Gratitude be damned. When he finally unfolded himself from the inside of this sorry coffinouchwhen he got out of the hearse driven by his so-called rescuer, his fists would speak for him.
If he got out alive.
Well, if he didn’t he’d be in the right place at the right time . . .
He grinned in the blackness, then winced as the wheels beneath him momentarily left the ground. The rims hit storm torn ruts again, rattled every board and brace in the hearseand every bone in the Marquis of Granville’s body.
This was all his own fault. He had been in too much of a hurry to get out of France and return to England ahead of a luscious but designing female who had produced a husband bent on blackmail, or worse. Granville, who had made plans to travel with his cousin Frances, persuaded him at the last moment to take the ship Windfall, because it left a day earlier than the one on which they’d originally booked passage.
The captain of the Windfall had turned out to be a smuggler in the employ of an unscrupulous Englishman. But his share of the smuggling bounty hadn’t been enough for the captain. He’d charged a ransom to take Granville and his cousin Frances, with his wife Simonne and little daughter Chloe, across the Channel. Not that the man had ever intended for them to arrive on their home shores alive.
What followed had been disastrous. Francis and Simonne had discovered the Captain’s plot and ended their lives shot, and thrown into the sea. Granville barely managed to save Chloe and himself from the same fate, only to be cast upon the dubious mercy of a wild-eyed stranger.
A smuggler turned rescuer had plucked Granville, together with his first cousin once removed, six-year-old Chloe Worth, from the icy, fog-shrouded English Channel. Once ashore, the man, one Albert according to the ruffians he commanded, insisted there could be no better chance of escape than by traveling as a dead man.
Even inside the coffin, the ceaseless beating of rain could be heard. And wind. Wind howled as if through a tunnel and whirled about the Shillibier. Matched black horses pulled the great carriage and their hoofs clattered and scraped over stone and mud.
The little girl curled against his chest with her hands clapped over her ears didn’t ease Granville miserable confinement. He must manage to save his cousin from any injury inside the magnificent but tossing Shillibier with its rushing team. Also, he was desperate to keep her as warm as he could with both of them still wet from their near-drowning, and to soothe her without making any noise. And he must pray that Chloe would not choose a deadly dangerous moment to find her voice and cry out.
"Chloe," he whispered into her ear. "We shall be safe." When she addressed him, the child called him, "Uncle John." He’d never considered why, but John was his given name and he supposed she must find it comfortable. "Stay very quiet and trust Uncle John," he murmured. Dash it all but he knew nothing of dealing with children. Would a six-year-old believe such rubbish? He had no idea if they were safe.
Albert the smuggler, in a large fishing boat, had used the fog to hide him from the eyes of his fellow villains in a flotilla of small vessels which had arrived to take contraband from the Windfall.
Heading for the mouth of the River Thames and London, and with the coast of England faintly in sight, the ship’s Master had dispatched his illegal cargo. And Albert had turned back to draw Chloe and Granville from the water and into his boat, a boat pulled by oarsmen who seemed cowed by their leader.
The tall, thin man had made no sense, muttering all the time about his damnable conscience and how the Lord and someone named Snowdrop would reward him for going against the othersand "that evil old sod, Leggit." Had he been alone, Granville would have fought for his freedom the instant he stepped ashore. As it was, he’d been unwilling to risk Chloe’s safety.
The smuggler had promised to get them away and been certain none but his "kin," the oarsmen, knew Granville and his charge were still alive. Their secret was safe, he’d insisted in a huge voice that would have done any highwayman proud. A frenzied ride by wagon from the coast to an isolated inn, and Granville had been hustled with his charge into the funeral vehicle driven by Albert. After all, his host said, no-one dared stop the dead on the way to their rest.
This casket didn’t fit Granville at all. True, he was taller than most and strongly built, but he couldn’t imagine any man of his acquaintance who wouldn’t be twisted up in the thing like a bedsheet on washday, even without a small companion. The thing had probably been made for a woman, he decided. A rotund woman, for the box was exceedingly deep.
The pace changed. Albert yelled and the horses seemed to dance, rocking the Shillibier in the process. They slowed down.
Another man’s bullish, and meaningless words bellowed over the roar of hoof and wheel.
So much for the sanctity of the dead.
He’d chosen to accept a promise of help from a smugglera criminal who swore his repentancerather than expose Chloe to the threat of instant death.
Her chances might have been better had Granville chosen to run with her.
The Shillibier shuddered. Wheels hammered rocks into ground that must be as furrowed as it was muddy. The horses shrieked and John imagined the inky ostrich plumes jostling as they tossed their heads, and yards of black crepe streaming in the shadowy night. Tack jangled, while Granville felt rolling objects thudding against the coffin, heavy objects. Casks of contraband? Damn Albert and his henchmen, they hadn’t been able to resist an opportunity to move some of their spoils out of harm’s way. The smugglers’ weakness could scuttle what hope there was of escape.
He realized what should have been obvious. The reason the coffin was so deep was because it’s real purpose was to transport smuggled goods. Little wonder Albert had thought of the ruse for Granville and Chloe.
Granville knew the sound of gunshot, even over the night’s cacophony. He hugged Chloe tighter and smoothed her hair.
"I told ye to ‘old," the newcomer bellowed again. "Next time I fires, it won’t be past your ‘ead."
"Don’t you ‘ave no respect for the dead?" Albert roared. "Stand off, there. Stand off, I says."
"Who’s in there, then? King bloody George III?"
Granville managed to turn Chloe and settle her face against his neck. "Hush," he told her. "Be very quiet and don’t cry." She had not, in fact, made a sound since they’d been brought ashore somewhere on the southern shores of England. He had no idea where that had been, or where they were now.
"You’ve a perilous bad tongue, sir," Albert told the intruder. "It’s a good thing the KingGod save ‘imcan’t ‘ear you all the way in his palace. They don’t tell me who t’is gone to their rest. I just drive. The grieving relations is waitin’. They’ll send after me if I’m late." Following a pause the young man continued. "If it’ll satisfy you, sir, then be my guest. The box isn’t ‘ammered down yet. Take a look."
Granville smiled thinly and held his breath, admiring Albert’s daring bluff, but prepared for the sound of doors being opened. He’d lost his pistol in the dive from the deck of the ship to save Chloe. The only defense would be to play dead, then to "rise from the dead" with horrible howling if necessary, and hope the shock bought him some advantage.
Chloe’s small fingertips opened and closed against Granville’s linen shirtfront. He stroked her hair again, awkwardly, and made what he hoped was a calming noise.
Rain pelted the draped windows of the carriage.
Boots hit the ground. "I’ve thought that over, and I thinks as I’ll do what you suggest and pay me respects to the departed." The other man sounded even bolder than before. "Strangest funeral procession I’ve seen, I can tell you. No train of coaches and only a young cove still wet behind the ears in charge."
Granville braced himself and assumed what he prayed was a more corpse-like pose. "Don’t move at all," he whispered to Chloe. Not that anything would help them if his suspicions were correct and casks of liquor surrounded the coffin.
Heavy footsteps approached the Shillibier.
The handles on the back doors rattled.
It was all up to him then. Granville, lying on his side, inched up the knee that rested against the bottom of the coffin and blessed God for giving him powerful legs. He’d need them to thrust himself out and overpower whoever was coming for them.
"Al-bert!" A feminine cry carried the name on the wind. "Al-bert! You apology for a man, you. What are you doin’? Allowin’ some ruffian to disturb the dead? You’ll rot in hell. We all will. And you there, stop that, you raper of corpses, you friend of the devil, you, you"
"Snowdrop," the hapless Albert called from the driver’s seat. "This is no place for you, my flower."
"You keep mum and sit where you are, Albert Parker," Snowdrop shouted. "And you, stand back from that carriage and tell me your name? And give it to me honestly, because my father and his men aren’t far behind me. They’ll cut you to ribbons as soon as look at you. Slasher Pick don’t ask questions, ‘e just makes up his own mind and he does it quick."
The mystery of Albert’s earlier "Snowdrop" mutterings was solved. She must be his wife.
"You’ve no need to know my name, missus, only that I’m an agent for a venturer who’ll soon be hearing about a recent mistake made by the master of a vessel he has interests in."
That vessel would be Windfall. And the venturer was likely to be that dog, Leggit, spoken of by Albert as the ship’s owner.
"Seems as if that captain and his crew unwisely took on passengers, then had to dispose of ’em. Only one got away see, a desperate fugitive from the law. Name of John Elliot. You might be interested to know there’s a pretty price on ‘is ‘ead and a search is underway all over the countryside."
The woman didn’t answer and Granville’s stomach plummeted. It went lower as the silence stretched without a word from good old Albert, either. Granville, who had used his family name, Elliot, to travel, was that "desperate fugitive." Intuition told him Albert and Snowdrop were considering the reward on his head.
A horse whinnied and blew and hoofs beat a dancing tattoo.
"’old ‘im," Albert yelled. "Stop’n or he’ll be away."
Scuffling grew louder. The horse’s whinny became a shriek and metal jangled madly. The venturer’s agent hollered, but John couldn’t understand a word.
More noise-soaked seconds passed before there came the fierce drumming, clanking and snorting of horseflesh at a full gallop. A full gallop that carried an animal and its rider away from the Shillibier.
A hush descended.
"Snowdrop!" At Albert’s roar, John jumped and held Chloe very tightly. "What ‘ave you done, then, flower? How did you do it?"
"Ask no questions and you’ll ‘ear no lies, Albert Parker. Nosey Parker. The gentleman decided ‘e had more important people to deal with than us. What did he mean by venturer?"
"Leggit. Him I told you about. He’s the venturer ‘ere. Put up the money for that ship I met tonight. Probably pays for other ships and pockets a fortune for his trouble. They says there’s no record made of his dealings. He must have heard how someone what could tell about everthin’ that went on aboard the Windfall is still alive."
"Tell me what you did." Albert cut his flower off. "You did something to the horse to make it run, Snowdrop?"
"Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. Now drive that thing off the track and hide it in the trees, you oaf, and get to the cottage."
"I’ve got to make sure they’re . . ." The silence let Granville know that Albert was indicating his human cargo. "Well, I promised I’d see to it they was safe. How’d you know where to find me, anyway?"
"People talk. I already got the message from someone at that inn as how you were coming this way. The whole world knows where to find you. Lose the carriage in Lock’s bower and put the ‘orses in the cave. Other’s will take care of what else ‘as to be done."
"Aye," Albert said promptly.
Granville closed his eyes and prepared for an even more uncomfortable ride once they left the track.
The doors at the back of the carriage opening, slamming wide as they were released into the wind, made sure he was completely alert. The coffin lid began to slide and John prepared to leap upon whomever appeared.
"Settle down in there," Snowdrop said. "Keep mum. Do what I tells you and you won’t be ‘urt."
The lid fell beside the casket and blessedly fresh air rushed in. "Out you get," Snowdrop ordered. "Quick and quiet. There’s no time. We’ve got to be out of the way before someone else comes or that buffoon decides to turn back."
Gingerly, Ganville raised his head and wouldn’t have been surprised to loose it to a bullet at once.
No pistol fired.
"Come along, Chloe," he said in as normal a voice as he could muster. "We’re to meet some new people who will help us."
With that he moved his cramped limbs and climbed from the casket. Sure enough, brandy casks, boxes of tea, tobacco and rolls that would be lace goods, or silks, confirmed his suspicions. Holding Chloe in his arms, Granville pushed contraband aside and made his way to the ground outside.
No moon pierced the night but he made out a winding track through a forest. Dripping trees soared on either side. His boots squelched in mud. Wind whipped rain into his face and turned his sodden clothes icy. Chloe must be made warm.
"Oh, look at the little mite," Snowdrop said, and John saw her for the first time. "Albert Parker, you’re ‘opeless. Why didn’t you say there was a little one in there?"
"At the time, I was trying to ‘ide them from an enemy, my flower."
A creature so diminutive as to resemble a child herself whirled at John and Chloe, tearing off her cloak as she came. She pulled the little girl from him, wrapped her in the cloak, and pushed her back into his arms. "Get on the ‘orse. Now!"
"Madam, I cannot take your horse."
This small, pale creature with tossing black hair, put two fingers in her mouth and issued a piercing whistle. Immediately a second, unsaddled, horse clattered from the cover of the trees and Snowdrop hauled herself onto its bare back. "Come on. We’re going."
Granville needed no more coaxing. He mounted the gray Snowdrop had arrived on and followed her deeper into the forest, leaving Albert behind to mutter while he carried out the orders she’d given him.