Tempted at Christmas – Kate Pearce

The French had a word for it, of course, being the French and the damned enemy, though they were only a day’s sail away across the Channel. The coup de foudre they called it—the stroke of lightning, the moment of force when everything changed. Everything had changed the first moment Matthew Kent had seen her, the long tall girl striding along the quay in the chilly dawn light. Though it had been more than a month ago, he remembered it as if it were that very morning—the air had crackled with charges of energy that had made it hard to breathe, his vision had sharpened and gone fuzzy at the edges all at the same time, and his legs had felt suddenly unsteady, as if he had stepped ashore for the first time in weeks, instead of in days. As if he had been struck by lightning. The coup de foudre—love at first sight. Which was impossible, of course. He was Captain Matthew Kent, son of a proud, ambitious seafaring family, who had given ten and seven years to the Royal Navy—he had dodged bullets, won battles, and put damn Frenchmen to rout. He was a Post Captain of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, damn his eyes, not some weak-kneed landsman who’d never seen a lass before. But he had been strangely vulnerable to her, the long, tall clever lass—the coast of Cornwall was a devilish lonely place. And it had been a hell of a thing for a man of his caliber to be so bloody becalmed, set down in punishment for his sins by the Admiralty to sailing a fishing boat instead of a ship, when he ought to have been in command of a frigate, prowling the West Indies station like his father before him, taking corvettes and making his fortune. But he’d always had the devil’s own luck, and damned if he hadn’t taken a bloody French corvette right there in Bocka Morrow, along the cliffs under Castle Keyvnor. With the lass’s help he had saved the country from the threat of invasion, routed a traitor, and commanded the man responsible for the explosion that had destroyed all the munitions and materiel Napoleon had smuggled into England to provision his invading Grand Armée. That Matthew had also, in the course of such heroism, kissed that long tall lass, was not recorded in his report to the Admiralty. The less said about her the better, because she was a smuggler, the brains behind the whole of the operation, and the Admiralty did not think highly of smugglers.

Nor could he. It did not matter that he had fallen in love with her. Devil take him, but love wouldn’t reward him the way the Admiralty would—a command was his for the asking. All he had to do was write his reports, recommend his crew for promotions, and sail the French prize back to Portsmouth for adjudication. And leave the lass behind. But he’d always known the long tall lass was tinder to the bonfire of his ambitions— one more spark, one more misdeed, one more kiss, and his career would go up in flames. If he didn’t want to lose all he held dear—family, service, duty and honor—he had to leave her. It was a devilish good thing he had been at sea long enough to know how to weather the storm—how to get struck by lightning and still survive. T C H A P T E R 2 Village of Bocka Morrow, Coast of Cornwall November 3, 1811 ressa Teague felt burnt to a cinder, as if everything inside her had been turned to ash, and all happiness had gone up in flames with the illicit cargo in Black Cove—she could almost smell the black smoke on the bitter winter wind even now, nigh on a month later, when she sat drinking tea with her mother and sister in the drafty vicarage at the top of the hill. She ought to be happy, she really ought.

It wasn’t every day that one’s sister became engaged to be married to a lord. And after everything sweet Nessa had been through, it was only right that she finally got Captain Lord Harry Beck as her reward. After all, he was Nessa’s one true love. “Engaged!” her mother cried again and again. “And to a lord! Nessa shall be a lady,” she continued to remind each of them present—as if they might forget such a thing. “Such a boon, such blessedly good fortune at last.” “Good fortune that Lord Harry is also your heart’s desire.” Tressa kissed her sister’s blushing cheek in congratulations. “I always knew if anyone could win their one true love, it would be you.” Nessa smiled, radiant with happiness.

“And you?” “Oh, no. I have no heart, so how could I ever have my heart’s desire?” Tressa made her tone light and joking for her sister’s sake, but the words were like a splinter driven deep into her flesh—a hurt she couldn’t hope to extract without causing even more damage. And so she would leave it be, and set her heart to turn to stone. She would have no more of unreasoning love, which seemed a volatile, alchemical mixture of attraction, determination and happenstance, wherein the determination was more important than the attraction. Love might not start without attraction, but it would not last without determination. And if a man had none—well, there was nothing she could so about that. She refused to be heartbroken—she refused to let any person change her own determination. If he had seen fit to sacrifice her affections on the bonfire of his ambitions, well, she had ambitions, too. And the time had come to pursue them. But ambition for something other than a husband was unheard of in Bocka Morrow.

Tressa wanted more than the limited power her mother held in their household, and she knew she would not be happy mothering up a brood of children the way her sister would. Harry was Nessa’s world, and as long as they were together, whether it was a house in Bocka Morrow, or in the captain’s quarters on a ship, Nessa would be happy. But Tressa feared that even if she were in the captain’s quarters on some sea-going ship, she wouldn’t be happy unless she were the captain. Unless she were the one in control of her own destiny. The man, as it were, in charge. Instead, she was the daughter of the vicar of Bocka Morrow, and as such was expected to be nothing but kindness and light. But she wasn’t feeling particularly charitable. Or even Christian. In fact, she had never before had such an ardent desire to knock heads together. Just one head in particular, though some of the others in this excuse for a village could also stand with a good shaking up.

It wasn’t charity that was lacking in her world, but justice. Yes. Being filled with righteous anger was far better than the alternative—being heartbroken. It was anger that heated her throat to a raw ache, and rage that stung, salty and hot behind her eyes. “But I thought that you and Captain Kent…” Nessa ventured. “No. You were wrong. I was wrong.” Tressa forced herself to smile over her hurt as she drew her sister’s arm through hers. “But we will speak of him no more, for it is your day, and your triumph.

I will allow nothing to dim your happiness.” Nessa looked at her with a terrible combination of pity and relief, but said nothing more. No one liked to say anything or contradict Tressa in any way. No one ever did. Because Tressa Teague was different. She was not nice. Not quiet or obedient or modest or anything a vicar’s daughter was meant to be. She was independent, irreverent, and unconventional. She read Wollstonecraft and Wilberforce and De Re Militari by the Roman, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, sneaked from her father’s study when he wasn’t paying attention—which was always. She was difficult.

Everyone said so. Even Nessa, who drank so deeply of the milk of human kindness Tressa feared she would drown, would acknowledge that her younger sister was not a girl who suffered fools gladly. And evidently, fools suffered her even less. Because Captain Matthew Kent was a fool if he thought he could come to Bocka Morrow and charm her off her feet, and leave her broken-hearted. But leave her he did. It was going to be a nasty, long, cold winter. T C H A P T E R 3 Cliff House, Falmouth, England November 16, 1811 he letter from the Admiralty arrived at his family’s home on the afternoon post —in consequence of the successful action against the smugglers off the coast of Cornwall, it was the Lord High Admiral’s pleasure to post Captain Matthew Kent to the West Indies, where he would take over his father’s former position, and become the youngest captain ever to command that squadron. He was once again Captain Matthew Kent in name and in posting. The advancement was a boon to his career, and a balm to his savaged pride. It really was as his father, the esteemed Captain Sir Alexander Kent had always said—“If you succeed, no question will be asked—but if you fail, no explanation will ever be enough.

” No questions about Bocka Morrow and Black Cove had been asked. Not even by his family, who simply accepted his success as a forgone conclusion, and not the product of toil and worry and the devil’s own luck. And the help of one long, tall, perspicacious lass. “I understand congratulations are in order, Matts.” His brother Owen and Owen’s petite, vivacious wife Grace greeted Matthew’s late entrance into breakfast. “West Indies Squadron—you’ll take over from Father there.” “I am very pleased,” was Matthew’s measured response. It wouldn’t do to blow one’s own trumpet too loudly—his brothers would twit him unmercifully for anything they deemed braggartish. “Taking a French corvette in Cornwall,” Owen chuckled. “Who’d have thought it?” The long, tall girl had thought it.

Without her superior brain and attention to detail, he might still be stuck twiddling his thumbs in Bocka Morrow’s harbor while Napoleon’s English agent ran loose, wreaking havoc about the countryside. Yet Matthew had not mentioned her assistance in his reports to the Admiralty. Nor had he so much as spoken Tressa Teague’s name among his family. But there, he had finally said her name—Tressa Teague, third and last daughter of Reverend Teague, vicar of Bocka Morrow. Tressa Teague, with her slanted, sleepy eyes that made her look like a cat in a sunbeam, but who was the brilliant, steady brains behind the smuggling operations in Bocka Morrow, damn his eyes if she wasn’t. It was she who had discovered the traitor in their midst, she who had offered Matthew her intimate knowledge of the smuggling operation in order to root out the treason. Without her, Matthew never would have been able to identify the disloyal local curate as the traitor who very nearly succeeded in aiding and abetting Napoleon’s planned invasion of their island fortress. “And how did you find Bocka Morrow, Matthew?” Grace was asking. “I ask because the village is gaining something of a reputation as quite the place to make a match. There have been something like eight or nine betrothals or marriages in the last month alone— our friend Lord Harry Beck included.

” The betrothal was no surprise to him—Becks had been well and truly smitten. But Matthew was still keeping his guns bowsed up tight behind his port-lids, not giving the game away to Grace, who had both an uncanny intuition and an imagination that traveled in galloping leaps and bounds. He made his voice everything easy and interested. “Becks is betrothed, is he? To one of the intriguing Teague girls I’ve no doubt. Nessa, is it?” He also had no doubt as to which one it was—Matthew was quite sure he had personally kept sleepy-eyed Tressa Teague too occupied to intrigue anyone else. “How do I know that name—Teague?” Owen asked. “Because of Richard,” Grace answered promptly. “It was to the Reverend Teague in Bocka Morrow that Richard went to study theology when he ran away from the navy.” Matthew was stunned into silence—he had not known Richard had lived there, in that town, in that house, with Tressa Teague. Damn, damn, damn his eyes for somehow having missed that information.

“Devil take him, yes!” Owen slapped his plan flat on the table. “Still not sure if I’ve forgiven him for that—Richard, that is, not this Reverend Teague.” “My darling, if sweet Sally has forgiven Richard, then you must have done with spleen as well,” Grace instructed her husband. “But you are diverting me from the salient bit of information in Matthew’s speech, which was ‘the intriguing Teague girls.’ More than one, I take it, dear Matthew?” Damn Grace’s perceptive eyes and ears—it was impossible to lie to her. Matthew settled for as little of the truth as possible. “Oh, aye.” He made his voice everything casual. But Grace was not having it. “I don’t recall any mention of local ladies in the report you dictated to me to send to the Admiralty.

” She gave him a quizzical smile, but her almond-shaped eyes were keen with assessment. “Aye. Thank you for writing them in your clear and elegant hand—you know my penmanship is rubbish.” “Yes. How interesting.” Grace had turned away from reading him like a bloody book, and was reading the calling card Mrs. Jenkins, the housekeeper, brought in. “And, I think, about to get more interesting. For here is our Captain Lord Harry himself to visit us. Show Captain Beck in, Mrs.

Jenkins, do.” “Becks!” Matthew rose to greet his friend and former shipmate as if his chest weren’t suddenly tight with apprehension. “What brings you to Falmouth?” “You,” Becks was full of cheerful openness. “And a wedding.” “Yours, I hope?” Matthew joked as a stop against his cravat getting any tighter. “Indeed. Miss Nessa Teague has agreed to make me the happiest man in the world. You may wish me happy.” “I certainly do wish you happy, though I suspected as much.” He shook Becks’s hand.

“And you certainly covered a lot of ground in that cave.” That Matthew had also done some covering of the same ground in that very same cave during a smuggling operation was a topic not to be mentioned—especially in front of Grace, who seemed able to smell a romance the way a terrier scented a rat. “You’ll come, of course, to the wedding to stand up for me?” Harry was asking. “It wouldn’t feel right otherwise.” A unfamiliar feeling—something close to panic, judging from the way his heart lurched about in his chest like a sailor on a shore drunk—squeezed up his chest at the thought of having to return to Bocka Morrow. “Are you sure? Surely you have brothers enough to see to the thing?” Harry winced up one eye. “My brothers are not like yours, Matts—they don’t understand. They have no conception of what our lives are like in the navy—how hard it is to be injured and away from service, but also relieved. They can’t fathom why I’m near bored to death, but so damned pleased to be so.” “Not bored with your bride I hope?” Matthew steered the conversation from the uncomfortable turn it was taking.

“Bride-to-be—in one week’s time. The banns will be read the third and final time by the vicar this Sunday, and we’ll marry just as soon as may be after that.” When Matthew said nothing, he went on. “Please say you’ll come, Kent. I know you’re anxious to be off to the West Indies just as soon as your ship is fitted out, but it would mean the world to me if you would consent to come.” “How can you refuse such a pretty invitation?” Grace asked with a smile. There was nothing for it, of course, except to damn his pride and his promise to stay away from Bocka Morrow and long tall, irresistible Tressa Teague. “When you beg like that, I suppose there is no way for me to refuse. When must I go?” “Immediately—I’ll convey you back to Bocka Morrow myself in my father’s traveling coach. It’s well sprung and plush, Matts.

I intend for us to go out in style.” If he had to go out, Matthew reckoned there was no damn better way to go, than in style. “Lay on, Becks. Lay on.”

.

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