo in the compartments in your coach.” The boatswain held up his hand to forestall the protest he knew was coming. “Rest assured, sir. My other son, Jonah, is standing guard to keep it safe.”
Daniel breathed a sigh of relief. “I must be going.”
“You would do
Daniel nodded, acknowledging the wisdom of her words before stubbornly reaching for his shirt.
“Not that one.” Mistress Beekins removed Daniel’s torn and bloody shirt from the foot of the bed. “I didn’t spend all that time cleaning the wound so you could put a filthy shirt back over it.” She pulled a sea chest from beneath the bed and opened the lid, then took out a clean white shirt and dropped it over Daniel’s head. “It’s not nearly as fine as yours, but it’s clean.”
“Thank you,” Daniel said softly. “For the shirt and for your tender care.”
“See that you don’t spoil the shirt by tearing open your wound and bleeding all over it,” she fussed. “And see that you don’t waste my tender care by dying on the way back to London.”
Daniel managed a slight smile as she buttoned his shirt for him and helped him into a plain black waistcoat and jacket that belonged to her son. “I’ll do my best.”
“You’ll be needing these.” She handed him his heavy leather purse and watch, then thrust a pewter flask into his hand.
Daniel arched an eyebrow in query at the flask.
“It’s whisky. For the pain. And I suggest you drink all of it.”
“And if you need more, ask Micah,” Beekins added. “He’ll be going along with you to watch your back.”
Daniel struggled off the bed and onto his feet. He faltered when his knees buckled beneath his weight, but forced his body to do his bidding. Offering his hand to Billy Beekins, Daniel said, “Thank you again.” He looked from Beekins to his wife and son, then reached into his purse, removed three gold guineas, and presented them to the boatswain’s wife. “For you, madam. For my care and the loan of the clothes.”
Truly a Wife by Rebecca Hagan Lee / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes