Dukes of War Series #6
Captain Blackheart leads a simple life of roving the seas, wenching and treasure-hunting. He steers clear of romantic entanglements that could tie him to land. He shouldn’t have any trouble keeping his hands off the gently-bred lady he’s commissioned to abduct—except his cargo turns out to be feisty and passionate! She’d be a prize worth treasuring, if having her aboard didn’t jeopardize everything…
Clara Halton thought the worst loss she could suffer was to be stripped of her family, stricken with consumption, and left to die alone. Then she meets Blackheart. Their attraction is ruinous…and irresistible. When he delivers her like so much plunder, his mission is over — but hers has just begun. She’ll force him to acknowledge their connection, even if she must storm his ship to do it!
Regency-set Historical Romance Novel
Join the official Dukes of War Reader Group!
You May Also Like . . .
Start Reading . . .
The Dark Crystal
The dread pirate Blackheart stood at the bow of his ship, smiling into the rush of salty air, as the first hint of America rose upon the horizon.
Despite the chill of winter, the skies were clear and blue, with both the wind and the sun to his back. ’Twas more than a good omen. It was a perfect day for any number of Captain Blackheart’s favorite activities. Sailing. Wenching. Drinking. Horse-racing. Sword-fighting. Boarding enemy vessels. Commandeering an ill-fortuned frigate.
Nothing was better than the freedom of the seas.
“Land ho!” came the familiar cry from the crow’s nest.
Blackheart’s good humor faded. He relinquished navigational oversight to the Quartermaster without a word.
There was no need to bark orders. Most of the crew had been part of his family long enough to recognize the storm clouds brewing in Blackheart’s eyes, and every hand on board already had their standing orders.
No unnecessary fighting. No drinking to excess. Wenching was always permissible, but only if the crew made haste. The Dark Crystal would only be docked at the Port of Philadelphia long enough for Blackheart to accomplish his mission, and then they’d sail down the Delaware River and back out to sea just as swiftly as they’d sailed in.
Payment would only be delivered upon receipt of the booty. In this case…a sickly old woman named Mrs. Halton.
Despite being a pirate for hire, Blackheart was not in the habit of kidnapping innocents. Prior to the end of the war eight short months ago, he had been a privateer for the Royal Navy. A government pirate. A legal pirate. Now that he was an independent contractor, he tried to uphold the spirit (if not the precise letter) of the law.
’Twas the surest way to steer clear of the gallows.
The soles of Blackheart’s boots tread silently against polished wood as he strode aft toward the gunroom skylight. He descended the ladder to the Captain’s cabin and slipped inside to gather his supplies.
Item the first: a freshly starched cravat. This mission would require charm. Item the second: a freshly cleaned pistol and extra ammunition. A pirate might not expect trouble, but he certainly intended to finish it. Item the third: a heavy coin purse. If everything else failed, gold was often more powerful than bullets. And he planned on using every weapon at his disposal.
By the time the schooner docked at the port, Blackheart was clean-shaven, dandified, and fresh as a daisy. Oh, certainly, his sun-bronzed skin was an unaristocratic brown—and was generously adorned with a truly ungentlemanly quantity of scars—but most of that was hidden away beneath his gleaming Hessians, soft buckskin breeches, muted chestnut waistcoat, blinding white cravat, and dark blue tailcoat with twin rows of gold buttons.
The hidden pistol in its fitted sling made barely a bulge beneath so many layers of foppery.
He forewent both sword and walking stick because he intended to make the rest of the journey on horseback, and debated leaving his hat behind as well. It was unlikely to stay on his head at a gallop, and would be crushed in the saddlebag…
With a sigh, Blackheart scooped up the beaver hat and shoved it on his head. He had no idea how easily manipulated Mrs. Halton might be, or whether she’d turn out to be one of those histrionic old matrons who refused to be seen in public alongside a gentleman with a bare head.
Plan B was to toss her over his shoulder and have done with the matter, but Blackheart had promised the Earl of Carlisle he’d at least try to coax the package into accompanying him voluntarily.
And although Blackheart would never admit it aloud, he had a rather high opinion of both his own charm and grandmotherly women. He would do everything within his power to make the journey to England a pleasant one for Mrs. Halton, and had already instructed his crew to treat her as if she were their own mother. With any luck, she’d be the sort to bake pies and biscuits. Or at least not to get seasick all over the Dark Crystal.
Carrying nothing more than a pair of gloves and a small satchel, he made his way down the gangplank in search of the fastest horse to rent—and nearly tripped over an underfed newspaper boy hawking today’s headlines for a penny.
Under normal circumstances, Blackheart would have flipped the boy a coin and let him keep the paper…but the black font stamped across the top stopped the captain in his tracks.
MOST DANGEROUS PIRATE:
THE CRIMSON CORSAIR
Blackheart snatched up the paper and tried to read over the grinding of his teeth. He wasn’t certain what he hated most about the Crimson Corsair: that the man was a dishonorable, coldblooded madman, or that he’d started to receive better press than Blackheart himself.
“You gonna pay for that, mister?” came a belligerent, high-pitched voice below his elbow.
He slapped the newspaper back onto the pile along with a shiny new coin, and stalked off the dock. Now was not the time to think about the Crimson Corsair. Once Mrs. Halton was safely delivered, Blackheart and his crew would be free to pursue any mission they wished—perhaps a quick seek-and-destroy of the corsair’s vessel—but for the moment, he needed to stay focused. Not only had he given Carlisle his word, this mission would be a doddle. Grab the woman, get the money. The easiest three hundred pounds of his life.
The Pennsylvania countryside flew past, the sky darkening as he rode. Blackheart kept to the mail roads in order to trade for fresh horses at posting-houses…and also to keep from losing his way. He was used to England and to the open sea, not these sparsely populated American trails winding endlessly between bigger cities. He never felt comfortable when he was out of sight from the water, and he was heading further from the ocean with every step.
Despite the impressive number of small towns intersecting the long dusty roads, he felt more isolated with each passing mile. The hurried meals he took in country taverns were nothing like the rowdy camaraderie aboard his ship. He could scarcely wait to complete this mission.
Fortunately, he had to spend the night at an inn only once before finally reaching the town where his target resided.
The shabby little cottage was right where his instructions said it would be, but the state of disrepair gave Blackheart pause. The garden was so overgrown as to be nearly wild. The exterior was dirty and covered in spiderwebs. No smoke rose from the chimney. No candlelight shone in the windows.
Had someone already abducted his quarry? Had she simply moved? Or, God forbid, died of old age during his journey from England?
Rather than blindly march into unknown territory, he turned his horse in search of the local postmaster, in order to determine whether his target was still in his sights—or whether the rules of the game had changed.
“Mrs. Halton?” repeated the pale-faced postmaster when Blackheart interrupted his nuncheon. “Mrs. Clara Halton?”
“Yes,” Blackheart replied calmly, as he towered over the dining table. “I’ve come to pay her a visit.”
“But you mustn’t, sir.” The postmaster forged on despite the captain’s raised brow. “You cannot. She’s ill—”
“I’m aware that Mrs. Halton has been sickly.”
“—with consumption,” the postmaster finished, his eyes wide with foreboding.
Although Blackheart’s smile didn’t falter, his blood ran cold. Consumption. The game had indeed changed.
“How long has she been afflicted?” he asked quietly.
“I don’t rightly know—”
“How long does the doctor think she has?”
“I don’t…He hasn’t seen her since the diagnosis.”
“Hasn’t seen her?” Blackheart frowned. “She won’t allow him in?”
“He hasn’t gone.” The postmaster’s cheeks flushed. “It’s the contagion, sir, can’t you understand? He’s the sole medical practitioner for miles, and if he catches the illness…”
The spiderwebs and overgrown garden now made perfect sense. Blackheart’s jaw tightened. They’d left her to die. “If the sole medical practitioner does not visit his patient, I presume neither do the dairy maids or local farmers.”
“No, sir. I can’t even deliver her letters anymore. Too dangerous. We could die if we caught—”
“Without food or medicine, how is Mrs. Halton expected to live?”
“She ain’t expected to live, sir. That’s the point you keep missing. Most folks with consumption don’t last longer than—”
“You said you possess post you’ve failed to deliver? Hand it over.”
“You can’t possibly intend to—”
The postmaster scrambled up from the table and hurried over to a cubicle, from which he drew two folded missives. “I wouldn’t normally hand post to a stranger—”
“—but since you’ve no intention to deliver it anyway…” Blackheart finished dryly as he shoved the letters into his coat pocket. He turned toward the door, but then paused to pin the postmaster in his stare one final time. “Keep in mind, not everyone dies of consumption—but we all die of starvation.”
He stalked back outside without waiting for a reply. There was nothing the postmaster could say that would be worth the time it took to listen. Perhaps Mrs. Halton’s consumption was in fact fatal. Most afflicted parties did not survive more than a year or two after diagnosis.
But not all.
Blackheart should know.
He’d been eight years old when consumption had attacked his father. Then his mother. He’d still been young Gregory Steele in those days, and no lock in the house could keep him from his parents’ sickbed for long.
What they’d thought was pneumonia had proven otherwise the moment they’d started coughing up blood. Then one of the nurses became infected. Another—just like little Gregory—developed a few of the symptoms, but eventually overcame the illness.
He was in perfect health the day they’d buried his parents in the ground.
His fingers clenched. Depending on Mrs. Halton’s condition, he might not be able to complete this mission. But the least he could do was deliver the lady’s mail.
He tied his horse to the rusting iron post at the edge of Mrs. Halton’s overgrown front walk and rolled back his shoulders. For the next few minutes at least, he would not be Captain Blackheart, second-most feared pirate upon the high seas. Instead, he would be Mr. Gregory Steele. Again.
It had been so long since he’d last removed his mask, he’d nearly forgotten what being plain Mr. Steele felt like. It was so easy to forget that “Blackheart” was a persona and Gregory Steele was the real man. Especially when he liked being a pirate so much better.
He rapped his fingers against the door.
No one answered.
He glanced around for a knocker. There was none. He rapped harder. Thunder rumbled overhead.
No one answered.
His stomach twisted. He couldn’t help but note the very Steele dismay at the idea of arriving too late to save a total stranger. A pirate like Blackheart would only care that he and his men had been effectively swindled by the earl who’d set them upon this impossible mission.
Gregory Steele, however, would deal with Carlisle and the crew later. First, he needed to determine whether his quarry was still alive—and figure out what to do next.
“Mrs. Halton?” he called, tramping across overgrown grass to squint through a grimy window. “Are you in there?”
“Go away!” returned a muffled female voice from the other side of the wall.
Steele’s shoulders loosened. Relief rushed through him even though he well knew Mrs. Halton’s non-dead state didn’t mean any of their lives were about to get easier. One step at a time.
“Mrs. Halton, my name is Mr. Gregory Steele, and I have come all the way from London, England to—”
“Go away,” the stubborn voice repeated. “I’m armed.”
A grin played at the edges of Steele’s lips. Pirate or not, he did love a good gunfight. Any old woman cantankerous enough to suggest one was well on her way to being a kindred spirit.
“I’m not here to rob you, ma’am. I—”
“Well, I’m not here to kill you. I’ve consumption, which is almost always fatal. I shan’t be giving it to you.”
Almost always. Steele’s smile faded and he considered the closed door with renewed respect. If the occupant was aware of the minuscule chance that she might not die, she was also probably aware that temporary exposure to an invalid did not necessarily—or even usually—result in the infection of the caretaker. And yet Mrs. Halton still valued a stranger’s life over any concern for her own.
“You’re not going to shoot me,” he said calmly.
Her voice didn’t sound grandmotherly. But then, they were on opposite sides of a wall. He needed to put paid to this farce. She would realize soon enough that even real weapons were no deterrent. Her empty threats were laughable.
“If you wished for me to die, you’d have no objection to me entering a sick chamber.”
“Perhaps I simply wish for you to die quickly,” came the cheeky response.
He blinked and then bit back a silent laugh. How long had it been since last he’d been threatened to his face? Years. Not since becoming Blackheart. No one had dared to challenge him. Until today.
“Please open the door. I’m coming inside.”
“I’m busy adding extra powder to my pistol to make certain the first ball takes you down if you come near my door.”
“Most pistols only have one ball, Mrs. Halton. If you miss, you won’t even have time to reload it. Besides, we both know you haven’t—” Steele paused at the familiar sound of a ramrod forcing a patched ball down a metallic chamber. “You have a pistol?”
“You really should consider leaving before I’ve finished loading it. Oh, bother…I’ve finished. A smart man would take his leave.”
Steele stepped away from the window in case the dear old bat was mad enough to shoot him.
He ran his hands down his coat. He, too, had a pistol. And, no, he would not be drawing it. He had something even more powerful.
“Stopped by the postmaster on my way to your cottage,” he said conversationally. “Seems to have forgotten to drop off a couple of items. First letter is from a…” He squinted at the spidery script. “Can’t rightly say. ‘Mayer,’ perhaps?”
“My father?” The voice on the other side of the wall sounded tiny and shocked. “What does it say?”
“The second one was franked by the Earl of Carlisle but seems to be from a Miss Grace Halton. Relation of yours, is it?”
“My daughter,” Mrs. Halton breathed, her voice so quiet and so close that Steele could imagine her pressing up against the wall to be closer to the letter. “Read it to me.”
He shoved them back into his coat pocket as noisily as possible. “Let me in, and I will.”
“Blackguard,” she hissed.
He smiled. “You have no idea.”
Silence reigned for a scant moment before the soft sound of a tumbler indicated the front lock had been disengaged.
The door did not swing open.
Steele strode up and let himself in, just as the first drops of rain began to fall from the sky.
The tiny cottage consisted of very few rooms—all of which were visible from the vantage point of the front door. No candles were lit and no fire burned in the grate, but enough natural light filtered in through the windows to illuminate the musty, but surprisingly clean interior.
The furnishings were shabby and worn, but otherwise spotless. The dishes were clean. The beds were made. The woman aiming a triple-barrel flintlock turnover pistol toward Steele’s midsection was bathed and neat.
And not a day older than Steele himself.
Where his own beard was starting to appear more salt and pepper these days, Mrs. Halton’s long black hair cascaded down her back with nary a hint of gray. Dark eyelashes framed wide green eyes. He swallowed and tried not to stare. She was beautiful. Porcelain skin. Rosy lips.
The lady didn’t look sick. She didn’t even look like the right person.
He narrowed his eyes. “How can you possibly be the mother of a grown woman? Or…acquainted with the Earl of Carlisle?”
“Read me the letter, and perhaps we’ll both find out.” She gestured at him with the pistol. “Better yet, leave my correspondence on the table, and see your way out.”
“Why don’t you put that thing down before you lose a hand? Multi-cylinder pistols have been known to explode rather than eject their ammunition. Yours looks like it’s twenty years old.”
“It is. I bought it after my husband was killed and taught myself to shoot it. Don’t worry, it won’t misfire. I clean it every night.”
The increase in Steele’s heart rate had nothing to do with fear and everything to do with the confident woman in front of him. Owning a gun had made her interesting to him. Being willing to use it had made her even more so. Now that he saw it for himself and realized not only was it three-barreled firepower instead of a lady’s simple muff pistol, but that she also knew how to take care of it…and herself… He was very, very interested.
He held out his palm. “Give me the gun.”
“Why would I do so, when I’ve the upper hand?” She succeeded quite admirably with sending an imperious glare down her nose until a sudden violent cough wracked her thin shoulders. She hid her face behind her elbow until the onslaught passed.
Steele backed up a step without even realizing it, unable to tamp a frisson of remembered terror from sliding down his spine. As soon as she was done coughing, he stepped forward and lowered his voice. “Give me the pistol now, or I’ll wait until your next coughing fit and take it from you.”
Green eyes flashing in silent fury, she slid the flint out of the pistol’s jaws and slapped the disarmed weapon into his upturned hand. “Give me the letters.”
“In a moment.” He helped himself to the larger of two uncomfortable-looking chairs. “How long have you had consumption?”
“I started coughing about six months ago.” She sank into the chair opposite him as if she no longer had the ability to stand.
He couldn’t help but remember watching his parents’ eventual decline into death. How angry he had felt. How helpless. But at least they hadn’t been alone. He softened his voice. “How did you know it was consumption?”
“A traveling surgeon told me in November. There had been other cases nearby, and when he learned I’d been sick for three months… He just knew.”
Steele frowned. “He knew, or he examined you?”
“Of course he examined me. From a safe distance. I was already bedridden. Even now, I can’t keep my feet for more than a quarter hour at a time without losing my breath. Once he told me he suspected consumption, I sent my daughter as far away as I could. May I please read her letter?”
“In a moment.” He held up a finger at her glare. “I’m not being cruel. We both know you’ll stop listening to me the moment I hand over the post. I’m trying to understand the timing. When your daughter left, she didn’t know your diagnosis?”
Mrs. Halton shook her head. “If I’d told her, she would never have left. And I couldn’t have her death on my conscience.”
“How did you get her to leave? Triple-barrel turnover pistol, I presume?”
She smiled sadly. “I lied. Oldest trick there is. I told her there was a miracle cure we didn’t have enough money for, and that if she went to England to find her grandparents, perhaps they would give the money to her. If not outright, then as a dowry.”
“And you’ve been wasting away ever since? How are you managing, with no servants and no food?”
“I have a patch of vegetables behind the cottage, between the fruit trees. It takes me all day to tend what a farmer might in a mere hour, but I’ve nothing else to do with my time, other than wait to die. And count the raindrops every time the roof leaks.”
A vegetable garden. Steele tilted his head to consider her. She was clearly exhausted, clearly ill—those wet, wracking coughs could not be faked—and yet, to his eye, she didn’t remotely look like she was dying. Pneumonia, he could perhaps believe. On the other hand, she’d been sick for half a year already. And a surgeon had made the diagnosis.
A traveling surgeon, Steele reminded himself. A traveling surgeon who had examined his patient from a safe distance across the room. Which likely meant he hadn’t examined her at all.
“When did the blood start?”
She crossed her legs. “The what?”
“Coughing up blood.” Steele’s parents’ eyes had gone bloodshot and puffy around the same time the blood began, and had never recovered. Once they’d become bedridden, they hadn’t left their sickroom again. “Have you been coughing up blood since November?”
Her forehead creased. “No.”
“When did it start?”
“It hasn’t. Yet. I’ve all the other symptoms—fatigue, cough, chest pain, chills, weight loss. It’s just a matter of time.”
Steele stared at her, then leapt out of the chair. He did his best thinking on his feet and he needed to come up with something. Perhaps it wasn’t just a matter of time. Perhaps there was hope.
Her eyes widened. “What are you doing?”
“Reconnaissance.” He tossed the letters into her lap and began to pace the small cottage. Was it possible? Might she not have consumption after all? Or was it wishful thinking from a man who couldn’t bear to watch anyone else die from such a disease?
He was no doctor. Prior to turning to a life at sea, Steele had been a barrister. But success in both law and piracy required an observant eye, an infallible memory, and an analytical mind. One did not present one’s case unless one could predict every word and every reaction from both the judge and the witnesses. Likewise, one did not board an enemy ship without knowing exactly who was on board and what, precisely, awaited them.
This, however, was a special case.
First evidence: no blood. Granted, this was usually a later sign—once all hope truly was gone—but six months had gone by and Mrs. Halton’s cough was no worse than someone with pneumonia or lesser illnesses.
Second evidence: Mrs. Halton was still alive. If the servants had abandoned Steele’s parents as they lay upon their sickbed, they would have died from lack of food and water. In contrast, Mrs. Halton tended a garden. Slowly, perhaps. A tiny one, yes. But she withstood the sun and she cooked her own meals and she tidied after herself. None of which was typical behavior for an invalid dying of consumption.
Third evidence: Her symptoms. Weight loss? See: tiny garden, and forced to cook her own meals. Night chills? It was February. She had no fire. Fatigue, cough, chest pain? Pneumonia. Influenza. Asthma. Whooping cough. Any number of diseases that were uncomfortable or even dangerous, yet not life-threatening. But how could he be certain?
His fingers curled into fists. He hated to leave her behind. What if she worsened? She couldn’t count on any of her neighbors dropping by with milk or broth.
On the other hand, what if the surgeon was right? What if he brought her aboard the ship only for her to start spitting up blood and infecting his entire crew while they floated in the middle of the ocean?
Lightning flashed outside the south windows.
Mrs. Halton dragged herself up off her chair and to the kitchen, where she gathered a collection of pots and pans and began to position them strategically throughout the cottage.
Steele blinked. “What the devil are you doing, woman?”
She pointed overhead. “Rotted ceiling, remember?”
He tilted his gaze upward and took an involuntary step back. So much for his infallible memory. She was right—the ceiling leaked. What she had failed to mention was that the rotting roof was coated in slimy mold. Flecks of the dark fungus dripped down with the rain to splat in the thick iron pans. The rest clung to the ceiling, growing outward from the wet areas until fingers of furry mold brushed against the tops of the walls like a living black carpet.
The back of Steele’s throat tickled just from looking at all that mold. They were breathing it right now.
“Pack a bag,” he barked as he ducked into her bedchamber to start throwing open drawers.
She glanced up from arranging the pots, startled. “What? Why?”
“You’re coming with me.”
“But I have—”
“I don’t think you do.” He threw a large cloth bag onto the bed. “Pack it.”
“You may be used to getting your way due to your looks and your arrogance, but I’m not willing to risk other people’s lives based on what you think.”
“You won’t be risking everyone’s lives. Just mine.” He tossed a pair of stockings into the open bag. “You’ll be quarantined with me.”
When Clara Halton had woken up coughing in her lonely bed that morning, she’d never imagined that later that afternoon she would be flying across dirt roads on the back of a horse…with her arms wrapped around the hard, muscled stomach of an arrogant stranger.
What was she doing? Recklessness was for the young. Adventure was for the young.
The mistakes she’d made during the year of her London come-out were precisely the reason why she was nine-and-thirty years old…and had a twenty-two-year-old daughter. Running away from her disapproving parents, fleeing to America, falling in love with a young doctor whose big heart would lead him to an early grave in the blink of an eye… Reckless, all of it. Foolhardy. Witless.
She’d learned from those mistakes. She’d had no choice. At seventeen years old, she’d become self-sufficient overnight. She’d become responsible overnight. Grown up. Cautious. Over-protective. Safe.
“Are you comfortable?” Mr. Steele called back to her. “The next posting-house is bound to have a carriage we can rent.”
Clara lifted her cheek from his coat. His warm back protected her face from the wind, and she enjoyed the masculine rumble of his voice more than she’d like to admit. “No.”
He pulled the horse up short. His muscles had tensed. “No, you’re not comfortable?”
“No, we oughtn’t waste time on a coach.” Not if they truly were going to England. Excitement lightened her chest. Now that seeing Grace again finally seemed possible, Clara couldn’t wait to begin. Particularly if she didn’t have much time left. “You said you could take me to my daughter. A carriage will take longer to reach the port. I don’t know how much time I—”
He twisted toward her, trying to meet her eyes. “You are not going to die. Not of consumption. Not of anything, whilst you’re under my protection. I will reunite you with your family.”
Doubt crept in. What if her health was worse than he believed? What if she never would see her daughter again? She should have stayed in her cottage. Hope was the cruelest jest of all. Why did he wish to save her? Why did he even think he could?
She should tell him to send his arrogance and high-handed ways to the devil. She should scoff at his claim that anyone in the world was truly more powerful than death.
Yet she couldn’t move. Something about the determination in his eyes, the hard set of his jaw, the almost careless confidence he exuded with every word and every breath… Clara had no doubt that if anyone could cheat death, it was this man.
“Who are you?” she whispered, not bothering to hide her awe—or her hesitation.
“Mr. Steele.” His reply came easily, but a hint of a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “Sometimes.”
She frowned. “What—”
He picked up the reins. “The moment you feel sick or tired or achy, you tell me. We’ll get a coach whether you like it or not. And come nightfall, we find an inn. Understood?”
Silent indignation flashed in her veins. Clara could despise his autocratic arrogance all she wished, but the truth remained: He was right. She was no longer physically capable of a nonstop breakneck pace for hours, days. They would have to stop at some point. Change horses. Eat. Sleep.
She nodded her acquiescence.
“Good.” He turned back to the horse. “Hold on tight.”
She lay her cheek against his coat, wrapped her arms about his abdomen, and tried not to think about how long it had been since her body had last pressed up against a man’s. Everything about that idea was as dangerous as Mr. Steele himself.
Whoever he was.
He spoke in the clipped accents of a wellborn English gentleman, but had the hard, muscled body of a farmer—or a fighter. He not only moved with the grace of a tiger, his eyes were never still, constantly scouring their surroundings for…what, precisely? He’d dropped her pistol into his satchel, but the bulge beneath his waistcoat indicated he had brought at least one weapon of his own. To the home of an invalid. What exactly had he expected to find?
Grace’s letter had made no mention of a Mr. Steele, but it did reference the Earl of Carlisle, whose seal had been pressed into the sealing wax. Grace insisted that although she had warm feelings toward the man, he was absolutely, positively, not the suitor for her. Which probably meant the opposite.
Clara closed her eyes. She’d sent Grace to England in the hopes of saving her life—and securing a future. If the girl had found love in the process, then things had worked out better than Clara could even have hoped.
In fact, she knew they had. The impossible had already occurred. The parents who had disowned her in her youth had actually written a letter, something Clara had given up on years ago. Not just a letter. A ticket for a passenger ship had been tucked inside, next to her father’s spidery script. Clara’s mother didn’t know about the letter. Or the passenger ticket.
Neither did Mr. Steele.
If he was right, and she wasn’t contagious… If passage with him seemed unsafe, or fell through completely… She still had a chance to see Grace.
An ache filled Clara’s heart. It had been nearly four months since she’d seen her daughter. She’d truly believed she would never see her face again. Mr. Steele’s arrival had interrupted her mourning and given her hope. If he hadn’t come…
She opened her eyes. Even if the post-master had delivered her correspondence, Clara would have had no way to get to the port to take advantage of it. She’d run out of money long before. Besides, the whole town treated her like a leper. She’d treated herself like a leper. Hadn’t broken her self-imposed quarantine since the diagnosis. Sent away the only living person she still loved. Would rather have died alone than risk hurting anyone else.
Yet Mr. Steele didn’t take the threat seriously. Perhaps he didn’t take much of anything seriously.
Her stomach clenched. This was madness. What if he was wrong, and had already contracted the illness? What if all that awaited Grace at the docks of London was the corpse of her dead mother?
She tightened her grip about Mr. Steele’s waist as a shudder wracked through her. He was a cocksure, overbearing stranger but she would never forgive herself if something happened to him because of her.
It was too late, though, wasn’t it? She was already on the back of a horse, cleaving herself to his body, drunk on the idea of seeing her daughter again. Of recovering some semblance of health. Of having a future.
She would go mad if she allowed herself to dwell on all the ways this misadventure could go horribly awry. Mr. Steele knew the risks. He was the one who’d talked her into taking an even bigger one. According to him, he’d reunite her with her family in little over a fortnight. If she’d let him. Trust him. Relinquish control.
Her eyes closed as she nestled her cheek into his back and listened to the reassuring beat of his heart. She’d met Mr. Steele scant hours earlier, but she already knew he was impossible to argue with. Full of charm and swagger, and an utter confidence that he would always get his way.
She hated that kind of man because he was exactly the type who most tempted her. It wasn’t that she distrusted him, but rather that she distrusted herself. Strong men weakened her knees. The thought of being protected, of being safe again, after so many years of fearing what the morrow might bring…
The tension seeped out of her shoulders. She let herself drift away, to dream of her daughter’s smile, of the endless brilliant sea, of a strange, arrogant man with teasing blue eyes and a strong, firm touch.
Clara awoke in his arms. In his arms? Heat flooded her cheeks. Whilst she’d slept, she’d apparently slid to one side until she’d become unseated and had to be caught before tumbling to the ground below.
He still hadn’t let her go.
“I’m fine.” Her arms were pinned too well to allow her to rub the sleep from her face. Or for her racing heart to calm down. “I’m awake now.”
“You’re moving up front. We’re at least an hour from the closest inn, and I won’t risk you getting hurt.”
“I promise I won’t fall back aslee—”
Her bottom thumped in place. Her flush burned hotter as her hips nestled between his thighs.
“I’ve got you,” he murmured against her hair. “You’re safe now. I won’t let you out of my sight until we set sail.”
A shiver teased her skin that had nothing to do with the chill of winter. Every inch of her body was tense, alive to the feel of his legs against hers, of his arm wrapped about her waist, of the rhythmic motion of their pelvises as the horse cantered toward the closest town.
Toward the closest inn.
Blast, there was no hope of falling back asleep. Not with their bodies touching like this. Not when the promise—er, the threat—of sharing a bedchamber was so imminent. He was absolutely, positively not the suitor for her. Or at all. As soon as they were aboard a passenger liner, she’d find her own room with other ladies and never see the man again.
But first, she’d have to survive a night in the same bed.
The bed took up most of the room.
Or, at least, it did in Clara’s mind. It loomed there, soft and big and inviting, right across from a gently crackling fireplace that bathed the room in muted, shimmering light.
Mr. Steele lay her traveling bag atop the mattress, then turned away. “You take the bed.”
“Where will you sleep?” Clara blurted, simultaneously relieved and disappointed. She had been alone for too long. Of course he wouldn’t share a bed with a potential consumption victim. Nor did she wish him to. Besides, he was a complete stranger. She didn’t know him well enough to even like him. Any disappointment was completely irrational. And yet…
He glanced back at her over his shoulder. “Do you need assistance with any items of clothing?”
Her cheeks flushed. “N-no.”
“Then good night.” He lay down on the floor, fluffed up his satchel as if it were a pillow, and closed his eyes.
He didn’t move.
She kept her eyes fixed on his prone form.
The slight rise and fall of his chest were the only signs of life.
After another long moment, she opened her traveling bag and retrieved her nightrail and tooth powder.
He still hadn’t moved.
Clara reached up to close the curtains surrounding all four posts of the bed, effectively creating a barrier between the two of them. As quickly as she could, she slipped out of her simple day dress and into her nightrail, then crossed over to the water pitcher atop the nightstand.
Mr. Steele had rolled over on his side, his back toward the bed.
She cleaned her teeth and her face as quickly as she could before parting the curtains and climbing into bed. A long sigh escaped her lips. She’d assumed the sheets would feel cold after a day’s journey pressed up against the coiled heat of Mr. Steele’s body, but between the curtains and the fireplace, the bed simply felt like heaven.
Or perhaps it was the knowledge that, for once, she wasn’t fighting the world alone.
She drifted off to sleep and slept more soundly than she had in months.
When she awoke the following morning, a breakfast tray sat on the small table on the other side of the room. Seated to one side was Mr. Steele, looking appallingly bright-eyed and refreshed at what had to be an ungodly hour.
“What time is it?” she croaked.
“Half eight.” His eyes crinkled at her from across the top of his teacup. “Have you always been this slothful?”
“Half eight?” she repeated in amazement. It wasn’t the crack of dawn. She’d slept over ten straight hours, for the first time in…well, long before the consumption diagnosis. She doubted she’d had a sound night’s sleep since the day she’d become a widow. “Shouldn’t we be on our way?”
“After you break your fast. The innkeeper is readying a carriage for us. We should be to the port by tomorrow evening.”
“I thought you said it only took you two days to get from your ship to my house.”
“Correct. We, however, will take longer. A coach simply can’t travel as fast as a horse.”
“How about two horses?”
He raised a brow.
She gripped the back of a chair. “If we’re each on a horse, can’t we still make it by nightfall?”
“If we’re each on a horse, you might fall asleep and tumble off. Or have a coughing fit and tumble off. Or succumb to chills and tumble off. That’s why we’re taking a carriage.”
Desperation clawed at Clara’s chest. She still wasn’t convinced she’d recover from her illness. But if he was right… The sooner they were on that ship, the sooner she could see her daughter. Make sure Grace was all right. Ensure the child’s grandparents were treating her with the love she deserved. “A single horse, then.”
He buttered a slice of bread without responding.
“We’ll take one horse, and we’ll get there tonight. I’ll hold on as tight as I can and I won’t fall asleep.”
He added a dollop of marmalade to the bread.
“I’ll sit in front,” she said, hating the pleading note in her voice. “You can keep your arm about me the entire way. You’ll see that I’m fine.”
He pushed the plate of marmalade bread toward her. “Eat your breakfast.”
She glared at him for only a second before hurrying behind the curtained bed to exchange her nightrail for a day dress. They obviously wouldn’t be going anywhere until he deemed her ready for travel. Therefore, she wouldn’t give him any ammunition to hold against her. She swiped a comb through her hair and returned everything to her traveling bag before going to join him at the table.
He watched her in silence as she added two cubes of sugar and a splash of milk to her tea before turning her attentions to her plate.
The bread was warm and fresh, the marmalade sweet and tangy. Clara hadn’t had either for so long, the familiar taste nearly brought tears to her eyes.
But the only thing she wanted more than to savor this meal was to reach the docks as quickly as possible. To get back to her daughter. And to never let her out of her sight again.
Just as she popped the last bite into her mouth, Mr. Steele rose to his feet and held up her spencer.
She slid her arms through the sleeves, then frowned when he offered her a thick woolen scarf. “Is that yours?”
“I’m afraid I have this monstrosity instead.” He pointed to his cravat.
Frowning, she allowed him to bundle her up to his liking. She couldn’t repay him for any part of the journey. He claimed the Earl of Carlisle was covering all expenses, and she hoped that was true. She already felt indebted to him for rescuing her from loneliness and despair. She was still tired, still coughing, still unsure the surgeon had been wrong in his diagnosis. But her heart now held a spark of hope. And a spark, once lit, burned brighter as it grew. She could almost smell her childhood home.
England. It would feel so good to be home. To hold her daughter. To finally face her parents.
When Mr. Steele offered his elbow, she took it, and let him lead her down the stairs and out the front gate, where a single horse was tied to an iron post next to a stepping stone.
Her eyes narrowed. “I thought you said the innkeeper was readying us a carriage.”
“Hmm, did I?” His eyes twinkled as he hoisted her up and hauled her into his lap. “I thought you said you preferred to ride with me.”
She opened her mouth to respond.
Her words were snatched away on the breeze as the horse shot away from the inn to hurtle down the dirt road.
Since he couldn’t see her expression from his vantage point, she allowed her lips to curve into a reluctant smile. The insufferable man had manipulated her into doing precisely what he wanted, and didn’t even bother to hide the evidence of his duplicity. He was positively shameless.
’Twas a very good thing that they were both on the same side.
The wind and the relentless pace made conversation impossible. Despite a long night’s rest, Clara found herself drowsing off between the infrequent stops for meals and to exchange horses. The bustle of Philadelphia wakened her as soon as they were within a few miles of the city. Her eyes absorbed with curiosity all the colors, buildings, people, and traffic.
The scent of the river indicated their proximity to the port moments before the docks came into view. Ships of every size filled the view. Fruit vendors, flower vendors, pie vendors, newspaper boys, and men and women of every age flooded the wooden boards, surrounding every ship in port with their constant movement and shouts.
Every ship except one.
Clara’s breath caught. There, at the furthest end of the port, floated a beautiful three-masted schooner with a profusion of billowing white sails. Her heart thudded. The only reason anyone could have to avoid such a lovely vessel would be if it were…
Balderdash. Of course there wasn’t anything ominous about that ship. Why would there be? Believing in such nonsense was a flight of fancy from reading too many lurid newspaper accounts of soulless pirates like the Crimson Corsair going on murderous rampages in search of treasure.
But that was in the Caribbean, not here. What would pirates be doing in Pennsylvania? She was perfectly safe.
Steele dismounted the horse, helped her down, and then hoisted their satchels over his shoulders. “Come. We should make haste.”
She nodded. She would make all the haste he wanted, if it brought her back to her daughter.
Except every step took them past the brightly lit passenger liners and brought them closer and closer to the swift-looking schooner at the end of the dock.
“Welcome back, Cap’n,” came a hearty shout from overhead as a long wooden gangplank lowered to the ground near Mr. Steele’s feet. “Knew you wouldn’t ’ave any trouble with the booty, sir.”
Captain? Clara shook her head as she began to back away from the ship. Booty?
Mr. Steele tossed both heavy bags to his other shoulder and grabbed her wrist with his free hand. “Welcome aboard, Mrs. Halton. Adventure awaits.”