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By Barbara Dan
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Barbara Dan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNew London, Connecticut September 6, 1813
Captain Bruce MacGregor signaled all hands on deck to silence. One misspoken word or creaking timber, and the game would be up. For while the British regularly patrolled the coast, he hadn't figured on meeting up with two British frigates this close to shore. Only a quick correction of course had kept them from being discovered.
Easy, now. Time hung suspended as silently the Angelic Lady eased past the opponent's ships in the thick enveloping fog. Low on ammunition, MacGregor's ship was in no shape for another skirmish. His men were worn to the bone, and the hull crowded with prisoners they were delivering to Fort Trumbull. Now if only their luck held a bit longer ...
Bruce peered through the swirling ether, spying out his final approach. Another four hundred yards in this fog, he judged, and they'd miss the shoals and rocks just east of the river. Aye, 'twas good he knew these waters like the back of his hand. The lighthouse keeper had doused his lamp to confuse British warships lurking offshore.
As they entered the mouth of the river, he paced the rail, watching intently for familiar landmarks on New London's waterfront. "Clew down!" He signaled his mate to slacken speed.
Easing through the harbor, the Angelic Lady pulled alongside the landing below Fort Trumbull, and thirty-seven prisoners stowed in the hold were brought topside in the dark. After the last of a long line of straggling British marines filed past Colonel Rathbun and his volunteer regiment into the fort, Bruce strode back on board and gave the order to cast off. The gangplank was pulled in, the cables slipped, and the Angelic Lady headed up river to Old Paddy's Wharf, her mainsheets carrying them along with ease.
While the crew secured the Angelic Lady, Bruce raced down the gangplank to greet his warehouseman and good friend, Robert Harris, on the dock. Harris could be an exasperating devil to deal with, always haggling over price. But a stauncher friend Bruce never had; a steady rock through good times and bad.
Chuckling in anticipation of a lively debate, Bruce thrust his cargo list under Harris's nose. "Here, Robbie, take a look! The finest teas, spices, dyes, coffee-"
"Aye, Bruce, not a bad haul." With nary a glance at the inventory, Harris planted his signature on the sheaf of documents to indicate receipt. "I'll get you unloaded first thing tomorrow."
Bruce's jaw dropped. "Wait! You haven't even checked my figures or walked through the hold," he protested.
"Aw, lad. When have ye ever shorted me?" Harris shoved the list back at Bruce and started walking back toward the warehouse.
"But aren't you the least bit curious? I have the finest walnut furniture. Think of the price we'll get for it, man!" he called, appealing to Harris's avarice.
"I trust you, Bruce."
Tossing the cargo list to his first mate, Bruce bounded after Harris. Something was radically wrong. Usually Harris gave him a hard time, arguing over every last penny.
"Robbie, 'tis a grand bargain you're gettin'. Why, these English tables, highboys, dressers, desks, chairs and settles-You've ne'er seen finer! All bound for the Virgin Islands aboard the Princess Anne, when we overtook her. Why, that cargo should net close to seventy thousand this voyage!"
"Thank God for that." Harris sighed, showing definite signs that he was perking up a little.
Relieved, Bruce clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Let me buy you breakfast, Robbie. You can catch me up on all the latest news."
Together they crossed the road to Old Paddy's Tavern. After they ordered, Harris lapsed into morose silence again.
"Robbie, what's going on?" MacGregor complained cheerfully. "I've ne'er had you agree so readily to my terms in all my born days!" He inched his chair forward, his knees striking the low table; his legs were too long to fit comfortably, and the best he managed was a sprawl. "Well? Out with it, Robbie! Are the wife and kids doin' all right?" he asked in his strong Scottish brogue.
"Family's fine. It's just I got bad news this marnin'. The ship I owned with Cap'n Masters went down in a squall off the Carolinas." Harris looked inconsolable.
Bruce shook his head. "I mighta known. Judgin' by your long puss, you got hit in your pocketbook."
Harris eyed his young friend narrowly. Strong, bronzed by the sun, tall and muscular, Bruce MacGregor's body combined the powerful build of his Scottish father with the olive skin tones and brown eyes of his Portuguese mother. With coloring more Latin than Celtic, his black hair, long and ruffled by the wind, showed the first peppering of gray at his temples, even though he'd not yet seen his twenty-ninth birthday. Six feet six, he was, and a born leader.
His men knew him for a demanding taskmaster, but a fair one. Life being harsh at sea, a man couldn't afford to make mistakes, and Bruce rarely did. His men trusted him implicitly, for he'd brought them through many a fight against British merchantmen and warships.
Aye, Robbie Harris thought, if anyone could understand his predicament, surely Bruce could. "'Tis heartbroken I am, Bruce," he said. "Besides all the lives lost, the Silver Dolphin wasn't insured."
Bruce looked up from his bowl of porridge. "My God, man! How'd you slip up?"
Looking properly sheepish, Robbie Harris scratched his grizzled chin. Not that he'd admit it, but he'd been trying to save a penny. "An oversight," he lied. "Big mistake."
"How much did you lose?"
Bruce let out a whistle through his teeth. "A tidy sum. How much did Masters lose?"
"Everything. Of course, where he is, he'll not be worryin' aboot the debt. But his widow now, she'll have to scrape up close to thirty-one thousand to pay her husband's debts."
"Steep." Bruce tore into his food, only half listening. "I thought Masters was a rich man. How's she taking it?" he asked, polishing off his potatoes. "The widow, I mean?"
Robbie scratched his ear. "I haven't told her yet."
"That's heartless, man! I can hardly believe it of you."
He caught Bruce's condemning stare and hastened to explain himself. "I'll get around to it. Maybe later today. I have pressing business to attend to first."
"Business? When a partner goes down at sea?" Bruce shoved aside his plate and leaned forward on his elbows. "Dammit, man! You've got to tell the woman right away!"
Harris tensed, knowing Bruce was still touchy over his wife's death. Nearly two years had passed since that windy December night, when Bruce had returned from a short haul across the Sound to find the drafty house on Montauk burned to the ground, his wife and two daughters trapped upstairs in bed.
"I counted on you, of all people, to understand how hard 'tis to break such news," he growled.
Bruce's eyes misted over. Aye, he knew-too well. Losing Angela and the twins had left a deep hole in his life. Friends had done what they could to console him, but in the end, the rigors of his work at sea had helped him push beyond the crushing loneliness. These days the sea was his only mistress. Aye, and a damn cold bed partner she was, too.
"I hardly need reminding." Bruce cast a savage look at Harris for bringing up the subject.
Suddenly Harris saw, sitting across from him, the way out of a sticky situation. "Aye," he sighed, "it breaks me heart to bear sad tidings to a fellow human bein'. Tell you what, Bruce: I'll add a hundred dollars bonus to the price of your goods, if you'll deliver Masters' sea chest, which is stored in me warehouse, and kindly break the news to his widow."
"Nothing doing, Harris. I've got business of my own to tend." Bruce threw down his napkin and got to his feet.
"Have you now, lad?"
He nodded. "After I stow my gear at Mrs. Rafferty's boardinghouse, I plan to look in on my land agent and get my house sold." Bruce paid the bill and stuck out his hand in farewell. "Take care, Robbie. You know where to find me."
Harris walked him out. "Bruce, I'd consider it a great favor, bein' as how you're goin' right past the Masters' house-"
Bruce's frown deepened. "I'll not be doin' your dirty work, Robert."
Harris eyed him from beneath a shrewdly cocked eyebrow. "The Widow Masters lives on Linden Street, right behind Mrs. Rafferty's place. Now, is it askin' too much for you to do an old friend a favor?"
"I'd rather not." Bruce glanced toward the wharf, avoiding eye contact with Harris. How could he break the woman's heart with such terrible news?
His friend persisted. "I'll lend you me carriage, Bruce," he wheedled. "Throw Masters' chest in with your own, let 'er know what happened, an' that's all the time it'll take. What do ye say, lad?" Seeing Bruce hesitate, he added, "I can't get away from here all day."
Bruce gave up with a sigh of exasperation, "All right, but you'd better fill me in on the details, so I don't make a complete fool of myself on the woman's doorstep."
Back and forth the shuttles flew across the warp, like tiny mice running a relay through the myriad crisscrossing threads on her loom. Her hands, never ceasing, tamped each new strand of color in place, creating a tapestry. Then she released the next shuttle, while her feet beat out the seconds on the pedals of her loom. Up and down, back and forth the machine beat out the relentless rhythms of her industry. The work was progressing at a furious pace.
Seconds ticking. Never enough time!
Faster! she urged her tiring arms. Her pattern called for sixteen rows of creamy white, then two strands of cornflower blue linen yarn. Two more repeats of the pattern, and she could tie off the table scarf and proceed to the kitchen to oversee the final minutes of her weekly baking.
Intent on everything going perfectly, and near the end of her task, Lydia Masters bent her head over the delicate work on her loom, searching critically for flaws, real or imagined.
As she did so, a single silken strand of her pale golden hair fell forward and became entwined with the blue yarn as the shuttle shot across to her right hand. The faint tug at her temple signaled trouble, and Lydia, with an impatient thud of her pedals, abruptly halted work.
One long solitary golden hair winked up at her from the warp.
With a sigh of resignation, she set to work to rescue her project from the ragbag. Having no time to spare, she yanked the offending hair from her own fair head and bending low, plied a small wire hook to extract the golden strand from her weaving.
Why were there not more hours in the day, so she could get everything perfect? Long seconds passed while she struggled to remove her mistake. By her lack of progress, one might think mistake was her middle name. For no matter how she strove to keep busy and fill her days with acts of kindness and charity, something always went awry.
Finally she got the strand of hair out. But she had fallen behind. The table scarf would just have to wait until she got the bread out of the oven.
Snatching up the few scraps of thread lying about, Lydia rushed down the hall to the kitchen and tossed them into the crackling fire on the hearth. She glanced around her kitchen, sparkling with cleanliness. Aside from the robust aroma of yeast, there were no other signs that she had been baking most of the morning. Everything was neat as a pin. Not that it mattered to anyone but herself. She shivered a little, wishing her life was different, but since dreams rarely came true, she did the best she could with what she'd been given.
As Lydia stood by the brick oven built into the hearth, her eyes went to the clock. Three minutes remained before the six loaves she had placed in the oven forty-three minutes earlier would be ready.
At precisely five minutes before eleven, the front door knocker fell.
Now who could that be? she wondered.
Again it came, a second knock, more forceful this time.
Whoever it was would just have to wait, she decided, impatiently tapping her foot. With less than two minutes until the bread came out, she wasn't about to risk a whole week's baking for idle chitchat with a neighbor.
Ignoring the summons, she kept her eyes glued on the clock. She ran her life by that well-oiled piece of machinery. Truth be told, that clock was her salvation, one of the ways she had managed to get through the past eight years without losing her sanity. After a frantic morning like this one, nothing and nobody was going to throw her further off schedule!
Ninety-five seconds later, Lydia deftly placed her long-handled kitchen shovel into the oven and drew out the first of the loaves. The crust was just the right shade of golden brown. Perfection. She smiled at another job well done and, placing the loaf on the table, turned to draw forth another.
The Masters' neat little clapboard house stood among several of similar construction, mostly occupied by seafaring men. Standing on the well-scrubbed porch, Bruce MacGregor noticed that neighboring houses were bulging at the seams with growing families. Laundry strung on lines in backyards hung limp with humidity, while children dodged in and out, playing hide-and-seek.
Masters' house, by contrast, was marked by a singular absence of disorder. This puzzled Bruce, until he recalled that Frank Masters was thirty-seven and had probably married a woman near his own age. Aye, a barren woman, judging by the reigning quiet, and puritanically neat.
Getting no response at the front door, and thinking perhaps the lady of the house was hard of hearing, Bruce left Masters' sea chest on the front porch and followed the mouth-watering scent of fresh baked bread around to the back door.
As he raised his hand and tapped on the window pane, he saw a slender young woman with pale yellow hair transfer a loaf from oven to work table. She was just easing the last loaf from the oven when, distracted by his knock, she glanced up, saw him, and lost her grip on the kitchen shovel. Trying to keep the loaf from falling, she made a grab, burned herself on the flat metal scoop, and lost control.
"Thunderation!" Setting down the cumbersome tool, she swiped at the butter on the sideboard, and sucking the edge of her seared palm, flung open the back door.
"Yes?" she demanded.
Bruce was hardly prepared for the flashing blue-violet eyes gazing up at him. "Sorry to trouble you, miss," he said uncertainly. "Could you tell me where I might find Mrs. Masters?"
Lydia felt a tiny shiver snake through her innards, as she stood tongue-tied, staring at the tall dark stranger outlined by the overcast rays of the sun. He was a towering giant, filling her doorway. Even without knowing his errand, she felt instantly wary.
His clothing, like her husband's, was that of a seafaring man, exuding a salty, masculine tang, which her nose easily picked up. Hard work had developed his enormous shoulders, and his broad chest tapered down past a trim waist to lean hips, and heavy blue twill breeches covered long muscular thighs and legs. Adding to Lydia's unsettled confusion, he had the most striking brown eyes she had ever seen, and thick black hair tied at the nape with a leather thong.
He was an overwhelmingly handsome specimen, full of robust health and virility, she conceded, trying to quell an irrational urge to smack him with a frying pan for disrupting her peace. Even if she could ignore the sun-bronzed perfection of the man, she knew better than to trust first impressions. One mistake made eight years ago had taught her that much.
Only by keeping a tight lid on her emotions all these years had she managed not to lapse into a state of despair. Her marriage was a disaster, a sham, but she was bound by vows as strong as if she'd signed a pact with the devil himself. And were it not for her brother, she would have packed up and gone home years ago, confessing all, and resigning herself to playing aunty to her many nieces and nephews for the rest of her natural born days.
But that didn't prevent her secret heart of hearts from entertaining fantasies. It just made her extremely cautious. Mostly she kept to herself, knowing the viciousness of gossip.
Now, gazing up into the smiling face of a man who might easily fulfill every wild and secret desire she had ever cherished, she fought an almost overpowering tug of temptation. She was a lone woman, vulnerable and isolated, with few friends, and none to defend her if she fell. If she ever gave way to dangerous impulses, such as she felt now, her good name would be on the lips of every dockhand and drunken roustabout in the town before the day's end.
Excerpted from MacGregor's Bride by Barbara Dan Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Dan. Excerpted by permission.
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