Read A Taste of Paradise Online

Authors: Connie Mason

A Taste of Paradise (12 page)

Rigby pushed to his feet and dusted himself off. “Whoever you are, you have no authority to interfere. Selena is my slave, she belongs to me.”

“The woman you call Selena is Miss Sophia Carlisle, and well you know it. If there ever was a Selena, which I seriously doubt, Sophia is not she.”

Sophia stepped down from the carriage. “Sir Oscar knows full well who I am, Chris.”

“Then why did he . . .” Confused, Chris shook his head. “I understand none of this. Why did Rigby tell Ludlow you were his runaway slave?”

“I'll explain everything, Chris. Just take me away from here,” Sophia pleaded.

Chris turned the full force of his scowl on Rigby. “I am Captain Radcliff. Miss Carlisle traveled to Jamaica aboard my ship. She's no more a slave than I am. If you bother her again, I'll see you punished to the full extent of the law.”

“Captain Radcliff,” Rigby said disparagingly. “Aren't you the new owner of Sunset Hill? I understand you won the plantation in a game of chance.”

“That's correct.”

“A gambler,” Rigby sneered. “You have no authority to challenge my rights to this woman. She belongs to me.”

Chris shot a look at Sophia, one brow raised. “Is that true, Sophia? Do you belong to Rigby? Are you married to him, perchance?”

“Married! To that perverted creature? Not in this life or any other.”

Grasping Rigby's coat lapels, Chris gave him a rough shake and backed him against the carriage. “Listen carefully, Rigby. I don't care what kind of hold you think you have on Sophia—it's not going to work.”

“I have proof that I bought Selena before my visit to England,” Rigby shouted, sounding desperate.

“Like hell! I have a full complement of sailors who will attest to her presence aboard the
Intrepid
.”

Rigby smirked. “I understand the
Intrepid
left port some time ago. You're going to have a difficult time proving anything.”

Chris's temper was hanging by a slim thread. “Lift your skirts, Sophia. Show Rigby your legs.”

“What?”

“You heard me. The only way you can prove to him that you're not a mulatto is by baring some white flesh. Your legs will do. No higher than the knee, please.”

Sophia stared at Chris for several heartbeats before lifting her skirts to her knees, baring flawless, white flesh.

“You can lower your skirt now, Sophia. I think Rigby has seen enough.”

Rigby ogled her legs. “Very nice,” he complimented.

Another word out of that smug bastard and Chris was going to rearrange his face for him. “I don't
ever
want to hear another word about Miss Carlisle being anything but an English lady. Do you understand?”

“You've made your point, Captain.”

“Good. Now get out of here. If you bother Miss Carlisle again, next time you won't get off so easily,” Chris bit out. The threatening look on Chris's face must have finally gotten through to Rigby, for he slowly he began to sidle away.

“What about her?” Rigby asked, pointing to Sophia. “What are you going to do with her?”

“I'm taking Sophia to Sunset Hill. If you have any ideas concerning her future, put them to rest.”

Once out of Chris's reach, Rigby grew bolder. “Are you making her your whore?”

Fists knotted at his sides, Chris advanced two long steps to reach Rigby's side. “What did you say?”

Rigby fell back a step and quickly protested, “What am I to think? What will anyone think? Believe it or not, the rules of conduct in Jamaica are no less strict than they are in England. We plantation owners live by a code that cannot be breached. Eventually the news of Miss Carlisle's living arrangements will reach London. She'll be ruined when she returns, and if she remains, she'll be shunned by our tight-knit group of English settlers.”

“It doesn't matter, Chris,” Sophia assured him. “I've been an outcast from Society for years and have no intention of returning to London.”

“If you're still hoping to find a position as a governess, you may as well forget it,” Rigby announced. “I'll make sure no one hires you.”

“Miss Carlisle has no need of employment,” Chris snarled. “Did you not understand me? If you speak one word of disparagement against Miss Carlisle, I'll forget I'm a gentleman and stomp you into the ground. Now get out of here, and don't let me catch you anywhere near Sunset Hill.”

Rigby looked as if he wanted to say something more, but he must have thought better of it, for he scrambled into his carriage. His slaves clambered into the driver's box and sent the carriage hurtling down the winding road.

Once they were out of sight, Chris directed his scowl at Sophia. “You have a great deal of explaining to do, Sophia. You've told me nothing but a pack of lies from the beginning, and this time I want the truth. I'm taking you back to the inn for your things and then to Sunset Hill. Someone has to keep you out of trouble. You can await the next ship sailing to England at my plantation.”

Sophia squared her shoulders. “I'm grateful for your help, but I'm not returning to England, Chris. There's nothing there for me.”

“Your family—”

“Father and Mother are dead, and Rayford is so deep in debt he was willing to sell my virtue to the highest bidder. I intend to remain in Jamaica and seek gainful employment.”

“We'll see about that, Sophia,” Chris ground out. Grasping her waist, he lifted her onto his horse and mounted behind her.

Chris maintained an angry silence. Rather than argue, Sophia took advantage of his silence to admire the scenery. She'd been too frightened to notice anything while inside Sir Oscar's carriage. They were plodding along a narrow rutted road through rolling hills. The Blue Mountains rose majestically above the city of Kingston, which stretched out on a flat plain between the bay and the mountain ridge.

Chris said, “Sunset Hill lies between Kingston and the Blue Mountains. At one time Port Royal was the main seaport, as well as a notorious pirate stronghold. Several earthquakes destroyed the city, and the British Navy cleared out the pirates. There are still a few pirates about, however, and it's not all that unusual to see a pirate ship or two put into port.”

Sophia merely nodded. Her attention was centered on rows of ramshackle huts nestled in small clearings hacked out of the flourishing jungle and fields of sugarcane. She exclaimed in wonder at colorful birds flitting overhead and the occasional snake slithering along the edge of the road.

It wasn't until they reached Kingston that Sophia spoke directly to Chris. “I will be perfectly safe at the inn. Mr. Ludlow is helping me find a position with an English family.”

“Forget about finding employment. Kingston is a small town. I understand Sir Oscar created a scene at the inn. Word will spread; whether or not Rigby's accusation is believed is beside the point. It's the notoriety that will keep you from obtaining gainful employment. Your only alternative is to return to England.”

Sophia's mouth grew firm. “I am
not
returning to England.”

“I say you are. But until another ship arrives in port, you will stay at Sunset Hill as my guest. You cannot remain at the inn; it's no longer safe.”

“You cannot force me to return to England,” Sophia stubbornly asserted. “There has to be a way for me to earn my keep in Jamaica.”

Chris drew rein before the King's Arms, dismounted and handed Sophia down. He gazed down at her, his grin not at all comforting. “Oh, there is a way, but I doubt you will like it.”

Sophia didn't have to ask what Chris meant. She had lived with Rayford too long not to know. “I will never do
that
to earn my keep.”

“We'll talk about this later.” Placing a hand on the small of her back, he guided her toward the inn.

After a few steps, Sophia stopped in her tracks. “Look, that's Kateena coming out of the inn! Kateena!” she called, “Where are you going?”

Kateena stopped, saw Sophia and gave a cry of gladness. “Mistress, you're safe! I hoped the captain would find you.”

Sophia noted the basket Kateena carried on her head and repeated her question. “Where are you going?”

Kateena refused to meet Sophia's gaze. “I no longer work at the King's Arms, mistress. Master Ludlow said I was too bold and let me go. My parents are getting old and need my support, so I must find work soon.”

“Oh, Kateena, I'm so sorry,” Sophia commiserated. “Life is so unfair. I wish I could employ you, but I can't even find employment myself.”

Chris cleared his throat. “As it happens, Kateena, I'm interested in hiring free people of color to work on my plantation. I could use a housekeeper. I already have a cook, so your duties wouldn't include cooking. And you could serve Miss Carlisle while she is a guest at Sunset Hill.”

Sophia beamed at Chris. “You would do that?”

“I just said so, didn't I? If my offer meets with your approval, Kateena, we can discuss wages.”

Tears leaked from the corners of Kateena's velvet brown eyes. “You are a saint, master. I will accept whatever wages you consider fair.”

When Chris mentioned an amount, Kateena's eyes widened. Then she fell on her knees, grasped Chris's hand and brought it to her forehead. Embarrassed, Chris lifted her to her feet and handed her off to Sophia.

“I'll wait out here, Kateena, while you help Sophia gather her things. Then we'll check with the shipping agent about booking passage for Sophia on the next ship bound for England.”

“I'm not going, Chris,” Sophia maintained. “Save yourself the trouble.” She spun on her heel. “Come along, Kateena.”

Hands on hips, Chris watched them walk into the inn. What in God's name was he going to do with Sophia? Stubborn woman that she was, he doubted she'd change her mind about returning to England. And until she told him the truth about why she had fled London, he wouldn't force her aboard a ship.

He'd been wrong not to delve deeper into the danger Sophia had fled from. Now that it had caught up with her, he could no longer ignore it. He shook his head. What were the odds of Sophia meeting Rigby, a man she had reason to fear, here in Jamaica?

“Captain Radcliff, you look flummoxed.”

Chris greeted the man who had just joined him. He had met Lord Chester previously; he was his closest neighbor and owner of Orchid Manor. “Lord Chester, I didn't see you approach. Forgive my distraction.”

Chester leaned close. “Did you hear what happened inside the King's Arms today? The slave Selena must have been a good actress to have fooled both you and Ludlow. I was appalled. And to think we considered hiring her as a governess.”

“It was a misunderstanding, Chester,” Chris explained. “Miss Carlisle is English through and through and my guest at Sunset Hill. She is no more slave than I am.”

Now it was Chester's turn to look perplexed. “Ludlow said she arrived at the inn without a chaperone, and that you claimed she traveled aboard the
Intrepid
. Rather unusual, that.”

Chris gnashed his teeth. Gossip was the same the world over. It didn't take long to spread, especially if it involved an innocent young woman. And Chris knew better than anyone that Sophia was untouched.

Chris's next words surprised even himself. The devil must have prompted him—he could think of no other reason. “Miss Carlisle is my betrothed. She's staying at Sunset Hill until our wedding. I've just hired a housekeeper, so there will be another woman besides the cook in the house.”

Chester's face lit up. “A wedding! Excellent! My wife will be delighted to hear that. There's so little to celebrate these days, what with all the trouble over the slaves and all.” He slapped Chris on the back. “Congratulations, old chap. How soon can we expect an invitation?”

“You'll be the first to know,” Chris hedged.

“Excellent. Now I have something of import to tell you. Since you are new to the island, you should know that ‘Daddy' Sam Sharp, the self-proclaimed preacher and leader of the Maroons, has been inciting passive rebellion. He's been seen on Mr. Humbart's plantation, speaking with the slaves. That's what comes of educating slaves.”

“I don't expect any trouble at Sunset Hill, Lord Chester,” Chris said. “I intend to free my slaves and pay them wages.”

“You what? Damnation, man, you're going to come to grief if you free your slaves. We need them to work our land. You'll regret breaking ranks with the rest of us. If I were you, I would think twice before acting rashly.”

“I've already thought about it, and my mind is made up. The paperwork is already being drawn up.”

“Well, don't say I didn't warn you. I must be on my way. I still have business to conduct before returning home. I hope we can meet your betrothed soon. I know Agatha will be thrilled to make her acquaintance.”

Chester, a tall, distinguished man of middle years, continued down the street. Chris stared after him, stunned by his own stupidity. Not about declaring his intention to free his slaves, but for declaring Sophia his betrothed.

What in the hell was he going to do now?

He didn't have time to figure it out as Sophia and Kateena emerged from the inn. Sophia had donned a straw bonnet and carried a parasol.

“I told you I didn't have much to pack,” Sophia said. “I didn't have a valise, so Kateena placed my things in her basket.”

Chris searched her face. “Are you sure Rigby didn't hurt you?”

Sophia shook her head. “No, he didn't, but I'm sure he would have. Thank you again, Chris.”

“I couldn't let him hurt you, Sophia.” He scratched his head, a perplexed look on his face. “I hadn't thought about how I'm going to get you and Kateena to Sunset Hill. I don't own a carriage. If it meets with your approval, Sophia, I can take you on my horse and send Mundo back with the wagon for Kateena.”

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