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"Dear Lord! He's gone into the water!"
Katherine Adair -- Kat to her friends and beloved family -- gasped and leapt to her feet. Just seconds before, she'd been sitting on the deck of her father's vessel -- sadly misnamed The Promise -- reading and indulging in dreams. The day had been like many other Sundays she had spent throughout the years with her small family aboard the boat on the Thames. Often, as they'd watched the elite in their far more magical vessels, she had smiled as her sister, Eliza, mimicked the upper-crust accents, then joined her in singing old sea chanties -- all the while looking to see if their father was about before adding a few of the more risqué lyrics.
But there were times, of course, when she did nothing but indulge in dreaming . . . about the very fellow whom a wave had just swept from the deck of the far finer leisure yacht
The Inner Sanctum!
David. David Turnberry, youngest son of Baron Rothchild Turnberry, brilliant student at Oxford and avid sailor and adventurer.
"Kat! Do sit down! You'll rock this old scow and we'll be in the drink, too," Eliza chastised. "Don't worry. One of those Oxford chaps will dish him out!" she said with a sniff.
But none of them did. The river was wicked that day -- fine for Kat's father, who used the turbulence in his work -- but a poor time for entertainment.
The young swains who had accompanied David on the sail were clinging to the rigging, looking into the water, shouting . . . but not jumping in and attempting a rescue! She recognized one -- Robert Stewart, handsome, landed and charming, as well, David's best friend. Why wasn't he in the water? And there was another of his chums . . . she couldn't remember his name . . . Allan . . . something . . .
Oh, the fools! They hadn't even thrown in a life preserver, and David was so far from her own vessel that any attempt on her part to do so would be useless.
They shouldn't have been out on a day like today. They imagined themselves to be such sailors, and they were still so young, so raw. The river was far too rough, only for fishermen and fools. And, she thought ruefully, her father.
But now they'd lost David! And still, there was no one aboard heroic enough to dive in for the dear man's salvation.
Indeed, the waves were high, and she could understand their trepidation. But her heart cried otherwise. He was beautiful, magnificent. No fellow in all of England or surely even beyond had such a smile. Nor had she ever heard a fellow of his social position speak so kindly to those who were hard put to earn their meager living from the sea. She had watched him so often.
"They're not going for him!" she cried.
"But he will drown!" Kat looked around quickly. Her father had brought in their own sails; the scow was merely riding the waves now.
In fact, her dear father was not working or paying the least attention to her. Lady Daws had come with them today; and she was laughing -- the sound something like that of a sea witch cackling, Kat thought sadly, something her father simply didn't hear -- and that completely enraptured the hardworking man upon whom she had set her sights.
Kat looked back anxiously at the river. Maybe what had seemed like an eternity to her had been nothing more than a few seconds. Maybe the fellows had needed a moment to draw on their reserves of courage. But no . . . time ticked away, and none of those young swains aboard the richer vessel had made the slightest attempt to effect a rescue.
"Kat! Don't look so perplexed. Come, come . . . he can probably swim. The beaches are still all the rage with his crowd, even though the poor can now reach our beaches by train. Of course, the elite, they say, prefer to frolic in the Mediterranean."
Though Eliza spoke of the rich with disdain, in these moments with the sailing almost done for the day and the afternoon near its end, she always had her nose thrust into the pages of Godey's Lady's Book. She did love her fashion. And she could sew delightfully, creating fantastic designs from such bizarre materials as cast-off sails and canvas.
Kat paid her sister little attention. Her heart seemed to have lodged in her throat. She couldn't even see the young man's head bobbing in the waves. Ah, there! And far from his own sleek vessel.
"The sea is too rough!" she exclaimed in a whisper. "He will die!"
"There is nothing you can do. You'll but kill yourself," Eliza warned fiercely.
"Ah, but I would die for him. I would sell my very soul for him!" Kat returned.
"Kat, what . . .?" Eliza began in horror. Too late.
Being poor sometimes had its advantages. Kat shed her heavy, solid and sensible shoes and slid her cotton skirt down her hips to the floorboards. In seconds, she had also shed her secondhand jacket. She had no corset, no bustle, no darling little hat to discard, and so, despite her sister's protests, she leapt into the filthy water in her shift.
The chill hit her viciously.
And the waves were mercilessly rough.
But she had spent her life nearly as one with the sea. So she took a big lungful of air, plunged beneath the surface and swam hard.
She bobbed up first near the sleek yacht. She could hear the fellows on deck shouting, their voices sounding desperate. "Can you see him?"
"His head . . . He's down again. Oh, God! He's going to drown . . . Bring her around, bring her around, we've got to find David!"
"I can't see him anymore!"
Kat took another deep breath and plunged beneath the surface again. She kept her eyes open, straining to see through the murky depths. And there . . .
There she saw him. To the right and a few feet below her. Dead?
Oh, Lord, no! She prayed as fervently as she sought to reach the man. David. David the beautiful, the magnificent. Eyes closed . . . body sinking . . .
She grasped him, as her father had taught her to grasp a fisherman fallen overboard, catching him beneath the chin with the palm of her hand, allowing her to draw his head to the surface, while leaving her torso, legs and the solid strength of one arm to draw him toward shore.
Ah! The distance. She could not make it!
But it seemed that both the luxury yacht and her father's fishing vessel were ever farther out to sea. What other vessels were at sail or anchored seemed at even greater distances. She had to make the shore.
She kicked, trying to stay calm, to remember that she mustn't lose her strength by using it to fight the rough water -- that she must go with it, let the tempest take her until it drove her toward the shore.
She tried hard to keep David's head above the water, tried harder to keep breathing and moving herself against the waves, white-tipped, gray and brown, like living, breathing, beings anxious to suck her into their depths. How slender the river could seem at times, but . . . how great its span! And yet, chilled and desperate as she was, it occurred to her . . .
He was in her arms. Oh, God! He could die in her arms. As she would gladly die in his.
"Good Lord! Will you look at those young fools!" Hunter MacDonald stared at the young swains who raced around their yacht like simpletons. They'd lost one of their number, yet none was doing a damn thing about it.
He cursed them roundly, then called out to Ethan Grayson -- his mate at sea, manservant and his friend. "Bring her in! I'm going for the boy."
"Sir Hunter!" Ethan, weathered and strong and far too sensible a fellow not to have risen far, protested strongly. "You'll but go down yourself!"
"No, Ethan, I'll not." Hastily removing shoes, jacket and trousers, he offered Ethan a grimace. "My good man, I've escaped crocodiles in the Nile. I shall be fine in this bit of English weather."
And so, stripped down to his drawers and shirt, he dove neatly overboard in the direction where he had last espied the young fellow's bobbing head. As he did, he could hear Ethan scolding him angrily: "Being a ‘sir' does not give a fellow common sense, no, it does not! He survives famine, war and the evil in the hearts of men, but then drowns himself like the young idiot he would save!"
Too late! thought Hunter. The Thames closed around him as he cut through the waves, swimming with strong exertion to bring the heat of movement to his person. The water was bitterly cold.
It had been easier to swim in the Nile with crocodiles, he ruefully admitted to himself.
At last! Kat and her burden had nearly reached the embankment.
She was far from the docks, closer to Richmond now than the City of London. A mist of rain was falling as she struggled through the remaining few yards of water, hitting mud beneath her feet at last, mud and God knew what else, some broken crockery that cut into her sole. She barely felt it, however, for she had him to land at last. Exhausted, near crawling at the end, she dragged David's dead weight up onto muddy sod and scraggly grasses, but not far from the road; homes and businesses and even ships at dock were visible nearby. She fell to his side at first, breathing, ah, doing nothing at all but breathing! Then as her lungs filled, she looked at his face and was roused to fear. She jerked up, then leaned on his chest, hard, pushing, determined to expel the water from his lungs. He choked, and water dribbled from his blue lips. Then he coughed and coughed . . .
And finally fell silent, other than the slow rasp of his breath.
She stared down at him, shaking. He lived. "Thank you, God!" she whispered fervently. And then, seeing his long lashes sweeping the contours of his noble face, she added, "You are so beautiful!"
His amber eyes opened. He stared up at her.
And she was horrified, for she was far from looking her best. Her hair was, as a rule, rich and long, if a bit glaringly red, but now it hung in sodden ropes. Her eyes -- normally the oddest shade of green and hazel, sometimes almost the color of grass and at others almost gold -- must be quite pinkened. And her lips were surely as blue as his. Her linen shift clung wetly to her body, and she was shaking uncontrollably. That he should see her so, when she still lived in a world of dreams, when society did not allow for the daughter of a humble, struggling artist, an Irish one at that, to so much as dare imagine a life among the elite, was the worst thing she could have imagined.
His hand moved. Fingers touched her face. For a moment, his own was dark and troubled, as if he sought an answer as to where he was, and why. "We were with the wind, listening . . . laughing . . . for there were songs on the air, as if the Sirens called to us, and then . . . pushed!" he murmured. "By God, I swear I was pushed! Why . . ."
Then his eyes focused on her. And a smile flitted over his lips. "Yes, yes, I felt hands against my back, pushing . . . but who the devil . . . and then . . . the cold . . . and the darkness. Then . . . you! Am I seeing things? You're an angel!" he whispered. "A sea angel . . . an angel, and I love you!" Then he laughed. "No! A mermaid, and thus I am alive!"
His fingers -- on her face! And the words he had said!
Ah, she could have died then and drifted to heaven in pure bliss.
His eyes closed. Panic seized her. But she could see him breathing, his chest rising and falling, and she could feel his warmth.
Voices suddenly sounded. Looking up, she saw a group coming from the gravel road that led down to the embankment. She jumped to her feet, aware of her near-naked state, her shift plastered to her body, providing not the least bit of modesty. And she was very chilled, of course, making that immodesty all the more apparent. She wrapped bare arms around herself.
"Oh, they're searching for him . . . but I saw . . . something!" The voice was feminine, sweet and touched with the sound of a sob.
"Now, now, our boy can swim, Margaret!" returned a male voice. "He'll be just fine."
Kat now saw a very pretty woman, slim and elegant in a late-summer day dress, a jaunty little hat sitting at an angle on her head, a parasol in her hands, her bustle twitching as she walked on dainty heels. Her hair was a soft ashen blond, and her eyes were as blue as the sea. Beside her was an older gentleman in a resplendent suit, cape and top hat, and they were coming closer and closer.
Kat's heart seemed to stop. In her mind's eye, she saw only the contrast between the elegant lady and herself, and she knew she had to escape. Quickly. As she turned to run back into the water, a man rose from the waves not twenty yards away.
He was tall, lean and sinewy, his musculature quite evident, for he, too, but for an open shirt, was stripped down to his unmentionables. His dark hair was plastered to his head, and his classically sculpted face was frowning. "Miss!" he called.
And that was it. She cried out softly, sprinted the few feet back to the muddy water's edge and plunged in, diving beneath the surface as soon as she could and swimming harder than she had ever done in her life, unaware now of the cold and the aching in her lungs and limbs.
She surfaced, she knew not where, just as the rain began.
David blinked, staring up through the mist of rain. And there she was, Lord Avery's fair daughter, the very lovely and rich Lady Margaret, on her cheeks tears of a greater substance than the rain, staring down at him. Heedless of the mud, she sat on the embankment, his head cradled in her lap.
His heart leapt. Although she often appeared to care for him deeply, in fact, in the race for her hand, he had thought both Robert Stewart and Allan Beckensdale to be far ahead of him.
And yet now . . . how sweet to see her face!
For a moment, he was puzzled. There had been a fleeting moment when . . . he had thought he'd seen someone else. A different face. Fair and comely, with eyes a strange green fire and hair a searing flame-red. An angel? Had he come so close to death? No, then perhaps a mermaid, a sprite from the sea, or rather the river?
Had he imagined her?
And had he imagined, too, in the bluster of the day and the roll of the yacht, the hands at his back, pushing him, forcing him into the river?
"David! David, please, speak to me again, are you all right?" Margaret demanded anxiously.
"I . . . oh, dear, dear Margaret! Yes, I . . . I'm fine!" Not true. In fact, he was quite cold, but that mattered not in the least, not when this much-sought, beautiful lady was so gently tending to him.
Those eyes, so brilliantly blue, so studded with tears! But . . .
"You saved me," he said, still confused.
"Well," she murmured, "I did drag you up the bank, hold you here, so dearly, in my lap."
"He will live!" These words, dry, rough and impatient. And a spray of icy water falling on him.
"Sir Hunter?" David gasped, looking toward the voice. And, indeed, he was there, the renowned sailor, soldier, excavator and all-round adventurer; the toast of London society, standing above him, furious and frowning. And dripping.
"He's safely in your hands now, Lord Avery," Hunter said dryly to Margaret's father, who stood, David saw then, anxiously watching just a few feet away. "I must find the girl."
"The girl?" David echoed, blinking again.
"The one who saved your life," Sir Hunter said curtly, and David could hear the unspoken "You fool."
"Good God, Sir Hunter, you cannot mean to plunge back in--" Lord Avery began.
"Oh, but I do," Hunter said. "Lest she drown."
"You'll drown yourself!" Lord Avery argued. "If there is a girl out there, the boatsmen or fishermen will find her surely."
Lord Avery's protests were apparently insufficient for Hunter turned and strode back into the water.
"Father, he'll be all right!" Margaret called, adding with a touch of admiration that sent a pang through David's heart, "Sir Hunter MacDonald can withstand any hardship." Sir Hunter, David thought, ever the hero, strong and brave and invincible. And I myself here on the muddy shore, gasping, barely alive . . .
But in her arms!
"I hope you're right, my dear," Lord Avery said, kneeling down beside David as well and, slipping his fine jacket from his shoulders, placed it around David. "Thank God you survived, my boy! Can you rise? We'll get you to the road and then to the town house before you catch your death of cold."
David, trying to fathom what was real and what lay in the soul of his imagination asked, "There really was a girl?" He looked at Margaret.
"Yes . . . that or, truly, a sea creature!" Margaret said. "We'll see that she's rewarded for the act, assuming that Sir Hunter can indeed find her. How very odd that she ran back into the river. She must be quite mad. Or perhaps she's a lady of some fine family, afraid to be seen!" Lord Avery said gruffly. "One can only speculate, however, David. Right now, we must get you warm. That blasted river! Rarely is it anything less than wretched!"
"Yes, of course," David murmured, "Thank you. But if there was a girl . . . a strong girl, rich or poor, we must indeed see that she is rewarded."END