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The Ideal Husband
By Shari Anton
Warner BooksCopyright © 2003 Sharon Antoniewicz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWith Dover's chalk cliffs now clearly in sight, Sir Geoffrey Hamelin clutched the rail of the single-masted galley and prayed for continued divine intervention.
A tall, broad-chested, solidly muscled male, whose mere size had helped keep him safe in the narrow, dangerous alleys of Paris, Geoffrey admitted his lack of prowess when faced with nature's superiority. Here was an enemy he couldn't defeat, merely battle to a draw. Perhaps.
'Twould be both painful and humiliating if he emptied his stomach into the choppy Channel below. Especially now, when the tortuous journey was almost over, and when one of God's most beautiful creations stood nearby to witness.
Geoffrey had noticed the lovely lady while boarding ship at Calais, when he yet possessed the wits to keenly perceive his surroundings. She seemed so sad, and from what he observed, also alone. 'Twas rare for a lady to travel without a companion, and the reason for the oddity pricked his curiosity.
He'd almost approached her. However, judging by the nauseating experience of his first and only Channel crossing, he'd headed below deck for privacy. For the few humbling hours required for passage to England, he'd intended to suffer his mortifying illness alone in the cargo hold-an error of judgment. Whether below or above deck, his stomach roiled.
Desperate for distraction, he allowed himself a glance at the intriguing lady.
The same breeze that slapped waves at the ship tugged at her hooded black cloak, giving him tantalizing glimpses of her trim figure gowned in scarlet silk. The hood fluttered about her classically featured face, caressed by hair the hue of spun gold.
While he admired her beauty, he envied her balance. One delicately fingered hand rested serenely on the railing while his own knuckles turned white in a death grip.
Another wave rocked the ship, flipped Geoffrey's stomach and tested his willpower. He took a long gulp of air and met the Channel's challenge. This time.
Damn, he hated ships, almost as much as he hated leaving Paris to return to his father's estate. Only for his younger sister would he suffer so, to ensure her upcoming marriage was to a man she didn't object to. With their older brother off in Italy, the duty fell to him to protect Eloise, if he could, from the snare of their father's greed.
The law might state a woman couldn't be forced to marry without her consent, but Geoffrey knew well his father's disdain for laws that didn't suit his purposes.
Only look at how Father had tried to force his other off-spring into lives that either advanced his position at King Edward's court or added coin to his coffers.
Geoffrey braced for an oncoming wave, gritted his teeth and rode out the tormenting upsurge and agonizing dip. Droplets of sea water splashed his face and mingled with the sweat beaded on his brow and upper lip. His head spun, the dizziness weakening his knees but not his resolve.
Soon the ship would anchor in the harbor. Soon he'd plant his feet on solid ground. Until that blessed event came to pass, all he could do was hang on.
A dainty hand covered his large fist. The warmth of her touch dealt a blow to his concentration, her heat supplanting the chill he found necessary to keep his legs under him and his stomach from rebelling fully.
"You have gone very pale, sir. Mayhap you should go below."
Geoffrey gazed into concerned eyes of amber gems, a color so pure and of such crystalline clarity they sparkled. 'Twas a bold move for a woman to approach a strange man, especially one of his great size. He must appear a pitiful sight if she suffered no qualms. "Better the fresh air than the stench below."
The pungency of barrels of salted fish had forced him to seek the deck where he had only to contend with the scent of a few horses that milled about in their rough-planked pen.
A small smile touched her lips, but not her eyes. The sadness he'd noticed before yet lingered. "Ah. I beg pardon. Still, I fear you may lose your ... footing should you cling to the rail. Might I assist you in some way?" In Paris, at his charming best, he'd have taken the offer as an excuse to get to know this daring woman. Although ill, he felt the pull of attraction, and again the tug of curiosity over why a woman of both beauty and refinement traveled alone.
However, aboard ship, at his absolute worst, he needed no further excuse to send her away. Better to act the cad than risk soiling her fine cloak and leather shoes. "Begone, quickly, if you have any sense at all." She removed her hand from his and cast a glance shoreward, her only moves to oblige his wish for privacy.
"Then I may as well stay and keep you company," she declared. "There are those at home who are eager to assure me I have gone completely witless. Mayhap they are right."
Geoffrey knew the feeling. The moment he passed through Lelleford's gate, his father would likely vehemently question the wits of a son gone rebellious. He knew, deep in his heart, that taking vows would have stripped away his wits in short order. He'd done right to shun the priesthood.
"One must do what one must to keep body and mind in balanced humor, despite the opinion of others." "My father would not agree."
Nor would his own father agree. So, four years ago, Geoffrey had left Lelleford for Paris without his father's permission or knowledge and not returned since. Making the decision to return home, to face his father's censure, had been difficult, indeed. He'd damn near turned around on the dock at Calais, his resolve weakened by the sight of the ship, knowing what was to come.
"Then why go home?" She tilted her head. "If you are to be my confessor, might I know your name?"
Intrigued by what sin this beautiful woman was about to confess, he answered simply, "Geoffrey." "Leah. Do you go home, too, Geoffrey?" He didn't have a chance to answer before the deck rose to churn his traitorous innards and buffet his aching head.
Leah's hand covered his once more. "The waves calm as we near shore. You need suffer only a little while longer." Another deep breath, another victory. Leah had the right of it. The galley sailed toward a calm harbor. 'Twas possible he'd gain the shore without spewing his guts. What had she asked? Something about going home.
"My sister is to be wed." "A joyous occasion, then." She gave him another wan smile. "Me, I go home because I have nowhere else to go. Will you return to Calais after the wedding?" Without doubt, as soon as he was able, he'd leave home again and return to the continent, despite another agonizing crossing to get there. "To Paris, and my studies."
She nodded, giving him the impression she approved. Would that he could gain the same approval from his father. 'Twould never happen.
"Would you return to France if you could?" Leah sighed, a mere exhale of breath. "Nay. I should not have gone to begin with. I chased a lovely dream. Unfortunately, dreams sometimes turn into night terrors." "What happened?"
She shrugged. "I was in love. He was not." Though Leah tried to sound resigned, he heard the underlying pain. Some witless man had wronged her. The fool.
"Then you are best off without him." Leah smiled fully, a bit wickedly, revealing a spirit trodden upon but not crushed. "So I told Bastian, rather scathingly. I wished him and his harlot the joy of each other before I threw the harlot's garments out the window and filched Bastian's money purse." She glanced seaward. Her fingers tightened their grip. "Hold on."
Geoffrey took a deep breath. The wave hit the galley and tossed the ship upward-higher than before. This time the bow dove deeper into the water, at a steeper angle. Leah gasped and lost her balance. She fell into his side and grabbed fistfuls of his tunic. 'Twas all Geoffrey could do to keep his footing and hold them both upright.
From below deck came the sharp, ominous crack of bursting wood, followed by a mournful groan. Then silence, as if the whole world held its breath. Bile rose in his throat, partly from his sickness, more from the absurd surety the ship was about to sink.
Steady for the moment, he pulled Leah into the narrow space between him and the side of the ship, then immediately regretted the rash impulse. Her lithe body unyielding, with widened eyes she questioned his action, one he couldn't explain because he wasn't all too sure himself.
To protect her from an as yet unknown threat? When he could hardly keep his own footing? More fool he. Geoffrey closed his eyes when he caught her scent, of lavender perfumed soap preferred by the ladies of France. A fresh, pleasant aroma that appealed far too much to his senses.
That he should meet an intriguing woman under such dire circumstances struck him as horribly unfair. His attention pulled back to their predicament, Geoffrey observed the reactions of the ship's crew and other passengers. In stunned silence, everyone clung to some piece of the ship. Listening. Waiting. Leah eased her grip on his tunic and drew in a deep breath. "I always planned ... to learn to swim ... but not like this."
Her attempt at humor made him wonder if he'd reacted overmuch. The ship tilted slightly, but the mast and sail were intact. The water was rough enough to make him ill, but surely not enough to swamp a seaworthy galley.
Still, something unnatural had happened down in the bowels of the ship to cause damage. How much? Shore and safety seemed a hell of a long swim away.
"There are boats, if need be." Every ship carried a small boat or two, used to haul crew and cargo from ship to shore in ports with harbors too shallow for large ships to anchor at dockside. "We will be all right, I swear." A thunderous rumble reverberated through the ship. Then chaos erupted.
The horses penned on deck screamed in terror. Officers shouted orders at the crew to hustle below to bale water. A few seamen slipped down the hatch before another wave hit, tilting the ship to a precarious list.
Geoffrey gripped the railing with every bit of strength he could muster, keeping both he and Leah from tumbling onto the angled deck. On the edge of his vision he saw rats swarm out of the hold, and seamen wrench coverings off a stack of three boats.
Struggling to keep his panic under firm control, Geoffrey nudged Leah. "To the boats. Now."
No one gave the order to abandon ship, but none was needed. Passengers and seamen alike bolted toward the boats, shouted and shoved at each other in panicked fury. A man lost his balance and slid down the tilted deck. Geoffrey didn't watch to see how fast or how far the man traveled. He took each uphill step carefully, easing along the railing, determined to get Leah into a boat quickly. The biting tang of smoke heightened his dread. His eyes watered and stomach churned. Leah trembled along the whole length of her.
"Only a few steps more until we reach the ladder," he said, offering encouragement as much for himself as for Leah. "The boats are already in the water. Can you see them?" "I see."
At the edge of the first group of men eager to clamber over the side and down the rope ladder, Geoffrey shouted, "Make way! Stand aside for the lady!" When the man in front of him didn't move, he grabbed hold of the lout's shoulder and yanked. "Stand aside!"
The man wheeled, his eyes wide with terror, his fist raised. "She takes her turn same as the rest of us!" Leah took a half step back, seeking succor against the lout's vehemence. Geoffrey longed to toss the churl overboard for simply scaring her.
In a tone of command he hadn't used in years, hadn't expected to ever use again, Geoffrey ordered, "Stand aside. The lady goes down the ladder first." "After me!" "Bastard."
The fist aimed at Geoffrey's chin didn't land. All the training he'd endured in his father's tiltyard, the endless hours spent in weapon practice and learning fighting tactics took over. A shift in stance, a well-timed dodge and accurately delivered shove sent the lout sprawling face down on the deck.
From the boat below came a shout, "Room for one more! Hand down the lady!"
Grateful for the seaman's timely order, Geoffrey pushed Leah toward the ladder. The group of men scurried off to find seats in other boats. Thick smoke now swirled in the air, though he couldn't hear the crackle of fire. Tears glistened in Leah's eyes. "What of you?" "There are other boats," he said, hoping he hid his fear well enough to reassure her.
"Come with me." Geoffrey glanced down. As the seaman had said, there was room for one more person, and that seat belonged to Leah. One of the many men who stared back up at him, surely, would take charge of her and see to her safety on shore.
"No room." He gave her a brief, hard embrace, which she returned with enthusiasm, warming him clear through. In another place, under other circumstances- but the damn ship was going down. "Besides, I know how to swim. I will see you ashore." "Promise."
"On my honor. Now, get down that ladder!" He hated to let her go, but with the seaman's help soon saw Leah settled safely in the boat. Then he heard the roar of fire, and turned to see the lout he'd shoved to the deck lunging straight at him. Then the huge white sail ripped free of its lines. The thick mast snapped.
From the small boat he hoped was well out of harm's way came the sound that clawed at his soul. Leah, screaming his name.
Leah huddled beneath her cloak, her eyes closed and throat raw, oblivious to all but the horrible memory of a gallant man's last few moments of life.
The man Geoffrey shoved to the deck had attacked him just as the mast fell and rolled the ship onto its side. 'Twas the last she'd seen of Geoffrey. Terrified, she'd shouted his name, but doubted he could hear over the deafening noise as the doomed ship caught fire and splintered apart.
All was quiet now but for the lap of water against the side of the boat and the dip of the seaman's oars. He rowed slowly, circling, searching for survivors and finding none. No one spoke, all too stunned for words, all grateful to be alive.
She hoped Geoffrey had somehow abandoned the ship before it sank beneath the surface. Perchance he'd jumped off and one of the other boats picked him up. Leah lifted her chin from her chest and glanced toward the shore still hazy through the smoke. Geoffrey couldn't possibly swim all that way, could he? She hoped, but doubted he'd meet her ashore.
More likely he'd saved her life, then lost his, and she couldn't shake the certainty that if not for her he'd be alive.
A tall man, broad in the shoulder, with a masterful square jaw and intelligent blue eyes, Geoffrey had leaned against the rail, pale as cream, his lack of color a sharp contrast to his long sable hair and emerald tunic. So sick, and utterly determined not to be sick.
Excerpted from The Ideal Husband by Shari Anton Copyright ©2003 by Sharon Antoniewicz. Excerpted by permission.
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