Authors: Connie Mason
The pungent scent of salt and rotting fish wafted to her on the frigid air. She began to shiver, wishing she'd had time to grab a wrap before fleeing. While she was running, she hadn't felt the cold, but she was aware now of the biting sting of sleet. England was experiencing an exceptionally cold spring this year.
Glancing about, she found herself in a narrow street lined with warehouses and saloons. Lights twinkling at the end of the street lured her in that direction. She began running, and then she realized she was near Southwark quay. The lights had come from saloons nestled together near the docks. She hesitated, glancing furtively behind her as she tried to catch her breath.
Driven by desperation, Sophia ducked into an alley. A few minutes later, Sir Oscar and the Watch barreled past her, but she knew it wouldn't be long before they retraced their steps and found her.
Stepping gingerly from the alley, Sophia saw nothing but saloons and warehouses on either side of the street. Then she heard Sir Oscar's voice, harsh and grating in the stygian darkness. “We've got her cornered.” Turning, she ran into the nearest saloon.
Conversation stopped the moment Sophia entered the dingy, smoke-filled common room smelling of stale gin and unwashed bodies. A barmaid stopped her headlong flight toward a rear door.
“ 'Ere now, wot are you doing? You don't belong in a place like this.”
“I need help. I'm being pursued. Please, will you hide me?”
The brassy-haired tavern wench glanced toward the kitchen. “Mr. Tate don't want no trouble with the Watch. He'd turn you in faster than you can blink your eye. Wot 'ave you done?”
“Nothing. I've done nothing. Please help me. I need to get away.”
The barmaid regarded Sophia for the space of two heartbeats. “How far away?”
“As far away from London as I can get.”
The barmaid leaned close. “You can't hide here. Mr. Tate will return from the kitchen soon. If he sees you, Lord only knows what he'll do. I've seen him sell innocents to whorehouses. But since you look like a lady wot's in trouble, I'll pass on a bit o' information that might help.”
Sophia darted a glance at the door. “I am desperate. Anything you can do for me will be appreciated.”
“Most of our customers are seafaring men. Their ships are docked at Southwark quay. Perhaps you can buy passage on one sailing on the midnight tide, if you ain't too fussy about where you end up.”
Leave England? That wasn't exactly what Sophia had in mind. And she didn't have a farthing to her name. But what if she hid aboard one of the ships and crept off once the danger was past? It was worth a try.
Sophia was still making up her mind when a commotion near the front door caught her attention. “Oh, my God, they're here!”
“This way,” the barmaid said, grasping her arm and pulling her through a door. “This door leads to the alley out back. Good luck.”
Sophia didn't waste a moment as she fled out the rear door into the alley. She emerged from the alley and ran down the street toward the quay. She felt a rush of relief when she saw three ships berthed along the quay. Only one ship, however, had its gangplank run out.
“There she is!” she heard Rigby call out. She raced toward the ship with its gangplank resting on the pier. She paused at the end of the gangplank and glanced upward, then ducked into the shadows when she saw the night watch pacing the deck. She waited, uncertain what to do, and then she saw the watchman walk to the ship's stern and peer over the railing.
Dragging in a calming breath, Sophia darted up the gangplank and crouched behind a mast. She froze when she heard Sir Oscar hail the watchman. “Ahoy, the watch!”
The watchman leaned over the railing. “Aye, what do you want?”
“Did a woman come aboard your ship a few minutes ago?”
“A woman? No, sir, no one came aboard. She couldn't get past me even if she tried.”
“Did you see which way she went? We followed her here.”
“No, sir, I ain't seen anyone, and I've been here all night.”
Rigby spat out a curse. “Let's go. She can't have gotten far.”
Sophia nearly collapsed with relief when she heard their receding footsteps. That still didn't solve her dilemma, however. A far greater problem suddenly arose when sailors began boarding the ship in groups of twos and threes. When they greeted the watchman with jovial remarks, Sophia realized the crew was returning from shore leave.
Frantic, she turned about, searching for a hiding place until the coast was clear to leave. She spotted an open hatch and a ladder leading downward. Without hesitation she scrambled down the ladder and ducked inside a cabin whose door was ajar. Breathing hard, she leaned against the door, safe for the moment.
She'd scarcely had time to catch her breath when she heard footsteps outside the door. She backed away, her gaze darting about for a hiding place. She spotted a sea chest but decided it was too small for her to hide in. Frantic, she dived beneath the oversized bunk just as the door opened, rolling until she came up against the bulkhead.
A light flared. Sophia could see nothing of the cabin's occupant but a pair of muscular legs encased in expensive boots. She was wet and chilled to the bone, and her teeth began chattering so loudly she had to forcibly clamp them together. Hugging herself for warmth, she watched as the cabin's occupant bent over a brazier and fed coal into it. She shivered, waiting for the heat to reach her.
She offered a silent prayer of thanks when she felt warmth seeping into her chilled bones. After a little while, it became so cozy beneath the bunk that Sophia's eyelids drifted shut despite her best efforts to stay awake.
Sophia awakened to murky daylight and a gentle rocking motion. She started to rise and bumped her head on a hard object located scant inches above her. She let out a yelp, then clamped her hand over her mouth when she recalled where she was and why. When she sensed no movement in the cabin, she rolled to where she could peek out without being seen.
The cabin appeared empty. How long had she slept? Long enough to be hungry, she decided when her stomach growled in answer to her question. Had the cabin's occupant slept in the cabin last night without her knowing?
Sophia scooted out from beneath the bunk and examined her surroundings in the light of day.
Since the cabin was fairly large, Sophia assumed that it belonged to the captain. She knew she had to leave before he returned. With luck, she could get off the ship without being seen. But her hopes were dashed when she glanced out the porthole and saw water, lots and lots of water.
The unwelcome knowledge of what had happened slowly seeped into her brain. The ship had weighed anchor and entered the channel while she slept. Where was the ship bound? China? India? America? No! She wanted to go home. She had to find the captain at once and demand that he turn back.
Sophia heard voices outside the door. Not yet ready to face anyone, she dove under the bed, intending to remain there until she found the words to address the man who held her fate in his hands. But if she waited too long, she feared she'd find herself journeying somewhere she had no intention of going.
The door opened, admitting a man Sophia assumed was the captain. He moved about the cabin a few minutes before stopping before the desk and spreading out a map. His hand brushed against a cup. Liquid splashed from it as it hit the deck and rolled under the bed. Remarkably, it didn't shatter. Sophia held her breath, praying the captain wouldn't decide to rescue the cup.
She heard his footsteps approaching. Squeezing her eyes shut, she prayed harder, but to no avail. She heard a sharp intake of breath followed by a curse. She opened her eyes and met the startled gaze of Christian Radcliff, a man she remembered very well, a man who had every reason to hate her.
“What the hell! Who are you and what are you doing on my ship?” he roared. “Come out of there!”
Apparently, he hadn't recognized her yet. She scooted as far away from him as she could get, but he had long arms. He reached her with little difficulty, dragged her none too gently from beneath the bunk and yanked her to her feet. She heard a ripping sound and realized the remaining sleeve of her dress had been torn off.
Sophia gazed into Chris's enraged countenance and nearly fainted as her past came rushing back to her. His was a face she would never forget. She'd known that Christian Radcliff had gone off to sea after the duel, but she'd heard little of him since.
“You!” Chris snarled. “What are
doing aboard my ship? I thought I was rid of you years ago, Sophia Carlisle.”
Sophia swallowed the fear gathering in her throat and tried to brazen it out. “Hello, Chris.”
He narrowed his eyes. They were the same mesmerizing blue she remembered. “I asked you a question. What are you doing aboard my ship?”
“I didn't know this was your ship. As to what I'm doing here, I needed to escape the Watch, and your ship was handy.”
“What have you done now?”
“It's a long story. I was running from the Watch and found myself near the docks. I snuck aboard your ship to escape, intending to leave before the ship sailed.”
He let his keen gaze roam over her, obviously coming to his own conclusion when he noted her filthy, torn gown. His voice held a note of disgust. “You look like a cheap doxy.”
Her chin rose slightly. “How dare you insult me! None of this is my fault. If you will kindly turn the ship about, I will be more than happy to leave.”
“It's too late.”
“You heard me, Sophia, it's too late to turn about. I fear you're stuck aboard the
until she reaches Jamaica.”
“Jamaica! No, I don't want to go there. Please, Christian, return me to London.”
“Sorry, Sophia, this is my ship, and you're stuck here. Once we reach Jamaica, I'll send you home on another ship.” He stared at her breasts. “You've changed.”
Sophia crossed her arms over her chest. “So have you.”
He eyed her narrowly. “Where is your husband?”
“I'm not married.”
“Not even close.”
“A rich man's mistress?”
“No, damn you!” Sophia sputtered.
He shrugged. “It's a natural assumption. You were going to sell yourself to Desmond.”
“That was Father and Rayford's doing. You know I preferred you. I had no choice. I was too young and inexperienced to fight them for the man I wanted.”
“Stop it! I don't want to hear about who you did or did not prefer. It's the result of your actions that's important.”
“I'm sorry about Desmond. I know you hold me responsible for his death.”
He turned away from her. “I blame myself.” He whirled back to face her. “Damnation! What devil tempted Fate to bring you back into my life?”
Her chin rose defiantly. “It's not as if I planned this.”
“Are you living in London now?”
“No, I've only been in Town a few weeks.”
“From whom were you running away?”
Sophia grimaced. “Men.”
Chris gave her a wry grin. “Why don't I believe that?”
Sophia shrugged. “It's the truth.”
Chris searched her face, pausing at her lips before abruptly looking away. “Are you hungry?”
“I'll have my cabin boy bring hot water and something for you to eat. You look like you could use a good wash. Don't leave this cabin,” he warned. “I can usually control my crew, but you're a bit too fetching to pass their notice. I'll return later.”
There came a knock on the door.
“That will be my cabin boy,” Chris said. “Come in, Casper.”
A towheaded lad of eleven or twelve bounded into the cabin and skidded to a halt when he saw Sophia. His mouth dropped open as he stared from her to Chris.
“You can close your mouth, Casper,” Chris said. “It seems we have a stowaway. Miss Sophia Carlisle will be traveling to Jamaica with us. Sophia, this is Casperâhe will be seeing to your needs during our voyage.”
Casper darted a glance at Sophia, then lowered his gaze. “Miss,” he said shyly.
“Bring a jug of hot water for Miss Carlisle,” Chris said. “I'm sure she'd welcome a bath. Then see if you can rustle up some food from the galley. Oh, yes, and bring more charcoal for the brazier. We won't hit warmer waters for another two weeks.”
“Aye, Captain,” Casper said, darting another glance at Sophia before ducking out the door.
“You should be set for a while,” Chris said coolly. “I'll return later; we can talk about your circumstances then, and what's to be done with you.”
He stared at her a full minute before stalking off.
Sophia shivered. Chris Radcliff was definitely not the man she remembered. Desmond's death had changed him in countless ways. He was no longer the charming young man she had fallen in love with.
Sophia's last memory of Chris was of the day he told her he'd killed Lord Desmond in a duel over her favors. She had been so stunned she'd been unable to think, let alone speak. He kept staring into her eyes, she recalled, as if begging her to absolve him of guilt. When she remained mute, he had walked out the door and out of her life. She hadn't seen him again until today. She'd often regretted that she hadn't told him how worried she'd been that he would go to prison for participating in an illegal duelâor that she loved him. She had retired to the country soon after the scandal, and he had gone to sea. This was the first time she'd seen him in seven years.
Intuitively Sophia realized that Chris still bore the guilt of killing Desmond. She had learned afterward that both men had been in their cups and arguing over her favors. The duel had been the result of a friendly argument that had turned lethal. No one was truly at fault.