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An Improper Proposal
SHROPSHIRE, ENGLAND JUNE 1830
"Dammit, Payton," Ross Dixon exploded. "I can't tie the wretched thing. You do it."
Payton, at too crucial a stage with her second-eldest brother's cravat even to risk a glance at her eldest, snapped, "Wait your turn."
"Bleeding turn." Hudson, holding his chin up, had to look down the slopes of his high cheekbones to see his little sister as she worked on his necktie, and then he only saw the top of her head. "Wait your bleeding turn."
"Wait your bleeding turn," Payton said, correcting herself.
The ends of his cravat hanging limply round his neck, Ross turned away from the mirror, outraged. "Damn your eyes, Hud! Stop encouragin' her to swear. You want her to tell the first bloke who asks her to dance tonight to wait his bleeding turn?"
"No one's goin' to ask Payton to dance," Raleigh informed them, from the window seat. His cravat already tied, he'd been banished to the far side of the room by his sister with a dire warning not to stir and unloose it again. He sat in a flood of western sunlight, watching a line of carriages pull up to the front of the house. "She's far too ugly."
"Shut your bleeding mouth, Raleigh," Payton advised him.
Ross ground his teeth. "Payton," he growled. "Stop swearing.You aren't home, and you aren't shipboard. Remember our agreement? You can behave like a hoyden all you want while we're at home or at sea, but in other people's houses you'll conduct yourself like a"
"You know," Hudson interrupted. "Payton's not that ugly, Raleigh. It's just her damned hair." Since he had an eagle's eye view of it, Hudson felt qualified to criticize. "When you were shavin' all our heads this past summer, Ross, why didn't you shave Payton's, too? It might have helped if she'd just got rid of the whole thing, and started over."
"Why did you," Ross countered, irritably, "hire a cook inflicted with lice? If you hadn't hired him on, none of us would have needed to shave our heads, and Georgiana wouldn't be forever needling me to purchase Payton a switch."
"A switch?" Payton wrinkled her freckled nose. "What would I want with a switch? Wear some other woman's hair on top of mine?" She shuddered. "No, thank you. I'm perfectly happy waiting until my own grows out again."
Hudson snorted. "You love havin' your hair cropped short. Admit it. You're a lazy puss, and never liked combin' out those damned Indian braids you used to wear."
Payton turned bright gray eyes up toward him. "Careful," she warned, tightening the cravat teasingly. "I may not have my Indian braids anymore, but I can still sever a throat with ease."
"Bloodthirsty wench, aren't you?" Hudson tugged on one of the short russet-brown curls that Payton had triedunsuccessfully, she fearedto tuck into a pair of tortoiseshell combs. "You're going to have to learn to curb your tendency toward violence, my girl, or you'll never get yourself a husband."
Payton made a moue of distaste. "I fail to see what I need a husband for, when I already have you three telling me what to do."
"Because eventually," Ross said, "Hud and Raleigh are going to follow my example and take wives, leaving you all alone."
"What do you mean, alone?" Payton glared at him over a bare shoulder. "There's always Papa."
"Georgiana and I are taking care of Papa," Ross informed her. "And neither of us cares to be saddled with my spinster sister, in addition."
"If you would stop being such an ass and give me a ship of my own to command," Payton said coolly, "you wouldn't have to worry about being saddled with a spinster sister, let alone finding me a husband."
Ross looked horrified. "Over my dead body," he declared, "are you ever going to command a Dixon ship."
"And why not? I'm twice the navigator Raleigh is, and he's had his own ship for eight years now." She narrowed her eyes as she glanced in Raleigh's direction. "For all he spent most of those years hopelessly lost."
Looking up once again from the window, Raleigh informed her kindly, "I wasn't lost, my dear. I was exploring previously uncharted territory. There's a difference."
"You were lost, Raleigh. Your cargo rotted while you were floundering about, trying to find your way around the Cape of Good Hope. Only you weren't at the Cape of Good Hope, were you?"
Raleigh waved a hand at her. "Cape Horn, Cape Hope. Those capes all look the same. Is it any wonder I mistook one for the other?"
Payton turned to glare at her eldest brother, who was fussing with his shirt collar in the mirror above the dressing table. "See? You give him a command, but not me? At least I can tell the continents apart."
"The company," Ross explained to his reflection, as patiently as if he were speaking to a child, "is called Dixon and Sons Shipping, Payton." At her sharp inhalation, Ross held up a hand, and said, "And kindly don't start arguing again that we should change the name to Dixon and Sons and Daughter. I haven't the slightest intention of becoming the laughingstock of the shipping industry by introducing lady ship captains."
"What's wrong with lady ship captains?" Payton demandedtartly. "I've commanded your crews often enough, and quite ably, thank you very much, when you three were too drunk to hold the wheel. I don't see why I have to be married off like some kind of half-wit when I have at least as much experience as any of you"
"I say." Hudson cleared his throat. "Are you going to tie my cravat, Pay, or fight with Ross?" When her hot-eyed glare landed on him, he took a quick step backward. "Never mind. Continue fighting with Ross, by all means."
"Don't worry, Pay," Raleigh drawled from the window seat. "Ross'll have no choice but to make you a lady ship captain in the end. No bloke's ever goin' to ask you to marry him. You're far too ugly."
"She ain't ugly!" Ross exploded, finally turning away from the mirror. "Well, at least, not anymore. Not after I paid damn near a hundred quid for that bleeding dress she's got on."
"Don't forget," Hudson reminded him, "the matching slippers. And the hat and cloak."
"Another hundred pounds." Ross lifted a snifter of brandy he'd placed on top of the dresser, and drained it in a single quick gulp. "And for what, I'd like to know? It's not like there's enough material in that dress to even cover 'er decently."
Payton glanced down at her décolletage. It was a bit daring. She didn't have a lot to show, but what was there was on rather prominent display. When she looked up again, she saw that Hudson had followed her gaze.
"Yes, Pay," he said. "I'd noticed you'd gotten a bosom. When did that happen?"
"I don't know." Payton shook her head bewilderedly. "Last summer, I think. Somewhere between New Providence and the Keys."
"I didn't notice you having any breasts when we were in Nassau," Ross declared. The eldest child, it always irked him whenever Payton, the youngest, did anything without askingsuch as grow, for instance.
"That's because she wore nothing all summer but that vestand those dreadful striped trousers." Raleigh, the fop of the family, heaved a delicate shudder. "Remember? Georgiana practically had to peel her out of 'em when we got back to London."
"I wore the trousers," Payton pointed out severely, "because I didn't need everyone looking up my skirts every time I climbed the mizzenpost"
"Wishful thinking," Hudson observed.
Ignoring him, Payton continued. "And I wore the vest because I hadn't anything to support what was going on beneath my shirt. No thanks to any of you."
"Underthings." Ross nodded. "I forgot. Another hundred quid. And for what, I ask you?"
The door to the bedroom opened, and Georgiana Dixon said matter-of-factly, "To get her married, of course." Then, taking in the sight of her husband's loose collar with a sigh, she added, "I don't suppose it would have occurred to any of you that most men employ valets to tie their cravats, not their little sisters."
It was Hudson's turn to shudder. "I don't want some bloke touching me, let alone my clothes."
"Really, Georgiana." Ross, Payton had noticed, was not quite as patient with his new wife as he'd been but a few months earlier. After all, then he'd only been courting her. Now that they were safely married, and she couldn't very well escape, he made it quite clear that the newfangled ideas she'd brought with her from London were no longer going to be tolerated. "There's something ... well, unnatural about a man helping another man to dress. That's women's work."
Georgiana nodded. She'd grown, Payton observed, quite used to the backward logic frequently employed by the family into which she'd married.
"I see," she said. "And so poor Payton's got to dress all of you before you'll let her see to herself." Tut-tutting, she went to Payton's side, and began to remove her hair combs. "You three ought to be ashamed of yourselves," Georgiana chastised. "For heaven's sake, learn to tie your own cravats. I'venoticed Captain Drake can do it. There's no reason any of you can't. You're not feeble."
"Oh, well, Captain Drake," Hudson said, rolling his eyes.
"Captain Drake can do anything," mimicked Raleigh in a high-pitched voice, and although it was not clear who precisely he was mimicking, Payton shot him a warning look. She had a sneaking suspicion he was imitating her, in which case, she'd have to give him a taste of her fist, first chance she got.
"I met the captain just now in the hallway." Using the hair combs, Georgiana began working the tangles from Payton's scandalously short curls. If she applied them at just the right angle, Georgiana had found that she could almost create the illusion that Payton's hair was longer than jaw-length, which, in actual truth, it was not. "And he looked right presentable. A good deal more presentable than you looked, Ross, the night before we were married."
"Right," Hudson said, with a laugh. "But Ross had, I believe, consumed most of a bottle of rum that night, so it's understandable he mightn't have looked his best"
"I understand," Georgiana continued, as if Hudson had not interrupted, "that Captain Drake keeps no valet, so I can only assume that he, at least, is capable of dressing himself."
"Or Miss Whitby helped him," Raleigh quipped.
Payton was so startled that she jumped, yanking her hair out of Georgiana's reach as she whirled around to face her brother. "She did not," she declared.
But even as she said it, and with all the contempt she could summon, a part of her was wondering whether or not it might be true. Unfortunately, that doubt must have sounded in her voice, since Georgiana said, shooting Raleigh a disapproving look, "Of course not. Miss Whitby did no such thing. Really, Raleigh, why must you provoke your sister so?"
Payton felt her cheeks growing hot, and it was not, she well knew, because the room faced west, and the last rays of the setting sun were slanting straight through the ten-foot-high window casements.
"It doesn't," she said, moving quickly back to within her sister-in-law's reach. "Provoke me, I mean. I certainly don't care who dresses Captain Drake. He could have an entire seraglio of women to dress him, for all I care."
Georgiana frowned and went back to work with the hair combs. After three months of marriage, Georgiana was already quite used to the risque talk that passed between her husband and his brothersand sometimes even their sisteras humor. She could only do her best to discourage such talk by ignoring it, or, like now, taking it calmly.
"Well, whoever dressed him," she said, "it wasn't Miss Whitby. I saw her myself downstairs not half an hour ago. She was with your father. He was showing her the latest addition to his collection."
All four Dixon siblings groaned. Sir Henry Dixon had been a very successful businessman in his day, the founder of Dixon and Sons, a merchant shipping company that had earned him a tidy fortune. But since the death of his beloved wife following Payton's birth, he'd lost a good deal of interest in his business, and had finally turned the entire operation over to his sons. Now Sir Henry spent most of his time reminiscing about his dead wife and collecting pirate memorabilia. The pride of his life was a collection of musket balls he'd purchased in Nassau, musket balls said to have been discharged from pistols belonging to various pirate captains, Blackbeard among them. It was a collection he carried everywhere with him, and would show to anyone who had the bad luck to express the slightest interest in it.
Payton could not help but feel a fierce satisfaction that the odious Miss Whitby should have fallen into her father's trap. Now she'd be spending the better part of an hour listening to Sir Henry drone on about calibers and the chemical composition of lead, something Payton would only wish upon her worst enemy. Miss Whitby being that enemy, she felt quite happy suddenly.
"And what," Payton asked her sister-in-law, with deceptive nonchalance, "is Miss Whitby wearing this evening?"
"Oh, la," Georgiana said. "A frothy blue thing, with pink rosettes. I can't imagine where she got it. It's much too young for her, if you ask me. And with that red hair of hers, pink is not the thing." Payton was small for her age, and Georgiana had to lean down to whisper, "Your dress is much prettier."
Despite Georgiana's attempt at tact, her husband overheard. "I should certainly hope Payton's is prettier, after what I paid for it," he bellowed.
Payton tugged self-consciously on the puffed sleeves of her white satin evening gown. She longed to tug on the points of her corset, too, which were digging uncomfortably into her thighs, but didn't dare, with her brothers in the room. The ribbing she'd receive if they learned she was wearing one would be merciless, and, knowing them, they'd feel compelled to share the information with every single person they met at dinner. Payton had never worn a corset before, let alone hair combs, earrings, or even perfume. She couldn't help marveling a little at her own transformation. Really, the addition of a sister-in-law to her family had not turned out the detriment Hudson and Raleigh had assured her it would. Sisters-in-law, Payton found, knew all sorts of things, and weren't the least bit reticent about sharing that knowledge.
The information about Miss Whitby's dress, for instance. Payton couldn't have hoped any of her brothers would have been observant enough to deliver that. Raleigh might have got the color right, and Hudson might have had something to say about the size and shape of Miss Whitby's breasts, but that would be all. How useful women could be! Having lived the entirety of her life almost exclusively in the company of men, Payton was quite astounded by the discovery.
"So she's full rigged, is she?" Payton frowned at her reflection in the mirror above the bureau. "What's she got on her masthead?"
"By that I suppose you mean how is Miss Whitby wearing her hair." Georgiana shook her head. "Well, I'll tell you. Down."
"Miss Whitby, Miss Whitby," Ross thundered. "Am I tohear of nothing but Miss Bloody Whitby for the rest of my eternal life? Isn't anyone going to tie my damned cravat?"
Georgiana tucked the last of Payton's curls into the tortoiseshell comb. "Really, Ross," she said mildly. "Must you swear so?"
"Yes, Ross," Payton said, eager to follow her sister-in-law's ladylike example. "Shut your bleeding mouth."
Hudson, who happened to be taking a sip from his own snifter of brandy, sprayed the contents across the room in his amusement over Payton's indignant declaration. A few droplets of the amber stuff landed on the sleeve of Raleigh's new evening coat. He leapt up from the window seat with an oath even more colorful than Payton's, and the two men began instantly to wrestle, while Ross continued to demand loudly that his wifeor his sister, he didn't care who did it, as long as it was donetie his cravat. Georgiana commenced to insisting, for the thousandth time, that the Dixons employ a manservant, while Payton, to get Raleigh back for mimicking her, threw herself upon his back, and reached around his neck to destroy the cravat she'd so carefully tied a half hour before.
Raleigh let out a growl and put up both hands to seize hold of her wrists. Too late, it occurred to Payton that she might have thought first, and acted later, an axiom with which her sister-in-law often admonished her. Wrestling with her brothers in her current state of dress was a bit different from wrestling with them in breeches. As she clung to Raleigh's back with her knees, knowing that he was doing his best to unseat her, the stays of Payton's tight corset dug into her ribs and thighs; the tight lacings restricted her movement more effectively than the most impassioned embracenot that Payton was at all familiar with embraces, impassioned or otherwise. Small-boned and weighing less than half what her brothers weighed, Payton had always heavily relied upon her flexibility to get her out of whatever torture they thought up for her. The ironlike grip of her corset, however, now made such flexibility impossible.
Her sister-in-law must have realized this, since behind her,Payton heard Georgiana calling frantically, "Raleigh! Put her down. This isn't amusing. Someone might get hurt. Put her down, Raleigh!"
"I'll put her down," Raleigh asserted. "Head first into the privy."
Then, with a diabolical laugh, Raleigh made as if to pitch her over his head and shoulders.
Payton refused to beg. She was a Dixon, after all. Biting, scratching, and begging for mercy were all considered beneath the dignity of the Dixonsas was kicking one's assailant in his privates, something Payton had learned early on in her life was guaranteed to unloose her from any man's hold, but tended to engender in him a most unforgiving rage. She could only hope that Raleigh might realize, from the fact that she hadn't yet escaped, that she was not exactly in her usual top fighting form. Closing her eyes, Payton silently cursed the day she'd allowed her sister-in-law to talk her into wearing a corset, and resigned herself to landing in an ignominious heap on the hard parquet floor beneath her ...
Until a long, strong arm circled her waist from behind. Oh, good, Payton thought. It's Ross. Thank God one of her brothers, anyway, had noticed her predicament, even if it was only because his wife was making him.
But when the man who had hold of her waist spoke, Payton realized it wasn't Ross at all.
"How many times do I have to warn you, Raleigh?" Connor Drake inquired in his deep, rumbling voice. "Hands off your baby sister."
"Baby my arse," Raleigh asserted, keeping Payton's wrists locked in iron grips. "She attacked me, I'll have you know."
"Nevertheless, you'll release her."
"Why should I?" Raleigh sounded peevish. "She"
"Because," Drake said, "I said so."
Payton couldn't see what Drake did with his free hand, but whatever it was, it caused Raleigh to let out a bark of pain. Suddenly, her wrists were free. The next thing she knew, Payton was being lifted from her brother's back by the strengthof the single arm around her waist. An arm that was pressing her closely against the body to which it was attached. A very hard, very large, very masculine body. A body that Payton, over the past few years, had gotten to know very well, indeedthrough observation only, unfortunately. To feel that body, now, molded against hereven if it was only for a second or two, and through a good many layers of petticoats and whalebonemade Payton feel as if Raleigh had succeeded in his boast, and that she was reeling from the impact of the floor to her skull.
But it was really only the impact of Connor Drake's body against hers that was causing her head to spin.
"And you," she heard Drake say, his warm breath tickling her ear. "I thought I warned you to stick to picking fights you can win, with people your own size."
As soon as her feet touched the parquet, Payton felt Drake withdraw his arm. No, she thought, with regret as sharp as an actual physical pain.
But she couldn't, for the life of her, think of any way she could induce him to keep that arm there. Miss Whitby would certainly have swooned, or pulled some other such stunt, to remain in his arms. But Payton had never swooned before in her life, and hadn't the slightest idea how to fake it, either.
So she had no choice but to turn toward her rescuer and say, as tartly as she could, "Thank you for your help, but I can assure you, it was unnecessary. I had the situation entirely under control."
Or at least, that's what she thought she said. When she actually raised her gaze to look Drake in the eyeand she had to tilt her chin up pretty far to do so, since he was so outlandishly tall, taller even than her brothers, and they had been considered giants in some of the distant lands they'd visitedall rational thought fled, and she could only stare.
Leaning casually against one of the bedposts, Drake had folded his arms across his chest, and was looking down at her with a smile playing at the corners of his wide, expressive mouth, his blue eyes very bright. He appeared quite devastatingin a new black evening coat that fit his broad shoulders a little too well, in Payton's opinion. In addition to the jacket, there was a new waistcoat of white satin, and a pair of breeches that, when she lowered her gaze to take them in, struck her as being perhaps a little too tightto the point of being extremely distracting to a young lady like herself, who was interested in such thingsin the front.
Then again, she seemed to think that about all of Captain Drake's trousers; her sister-in-law had assured her that, actually, the captain's pants were of quite a loose cut, and had suggested that perhaps Payton needed to direct her attention elsewhere.
While this was probably very sound advice, Payton had lately found it impossible to follow.
"Is that so?" Drake said with a drawl. "Well, I hope you'll beg my pardon, then. To me, you appeared to be in some distress."
"Nonsense." Payton tossed her head, and realized, to her dismay, that one of her combs had slipped out during the tussle with Raleigh. It was hanging loose, dangling just above a bare shoulder. She lifted a hand to it, and tried to shove it back into place. "I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself ..."
Payton's voice trailed off, and not because her brothers were continuing to wrestle loudly behind her, but because Drake's gaze, when she'd raised her hands to adjust her hair comb, had suddenly dipped away from hers and down to the neckline of her gown, which, as Ross had been lamenting a little while earlier, was already quite daring. A quick glance downward revealed that now it was not only daring, but downright obscene: while nothing absolutely crucial was showing, a good deal more than was supposed to had escaped from the lace cups of that treacherous corset during her wrestling match with her brothers.
Payton immediately began tucking her breasts back where they belonged. She hadn't much in the way of a bosomit seemed as if every other woman in the world had a good deal more up front than she didbut what she had was really gettingto be quite unmanageable ... at least to a girl who was used to having nothing there at all.
But her sister-in-law's sharp intake of breath told her perhaps she ought to have left well enough aloneat least while she was in the presence of gentlemen who did not happen to be her blood relations.
"Oh, Captain Drake," Georgiana cried, rushing forward and seizing the captain's arm. "Did we disturb you? Just another Dixon family disagreement, I'm afraid." When the captain's gaze still did not leave the vicinity of Payton's chest, Georgiana gave his arm a tug, pulling him back toward the open door through which he'd managed to stroll so completely unnoticed moments before. This, Payton supposed, was a strategy Georgiana had devised with the hope of distracting the captain long enough to give Payton time to put things to rights beneath her bodice, and she took advantage of it, giving her corset a violent tug.
"They are such boys, aren't they, Captain?" Georgiana said, with a tinkly laugh, as they stepped over the prone bodies of her brothers-in-lawwho had continued to wrestle with one another long after Payton's rescue, finally falling together to the floor with a mighty crash. "I can't think how you put up with them for so many years. Raleigh, Hudson," she sang. "Our host is here. Do get up."
Raleigh got up first, pulling his waistcoat back into place. "Host," he muttered. "It's only Drake, for pity's sake."
Hudson echoed his younger brother's sentiment. "Really, Georgiana," he said, miffed. "You're going to give the fellow airs, calling him a host, like that. Next thing you know, he'll be going around insisting he's a baronet, or something."
"Actually," Drake said, "I am a baronet."
Hudson regarded his sister-in-law sourly. "See what you've done," he said.
Georgiana looked pained. "Hudson," she said. "Captain Drake is a baronet. Remember, I explained to you in the carriage that he inherited the title when his brother died"
"Don't believe it," Hudson declared.
"I won't believe it," Raleigh insisted. "We don't have to sir you now, Drake, do we? Because I for one won't stand for it, not after all we've been through together."
"I don't think," Hudson agreed, thoughtfully, "that I could sir a man I've beaten at cards as many times as I've beaten Drake."
Drake gave a low bow. "Gentlemen," he said with mock gravity, "I have full faith that neither of you will allow the change in my social status to tarnish the respect I know you've always harbored for me."
"Kiss my arse, Drake," Hudson suggested, and Raleigh made a rude noise with his lips.
"Oh," Georgiana said, opening her fan and applying it to her burning cheeks with energy. "Dear."
Drake rose from his bow with a smile across his faceone of those smiles that made Payton, even when she wasn't wrestling with her brothers, feel a little breathless.
"It's nice to know," he commented, "that while a good many things may change, some things will always stay the same."
"I say, Drake." Ross fingered his still-open collar. "Georgiana says you tied that knot yourself. Is that true? You've got to show me how to do it, old man. I can't quite seem to get the hang of it."
"The gentlemen are gathering in the billiard room," Drake replied, still smiling. "I'll join you there, and happily give you what cravat-tying advice I can."
"Billiard room," Hudson echoed. "The blighter's got a billiard room. There's something to this baronet stuff, Ral."
"I wager there'll be whisky there," Raleigh said. "There's always whisky in a billiard room."
There was no doorway in the world wide enough to admit all three Dixon brothers when they were on a quest for whisky, and the doorways of Daring Park were no exception. Payton watched with raised eyebrows as her brothers elbowed and jostled one another in their haste to exit the room. It wasn't until they were gone that Drake, his own eyebrows similarlyraised, turned to Georgiana and said, as mildly as if nothing unusual at all had occurred since he'd entered the room, "Mrs. Dixon, the ladies are gathering before supper in the drawing room, I believe."
"Oh." Georgiana fanned, herself frantically, not having quite recovered from Hudson's suggestion that Connor Drake kiss his posterior. "Thank you, Captain. That's quiteIt's very kind of you to stop by, personally, to let us know"
"It was my pleasure, Mrs. Dixon. I'm delighted to have you all here at Daring Park. I trust you find your rooms comfortable?"
"Oh," Georgiana said. "Very. The house is charming, simply charming."
Georgiana seemed quite anxious to get out from beneath the captain's penetrating gaze. Payton could understand the inclination. She'd been the recipient of that cool, calculating gaze more times than she liked to remember.
"Come along, Payton," Georgiana continued nervously. "We had better get downstairs, before your brothers get themselves into even more trouble ..."
"I'll be along," Payton said, "in a minute."
Payton realized that she'd suddenly been presented with a golden opportunity. She hoped she'd injected her voice with enough syrupy sweetness that her sister-in-law wouldn't guess she hadn't the slightest intention of following any time soon.
She succeeded. Georgiana disappeared into the hallway, too upset by her new family's bad manners to pay much attention to what that family's youngest member was up to. Which was just as well, since she would hardly have approved of what Payton did next, which was seize the baronet by the arm as he attempted to stand aside, allowing her to pass through the doorway first, and hiss, "Thanks for bloody nothing!"
Drake looked considerably surprised at being thus addressed. He raised his tawny eyebrows again and said, with a little indignation, "I beg your pardon?"
"How am I ever going to convince Ross to give me myown command if you're forever interfering?" Payton demanded hotly.
"Interfering?" Comprehension finally dawned over the captain's face. "Oh, I see. You mean by my keeping your brother from hurling you over his shoulder, I was interfering?" The corners of his lips curled into a very definite grin. "I'll have to beg your forgiveness, then, Payton. I rather thought I was saving you from a crushing blow to the head. Terribly ignoble of me, I realize now."
Payton refused to be swayed by either the captain's charming manner or devastating good looks. This was excessively difficult just at that moment, since the sun slanting into the room had brought out the highlights in his golden hair. It almost made it look as if there were a halo behind Captain Drake's head, as if he were a saintor the archangel Gabriel, perhapsin a stained-glass window. Thankfully, Captain Drake had not been on the lice-infested clipper, and so his fine hair had been spared from Ross's sheers. It hung as long as his shirt collar. Sometimes he wore it tied back in a black ribbon, a style which Payton approved of highly.
Good Lord! What was she doing, standing there, admiring his hair?
Placing her hands on either side of her narrow waist, Payton glared up at him. "It isn't funny," she informed him. "This is my future we're talking about. You know Ross has this ridiculous idea of marrying me off, instead of doing the sensible thing, and letting me have the Constant."
"Right," Drake said. He appeared to be attempting to school his features into a suitably serious expression, but was having some trouble. "The Constant. The newest and fastest ship in the Dixon fleet. And you think your brother should give you command of it."
"And why not?" Payton tapped a daintily slippered foot. "I'll be nineteen next month. Both Hudson and Raleigh got their own ships on their nineteenth birthdays. Why should I be treated any differently?"
Once again, Drake's cool blue gaze dipped below her neck."Well," he said. "Perhaps because you're a"
"Don't say it." Payton held up a single hand, palm out. "Don't you dare say it."
"Why?" Drake looked genuinely puzzled. "There's nothing wrong with it, you know, Payton. It has its advantages, you know."
"Oh? Name one. And if you mention the word 'motherhood,' I swear I'll start screaming."
Drake hesitated. He either could not think of anything advantageous to being born female, or did not feel that what he had thought up was appropriate to mention in Payton's presence, since he abruptly changed the subject. "Perhaps your brother feels he's already given you your birthday gift. Isn't that one of the new gowns Ross has been complaining about? It's quite lovely."
Payton's jaw dropped incredulously. "What? A gown? A bloody gown? You must be joking. I'm supposed to be satisfied with a new gown when I could have command of a clipper?"
"Well," Drake said. "I don't suppose that seems fair to you. But to be honest, Payton, I'm not sure I disagree with Ross about your commanding your own ship. It's one thing when you go to sea with your brothers. After all, then they're there to protect you. But for a young lady to go to sea all by herself, with a crew of men she doesn't know"
"Protect me?" Payton's voice dripped with disgust. "Since when has any of my brothers ever protected me? You saw them back there. Protecting me was hardly foremost in Raleigh's mind. Killing me was more like it. No" Here she laid her hand upon his arm once more, hoping he wouldn't notice that this very mild gesture was enough to cause the pulse in her throat to leap spasmodically. Still, she didn't feel she had any choice. This might well be her last chance. "Promise you'll help me to convince Ross to give me the Constant. Please, Drake. Ross listens to you, you know. Please will you promise to try?"
Determined that this one time, she was going to look himin the eye and not blink or turn away until he did, Payton raised her gaze to meet his. It never failed to unnerve her, the unnatural blueness of his irises, so like the color of the water off the shoals of the Bahamas. The only difference was that there the water was so clear, she was able to see all the way to the ocean floor. She could nothad never been able toread what lay behind Drake's clear blue eyes. They might as well have been black as pitch, for all she could see through them.
How he might have answered her, she had no idea, for she could not read his expression, and they were interrupted before he could reply.
"Connor?" The musical voice drifted from the open doorway, quite startling them both. Jerking her hand from Drake's arm, Payton turned, and saw in the hallway a pretty redheaded woman in a pale blue dress trimmed with pink rosettes. Matching rosettes adorned her slippers and hair.
"I thought I heard your voice, Connor," the woman said sweetly. "Good evening, Miss Dixon. I just had the loveliest chat with your father. He showed me the latest addition to his musket-ball collection. He's such a dear man. I quite adore him."
Payton managed a tepid smile. "Oh," she said. "I'm so glad."
To Captain Drake, Miss Whitby said, "Are you coming down, dearest? I understand your grandmother has just arrived, and has been asking for you."
Captain Drake's smile, which he'd seemed to have so much trouble controlling a moment before, had entirely disappeared. Now, instead of bringing out the golden highlights in his hair, the fading sunlight brought into extreme relief the lines in his face, of which, Payton noted, there were a great many more since she'd seen him last. Two particularly deep lines stood out from the corners of his mouth to the tips of his flaring nostrils. He looked, suddenly, like a man much older than his thirtieth year.
"Of course," he said to Miss Whitby. "I'll be down momentarily."
Miss Whitby, however, didn't move. "I do think we ought not to keep your grandmother waiting, my love," she said brightly.
Captain Drake said nothing for a moment. He seemed extremely interested in the pattern on the carpet. Then, suddenly, he looked up, and pinned Payton where she stood with the full intensity of his unbearably bright gaze. "Will you accompany us downstairs, Miss Dixon?" he asked.
Payton, still a little alarmed by the transformation his face had undergone since Miss Whitby's appearanceand completely transfixed, as always, by his starecould only shake her head. "Um, thank you," she murmured, through lips that had gone quite dry. "But no. I ... I need a moment."
To her relief, the captain lowered his gaze.
"Very well, then," Drake said, and he offered his arm to the redheaded woman.
"Good evening, Miss Dixon," Miss Whitby said very sweetly. And then the two of them turned to go, and Payton watched as Miss Whitby slipped her gloved fingers into the crook of the captain's arm, and smiled sunnily up at him. "I imagine," she said, "that your grandmother must be very curious to finally meet your fiancee."
"Yes," Payton heard Drake reply. "I imagine that she is."
Copyright © 1999 by Patricia Cabot.