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About the Author
Jo Ann Ferguson is a lifelong storyteller and the author of numerous romantic novels. She also writes as Jo Ann Brown and Mary Jo Kim. A former US Army officer, she has served as the president of the national board of the Romance Writers of America and taught creative writing at Brown University. She currently lives in Nevada with her family, which includes one very spoiled cat.
Read an Excerpt
Her Only Hero
By Jo Ann Ferguson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Jo Ann Ferguson
All rights reserved.
The summer breeze, crisp from the bay, snapped the flag hanging at the end of a pier. Thirty-one stars announced the recent admission of California into the Union. Salt filled the air, hinting at distant lands, and hard voyages ending in wealth or ruin. Rowdy music and laughter stretched invisible, enticing fingers out to invite patrons into the grog shops lining the streets along the piers. Other establishments waited sailors newly ashore, some hidden behind façades of respectability, others blatantly advertising their female wares.
No one paid attention as Arielle Gardiner walked alone along the pathway. She hoped that was because she carried herself with assurance. She did not want any passerby to guess that she never had been in this part of Boston before. The wind teased her cloak to reveal her flounced blue merino skirt. Her dark hair was smoothed back to cluster in ringlets at her nape beneath her fashionably small bonnet of blue muslin and pink rosebuds.
She paused by a tavern door. Looking at the paper in her gloved hand, she sighed. This was the correct address. She should be grateful Captain Lightenfield had not chosen a worse place for their meeting.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed against the pine door that was studded with iron. It protested, but she exerted all her strength to open it. The reek of rum and the stench of unwashed bodies swarmed out of the dark tavern to buffet her as she stepped inside, warning her to leave. The thick door bumped into her, pushing her forward a few reluctant steps.
Long tables blackened with smoke cluttered the tavern. A few men sat mumbling into their drinks and the afternoon dusk. A barmaid stood in a distant corner, talking with lively gestures to a man who stroked her eagerly. Ignoring all of them, she pulled her cloak more tightly around her. She should go to the bar at the back of the room. She skirted a puddle in a depression in the stone floor.
"What do you want?"
She whirled at the impatient male voice. One look at his soiled apron worn over his bare chest urged her to flee. When she saw the tattoo of a monstrous creature crawling in many colors up his right arm, she clenched her hands on the silk tassels of her reticule. She forced herself to remain calm. This meeting was too important. She must not let her squeamish fears ruin it.
"I am meeting someone here," she answered with quiet dignity. "A man. I trust I may wait for him here."
The barkeeper smiled and flung a towel over his massive shoulder. When he spoke, the odor of onions billowed from his mouth, threatening to gag her. "Usually, darlin'," he said as his gaze roamed along her and his smile broadened, "I don't allow your type of business transactions in m'place."
"Sir, I assure you—"
He held up a single finger. "Just this once, darlin'. A woman like you gives the place a bit of class, but if you do your business here again, you pay me a share. One quarter of what ye get from the lads, same as her over there." He shrugged toward the woman in the corner.
Arielle looked hastily at the barmaid and the man, who were now entwined in an intimate embrace.
"Do you understand?" the man in the apron asked.
Arielle almost retorted that she was not a harlot. She swallowed her answer. It did not matter what the tavern keeper thought of her. She did not intend to return here. She nodded.
"Then sit over there." He pointed to a table in the opposite corner. "Don't bother any of my customers. The girls here got claims on 'em."
"I understand," she said tightly. She gasped as he slapped her buttocks. Her face seared with embarrassment as she rushed away from his laughter.
Arielle sat at the shadowed table. The barkeeper set a glass of some dark liquid on the table. With a knowing grin he winked and walked away. Cautiously she lifted the glass and sniffed. It was just sarsaparilla, but she set it back on the table. She had no intentions of drinking anything in the filthy place.
She checked the small pendant watch she wore pinned to the short coat over her chemisette. Captain Lightenfield was late. She tried not to be irritated. It was impossible. When she had sent a note to his ship, she had emphasized her need to speak with him immediately. He had set the time for this meeting. So why was he late?
When the tavern door opened, allowing in a welcome breath of clean air, she looked up in anticipation. A tall silhouette entered. The door crashed shut, and she lowered her gaze to the glass. She should not be staring at the customers as boldly as one of the prostitutes.
Self-assured footsteps came toward her. With them came the aroma of saltwater. A shiver raced along her back, but she had come too far to turn back.
A man slid onto the opposite bench without speaking or waiting for an invitation. When she raised her eyes to meet his, she could not hide her astonishment. She had known that supplying the filibusters in Central America was a young man's game, but she had not guessed Captain Lightenfield would have thunderhead-gray eyes that swept over her with cool disdain. Under his navy wool cap, his pale hair had been bleached by the fierce glare of sunlight on the waves to a shade lighter than his mustache. The square line of his jaw was as roughly carved as the tavern's door. As he leaned forward to fold his arms on the table, his muscles moved smoothly beneath his open pea jacket.
"You're Arielle Gardiner?" he asked in a voice as deep as the rumble of a storm punishing the beach.
"I am. You're Captain Lightenfield?"
"Stephen Lightenfield," he answered in an easy drawl.
"That is a fancy name for a sea captain," she said before she could halt herself. Her gaze dropped from his sudden smile to the table. The smile, which glittered in his eyes and eased the angles of his hard face, sent a shiver along her spine.
"It's the only name I have that I can repeat in a lady's company." He put his finger under her chin. When she gasped and started to pull away from his presumptuous touch, he tightened his hold. "Now, tell me why a lovely lady like you wants to go to a horrible place like Nicaragua. This should be interesting."
She batted his hand away, and his eyes crinkled with amusement. This was no joke. She must make him realize she was serious. "Do you ask all your passengers that? I thought filibusters liked keeping things secret."
"I leave gun running and revolution to those fools who think they can conquer Central America. I prefer to be just a merchantman."
In her lap, Arielle clutched the strings of her purse. She did not want him to see her anxiety at being in this horrible place with this disturbingly handsome man. Squaring her shoulders, she raised her eyes to meet his. Merriment continued to twinkle there. How was she going to convince him she was serious? There was no way but with the truth. "Captain, I am here solely to discuss business. May we do so?"
He smiled as he sat back, letting his salt-stained sleeve drape over the upper part of the crude wooden bench. She guessed his nonchalance was a well-practiced pose. Stephen Lightenfield was a coiled spring ready to explode if she said the wrong thing. She just did not know what that wrong thing might be. He had earned a reputation for caring only about his ship and his cargo. She had heard it whispered along the docks that many otherwise brave men refused to sign aboard his ship, which he could make fly before the wind. Speed was all that she cared about when she needed to get to Nicaragua right away.
When Captain Lightenfield snapped his fingers, the barmaid appeared out of the dusk. He offered her a practiced smile as she preened before him. "What do you have that is tasty today, sweetheart?"
"Depends on what you are hungry for, Cap'n." She slanted toward him, her full breasts thrusting against the low neckline of her gown. "Why don't you tell me what you want?"
Arielle looked from the barmaid's disappointed pout to Captain Lightenfield's grin. She never had wanted to be somewhere else more than she did now. This was madness! She should be home in Concord, getting ready for another year of teaching school, instead of sitting in this appalling grog shop while a crude sea captain flirted with a tavern whore.
Captain Lightenfield's gaze caught hers. Again she saw his amusement, and uneasiness rippled through her in a cold wave. He was enjoying her discomfort. If he could gauge her thoughts so easily, she could be risking more than she should with this meeting.
Fiercely she ripped her gaze away. She could not let him intimidate her with a mere smile. Forcing one on her taut lips, she dared him with his own cruel game. He simply cocked an eyebrow in her direction before turning back to the barmaid.
"Just rum," he said. "For now."
The barmaid ruffled his blond hair and aimed a venomous glare at Arielle, who kept her chin high. She would not be humiliated by a jealous barmaid.
Captain Lightenfield chuckled as the woman swayed away. He surveyed Arielle so boldly, she lowered her eyes, again frightened. This captain was no romantic hero waiting to rescue a woman in distress. He had the morals of a dockside harlot. If only she did not need his help to get to Nicaragua ...
After a bottle and a glass that were stained with dirt were set in front of him, Captain Lightenfield said, "Miss Gardiner, before you go any further, let me tell you that pretty ladies have no place in Nicaragua. If you wish to indulge yourself in an adventure, why don't you find yourself a lover? You should not be playing where the stakes are higher." He swallowed the rum in his glass and refilled it. "Just a bit of advice, of course."
"I do not want your advice!" she retorted. "Captain, I must go to Nicaragua. Will you take me?"
Arielle stared at him in disbelief. His eyes were like twin stones above the uncompromising line of his lips. "Captain Lightenfield, I'll pay you well."
"You are going there," she argued, "so why not take me with you?"
"Because I don't want to." He drained the glass with ease. Standing, he smiled down at her. His finger brazenly traced the curve of her cheek, lingering near the corner of her mouth. A lightning-hot shock sped through her. When she turned away with a gasp, he chuckled. "Thanks for the drink. Good luck finding a ship, but you will not be traveling on The Ladysong."
"But why did you come here if you never planned to take me on your ship?"
Resting his hands on the table, he bent until his nose was only inches from hers. She wanted to look away, to look anywhere but at his compelling eyes. She could not. Their cool storminess imprisoned her as his voice's low thunder reverberated through her, battering down every defense she had. "You asked me to meet you so we could talk over a drink. We met, and we talked over a drink."
"But you promised—"
"Nothing. Don't waste your virginal outrage on me, Miss Gardiner." He laughed and patted her cheek. "Thanks again for the drink."
Arielle rose, her full skirts whispering as she hurried after him. She grasped his dark sleeve. When he glared at her, she faced him coolly. "Captain, you don't understand. I must get to Nicaragua. Right away. Your ship is the next one to leave Boston."
His eyes narrowed as he brushed her hand off his arm. Gripping her chin, he tilted her head back. Her bonnet slid off her hair to slap her shoulder, but she did not notice it as he took a step closer. Overwhelmed by the firm line of his muscular chest, she leaned away from him. She grasped on to a table as she struggled not to become lost in his mesmerizing gaze. She could not let his domineering posture intimidate her into giving up her hopes of reaching Nicaragua. She must ignore the odd delight spiraling within her as his thumb skimmed along her jaw.
The bronze skin around his eyes crinkled when he chuckled. "You innocent fool, go home, where you belong."
"I can't. I must—"
His curse sent fire along her spine. He released her and strode into the deepest shadows at the far end of the tavern. She heard the door open and close with a thump.
Arielle sat at the table again. Closing her eyes, she rubbed her aching forehead. What would she do now? The Ladysong was the only ship bound directly for Nicaragua that week. She could not wait until the next ship sailed. It might be weeks before another sailed from Boston. Blast Captain Lightenfield! He had enjoyed taunting her when he had known that he would not take her with him.
But she must get to Nicaragua. If she did not, disaster might strike her fiancé. Guilt suffused her. Even her desperate need to get to Caleb did not excuse her wanton behavior in coming to this vulgar place and allowing that crass man to touch her as if he were her lover.
"Oh, Caleb," she whispered as she pressed her hands to her face. "Why did you have to go away to that terrible country?"
She would have no answer to that until she reached him in Nicaragua. In her bag was the tattered, scrawled note she had received the week before from Caleb Drummond. It was the first she had heard from him in more than six months. When he first had left Concord to work for Commodore Vanderbilt's Accessory Transit Company in Nicaragua, he had written often. Each letter had been filled with exciting tales of his journey south and of transporting men across Central America on their way to the California gold fields. Then the letters had stopped.
She had waited, pretending nothing was amiss as she taught in the village school each day and read the newspaper every evening, searching for anything to tell her what was happening in the tiny country that had been taken over by American William Walker and his band of filibusters. Only cloying bits of rumors reached her. Rumors of trouble and unrest.
Then this last letter had come. She had memorized its few words while she packed the few things she could bring with her to Nicaragua.
... safe. As soon as you can obtain passage, come, Arielle. In the past months, I have learned Nicaragua is much different from what I had thought. It is even more wonderful. We ... I have found a place of rare beauty, where we can live in peace together. You will like ... pretty ... Clippers leave Boston regularly for Greytown. Take one, and I ... If not, just follow the map I have included with ...
But there had been no map. Arielle had searched the shredded envelope, but whatever Caleb had put in it was gone. She had to hope that once she reached Greytown on the eastern coast of Nicaragua, she could contact someone with the Accessory Transit Company. Someone who would know where in that godforsaken country Caleb was. Someone who would explain why after letters complaining about the heat, which made New England dog days seem mild, and of the deadly bugs, Caleb had sent no word for six months, then asked her to join him in that trackless jungle.
Something was wrong. She knew that with a sense that had no name. Fear burned in her heart. Caleb needed her as she had needed him when they were children and he helped her with a scratched knee or to fix her doll.
She was so tantalizingly close to being able to get answers to the questions haunting her. If only Captain Lightenfield ... blast him! There had to be another way for her to get to Nicaragua.
At the raspy voice Arielle looked up. Her eyes widened as she peered through the clinging shadows at a wizened, grizzled face. The man's grin pierced the murk, but only a few teeth remained to glisten in the low light. The tail of a loose shirt flapped out of his trousers, and she doubted if he had had a bath in the past month.
"I'm Arielle Gardiner." She flinched. This was the same way the conversation had started with Captain Lightenfield. At least, that arrogant man was gone! "Who are you?"
"Are you with one of the ships in the harbor?"
He gestured toward the bench across from her. When she nodded, he dropped onto it.
"Call me Cap'n Jake if ye wish. I hear ye be lookin' to get away from Boston. Nicaragua is where ye be bound."
"Yes." She shuddered at the idea of sailing with this foul man, but comfort was not important if she could reach Greytown. "If you are willing to take me—"
His choking laugh grated on her ears. "Takin' ye be no problem."
"Wonderful!" She clapped her gloved hands together, then held them over her mouth to muffle her joyous laughter. This was a miracle! Better than a miracle, because she could thumb her nose at Captain Lightenfield's imperious refusal to give her passage. Let him ridicule her all he wished. She had found another way to Greytown.
The old man picked up the bottle that remained on the table and drank deeply. He wiped the back of his hand across his full lips, then scratched beneath his collar. "So it be a deal?"
"I suppose we should negotiate how much this will cost. We should—" She halted when she heard a muffled laugh. Squinting to see through the dim tavern, she saw the barmaid sitting on the lap of a sailor. She had to escape this lewdness. Taking a deep breath, she added, "Captain, how much?"
"You be a plain talker for such a pretty looker." He tapped his fingers on the table. "Name a fair price."
Excerpted from Her Only Hero by Jo Ann Ferguson. Copyright © 2000 Jo Ann Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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