The Tower of London, Autumn 1835
The stones of the Tower radiated anguish and despair. How many prisoners had paced these rooms, praying for escape? As a nearby church bell tolled seven times, Gavin Elliott lay on his narrow bed, eyes closed. Soon he must rise and prepare for the trial that would begin today, but he preferred to hang on to the rags of a pleasant dream as long as possible. Transparent aquamarine water, white sand, Alexandra laughing with the vitality that made all other women pale by comparison.
Alex. The dream splintered and fell away. Wearily he sat up and swung his legs from the bed. The stone floor had the chill of death. Two warders were always posted in the room with him, ubiquitous as the stony chamber’s cold drafts. He’d lived shoulder to shoulder with other men when he first went to sea as a common sailor, but he’d spent too many years as the captain, the owner, the taipan, to enjoy this return to constant scrutiny.
The door opened, closed again. “Your breakfast has arrived, sir.” The warders were scrupulously polite. Not their fault the tea was prepared so far away that it was tepid by the time it reached the prisoner in the Bloody Tower.
Moving to the washstand, Gavin splashed cold water on his face to clear his mind, then shaved with extra care. It wouldn’t do to look like a murderous villain today. The face in the mirror didn’t inspire him with confidence, though. Grief, strain, and weeks of imprisonment shadowed his eyes, and years of sun and sea had left him with a weathered, tan complexion that Britons considered ungentlemanly.
The coat and trousers he donned were black for mourning. He wondered if his judges would consider that hypocritical.
The door opened again. The taller of the warders, Ridley, mumbled a protest. The reply was much clearer. “I have permission.”
Recognizing the voice, Gavin turned to greet the Earl of Wrexham. They’d come a long way since that first meeting in India seven years before. Kyle Renbourne had been Lord Maxwell then, a restless heir running away from his staid English life. Gavin had been in dire straits, a string of disasters having driven his trading company, Elliott House, to the brink of collapse.
After a night of talking and drinking they struck a deal on a handshake, and became friends as well as partners. That bond held even now that Kyle had inherited his father’s honors, while Gavin was the scandal of London.
Kyle crossed the room, his long coat darkened with rain. “I thought I’d accompany you to your trial.”
And in doing so, he’d make a public display of support. “Good of you,” Gavin said gruffly, “but there’s no point in tarnishing your reputation.”
His friend gave a faint smile. “An advantage of being a lord is that it doesn’t much matter what people think about me.”
“It matters when one is assumed to be a murderer.”
With a gesture, Kyle cleared the room of warders. When they were alone, he said, “The investigator has a couple of leads that might prove who tried to make you look guilty. Pierce or your damned cousin are capable of doing it.”
Gavin shrugged into his coat. “It’s easier to believe that I’m a murderer than that I’m the target of a vast, complicated conspiracy.”
“You’re no murderer.” “I didn’t kill Alex, but there are other lives on my conscience. Maybe divine justice is catching up with me.”
“Defending your life and protecting others isn’t murder. The so-called evidence that you were responsible for Alexandra’s death is absurd.” “It’s strong enough to hang an upstart Scottish-American merchant.” Especially a merchant who had angered powerful men. “Given the circumstances, it’s not hard to build a case for me wanting to rid myself of an inconvenient wife.”
“No one who saw you look at Alex would believe that.”
Gavin’s throat tightened. His friend was perceptive. “Even if I’m acquitted, it won’t bring her back.”
“Don’t give up on me, damn it!” Kyle snapped. “There’s no point in hanging for a crime you didn’t commit.”
The door opened and the warders returned, accompanied by four guards who’d come to take the prisoner to his place of trial. Surrounded, Gavin descended the tower stairs and walked out in the rain to reach a waiting carriage. Kyle stayed with him, his silent presence a comfort. In a world gone mad, at least one man believed in Gavin’s innocence.
As the carriage left the Tower precincts, a group of onlookers shouted, “Wife killer!” and “Hang the bluidy bastard!” Stones rattled off the sides of the vehicle.
Gavin’s gaze was caught by a group of three men, better dressed than the rest of the mob. The three who most wanted him dead. Barton Pierce, face weathered and expression like granite, who’d nursed his hatred for years. Philip Elliott, who had the most to gain if Gavin was hanged. Major Mark Colwell, who’d felt that only a soldier deserved Alexandra. Did any of them have triumph in their eyes? Impossible to tell in the rain—but all would dance on his grave when the time came.
He turned away from the window, expression grim. His life had begun spinning out of control the day he met Alexandra. Who could have guessed that his desire to help a woman in distress might lead him to the gallows?
BOOK I The Price of a Woman’s Life
CHAPTER 1 The East Indies, Spring 1834
The silence woke her. No screaming wind, no groaning timbers, no pounding waves trying to crush the ribs of the ship.
Scarcely able to believe the Amstel had survived the storm, Alexandra Warren carefully detached herself from her sleeping eight-year-old daughter, untied the ropes she’d used to secure them in the bunk, and stood. Every inch of her body felt bruised from the battering they’d endured. She had stayed awake for two days and a night, but finally fallen into exhausted sleep, cradling Katie protectively in her arms.
The porthole over the narrow bunk showed a lightening sky. Dawn must be close. The ship appeared to be anchored in a large, quiet bay surrounded by rugged hills. Eagerly she opened the porthole so fresh air could dispel the cabin’s staleness.
The warm, spice-scented breeze caressed her face like a blessing. Alex gave a prayer of thanksgiving for their survival. Though she’d hidden her fear from Katie, she’d believed the Amstel was doomed, and that she’d never see England again.
At twenty, she’d been eager to accept Major Edmund Warren’s proposal. Her father, stepfather, and grandfather had all been army officers, and as a child she’d followed the drum through the Peninsu- lar Wars under the watchful eye of her mother. What could be more natural than to marry Edmund, both for himself and for the adventures she’d find as his wife?
Though Edmund had been a decent husband, the raw new land of Australia had offered more suffocating snobbery than adventures, and Alex had missed her home and family far more than she’d expected. Having a child had intensified that, for it saddened her that Katie had never met her grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins.
Alex glanced down and saw a dark yawn open in the pale oval of her daughter’s face. “I’m here, Katybird.”
“The storm is over?”
“Yes. Would you like to look outside?”
Katie scrambled out from under the covers and stood on the bunk so she could see out the porthole. “Where are we?”
“I’m not sure. We were about two days southeast of Batavia when the typhoon hit.” She smoothed her daughter’s tangled blond hair, which had escaped from her braid as she slept. “There are thousands and thousands of islands in the East Indies—more than the stars in the sky. Some are civilized, some are filled with savages, some have never been visited by a European. But Captain Verhoeven will know where we are. He’s a fine sailor to have brought us through the storm without crashing into an island.”
At least, she hoped the captain would know where they were. He seemed a capable man. When the numbness from Edmund’s death from fever began to wear off, Alex had been so impatient to go home that she’d booked passage on the Dutch Amstel rather than wait indefinitely for a British vessel. The merchant ship was bound for Calcutta via Batavia and Singapore. In India it would be easy to find passage home to England. Though the crew was much smaller than the navy ship that had taken her and Edmund to New South Wales, Alex and Katie had been treated well and the journey had been pleasant, at least until the typhoon hit.
“I’m hungry,” Katie said wistfully. “Can we eat now?”
Alex was hungry, too. The galley fire had been extinguished as too hazardous during the storm. Even if food had been available, they had felt too queasy to eat. “I’ll see what I can find in the galley. The cook may already be up and preparing breakfast.”
Since Alex had slept in her clothing, she had only to slip on shoes before leaving the cabin. The ship was still, except for the constant creak of wood and rattle of lines. The captain must have decided to give his hard-pressed crew the rest of the night off before assessing the damage.
The island was becoming clearer, though the surface of the water was obscured by patches of low-lying mist. Near the helm she saw the dark silhouette of the officer of the watch. From his height and thinness, she guessed it was the young Dutch second mate. She raised one hand in salute and received a respectful bow in return.
As Alex headed to the galley, a muffled splash sounded not far from the ship. She frowned. A leaping fish?
The sound came again. She scrutinized the mist, catching her breath when shadows slowly became recognizable as two praus—the long, narrow boats used by natives of the islands. Several times praus had been paddled out to the Amstel when the ship sailed near an island, eager to offer fruit and fish and poultry to crew and passengers. Alex had bought a doll for Katie from one woman.
But she knew these were no friendly traders. Not this early, and taking such pains to be quiet. Knowing the islands were infested with pirates, she raced to the mate, praying that she was wrong. “Look!”
His gaze followed her pointing arm, and he uttered a guttural curse. Bellowing a warning, he galloped toward the main hatchway to raise the rest of the crew. In the lead prau, a hulking Malay reared up and hurled a spear. It streaked across the water to bury itself in the young mate’s throat. Alex gasped, paralyzed by the swiftness with which peace had turned into horror.
Abandoning secrecy, the praus leaped forward under maximum rowing power, accompanied by the deep, terrifying boom of war gongs. As they neared the ship, they separated to box the Amstel in on both sides. Within a minute of Alex’s first sighting, heavy hulls banged against the merchant ship, grappling hooks flew over the railings, and pirates began swarming aboard. She estimated that there were forty or fifty men in each prau—far more than the crew of the Amstel.