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By BOBBI SMITH
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 1987 Bobbi Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStaring out across the fading green of the autumnal countryside with unseeing eyes, Noah stood rigidly at the window behind his desk in his study at Kincade Hall. Though the early afternoon sun shone warmly through the glistening glass, he felt none of its warmth. Chilled to his very soul, his handsome features frozen in an inexpressive mask, he turned back to the room to face Ronald Perkins, his father's attorney. The lawyer was seated in the leather wing chair on the opposite side of the massive, scarred oak desk, his papers spread out before him in studied disarray.
"Then it's gone.... There's no chance of saving it...." His tone was bitter as his gaze seemed to come alive, flashing silvered fire at the lawyer.
The rotund barrister was nervous and sweating, his hands unsteady as he removed his wire-rimmed glasses and dabbed at his broad brow with a wrinkled white handkerchief. "Uh ... yes, m'lord. I'm afraid so. The house and grounds have already been sold to meet a portion of your father's debts."
Noah's jaw tensed in anger as he stalked forward to plant his hands firmly on the desktop, leaning forward menacingly. "Were you aware that these conditions existed before my father's demise?"
Lord Noah Kincade was an intimidating man in the best of times, but here, confronted with the loss of his beloved home and the majority of his family fortune, the power of his outraged personality was near to overwhelming. Ronald, a cowardly soul, knew a moment of true physical fear as he stared helplessly up at the demanding nobleman.
"I did," he answered honestly, knowing that it would not do to lie to Noah.
"You knew ..." Noah's eyes went blank for a moment as he considered this news. This man had known that his father was squandering the family's resources at the gaming tables and yet made no move to stop him. "And yet you did nothing?"
"Sir." Perkins cleared his throat and straightened uncomfortably in the chair. Not willing to tolerate any attacks on his professional character, he summoned all his inner fortitude to answer. "I was employed by your father. It was not my job to criticize him."
"Could you not have advised me so I could have prevented this from happening?" Noah asked heatedly.
"Lord Kincade," he began in righteous indignation, "your father paid me well for the job I did. Any time I ventured to offer advice to His Lordship concerning the state of his finances, I was firmly reminded of my expendability. Your father hired me because I was discreet. It was a quality he valued most highly in those he kept in his employ."
The anger suddenly seemed to drain out of Noah as his broad shoulders slumped. When he looked up at the lawyer again, his face was haggard and pale, and he appeared far older than his twenty-six years. Dragging a hand through his thick, dark hair in a gesture of weary defeat, Noah nodded slowly as he dropped into his chair.
"Then it's settled. It's gone...."
"The house and grounds, yes. That transaction was completed two days ago. I am in the process now of finalizing the sale of the town house in London," Perkins reported with as much professional dignity as he could muster. "You and Matthew are not totally devoid of funds, as you know, for you both still retain your independent trusts from your mother's estate."
Noah quickly calculated in his mind just how far their trusts would go in maintaining their current lifestyle, and he grew even more overwhelmed. His mother's family had been comfortable, but their holdings had not come anywhere near the fortunes of the Kincades.
"I have one other bit of information here that may prove uplifting," he offered tenuously.
"Oh?" One dark brow lifted slightly in angry disbelief as Noah regarded the lawyer cynically.
The knowledge that he'd lost his home was devastating to him and he found it most difficult to imagine anything that could possibly be interpreted as uplifting in this whole sordid affair. He was financially ruined, and all of his future prospects were in a shambles. Not so long ago, Noah was heir to the vast Kincade shipping fortune and one of the most sought after of bachelors about the ton. But when the rumors of the Kincade family's cataclysmic losses had begun, Noah's "friends" had become acquaintances, shunning him and retracting invitations issued months before. Even Lady Andrea Broadmoor, his light-o'-love for some months, had cut him loose upon hearing the gossip, and her desertion, in particular, was one lesson he would never forget. He clenched his fists in utter frustration at his own helplessness. As things stood now, Perkins's uplifting information was the only hope he had, and he knew he couldn't allow himself the luxury to trust in that for any real help.
"Yes ... the ships ..."
"Kincade Shipping ..." For just an instant, his spirits rose at the thought that their prosperous shipping firm might still be intact, untouched by their father's excesses. If so, he knew he still held a modicum of control over his life.
Perkins hastened on, "The company itself is lost."
Noah's last hope was dashed and bitter emotions welled up inside of him. He held himself in rigid control, refusing to betray any weakness or despair before the attorney's watchful gaze.
"Go on," he urged icily.
"There are two ships, however, that you and Matthew do retain joint title to." He shuffled through his papers until he found the one he was looking for. "The Lorelei was your father's pride and joy. He made special provisions in all of his dealings that it would not be included in any settlement against him."
Noah nodded at the knowledge that they owned at least one fleet ship.
"And the Sea Pride," Perkins concluded. "She's an older merchant ship, but still serviceable."
"I see," was his only reply. In his discomfiture, he suddenly was eager for the barrister to be gone, and he asked sharply, "Is there anything else you have to tell me?"
Again the lawyer nervously cleared his throat. "Yes ..." he hesitated, "and this is the most difficult for me to relay...."
"I don't see how anything you could have to say to me now could possibly be any worse than what you've already told me," Noah remarked sarcastically, striving to stay master of his riotous emotions.
Perkins gave a curt nod and blurted out hastily, "It seems the new owners of Kincade Hall want to take possession right away. Their request is that you vacate the premises by the end of the week."
For a second Noah almost lost what little control he had on himself, but his stubborn, unrelenting Kincade pride wouldn't let him. He would reveal to no one the misery that rocked him over the loss of his family estates, not now and not in the future.
Noah accepted, agonizingly, the reality of his situation. With that acknowledgment came a plan of action. The power of wealth had just been painfully demonstrated to him. Before, he had always taken his vaulted position for granted, but no longer. Vowing silently to himself, he swore that he would recoup all of their father's losses. He would redeem the Kincade name among his peers and reestablish the family so firmly that future generations would be immune to such tragedy.
He knew it was not something that would happen overnight, but Kincade Hall would not remain in the hands of strangers for long. It had been in the family for generations. He would buy it back just as soon as he could raise the funds, and he was going to raise the funds. Nothing would deter him. Nothing.
"Perkins, I thank you for your help in these matters." His voice was steady, his manner icily calm as he rose. It was a signal to the barrister that his audience with Noah was at an end.
"Oh ... fine, my lord ..." He gathered his papers together and hurriedly stuffed them into his portfolio. "If I have any more news, I'll be in touch."
"I'd appreciate that."
"Do you know where you'll be staying after the end of the week?" Perkins hated to ask, but it was essential that he know His Lordship's whereabouts should anything of an urgent business nature come up.
Nerves stretched taut, Noah answered through gritted teeth, "Should you need us for anything, you will be able to reach us through Captain Russell of the Lorelei."
"Fine, fine." Perkins could sense the tension in the air and he was eager to be on his way back to London. With a quick bow, he started out of the room. "Until later."
"Yes ... until later ..." Noah's tone was grim and final. When the family retainer had gone and he was alone, Noah turned slowly back to the window. His heart felt like a stone in his breast, and he refused to admit that the prickling, burning sensation in his eyes was anything besides weariness.
The last two weeks had been disastrous and he wondered if things could possibly get any worse. First there had been his father's death in a hunting accident and the systematic dismantlement of the Kincade empire as his father's creditors had come forth, like vultures, to feast on the remains.
Exhausted, Noah massaged the back of his neck, trying to work out the tightness in the muscles there as he gazed out across the low, rolling hills painted now with the faded colors of the dying season. He thought, philosophically, how his life was like the land that was spread out before him ... his glory days of summer over and only the bleakness of winter ahead. The goal he had set before himself to regain his lost fortunes and prestige seemed insurmountable at that moment, but he knew that the longest of journeys is accomplished by only one step at a time. Still ...
No longer able to deny the depths of despair that had been tormenting him since the beginning of his ordeal, Noah repeatedly smashed his fist against the wall, venting his fury upon the polished dark wood panels.
How could his father have gambled away their very livelihood? Had Radcliffe been partially right in his slimy insult? The thought sent a shaft of denial through him. No matter what else, his father would never have done what Radcliffe had claimed.
Remembrance of the duel heightened his agony, and he did not feel the damage he was wreaking on his unprotected hand. Finally, as he became aware of the futility of his actions, he stopped, all emotion temporarily drained from him. He sensed no physical discomfort, but looking down at his bloodied knuckles, Noah knew it would come later ... later when the shock had worn off and the ugliness that was reality settled over him like a stifling mantle.
Lord Thomas Kincade had spared no expense when he'd purchased the Lorelei, for he'd meant her to be the showpiece of his fleet. The captain's cabin, where Noah now sat in conference with Lyle Russell, the Lorelei's master, reflected his father's expensive tastes. The bunk was wide and comfortable-looking, the walls paneled, and the furniture dark and heavy. It was a restful room, a haven from the harshness of life at sea, and both Noah and Lyle were enjoying the small bit of peace they'd found there.
"All the arrangements have been made," Noah was saying as he handed the contracts over to Lyle.
"How soon do we load?" the captain asked, one hand stroking his bushy, gray-streaked beard thoughtfully as he quickly perused the documents. At fifty years of age, Lyle Russell had spent most of his adult years working for Kincade Shipping. He had been shocked by his good friend Lord Thomas's death and by the subsequent revelations concerning the nobleman's overwhelming debts. The sale of the shipping firm had seemed almost a physical blow to him, and he was determined to help Lord Noah as much as he could.
"The Lorelei will berth and start loading the day after tomorrow," Noah informed him. "The Sea Pride is another matter entirely."
"Oh? Is there a problem?" Lyle extracted the contract for the merchant ship fromthe sheaf of papers he held and read it over carefully, surprise registering on his face as he noted what type of merchandise the Pride would be carrying. "I didn't know you were planning on shipping war materials...."
"It's a risky move on my part, but the payoff could be substantial."
"There's a market for the goods?"
"According to those I talked with who were in authority, there is a kettle of unrest brewing in the colonies, and violence could break out there at any time. Should that happen, agents here agreed that a shipment of arms could be very profitable."
"It is a daring plan, but if you stand to reap a suitable reward for your efforts, I see no reason to hesitate." The ship's captain nodded in approval of the younger man's farsightedness as his gaze rested warmly upon him. As aggressive and determined as Lord Noah was, perhaps the recovery of the lost Kincade fortunes was not as impossible as it seemed.
"Either way there's a pound to be made, and who knows? Maybe His Majesty's troops will be in desperate need of cannon and shot by the time we arrive. That could jack the asking price up considerably. I certainly see no reason why we shouldn't make every effort to take advantage of the situation." Noah's eyes glinted, at the thought of the full purse he could conceivably earn. "According to the agent I dealt with, however, the Pride won't be able to load for some weeks, and that puts us dangerously close to the winter season on the North Atlantic."
"There's no reason why the Lorelei has to remain in wait. Why don't we sail on ahead? You can make the necessary contacts in the colonies, and by the time the Pride arrives, all will be in readiness."
"How soon can you be ready to sail?"
"If the loading is completed on schedule, we can probably set sail within four days."
"That will be fine." Noah stood and started toward the door of the cabin. "I've yet to tell Matt the news, so I had
better return to the inn and let him know."
"You'll be there, should I need you?"
"Yes. We'll remain in our rented quarters there until you dock to load, then we'll come aboard." Absorbed in his thoughts, Noah forgot his bandaged hand and reached out for the doorknob. He grimaced at the painful contact.
"Your hand ... Are you all right?" Lyle asked with quick concern.
Noah glanced up to meet his captain's worried regard and he slanted him a cunning smile. "I think, for the first time in quite a while, Lyle, that I'm going to be just fine." And for the first time since he had learned the complete, devastating truth, he believed it.
It was growing late and the taproom in the inn was becoming increasingly crowded and noisy. Noah took little notice, though, as he sat at a secluded table in a back corner of the room, his expression pensive as he drank deeply from his tankard of ale. Matthew had retired to their rooms earlier and Noah was taking advantage of the time alone to sort out his thoughts about their upcoming voyage to the Americas.
Though he'd heard much about the colonies, Noah had never had any desire to visit them. Now, fate had intervened. Within six weeks he would find himself aboard the Lorelei docking in Boston City of the Massachusetts Colony. The thought did not lighten his spirits. The trip was a necessary evil, and he would tolerate the inconvenience only because of the money to be made. His goal was to return to England in the spring with his pockets well lined. He knew that one successful trip would not restore all his lost inheritance, but once he made the necessary business contacts in Boston, he was confident that their future would be bright.
Noah was so deeply lost in thought that he did not notice the stranger approach his table. It was only when the man spoke that he glanced up.
"Lord Noah Kincade?" the man asked.
"Yes. I'm Lord Kincade," Noah responded, wondering at the interruption and frowning a bit as he cautiously assessed his visitor. The stranger was tall, but not overly so. His coloring was swarthy, and the clothes he wore were clean and well cared for, yet essentially nondescript. He was the type of man who could blend in with a crowd and never really be noticed. The man appeared slightly nervous, as if he was constantly on guard, and his dark eyes shifted uneasily about the room.
"May I join you, my lord? It's important." The stranger leaned slightly forward as he added the last in an undertone.
"Oh? I don't know you, sir, and I fail to see how we could have any important business to conduct."
"The fact that you don't know me is irrelevant," he said cryptically. "The business we have to conduct concerns your ship the Sea Pride, my lord."
"The Pride? What have you to do with the Pride?" Noah demanded, his eyes narrowing in anticipation of new trouble. What did this man want? Was there to be another claim laid against the already ravaged remains of the estate?
"Nothing, my lord. At least not yet, and that's what I need to talk with you about." There seemed an underlying urgency to his words.
Excerpted from Captive Pride by BOBBI SMITH Copyright © 1987 by Bobbi Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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