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Falling for the Pirate
A Men of Fortune Novel
By Amber Lin, Nina Bruhns
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Amber Lin
All rights reserved.
Juliana Hargate had fled with nothing but the clothes on her back. And so it was a relief to determine those clothes were worth something, after all.
She arrived at the bazaar as the sun dipped behind steeples of a nearby church. Bolts of fabric stacked on tables formed makeshift walls between stalls that boasted housewares, produce, and livestock. Warbling strains attracted children to an array of music boxes in a toy shop.
A soft breeze mingled the smell of cattle with a vendor's roasting spit, and despite the unsavory combination, Juliana's stomach rumbled. She had been too worried to eat breakfast, but worry was a luxury she could no longer afford.
Now she was simply hungry.
She found her destination in a double-stall packed with clothing of all types, overseen by a woman with sharp red cheeks and pursed lips.
"Keep yer hands to yerself," the woman snapped at a child fingering a brocade shawl on a hook.
Juliana jumped when the woman slapped the child's hand, but the young girl merely wiped her damp nose on her sleeve and wandered away. God, such behavior would never have been tolerated from a milliner on Bond street. A laugh bubbled up, inappropriate and slightly hysterical. At one time, Juliana herself would have stepped in and upbraided the woman. But now she needed the shopkeeper's help — or at least her business.
The shopkeeper turned to Juliana. Her eyes narrowed, calculating. "Now, what you looking for, then? Have a fancy new dress in mind? Lots 'o pretty colors for a certified lady like yerself."
Humiliation burned Juliana's cheeks. No doubt the woman expected her to have money, based on the quality of her clothes. Well, that made two of them. She had never expected to be destitute, either.
"Actually, I wondered if you might be interested in ... purchasing my dress."
"Well, now, that's a right fine dress you have," the woman answered slowly. "But I don't have any large sums of money to be spending on a single one, do I?"
Juliana swallowed the dread that had dogged her since leaving her house. No, not your house anymore. "I'm sure we can come to an agreement. But if we might, I'd like to inquire about a trade."
And so, the deal was made in the haphazard changing room in the back corner of the tent. She sold her dress. She sold her petticoats. She sold her embroidered stockings and her corset and her soft leather walking shoes. In a sad attempt at vanity, she kept her chemise, even when the woman fingered the lace edge hungrily.
In return, Juliana received the tattered clothes from a chimney sweep and ten shillings.
"A gift," the shopkeeper called it, even though Juliana suspected she had gotten the worse end of the bargain. She wasn't skilled at negotiation, and besides, she was desperate.
She stared at herself in the faded mirror. Her long hair was mostly hidden beneath a cap black with soot. Her overall shape was boyish enough — a fact which had bothered her before, but now would be useful.
"Well," she said, unable to bring herself to thank the woman.
The shopkeeper winked. "I know you hoity toity types likes to go slumming, eh? Do they like you all dressed as a boy? Or is it the surprise that does it?"
Juliana stared at her blankly. The shopkeeper gave a deep belly laugh that made Juliana uneasy for reasons she couldn't pinpoint. "Well," she repeated. "I'll be off."
The woman was still laughing as Juliana was swallowed up by the crowd.
The shoes were two sizes too large. They clop-clopped with every step, forcing her to walk slower. At least the clothes fit well enough. The chimney sweep who'd owned them had been of a similar height to her and a little wider in the chest. With her hair hidden and her head down, she could pass for a boy.
As long as no one looked at her feet. Then they would probably notice the way she limped slightly because of the blister that was forming on her left foot.
And her right foot.
The night grew disjointed, like the pieces of a puzzle scattered across a rug. She read the clock on a church steeple and listened to a crier with late edition papers to sell. A bell signaled the end of the day as she passed a workhouse. Through tattered lace curtains, she glimpsed a family gathered for supper by the light of a single candle.
Nothing fit together. The brick buildings around her seemed wavy and insubstantial. Was this a dream? She hoped so. Because then it would end. Time passed slowly, then jolted her into awareness as the stench of dead fish settled on her tongue. Darkened shop windows were crowded with huge compasses and coiled ropes and brass instruments of unknown usage.
She was near the docks.
Light glowed from a tavern ahead. The sign overhead read Jolly Tar. Men spilled out in a brawl, shouting, tumbling one over the other like children at play. Juliana dashed into the street to avoid them. Her foot landed in a soft substance, and she winced as she unstuck herself.
"Sorry, lad." A grizzled workman grinned at her, cheerful despite the fact that he'd been bodily shoved outside. "Ye should come inside and have some swill. It'll put hair on yer chest."
"Er, no, thank you."
"The taste innit so bad by the second cup."
"Still no, I'm afraid."
"Ye look like yer about to fall over dead," he said kindly.
"Then the gin would go to waste."
His laugh was raucous. "On with you then," he said, clapping her on the arm.
She rubbed her shoulder as he ambled back inside. Stooping, she poured an unidentified liquid from her shoe before continuing on. Her knees ached in protest, but sitting down was not an option. If she did, she wasn't sure she'd ever get up again.
The stream of passersby thinned as she approached the docks. Men walked alone or in pairs, keeping their heads down. She matched their strides, hunching her shoulders in a way that made her look bigger but feel smaller. Her heart had been beating too fast since she'd hatched this plan. No, before that. Since her father's solicitor had arrived at her house this afternoon. And before that —
Don't think about it.
Her mission tonight could change everything. She knew it could.
Two workmen lounged in darkened shop doorways, their faces illuminated by cigars. The red light made them look scary, almost demonic, and she turned away. They grew silent as she passed. Hair raised on the back of her neck. Did they know she was a woman? Could they tell?
"Come 'ere and give us someone to talk to, boy."
Even a boy might not be safe on the London docks.
She swallowed hard, remembering the shopkeeper's innuendo. Do they like you all dressed as a boy? Or is it the surprise that does it? They would be surprised, certainly, if they found out she was a woman. And she doubted she'd be safe as either gender with these men. She sped her step, ignoring the twinge in her feet.
The building was around here somewhere. She recognized some of the signs and the fetid smell of fish. If only she had paid more attention on her visits in the carriage. If only she'd had the coins to hire a hack. That had become her mantra during the past two weeks. If only, if only. The lament of the helpless, waiting for someone else to solve her problems.
She was done waiting.
At last she saw the building emerge from the fog. Hargate Shipping. Behind it, naked masts rose up like a forest in winter. She remembered the way her father had looked upon the offices with pride. For years, he had devoted his waking hours to his shipping company. And now it was gone.
She couldn't entirely blame the men slouching at the building's entrance. Perhaps they had been hired by her father. She'd heard that the new owners had retained some of the staff. If these men had been employees of her father, would they retain loyalty to him? If they knew who she was, would they help her? She couldn't take the risk.
Slipping around the corner, she pressed close to the uneven brick wall. Men's voices escaped the door. A single voice rose above them, jovial with a Cockney lilt, followed by a round of raucous laughter.
She almost missed the sound behind the door. Her pulse leaped to her throat. The damp stone of the wall gave her nothing to cling to. She made herself flat, invisible. The door swung open. Light spilled from the doorway as two men swaggered out.
Their voices sounded thin over the damp, salty air. "I told her if she was going to talk to me that way, she didn't have to come back."
The other man's laugh had a cruel edge. "You say that too many times, she might just leave."
"Naw, she never listens to a damn thing I say."
Their footsteps faded into the darkness. Juliana's eyes fell shut in relief. A chimney sweep had no reason to be sneaking around a shipping company. And her identity wouldn't hold up under close inspection.
The side door would be no better than the front, judging by the number of voices inside. Why were so many people working at this hour? No doubt the new owners were engaged in illicit dealings, ones that were best practiced under cover of night. After all, they had stolen the company from her father.
But with all the activity, how was she going to get inside?
At first, the back of the building seemed less of an option than the front. A pile of crates was stacked in front of the doors, almost blocking them. She frowned. Slender she may be, but even she could not fit between such a narrow gap. The crates wouldn't budge, no matter how hard she pulled or panted.
Thoughtful, she stepped back. They were stacked on top of each other ... in the shape of a lopsided pyramid. And most important, they reached all the way to the roof. Yes, all right. She would climb. Climb. As if she were an animal.
Or at the very least, a boy.
At the top, she would go down through the chimney. She was already dressed for the part. But clothes were very different from what was inside. Chin up, she told herself.
She took a deep breath, and hauled herself up the first row of crates. It wobbled for a moment — a moment when her heart seemed to leap from her chest — and then righted itself. Gingerly, she gripped the second row. And pulled. Cool air rushed around her ankles as the shoes dangled from her feet. With a determined grunt, she scrabbled up the rest of the way, ignoring the creaks and groans, pretending she couldn't feel the splinters in her palms. How the men actually hauled these crates without ripping their palms to shreds, she had no idea.
On the highest one, she slowly stood, wobbling a little, stretching out the four feet to the ledge of the roof. She gripped the brick lip and began to pull — only, the combination of sweat and blood made her palms slippery. Breath whooshed out of her as she began to fall, to swing, hanging with one hand on the ledge.
Her body thudded against the uneven brick wall, and for a second, she was done. Her mind went blank, her body slack. She would have tumbled straight to the ground. And the very worst part, she realized in those final seconds, was that she had failed. Her father was counting on her. She had to believe he was counting on her, because the alternative, the very worst case —
No, she couldn't think of that.
Juliana refused to believe her father was dead.
And she refused to fail.
Her resolve snapped back into place. She swung her loose arm up to meet the other one. Her muscles shook under the strain, making her whole body vibrate as if she had the chills. Painstakingly, she pulled herself higher until she could throw her knee over the ledge and tumble onto the roof.
She had made it.
Her head throbbed and her heart pounded, but she was nearly there. She scampered up to the chimney, climbed over the rough lip, and dropped into the filthy chute.
After a harrowing slide, she landed on her feet. And she was inside.
Focus. The next order of business was to cross the hallway while remaining undetected. Thankfully, the entire upstairs was dark.
The blasted shoes clop-clopped on the wood floors, but no one came running. She made it inside the correct room, and no one demanded she explain herself, which was excellent, really. She had no explanation that would suffice. I'm going to prove my father's innocence sounded fine and reasonable. Though there was the issue of her father's arrest warrant.
It complicated matters, she had to admit.
So, she simply wouldn't be caught. This was the sort of logic that desperate times demanded. Logic that had sent her into her father's former offices to find the documents that would exonerate him. She would clear his name — and hers. She would restore their family's standing and fortune. She would fix this, because if she didn't ...
Her stomach sank. If she didn't find what she needed, then all she possessed was the ten shillings in her pocket. She turned to the row of filing cabinets and began to search her father's office.CHAPTER 2
Nathanial Bowen was accustomed to people stealing from him. The other children in the whorehouse he'd grown up in had constantly fought over whatever toys and coins they could scavenge, and a hierarchy had emerged. Who had the most food? Who hit the hardest?
Eventually, after getting his nose broken twice, Nate had emerged at the top.
But those petty thefts weren't the worst he had encountered. That had come even earlier, closer to his birth. Theft of property. Theft of honor. And he was close, so close, to getting it all back.
So when he'd seen the lithe figure climbing the crates outside his new warehouse, well, he shouldn't have been surprised. He shouldn't have been offended, either. The short stature made it clear he was dealing with a child. Or a young man too weak to hold a job of heavy labor. Most of all, he shouldn't have been angry. Anger was a form of weakness. But at nearly midnight, having sunk half a bottle of brandy into his gut before throwing the bottle out his porthole, he had found himself furious.
Nate was on his ship, where the porthole of his cabin gave him a clear line of site to the building. The building that was in the process of being robbed. By a child.
He was just now getting back what had been taken from him. Wasn't even finished, in fact, his task half-done. And here, some lad was trying to snatch it out of his grasp, as if it had never really been Nate's, after all.
Then the boy lost his footing. He held on from the ledge on the roof, feet dangling. Nate's breath caught. He was too far away, him on his ship and the boy on land. Six minutes away if he ran at full speed. It was too late for him to help, too late ...
The boy grasped the roof and hauled himself over. Nate let out the breath he'd been holding.
With a grunt, he pushed to his feet. The whole world tilted sideways, and it took him a full thirty seconds to orient himself. What was making everything lurch beneath him? A disturbance in the water, a disruption on the ship? No, it was the brandy.
Maybe he'd drunk more than half the bottle.
A strange melancholy overtook him. He wished he'd never seen the boy stealing into his warehouse. Then he wouldn't have to get up while his head was pounding and his mouth was dry. He could wake up in the morning, already relieved of whatever coins or gold was in the upstairs rooms. And what would it matter?
Every time he drank, the liquor made him admit that the money wouldn't give him what he truly craved.
He really should stop drinking.
On the deck, he found himself checking the ship's ropes. Old habits. The men on watch saluted him, silhouettes framed by moonlight, and Nate whistled a quick greeting before heading to the fore. He paused, then took two steps backward. A scrawny foot was barely visible behind a coil of rope.
"The quartermaster will take your breakfast away if he finds you abovedecks at this hour."
The foot slid further into shadow. "He's always taking it away for something," came the voice from behind the ropes. "Mightn't as well not count on it."
Nate decided he would check with the quartermaster about how many meals could be taken away at most. Then he forced himself to scratch off the reminder. He trusted his quartermaster to provide necessities to the children, to keep them obedient and safe. The boy, Bennett, already looked to Nate too often.
Excerpted from Falling for the Pirate by Amber Lin, Nina Bruhns. Copyright © 2014 Amber Lin. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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