Authors: Cynthia Breeding
To my critique group: Scott, William and Bill—guys who are learning to enjoy romance—and to my dear friend Marta, who hangs in there with me.
Abigail Townsend adjusted her spectacles and stifled a yawn as she looked around Lady Jersey’s gilded ballroom. Although the French doors stood open to allow the breeze in from the balcony, the room was already stifling with the crush of people, to say nothing of the mixture of too many perfumes. Young debutantes swirled past in pastel dresses like so many butterflies. Their partners, in formal black frockcoats, reminded her of crows. Even their chattering sounded like cackling.
Lord, could she survive yet another Season? At three-and-twenty, she was a bit long in the tooth for such foolishness, but being the Earl of Sherrington’s daughter assured that she wasn’t quite ready to be put on the spinster shelf just yet.
Putting up with the tediousness of never-ending
dinners and balls with polite, stuffy conversations about nothing grew worse each year her father made her attend them. She would rather travel and see all the faraway places she’d read about in her beloved books. But women didn’t travel alone. She hadn’t even been to neighboring Scotland.
Scotland…and one Scot in particular…
Just where was Shane MacLeod anyway? Abigail frowned slightly, peering through the crowd. Surely he would attend the ball? Lady Jersey was hosting it to honor the wedding of his cousin Jamie MacLeod to Mari Barclay on their return from Raasay. Mari had assured her Shane would attend—
Abigail didn’t have time to finish the thought as the butler announced the arrival of the Earl of Cantford, Ian MacLeod, and his wife, Jillian. And right behind them, as if Abigail had conjured the man, stood Shane MacLeod.
Her breath hitched and she smoothed her blue satin gown, which was silly since she was half a room away. Would he even notice her?
He seemed taller than she remembered. But maybe that was because he wore a snowy-white linen shirt with the MacLeod tartan sash across his broad chest instead of a frockcoat. Windblown black hair brushed his collar, giving him a roguish look. Even though he didn’t have a massive claymore strapped to his back like Jamie favored, Abigail could picture Shane as a Highland warrior amidst a swarm of lace-cuffed dandies. Even from this distance, she could see his eyes were grey as a stormy sea and so was his expression.
She smiled. Another person who apparently didn’t want to be here.
The trio had barely gotten to the punch bowl before a bevy of giggling girls descended on them, fans fluttering faster than their eyelashes. Thank goodness Shane stood head and shoulders above them or Abigail would have lost sight of him completely.
“I told you he would come,” Mari said from behind her. “Go over and say hello.”
Abigail turned. “I cannot just walk up to him.” Not that Violetta Billingsly or Amelia Tansworth, the two ninnyhammers who headed the bevy of girls, would allow her to get close anyway.
Mari rolled her eyes. “Then go say hello to my sister. Jillian will handle the conversation from there.”
“He seems quite occupied at the moment.”
“Who is occupied?” Jamie asked as he joined them and put his arm around Mari’s shoulders. Following their gaze, he grinned. “Are ye ladies ogling Shane?”
Abigail felt her face heat. “Of course not.”
“Of course she is,” Mari said. “Shane is a good-looking man.”
“Careful, lass,” Jamie warned. “I may get jealous.”
Mari gave him a playful poke. “
the MacLeod men are handsome. I remember in particular how Violetta and Amelia kept chasing after
“As if I were interested.” Jamie turned to Abigail. “I can assure ye Shane is even less so. When he is nae commanding a ship, he’d rather have his nose in a book.”
Abigail recalled that about him too. She’d been at Mari’s the day he arrived with news of Jillian’s accident and they’d discussed Chaucer in the library while he waited for Jamie to return. Shane didn’t seem to mind that she was a bluestocking either.
Would he remember?
“Oh, come on.” Mari gave Abigail a small push. “We will all go over.”
“I’ll just tell the lassies Shane is spoken for and nae to bother,” Jamie said as they started across the room.
Abigail stopped and gave him a horrified look. “You will do no such thing.”
“Why nae?” Jamie shrugged. “It would make it easier on everyone.”
Abigail turned to Mari. “Promise me he will not do that.”
“He is teasing,” Mari said and then gave Jamie a questioning glance. “You are, are you not?”
Jamie seemed to consider and then he grinned. “Aye, lass. Shane can handle himself.”
As they began to move again, the butler hurried over to the group by the punch bowl and handed a folded note to Shane. Abigail watched his face darken as he read it and then said something abruptly to Ian, nodded a curt bow to the ladies and left.
“What happened?” Jamie asked as they joined Ian and Jillian.
“Something about a shipment of tin being loaded and the paperwork not in order,” Ian replied as the disappointed girls drifted away. “He wants to leave when the tide turns tomorrow so it couldn’t wait.”
Shane was leaving? Abigail felt her stomach sink. She had wanted to talk to him at least. He was the only man who had ever intrigued—or even interested—her. She had to see him. Had to find out if the fervency of emotion she’d felt when she’d met him was real. Hardly a day had passed since their brief meeting when she hadn’t thought of him—and fantasized about him as well. He really was a fine specimen of the male gender—much better than the pictures of Greek and Roman statues she found in art books. “Will he be returning to London?”
Ian gave Abigail a studied look and Mari laid a hand on Jamie’s arm before he could say anything. “Aye. He doesnae like to run an empty ship. He will bring back silks and champagne from Calais for London’s shopkeepers.”
“How long will he be gone?” Mari asked.
Ian shifted his dark-eyed gaze to Mari and then to Jamie. “’Tis a fair amount of interest the lasses have in our cousin.”
“Aye.” Jamie stopped as Mari gave him a warning look. He grasped her elbow before she could nudge him into silence and gave her a dimpled grin. “It seems they do.”
Abigail hoped her face didn’t look at flushed as it felt, but perhaps it did, because Jillian intervened.
“I think the round trip usually takes about a week, does it not?”
“Usually,” Ian answered, moving his gaze from Mari back to Abigail. “I ken he wants to be in Edinburgh getting the kelp ready by month’s end.”
Abigail scarcely paid attention to the rest of the conversation as an idea began to form. A totally brazen idea. An
idea. France was one of the places she wanted to see. Shane would be gone only a few days—why not go with him?
She certainly wouldn’t have any flirtatious competition on board his ship.
Of course, she could not simply walk up the gangplank the next morning with her portmanteau and reticule in hand. She could already hear the excuses Shane would give. Women did not travel alone. Women did not belong on ships. Women should not take risks. There would be a whole litany of reasons not to take her along.
But what if he didn’t find out until they docked in Calais? Being tall and thin had its advantages. Abigail could disguise herself as a boy. She’d done it before when she’d wanted to watch the sailboat races on the Thames and her mother—rest her soul—had forbidden it.
Shane couldn’t very well just leave her on the docks in France. He
leave her on the docks. She just knew it.
Papa would probably be furious, at least at first, but he knew how Abigail longed to see faraway places. She’d leave him a note. For the few days she’d be gone, he could say she was visiting relatives in the country. No one would be the wiser.
Abigail smiled, quite pleased with herself. Finally, she was going to be off on an adventure—a real adventure that would include Shane MacLeod.
Standing at the rail of the
the next morning, Abigail inhaled the salty scent in the air as the schooner made its way past the Isle of Dogs and toward the Channel. The scenery blurred since she was not wearing her spectacles, but they were finally moving. She’d heaved a sigh of relief once the last line had been cast off, afraid her father would find her note too soon and come after her.
She was still a little amazed at how easy everything had been so far. Arriving as dawn broke, she’d joined several boys on the dock looking for work. No one had even questioned her gender with her hair pinned tightly under her cap and she loved the freedom of movement the breeches gave her. Mentioning she could cook had gotten her a spot in the ship’s galley. There had been one harrowing moment when Shane had come on board and looked in her direction, but then she’d realized he was only scanning the decks. She would probably be wise to stay below deck for the crossing though.
The ship lurched as wind filled the sails and Abigail grabbed the rail. The deck suddenly seemed much more slippery with the boat heeled over at an angle. Still, it was an exhilarating feeling to see the open sea ahead. She’d always wondered what it would feel like to be sailing, and now she knew.
What a glorious, wonderful adventure this was going to be.
William Townsend scowled as he crushed the note his daughter had left and tossed it on the flames in his library’s hearth. He’d known his daughter was strong-willed, but he’d never thought she was foolish. In fact, he’d secretly taken pride that she was so intelligent and actually encouraged her love of reading. She’d talked of travelling to faraway places and he’d encouraged that too. Far better she be interested in the broader scope of the world than the limiting confines of the snobbish society they lived in, but he’d not expected her to venture out on her own.
He’d taken pride that Abigail was nothing like her mother, Delia, although he should be ashamed to think ill of the dead. Delia’s death had been suspicious since it had been her lover, Wesley Alton, who’d found her. William had known for a long time his wife cuckolded him with various men, but this latest one had mental problems and several months ago had escaped from Bedlam.
William never thought his daughter would go chasing after a man—especially one who had not declared for her. His frown deepened. The MacLeod men seemed to attract a gaggle of women wherever they went. Jamie had been a bit of a womanizer before he settled down with Marissa Barclay. Was his cousin the same? Had Shane MacLeod filled Abigail’s head with promises he didn’t intend to keep?
William set his mouth in a grim, tight line. No one was going to take advantage of his daughter. No one. He would be waiting when Captain MacLeod returned.
And the man had better be damned cooperative.
Unlike many sailors, Shane MacLeod was not a superstitious type. He respected the sea. He knew she gave no quarter to men who were not vigilant, both in keeping their ships trim and an eye on the barometer. His crew understood fighting and drinking on board would not be tolerated, which helped ensure safety as well.
Still, Shane had a strange feeling about this trip, as if something were amiss. The passage to Calais would take scarcely two days, the winds were good, the weather clear. He’d even made a second round this morning inspecting the rigging but found nothing wrong. His men—save for the rather gangly boy hanging on to the rail—had gone about their jobs hauling sails and securing sheets with the efficiency of long practice.
Shane frowned as he approached the helmsman. “What’s our heading?”
“Due east. Right on course, Captain,” the man replied. “Do ye want me to fall off?”
“Nae. Keep her steady,” Shane said. “I want to be well in the Channel before we turn south.” As he headed toward the bow, he noted his men were at their stations and the skinny youth had disappeared. Shane hadn’t seen the boy before, but his quartermaster, Donald MacFie, often hired one or two to help the cook or clean the cabins before a sail. This one, though, had pale skin as though he’d not been exposed to the elements and he’d gripped the rail like a landlubber. It would be a short trip, but Shane hoped the youth was not prone to sea-sickness.