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Billingsgate Docks, London, September 1715
Captain Roderick Cameron had just been forced to abandon his plan to procure a woman for the night, when one thrust herself upon him.
"Pardon me, sire." Throaty and alluring, the woman's voice called to him from the misty dockyard gantry under which she sheltered.
As much as he wanted some female company, Roderick Cameron pressed on. He couldn't afford to dally. His intention had been to oversee delivery of the bespoke goods they carried, imbibe some decent ale, then seek a woman's company for the night. The delivery was done, but from then on his plans had gone awry. He was currently hastening back to his ship with an excise man and a navy officer on his trail, and he was not eager to be waylaid. He'd already sent his crew back to ready the Libertas for departure on the turn of the tide.
"Are you Captain Cameron of the ship known as the Libertas? "
Roderick frowned. Something about the woman's voice stating his name aloud halted him in his tracks, despite the threat of imminent arrest that loomed at his back. It was as if she had touched him to the quick. Bemused, he peered into the shadows. "What do you want with Captain Cameron?"
The woman stepped out of her hiding place and into the moonlight. "I've been told that his ship sets sail for Dundee this evening."
Heavily cloaked as she was, and with her hood drawn low, it was impossible for Roderick to distinguish the woman's features. Was she a penny whore with a pretty voice who had agreed to waylay him and call him out? Excise officers were in pursuit because of a prior dispute about the goods the Libertas carried. Roderick grimaced. The navy had a network of informants and collaborators down here at Billingsgate docks, where so many ships came and went.
If it were a trap he would have been jumped by now. Nevertheless, he sensed trouble and quickly pressed on, striding toward the docks. He had no intention of confirming or denying his identity. His vessel still concealed French wine that was destined for the lairds in the Scottish Lowlands. It was cleverly hidden between two false walls behind his private quarters. If the navy found out what he was carrying and where he was headed, his troubles would be doubled. Nevertheless, the woman had caught his attention, and now it seemed as if she intended to pursue him.
"I need to speak with the captain most urgently." She hastened along at his side. "I need to know if he truly is bound for Scotland."
"What is it to you where any ship docked here is bound?" He shot the question back over his shoulder.
"Please, sire, I seek passage to Dundee."
It was uncanny. Her voice beckoned to him, reaching into him far deeper than words alone ever would. Roderick turned back and peered down at her. From what little he could see of the woman she did not look like someone he might expect to find here on the dockside, where only drunks and whores and lust-fueled seamen passed by this late in the evening. Her face was still hidden by her hood, but upon closer inspection he could see by the quality of her clothing that she was no dockside whore. Her dark blue velvet cloak and the gown beneath it looked costly, with a jeweled bodice and sumptuous fabric. In one hand she clasped a small bundle, partially hidden beneath her cloak.
It felt like a trap, but Roderick found he had to know and understand it before he sidestepped it. "The Libertas does not take passengers. Besides, why would a fine English lady such as yourself want to travel to Dundee alone?"
She lowered the hood of her cloak, finally revealing her face.
Roderick stared at her. Her appearance defied him to do otherwise. She was a beauty, with silken black hair that cascaded over her shoulders. Delicately defined eyebrows arched over eyes that glinted brightly in the moonlight. Her lips—still parted on her plea—were exceedingly kissable.
She gave a quick and rather forced smile. "I am as Scottish as you are, Captain Cameron."
Roderick lifted his brows in surprise. She'd not only decided that he was indeed the captain, she also claimed to be a Scot. His curiosity flared, as did his wariness. "If it's true, we're both far from home. But I hear little trace of Scotland in your voice."
Her hands twisted together over her bundle. "I have lived in London since I was a bairn. I am a grown woman now and I wish to return to my kin."
The woman's strange request compelled him to listen. Her body, so feminine and so close to his, bewitched him, which was dangerous. A woman who held sway with a man of the sea was capable of breaking his bond with it. He'd seen that happen often enough, but it was not for him. Perhaps he was intrigued by her because his earlier plan to seek a whore's company for the night had been thwarted. It had to be the reason why she made him pause on the journey back to his ship, a journey that should have been stealthy and fast.
Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw figures moving in the distance. Seamen on their way to the port, but it kept his senses keen nonetheless. "I'm afraid you must seek assistance elsewhere."
When he met her gaze Roderick found that the oddly solemn look in her eyes stalled him yet again.
"Please, Captain." Reaching out with her free hand, she clutched at his coat sleeve. "You would do me a great service if you helped me." Her tone grew pleading. "I must leave London tonight."
Roderick indulged himself a moment as he contemplated making her comfortable in his cabin, imagining her there. His desire to assist her increased, as did a more basic desire.
He'd planned to bed a woman that night, and a tryst with this strange beauty would be quite something, he was sure. He attempted to force the base urge away. They had rules aboard the ship and he had to be on his way. "We do not carry passengers," he repeated. "Neither do we allow women on board the ship."
"I cannot go back there."
Roderick's attention shifted. The woman had attempted to shield her emotions, but now he could see that she was afraid. It was not his concern, but he did not like to see a woman with fear in her eyes.
Shouts sounded in the distance. Unease crept up his spine.
Her eyes flickered. She seemed to sense that he was torn. "Please, sire, I must leave this very night, for my liberty is at stake."
Liberty? It could be a tactic meant to sway him, and yet Roderick knew he would not rest easy if he sent her back to whatever it was she feared, without knowing the truth of the matter. His sense of honor on such matters would not allow it. His shipmen would not be happy having a woman aboard, but it was not a long voyage. They would be in Dundee before the week was out.
The scent of her made him hanker to get closer, while her rosebud lips seemed to beckon him to taste.
"I do not have much to offer you in payment," she whispered, stepping closer still, "but I can offer you several trinkets."
Her eyelids lowered and Roderick noticed that she was assessing him from beneath her lashes. Her hand on his arm tightened.
That touch ignited him.
When her black lashes lifted there was an altogether different look in her eyes. It was determined and alluring both.
"And there is something else I can offer you," she added.
Roderick cocked his head to one side while he waited to hear what it was.
Her gaze held his and her lips—as soft and tempting as a ripe berry—parted as she spoke, her voice scarcely above a whisper. "My virginity."
Roderick stared at her, then laughed. A woman so wily and forthright was no innocent virgin, but her brazen offer fired his loins nonetheless. Could he resist having her? He'd have to deal with a barrel load of trouble if he took her on board ship, but when he looked down at her upturned face he also knew he would forever be haunted with regret and curiosity if he did not.
He cupped her jaw in one hand, admiring her strange beauty, imagining how she might look while he claimed his reward between her thighs. Heat built in his loins, his cock hardening.
Her eyes flashed. "I am yours to plunder as you wish, Captain Cameron of the Libertas," she said, and that voice of hers seemed to reach all the way into his innards and hold him to her, "in return for safe passage to Dundee."
Maisie Taskill was tempted to influence the captain by means of magic, even though she knew it would complicate matters further into their acquaintance. She would do it if she had to, but only if it was absolutely necessary. It was, however, essential that she depart from London that night. She was overdue at The King's Theatre, where she was expected to watch a performance of an opera by Handel with her guardian, her master. Her absence would be noted soon enough, if it had not already raised suspicion. The thought of her master's reaction chilled her. Icy fingers encircled her heart, clenching it in a grip so tight she could scarcely breathe.
Please take me with you, help me escape this treacherous web I am caught in.
The captain grumbled low in his chest as he assessed her. It was a strange sound, rough and manly. It made her want to press her hand to his chest to experience the occurrence through touch as well as sound. Maisie Taskill was always curious about such things.
She could not see him well, for his hat was low on his brow and his face was cast in shadow. Occasionally he lifted his head to look about, and when he did she caught sight of his eyes in the moonlight and saw reluctant interest there. Her offer of a carnal exchange had definitely secured his attention. Desire was there in his expression, but for a moment she still thought he was going to shake his head and turn away.
Instinctively, she clutched at his coat to stop him from doing so. Before she had even made contact his gaze sharpened, following the movement of her fingers, intent and watchful. When her hand rested close to his chest he gave another low grumble, but this time it sounded different to Maisie. Less disgruntled. Seductive, almost. His chest felt broad and strong beneath his coat and she almost pulled away, so unfamiliar was she with a man such as he—a burly man who worked with both brawn and brain. A sturdy, honest man.
At least that was what Maisie hoped Captain Cameron was. One could never tell, and men could turn on a woman—as she knew too well—but right at that moment she didn't have any choice. She parted her lips, about to plead again.
In the distance a whistle sounded, cutting through the thickening mist with a warning of trouble.
The captain grabbed her hand in his. "You will have your passage to Dundee if your feet are fast enough to carry you to my ship."
Before she had a chance to respond, he set off, drawing her along in his wake as he broke into a run through the gloomy dockyards of Billingsgate. It was dark and mist clung in patches. She could barely see, and yet the path he forged was not straight, which was apparently his intent. Maisie wondered how he knew this place so well, but she was glad he did. It was also a mercy that the whistle had made him take action. The sound had set his deliberations to short shrift. Could it be that she would truly be on her way to Dundee that night? Hope lit in her heart.
The captain's stride was long and fast, and even though she lifted her skirts and hurried along behind him, still clinging tightly to his large, callused hand, her breath was soon labored. She rued the tightness of her corset. It had been appropriately laced for sitting in a theater box, but not for such a vigorous activity as this.
The captain made a sharp left turn, pausing briefly as he did so. The moonlight broke through the clouds and she saw the dark looming shape of a ship up ahead. He glanced down at her. "I'm sorry, but the haste is necessary."
Maisie realized that he, too, was fleeing. "Why is it that you must run?"
The captain grabbed her bundle with his free hand and urged her forward again even while he answered her question. "There are those in London who will pay highly for the best French wine. My men have delivered several cases under cover of darkness and risked their neck in doing so. The excise men have been alerted. I was on my way back to my vessel when you called to me."
Maisie silently corrected her previous assumption about his honesty. Not entirely honest in matters of commerce. With some trepidation she hoped that he was an honorable man, and not brutal by nature. Many traders sidestepped the excise man. Earlier that day she had ascertained that Captain Cameron was in charge of a free trade vessel, a merchant ship. She had no idea he might be hunted down for his dealings, but she would have had to approach him anyway, for his was the only ship bound for Scotland that night or in the days following, and she didn't have much time to make her escape. It did make her feel a mite less uneasy about the fact she was tricking him into taking her, for in all likelihood she was every bit as dangerous to him as a bout of smuggling, if not more so.
Lurid laughter emerged from a shack to one side, and when she glanced in as they passed, she saw a woman ensconced with two men. One held a lantern aloft as she lifted her skirts for them. Shocked, Maisie stumbled on.
"Tread carefully," her guide urged, and pulled her away from a tangle of net and rope.
They drew nearer to a ship and she thought their hasty dash was at an end, but he went beyond it, to another vessel. The closer they got, the more it seemed to loom above them.
Three figures perched on upturned crates close to the dockside were engaged in a huddled conversation. They lifted their heads as she and her guide approached. One, a scrawny lad, rose to his feet and saluted the gentleman at her side. "Captain."
Just as she had expected, this was indeed Captain Roderick Cameron.
"On board at once, Adam," he said in reply. "We are ready to set sail. Pass the order below deck."
The young man picked up a flagon and looped one finger through the handle at its neck. Then he turned on his heel and launched himself at a large rope net that hung down from the side of the ship to the dock. Maisie watched in astonishment as he climbed it with one hand, the toes of his bare feet gripping the rope with easy agility, his other hand holding tight to his flagon as he went.
Surely she and the captain would not have to board the vessel that way? Maisie swallowed down a fresh wave of anxious emotion.
"You appear to have company, Roderick," one of the other men said in a wary tone, and nodded at her. "The lady has to get to Dundee."
The man shook his head, grumbled to himself and turned away. He crossed to the ship on a wooden plank that had been placed from the quayside to the vessel. When he got to the top he vaulted over the ship's railing. The third man, who was elderly, with a pronounced stoop, followed the first, clambering up the rope net like a bird flitting from branch to branch, despite his apparent age.
"Make haste," the captain urged Maisie. He glanced over his shoulder once more, then waved up at a man perched near one end of the ship. The man on deck signaled back, and she heard shouting, as if he was rousing others. Sure enough, several sailors came to the rail and started hauling up ropes attached to bags of sand that sat upon the quay.
"You go ahead of me," the captain said. "I'll bring up the rear and then we must be off." He nodded toward the plank and smacked her on the behind, urging her along.