Authors: Connie Mason
Sophia hadn't blamed Chris for Desmond's death. At seventeen, she had reveled in the attention of two handsome men and would have married Chris had it been her choice. But her stepbrother and father had insisted that she marry money in order to repair their depleted finances, even though it was Christian Radcliff she loved.
A knock on the door roused Sophia from her reverie. Casper entered at her bidding, carrying a jug of steaming water in one hand and a bucket of charcoal in the other.
“You'll find clean washcloths and towels in the cupboard, miss,” the boy said. “Cook is preparing your breakfast; I'll bring it after I finish here. We still have fresh eggs and bacon. In a couple of weeks the food won't be as appetizing, so take advantage of it while you can.”
“Thank you, Casper,” Sophia said. “Have you been with Captain Radcliff long?”
The lad lost his sunny smile. “Three years, miss. When my mum and pa died of fever, no one would take me in. The captain found me begging on the streets and brought me aboard the
. He had just purchased the schooner and was making his first voyage as captain of his own ship. I've been with him ever since. The captain wanted to send me to school, but I refused. I won't leave him, miss. He wouldn't know what to do without me.”
Sophia smiled at the boy. It was unusual to see such loyalty in one so young. “The captain is lucky to have you.”
Blushing, Casper ducked his head and busied himself feeding charcoal into the brazier. After Casper left, Sophia poured hot water into the bowl, found the washcloths, towels and soap in the cupboard and washed her hands and face. She glanced at the door, walked over and latched it, and then shed her dress, stockings and shoes. If she couldn't have a full bath, an all-over wash would have to suffice.
Sophia finished her bath, brushed her hair with Chris's brush and picked up her gown to inspect it. She grimaced in disgust; it was dirty and torn beyond repair. But what choice did she have? She doubted Chris kept women's clothing aboard his ship.
Her gaze fell on his sea chest. She flung open the top, smiling when she found one of Chris's shirts lying on top of a pile of clothing. She pulled on the garment. Its long, flowing sleeves fell below her fingertips and covered her legs almost to her knees. She dug deeper into the chest and retrieved a pair of canvas trousers. After holding them up to her, she knew there was no way she could make them fit without scissors, needle and thread.
A search through the cupboards turned up nothing remotely resembling a mending kit.
“Miss,” Casper called through the door. “Your breakfast is ready.”
“Just a minute,” Sophia answered. Grabbing a blanket from the bunk, she wrapped it around herself and unlatched the door. “Put it on the desk, please, Casper.”
Keeping his eyes averted from her bare feet, Casper placed the tray on the desk and scooted out, closing the door behind him. The food smelled delicious, and Sophia was starving. Pulling a chair up to the desk, she dropped the blanket, sat down and dug into a plate of eggs, golden brown bacon, thick slices of bread spread with butter and a pot of tea.
Christian strode to the quarterdeck and took the wheel from Dirk Blaine, his first mate. Blaine must have realized from Chris's dark visage that he was in no mood to talk, for he handed the wheel over and took off.
Chris couldn't stop obsessing about finding Sophia in his cabin. The shock of seeing her again after seven years hummed through him. She'd resembled a disreputable tramp when he'd pulled her out from beneath his bunk. She must have been damn desperate to venture out on a cold, wet night without a wrap. His gut told him she was withholding more information than she was telling him.
During the next three weeks or so it would take to reach Jamaica, what in God's name was he going to do with the woman who had caused him more anguish than he had ever known? A woman aboard the
could cause a riot. The best way to keep his men from fighting over her favors, Chris decided, was to publicly lay claim to her himself, thus placing her off limits to his crew.
“Captain, might I have a word with you?”
It was Blaine, and the look on his face spelled trouble. “What is it, Mr. Blaine?”
“There's a rumor going around that you have a woman in your cabin.”
Chris scowled. He suspected Casper was to blame for talking out of turn.
“The rumor is correct,” Chris acknowledged. “The woman belongs to me. Pass the word that she's off limits to the crew.”
Blaine stared at Chris, a puzzled expression digging a furrow between his brows. Since he and Chris had been friends a long time, he didn't hesitate to speak his mind. “You've never brought a woman aboard the
“As long as I'm the captain of this ship, I can do as I please,” Chris barked in a tone he rarely used with Blaine.
The moment the words left his mouth, Chris wanted to call them back. Sophia had only been aboard the
a few hours and already she was causing problems.
“Aye, sir,” Blaine responded, snapping a salute. “I'll relay your orders to the crew.”
“Mr. Blaine, forgive me for being abrupt. I've got a lot on my mind.”
“I imagine you do, Captain,” Blaine replied cheekily.
“Take the wheel. There's something important I need to do.”
“Aye, Captain,” Blaine said, grinning broadly. “Take your time. Important matters require a great deal of attention.”
Since Chris wasn't sure how Blaine meant that, he ignored the gibe. Of one thing he was certain: Sophia wasn't his responsibility. When they reached Jamaica, he would give her money and send her back to England and out of his life forever.
It didn't surprise Chris when he found himself standing outside his cabin a few moments later. Without bothering to knock, he opened the door and stepped inside. He halted abruptly, slamming the door shut with his foot when he saw Sophia sitting at his desk, dressed in one of his shirts, devouring a heaping plate of bacon and eggs.
She dropped her fork and glared up at him. “I didn't expect you back so soon.”
Her eyes were still as green as he recalled, as green as the thickly forested Jamaican hillsides, and her hair was a lustrous brunette. His gaze settled on her lips. They were more lush than he remembered. Definitely kissable lips. Suddenly he was incapable of looking at her delicious mouth without thinking about all the sinful ways she could use those full lips. He stifled a groan. He was mad! Utterly and irrevocably mad! He didn't want to think of Sophia in that way. He wanted to hate her.
Directing his eyes elsewhere was even more provoking, he decided as his gaze drifted down to her breasts. Rosy nipples, clearly defined beneath the fine lawn of his shirt, teased his already aroused senses. She hadn't been so well endowed seven years ago. He hardened instantly.
“My shirt looks better on you than it does on me.”
Sophia crossed her arms over her chest. “It was all I could find. My gown is badly in need of washing and mending.”
Spying her gown lying on the floor, Chris picked it up and held it between his thumb and forefinger. His nose wrinkled in disgust. “I'm afraid this garment is beyond repair.”
Without asking her permission, he strode to the porthole, unlatched it and tossed the gown into the churning water. Sophia leaped to her feet.
“You had no right to do that!”
“I beg to differ with you. As captain of this ship, I can do whatever I please.”
Sophia knew she was in trouble when Chris's gaze settled on her exposed legs. This man was no longer the smitten boy she remembered. This was a man hardened by life, a complete stranger who knew what he wanted and was prepared to take it.
“Very fetching, Sophia.”
Sophia resumed her seat at the desk, pulling her legs up beneath her. “Do you know where I might obtain needle, thread and scissors, Captain? Since you took it upon yourself to dispose of my gown, I'll need to fashion something decent to wear from the garments in your sea chest.”
“I'm sure Casper can turn up something. But I find the shirt more than adequate. You've nothing to fear from me, Sophia. You no longer tempt me as you once did,” he lied. “I lost interest in you the day I killed Desmond.”
Sophia winced. His words hurt. Chris had been a different person then. He was harder now, weighed down by guilt. It seemed he lived in a hell of his own making.
“Finish eating,” Chris said.
Sophia set her plate aside. “I'm finished. About the needle and thread . . .”
Chris pushed himself away from the bulkhead and ambled over to her. Placing his hands on the desk, he leaned forward until they were nearly nose to nose.
“Why are you worried about clothing? I just said you were unappealing to me.” He paused, then asked, “How many men have you had in the past seven years?”
The insult was too much for Sophia to bear. She drew her arm back and slapped him. He reared backward. It took him a moment to react, but react he did. Grasping her upper arms, he hauled her up and pulled her over the desk, sending dishes and cutlery flying. Then he flung her on the bunk and fell on top of her.
“Don't ever strike me again,” he warned through clenched teeth. “If you were one of my men, I'd have you flogged.”
Sophia began to shiver uncontrollably, and not from cold, for the cabin had grown quite warm. This man held her life in his hands. If he wished to have her flogged, no one would stop him.
“You insulted me,” Sophia said with more bravado than she felt. She pushed at his chest. “Get off me. I'm unappealing, remember?”
“I lied. I may not like you, but you feel damn good beneath me. We're going to be at sea several weeks and I'll be without female companionship. Since you aren't going anywhere soon, I see no reason why I should deny myself. I didn't invite you aboard, if you recall; you came of your own volition.”
“I didn't know it was your ship!” Sophia cried. “Yours was the only ship with its gangplank run out. I intended to sneak ashore before the ship sailed.”
Sophia gave herself a mental shake. The man was too mesmerizing by half. A tension she could only attribute to sexual awareness shimmered between them.
She went still beneath him, afraid to move for fear of the consequences. Chris was staring at her with an intensity that made her wonder if he intended to ravish her. She gazed at his beautiful mouth, vividly recalling the stolen kisses they had shared so very long ago. It was difficult to remember this was not the same young Chris she had once known.
He locked gazes with her. Chris couldn't deny Sophia was a beauty, with her delicate, fine-boned face, pearly white skin and voluptuous body. The years had been very good to her, fulfilling the promise of youthful loveliness.
He levered himself up on his elbows. “From whom were you running, Sophia? Seaman Horton told me he was hailed by a man and questioned about a young woman he was looking for. The story you told me coincides with Horton's.”
Hard as he tried, Chris couldn't tear his gaze off her. He couldn't deny his attraction to Sophia despite his unwillingness to be ensnared again.
“What are you looking at?” Sophia asked sharply.
“You're even more beautiful than I remember.”
“I'm surprised you want to remember me at all.”
“I don't, dammit! But you've made it difficult for me to forget.”
“Get off me; you're heavy.”
“There's the little matter of paying for your passage. Now is as good a time as any to collect the first installment.”
She pounded his chest. “Stop! I'm a virgin!”
Chris reared back, laughter rolling from his throat. “Now, why don't I believe that? Were you running away from a lover?”
“No, of course not, Iâ”
Her sentence died abruptly when Chris lowered his head and settled his lips on hers. He was just settling in for a long kiss when he felt a sharp pain. He reared backward, scarcely able to believe she had bitten his lip.
“Minx, why did you do that?”
“I expect to be treated with respect. You're no better than other men who tried to take from me what I wasn't willing to give.”
Chris froze. Had someone tried to harm Sophia? Why
the Watch been chasing her?
“Let me be, Chris,” Sophia cried. “I don't know you anymore. Who are you?”
“I'm not the gullible young fool I was seven years ago. It's obvious to me you're in trouble. You wouldn't be here if you weren't. Tell me.”
“I . . . can't.”
“I forget,” he said harshly; “you don't trust me. I'm the man you cast aside because I wasn't heir to an earldom.”
“No, it wasn't like that!”
Her denial incited his most primal instincts. He made a raw growl deep in his throat, lowered his head and captured her mouth with his. This time she didn't try to stop him when he plunged his tongue deep into her mouth, or when he cupped a firm breast in his hand and tweaked her nipple between his thumb and forefinger.
Chris smiled inwardly, thinking he was finally going to have what had been denied him seven years ago. But it wasn't to be. Sophia reared upward, causing him to lose his balance. The final insult came when she pushed him off the bunk. Unwilling to be thwarted by a mere woman, Chris reared up from the deck and flung himself on top of her. He didn't for one minute believe she was still virginal after all this time.
“Why are you pretending to be outraged?” Chris asked, his own anger rising.
“I'm not pretending.”
“So you say.”
Reaching down, he edged the bottom of her shirt upward and planted himself firmly between her thighs. “Relax, I'm not going to hurt you. Have you had a bad experience with a man? Is that why you're so skittish?”
Sophia gave a bark of laughter. It hadn't been all that long since Sir Oscar had attempted to ravish her.