Read A Taste of Paradise Online

Authors: Connie Mason

A Taste of Paradise (14 page)

“Thank you, Kateena, but I can wait for dinner.”

Kateena joined her on the balcony. “Oh, mistress, how beautiful! You're a lucky woman. 'Tis obvious the captain cares for you.”

Sophia gave a bitter laugh. “You misread the situation.” She turned away from the balcony. “I'd like to rest, Kateena. Why don't you go down to the kitchen and get acquainted with Chandra? I'm sure you two will get along famously.”

“I'll just hang up your dress first, mistress.” She shook out Sophia's spare dress. “You should ask the captain to buy you a new wardrobe, since you seem to have so little. There's a talented seamstress in Kingston. She's a free woman of color who I know would be happy to make up a few frocks for you.”

“What I have is sufficient for my needs,” Sophia said curtly.

Kateena took no umbrage at Sophia's brusque reply. “I'll take your dress to the kitchen and press it. After I meet Chandra, I'm to report to the captain. He's going to tell me what is expected of me at Sunset Hill. Can I do anything for you before I leave?”

“No, thank you, Kateena, there's little I require. I've done for myself most of my life. But you can bring a pitcher of warm water when you return. I'd like to wash the road dust off before I go down to dinner.”

Sophia stretched out on the bed after Kateena left, finding it so comfortable she promptly fell asleep.

Chris paced his study while he waited for Kateena. What he and Sophia had nearly done a short time ago was unacceptable. Why couldn't his body accept that making love to Sophia wasn't a good idea?

Make love to Sophia
.

Just thinking about it brought a certain part of his body to attention. What was wrong with him? Why couldn't he control himself around her? He needed to go to town sooner rather than later to inquire about passage to England for her. Before she left he intended to give Sophia money to live independently from her brother.

A scratch on the door fractured his thoughts. “Come in.”

Kateena entered and curtsied.

“Ah, Kateena, I've been waiting for you. You must be curious about your duties at Sunset Hill.”

“Yes, sir. I'll try hard to please you.”

Chris smiled. “It won't take much to please me, Kateena. You'll have charge of the household. I've asked two women who normally work in the fields to come in each day to do the cleaning, under your supervision, of course.”

“I understand,” Kateena said.

“I'd like you to see to Miss Carlisle yourself. There isn't anyone else here qualified.”

“Will she be staying permanently at Sunset Hill?” Kateena dared.

“Good God, no! This is a temporary situation. I have nothing further for you, Kateena; you may leave.”

When Kateena didn't move, Chris asked, “Is there something else, Kateena?”

Kateena opened her mouth, then promptly closed it.

“You may speak freely, Kateena. I respect everything my people have to say.”

“It's about Miss Carlisle, Captain. It's not fitting.”

Chris counted to ten before asking, “What isn't fitting?”

“Miss Carlisle is a lady, sir. Her lack of wardrobe is—please forgive me—shameful. She doesn't even have a decent petticoat.”

“I know little about women's apparel.”

“If you allow me, Captain, I can help. I know of a dressmaker in Kingston, a free woman of color, who would be grateful for the work. She has materials too, purchased from your very own warehouse.”

“Very well, you may accompany Sophia to Kingston at her convenience to purchase what she needs.”

Apparently satisfied, Kateena curtsied and left Chris to brood in silence.

Despite his reluctance, Chris seemed to be involving himself deeper and deeper in Sophia's life. He had rescued her from Rigby and had just agreed to purchase clothing for her. She should be on her way to England, damn it! Instead she was in his house, tempting him beyond redemption with her seductive eyes and enticing mouth.

Chris moved to the sideboard, poured a generous splash of rum from his own distillery into a glass and sat down to think. He sipped appreciatively of the dark liquor as he pondered the impossible situation in which he now found himself.

Sophia awoke from her nap feeling refreshed despite the humid breeze blowing through the open French doors. She rose, checked the hour on the small clock sitting on a nearby table and saw that it was six o'clock. Dinner was in one hour.

Sophia reached for the water pitcher. Just as she lifted it to pour water into a bowl, someone scratched on the door. “Come,” she called.

“I thought you might enjoy a bath, mistress,” Kateena said, easing into the room. “The water is already heated, and Chuba is waiting outside the door with the tub.”

Delighted, Sophia said, “You're a treasure, Kateena. By all means, have Chuba bring in the tub. A bath is just what I need.”

The tub was set up and water carried in to fill it. Shortly thereafter, Sophia lowered herself into the warm water, scrubbing her skin with soap that smelled deliciously of jasmine. After Kateena washed and rinsed Sophia's hair, she held a drying sheet aloft for her to step into.

“I pressed your dress, mistress,” Kateena said. “I'll help you into it after I fix your hair. You'll want to look your best tonight.”

Though Sophia saw no reason to look her best, she let Kateena fuss with her hair. Nothing she could do would impress Chris, she knew. The sight of her only reminded him of a tragedy he had struggled to forget.

At two minutes to seven, Sophia was dressed in a light green linen dress with a square neckline and high waist, her raven hair swept off her neck and piled atop her head. Since she had no petticoats or hoops, the gown closely hugged the soft curves of her figure, but there was nothing to be done about that. Dragging in a deep breath, Sophia descended the stairs. Chuba met her at the bottom and escorted her to the dining room.

Chris and Casper were waiting for her. “Casper, how grand you look,” Sophia exclaimed. The lad had dressed for dinner in dark brown trousers, a tan jacket and a snowy white shirt.

“You look grand, too, miss,” Casper said shyly. “I'm ever so glad you're here.”

Sophia smiled but said nothing, aware that Chris wasn't as pleased as Casper to have her at Sunset Hill. Casper continued to chatter as Chris came around and pulled out her chair. Sophia nodded her thanks, trying to concentrate on Casper instead of Chris's handsome face and the muscular form clearly delineated beneath his buff trousers and brown jacket. Though his clothing could not be described as formal dinner wear, it seemed entirely proper for an informal dinner in tropical Jamaica.

If not for Casper's boyish enthusiasm, dinner would have been a dismal affair despite the outstanding array of food Chandra had prepared for their enjoyment. They dined on spicy jerked pork and fried plantains, neither of which Sophia had had the pleasure of eating before, sweet potatoes and various vegetables. And for dessert Chandra had made a luscious flan, a type of custard topped by caramel sauce.

Chris said very little during the meal, although he did direct a frown at Sophia from time to time. She had no idea what he was thinking, but it didn't take a genius to guess that he was wishing her elsewhere.

“Is it all right if I take a stroll outside?” Sophia asked after the meal. “It's such a lovely night. I know there must be a garden, for the scent of flowers in the air is strong.”

“I'll show you the garden, miss,” Casper offered. “It's a bit overrun with weeds but still pretty—if you like that sort of thing.”

“And you don't?” Sophia teased.

Casper blushed. “Flowers are for women. We men have more important things on our minds, don't we, Captain?”

Sophia could tell that Chris was suppressing a laugh when the corners of his mouth twitched. “Indeed, lad, we men couldn't care less about flowers and such. But if you don't mind, I'd like to show Sophia the garden myself. I have a matter of importance to discuss with her.”

Casper's disappointment was so apparent that Sophia said, “Another time, Casper. And it would please me if you'd call me Sophia.”

Casper glanced from Sophia to Chris before nodding. “I'd like that. Good night, Sophia, Captain.”

“Good night, lad. Why don't you read another chapter in the book of geography I gave you? Your reading skills need improving, as does your knowledge of the world.”

“Aye, Captain,” Casper said. He gave a smart salute and marched off.

“Casper is a delightful boy,” Sophia said. “He's lucky to have someone like you to care for him.”

“I'm lucky to have Casper,” Chris replied. He offered his arm. “Are you ready for that walk in the garden?”

Sophia steeled herself for her confrontation with Chris. The time had arrived; she could no longer put it off. She placed her hand on his arm. “As ready as I'll ever be.”

Chris ushered her through a pair of French doors that opened onto a veranda and down a short flight of stairs. The grass felt lush beneath her slippers as they walked down a path overgrown with a tangle of flowers and weeds and bordered by tall palm trees swaying in the breeze. In the light of a full moon, it was a beautiful spot, even though the jungle was trying to encroach upon the garden.

“This is almost how I envision Paradise,” Sophia said, sighing wistfully. “I've never seen such a brilliant night.”

Chris stared at her, her beauty luminescent in the moonlight.

“Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” His voice was gravelly; revealingly deep.

Sophia ignored the compliment as she walked slightly ahead of him. Chris couldn't take his eyes off her. She moved as if she were made of shadow and mist, floating on a gentle breeze. He shook his head to rid it of disturbing thoughts and cleared his throat. Two steps brought him beside her.

“You know it's time for answers, don't you, Sophia?”

“I suppose you're right. What do you wish to know?”

He led her to a bench beneath a palm tree and seated her. “Tell me everything. Start from the beginning.”

“The beginning,” Sophia repeated. “Very well. As you know, the duel and Desmond's death created a scandal of major proportions. As a result, I was shunned by Society. The
ton
held me responsible for the duel and its tragic aftermath.”

Chris nodded. “They had good reason to blame you.”

Sophia gulped back her hurt. “It wasn't the outcome I intended. Nevertheless, Father waited a few days to see if you would offer for me, and when you didn't, he banished me to the country. He was convinced that I was unmarriageable, and Rayford supported his decision.”

“How long did you stay in the country?”

“I didn't return to London until just recently. Father died two years ago, and Ray gambled away his wife's dowry and what little Father left us. That was when Ray decided that I should come to London to try once again to find a rich husband.”

She took a deep breath and continued. “I didn't want to return to London. I was safe in the country, you see. Besides, I'm twenty-four and couldn't compete with young debutantes. After a few weeks, Rayford realized there was no hope of snagging a rich husband and decided on another course.”

She fell silent, staring down at her clenched fists resting in her lap.

“Go on. What happened next? Where does Rigby fit in?”

Sophia hated to remember Rigby's lascivious attack or her brother's duplicity.

“Continue, Sophia. So far you haven't told me anything I hadn't already guessed.”

“Ray lost over five hundred pounds to Sir Oscar Rigby during the short time we'd been in London. Sir Oscar wanted his money before he returned to the West Indies and threatened to send Ray to debtor's prison if he didn't settle up.”

She glanced at Chris. “Are you sure you want to hear the rest?”

“Very sure.”

“Ray struck a deal with Sir Oscar. He sold that vile man my virginity in exchange for his vowels. He asked me to oblige Sir Oscar and I refused. I thought that was the end of it. But the following evening Ray dismissed the servants, admitted Sir Oscar into the house and then left. I had no idea what those two scoundrels had cooked up until Sir Oscar entered my bedroom and tried to assault me.”

“The bastard!” Chris bit out.

“I struggled, of course,” Sophia continued. She paused, recalling that horrific moment. “I tricked him into believing I was agreeable and managed to tie him to a chair. I dressed quickly and ran. He escaped easily enough and followed, but I managed to push him down the stairs and hit him with a vase, though that didn't stop him for long. I fled into the night with him hard on my heels. Somewhere along the way he'd summoned the Watch.

“I ran and ran but couldn't seem to escape them. I had no idea where I was going and found myself near the river. I ducked into a saloon to throw them off my trail and learned that several ships were docked at Southwark quay. I left the saloon and found the quay easily enough, but the
Intrepid
was the only ship with its gangplank run out. I had no idea she was yours when I sneaked aboard. I was desperate to escape Sir Oscar. Had he caught me, I would have ended up in Newgate . . . or worse.”

She darted a look at Chris. He seemed to be staring into space. But the look on his face was not comforting. Sophia took a deep breath and said, “Now do you understand why I don't want to return to England? Rayford is desperate for money; he will sell me again to any man who meets his price. The next man might succeed where Sir Oscar failed.”

“Where did you intend to go when you ran out of the house?”

“Anywhere Rayford couldn't find me. I intended to find work, even if I had to serve drinks at the lowliest inn or scrub floors. I didn't want to remain dependent on Ray for my livelihood. If and when I lose my virginity, I will choose the man.”

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