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Authors: Jane Jackson

Devil's Prize

DEVIL’S PRIZE

JANE JACKSON

Cornish smuggler Devlin ‘Devil’ Varcoe braves winter weather and revenue men to fetch the contraband on which Porthinnis depends for survival.  Drawn to Jenefer Trevanion, whose father finances the smuggling operation, Devlin is seduced by beautiful wild-child Tamara Gillis.  When fire destroys her home, Jenefer is forced to work in the pilchard cellars
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Meanwhile, craving Tamara for himself, Thomas Varcoe plots murder to rid himself of the brother he hates.  Rejected by Devlin, a pregnant Tamara is pressured to marry Thomas.  Finally recognising the love he never felt he deserved, Devlin is on his way home after successfully undertaking a secret mission when a once-in-a-lifetime storm faces him with a terrible choice. 

Chapter One

‘For God’s sake, it’s not worth the risk!’

Devlin Varcoe glanced at his brother across the long slender form of the galley in its wooden cradle. He saw narrow sloping shoulders that the greatcoat’s four shoulder capes could not disguise, and guessed that the beaver hat’s narrow brim was the height of fashion. Irony twisted his mouth.

‘Concerned for my safety?’ Devlin hauled a filthy oilskin over his salt-stained blue jacket and thrust the ends of a knotted red neckerchief into the throat of his woollen shirt.

Thomas’s gaze flicked towards a hulking figure waiting beside the wide doorway of the vaulted cellar, water dripping off his oilskin to pool around his booted feet. ‘Wait outside,’ he ordered.

‘Round up the others, Jared,’ Devlin interrupted. ‘Fast as you can. I don’t want that crowd from Brague getting in first.’

With a nod the big man disappeared into the driving rain.

‘I don’t give a damn about your safety,’ Thomas snapped. ‘But you have a run to make tomorrow night –’

‘The schooner’s here now. Once I get a line aboard, she’s mine.’

‘Father would never have permitted –’

‘Father’s dead.’

‘Better if it had been you.’

Hardened to his brother’s hatred, Devlin ignored him and began lifting long oars from wooden pegs, laying them in the galley.

‘I’ve always thought it strange,’ Thomas said, ‘that no one else was killed.’

Devlin laid another oar in the galley. ‘Nothing strange about it. None of my crew had time to stand still. The sea was rough and we were carrying every stitch of canvas. I warned Father that the privateer would probably have a sniper in the foretop. But he refused to go below.’

Thomas bristled. ‘Naturally. Father was no coward.’

‘He was stubborn as a jackass.’

‘You’re glad he’s dead.’

‘I’m not sorry.’

‘I wouldn’t put it past you to have killed him yourself.’

Devlin straightened up. After a moment one corner of his mouth quirked in a half-smile that left his eyes cold. ‘You’ll never know, will you, Thomas?’ He saw his brother swallow.

‘No wonder they call you Devil.’

Devlin hefted another oar into the galley. ‘Ah, but without me you’d be right in the shit. You won’t take the money across to Uncle Hedley, and who else can you trust?’

‘I’m needed here.’ Thomas said quickly, his voice climbing. ‘The business doesn’t run itself.’

Devlin eyed him briefly. ‘You get seasick.’

‘Bastard,’ Thomas hissed. His chin jutted as he gathered his shredded dignity. ‘I’m calling on Colonel Trevanion tomorrow. It’s to be hoped –’

‘He’s sober?’

‘That he has the money for next month’s cargo.’

‘Bled him dry, have you?’

‘It’s a cut-throat business. You have no idea how complex …’

Devlin bared his teeth. ‘Seems plain enough to me. Uncle Hedley buys the goods in Roscoff to your order. Colonel Trevanion provides the finance. I pay our uncle, collect the cargo, land and store it until it’s distributed. I don’t have your book learning, Thomas. But I’m no fool. You’d do well to remember that.’

Thomas couldn’t hide his loathing. ‘We didn’t need you. Father could have hired another boat.’

Devlin eyed his brother in the wintry grey light that spilled through the open doorway. The rain had stopped but the wind howled and waves thundered against the sea wall, splintering into great plumes and fountains of spray.

‘He’d never have done that. Whatever he felt about me he’d never go outside the family. Besides, I’m the best skipper on this coast.’ He reached for his sou’wester.

‘You!’ Thomas’s face contorted. ‘If it hadn’t been for you she’d still be alive. Everything was wonderful with just the three of us. Then you came. No wonder he hated you. It wasn’t just his life you wrecked. I was only seven –’

‘Jesus Christ!’ Devlin exploded. ‘Listen to yourself. Your life was wrecked? You went to a decent school. He wouldn’t pay for me. While you were studying accountancy and attending assemblies up in Truro I was out in the North Sea fishing for herring on Arf Sweet’s boat. Father needed me in the business, but he made you a partner. When he put money into the lugger so I could make the runs faster, he charged me interest until I’d paid him back.’ His laugh was brief and harsh. ‘And you want sympathy?’

Thomas smirked. Having provoked a reaction he was relishing the illusion of power.

The anger that balled Devlin’s fists was directed at himself. He should know better. He let it go and uncurled his fingers. ‘Go home, Thomas. You’re in my way.’

‘You’re mad to go out in this weather.’

Devlin’s wolfish grin held amusement and brief satisfaction. ‘Worried, brother? You should be. Now father’s gone you’re on your own. Just remember, you need me more than I need you.’

Jenefer Trevanion laid her pen beside the accounts book and pulled her paisley shawl closer as a flurry of hail splattered against the window. A wood fire crackled in the grate but the warmth hadn’t reached as far as her writing desk.

Once again the columns showed a drop in profit. She had checked her totals twice. Something was wrong, and it wasn’t her addition. But convincing her father that Thomas Varcoe was cheating him would be impossible without some sort of proof. How and where was she to find that?

‘People are gathering at the top of the beach,’ Betsy said as she swung the long glass on a tripod that spared her the effort of holding it steady. ‘It won’t be long – Oh!’

The shock in her sister’s voice made Jenefer look round. ‘What?’

‘There’s a galley pulling out of the harbour. It’s Devil Varcoe.’

Jenefer bolted from her chair to Betsy’s side and peered through the window down the sloping garden to the cliff edge and the sea beyond.

The house was situated on a narrow headland separating the village, harbour, and beach on one side from a series of rocky coves and inlets on the other. But while Betsy always had something of interest to look at, the position of the house meant they were visited with annoying regularity by the Riding Officer.

Jenefer found his barely concealed scepticism in the face of her denials infuriating. Particularly as in this instance she was speaking the truth. Did Lieutenant Crocker really think her father stupid enough to allow contraband to be hidden in the house?

She gazed down at the galley, the turmoil in her mind echoed in her stomach. Her fingers strayed to the fine gold chain about her neck. But the instant she touched the tiny painted miniature of Martin suspended from it she jumped as if it had burned her.

If only she hadn’t accepted his proposal. But there had been so many pressures: grief, anxiety, guilt, and a relief that made her ashamed. If she hadn’t gone for a walk instead of accompanying her mother and Betsy, she would have been in the carriage as well. She might now be dead like her mother, or crippled like her sister.

After the accident her father had been obsessed with arranging a match for her, and this one promised a solution to so many problems, not least where she and Betsy would live after his death, for the house was entailed to a male cousin. Martin’s promise that Betsy would be welcome to share their home was very generous and Jenefer had felt the net tightening around her.

She knew she should be grateful. In so many ways Martin was ideal. He was 27, came from a good family, was well-educated, enjoyed a private income from his French grandmother, and his diplomatic career was flourishing.

Nor could she offer the excuse that her heart was engaged elsewhere. For though she had enjoyed several flirtations none had been serious. So, hoping that where liking existed love would follow, she had accepted.

But since their Easter betrothal, the war had kept Martin busy and away from Cornwall, she had met Devlin Varcoe, and now every waking moment was an exhausting battle between her duty to her family and to Martin, and foolish yearning. At least Devlin didn’t know. Doubtless she had already slipped from his memory. Yet the thought that she might have made no impression on him pricked like a thorn.

‘He’s mad,’ Betsy whispered. ‘The water is seething down there. They’ll never get out past the point, let alone close enough to throw a line.’

Jenefer wrapped her shawl tighter as she gazed through small windowpanes misted with salt. The gale had whipped the sea into heaping waves. Dirty grey clouds with ragged edges raced low over broken crests and spindrift. But even from this distance she recognised him. He must have lost his sou’wester and his dark curly hair lay flat against his scalp. Seated in the stern he wrestled the tiller with both hands as he steered the galley through wild water that bounced off jutting outcrops and surged back to meet the incoming rollers.

Facing him, their backs to the rearing waves, eight men strained at the long oars and another crouched in the bow, ducking his head against drenching spray. Forcing her gaze from the galley she glanced towards its target, a helplessly wallowing schooner.

Broken spars and tangled rigging were snarled around a jagged stump that had once been the foremast. Somehow the schooner’s crew had managed to drop the huge gaff mainsail. But the main topmast had gone and shredded canvas flapped uselessly on the mizzen. The heaving deck was crowded with people clinging to the lashed boom and any other handhold they could find. They were flung first one way then another by the wild gyrations of the stricken vessel as the howling wind hurled it shoreward.

‘There’s a woman by the companionway hatch,’ Betsy said. ‘Why doesn’t she use both hands? She’ll be swept overboard if she’s not careful. That bundle can’t be worth her life.’

Unable to see details without the aid of the long-glass, Jenefer glanced instead at the beach where, on either side of glistening sand and grey shingle, the ebbing tide revealed fingers of black rock that jutted out of the cold foaming water like broken teeth.

Switching her gaze to the galley once more her breath caught as the long slender craft climbed the vertical face of a giant roller and disappeared over the top. Seconds later the comber crashed onto the beach with a thunderous roar that rattled the windows and made the house vibrate. The galley was already climbing the face of the next wave whose crest was breaking and curling. It would swallow them.

‘They’ll never survive.’ It was only when she heard her own voice sharp with fear that she realised she’d spoken. She dreaded seeing the galley flipped over to be smashed to splinters, the men pulped by the avalanche of water. Yet she could not look away.

‘Of course they will.’ Betsy was fierce, using both hands to hold the long-glass steady as she leaned forward in her wheeled chair. ‘Devil Varcoe has the best crew in West Cornwall. They’ve faced worse than this. They’ve done it,’ she breathed. ‘They’re out past the point. Pull, Jared. Pull,’ she whispered.

‘Pull, you bastards!’ Devlin bellowed above the roar of a wind that slashed his exposed skin like a gutting knife. Braced in the stern he fought to keep the galley heading into the waves. Kicking like a wild horse, the tiller demanded every ounce of his strength to hold it steady. The crew’s oilskins were shiny with spray, their weather-beaten faces contorted with effort as they bent and hauled in unison born of familiarity and practice. Despite the roar of wind and waves Devlin heard their grunts as they dragged the long sweeps through wild foaming water and the rasp of in-drawn breath as they reached for the next stroke.

He looked ahead. As the gap between the galley and the crippled schooner narrowed he could hear terrified yells begging them to hurry. Back on the beach the crowd was swelling as more people arrived. The spume and spray made it impossible to see clearly. But he knew most would be carrying a hatchet, crowbar, ropes and every container they could grab. They stood and watched in silence, waiting.

Careful to keep the galley upwind of the schooner, Devlin signalled to Charlie Grose who reached for the coils of rope. Rising to his feet, instinctively adjusting to the pitch and roll, Charlie flung them high toward the figures waving desperately from the schooner’s side. His aim was true but a gust caused the vessel to lurch wildly, forcing those waiting to grab a handhold or risk being hurled into the raging sea. The arcing rope fell into the water.

Quickly Charlie retrieved it. But his numbed hands were clumsy and the sodden coils awkward to handle. The schooner was now only yards from the rocks.

Devlin knew this would be the last chance for all of them. He clamped his teeth together, fighting the urge to shout instructions. Charlie knew what to do.

Balancing the heavy rope, Charlie judged his moment and threw. The bow of the galley reared on a breaking wave, forcing him to his knees as he grabbed the gunwales.

The rope arced over the broken foremast and men rushed to haul it in and make it fast.

Devlin raised a clenched fist. ‘Right on, Charlie! We’ve got her, lads,’ he roared. Quickly checking that the towrope was securely lashed to the reinforced seat in front of him he pushed the tiller over and the men redoubled their efforts. As the slack was taken up the rope sprang tight and the dead weight of the schooner dragged at the galley and her labouring crew.

Devlin knew he couldn’t prevent the stricken ship from beaching. But if they could tow her away from the rocks so that she grounded on sand, she’d be easier to salvage if the waiting crowd could be persuaded to respect salvor’s rights. The pistol’s cold steel was hard against his side. It would help. But it wasn’t enough. He hoped some of his landsmen were among the watching crowd. He sensed the villagers’ anger. They were willing him to fail.

 For a few moments the crew’s valiant efforts seemed to be paying off. Then, hit by a breaking wave, the schooner tossed her head violently. The sharp crack of wood fracturing near Devlin’s feet was as loud and potentially lethal as a musket shot. His heart clenched and the crew froze momentarily on a collective intake of breath. They watched him. Cut or continue?

Cursing in fury and frustration Devlin reached for the small razor-sharp axe stowed beneath the sternsheets. With two swift strokes he severed the taut towrope.

Free from the burden that would have dragged them to their deaths, the galley leapt forward. Screams of renewed terror erupted aboard the helpless schooner. Devlin ignored them. He’d done his best. Braving the storm had been a calculated risk. Trying to maintain the tow would be foolhardy. Losing the salvage was bad enough. He had no intention of sacrificing the galley or his crew.

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