London, April 1816 – 4 months later
Despite the earliness of the hour, and the crowded bustle of the dock, Beatrice Hennessey stood out like, well, like the notorious rakehell Lord Sebastian Hawkestone, Marquis of Coldhurst, would stand out in a nunnery. Stupidly she had thought that her presence might go unnoticed.
The longer she stood looking at the ship berthed in front of her, the more lecherous the stares became. Originally, the looks had been simply curious. Clearly she was a lady, where was her escort? Why was she here? Did she have anything of value?
She had sent the hackney away because she could not afford to keep it waiting for her. She carried nothing of value. She was alone because there was no one else to count on, no one else to do what must be done to save her family.
However, two hours later when she still stood in the same place, with her hands clasped firmly in front of her, the mood of the men and women around her had changed to contempt, overlaid with a veneer of politeness, worn as thin as her remaining patience.
Where was Coldhurst? She’d assumed that since he had been away from England for several months he’d arise and disembark early, possibly as soon as his ship docked. She’d been wrong there too.
However, the worst assumption she’d made was about the place she should confront the scoundrel. Beatrice wasn’t the only woman waiting at the bottom of the gangplank to Coldhurst’s vessel, The Seductress. Several ladies of questionable character made a flagrant display of their wares, determined to be the first to ‘sell’ the goods on offer as sailors came ashore.
Beatrice didn’t judge the women. If Lord Coldhurst didn’t help her, she might well end up in their position, albeit, she hoped with a more refined level of clientele.
Her shudder wasn’t entirely due to the early morning chill. Squaring her shoulders she acknowledged the idiocy of her approaching Coldhurst alone. His last correspondence however, had left her no option. It was time to take the bull by the horns-or some similar body part. She did not doubt Lord Coldhurst possessed horns. After all, he was the wicked devil who had killed her brother.
Coldhurst owed her; owed her family-especially her ten-year-old brother, the new Baron Larkwell-a debt he could never repay. Yet Coldhurst wouldn’t be the only one to pay. If her two younger sisters, and two infant brothers were to survive and maintain their place in Society, Beatrice had little choice but to sell herself to the devil.
Had Doogie lived he would have married an American heiress whose father wanted a title for his daughter. A title from a distinguished yet impoverished family. A title in exchange for more money than any of them could imagine. Lord Coldhurst stole their financial security from them. It seemed only right and just, that he should restore the coffers he had brutally destroyed when he’d shot Doogie.
Pain filled Beatrice’s chest as it always did when she thought about her younger, foolish brother. She bit back the tears and channeled her grief into her rising temper. Two hours she had waited alone and unprotected on this smelly, dangerous dock, because she could ill afford to keep a hack and driver waiting.
Chin high Beatrice marched toward the gangplank politely weaving through the other ‘ladies’. But as she stepped onto the gangway a rough hand grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back.
“Just where the hell do you think you’re going.” The underdressed and therefore probably appropriately dressed prostitute looked her up and down, “No female is’llowed on board unless invited by the captain.”
Beatrice removed the woman’s grimy hand from her now dirt smeared shoulder and said, “Unlike you,” Beatrice hesitated, deciding to be both honest and polite, “ladies, I have important business with one of the passengers.”
The prostitute laughed out loud, nodding to the women behind her. “I’ve seen you waiting. You’re not expected. We’ve all got important business with them on board. You don’t get no special treatment. Get back in line.” And she pushed Beatrice backward into the now angry flock of screeching women.
The other women were far from gentle as they continued to push her away from the gangplank. The last woman in the group gave her an almighty shove and Beatrice ended up on her backside on the filthy dock, still tightly clutching her shawl.
She sat stunned for half a breath. Then anger surged through her as she clambered to her feet and jaw set, began pushing her way back through the mele of chattering and cursing women.
Finally, once more at the foot of the gangplank, she tapped her original assailant on the shoulder. The woman turned around. “My business,” Beatrice said before she could more than open her mouth, “is not your type of business, we are not in competition.”
The woman gave an ugly laugh. “Pah. I know who came in on that ship, his lordship. And when a man’s been at sea for a few weeks he ain’t fussy about the quality of the goods. So piss off, and wait your turn.”
This time the violent shove wasn’t backward. It sent Beatrice sideways. She tried to steady herself, clawing the air, but it was too late. She tripped over a loose plank and pitched forward, arms flailing, over the side of the dock and into the water. Her scream ended as water filled her mouth.
She sunk like a cannon ball, the freezing water soaking into her many layers of clothing, and the weight pulled her under. Pulled her down. She tried to kick her legs, stretching toward the murky sunlight above. Her lungs tightened to bursting point and soon black spots began to swarm in front of her eyes. She was going to drown. How could she die? She was all the hope her family had left. She inwardly railed at her fate. Now look what she’d done. What would become of them all without her?
A double curse on Lord Coldhurst.
The last thing she remembered was a strong, muscular arm encircling her waist, and then she was being drawn up, up, up.
“She’s coming round. Stand back and give her some air.”
Beatrice felt nothing except a bone-chilling cold. Her teeth chattered. Her eyelids were too heavy to open, but she wondered if, should she manage to pry them apart, would Doogie be there to greet her.
However, any thought of being dead vanished when a very large, very masculine hand pressed hard on her chest. Water spewed out of her mouth. Her nose. As she choked and retched, the hand simply flipped her on her side as if she were nothing more than a landed fish.
“She’ll be fine once the river she swallowed comes back up.”
Through the agonizing cramping and heaving of her stomach, the authority-saturated voice calmed her. She focused her mind away from the need to be sick and onto the man’s deep baritone voice. The sound flowed as smooth as her favorite sherry, stroking her insides, calming the rollicking within and giving her courage.
Beatrice forced her eyes to open. She blinked the blurs away. Blinked again. She was lying on her side. The hardness beneath her cheek was wood. She was on a ship. They were men’s legs, sailor’s legs, all except one pair. Those well-shaped calves covered by dripping wet stockings. Bootless. They legs obviously belonged to the refined voice she’d heard.
She moved her head slightly and blinked again, following those bootless legs up the sodden trousers to the clinging shirt, all of which delineated a body that was no stranger to exercise. Exquisite was her first thought. And then she reached his face.
Her breath caught in her throat and she was drowning once more. Not exquisite. Arresting. Arrogant. His ruthlessly handsome face was looking at her as if it were her fault she’d fallen in the Thames. Worse, his eyes held another emotion deep within, heat and lust. The grey blue of his eyes penetrated the cold, and the wickedness within seemed to warm every inch of her skin.
She quickly looked away and down her body. The sight that greeted her made her gasp and try to sit up. Her dress had been ripped open and her stays lay several feet away in tatters. Her breasts were on full display for those on deck to see.
Heat flamed in her face as she tried to pull the tattered sides of her soaking clothes together. She didn’t know where to look. No wonder he stared. No wonder he looked so….
“You tore my dress.”
“Guilty.” The deep, seductive notes of his voice mocked her. “A ‘thank you’ would suffice. I did just save your life.”
Of course he had. Blast the man.
“Oh, yes, thank you,” she mumbled, too embarrassed to look anywhere but at her feet.
“It was my pleasure. Lord Sebastian Coldhurst at your service my lady.”
Coldhurst. It would have to be Coldhurst who had saved her. He was the last man on earth to whom she wished to be indebted.
Confound it. She’d heard Lord Coldhurst was a handsome man, and the reaction of her body made it impossible to deny the truth. He was exceedingly handsome, his look dark and very dangerous. With his deep auburn-brown hair and chiseled, harsh, yet gorgeous features he would be any woman’s fantasy. Any woman’s fantasy but hers!
His sinful lips curved in a mocking smile at her obvious assessing gaze.
She held her head high. “I know who you are. If not for you I would not have been here in the first place.”
“Really, how fascinating.” He looked down at the dock below them. “I’m flattered. Such a warm welcome from lovely English lasses, although you’re in a different class to the rest of the ladies at the bottom of the gangplank.” His finely arched brows knitted together as his eyes swept over her.
Indignation momentarily robbed her of speech. Her chin lifted. “I’m not here to welcome you.”
His skeptical study made her flush even hotter. “The Captain informs me you were waiting with the other, shall we say, ladies. However, I do not believe I’ve had the pleasure…”
When she remained silent, he added, “I must admit falling into the Thames is an unique way to gain my attention. Your charms are quite adequate from what I have seen. However, I must inform you that if you are after a protector, I do not ever keep a mistress. But if you’re interested in a short interlude of immeasurable mutual pleasure, I’m all ears.”
She didn’t require the previous lung full of water to splutter. “How dare you! I am not here for your pleasure, my lord. I’m here to collect on a family debt.” At his confused frown she added, “I’m Beatrice Hennessey.”
His seductive smile disappeared immediately, and his hands fell from where they were bracing his hips. The eyes that, moments ago, gleamed with a blatant invitation were now filled with guilt and pain. Perhaps he wasn’t as callous as his actions had dictated.
“As I wrote in my letter,” he said, “I’m sorry for your loss. I should never have allowed the duel to proceed. If I could change what happened that morning I would. I did not mean to kill your brother. I’m sure my shot was wide, and the Prince Regent agreed that it was a terrible tragedy and has issued a full pardon.”
He’d paid for a pardon more like. The Regent was always desperate for money. Suddenly Beatrice was very tired. She sat in her wet clothes, the cold numbing every part of her. Her heart clawed in her chest thinking of her brother, and the unfairness of what she was about to have to do.
She took a deep breath. “This is not the time or place to have this discussion.”
He obviously agreed with her. The words were scarcely out of her mouth when he bent and scooped her into his arms. Even though his shirt was soaked, the heat coming off his muscled chest seared as if she’d strayed too close to a roaring fire. She held the tattered edges of her dress together even tighter and let the warmth begin to seep into her cones.
Lord Coldhurst strode with her down the gangway to his cabin where he deposited her gently on his bed. His manner made it clear his motives had no nefarious purpose.
He passed her a towel. “Best rid yourself of those wet clothes. I’ll find dry garments for you.” Then he left her.
She sat staring at the closed door. Finally, when the increasing ferocity of her shivers almost made her fall off the bunk bed, she rose and stripped off her ruined dress. Another expense, she thought as she peeled sodden stockings down her legs. Terrified of Coldhurst’s return before she was decent, Beatrice made quick work of drying herself with the towel. Then spying a blanket at the foot of the bed she wrapped it around her, and was instantly engulfed in Lord Coldhurst’s scent. It was a heady mixture of stale cheroots, a spicy cologne, and maleness.
A knock at the cabin door, made her jerk her nose guiltily from the blanket.
Lord Coldhurst entered the room and handed her what appeared to be a clean garment very similar to the one’s the ladies on the dock had been wearing. “It’s all I could find.” With that he turned his back and pulled his shirt over his head.
She couldn’t help her cry of outrage. “What on earth are you doing?”
He turned with a quizzical look at her cry.
“Even though you might want it for me, I’m not about to let myself die of cold. Don’t look if it offends your sensibilities.”
She said nothing. She’d lost her ability to breathe. To think. To Move. But she hadn’t lost her ability to look at him.
She shouldn’t be so affected. He was a rake, a man of decadent passions with a terrible reputation. A killer. Yet that expanse of sun-kissed bare skin was stunning.
With no embarrassment, he did not turn his back this time as he continued undressing. With wide shoulders, a broad chest corded with lean muscle, a hard flat stomach, and narrow hips, he had the physique of a Greek god. She wanted to believe she was immune to his treacherous handsomeness but his masculinity had become both heat and light, drawing her to his beauty like a moth. She could feel her wings flutter and begin to singe.
Her pulse went wild, even as her mind shrieked protest. How could she be attracted to this man? He’d killed her brother. He was a man as salacious as her father. She despised her father. Men as contemptible as her father she would normally sail to the ends of the earth to avoid. Coldhurst killed her brother.
That thought slapped her into action and she finally turned her back. It took supreme effort for her not to sneak a quick look when she heard the sound of breeches and stockings being removed. She’d never seen a fully naked man before, only statues and mostly they were discreetly covered. Her mouth felt dry and she tried to swallow. What would he look like if she turned round? She would not look. She was not interested. She wasn’t…
“You may turn round now.”
Beatrice did, and almost turned back again. Although he was dressed, given who she was, it was not to an appropriate standard.
He’d pulled on a cambric shirt and a pair of drawstring linen-trousers-if one could call such an item trousers. And his feet were still bare.
“I’m surprised you didn’t spend the time while I was dressing to do the same.” His eyebrow rose on a knowing smile.
Curses. She felt heat invade her cheeks. “I’d prefer you to leave the room while I dress.”
His smile deepened. “You don’t trust me. Very wise. I don’t have your will power. I would peek.”
Of course he would. “Why does that not surprise me? A man of your low moral fiber will have forgotten how to behave like a gentleman, if you ever knew.”
“Ah, on such short acquaintance you seem to know me so well. We have established that you are not here to warm my bed. In that case, I pray you quickly explain what you are doing here, so you may be on your way and I may pursue an activity that is far more pleasurable.”
“I will not have a conversation with you, while I’m naked.”
White teeth flashed in his tanned face. “You could always change your mind and do something else with me while you’re naked.”
“Have you no respect. You killed my brother and now you proposition his sister.” She stood, the blanket wrapped firmly around her. She could barely contain her shaking, but whether from cold or anger she wasn’t sure.
“I’d rather jump back into the Thames.”
Coldhurst frowned. “Forgive me, my lady, but I fail to understand your reason for seeking me out.” He paused, and his hands rolled into fists, “Unless it’s to extort more money from me.”
The blanket almost slipped from her grasp. “Extort? You sent the money. Blood money. We did not extort nor ask for any recompense. Judas’s thirty pieces of silver. Guilty conscience, my lord?”
Anger flared in the depths of his eyes. “It was not I who issued the challenge.”
“But you accepted. A man who is known for his expertise with weapons, agreeing to a duel with a young, stupid man, barely more than a boy.”
The shrill pain of the memory had her lean on the cabin wall for support. The day Doogie died had dawned like many before, except this time he arrived home from his carousing in a casket.
In a low voice he said, “I went through with the duel to teach the young fool to be careful whom he challenged in future. I swear I aimed wide of him, but his inexperience and the cloaking mist, must have caused him to deviate off his mark.” He added softly, “I did not intend to kill him, and I shall regret his death for as long as I live.”
Two tears rolled down her cheeks. She quickly dashed them away with one hand, while the other hand continued to clutch the blanket as though it were a life buoy.
“Well, you taught him a lesson all right.”
He sighed. “Why are you here?”
Beatrice swallowed several times trying to grasp her courage for this despicable task. She forced herself to stand tall but in her naked state felt absolutely ridiculous and exposed.
He moved toward her. She took a wary step back. She was tall enough that he didn’t dwarf her with his massive size, but she still had to steel herself to meet his intimidation without flinching.
“You aren’t afraid of me?” he asked, his voice as mesmerizing as a snake charmer, who turned out to be the snake.
She was afraid of him, but not because he’d killed her brother. She was deadly afraid for an altogether different reason. She fought for control of her scrambled senses. She was afraid of him because for the first time in her life she was suddenly acutely aware of a man. Of the raw virility that seemed to surround him. “You may be a killer, but I’ve heard you are a man of honor.” At least she hoped he was, or her visit would be in vain. “I doubt you’d hurt a woman.”
“Not unless she asked me to,” Coldhurst said. “And then only in a mutually pleasurable way.”
She had no idea to what he was referring, but it was doubtless sexual in nature. Everything about him screamed sex. Doogie had issued his challenge because he’d found Coldhurst in his mistress’s bed.
Men were so stupid to fight and die over who was having sex with whom. From what she knew about men, they slept with anyone who let them. From what she knew of sex, admittedly not much, it seemed a messy, unnecessary business except to beget children.
“No doubt you are deliberately trying to make me uncomfortable with your innuendo,” she retorted coolly, adopting her most regal air. “I’m twenty-five years old. I am not a debutante who will faint at the mention of sexual congress,”
His smile flickered as if he were trying to hide his amusement. “Sexual congress? How prim. How proper.” He reached across the small space to brush her cheek lightly with the back of his knuckles. “Only a virgin could say sexual congress with such distain. Either that, or a woman whose lovers were completely inept.”
Sebastian felt the animal stirrings of his body. Her lips parted and he heard her soft intake of breath. He’d obviously been without a woman for too long to lust after Doogie Hennessey’s spinster sister. For all that, he felt his loins heat knowing she was naked under his blanket.
She was passably pretty. Not a ravishing beauty, but then very few women would look delectable after receiving a dunking in the Thames. Her hair clung in lumps to her head, the strands now a muddy light brown. Yet her eyes, a midnight blue, sparkled like sapphires-probably with anger, and turned her plain features into something more. Her lips stretched taut with disapproval but their bow shape made him want to kiss her. To kiss away the bleakness on her face. That she did not wish to be here was obvious. Then why was she?
He suddenly realized he had been staring at her for longer than was polite.
“You need to get dressed,” he said more harshly than he intended. “You shouldn’t be here. Your reputation would be destroyed if it were known you were in this cabin, let alone in it, with me, naked. I’ve done your family enough damage as it is.”
She nodded. “True. But it’s that very reason that sees me take this desperate and abhorrent step.” She met his gaze. “Do you know what Doogie’s death has meant to our family?”
He ran a hand through his hair. “I know the late Baron was to have married Penelope Gelher.”
“And that marriage settled your family’s financial problems.”
“That marriage,” she corrected, “would have saved my mother, my sisters and brothers and myself from the poorhouse.”
The guilt rose to choke him once again. “I hadn’t realized it had come to that.”
She looked away. “If not for the funds you arranged to send us while you were, shall we say ‘rusticating’ in the Caribbean, my family would be there now. I used all of the money to clear my father’s and brother’s debts. But now there is no more.”
He balked. “But I sent your family a small fortune.”
She blushed to the tips of her petite ears. “What can I say? First my father, and then my brother, managed to take licentiousness to a level Marie Antoinette would have applauded.”
“Then might I suggest that you follow in your brother’s footsteps? Arrange an advantageous marriage.”
She finally smiled and his insides froze as the reason for her presence struck his brain like a lightening bolt. Damn. No. No, no, no…. He wanted to step away. He wanted to run. Sail back to the Caribbean.
And then his worst nightmare put itself into words on those lips he’d recently thought so kissable, and he knew he’d be powerless to refuse her.
“You’re correct, Lord Coldhurst. If I wish to save what remains of my family, my marriage to a wealthy man is now my only option. At my age and with my prospects I have no hope of securing such a marriage this side of never. Why do you think I’m here? Only desperation, and the need to save my siblings would allow me to marry a man like you. A man responsible for the death of my brother.”Return to A Promise of More