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London, May 1818
Angelique Beauchamp, Countess of Devonshire, found a hulking Scot standing on the deck of her ship.
Her kid leather slippers whispered against the damp oak planks as they would have on a ballroom floor. She glided across the deck strewn with vats of tar, coiled rope, and unattended brushes.
The crew was supposed to be preparing her ship to go back out to sea, but she could only see Willy, the ten-year-old boy she had taken on last year, perched in the rigging high above. He waved to her, and she waved back, but after that, she kept her eyes on the man in front of her.
The Scot was as tall as a Viking. His broad shoulders were barely contained in a coat of black worsted, hard worn but well mended. He wore his auburn hair long, tied in a queue at the back of his neck.
Angelique was tall for a woman, but beside him, she felt delicate, like one of the china doll beauties so popular that season on the Marriage Mart.
"Good day, sir," she said. "May I ask what you're doing skulking about my ship?"
He smiled, and she caught the light of genuine humor in his eyes. He was a man who did not take himself too seriously, then. In spite of his military bearing, she might be able to deal with him.
"Good day, madam. I have come to speak with Captain Farvel."
"You won't find him. He deserted yesterday."
She spoke with confidence, as if she had not come down to the docks to speak with the erstwhile captain herself. She simply assumed that Farvel had deserted, from the state of the ship and from the absence of her crew. If she got her hands around her captain's neck, she would throttle him. Farvel had better stay hidden away, wherever he was.
The Scot's blue eyes did not take on a gleam of avarice to hear of her misfortune, as some men's might have done. He did not give the appearance of looking upon her staffing problems as an opportunity. He frowned, seeming almost concerned for her. "And the rest of the crew?"
"I assume they are in the stews of Southwark."
He laughed then, and she was tempted to laugh with him. For the first time since her man of business, George Smythe, had told her of the cargo of rotting cotton that Farvel had brought back from Charleston, her temper ebbed a bit, and she felt almost human.
Like all things, her good humor did not last.
"I understand this ship is for sale," the Scot said.
Angelique felt the dark of her temper rising like a summer storm, and she clamped it down. "You heard wrong."
She could count on the fingers of both hands the number of men angling to get the Diane away from her. It was a good ship, her only ship, and would make a charming addition to any fleet. And if she sold it, the West India Company would no longer have to deal with her. In spite of their drawing room manners and open courtesy, they did not like doing business with a woman.
"Well," he said, "perhaps I might speak with the owner about that."
"I am the owner. And I can assure you, the Diane will never be for sale."
The deck lurched beneath them in the wake of a passing barge, and he reached for her, catching her arm.
Angelique had spent her childhood on this vessel. She had kept to her feet in storms off the coast of Africa, in the gales that blew north of Scotland. She could keep her footing without help in the midst of the Thames. She felt her mask of glacial calm come down as she drew her arm out of his grasp.
"I would thank you not to touch me," she said. "I would also thank you to let it be known among your acquaintances that the Diane belongs to me."
"Does it indeed?" He seemed not at all offended by her ire, but amused. The blue of his eyes reminded her of the sky on a clear summer day: guileless, open, hiding nothing. But she knew better than anyone how quickly such a sky could change. Beauty and serenity like that was an illusion, the kind of deception she would never be taken in by again.
"She is a beautiful ship," he said. For the first time, she heard a hint of his brogue, a shade of Aberdeen thickening his voice as his eyes ran not over the deck beneath their feet, or the furled sails above their heads, but over her.
Angelique felt the old telltale heat of desire rising from the center of her belly. She had not felt the lick of a flame like that, nor even smelled the smoke of lust, since Anthony Carrington had left her over a year before. She had taken one or two lovers since, of course, but with neither had she felt this warm beginning, this caress of craving.
She clenched her stomach against the onslaught, against the traitorous heat that rose to consume her. She tamped it down, just as she had tamped down her temper. When she raised her eyes to meet his, the man facing her smiled as if he knew her struggle and welcomed it. As if he knew that he had already won.
She meant to leave the insolent man standing where he was. Since Farvel was nowhere to be found, she would have Smythe start looking for a new captain at once. But before she could take another step, the ship lurched again, and this time her choice of shoes betrayed her and she lost her footing.
Her slippers slid out from beneath her, and she flailed, trying to catch hold of the rigging behind her where it was tied to the mast. Her hands touched not well-oiled rope but a burly, masculine arm. The man laid his hand over hers and drew her close.
His hands were strong and calloused. He no doubt spent a great deal of time on a ship at sea, for in spite of the rocking of the deck beneath their feet, he did not sway, but held himself and her as steady as if he stood on dry land.
As Angelique stood close to him, her cheek pressed against his chest, she caught the scent of leather and spiced rum. The scent of that man brought the peace of her childhood back to her, layered over with the heat of lust.
Angelique closed her eyes and took in his scent, relishing the strength of his arms around her and the illusion of safety they gave her. The ship rocked again, and she came to her senses. Dear God, had she lost her mind?
She stepped away from the man as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, straightening her gown and pelisse, smoothing her skirts. Two curls had escaped the prison of her bonnet and had fallen across her breast. The man reached for them, gathering them at her throat, lingering over their softness.
She jerked back reflexively, and he released those curls. The tendrils of her hair clung to his fingers like limpets, as if they would tether him to her. Her hands shook as she slid them back beneath her bonnet.
The blue of his gaze was no longer amused. The planes of his face were hard with naked desire. His need called to her own, a siren song that would draw her onto the rocks. The ship of her reason would splinter, and she would be left to drown.
"Good day," she said again, turning to flee from her own ship. She crossed the swaying deck to the narrow gangplank, certain that she had escaped, but when she raised her gloved hand to steady herself against the railing, he laid his hand over hers, capturing her so that she could not move.
"What is your name?" he asked.
The wind was strong, and a piece of his auburn hair had come loose from the queue at the nape of his neck. Angelique felt an almost overwhelming need to reach for that strand and to draw it back from his face just as he had touched her errant curls. She held herself very still until the longing passed.
"Angelique Beauchamp, Countess of Devonshire."
If she had thought that her title might discourage his advances, she was mistaken. She saw the definite light of challenge in his eyes, as if by running away from him, she had thrown down a gauntlet at his feet. He smiled as if he had taken it up.
She had not been conscious of issuing a challenge. Her battlefield was a ballroom-her adversaries, mincing gentlemen of the ton who would inevitably bow to her will. This man was not one of those. She found herself grateful that she would never see him again.
Forcing herself to rally, Angelique walked down the plank from her ship without faltering. She allowed her footman to assist her into the carriage that bore her crest, a phoenix rising from the ashes, flames falling from its wings. William's gloved, indifferent hand felt nothing like the hand of the stranger.
She did not allow herself to look back. She could still feel the heat of the man's gaze on her skin, coupled with the overwhelming rise of her own long-banked need. She shook with that desire still, pressing her hands together, forcing them to lie docile in her lap.
She had skirted danger, but she had avoided it in the end. That man's touch would steal her reason; lust like that would take over her life, as Geoffrey had when she was a girl, as Anthony once had done. She would never allow any man such power over her again.
Fortunate then that a nameless ship captain would never be allowed entrée into the world she had built for herself so carefully.
She laid her head back on the soft velvet squab of her well-sprung carriage, not noticing the jolt of the cobbled streets as her driver took her home.