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"I need a scoundrel, Uncle Henry." Esme Smith's gloved hands tightened on her reticule. Behind her, the gangway swayed from her fast-paced boarding. "Urgently."
Captain Henry Fellowes grinned and spat tobacco over the side of his skimmer-boat.
"But he has to be a convincing scoundrel," she added. "Handsome, even. Someone the ladies will sigh over and the men will slap on the back and call a 'good fellow.'"
Henry leaned back against the ship wheel with its stylized anchor center and squinted at the storm clouds rolling in from the west. "You can't beat the Indian Ocean for winter storms. The Athena can ride them out, but it's good to be in harbor. Good to be home."
"Uncle Henry," Esme said impatiently. She put a hand on the railing and leaned from the bridge, checking. From the hold she could hear male voices, a snatch of laughter. All too soon, Old Mark, the customs officer, would finish processing the passengers and they'd surge up, out and on their way. She needed to capture one first. "The matter is vital. I need a well-dressed, well-spoken man to front my political party and do as he's told."
"I'll pay him."
"The thing is, I have to iron out the terms of his contract before he sets foot in the colony. From the get-go he must impress everyone as an earnest, aspiring politician. He must be respectable."
"A respectable scoundrel?"
"Yes!" She frowned at two seagulls squabbling over a fish head from the trawler anchored nearby. "I know it's a lot to ask...but, Uncle Henry, don't you have one passenger who might fit the bill?"
"Well now." He adjusted his cap, tugging it down against the freshening wind. "I reckon as maybe I do."
Esme whirled around. "You do?"
"What has me puzzled is why you suddenly want a man. When I sailed two months past, you were aiming to head the party yourself. What's changed?"
"Nicholas Bambury the Third."
Uncle Henry raised a greying eyebrow. "Who's he when he's home?"
"An Easterner." She made it sound a disease. "From one of the gentry families in Sydney. He's here to give us the benefit of his lordly advice. Arrogant toad. Bambury has convinced people like the governor that high-level political discussions should be held in the men's clubsno women allowed. I'm working on changing it, but until then, I need a man to be there and put my side of the argument."
"Women's rights and equality for all. Uh-huh. You know, your mother, God rest her soul, has a lot to answer for."
"Take some credit, yourself. Father, too. He's always going on about a person defending their rights." She smiled. "'Course, he was talking mining rights, but voting rights for women are just as important. So many women can't fight for themselves, but I can and I will."
"Like a moray eel. Once you get your teeth into a cause, you don't let go."
"Absolutely." Being compared to a fierce, relentless sea creature didn't bother her a whit. "Though they are ugly. Now, about your scoundrel..."
"Tenacious." Uncle Henry sighed. "He calls himself Jedediah Reeve. Decent bloke, but poncy clothes."
"Coming from you." She studied his worn and stained dungarees, the faded and torn pullover, the oilskin discarded on a hook. "Poncy clothes could be as terrible as a clean shirt."
"None of your cheek, girl. I'll shave and scrub up when I'm on land."
"I know. Maud has the boiler going, so you'll have plenty of hot water."
"A good woman, Maud." He rubbed a hand over his stubbled jaw. "What does she think of you buying yourself a man?"