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Authors: Helen Dickson

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Mistress Below Deck

BOOK: Mistress Below Deck
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‘No helpless female would dare
to board my ship alone, and
with nothing on her person for
protection.

   

‘You deserve a commendation for sheer guts, Rowena. I salute your courage and your boldness. You are undeniably brave—as well as beautiful. But your father is in debt to me up to his ears. Would you compound that debt by adding to it?'

     

‘There is something I could give in payment.'

   

‘Could you, indeed? You mean that you and I could have—a very delightful arrangement?'

   

His voice was like silk, and his eyes had become a warm and very appreciative blue, and Rowena knew immediately what price he was asking her to pay. She felt fury rise up inside her—not just with him, but with herself and at the excitement which stirred at the very idea…

Helen Dickson
was born and still lives in South Yorkshire, with her husband, on a busy arable farm, where she combines writing with keeping a chaotic farmhouse. An incurable romantic, she writes for pleasure, owing much of her inspiration to the beauty of the surrounding countryside. She enjoys reading and music. History has always captivated her, and she likes travel and visiting ancient buildings.

   

Recent novels by the same author:

   

THE PIRATE'S DAUGHTER
BELHAVEN BRIDE
THE EARL AND THE PICKPOCKET
HIS REBEL BRIDE
THE DEFIANT DEBUTANTE
ROGUE'S WIDOW, GENTLEMAN'S WIFE
TRAITOR OR TEMPTRESS
A SCOUNDREL OF CONSEQUENCE
WICKED PLEASURES
    (
part of Christmas by Candlelight
)
FORBIDDEN LORD
SCANDALOUS SECRET, DEFIANT BRIDE
FROM GOVERNESS TO SOCIETY BRIDE

MISTRESS
BELOW DECK

Helen Dickson

MISTRESS
BELOW DECK

Prologue

T
he open solitude of the land above Falmouth beckoned fifteen-year-old Rowena. She rode with reckless abandon away from the house as though the devil himself pursued her. Her scarlet skirts covered the horse's flanks and her unbound dark brown hair streamed behind her like a ship's sprightly pennant. Her cheeks were poppy red, the colour heightening the intensity of her eyes, their blue-green aglow with the excitement and exhilaration of the ride.

Did not her father call her a gypsy, a vagabond—all because she was too restless to be caged within the house? Her father was right. She did look like a gypsy and she was a gypsy at heart, for in her soul there was a wildness, a yearning to be free of all constraints, that made her feel like one.

When the attack came it seemed to come from nowhere. She had no time to defend herself as she was dragged from her terrified horse and thrown to the
ground. Wrenching herself away from her assailant, she shrieked, but he stifled the sound, clapping his hands over her mouth. She immediately began fighting, blindly thrashing in an iron grip that pinned her to the ground. She pushed against his chest to break free, but his arms became bonds, forcing her arms to her sides, and his mouth grinding down on hers prevented her cries of rage.

Inwardly she raved. It was disgusting to be treated like this, absolutely disgusting. The depraved beast was intent on ravishment, without tenderness, without decency, as without mercy he began tearing at her clothes. Every twist of her body to escape his lust caused him to utter obscenities.

Horror at the abuse gave her frenzied strength. She fought against his brutal strength, her mind somehow refusing to accept what was happening. Tears of outrage streamed from her eyes and her soul screamed against this violation.

‘Such spirit, such defiance, my little pretty,' the man said, laughing low in his throat. ‘Your protests are useless. It will be better for you if you do not fight me, darlin'.'

Rowena recognised her attacker—it was Jack Mason, captain of the
Dolphin
, her father's ship. Earlier, when her father had introduced her to him, he had squeezed her hand and she had looked openly and without fear into his admiring eyes. His look was heavy lidded, beguiling, hungering, and had she not been a naïve fifteen-year-old, she would have been alarmed and wary, and would certainly not have been found riding alone in the open countryside.

Determined to be free from this nightmare, in one last desperate thrust she brought up her knee into his groin and shoved him away. With a yell of pain he doubled over on the ground, clutching his damaged manhood, and, taking her chance, Rowena wriggled away. On her hands and knees she looked down at him as he writhed in agony. He was seething, his eyes bulging with rage and filled with murder.

‘Think again if you intend to ravish me,' she hissed, her eyes glaring her hatred. ‘Did you mean to frighten me?'

‘I would enjoy frightening you,' he gasped. ‘Indeed, I would heartily like to hear you scream for mercy.'

Rowena shot to her feet. ‘Do you think to convince me of your brutal ways? Ha!' she retorted, laughing bitterly. ‘You are as I shall always remember you—on your knees where you belong.'

Captain Jack Mason's cold grey eyes narrowed dangerously. ‘I warn you, Rowena Golding, do not laugh at me.'

‘I do laugh at you,' Rowena sneered and flung a further taunt full into his face. ‘Do you think I would give myself to the likes of you? You are only fit to mop the decks on my father's ship. Aye, Jack Mason, unfit company for gentlefolk—and, more's the pity, you are too ignorant to know why.'

Turning from him, she hauled herself on to her horse and galloped away. The man on the ground watched her go, cold murder curling round his heart. ‘Go, you little bitch,' he ground out. ‘But you'll be dealt with, I'll see to that.'

Chapter One

May 1721

   

L
ord Tennant's masquerade balls were famous affairs, which were talked about from Land's End to the Tamar. They were attended by the cream of Cornish society, all in a fantastic display of costumes—some quite outrageous—men in medieval, Turkish, Arab, more than one Henry VIII and Richard III, and much more that quirked the imagination. Some of the ladies had come as Good Queen Bess and two as the tragic Mary Stuart. There were Spanish mantillas, flounced skirts, elaborate wigs and fluttering ivory-and-lace fans.

In keeping with the spirit of the evening, Rowena had danced every dance with this partner and that. Despite being a great success and basking in the admiration that turned every head in her direction and brought an appreciative gleam to each male eye, in her hauteur she had no particular opinion for any of them.

As Queen Cleopatra, she was wearing a plain white linen gown and gold girdle about her slender hips; it revealed more of her shapely assets, which was considered by some to be quite shocking and indecent and would have sent her widower father into a fit of apoplexy had she presented herself for his inspection before they had left Mellin House for the ball.

Matthew Golding was a cripple and unable to attend, but such a grand occasion as this served as a marriage market for all unmarried girls. Facing financial ruin and desperate to find husbands for his two daughters, he had insisted on them attending under the chaperonage of his good friend and neighbour, Mrs Crossland, who had two daughters of her own.

As the evening wore on Rowena became bored and she found that the sparkle with which the evening had begun had evaporated. Her head beneath the heavy black fringed wig felt hot and was beginning to ache, and she was sure the kohl around her eyes beneath the mask was beginning to run in the heat.

‘I feel so hot I shall have to slip out for some air,' she told Jane, her seventeen-year-old sister, who was dressed as a Grecian lady.

Jane was as different to Rowena in temperament and looks as it was possible to be. Pretty and small featured, Jane's pale skin was flushed with a lovely rosy glow, her green eyes sparkling. Her whole body was surging enchantingly towards Edward Tennant, who was watching her from across the hall. Rowena intercepted the look that passed between them and her face became thoughtful.
Edward was Lord Tennant's youngest son, a handsome youth, and he had danced two dances with Jane. She looked away. Their father would be well pleased if a match could be made between them.

‘If you must. Is Edward not handsome, Rowena?' Jane said breathlessly, her eyes shining in his direction.

Rowena's look was keen and Jane turned eagerly to her, her radiance shining from her eyes, her expression that of all those who had found love and longed to speak of it.'

‘He is quite handsome, I do agree, and he seems much taken with you, Jane.'

‘I do hope so. Who's that with him?'

Rowena's eyes were drawn to the tall, indolent figure standing beside Edward. He met her gaze with the cool expression gentlemen always seemed to assume when presented with an attractive woman, but there was a leap of pleasure in his eyes behind his silver mask, which she knew was answered in hers. His identity was a mystery to her, but his manner bespoke the privileged class, of generations of men of superiority and honour. Averting her gaze, she turned to her sister.

‘I'm going outside. If you must know, this wretched wig is making my head hot and unbearable. I have to take it off, else I swear I shall scream.'

‘Then go to the ladies' retiring room. I'll come with you if you like. Mrs Crossland was most insistent that we were not to leave the house.'

‘I really do need to go outside for a bit. I'll be back before Mrs Crossland notices I've gone.'

Jane watched her go. No one, except perhaps their
father, had ever defied Rowena's dangerous spirit, nor had the courage to try to curb it. Through a succession of governesses had been employed to educate her, not one had had the resolution that was needed to discipline Rowena Golding.

She had a hot temper, had Rowena, which could flare in a second from mere annoyance to a rage from which one would flee in alarm. Without a mother and their father a cripple, Rowena had taken on the mantle of responsibility for her family, which gave her a degree of freedom not experienced by many of her peers. In her spare moments her laugh rang frequently across the hills around Falmouth, where she had grown up as free and wild as an unbroken pony.

Rowena ventured deeper into the gardens, smiling with amusement on hearing whispers and giggles and the odd shriek of laughter coming from the undergrowth—the gardens were full of dark places and dark deeds. Eventually she found herself in an enclosed, secluded arbour, where she tore off her mask and wig and shook her thick, dark brown tresses free.

A moment later she heard a sound. She looked towards it, her senses suddenly alert. Something or someone was watching her. Her heart began to race, urging her to turn and run back the way she had come. But then a man, tall, long-limbed, dark and mysterious in the shifting shadows, stepped into the arbour. It was the man she had seen with Edward Tennant.

She let out her breath, unaware until that moment that she had been holding it. ‘You startled me.'

‘Do not be alarmed. I mean you no harm.'

His voice was unusually deep and rich in timbre. She could not make out his face, which was hidden by a silver mask and the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat on which a black plume curled with a flourish.

He drew close, his eyes gleaming through the slits in his mask, and as she was about to step back, murmured, ‘Dear God! Never have I seen the like!' Lifting his gaze from the gentle curve of her slender hips encased in the gold girdle, he stared into the vibrant beauty of her face. How did she get away with it?

On his arrival he had been a figure passing among the throng, a mysteriously ominous keen-eyed observer of the masquerade. This young lady had not escaped his notice—in fact, she had stood out like a black sheep in a field of white. He had watched her, with a toss of her head and a wide smile on her carmine lips, almost with wild abandon dance first with one gentleman and then another, just two who vied with many for her attention and to make her laugh—too loud at times, causing heads to turn to see what Matthew Golding's undisciplined daughter was up to now.

Like everyone else he had been unable to tear his eyes from her, and he had observed the leap of interest in her own when she had met his gaze. He had thought her outrageous, a young woman who evidently believed she was above every consideration, every rule, every discipline that life and society dictated. He had been amused and strangely stirred by her appearance, as any man with a drop of red blood in his veins would be.

Recovering quickly from her initial discomfort, Rowena stiffened, clutching her mask and wig in both hands at her waist. ‘What are you staring at?' she retorted rudely, her eyes dark and dangerous.

‘At you, lady,' he answered softly. Deliberately his gaze raked over her from top to toe. ‘Did no one think to tell you that your costume is outrageous for a young marriageable lady, who with behaviour such as this will never attract the attention of a husband?'

‘And how do you know I don't already have a husband?'

‘Had you a husband, I doubt he would allow his wife so much freedom and abandon with every one of your partners.'

She scowled, feeling a certain amount of discomfort at the way he was looking at her. ‘Would you please stop looking at me like that? I find it most annoying.'

‘If you don't want to be looked at then you shouldn't make a spectacle of what no sane man can resist. You can't expect men to be unaffected by the sights you display so audaciously.' Again he let his gaze wander speculatively over her.

Rowena was angry now without really knowing why. Perhaps it was because his words had a ring of truth to them. She had started to regret her choice of costume the moment she had stepped on to the dance floor and every face she saw was secretly smiling, covertly sneering. Suddenly she had felt stark naked. What she had done was childishly defiant and she wished she had chosen something more demure to wear.

‘What right have
you
to lecture
me
on what I should wear? It is nobody's business and certainly none of yours, whoever you are.' The hot flash of temper exploded quite visibly. Her nostrils flared and her soft pink mouth had thinned into a hard line, straining to find the words to punish him.

‘Then if anything should happen to you, you will have no one to blame but yourself.'

‘Why, you rude, insolent…' Her mouth gaped in amazement and the scathing words with which she intended to berate him stuck in her throat. It wasn't often she was lost for words, as she was now as she confronted this presumptuous stranger.

Her eyes blazed into his while her mind struggled to find something to say to reduce him to his rightful place, but even while she did so, something in the core of her sensibility, independent and wilful, dwelt on his hard, lean body and the pleasing shape of his mouth, and the dark depths of his eyes glinting at her from behind his mask. He was a head taller than she was, with wide shoulders, yet his waist and hips were slim. He stood indolently in front of her, his manner telling her plainly that it was of no particular interest to him whether he offended her or not.

‘What a capricious and flighty manner you have, along with courting danger, young lady, being out here alone in the dark.'

‘And what kind of danger could there possibly be, surrounded as I am by so many revellers?'

‘Precisely—with the majority of the gentlemen so
drunk out of their minds they would not give a jot for your reputation.' He let his amused eyes drift to her flushed face and his smile was mocking. ‘You should know better—unless, of course, you have arranged a tryst with one of the young men you danced with.'

‘Of course I haven't,' she snapped, her cheeks flushing an indignant red. ‘What are
you
doing here? Did you follow me?'

‘No, I did not, but I did see you leave.'

Rowena studied him thoughtfully. ‘You are unfamiliar to me, and I know most people hereabouts.'

His lips, well cut and firm, lifted at the corners with a hint of humour. ‘That's because I'm not from—hereabouts. My home is in Bristol.'

‘Then that explains why I've never see you before. I trust you were invited to Lord Tennant's ball?'

‘Actually I wasn't. I am in the area for a short time and thought to sample some of the town's novelties. When I was told about the masquerade ball, I thought, why, what a pleasant way to pass an evening. Behind a mask one loses one's identity, so who would know I was not invited? The amusement would help me spend my time until I have to leave.'

‘And you are amused?'

He chuckled low in his throat. ‘I have heard Lord Tennant's masquerade balls are informal, but this is informality with a vengeance. I also heard that his parties are famous for their diversions—which appears to be correct, for it seems that the accepted way of sitting out a dance is to crawl into the undergrowth with one's
partner to indulge in pleasures other than dancing. Like you, after partaking of the revelries I sought a solitary place, wishing to take respite.'

‘Then I would be obliged if you would seek another arbour in which to be solitary and leave me to mine.' She frowned at his attire. This man intrigued her. He interested her, and so she satisfied that interest in the only way she knew how—by asking questions. ‘Forgive me, but who or what are you supposed to be? It's bad manners not to come in fancy dress to the masquerade.'

His smile deepened into an amiable grin, showing strong white teeth. ‘My face is covered, but I am not given to dressing myself up and looking like a complete idiot. I have my reputation and my dignity to uphold.'

‘But if no one knows who you are, it doesn't really matter, does it?'

‘Not to you, perhaps, but it does to me.'

Rowena regarded him with interest, responding to his completely easy and natural manner. His eyes twinkled wickedly through the slits in his mask, making her wish she could see the man and his expression behind it, suspecting he was grinning wolfishly. ‘But if your costume was clever and original, you wouldn't look like a total idiot.'

He laughed, then said, ‘You look extremely elegant—and exceedingly provocative. It is clear you have put much thought into your costume—and succeeded in not looking like an idiot.'

‘You know who I am supposed to be?'

‘How could I not? You have enough kohl painted
around your eyes to supply half the ladies in Egypt. Cleopatra would be envious. But I am curious as to the identity of the real you.'

‘It is no secret. Even though I wear a mask, everyone knows who I am. My name is Rowena Golding—and there isn't a man or woman in Devon or Cornwall who doesn't know my father, Sir Matthew Golding.'

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