Harriet and Sebastian Wynter are the children of a pair of archeologist explorers who traveled throughout the Mediterranean. Their childhood was filled with adventure, education, and even occasional danger, and they grew up to be brave and resourceful. With their parents’ deaths, however, they are raised to adulthood by their beloved aunt in London. To please their aunt, they try to fit in with London society, but their love for adventure is always just beneath the surface, ready to launch them into trouble.
Harriet Wynter is struggling to be a proper lady. She is successful, but she pays for it with frustration at her lack of freedom. When her brother goes off with some unknown stranger who claims to have a trunk that belonged to their late parents, she is irritated because he won’t take her with him. But when he fails to return, she determines to rescue him, disguises herself as a boy, and sets off on the stage to follow his trail. Her resourcefulness will be tested as she faces kidnappers, smugglers, social ruin, and, most of all, love.
In a convivial evening with his best friends, Lord Ashurst drowns his sorrows with too much drink and passes out. His friends play a trick on him and set him, peacefully snoozing, on the next stage south. To his confusion, he ends up on a country road, without valet or horse or even a change of clothes, along with a young boy apparently running away from school. It doesn’t take him long to discover the boy is actually a young lady, but he’s captured by her courage and decides to help her find her brother. Harriet leads him on his first real adventure…
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Miss Harriet Wynter was not above eavesdropping. In fact, she was quite in favor of the practice as a way of gathering information–a reprehensible moral stance she had acquired as a child, playing at being spies with her brother. So when she saw Lady Belden and Mrs. Blacke-Estley with their heads together shortly after those two pillars of polite society had been speaking with her aunt, Harry (as she was known to her family) decided she wished to know what they were saying. Lady Waterston’s ball was a crush, something of which that peeress could boast for many days, and the crowding made it easy for Harry to gain a position behind the women, unnoticed but close enough for her sharp ears to hear what was being said.
Not much to her surprise, she discovered that both she and her aunt were the topic of the conversation. She arrived in place just in time to hear Lady Belden say, “Not that Alverson does not deserve a good set-down, I shall admit. He has always been too proud of his intellect and too ready to display his education.”
He’s a pompous young idiot, was Harry’s mental correction to this assessment.
Mrs. B-E fanned herself. “But not in such words! Not by a lady. Would you allow your daughter to speak to a young man in such a forward way?”
I only spoke the plain truth, thought Harry, casting her eyes heavenward in imitation of a Renaissance angel.
Lady Belden said, “No, I would not! But then, Sophia has been properly brought up, which cannot be said for either of the Wynter children. Not that their upbringing was their own fault–”
“No, it’s quite the fault of their parents.”
“–but Mrs. Belle should have corrected all such eccentricities in her niece by this time,” said Lady Belden, ignoring the interruption. “To have brought the girl out when she was obviously not prepared shows a lack of judgement on her part.”
“But Mr. Belle was in trade. Surely that must be taken into account. Any wife of a man in trade cannot be expected to–”
“Rubbish. Agatha Belle was brought up in good society and has been moving again in good society ever since her husband passed away, and she has not, to my knowledge, shown the least sign of vulgarity. That her husband was not a gentleman is no excuse for her being careless with that hoyden of a girl.”
As the two women were in essential agreement, Harry decided she had heard all she needed or desired. She felt so little remorse for the behavior which had given those two busybody women cause to gossip that she returned to the ballroom and happily danced, never lacking a partner, until her aunt collected her at an advanced hour.
On the way home, she regaled Mrs. Belle with an account of her disagreement with Lord Alverson, and she thought Lady Belden’s opinion of her aunt would have risen, could that dame have heard Mrs. Belle’s strictures.
“But I did nothing more than correct his mistake,” said Harry, putting on an air of wounded innocence. “He should not quote Aristotle if he is not sure of what he is saying. Not to a young lady who speaks Greek fluently. More fluently, apparently, than he,” she added. “I cannot help it if his misquote included a reference to impolite practices. I simply pointed out to him exactly what he had said. Translating his words from the Greek, no more.”
Not at all fooled by Harry’s virtuous demeanor, Mrs. Belle threw up her hands in despair. “How many times must I tell you, when you disagree with a gentleman, you say nothing. Nothing! Is that so difficult?”
“Sometimes, it is.”
“Far be it from me to say anything deprecating Frederick and Antonia, God rest their souls,” her aunt said, crossing herself, “but I have said it before and I say it again, dragging you two children all around the Mediterranean and indulging your boldness and curiosity has done you a great disservice. You are such a pretty girl, my dear, and so graceful and accomplished, that you could marry almost anyone. But you will ruin your chances for any marriage at all, never mind a good one, if you do not learn to just smile and be discreet.”
“You mean be hypocritical and stupid.”
“Exactly. That is what is expected of a girl in the ton.”
Harry laughed and hugged her aunt. “What a treat you are! I do love you, and I will try harder. But if you could have heard him!”
“I need not. I have been in his company before. That is no excuse for you to behave badly.”
“Yes, ma’am. I am abashed and corrected. And to think, Lady Belden said you were lax in your discipline where I am concerned.”
“I am,” sighed Mrs. Belle. “But Florence Belden has no right to say so. Her daughter let a man tie her shoe in Hyde Park.”
“Do not mock, Harriet. I know how the rules of polite society fret you, but–”
This was a sentiment so often repeated that Harry was able to complete it. “Once I am married, I may do as I please. I know, I know.”
“Only if you marry well. Then you will be considered eccentric. Otherwise, you will be considered vulgar.”
“Aunt Agatha, you paint such a dismal future for me, you shall make me cry,” said Harry, laughing again.
“I wish only to make you listen,” sighed her aunt, “but I believe that is a lost cause.” She made a small adjustment to her hat, then frowned. “With whom was Lady Belden gossiping when she said that about me?”
“Then that makes no difference,” said Mrs. Belle, always pragmatic. “No one listens particularly to either of them.”
The coach turned onto Mount Street, slowed under the experienced hands of Mrs. Belle’s groom, and swayed to a gentle halt directly before their door. The footman leaped down from the box, opened the door, dropped the steps, and handed each lady out with a bow. At the top of the steps, the door was opened by their butler. Mrs. Belle accepted the footman’s arm up the short but steep stairs. “Thank you, Thomas. Hello, Corridge. Is all well?”
Corridge took her arm from Thomas, guided her into the house, then bowed Harry in and closed the door behind her. “All is quite well, madame. You and Miss Harriet will be pleased to know that Master Sebastian is at home.” Corridge had known the Wynter siblings all their lives, but that did not change what he considered proper. Master Sebastian and Miss Harriet they were and would always be to him.
Harry clapped her hands. “Sebastian has come home? Wonderful! Where is he?”
“In the music room, Miss.”
“I will go to him at once,” declared Harry, and suited action to words by gathering her skirts and running lightly up the ornate staircase.
Mr. Belle had not been a mere tradesman, but a hugely successful merchant, and Agatha Belle had never needed to scrimp on her home. To her husband’s pride, she had decorated every room with exquisite taste without ever yielding to vulgar ostentation. The music room that Harry precipitately entered was done in shades of yellow, with white paneled wainscoting and walls of a warm gold; the furniture was straw-colored with accents of cherry wood, all of it clustered comfortably around a hearth topped with a mantle of creamy marble. The instruments, a grand piano and a harp, dominated the room, their dominion unchallenged by their subtle surroundings.
At the piano sat a fair young man with a lean, handsome face and bright blue-grey eyes that left no doubt in anyone who saw them together that he and Harriet were brother and sister. “Hullo, brat,” he greeted her as she stripped off her bonnet and tossed it onto the nearest table. He continued picking out a tune on the piano with two fingers. “Perhaps I shall give up my place at the piano to you, now that you are finally home.” He rose. “You don’t play well, but at least you actually play. Did you have a good time at the ball?”
She danced over to him. “You have a great deal of courage, to say that I am finally home in such a tone, when you have been away more than a week, and I only a few hours!”
“I am renowned for my courage. Was it terribly boring?”
“I danced every dance.”
“No one to talk to, then?”
“No one with any conversation,” she agreed, “but some delightful dancers. Luckily, one need not be witty while dancing.”
“I am,” said her brother.
“What you are, is vain. Come, sit, tell me what you have been doing all week.”
“First you must tell me about the ball.”
Their aunt, who had just come in the door, seconded this request, smiling as she graciously accepted her nephew’s greeting. “But do not encourage her in her disregard of courtesy, I beg you. What have you been about, Sebastian? We had begun to worry,” she said, settling herself in the most comfortable chair and arranging her skirts neatly about her feet.
“After so few days? Aunt, you know better. But as to what I was doing, well, I ran across old Monty while in Leftham, whither I had gone to see–well, never mind, you would not like to know.”
“A prizefight?” Harry guessed shrewdly.
“I admit to nothing,” he said. “But Monty was keen to lay a bet on a horse, and I was keen to have his coin, so we went to a race meet and spent several days there.”
“Did you win?”
“Sometimes I won, and sometimes I lost. That is the game.”
Harry sighed, and Sebastian glanced at her, questioning. She shook her head, enjoining him to silence, and he returned to entertaining their aunt. But after the ball had been talked over and Aunt Agatha had taken herself to bed, Sebastian leaned toward Harry, elbows on his knees, and asked, “Was that a sigh of envy I heard earlier, dear sister?”
“It was. I imagine that Monty was not the only person who accompanied you, and I also imagine that you did many other things besides bet on horse races.”
“Perhaps, but those things are not for the ears of ladies.”
“I am tired of being a lady. We used to have fun together. We used to have adventures. Now you go off with your friends and have adventures, and the only excitement in my life is a ball.” She made a rude sound.
“Merciful heavens, what was that noise? Aunt Agatha is right, you are not fit for good society.”
“You, my darling brother, are not good society.”
He chuckled. “Poor Harry. Trust me, my adventures now are nothing like what our imaginations painted for us in our childhood. I only wish they were!”
His eyes had blazed for a moment, and Harry recognized that, even with all the freedom granted to a young man in their society, Sebastian was nearly as bored as she. Responding to this without thinking, she said, “I wish we could be traveling still with Mother and Father.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished them unsaid. Their parents had died only two years ago, and both she and Sebastian had suffered deeply at the time. Harry still felt the loss, but she had been able to allow the memories to comfort her and to put her grief behind her. However, Sebastian’s spirit was unlike hers; he felt everything more deeply. Even now, he could not bear to hear or speak of their parents’ deaths. After they had the news, he had struggled at Oxford and finally left school, and he spent months afterward in alternating moods of brooding grief and frenzied action before he mastered himself enough to lead a normal life. Still, the grief was never far beneath the surface for him.
Now he leaned back, apparently at ease, but with his smile fading and the light leaving his eyes. Politely but firmly, he was withdrawing from her. She wanted to slap herself. Instead, she set about bringing him back. Pretending not to notice the change, she said, “The very least you could do, since I am forbidden now to accompany you anywhere, is to give me every detail of your adventures in Hertfordshire. The ones you avoided telling Aunt Agatha. Even if they are wicked, sordid, and vulgar.”
She watched him draw himself out of the dark place to which he’d retreated. To her relief, mischief made his eyes lively again. “Every detail?”
“Every one. Unless I stop you. Except I do not need a blow by blow description of the prize fighting, as I have no interest in that at all.”
“And the ladies I met?”
“There were ladies?”
“I use the term loosely. But you know Monty. Where he is, there are ladies.”
“Use your discretion in describing all that.”
“My discretion? I have none, or we would not be having this conversation!” But he proceeded to give her what she wanted, an entree into his world, with all his usual generosity, and the shadow passed.
Breakfast was a merrier meal with Sebastian at home, even if Aunt Agatha did complain that her two wards gave her the headache with their chatter. Harry had already run her errands before the meal, but after their meal she had morning calls to make, and Sebastian had friends he wanted to apprise of his return to town. They agreed that they would meet later in the day, when Sebastian would take her in his curricle, with its splendid pair of matched bays, to Hyde Park at the fashionable hour.
Harry dressed for the treat too early and spent half an hour in the drawing room, trying to read a book and instead going to the window every few minutes to see if Sebastian was arriving. Because of this vigilance, and because she was an observant girl, she noticed a man standing under the nearest lamp post. He was a tall, lean man, his face shadowed by the wide brim of his hat. He was dressed neatly, but not as a gentleman. Harry’s impression was that he was a groom or something of the sort, from his clothes, yet there was something different about him. He was not a servant, she felt. In fact, her immediate thought was that the man was a pirate, and she smiled at this childhood-inspired idea. He didn’t move from his place, and she decided that he might be waiting to deliver a message to Sebastian. Her curiosity was stirred enough so that she remained at the window, peeking from behind the lacy curtain, until her brother came striding up the street.
The tall man stepped forward and accosted Sebastian. Her brother at first recoiled, standing balanced and ready for anything. But he listened to the man, initially with the chill hauteur he could sometimes assume, but then leaning forward with fascination, asking questions, demanding, nodding in agreement.
The tall man had delivered his message, and he now left, fading down the street as if he’d never been there. Sebastian stared after him a moment, then suddenly turned and bounded up the steps and into the house. Harry raced to the hall to intercept him. He had already tossed his hat and gloves at Corridge and was saying, “Have Bradley prepare my curricle and the bays at once and bring them to the front, Corridge. Thank you.”
Somehow Harry did not believe that the curricle was being brought up for her afternoon’s entertainment. Something had brought a brilliance into Sebastian’s eyes, and the anticipation of her company could not have done that. He didn’t even glance at her, but went up the stairs three at a time.
“Come up,” he called back from the landing. “I shall tell you all while I pack.”
She caught up with him in his room, where a portmanteau sat open. Sebastian was gathering clothing from all around the room, moving with his usual brisk efficiency. “I assume you were watching from the window?” he asked over his shoulder.
“I just happened to be passing the window.”
“I am sure.”
She gave up the pretense. “Who was that man?”
“He gave his name as Josiah Payne.”
She crossed her arms and waited for him to expound further. He laid two coats and three waistcoats into the portmanteau. She cleared her throat. He didn’t look at her, but his lips twitched. She said, “Very well. What is he?”
“I am not quite sure what to call him, actually. We did not speak long. He runs some rigs that are not on the right side of the law, apparently–”
“A pirate. I knew it.”
Sebastian grinned. “Not quite. I am sorry to disillusion you. But certainly a purveyor of illicitly obtained goods, a sort of middleman–goods including salvage gathered by people who comb the beaches after storms.”
She leaped to a conclusion. “Oh, Sebastian–Mama’s and Papa’s things?” Their parents had died in Italy, and the English consul in Rome had forwarded several chests to them by sea, but the ship had foundered in a storm and all cargo had been lost.
“If he tells the truth, yes.” He added shirts to the portmanteau. “Do stop bouncing, Harry. It may all be a hum.” He stopped packing long enough to explain. “What he says is that he was recently hired to find buyers for a number of chests and whatnots. The things have been hidden in some old lady’s barn for about a year and have just now been found by the lady’s grandson. Some fellow named Smith, Payne’s employer, bought the lot of it, and at least one of the chests he has identified as belonging to Father and Mother. Or so Payne thinks. He wants me to come to Kent to identify the contents, tell him if I am interested in purchasing them, and then make him an offer.”
“We must pay for our own property, then?”
“Law of the sea, my dear. It is salvage and belongs to the finder. You know that. Of course Payne will pinch me for every guinea he can get, but just think, Harry!” He took her by the shoulders. “He says that one of them contains what looks like a diary. If it is Father’s or Mother’s, it could tell us the last thoughts on their minds before…”
His voice trailed off and his hands slid away. She caught one hand and squeezed it. “Yes, I know. I agree. I will pay half of it.”
“You need not.”
“But I will, stupid. I will come with you, too.”
“No, that you will not!”
“You will not shut me out of a chance to meet this Payne person and his crew, will you? Why, even if they are not pirates, they could be wreckers!”
He laughed. “No, no. Nothing so sinister, I promise you. At worst, he might be associated with smugglers, but then, so is nearly everyone on the Kent and Sussex coasts.”
“But you will let me come? I can be packed in a moment.”
“No I will not. Use your head, Harry. If I dash off, Aunt Agatha will think nothing of it. She never does. But if we both go, then we will have to pretend that we are off to the Manor, and she will write to Uncle George, naturally, and then the whole game will be up. If you stay here, she will believe I am just off with my friends on another of my larks.”
None of her pleadings or demands could sway him. He finished his packing, then carried the portmanteau himself downstairs and secured it to his curricle, all the while ignoring her reasoned arguments and indignant protests. He mounted onto the carriage and took up the reins, and as the horses brought their heads up, alert, he looked down at her with a compassion that infuriated her. “I will be back soon, I promise. No more than a week. I will be using the posting houses, so I will be able to write you if I shall be delayed. Do not worry. See you soon!” He let the team move out in a smart trot, driving away with his face full of joy such as she had not seen since they had buried their parents.
Leaving me here to be bored, and to tell lies to Aunt Agatha, Harry thought, scowling after him. Why was I not born a boy?