Authors: Connie Mason
Sophia felt too ill to eat dinner that night and told Casper to take the food away. “We're in for a bit of a blow, miss,” Casper warned. “Captain said it wasn't a bad one, so there's no need to worry.”
Sophia couldn't help worrying when Chris didn't return to the cabin that night. She heard the wind howling as rain mixed with sleet slashed against the porthole. Although she tried to sleep through the worst of it, her upset stomach plagued her throughout the ordeal.
When Sophia awoke the following morning, it was as if there had never been a storm. The sky was blue, the ship rocked on a gentle breeze, and her stomach had settled down. She sat up in bed just as Chris staggered into the cabin.
Sophia slid out of bed. “You look terrible,” she said, eyeing the dark shadows under his eyes and the beginning of a beard darkening his cheeks.
“Thank you,” Chris said curtly. He began shedding his wet clothing.
“What are you doing?”
“Now that the danger is past, I'm going to bed.” He sent her a challenging look. “You can join me if you like. I don't suppose you got much sleep last night.”
“I'm fine,” Sophia said, turning away as he pulled off his breeches.
Sighing, he flopped down on the bunk and pulled the blanket up to his neck. He fell asleep almost immediately.
Sophia stared into his face. He was the handsomest man she'd ever seen. She'd thought so all those years ago and she still thought so. His hair, wet from his recent drenching, looked black instead of the dark brown she admired so much. While his lashes were indecently long, his bold features made a noble statement about his masculinity.
Sophia recalled the way women had swooned over Chris during her Season in Town, and how he had devoted all his time to her.
Damn him! Why hadn't he offered for her after Desmond's death?
Chris awakened from an erotic dream to find light streaming through the porthole and Sophia lying beside him. She lay on her side, facing him, fully dressed but for the woolen jacket. He rose up on his elbow and regarded her with grudging admiration. Carefully he slid the blanket down to her waist. The fine lawn shirt she wore hid nothing from him; she might as well have been naked. The lush ripeness of her body sorely tempted him.
A slash of sunlight piercing through the porthole clearly revealed the outline of her upper body. Her breasts were round and deliciously full. The taut buds of her nipples thrust against the sheer material of the shirt, plump and inviting. He wanted to rip away the damn shirt and look his fill.
He wanted . . .
Sophia opened her eyes and scooted as far away from him as she could get. “What are you looking at?”
“You. You've grown into a stunning woman.”
She pulled the blanket up to her neck and fastened her eyes on his face instead of his naked torso. “You slept nearly twenty-four hours. You were so exhausted, I knew you wouldn't stir, so I decided to sleep in the bunk too.”
“You don't have to explain, Sophia. The bunk is far more comfortable than the deck.”
“It won't happen again.” She eased out of bed and gave him her back.
Chris knew she expected him to rise and dress, and he didn't disappoint her. “I'll wash and shave in Blaine's cabin so you can have some privacy,” he said. “Casper should arrive soon with hot water. Perhaps you can talk him into bringing the washtub into the cabin so you can take a hip bath.”
Sophia's face brightened. “Would he do that?”
“I'm sure he would. I'll have a word with him. I'm dressedâyou can turn around. Just give me a moment to gather what I need and I'll get out of your way.”
He glanced out the porthole. “You can come up on deck when you're ready. It promises to be a pleasant day.”
Sophia thanked him again and he departed.
“Captain said you wanted a bath,” Casper told her when he arrived with her breakfast a short time later.
“Would you mind?” Sophia asked.
“No, miss. The captain asked me to fetch the tub for you, and I wouldn't think of disobeying him. I won't be long.”
Sophia ate her breakfast while Casper dragged in the tub and filled it with hot water from the galley. He even left a bucket of warm water beside the tub for rinsing her hair. Sophia was so grateful, she wanted to kiss him. Fearing she might embarrass him, she resisted the urge.
“Anything else you need before I leave?” Casper asked.
“No, thank you. I know where to find towels and soap.”
“I'll return for the tub later. Take your time, miss.” Ducking his head, he scooted out the door.
Sophia fetched towels and soap and placed them near the tub where she could reach them. She undressed quickly and stepped into the bath, sighing contentedly as she lowered herself into the steaming water.
She scrubbed her body clean, dipped her head into the water, washed her hair and rinsed out the soap with clean water from the bucket. When the bathwater began to cool, she stepped out of the tub, wrapped her hair in a towel and dried herself with another. Unwilling to put soiled clothes on her clean body, she washed her shirt and breeches in the bathwater and placed them on a chair before the brazier. Then she wrapped herself in a blanket and waited for her clothing to dry.
When Casper returned for the tub, he averted his gaze from her blanket-clad form. “I can string a line and hang your clothes topside, miss. They'll dry faster outside in the breeze than they will inside the cabin. I can return for the tub after I've hung your clothes.”
“Thank you, Casper, that's kind of you.”
Casper gathered up her shirt and breeches and left.
Feeling chilled after her bath, Sophia fed charcoal into the brazier and pulled the chair close to the heat. That was how Chris found her, toasting her toes before the spreading warmth.
“Did you enjoy your bath?” he asked.
“Immensely, thank you. I washed my clothes, and Casper took them outside to dry.”
“I saw them hanging on a line. They should dry in no time.”
His gaze slid over her thinly clad form. Sophia hugged the blanket tighter around her. Though no skin was showing, Chris's penetrating gaze made her feel naked.
“What are you looking at?”
He dragged his eyes away. “I was picturing you the first time I saw you, wearing a satin-and-lace ball gown.”
Sophia flushed and looked away. “Casper said he would return for the tub, but I doubt he can manage it on his own. Can you summon someone to help him?”
Chris sent her a hard look, as if aware that she was deliberately changing the subject. “I'll see to it immediately.”
Sophia breathed a sigh of relief. She didn't want Chris to think back to the duel. It would only bring back unpleasant memories.
Chris took two steps toward the door, then swung around to confront her. “It's not going to work, you know.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your attempts to distract me when I venture too close to the past. Nothing you can say will ease the guilt I harbor over Desmond's death.”
He stormed out.
Later, wearing clothes that smelled clean and fresh, Sophia went topside to bask in the sunshine. She was surprised when Mr. Blaine, Chris's first mate, stopped to talk to her. They exchanged pleasantries for several minutes, and then he moved on.
During dinner that evening, Chris mentioned the exchange. “What did Blaine say to you, Sophia? He's quite taken with you, you know.”
Sophia paused with the fork halfway to her mouth. “Mr. Blaine seems like a pleasant man. We exchanged but a few words. I seriously doubt he is interested in me. He was merely satisfying his curiosity.”
She continued eating, doing her best to ignore Chris's intense scrutiny. She wanted to cringe every time he looked at her as if he wished she were anywhere but on his ship.
“The air seems to be growing warmer,” she remarked.
“You'll notice the difference more once we reach southern waters.”
“How soon will that be?”
“Another week, if all goes well.”
Sophia finished eating and pushed her plate away. She cleared her throat, stared at her folded hands and said, “I think we should consider different sleeping arrangements.”
Chris's mouth flattened. “Whose bunk would you prefer sleeping in? Mr. Blaine's, perhaps?”
Sophia rose abruptly, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. “What are you accusing me of, Captain? You and I aren't even friends. So why are you acting as if you care?”
Chris shrugged. “I don't care, but since I've already told my crew that you belong to me, we're going to continue sharing a cabin and a bunk. What we do or don't do in my bunk is no one's business. Whether you believe it or not, I will be immensely relieved the day you board a ship for your return to England.”
He unfolded his large frame from the chair and headed out the door. “Take your time preparing for bed. I need to take a new reading to keep us on course.”
That night set the pattern for many nights to come. No matter what argument Sophia used, Chris refused to sleep elsewhere. What really disturbed her was the fact that she enjoyed having Chris's body beside her at night far too much. The only concession he made to her was rising before she did and leaving the cabin to her until he returned in the evening.
As the days slid past, boredom set in, forcing Sophia to take note of those around her. Mr. Blaine spoke to her with increasing frequency. He often stopped and visited while she stood at the rail. Little by little, other crewmen dared to pass the time of day with her. A grizzled sailor must have noticed her restlessness, for he offered to teach her to tie knots in his spare time.
Sophia eagerly accepted, spending long hours each afternoon sitting on a pile of ropes beside Seaman Mapes, learning his skills. Another sailor let her help mend a torn sail.
The days began to grow too warm for the wool jacket Sophia wore, but she didn't dare take it off. One day Casper noticed sweat running down her forehead and suggested that it was warm enough now to discard the wool jacket and knit cap.
“You don't need those heavy clothes now, miss,” Casper said. “The closer we get to Jamaica, the hotter it's going to get.”
“I agree, the jacket and cap are a bit much,” Sophia replied somewhat wistfully, “but not wearing them would attract too much attention. The captain wouldn't like it.”
“But, miss, I don't understand why . . .” His words fell off as comprehension dawned. He ducked his head. “Oh . . . well, I'll see what I can do.” He trotted off.
Sophia smiled and returned to the knot she had been working on. Not thirty minutes later, Casper returned with a short-sleeved, open-necked canvas shirt, much like the one the sailors had donned once they reached warmer climes. Sophia exclaimed in delight. The material was not transparent, and it was bulky enough to mask her femininity.
“You're a lifesaver, Casper,” Sophia exclaimed. “I can't wait to put it on and soak up some of this delightful sunshine.”
The next day, and every day after that, Sophia wore the canvas shirt when she went topside. Since Chris offered no objection to her new shirt, Sophia decided to discard the cap. She braided her black hair into one long braid and let it dangle down her back.
On most days she stretched out on coiled ropes on deck and dozed in the sun. Chris was right. English weather could not compare with day after day of sunshine and tropical breezes. Sophia's skin began to take on a golden tint. If her mother were alive, Sophia knew she would be horrified. She would force Sophia to remain indoors with a bleaching solution of lemon juice on her face and arms. But Sophia didn't care if the color of her skin made her look unattractive. There was plenty of time to worry about that during her return voyage to England.
Suddenly a shadow fell over her, blocking out the sun. “The sun is turning your skin. You should move into the shade. English ladies aren't supposed to tanâit's unfashionable.”
Sophia squinted up at Chris. She held out a sun-bronzed arm. “I had no idea my skin would tan so well. Does the color offend you?”
“Many things about you offend me, but I don't want to get into that now. I thought young Englishwomen were taught to shun the sun. You should have a bonnet.”
“I suppose most women protect their skin from the sun, but I'm not most women. I'll never be able to enjoy this kind of warmth again, and I intend to take advantage of it while I can.”
“Caldwell won't recognize you if you allow yourself to get much darker.”
“That suits me just fine. I have no intention of seeing Rayford ever again. I'm old enough to make my own way in life.”
“How will you support yourself?”
“I received a good education. I can hire myself out as a governess.”
Chris's lips twitched. He wanted to laugh out loud but restrained the urge. He couldn't imagine a Society matron with eyes in her head hiring someone as attractive as Sophia. She would have a hard time protecting her virtue from the males in the family. Why that thought bothered him he didn't know, except that Sophia was becoming a bigger problem than he had expected. Instead of causing dissension among his crew, she was becoming their little pet.
“What do you find amusing?” Sophia asked. “Do you doubt my intelligence?”
“Never,” Chris averred. He dropped the subject. “You should be able to see Jamaica in a few days.”
Sophia's eyes searched his face. “I hate the thought of returning immediately to England without seeing something of the island. I'm dreading another three or four weeks at sea.”
“What are you saying, Sophia? Don't you want to return to England?”
“Of course I do,” she maintained. “What would I do in Jamaica?”
“There is nothing for you in Jamaica, Sophia. I've already told you, there is no place for you in my life. You're my past, Jamaica is my future. I refuse to take responsibility for you.”