Alistair Caulfield’s back was to the door of his warehouse shipping office when it opened. A salt-tinged gust blew through the space, snatching the manifest he was about to file right out of his hand.
He caught it deftly, then looked over his shoulder. Startled recognition moved through him. “Michael.”
The new Lord Tarley’s eyes widened with equal surprise, then a weary half-smile curved his mouth. “Alistair, you scoundrel. You didn’t tell me you were in Town.”
“I’ve only just returned.” He slid the parchment into the appropriate folder and pushed the drawer closed. “How are you, my lord?”
Michael removed his hat and ran a hand through his dark brown hair. The assumption of the Tarley title appeared to weigh heavily on his broad shoulders, grounding him in a way Alistair had never seen before. He was dressed somberly in shades of brown, and he flexed his left hand, which bore the Tarley signet ring, as if he could not accustom himself to having it there. “As well as can be expected under the circumstances.”
“My condolences to you and your family. Did you receive my letter?”
“I did. Thank you. I meant to reply, but time is stretched so thin. The last year has raced by so quickly; I’ve yet to catch my breath.”
Michael nodded. “I’m pleased to see you again, my friend. You have been gone far too long.”
“The life of a merchant.” He could have delegated more, but staying in England meant crossing paths with both his father and Jessica. His father complained about Alistair’s success as a tradesman with as much virulence as he’d once complained about Alistair’s lack of purpose. It was a great stressor for his mother, which he was only able to alleviate by being absent as much as possible.
As for Jessica, she’d been careful to avoid him whenever they were in proximity. He had learned to reciprocate when he saw how marriage to Tarley changed her. While she remained as cool in deportment as ever, he’d seen the blossoming of her sensual nature in the languid way she moved and the knowledge in those big, gray eyes. Other men coveted the mystery of her, but Alistair had seen behind the veil and that was the woman he lusted for. Forever beyond his reach in reality, but a fixture in his mind. She was burned into his memory by the raging hungers and impressionableness of youth, and the years hadn’t lessened the vivid recollection one whit.
“I find myself grateful for your enterprising sensibilities,” Michael said. “Your captains are the only ones I would entrust with the safe passage of my sister-in-law to Jamaica.”
Alistair kept his face impassive by considerable practice, but the sudden awareness gripping him tensed his frame. “Lady Tarley intends to travel to Calypso?”
“Yes. This very morning, which is why I’m here. I intend to speak to the captain myself and see he looks after her until they arrive.”
“Who travels with her?”
“Only her maid. I should like to accompany her, but I can’t leave now.”
“And she will not delay?”
“No.” Michael’s mouth curved wryly. “And I cannot dissuade her.”
“You cannot say no to her,” Alistair corrected, moving to the widow through which he could view the West India docks. Ships entered the Northern Dock to unload their precious imports, then sailed around to the Southern Dock to reload with cargo for export. Around the perimeter, a high brick wall deterred the rampant theft plaguing the London wharves, which increased his shipping company’s appeal to West Indian landowners requiring secure carriage of goods.
“Neither can Hester— forgive me, Lady Regmont.”
The last was said with difficulty. Alistair had long suspected his friend nursed deeper feelings for Jessica’s younger sister and had assumed Michael would pay his addresses. Instead, Hester had been presented at court then immediately betrothed, breaking the hearts of many hopeful would-be swains. “Why is she so determined to go?”
“Benedict bequeathed the property to her. She claims she must see to its sale personally. I fear the loss of my brother has affected her deeply and she seeks a purpose. I’ve attempted to anchor her, but duty has me stretched to wit’s end.”
Alistair’s reply was carefully neutral. “I can assist her in that endeavor. I can make the necessary introductions, as well as relay information it would take her months to find.”
“A generous offer.” Michael’s gaze was searching. “But you just returned. I can’t ask you to depart again so soon.”
Turning, Alistair said, “My plantation borders Calypso, and I could use the expansion. It’s my hope to position myself as the best purchaser of the property. I will pay her handsomely, of course.”
Relief swept over Michael’s expressive features. “That would ease my mind considerably. I’ll speak to her at once.”
“Perhaps you should leave that to me. If, as you say, she needs a purpose, then she’ll want to maintain control of the matter in all ways. She should be allowed to set the terms and pace of our association to suit her. I have all the time in the world, but you do not. See to your most pressing affairs, and entrust Lady Tarley to me.”
“You’ve always been a good friend,” Michael said. “I pray you return to England swiftly and settle for a time. I could use your ear and head for business. In the interim, please encourage Jessica to write often and keep me abreast of the situation. I should like to see her return before we retire to the country for the winter.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Alistair waited several minutes after Michael departed, then moved to the desk. He began a list of new provisions for the journey, determined to create the best possible captive environment. He also made some quick but costly adjustments to the passenger list, moving two additional travelers to another of his ships.
He and Jessica would be the only non-crewmen aboard the Acheron.
She would be within close proximity for weeks—it was an extraordinary opportunity Alistair was determined not to waste.
From the familiar comfort of her town coach, Jessica stared at the sleek ship before her, her gaze following the proud line of its polished deck and the soaring height of its three masts. It was one of the most impressive vessels docked, which she should have expected considering how anxious Michael was about her making the journey. He would have taken great pains to secure her comfort and welfare. She suspected it helped him grieve to hover over his brother’s widow, but it was one of the aftereffects of losing Tarley that made her want to flee.
The smell of the ocean drew her attention back to the industriously noisy West India docks. Excitement made her heart race, or perhaps it was apprehension. Society on the lush Caribbean island—such as it was—had fewer preconceived notions about her, and the pace and structure of events were more relaxed. She looked forward to enjoying moments of solitude after the last few months of well-intentioned suffocation.
Jess watched as her footmen carried her trunks up the gangplank to the main deck in quick succession. The bright blue of Pennington livery was conspicuous among the less colorful attire of the seamen around them. Soon enough, there was no reason for her to delay in the carriage any longer.
She alighted with the help of a footman, smoothed her pale lavender silk skirts, then set off without looking back. As she gained the deck, she felt the rolling of the ship beneath her feet and took a moment to absorb the novel sensation.
Jess turned her head and watched a portly, distinguished gentleman approach. His attire and bearing told her he was the captain before he spoke.
“Captain Smith,” he introduced himself, accepting the hand she offered him and bowing over it. “A pleasure to ‘ave you aboard, mi’lady.”
“The pleasure is mine,” she demurred, returning the smile he offered from the depths of a coarse white beard. “You command an impressive ship, captain.”
“Aye, that she is.” He tipped up his hat to get a better look at her. “I would be ‘onored to ‘ave you join me for the evenin’ meals.”
“I would enjoy that very much, thank you.”
“Excellent.” Smith gestured at a young seaman. “Miller ‘ere will show you to yer cabin. If you ‘ave any questions or concerns, ‘e can see them.”
“I’m very much obliged.” As the captain went about the business of preparing to set sail, Jess turned to Miller, who she guessed was no more than ten and seven.
“Milady.” He gestured ahead to an open companionway and stairs leading below deck. “This way.”
She followed him across the amidships, fascinated by the courage of the men climbing the rigging like industrious little crabs. But as she descended the stairs, her admiration was redirected to the impressive interior of the vessel.
The paneled companion and passageway gleamed with polish, as did the brass hardware that secured the doors and hung the flashlamps. She’d been uncertain of what to expect, but this level of maintenance was a surprise delight. Miller paused before a door and knocked, which elicited a shouted permission to enter from Jess’s abigail, Beth.
The cabin Jess entered was small, but well-appointed with a narrow bed, a modestly-sized rectangular window, and a wooden table with two chairs. On the sole by one of her trunks sat a crate of her favorite claret. Although it was the smallest space she’d ever occupied as a bedchamber, she found the limits of the space comforting. And she was deeply appreciative that, for the next few weeks at least, she would not have to anticipate how to respond to others in a manner that made them feel better.
Reaching up, she withdrew the pin securing her hat and handed both to Beth.
Miller promised to return at six for supper, then ducked back out to the passageway. After the door shut, Jess’s gaze met Beth’s.
The abigail bit her lower lip and spun in a quick circle. “This is a grand adventure, milady. I’ve missed Jamaica since we left.”
Jess exhaled to ease the knot in her stomach, then smiled. “And a certain young man.”
“Yes,” the maid agreed. “’im, too.”
Beth had been a blessing the last few days, keeping Jess’s spirits high while everyone around her had been so disapproving of her plans.
“An adventure,” Jess repeated. “I think it will be.”
When the knock came to Jess’s cabin door shortly before six, she set aside the book she’d been reading and stood with some reluctance. Beth was mending a stocking on the opposite side of the small table, and the quiet companionship had been a blessing.
Setting her work down, Beth went to answer the door. As the panel swung open, Miller’s young face was revealed. He smiled shyly, revealing slightly crooked teeth. Jess dismissed Beth to enjoy her own meal, then she followed the young crewman to the captain’s great cabin. As they neared the wide door marking the end of the passageway, the plaintive notes of a violin grew in volume with the increased proximity. The instrument was consummately played, the tune sweet yet haunting. Enamored with the music, her step quickened. Miller knocked once, then opened the door without waiting for a reply. He gestured her into the sizeable great cabin with a gallant sweep of his arm.
She entered with a practiced smile, her gaze locating Captain Smith as he pushed to his feet at a long dining table, along with two other gentlemen who were introduced to her as the Chief Mate and ship’s surgeon. She exchanged the expected pleasantries, then turned her attention to the violin player. He stood with his back to her before the large gallery windows wrapping the stern. He was sans tailcoat, which caused her to glance hastily away. But when the captain approached to escort her to the table, she risked another furtive glance at the scandalously semi-dressed gentleman. Without tails to block her gaze, she was afforded a prime view of the man’s derriere, which was quite noteworthy. It was not a part of the male anatomy she’d had cause to study before. She found she quite enjoyed the ogling when the buttocks on display were so firm and well-shaped.
As she conversed with the ship’s officers, Jess glanced frequently at the dark-haired musician who coaxed such beautiful notes from the violin. The fluid, practiced movement of his arm caused his back and shoulders to flex in a manner that had always fascinated her. The male body was so much larger and powerful than a woman’s—capable of fierce aggression while also being sleek and graceful.
The tune ended. The player pivoted to return the violin and bow to their case waiting on the chair beside him. Jess caught a quick glimpse of his profile. A frisson of awareness swept over her skin. He collected his jacket from the chair where it was draped, then shrugged into it. She hadn’t thought it possible that the act of putting clothes on could be as arousing as watching them come off, but this man made it so. The graceful economy of his movements was inherently sensual, which suited his air of unwavering confidence and command.
“And this,” the captain said, turning slightly to gesture at the gentleman, “is Mr. Alistair Caulfield, owner of this fine vessel and brilliant violinist, as you ‘eard.” Jess swore her heart ceased beating for a moment. Certainly, she stopped breathing. Caulfield faced her and sketched a perfectly executed, elegant bow. Yet his head never lowered and his gaze never left hers.
What were the odds that they would cross paths this way?
There was very little of the young man Jess had once known left in the man who faced her. Alistair Caulfield was no longer pretty. The planes of his face had sharpened, etching his features into a thoroughly masculine countenance. Darkly winged brows and thick lashes framed those infamous eyes of rich, deep blue. In the fading light of the setting sun and the flickering flames of the turpentine lamps, his coal black hair gleamed with health and vitality. Previously his beauty had been striking, but now he was larger. More worldly and mature. Undeniably formidable.
“Lady Tarley,” he greeted her, straightening. “It is a great pleasure to see you again.”
His voice was lower and deeper in pitch than she remembered. It had a soft, rumbling quality to it. Almost a purr. He walked with equal feline grace, his step light and surefooted despite his powerful build. His gaze was sharp and intense, assessing. Challenging. As before, it felt as if he looked right into the very heart of her and dared her to deny that he could.
She sucked in a shaky breath and met him halfway, offering her hand. “Mr. Caulfield. It has been some time since we last crossed paths.”
His look was so intimate she couldn’t help but think of that night in the Pennington woods. A rush of heat swept up her arm from where their skin connected.
This content was originally published here.