Authors: Wendy Soliman
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
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Hal breathed a little more easily. Provided he kept her well clear of his visitor, who was to keep to his cabin on Hal’s specific orders, he could enjoy her lively company without fear of reprisals.
Leah reached the top of the ladder and his bosun pulled her aboard with ease. Hal followed her over the gunwales. The rest of the crew disappeared and the two of them stood facing one another on the swaying deck, completely alone. Her eyes were bright with curiosity as she observed the neatly furled sails, the scrubbed decks, everything tidy and shipshape.
She glanced over her shoulder at him, her expression appreciative and just a little reckless. “It’s not a bit like I imagined.”
“What did you expect to see? Drunken men rolling about, lack of order and discipline?” He quirked a brow. “You’ve spent too much time in Mrs. Wilkinson’s company and are starting to believe the stories she puts about.”
“I’m not sure what I expected exactly. I’ve never been on a large ship before.”
“This isn’t a large ship, but what she lacks in size, she more than makes up for in speed. There’s a lot to be said for that.”
“That rather depends upon your purpose, I would imagine. If you were running from the French, then speed and stealth would indeed be an advantage.” She ran a hand across the painted guardrail, her eyes on its smooth surface rather than on him. “I can quite see that.”
“We are no longer at war with the French.”
“Nor are we entirely comfortable with their society. Wars create deep resentments, national pride often triumphs over political dictates, and people have long memories.”
He smiled at her simplistic philosophy. “Then it’s fortunate that I have no business to conduct with the French.”
“If you say so.”
Hal, unwilling to continue that particular line of conversation, took her arm. “Come, I’ll give you a guided tour.”
She followed him around the main deck, listening to his explanation of the sails and their individual purposes. He showed her the bowsprit, the fore and aft rigs and the topmast. She asked intelligent questions, nimbly climbing the steps to the spar deck, from which the crew dealt with the rigging when the ship put to sea. They explored the forecastle, where the crew quarters were and then lifted the hatch that led to the main accommodation below. She peered into the sparsely furnished cabin he currently occupied whilst on board.
“It’s very much a man’s world.” She had clearly forgotten that she was currently posing as a member of the male gender herself. “I would have expected the master’s quarters to be much larger.”
“We men don’t need the same creature comforts as the fairer sex, Leon, you know that.”
“No, I suppose we don’t.” She returned to the companionway and pointed to the door at the end, the one that led to his actual cabin. “What’s in there?”
“Stores,” he said, steering her firmly back towards the main deck. “Come, there is more for you to see yet.”
She followed him without demur but kept looking back at that closed door. Damn the girl, why did she have to be so intuitive? Hal nodded to his bosun as soon as he stepped on the deck, and his crew sprang into action. Sails were hoisted and the anchor weighed. The small crew worked in harmony with one another, few verbal orders necessary. They had done this many times before, often under circumstances that required both speed and stealth.
“We’re going to sea?” she asked.
“I promised you a sight of the stars at night from the deck of my boat.”
“Yes, so you did. I’d quite forgotten about that.”
A sharp breeze blew off the land, filling the sails almost as soon as they’d been set. Bold and beautiful,
moved gracefully towards the open sea.
“Come with me.” He led her towards the bridge and nodded to the helmsman. He vacated his position with a cheerful wink for Leah.
Hal took the wheel and steered the ship out of the bay. He was conscious of Leah, face turned into the wind, looking surprisingly at home. And not the least bit seasick.
“Do you want to try?” he asked her.
She didn’t hesitate. “Yes, I’d like that.” She stepped up to him. “What must I do?”
He shot her an ironic glance as several inappropriate responses sprang to his mind. “Take a firm hold of the wheel,” he said gruffly.
Her hands looked far too small on the large wheel and he placed his own over them, directing her movements whilst trying to ignore the indefinable something about her that so attracted him. God’s teeth, this simply wouldn’t do.
“Do you feel the wind blowing from the land?” he asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“Keep it on your left cheek.”
“All right.” She made a slight adjustment.
“Watch the compass.” He pointed to the instrument directly in front of the wheel. “Ensure that the needle points directly north at all times.”
“Is that all?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“I don’t feel as if I’m doing anything.” She glanced over her shoulder at him. “It seems too easy.”
knows what to do. You’re merely holding her on course.”
“I hope she doesn’t object to a stranger taking charge of her.”
Hal smiled. Like him, she appeared to think of his ship as a living, breathing entity. “She has a tolerant nature.”
Hal moved a little closer and pressed his body against hers. She made no objection, apparently focused on her occupation. If she even noticed his state of arousal, she made no comment upon it. A strand of her long red hair had escaped her cap. He curled it round his finger and tucked it back in place. Much as he would like to feel the weight of all her locks cascading through his fingers, were Leah to shed her inadequate disguise, it would probably break the mood. She felt safe in her role as his cabin boy, and Hal was happy to play along.
The ship majestically cleared the headland and conveyed them towards the open sea. It was full dark, entirely tranquil with just the sound of the wind rattling the rigging and the soft lapping of the water against the hull intruding upon Hal’s introspective thoughts. Even the stars appeared to be on his side since not a cloud dared to obscure them. He had seldom seen a better display. He signalled to the helmsman waiting a discreet distance away, who stepped forward to resume his duties.
“Where are we going now? What are they doing?” She pointed to members of the crew lowering the mainsails as Hal led her towards the forward deck. “Why are we stopping?”
“Look.” He pointed upwards.
“Oh!” With a sharp intake of breath she stared at the starry sky. “I had no idea it could be so clear, so beautiful.” She turned to look at him. “Why is that?”
“There’s nothing to obscure them out here.”
“As there is in London?”
“Exactly. Even in Denby, it’s not the same. Did I not tell you, this is the only way to view the galaxy?”
“Yes, and I can see several constellations quite clearly.” She offered him a raffish grin. “But if I try to name them you will most likely correct me and spoil the moment so I shan’t attempt it.”
She leaned back, resting against his chest as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Yea gods, what had he set in motion? He desperately wanted to kiss her but manfully restrained his impulses. If he started down that road, something told him he would never be able to stop, and despoiling inquisitive virgins was definitely not his style.
“Are we at anchor?”
“No, it’s far too deep here.”
“How deep is it?”
“As deep as a man’s soul, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Soul deep,” she said dreamily. “I like that.”
“Come,” he said gruffly when she shivered and wrapped her arms round her torso. “It’s time to eat.”
He guided her to the forecastle and a position in the lee of the wind. His crew, at a signal from him, hoisted the sails and turned the boat back in the direction of home. It wouldn’t take long to reach their anchorage. Hopefully Hal could restrain his impulses for that long and then this self-imposed madness would be over with.
A simple meal had been prepared for them and was laid out on the table, a lantern casting an eerie glow over the fare on offer. Fresh bread, a cold collation, crisp wine to drink.
“Please,” he said, indicating a seat on one side of the table. “Eat.”
He expected her to demur but she set to with gusto.
“You’re hungry?” he asked, smiling.
“Sea air always gives me an appetite.”
“Then perhaps you would not suit as my cabin boy after all. I wouldn’t be able to bear the cost of feeding you.”
“Or control me, either,” she said, her eyes sparkling with laughter.
“No,” he agreed softly, “never that. It would be such a pity to tame that wild, impulsive nature of yours.”
Hal ate little himself, content to watch his guest. Several times she reached for her cap, as though about to cast it aside, only to change her mind. She wouldn’t look at him, didn’t appear to feel the charged atmosphere, the expectancy that was so apparent to him. Or perhaps she did but didn’t recognize it for what it was.
Sexual desire, damn it, swamped both his mind and his reason.
As he watched her looking so at home on his boat, licking grease from her fingers, heat cascaded through him in unstoppable waves. There didn’t seem to be a damned thing he could do to control it so he gave up trying. What this woman had done to him, he was at a loss to explain. There was nothing remarkable about her. She wasn’t beautiful, nor was she particularly well-born. She certainly didn’t seem to set much stock by his elevated rank and wasn’t trying to impress him.
Even so, or perhaps because of those reasons, she compelled him.
“Sing to me,” he said quietly when she’d finally eaten her fill.
He expected her to decline. Instead, without hesitation she opened her mouth and, unaccompanied, sang the opening bars of Fiordiligi’s aria from
Così fan tutte,
one of Hal’s favourite operas. Tingles ran down his spine as her voice soared, echoing across the deck. Eyes closed, she sang from memory and, clearly, from the heart. Hal’s own heart suffered a severe denting as he listened, allowing the music to seep into his core, astounded that her rare and special talent had not been exploited by those seeking to profit from it.
So taken up was he that he didn’t realise they were no longer alone.
Captain, where did you find such an angel?” asked an awed voice in French.
Lord Denby’s expression was thunderous, causing Leah to hit a false note and abruptly stop singing. She glanced over her shoulder as the marquess leapt to his feet, still looking furious, just as another man burst onto the deck. She caught the briefest glance of the young man who had spoken in French before he was bodily removed by Lord Denby and the stranger. She heard raised voices, speaking in French, as the intruder was escorted below.
“Who was that?” she asked when his lordship rejoined her a short time later, still looking grim-faced.
“A member of the crew who ought not to have disturbed us.”
Leah didn’t believe him. “But he spoke in French.”
“His father was French.”
She wrinkled her brow. “He wasn’t dressed like a crew member.” She was sure she’d observed velvet knee breeches and a fine linen shirt that had no place on the person of a common sailor. “And his voice was quite cultivated.”
“He thought he was going ashore this evening, until I sprung this little outing on the crew, obliging them to change their plans.”
“If that’s all it is, why are you so angry about the intrusion?”
Lord Denby let out a long breath. “Because I was enjoying your singing and now the moment has been spoiled.”
It had been, he was right about that. Leah stood, watching the lights of Denby come into focus as the ship slipped back into the bay, as stealthily and silently as a ghost. Her head spun and she had no idea what to think, other than that Lord Denby had a Frenchman on board—very possibly an enemy of the state—and was displeased because he’d shown himself.
She hadn’t believed Mrs. Wilkinson’s exaggerated tales about his questionable occupations. According to her, the marquess answered to no man and hadn’t deigned to fight for king and country during the war. Leah had thought the vicar’s wife generated such rumours because Lord Denby didn’t show her the respect she felt was hers by right. She now had cause to reconsider.
Even Mrs. Wilkinson hadn’t gone so far as to suggest that Lord Denby was a traitor and Leah, in her heart, didn’t believe that he actually was. She couldn’t possibly feel such a deep connection with an enemy of the state. She worried away at the problem, wondering what she ought to do with the information she now held against him and whom she ought to tell about it, only dimly aware of the crew lowering the anchor and furling the sails.
“Come,” Lord Denby said, making her start violently as he took her arm. “I will get you home.”
She shook off his hand and started the descent of the rope ladder without his assistance, too preoccupied to worry about the precarious arrangement. The journey to shore was undertaken in awkward silence, so different from a few short hours previously when she had gleaned such pleasure in making the outward trip.
The wherry hit the shore with a soft bump. Before she could protest, Lord Denby lifted her in his arms and waded through the shallow water with her once again cradled against his chest. But this time she felt no intimacy in the gesture. It was rather as though she were a burden to be disposed of and forgotten about as quickly as possible. She chanced a glance at his profile, taking in the grim set to his expression as he placed her on her feet. He was angry, but whether with her or the Frenchman she couldn’t have said.
“Thank you,” she said stiffly, her limbs burning from the touch of his arms, her cheeks flaming with embarrassment. “I can find my own way from here.”
“It’s not safe. I will escort you.”
It wasn’t a question and so she accepted his company without comment, aware that he would have followed her anyway, no matter what she said. The closeness she had felt towards this complex aristocrat was now replaced by confusion and mistrust. One hour ago she would have spoken to him about almost anything. Now he was a complete stranger to her. Perplexed, disappointed, bereft even at the loss of their fledgling intimacy, she stretched her legs out and strode along as fast as she could. She wished to be rid of him as quickly as possible so that she could reason matters through without his distracting presence.
She chanced occasional glances at him in the dim light thrown from windows as they passed through the village. He looked formidable. Gone was the relaxed individual who had shown her his boat with such obvious pride and listened to her sing with deep appreciation for her modest ability. Subdued menace emanated from him as he looked directly ahead, such deep animosity clouding his handsome features as to make her swallow against the ache in her throat.
In many respects, the incident with the Frenchman had brought her to her senses. She felt a deep attraction toward the marquess, which was ridiculous. She mentally upbraided herself for being so foolish and hardened her heart. She owed it to society to find out more about the foreigner hidden on his boat and, if necessary, to expose his lordship for the traitor he might well prove to be.
How he could be a traitor now that the war was over she had yet to fathom. There was no law against having a Frenchman on his vessel, but why such secrecy? The brief glimpse she had caught of the young man caused her to suppose that he was too youthful to have been involved in espionage when the war had still raged, but that didn’t mean that his lordship hadn’t exploited him in some other way, always supposing that he
a traitor to his country.
“We are here.”
His voice caused her to start. It was the first time either of them had spoken since leaving the shore. Leah had been too taken up with her introspective thoughts to realise that they had arrived at the gatehouse.
“So we are. Thank you and good night.”
She turned towards the side gate but the marquess’s hand on her arm stayed her.
“Things are not always as they seem, Leah,” he said, lowering his head and whispering the words so closely against her lips that his breath peppered her face.
His use of her name turned her insides to mush, which infuriated her. This man was nothing to her, and her body had no business reacting to his quite disgusting charm in such an obvious manner. She wanted to escape the searing intensity of his gaze, apparent even in the darkness, but didn’t seem able to move. Helplessly she stared back at him, aware that the situation required words but completely unequal to finding the appropriate ones—or any at all. She ought to ask questions or, at the very least, give him the set-down he so richly deserved. Instead she merely nodded dutifully, feeling like a fool as she waited to see what he would do or say next.
“Go,” he said, his voice a rough command. “But think carefully before you act.”
Still incapable of movement, he gave her a gentle push. It had the desired effect and she slid through the gate without a word of goodbye or a backward glance. She was conscious of him standing there, watching her even as she closed the kitchen door softly behind her and bolted it. He was still there when she reached her chamber and pulled back the curtains to look outside. She could just make out his impressive shape, standing where she had left him and staring at the gatehouse as though he’d never seen it before.
Leah threw off her disguise, washed her face and hands in cold water from the ewer on her nightstand, slipped into her night rail and fell into bed. It was late but she knew sleep would elude her. She had much to think about. Decisions to make. She had just been presented with a journalistic scoop that would set the family up for life.
But at what cost? If she was wrong she could destroy the reputation of one of the country’s foremost families beyond repair.
But what if she was right?
She thumped her pillows whilst a dull pain echoed the gesture from inside her head. She thought about dear, sweet Felicity and her kindness, treating her and Beth quite as equals. She thought of Lord Gabriel and his enchanting manners. Beth was quite taken with him. She had not seen her sister so animated in many a long month. Even if she was right to suspect the marquess, what right did she have to interfere? Perhaps a word in the right quarter would be enough and she could then leave it to others to delve. But to whom should she communicate her suspicions? Besides, as she’d already reminded herself, the war was over.
In spite of all that, Leah knew she couldn’t let the matter drop. Nor could she jump in, speculating in her usual irreverent manner and leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. Before she did anything more she must gather more evidence, and to do that Leon must again make an appearance at the Boar
She would take Jonny and Pickle with her this time, question some of his lordship’s crew about the mysterious Frenchman and defer taking any action until she was more certain of her facts.
Satisfied with her plan, Leah drifted into a restless sleep. A sleep that was haunted by a pair of sparkling brown eyes, warm amusement reflected in their deep richness. And something else—something she couldn’t quite put a name to. Each time she tried, the explanation slipped from her grasp.
Visions of his lordship’s tanned skin blending with the dark blond of his hair remained in much clearer focus. Loose strands escaped his queue and perfectly framed his oval face, accentuating his rugged masculine beauty in a way that made her heart skip a beat.
Woken by the depths of her feelings, she wondered how she could doubt him, even momentarily. She felt disloyal as his words echoed through her head.
Things are not always as they seem, Leah.
Had he been telling her to trust him? She wished she knew. But the question remained, if his actions were so innocent, why not tell her who the mysterious man was? Why not introduce them?
She certainly didn’t believe his hastily concocted explanation and suspected that her scepticism must have been plainly apparent. He might consider it to be none of her business, in which case why take her to his ship and risk the Frenchman being seen? It made no sense at all, she decided as exhaustion claimed her and she finally drifted back into a restless sleep.
* * *
The following morning Leah fended off Beth’s questions about the evening with vague descriptions and half-truths. She wouldn’t even tell her sister about the Frenchman until she had something more specific upon which to base her suspicions.
“You look very pale,” Beth said, squinting at Leah. “I hope you didn’t exhaust yourself.”
“Not at all.” Leah smiled her reassurance. “The sea air must have made me more tired than I realised, that’s all. Besides, I was quite late coming home.”
“Come on then.” Beth grinned at Leah. “There’s something you’re not telling me. Don’t hold back. I long to know what it is about the marquess that holds your attention, other than the obvious, of course.”
Leah quirked a brow. “The obvious?”
“Oh, Leah, stop being so obtuse. You and I both know that he’s a gentleman of consequence. A single gentleman of consequence,” she added, her eyes sparkling with fun. “And he’s taken an interest in you.”
“No, he’s merely—”
“You would have to be made out of stone not to feel the compliment. And I know you’re capable of very deep feelings.”
Leah shook her head. “Beth, you’re misreading the situation entirely.”
“Lady Felicity’s here,” Meg said, entering the room.
“Oh, lovely!” Beth clapped her hands. “Do show her in.”
Leah, grateful to have her conversation with Beth interrupted, felt apprehensive. A visit that would once have given her as much pleasure as it did Beth now filled her with foreboding. Before she had time to dwell upon her feelings, Felicity was upon them in a flurry of pink-sprigged muslin, a pretty lace shawl negligently draped over her arms.
“Ladies,” she said in a breathless rush. “I come to throw myself upon your mercy.”
“Good heavens,” Beth said, smiling. “Whatever’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong is that I’m surrounded by three hulking brothers who watch my every move and act worse than gaolers, that’s what’s wrong.” Flick sat at the breakfast table and accepted a cup of hot chocolate from Beth.
“What did you wish to do that they took such exception to?” Leah asked.
“It’s Hal,” she complained. “He’s being even more impossible than usual. I said I intended to go into Dover to look at the shops and he put up all sorts of silly objections. Worse, he actually forbade me to go.”
“Why?” Leah arched her brows. “Presumably you take an abigail or a footman with you.”
“Of course I do,” Flick said, “but he seems to think I shall be snatched from the streets and held to ransom in some terrible dungeon somewhere, with water dripping down the walls, stale bread to eat and only rats for company.” Leah suppressed a smile at Flick’s colourful imagination. “Anyone would think we were still at war with the French.”
Leah inhaled sharply. Had that statement been as innocent as it sounded or had her brother sent her to see what Leah intended to do with her knowledge about the Frenchman? “I daresay he’s only concerned for your welfare,” she said mildly.
“I don’t believe that for a moment. It’s more a case of exerting his authority over me, simply because he can.” She paused to take a sip of her drink, thoroughly out of sorts. “I ought to have accepted Lord Melrose’s proposal, then I would be able to do as I pleased.”
“Presumably you would then be obliged to do as Lord Melrose pleased,” Leah pointed out.
“Yes, I suppose that’s true.” Flick pouted, and then grinned. “Besides, I did not love him and am quite determined only to marry if I fall desperately in love.”
“Well, there you are then.” Leah smiled at their visitor. “How can Beth and I help you to regain your good humour?”
“I am so glad you asked me that,” Flick’s smile turned into a glorious beam. “I wonder if you will both come back to the Hall and spend the day with me? My brothers can’t scold me all the time if you’re there to bear me company.”
The last thing Leah wanted was to confront the marquess. She needed more time to think, and to plan, but Beth was already accepting the invitation.
“We don’t have any fixed plans for the day, do we, Leah?” she said eagerly.
“No, of course not. We’ll come with pleasure, but I thought you wished to go to Dover.”