The little Sussex village of Boltwood is in a sorry state indeed—or so I learned during a visit to my mother’s dear friend, Mrs. Ponsonby of Chichester.
I stopped by for tea and found Mrs. Ponsonby already entertaining Lady Ariadne Luttrow, one of the ton’s worst gossips. She never hesitates to tear a character to shreds. Poor Mrs. Ponsonby dislikes backbiting, but she cannot afford to offend the daughter of an earl, so she puts up with Lady Ariadne’s occasional visits.
I, on the other hand, was delighted. As a regular contributor to the Teatime Tattler, I am not in the least averse to listening to gossip, especially the scurrilous sort. After giving Mrs. Ponsonby a sympathetic glance, I prepared to enjoy myself.
“My dears,” Lady Ariadne said, “we are overrun with smugglers.” Her hands fluttered here and there as she spoke. “They have become so bold that one can scarcely sleep at night. Trains of pack ponies pass without hindrance through one’s property. These dreadful criminals even store some of the smuggled brandy in one’s own outbuildings!” She helped herself to one of Mrs. Ponsonby’s delicious drop cakes. I took one in a hurry, for the plate was almost empty.
“Surely,” I said, “your husband can put a stop to that.” Sir William Luttrow is dead set against smuggling—officially, at least, for like everyone on the coast, he gets his brandy from the free traders.
Lady Ariadne took a sip of tea. One restless hand hovered over the last cake on the plate. “Yes, but we are often in London, and meanwhile the servants do their best to aid and abet the smugglers. I suspect that my head groom, a violent sort of man, is actually a member of the gang.” She snatched the cake and devoured it.
“How terrifying!” Mrs. Ponsonby cried.
“The stuff of nightmares,” Lady Ariadne said, but I didn’t believe that for an instant. The smugglers are no threat to her. She was enjoying herself, leading up to something even more shocking.
She glanced about, as if she feared being overheard, and lowered her voice. “As if that weren’t bad enough, there are rumors that the gang is now led by…a woman!”
“Surely not,” Mrs. Ponsonby bleated, but I rather liked the notion. Women so seldom get to run any sort of enterprise.
“It is a disaster in the making,” Lady Ariadne said with a pout. “This creature, whoever she is, will bring the whole smuggling gang to ruin.”
It was one thing to tell frightening tales to an elderly lady, and another entirely to wax indignant at the possible failure of the local gang. How strange. Why would Lady Ariadne care?
“Surely the arrest of the gang is ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished?’” I asked.
The quotation sailed right over Lady Ariadne’s head, but Mrs. Ponsonby, who adores Shakespeare, said, “Not for the wives and children of the smugglers. It is foolhardy of the men to put their faith in a mere woman.”
What nonsense. “A clever woman is just as capable as a man of running a successful enterprise—legal or illegal,” I said.
Mrs. Ponsonby shook her head. “My dear child, you will never find a husband if you insist on such opinions. We are the weaker sex. Men are naturally superior in every way.”
On this, Mrs. Ponsonby and I will never agree. I shouldn’t have allowed myself to digress, for Lady Ariadne’s conflicting sentiments about the smugglers had aroused my curiosity. However, that talkative lady had already moved to another subject.
“Dear Lord Boltwood, who would have dealt firmly with the smugglers, is not expected to live out the week,” she said.
“Poor Lady Boltwood,” Mrs. Ponsonby said. “She is a close friend of mine.”
“Of mine as well,” Lady Ariadne said soulfully. “She suffers doubly, for while her husband is on his deathbed, her only son, Richard, cavorts in London. If you had heard the tales about him, you would faint on the spot! He’s a dreadful rake and a bitter disappointment to his unfortunate mother.”
With that, we turned to rather more scurrilous gossip. Lady Ariadne moved from drop cakes to macaroons and did her best to shock us, and Mrs. Ponsonby sighed with relief when she finally left.
Well, now. I have met Richard Boltwood. He is a devilishly witty man, and a great favorite with the ladies—and perhaps with females of another sort. But no mother could be disappointed in such a handsome, charming son.
Why, I wondered, does he absent himself from his father’s deathbed? Might there be an estrangement of which society is unaware?
And who is the intrepid female smuggler?
It is clearly my duty to find out.
After escaping the guillotine, Noelle de Vallon takes refuge with her aunt in England. Determined to make her own way, she joins the local smugglers, but when their plans are uncovered, Richard, Lord Boltwood steps out of the shadows to save her. Too bad he’s the last man on earth she ever wanted to see again.
Years ago, Richard Boltwood’s plan to marry Noelle was foiled when his ruthless father shipped him to the Continent to work in espionage. But with the old man at death’s door, Richard returns to England with one final mission: to catch a spy. And Noelle is the prime suspect.
Noelle needs Richard’s help, but how can she ever trust the man who abandoned her? And how can Richard catch the real culprit while protecting the woman who stole his heart and won’t forgive him for breaking hers?
“Open it, my love,” Richard said. “If you don’t like it, the jeweler will allow us to exchange it for something else.”
Slowly, almost reluctantly, Noelle opened the little box. Nestled inside was a delicate necklace of diamonds and sapphires. “It’s beautiful.” She closed the box and returned it to his hand.
“Take it, sweetheart. It will suit you admirably and as befits my wife.”
She sighed. “As I have told you over and over, I will not marry you.”
He tried to drum up his usual lighthearted retort, but fortunately she forestalled him. “I will accept your gift under one condition,” she said.
He managed a smile. “A condition. How delightful! Do tell me.”
Noelle, his darling, the love of his life, said, “Will you take me as your mistress instead?”
About Barbara Monajem
Barbara Monajem wrote her first story at eight years old about apple tree gnomes. She published a middle-grade fantasy when her children were young, then moved on to paranormal mysteries and Regency romances with intrepid heroines and long-suffering heroes (or vice versa). Regency mysteries are next on the agenda.
Barbara loves to cook, especially soups. She used to have two items on her bucket list: to make asparagus pudding (because it was too weird to resist) and to succeed at knitting socks. She managed the first (it was dreadful) but doubts she’ll ever accomplish the second. This is not a bid for immortality but merely the dismal truth. She lives near Atlanta, Georgia with an ever-shifting population of relatives, friends, and feline strays.