Authors: Ava Bradley
Once Upon a Midnight Sea
* * * * *
PUBLISHED BY: Ava Bradley
Copyright 2011 by Ava Bradley
All rights reserved. This copy is intended for the purchaser of this e-book ONLY. No part of this e-book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without prior written permission from the author, Ava Bradley. This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual incidents is entirely coincidental.
May 22, 1874
Revenge tastes bitter.
The acidic taste coating his mouth did nothing to sway his hunger. His long-awaited plan had finally come into play, and Christian was ravenous.
He pulled the collar of his shoreman's coat higher against the cold breeze as he watched the Lady Luck swaying gently in the harbor. The ninety-five foot schooner posed regally among the other privately owned luxury vessels, a princess among peasants. Her masts reached into the sky, taller, stronger, and more majestic than those around her. Edmund Montague's pride and joy.
Christian spat on the dock. Such an arrogant spectacle. He clenched his fists, digging his nails into his palms, but his expression revealed nothing. No one on the bustling dock gave him a second look as he eyed his quarry.
His plan was simple, but he hadn't become known as the Nighthawk, the most notorious jewel thief in Paris, by taking his tasks lightly. His accomplice was expecting him at midnight, which was precisely why Christian had to slip aboard now, before Adriana Montague returned from her party.
He hunched his shoulders and moved into the flow of workmen carrying supplies up and down the dock. Lady Luck seemed to grow as he neared, suddenly dark and foreboding. A cloud passed over the sun and a chill skittered up his spine. Christian shrugged his sixth sense away. This was no ordinary heist. His father's very life was at stake, and nothing would hold him back.
He mixed in with the workers loading supplies from a parcel by Lady Luck's ramp and hoisted a sack of coffee beans onto his shoulder. Good God, but it was heavy.
The ship rocked on an ocean swell as he made his way onto the narrow ramp. For a frightening moment, Christian wobbled precariously above the harbor's dirty water.
As he stepped onto Lady Luck's deck, the warm excitement of impending success trickled over his flesh. So this was what a luxury ship looked like. Nothing like the rotting packet ship he'd spent six of the sickest weeks of his life aboard on the voyage across the Atlantic. Everywhere glossy polished wood and gleaming brass fittings glinted in the sun.
Lady Luck's decks did not offer a sufficient place to hide. He would have to stowaway below.
The captain barked out an order from the rear of the ship and Christian heaved the sack to his other shoulder to hide his face. He followed another worker headed to the front and negotiated the narrow ladder into the fore-hold. He threw his sack neatly onto a pile as the worker before him did.
Momentary surprise caught in his throat as he saw four cannons, two on either side of the hull, chained down at shuttered gun ports undetectable from the outside of the ship.
He allowed himself a secret smile. How obliging of Edmund Montague. The uneasy warning he'd felt earlier vanished like a wisp of smoke.
Christian wiped the sweat from his brow and turned to see the other worker heading back up the ladder. True to his reputation, the Nighthawk vanished into the shadows.
* * *
Adriana tossed a casual glance over her shoulder as the carriage bounced over a set of trolley tracks crossing the wharf. She couldn't see him, but she knew her father's hired man, John Locke, wouldn't be far behind.
"All of Williamsburg has been talking about the Hawthorne's party," Mrs. Bailey said. The heavy woman perched gracefully on the leather seat beside her, holding her hat to her head against the unseasonably cold spring breeze. "Though I do wish you would reconsider and take the train. It is a much more dignified method of travel."
"It is foolish to spend the fare when all of my belongings are aboard Lady Luck," Adriana argued gently.
Mrs. Bailey huffed. "Even a simple jaunt on the bay makes me ill."
Adriana glanced behind again. After her father had been shot last fall and he'd assigned Mr. Locke to protect her, the man had come to be almost as rough enforcing his authority with her as he was with her father's workers. For the past six months she had been living like a prisoner, with Mr. Locke as her warden and Mrs. Bailey, her chaperone, as her guard.
"It isn't proper for a young lady to go gallivanting about like some ship-shoreman."
"Longshoreman." She suppressed a smile as she glanced at the plump woman beside her. Mrs. Bailey hated ocean travel. Adriana felt guilty about her plan.
"What does it matter? Father has already found a husband for me." The words trailed off her tongue as sourly as spoiled milk. Preston Weiss was a greedy, despicable dandy who cared only about her impact on his bank account.
"You are engaged to a respectable man now. You have a certain decorum to uphold." Mrs. Bailey covered her face with a kerchief as the carriage stopped at the last pier. "Earnestly, the stench. I do not see how you tolerate such foulness."
Adriana loved the sea and everything to do with it. The salty smell of seawater, tangy odor of pitch and even the musky scent of the fishmonger's stands brought her senses alive. She felt a sense of excitement on the wide-open ocean that she'd never found anywhere else.
All that was soon to end. In two months, she would become Mrs. Preston Weiss, forced to live in Adirondack, New York.
Adriana clutched her small terrier to her chest with one hand and took the driver's assistance with her other as she climbed down from the carriage. She glanced down the crowded road where they'd come, peering through workers carrying sacks and wheeling carts. No sign of the burly man in black yet, but Mr. Locke wouldn't be long.
The mere sight of the Lady Luck moored at the end of the pier sent hope racing through Adriana. Escape was near.
Workers moved up and down a gangplank near the bow, loading the ship with provisions.
Captain Henri Dupree's sea-weathered face appeared over the rail. "Miss Montague–I did not expect you back so soon."
With Mrs. Bailey following carefully behind, Adriana boarded by the gangplank at the stern. Henri took her hand as she stepped aboard.
!" High in the crow's nest, Ollie waved furiously, a silhouette against the bright sky. "Adriana! Hello! Adriana! Adriana!"
She looked up and waved back. "Hello Ollie."
Mrs. Bailey hesitated halfway up the gangplank. "Goodness, that child is going to fall to his death."
Adriana smiled. "He is hardly a child, Mrs. Bailey. He's twenty-eight years old."
"He has the mind of a child," the matronly woman argued with disapproving scowl. "A child he will always be. Mr. Dupree, if your sister were alive to see this, I am certain she would not allow him to climb up there."
"Bah! He clings to the rigging like a Venezuelan monkey. He's most at home aloft." Mr. Dupree lowered his voice. "
, my nephew might be a child at mind, but he's a giant at heart, more at home upon the sea than any man I've ever met. There's no one I'd rather have serving as my first officer."
"Imagine, giving a simpleton such authority. It is irresponsible of you. Does Mr. Montague know you let him run about unchecked?"
"My father is happy to let Ollie take the helm on our day trips," Adriana assured her. She glanced at the men working at the bow. "What are they loading, Henri?"
"Grain, flour, coffee. Your father wants the ship kept fully stocked at all times."
"Then we are sufficiently provisioned to reach Baltimore?"
"What now?" Mrs. Bailey wobbled on her heel as Lady Luck rose on a gentle swell. "I thought we were merely crossing to Norfolk."
Adriana pushed back her shoulders and took a deep breath. "I have changed my mind. We will not be attending Lady Hawthorne's party. I wish to return to Baltimore immediately."
While the words came out as firmly as she'd intended, Adriana felt awful for speaking so harshly to Mrs. Bailey. "I understand that while my father's attacker remains at large, you believe I am in danger, but there has not been another attempt on Father's life. I have no reason to believe anyone would try to hurt me."
Mrs. Bailey pinched her lips together as Henri's uncomfortable gaze darted between them.
"I know you only want to protect me," Adriana continued before either could protest, "and I am very grateful for your concern, but he's still recovering and he needs me."
Henri scratched his chin. "Where is Mr. Locke?"
At the sound of Locke's name, her little dog growled.
"I sent him on an errand. Do not worry, he has sufficient funds for train fare." Adriana stroked the dog's head, wearing the pleading expression that never failed to work on Henri. Mrs. Bailey always proved harder to convince. Adriana held her breath.
The woman's pinched frown slowly began to thaw. "I would feel better if we waited for Mr. Locke."
Adriana scowled. "I cannot bear that dreadful ogre any longer. Riding the train back to Baltimore will teach him a much-needed lesson."
"Er, Miss Montague..." Henri's deepening French accent revealed his uneasiness. "The workers aren't finished loading her yet."
"Tell them to hurry. I want to be underway as soon as possible." Adriana turned and headed for the main hatch. "I insist, Mr. Dupree."
* * *
Christian slipped through the ship's lowers while the captain was busy with the workers up top. In the main hold an assortment of coiled ropes and ship-gadgets assured him their voyage would not be interrupted by simple hardware failure. In a second smaller storage area, he found foodstuffs and living supplies. He noted extra linens, cooking utensils, and barrels of fresh water.
Through a doorway and into a narrow hall he found the six main cabins.
Small watercolor paintings adorned the hallway walls. He knew by the brass nameplates on each frame that these were more of Montague Shipping's proud achievements. Each one depicted a magnificent maiden of the sea as beautiful as she was formidable.
Windfall. Bon Chance. Diamond Jubilee. Prevail
The cinnamony scent of sweet apple pie and freshly baked bread told Christian the archway ahead on his right was the galley. From inside a woman's voice suddenly erupted in rapid Chinese. Deeper within the galley, a man's uttered response was accompanied by the sound of footsteps approaching the doorway.
Christian darted into the first cabin. He would have identified the elegant suite of burgundy and gold as Edmund's even if it hadn't been for the oil painting hanging above a massive built-in desk.