The Wicked Captain - Blackhaven Brides, Book 13
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to Blackhaven, where the great and the bad of visiting Regency society turn local life upside down...
A dreadful poem inspires a treasure hunt and wicked temptation…
When a lame young officer presents widow Eve Cramond with an atrocious love poem penned by her late husband, she knows John is trying to tell her something from beyond the grave – namely, the location of valuable jewels stolen from his mother.
With the help of Captain Lawrence, she tries to decipher his meaning and discover the treasure that could save her children from penury and release her from the unwelcome duty of begging financial help from her husband’s cousin, the Earl of Braithwaite.
But, of course, life isn’t so simple. Lawrence proves to be a dangerous distraction in his own right, and for the first time ever, Eve contemplates taking a lover…
Still recovering from a serious war injury, the easy going and reckless Lawrence is in Blackhaven for a reunion with his old friends. He anticipates a great deal of long-missed carousing, though he does not expect to play the highwayman or to fall in love with his late colonel’s lady.
Worse, Bonaparte is back in Paris and the allies are massing to defeat him once and for all. Lawrence refuses to let his injury stand in the way of fighting in this last battle, but there are other obstacles, including prison - and Eve whom he can’t bear to leave.
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The cry went up as soon as he rode into the yard of King’s Head.
A spontaneous grin split Captain Lawrence’s face. His friends sat at a wobbly table on a makeshift terrace, catching the blink of spring sunshine while they enjoyed their ale, looking very much as he had so often seen them in temporary, congenial quarters in Spain.
Lawrence slid from the saddle, ignoring the pain of his long ride, and delivered up his horse to the ostler with a hasty word of thanks. Willing away the throbbing stiffness of his leg, he limped forward to be embraced, thumped, and shaken by his old friends and comrades. They all but dragged him to their terrace table and pushed him into a chair.
“Ale here if you please!” Musby bellowed and grinned as Lawrence rubbed at his ear. “Well, I have to say you’re looking a thousand times better than the last time I saw you.”
“I am a thousand times better than the last time you saw me,” Lawrence replied. “And had better be a thousand more before I go home. I only escaped the doctors and the tireless ministrations of my family because I promised to drink the waters of Blackhaven. We didn’t discuss ale. Or wine.” He smiled up at the pretty young woman who placed a mug of ale in front of him. “Thank you.”
The girl blushed and left them.
“Put her down, Lawrie,” Donovan said dryly. “She’s Mrs. Trent, and she’s the innkeeper’s wife.”
“Don’s very keen on fidelity these days,” Musby explained, “having finally persuaded his long-suffering betrothed to tie the knot.”
Lawrence set down his ale so quickly it almost slopped over the rim. “What, you are married?” he exclaimed. “No one told me that!”
Donovan colored. “Not yet,” he said. “But next month I shall be a respectable—if not respected—married man.”
He couldn’t quite hide his pleasure in the fact, and Lawrence clapped him on the back. “Well done, old fellow! To your health and happiness!”
Donovan laughed and clinked his mug against Lawrence’s. “I’m the happiest man alive—even more so for seeing you reprobates around me. Look.” He delved into his pocket and produced a small, square jeweler’s box which he opened to show his friends. “This will be her wedding ring. I had it altered to fit her.”
The ring was dainty and rather beautiful—a gold band studded with tiny diamonds.
“You going to marry her here?” Lawrence asked, surprised. “Or did you bring it to remind yourself to behave?”
Donovan grinned. “Idiot. No, I picked it up from the jeweler’s as I left home. But I like to have it with me.” He drained his mug. “You know what? I’ve had enough of ale. What do you say to a very decent claret instead?”
“Don’t tempt me,” Lawrence said ruefully. “I have a promise to fulfill before I can get bosky with the rest of you.”
His friend’s faces grew serious.
“The colonel’s lady?” Branwell asked. “You sure she’s here in Blackhaven?”
Lawrence nodded. “At Braithwaite Castle, which I take to be that massive medieval pile on the cliff top. Her sister’s husband told me.”
“To Colonel Cramond,” Musby said with uncharacteristic quietness. “The best of commanding officers and the best of friends. May he rest in peace.”
They all drank, even Donovan, since Branwell sloshed some of his own ale into his friend’s empty mug for the purpose.
“You could wait until tomorrow,” Musby suggested. “After all, you’ve only just got here.”
“I’d rather get it over with,” Lawrence confessed. “It’s been preying on my mind all year.”
“Want moral support?” Donovan asked.
It felt so good to be back in the company of his comrades that Lawrence smiled, even while he shook his head. “No, I don’t want to swamp her, just do as Cramond asked, as gracefully as I can. And then you gentlemen may have the privilege of getting as drunk as wheelbarrows with me.”
“Capital plan,” Branwell approved.
An hour later, Lawrence presented himself at the front door of the Earl of Braithwaite’s “medieval pile.” The front part of the building was much newer, he discovered, and the butler who admitted him looked as haughty as if he were the earl himself.
“I’m Captain Lawrence,” he told the butler. “I understand Mrs. Cramond is staying here.”
The butler looked him up and down. Rather to Lawrence’s surprise, he seemed to see nothing wrong in the somewhat threadbare uniform and battered hat, for he said only, “Please follow me, sir. Mrs. Cramond is partaking of tea in the garden with her ladyship.”
Lawrence followed him across the massive entrance hall and through a door to a very grand room with open French windows. Emerging onto a pleasant terrace, he saw at once that there were far more than two people taking tea on the sheltered lawn below.
Lawrence caught the butler’s sleeve. “Look, I’ve been charged with a message from Mrs. Cramond’s late husband. For her sake, I’d rather deliver it in relative privacy.”
Again, the superior butler seemed to approve. He pointed to the right of the lawn, to a pleasant construction of overhanging tree branches, trellises, and climbing plants, some distance from where the group of ladies and gentlemen were enjoying tea. “Why don’t you wait in the arbor, sir? And I shall ask Mrs. Cramond to join you there.”
This seemed eminently sensible to Lawrence. Although open to view from the lawn, thus preserving propriety, it seemed private enough for his purposes and Mrs. Cramond’s delicacies. He took the side steps down from the terrace, without, he thought, being observed by the tea drinkers. He didn’t particularly wish to gawp at them either, but a swift glance showed him a couple of older ladies he would put firmly in the class of “formidable dowagers” and several younger ladies and gentlemen, one in a bright, red uniform.
There was a wooden bench in the arbor, but despite his ferociously aching leg, he stood in front of it to wait. In truth, he wanted to pace, but he had no desire to limp in front of the company, so he pretended he was on parade while the butler approached a black-haired lady and murmured something.
She seemed startled, her head jerking immediately in his direction. She said something to the butler, who then retreated, though not, apparently, to throw Lawrence off the premises. The lady rose, murmuring something to her uninterested companions and walked toward him.
At the same time, he became aware of feeling watched. It was a natural sensitivity, heightened by years of warfare on the Peninsula. His neck prickling, he turned to face it and found two pairs of eyes peering through the trellis at about knee height.
His lips twitched, and he raised his hands above his head. “Don’t shoot, I’m a friend.”
This was greeted by a double-voiced giggle. The eyes rose by a few inches and vanished, and a moment later, two blond little boys of about six years old appeared at the entrance to the arbor. They looked exactly alike. A lump formed in Lawrence’s throat.
“You don’t need to surrender if you’re a friend,” one said kindly.
“Phew,” Lawrence said, lowering his arms and wiping his forehead. “Are we under attack?”
“Yes!” the other boy replied with enthusiasm. He waved toward the tea drinkers. “By all these people! Apart from Mama. She’s our spy.”
“No, she isn’t,” said a firm voice behind them, and Lawrence glanced up quickly to see the dark-haired lady. “Go back to Elsie now—she’ll be looking for you.”
The boys sighed and turned reluctantly away, dragging their heels. “Yes, Mama,” they said in unison. All Lawrence’s instincts told him they would go nowhere near Elsie—presumably their nurse—but in fact, would bolt as soon as they were out of sight. They were clearly Colonel Cramond’s sons.
“I’m Mrs. Cramond,” the lady said distantly. “How can I help you, Captain?”
Lawrence bowed. “Ma’am. My name’s Charles Lawrence. I had the honor to serve under Colonel Cramond’s command.”
The lady waited with unchanged expression. She was very beautiful, with profound brown eyes and a generous, upward-curving mouth. But her expression was cool, her manner almost as haughty as the butler’s, though she seemed more disposed to dislike him.
He didn’t blame her for that. He was here to rake up her grief again.
“I come to discharge a promise I made to your husband,” he said with difficulty. “On his deathbed.”
If anything, her face grew cooler, as though she imagined him some passing stranger or the surgeon who’d sewn him up so pointlessly.
“I was proud to call myself your husband’s friend,” he said hurriedly. “Which is why he bade me come in person to give you—”
Her eyes widened. “Captain Lawrence! Are you Lawrie?”
He smiled in relief that she had heard of him. “To my friends, yes, ma’am.”
“Oh, please sit down! Forgive my manners, I had no notion…”
Since she dropped on to the bench as she spoke, Lawrie sat beside her, both amused and intrigued by this sudden change from cold distance to endearingly flustered friendliness.
“I should have guessed when I first heard your name. I’m afraid my nerves are rather on edge and dispersing what is left of my wits. I am delighted to meet you at last.”
“I would have come before,” he said, reaching into his pocket, “but I was wounded at Toulouse and have only just escaped my own well-meaning nurses. The colonel wanted me to give you this, with his love.”
He tried not to look at her as he said the last, but he couldn’t help it. Her gaze flickered from the packet in his hand up to his face and hastily back down, but not before he had seen the haunted look in her eyes.
Part of him was relieved, for despite Cramond’s lapses in physical fidelity, this woman had been the love of his life. Lawrence was glad to see the sentiment had been returned. And yet he pitied her pain, would have eased it if he could.
Blinking rapidly, she took the packet from his hand and opened it. She scanned the writing inside while Lawrence wondered if he should leave her alone.
And then she laughed. “Oh, Johnny, you…” Her voice cracked. She drew in a shaky breath, and when she looked at him again, her eyes shone with unshed tears as well as amusement. “Do you know what this is?”
“He told me it was a poem,” Lawrie admitted.
“John Cramond was not a great poet, but bless his soul, he is still trying to make me laugh as well as look after us still.” She cast him a quick, rueful smile. “You think me mad, sir, but truly, this so like him. I cannot thank you enough.”
“Please don’t thank me at all. I’m only sorry I didn’t bring it to you sooner.”
“How could you?” She searched his face. “John trusted you more than anyone else. Tell me…are you good with cyphers?”
He blinked. Behind the recent emotion in her eyes lurked mischief and laughter. “Cyphers? He wrote you a poem in cypher?”
“I suspect so, yes.”
“Leaving aside the why on earth…? Do you know this cypher?”
“Lord, no I’m useless at such things, but I suspect that is why he sent you to me as well.” She flushed. “I’m sorry, that must sound very rude.”
“No,” he assured her. “Just bizarre.”
She held out the paper to him. Reluctantly, he took it and glanced down at the poem Cramond had inscribed to his wife.
It was entitled, My Love, My Treasure.
“Mrs. Cramond,” he said helplessly, “I don’t think I should be reading this. It is between you and him.”
“Captain Lawrence, can you really imagine John Cramond expressing his feelings in poetry?”
A smile flickered on his lips unbidden. “Not easily. But for you, he would have done anything.”
“And he would not waste his time penning excruciating verse for me without a better reason than just making me laugh.”
Lawrence regarded her with fresh interest. “What makes you suspect it’s a cypher?”
“My love, my treasure,” she quoted the title. “He’s discovered where the family treasure is and is telling me in secret.”
It crossed Lawrence’s mind then that she was just a little mad. Seeing it, she gave him a rueful smile and took back the poem. “Don’t concern yourself, Captain. I shall work it out. Thank you.”
“Eve?” a female voice interrupted. “Is everything well?”
Two women were almost upon them, the elder one of the formidable dowagers, the younger a rather severe looking person, perhaps in her thirties.
“Oh, drat them,” Mrs. Cramond muttered under her breath. She fixed a weary, almost disdainful expression on her face and stood up. Before his eyes, she transformed back into the same, stiff, cold lady who had first approached him. Only when she resumed the mask did he realize just how different she had been with him. “Of course, Clarissa. The captain has just brought me a last letter from John. Allow me to introduce Captain Lawrence. Sir, my husband’s aunt, the Dowager Countess of Braithwaite, and my sister, Lady Meryn.”
Lawrence bowed. Neither lady offered her hand. The younger, Lady Meryn, frowned at him. “It has taken you a year to bring this missive to my sister?”
“Sadly, yes,” Lawrence drawled. The woman might have been Mrs. Cramond’s sister, but he owed her no explanations.
A flicker of embarrassed anger showed in Mrs. Cramond’s face. “It is kind of him to bring it at all,” she said firmly. She held out her gloved hand. “Thank you, Captain.”
He took her hand and bowed over it, accepting his dismissal. “Goodbye, Mrs. Cramond.” He turned to make a civil farewell to Lady Braithwaite, but the dowager had stepped to one side of the arbor and was glaring into the distance.
“Mrs. Cramond, your children are digging up the shrubbery again!”
“Oh, Eve,” Lady Meryn sighed, already rushing in the direction of the countess’s glare. “Can you not make them even stay with Elsie?”
“Why should they? Elsie is not their nurse.” Mrs. Cramond stepped closer to Lawrence. “If you change your mind,” she breathed, “I shall take the children to the beach tomorrow morning at about eleven.” And then she was hurrying after the other two ladies, presumably to extract her sons from the shrubbery.
Lawrence gazed after her for a moment, scratching the back of his head. Both her companions seemed to be explaining to her how to keep her children in order. She did not reply, merely walked faster, her posture stiff and tense.
She was not happy here.