- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Ships from: Chesterfield, MO
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
No honest man could ever accuse Captain Joshua Fairbourne of cowardice.
He'd left home for the sea on his eighth birthday, and in the twenty years since, he'd faced pirates without flinching, fought Frenchmen with honor, and sailed his ships through hurricanes and blizzards and waves as high as a meetinghouse spire. But here on this warm June night, the most fearful challenge of Joshua's life loomed before him, goading him, taunting him, making his heart thump from uncertainty and sheer cowardice until his greatest desire was to turn and run and save himself.
Yet pride rooted him to the spot, his mouth growing drier by the second. He had to stay. As much as he longed to, he couldn't escape. How could he, considering that this was a trap of his own making?
For the thousandth time, he reached to touch the hilt of his sword to reassure himself, and for the thousandth time, too, he swore with miserable frustration when he realized the sword wasn't there. In London, gentlemen -- even gentlemen from the American colonies -- didn't wear swords to an elegant supper and dance. They didn't swear, either, especially not in the company of London ladies, and with a wretched shake of his head, Joshua swallowed that one last oath. He hooked his forefinger into the tight band of linen that swathed his neck, trying to ease the fashionable neckband that was nigh to choking him.
He took as deep a breath as he could and wiped his forehead with the underside of his sleeve, where the sweat wouldn't show on the glazed wool of his best coat. It was hot here in this London garden, cursedly hot for June, and htrained him to watch his back, and reluctantly he turned, just as the girl crashed into his chest.
He caught her as best he could, his fingers spreading over the slippery brocade around her waist to steady her. She was short and round and her hair beneath his nose smelled wonderfully of violets, all things Joshua realized in the same jumbled second. She didn't try to pull away, but stayed pressed against him like some small wild creature who'd found shelter at last, albeit a small wild creature with jeweled bracelets so heavy he could feel them clear through his waistcoat and shirt. She was a lady, then, not some wayward servingmaid. No matter how fine, how delightful she was to hold, he must remember that.
"Oh, sir," she said breathlessly, a quiver to her words. "Oh, sir, you must help me! You must!"
"Help you how, ma'am?" Joshua still hadn't seen the girl's face, hidden as it was by shadows, but from her voice he'd wager she was very young. Uneasily he looked back over his shoulder to the still-closed door. Did he truly have time to squander rescuing some faceless girl from her overardent sweetheart? "You say I must help you, sweet, but how?"
"There's no time to explain!" she cried. Anxiously, she looked back over her shoulder. "He's close on my heels, and if he catches me -- oh, what he'll do if he catches me!"
Joshua didn't know who the he was, and he didn't care. The way she'd fluttered against his chest in fear had convinced him. How long could such a small act of gallantry take, anyway? A minute, two at most? Surely his own affairs could wait that much longer. And how could he refuse her, when sh e'd been desperate enough to turn to a stranger like him for protection?
Gently he set the girl down, where she promptly scuttled behind his broad back for safety. "There now. Do you think I'd let him catch you?"
"Let him?" she squeaked. "Oh, sir, I pray you won't do that!"
"Then save your prayers, lass," said Joshua firmly. "Whoever he is, I won't let the rascal harm you."
"Blast you, Belle, where th' devil are you hidin'?" muttered a man's voice crossly as he thrashed his way through the boxwood and rosebushes, twigs cracking with every footstep. "Show yourself directly, an' I won't give you the beatin' you deserve!"
"There's Mr. Branbrook now!" said the girl to Joshua in a whispered wail. "Pray, pray, do be careful! He has a most fearful, wicked temper!"
But the man that staggered into the clearing didn't strike Joshua as either fearful or wicked. Foolish, aye, Josh would grant him that, and young and drunk in the bargain, but not fearful. How could he be, with his wig sliding haphazardly over one ear and his full-skirted coat inside out?
"Show yourself, Anabelle!" the man ordered, weaving on his feet as he scowled shortsightedly into the shadows. "Show yourself now, you cheatin' little chit!"
Joshua frowned, aware of how the girl had shrunk even farther behind him. He hated bullies, particularly ones who chose women as their victims.
"The lady doesn't welcome your company," he said, his voice rumbling low with effortless authority. "Clear off, and leave her in peace."
The man's head jerked up in response. "Who th' devil are you? What right d'you have to add ress me at all?"
"What right do you have to go chasing this poor lady?"
"That is between Miss Crosbie and myself, you impudent bastard," said the man warmly. "Now stand aside, or must I use force?"
This Mr. Branbrook was drunk, decided Joshua, else he'd never dare speak so rashly. At least he wouldn't do it more than once. Even here in the shadows, there'd be no mistaking Joshua's height and the strength that went with it. That much would be obvious; the experience he'd gained in twenty years of taking care of himself in waterfront rumshops and taverns would be only a little less evident, but far more dangerous.
Maybe the poor dandified fool was daft and drunk.
"You just go on now and take yourself away," said Joshua more patiently. "I told you before, the lady doesn't want your company."
"And I say it bloody well doesn't matter what the little strumpet wants," said the man angrily, shoving his hand inside his coat. "I'm the one she must obey!"
Joshua didn't answer, nor did he wait to see what this foolish Branbrook pulled from his waistcoat. A pistol or a knife could only bring trouble, more trouble than any of them needed, and with a sigh of resignation, Joshua stepped forward and deftly caught the man's jaw with his fist.
With a grunt of surprise, Branbrook staggered backward, his legs growing looser and looser beneath him until he wobbled and crumpled to the gravel path.
"Dear Heaven, he's dead!" cried the girl as she ran forward to kneel beside the man's limp, still body. "He's dead, and you killed him!"
"Hush now. I've done no such thing." Joshua frowned. Two minutes ago, she'd b een terrified of the man, and now she seemed ready to mourn him like a lost brother. "He may be dead drunk, but that's all. He'll be back on his pegs soon enough, and none the worse for it, either."
"Are you sure?" she asked anxiously, gazing up at him so that for the first time the moonlight washed over her face. "Quite, quite sure?"
Joshua nodded, unable to do much else. It wasn't that she was so astoundingly beautiful, because by current tastes, she wasn't. Her face was too round, her cheeks too full, her mouth too wide to be fashionable. What stopped his wits so completely was harder to explain. She seemed to glow somehow, to have a brightness and animation that he'd never seen in a woman before.
But even if he couldn't explain it, he liked it. He liked it very much. Far more, in fact, than a man in his situation had any right to.
Anabelle. That was what the man had called her. Miss Anabelle Crosbie. She would have a name like that. A coquettish fillip of a name that suited her perfectly. He remembered the violet scent of her hair and the way her small, lush body had felt pressed against his chest. At least Joshua could understand now why the man had been chasing her into the garden.
With an anxious little sigh, the girl sank back on her heels so her silk skirts settled around her like a flower's petals. Her French-cut gown was cherry-red brocade patterned with gold Chinese birds, a gown that would come most dear in a mantua-maker's shop, and yet she gave the dewy grass and its consequences not a thought.
"I pray you are right, sir," she said softly. "That the poor gentleman's not deceased, that is."
With a gre at effort, Joshua forced himself to look away from her and to the "poor gentleman" sprawled on the gravel, his eyes peacefully closed and his mouth gaping open like a hooked fish. Joshua had seen his share of dead men. Branbrook wasn't one of them.
"He's well enough," said Joshua. "I can promise you that."
"Can you indeed?" She was studying him just as he'd studied her, her gaze lingering on Joshua's shoulders with a wary but unmistakable interest. Branbrook might have overlooked Joshua's size, but she didn't. "Then can you promise me, too, that striking him was necessary?"
"Promises have nothing to do with it, ma'am," said Joshua defensively. "He was threatening you. You came to me for help. I tried being civil to the man, but he left me no choice."
"None?" Her dark brows arched upward. "Truly?"
"Not when he reached into his coat, he didn't." Damnation, why wasn't she thanking him the way she should instead of asking all these infernal questions? He didn't need to explain himself like this. He was a deep-water captain, a Fairbourne shipmaster, accountable to himself and no other man, let alone a woman.
Especially not the girl before him on the grass, where she was offering him the most astounding proof of how tightly she laced her stays.
He cleared his throat, determined not to be distracted. "The truth, ma'am, is that you don't know what he had hidden away in his waistcoat, and neither did I."
"In truth I may not know, not to swear upon it, yet I doubt there's much hidden about this gentleman's person that would be a threat to me." Her brows rose even higher, her dark eyes round with a mixture of skepticism and amusement, and the first hint of a smile wobbled at the corners of her mouth. "Fancy Henry Branbrook accosting me with his pocketwatch, or perhaps a wicked snuffbox!"
Biting back an oath of exasperation, Joshua bent over the unconscious man long enough to flip back his coat and find the small pistol tucked into the deep pocket of his waistcoat, exactly where he'd suspected it would be. So much for the niceties of London gentlemen. He might have worn that sword after all.
"There," he said with grim satisfaction as he held the pistol up for the girl to see. "A sorry excuse for a weapon for a man, I'll grant you that, but still sufficient to put an untidy hole in either one of us."
But instead of the gasp of genteel horror he'd expected, the girl only peered at the pistol with open fascination.
"Whoever would have guessed Mr. Branbrook would have such a thing!" she marveled. "How vastly, vastly peculiar!"
"Not if he'd chosen to use it," said Joshua drily. Gently, he shook the gunpowder out of the pistol's pan before he tossed it into the bushes. "We're lucky he didn't, considering how far in his cups the blasted fool was. Already so drunk he'd put his coat on wrong side out."
"Oh, that's for luck, not from wine. All the gentlemen turn their coats that way in the gaming room. To help change their fortunes for the better, they say." She sighed and shook her head sadly. "If only he'd have let me try to win back fairly what I'd lost at the table instead of chasing me out here, then none of this would have happened. Twenty pounds isn't so very much to lose at loo. I could have won it back in a hand or two."
"Twenty pounds?" repeated Joshua incredulously.
Twenty pounds was more than many sailors earned in a year. "You lost twenty pounds playing cards?"
Her chin ducked low with contrition, her lashes sweeping across her cheeks. "Please don't scold me," she said meekly. "Grandmother will scold me royally when she learns of this, and I couldn't bear to hear it from you, too."
But Joshua himself had heard more than enough. As charming as this girl was, it was high time he left her. Past time, really. "You must excuse me, ma'am," he said with a bow. "You'll be safe now, and I've another matter that I must -- "
"Oh, but you can't leave me just yet!" she cried, scrambling to her feet. "Not before Mr. Branbrook wakes! Whatever shall I say to explain myself?"
"The truth should serve," said Joshua gruffly, glancing over her head toward the house. The drawing room door had finally opened, and the first guests were beginning to wander into the garden. "He was the one at fault, not you. Now if you will -- "
"But who would believe me?" she asked plaintively, her plump little hands twisting in her skirts. "Mr. Branbrook -- the Honorable Mr. Henry Branbrook, you understand -- his father is an earl, a peer, and mine is but a viscount, and Irish as well. Oh, you must see the appalling scandal that will come of this!"
"I'm afraid I don't, ma'am, and I can't -- "
"Because you're not from London," she declared abruptly, putting a far different end to his sentence than the one he'd intended. She tipped her head to one side. "That's it, isn't it? You speak very well, considering, but I knew at once you weren't English. No, no. But you are British, aren't you?"
"What the devil else would I be?" asked Joshua indignantly, irr itated that she'd dare heap insults onto bold-faced ingratitude.
"I'm as British as you. I was born at Appledore, in Massachusetts, true enough, but that doesn't make -- "
"Then you will help me." Her skirts rustling, she scurried around to grab the unconscious gentleman by his ankles, throwing her whole weight against his as she tried to tug him back from the path. "Hurry! We must move him before someone comes!"
For Joshua, there was only one someone that mattered, and the reminder sent a quick chill down his spine. He'd no more wish to be caught here between Anabelle Crosbie and her honorable Mr. Branbrook than she did.
"I don't see what difference this makes," he said even as he helped drag the other man back into the shadows. "No matter where we stow him, he'll still be some blasted earl's son, won't he?"
"Yes, but over there beneath the boxwoods, he won't be noticed until he chooses to show himself," she said breathlessly. "And if I'm very fortunate, he won't remember a thing about -- oh, merciful dear, someone's coming!"
She craned her neck back to look back down the path and dropped the man's feet with a clumsy thud.
"Damnation, you can't stop now!" whispered Joshua sharply. Branbrook's inside-out coat snagged on a branch, and the harder Joshua yanked at it, the more tangled in the boxwood it became, while one of the unconscious lord's arms awkwardly flopped out across the grass. "You take his arm, and I'll -- "
"There's no time!" she whispered urgently. "Quick, there's only one way!"
She darted forward and grabbed Joshua's arm, turning him so that his back was to the path. "You must shield m e, like so," she said breathlessly, "and no one will notice Mr. Branbrook."
"Why the devil -- "
"Because no one ever sees lovers in a garden!" She reached up to slip her little hands around Joshua's shoulders and pulled his face down to her level. Her expression was determined, her dark eyes serious. "It truly is the only way."
Before Joshua could protest, she was kissing him, her lips warm and soft against his. Perhaps she'd intended only a pretend kiss, a diversion meant for others, but Joshua knew better. It wouldn't be possible, not for her, and especially not for him.
And unfortunately, he was right. Not that he'd wanted to kiss her in return -- damnation, he hadn't even wanted to be kissed in the first place -- but when he felt the inexperienced eagerness of her lips, he felt every resolve, every denial, slip fast away. Despite her boldness, she still tasted of innocence, of the same bright, untouched promise that he'd seen in her face. His fingers threaded and tangled into the neat silken waves of her hair, cradling her face as he coaxed her lips apart and changed the perfunctory kiss into something else, something deeper, darker, and infinitely more seductive.
He broke away long enough to brush his lips over the velvety curve of her cheek, sweet and full like a summer peach.
"Oh, my," she murmured, her eyes dreamy and a blissfully surprised smile on her face. "Oh, my, my!"
She did that to him, too. She had done it, he realized as he kissed her again, from the moment she'd hurtled into his chest.
Mary's voice was shrill with shock, a single word that pierced straight through Joshua's guilty conscience. Instantly, he broke awa y from Anabelle, smoothing his hair and straightening his coat sleeves, and turned to face Miss Mary Holme.
Instantly, but not nearly fast enough. He knew that as soon as he saw the look on Mary's face.
"Is this what you wished me to see, Joshua?" she said, her voice icy and distant. "Is this why you asked me to meet you here?"
"Mary, sweet, this isn't what it seems," began Joshua, horribly conscious of Anabelle peeking around his arm. "This lady and I -- "
"I do not care to hear your explanations, Joshua Fairbourne," snapped Mary. She stood so straight and motionless in her cream-colored gown that she might have been another garden statue. "I do not wish to hear anything at all from you ever again."
Desperately, Joshua held his hand out to her. "Don't say such things, Mary, not like that. If you'd only listen to what -- "
"Good night, Joshua." She turned on her heel and marched back toward the house, her back an inflexible line of wounded fury.
"What a vastly disagreeable woman," said Anabelle. "I cannot fathom why she should speak to you in such a shrewish, ill-bred manner. Whyever do you care what she thinks?"
"Why?" Joshua's laugh was hollow. "Because this evening, in this garden, I'd meant to ask her to be my wife."
Copyright © 1997 by Miranda Jarrett