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Ford Barrett's spirits soared as he read the letter he had been waiting seven long years to receive. A letter he had often despaired of ever seeing. A letter that would end his long exile and allow him to reclaim everything that had been stolen from him. Including his heart.
After a voyage of five months and many thousand miles, the letter had arrived earlier that day in Singapore. Ford and his business partners had been so busy it was after sunset before they had a chance to read their mail.
Now the three men sat pouring over their correspondence by candlelight, on the deep veranda of the wooden bungalow they'd helped build beside their warehouse. Overhead, raindrops from the south-west monsoon pattered softly on the roof, thatched with palm fronds. The distant commotion of a cockfight mingled with a haunting wail summoning the Maylays and Arabs to their evening prayers. Pungent odours of fish, mangrove swamp and burning joss sticks hung in the sultry night air.
Hadrian Northmore glanced up from one of his letters to fix Ford with a penetrating stare. "Bad news, is it? I've never seen you look so sour."
Ford made a strenuous effort to relax the clenched muscles of his face into his usual neutral expression. He hated it when others could guess his true feelingseven the tough, proud man who'd helped him make his fortune.
Hadrian's remark drew the attention of Simon Grim-shaw from his own correspondence. "Not more debts, is it, Ford? I thought you paid off the last of those ages ago."
"I did." Ford kept his tone offhand, yet deep inside in rankled to be reminded of the debts that had driven him from his homeland to this tropical purgatory.
So much had happened since then and he had changed so much from that foolish, feckless youth, it often felt like another lifetime. But when thoughts of Laura Penrose stirred his smouldering outrage over her betrayal, it seemed like only yesterday. The letter on his lap had brought all that back like a fresh blow to an unhealed wound.
He had been betrothed to her and deeply in love. Laura knew he could not afford to wed until he inherited his cousin's title and estate and she had agreed to wait. Then one day, Ford had received a terse note breaking their engagement and informing him she intended to wed his cousin Cyrus instead. The jilting alone had been hard enough to bear, but there was worse. By marrying his cousin, Laura had also jeopardised his expectations. If she'd borne Cyrus a son, Ford would never have inherited the title and estates that had been in his family for centuries. What tormented him worst about her betrayal was the poisonous suspicion that she had only used him to ingratiate herself with his wealthy cousin.
"If not your debts, what is it about then?" demanded Hadrian in a deep voice, rich with the cadence of his native Durham. He was a big man whose tightly coiled power and fierce nobility reminded Ford of a tiger on the prowl.
"It isn't bad news at all." He rubbed the edges of the thick paper between his fingers to reassure himself it was real. "Quite the contrary. This letter is from a London solicitor who begs to inform me that my cousin Cyrus died over a year ago, leaving me to succeed him as Lord Kingsfold."
"Congratulations, your lordship!" Simon rose from his seat and bowed to Ford. Though not quite as imposing as his two partners, he had the pragmatic toughness of a tested survivor. "I say this calls for a celebratory drink."
He headed off to fetch the bottle, favoring his left leg as he often did at the end of a long day.
Meanwhile, Hadrian stared at Ford with one dark brow arched. "I suppose from now on you'll expect us to tug our forelocks and address you by your proper title, your lordship?"
His partner's wry levity shook Ford from his bitter brooding. "Why, of course," he quipped. "Though, as a token of particular favor, you needn't fully prostrate yourselves on the floor."
"You are too kind, exalted one." Hadrian gave a mocking chuckle.
They were still engaged in deprecating banter when Simon reappeared bearing three glasses and a bottle of potent Batavia arrack. "I was so elated by your good fortune, Ford, I did not think to offer my sympathy on the death of your cousin. Were the two of you close?"
"Not really." Ford took the glass Simon offered him. "Cyrus was older than my father, so I thought of him more as a distant uncle. A solitary old codger."
Not so solitary that he'd been able to resist the flattering attention of a pretty young woman, but foolish enough not to realise she was only after his fortune. Had Laura feigned the least show of grief when her husband breathed his last? Or had she celebrated her inheritance with a glass of something more bubbly and expensive than arrack?
Simon uncorked the bottle and poured a liberal measure of clear, yellow liquor into each of their glasses. Back in England the stuff was in great demand for compounding rack punch, but Ford and his partners preferred it undiluted.
"What will you do now?" asked Hadrian as Simon handed him a glass. "Sell up and get out of trade? Sail home and forget you ever knew how to work for a shilling?"
Ford fixed his partner with a level stare. "I shall never forget that, I hope."
Work had been his salvationan opportunity to prove he could succeed at something. It had provided a welcome escape as well. His aim had been to work so hard every day that he would collapse upon his bed in exhausted sleep, before bittersweet memories or dashed dreams had a chance to haunt him.
Though hard work had made him rich, it had failed to break Laura Penrose's pernicious hold upon him. Whenever he caught a stray whiff of orange blossoms, his nostrils flared and his breath raced. Whenever he heard the strains of certain music, an ache of longing gnawed at his flesh. And whenever he'd lain with a woman, he could not prevent himself from picturing Laura in his arms.
"I do intend to go back to England," he continued. "For a while at least. I shall need to put my affairs there in order. We have often talked about opening an office in London. This might be the right time."
Ford did not tell his partners the other reason for his return to England, though he had been planning it for years, hoping this opportunity might arise. He recalled his long voyage of exile, his heart and pride mauled to such tatters that he'd yearned to hurl himself overboard to escape the pain. All that had saved him from despair was his unquenchable thirst to reclaim everything that had been stolen from him.
Bolting a drink of the fiery liquor that tasted like potent rum laced with rice wine, Ford pondered his plan.
By forcing Laura into marriage, he would regain control over the fortune she'd inherited from his cousina fortune that should have been his. Once he possessed her, the last tangible symbol of his youthful failures, once he bedded her to sate seven years' thwarted desire, she would no longer exercise her infernal fascination over him. His life and his heart would be his own again.
Hadrian lifted his glass in a toast. "This just might be the right time to open a London branch of Vindicara Company. I don't trust those smarmy Whitehall diplomats not to hand Singapore over to the Dutch in some treaty or other. We need to be ready if that happens."
"And until it happens," Simon raised his glass, "we keep on making money hand over fist."
They all drank to that.
"Speaking of money," said Hadrian as Simon refilled their glasses, "when you go back to England, will you take some for my brother? Now that Julian's out of school and reading law, it's time he thought about standing for Parliament in the next election. A seat in the Commons doesn't come cheap."
"I'll be happy to do whatever I can for your brother." Ford had often wondered why his partner never spent a penny on himself. Any profit Hadrian did not plough back into the company went to give his brother the best of everything money could buy. Though he and Ford never spoke of it, perhaps they'd both sensed a secret hunger in each other. The wealth they'd worked so hard to secure was only a means to some deeper end.
"Since you mention it" Hadrian leaned back in his chair and regarded Ford gravely over the rim of his glass "perhaps once you're settled, you might use your connections to help Julian find the right sort of wife."
By now Ford had drained his second glass of arrack and was feeling a trifle less guarded than usual. "And what sort might that be? I am hardly one to give sage advice about women."
Hadrian considered for a moment. "One with good breeding and useful connections who can help him rise in the world. Sturdy enough to bear lots of strong sons, but pretty enough that he won't mind bedding her to breed them. Above all, see that he steers clear of fortune hunters."
Ford's hand clenched around his glass. "I can give you my word on that."
He would do everything in his power to put young North-more on his guard against women like Laura Penrose.
With a rumbling chuckle, Hadrian drained his glass. "No need to settle everything tonight, though, is there? It'll be months before the winds shift to take a ship back to England. Anything could happen by then."
His partner's words sent a chill of dread down Ford's spine. Cousin Cyrus had been dead for more than a year already and it would be a further nine or ten months before Ford could hope to reach England. What if, in that time, his cousin's widow cast off her transparent charade of mourning to wed another old fool for his fortune?
If that happened, Ford feared he might never be able to free himself from her thrall.
"Please, Mama, you need to eat more." Laura whisked the cover off the plate she was holding and leaned over the bed to wave a dish beneath her mother's nose. "Dear Mr Crawford caught this lovely trout not three hours ago and fetched it here expressly to tempt your appetite."
And perhaps hoping he might catch a glimpse of Belinda? Much as Laura appreciated his gift, she wished Sidney Crawford would conquer his bashfulness and propose to her sister. Then they could afford to eat fish as often as they liked, purchase the occasional new gown, and perhaps take Mama to Bath for a course of waters.
Best of all, her family could vacate the house that had been their home for almost seven years, before its new master returned from abroad to evict them. Laura would give anything to avoid an encounter with the man who'd once promised to make her his wife only to abandon her in her hour of need.
"How kind of the
dear boy." Mrs Penrose struggled to pull her frail frame into a sitting position. The effort made her gasp for breath. "You are all
much too indulgent
of a troublesome
"Nonsense." Laura tried to ignore the stark evidence of how much her mother's health had declined during the past winter. "Nobody goes out of their way to give less trouble than you."
Sometimes she feared Mama would like to slip away from life altogether and be no more bother to anyone. Laura would have moved heaven and earth to grant her mother any wish but that.
Having caught her breath, Mrs Penrose inhaled the succulent fragrance rising from the plate. "It does smell good. And Cook has prepared it just the way I likepoached in a very little water, without rich sauces to smother the delicate flavour."
Laura gave a rueful smile. Did Mama truly believe Cook possessed the necessary ingredients to compound a rich sauce even if she'd wanted to?
Perhaps so. Even when Papa was alive, she'd had a remarkable ability to overlook anything that threatened to dim her rosy view of the world. Now her air of fragile bemusement made the entire household conspire to shield her from any unpleasantness. That protective conspiracy was growing harder to maintain as the number of such worries grew month by month. Laura did not have the luxury of pretending all was well. A faint sigh escaped her lips as she set the dinner tray in front of her mother.
Mrs Penrose glanced up with a look of vague but fond concern. "Are you feeling quite well, dearest? You look tired and you have grown thinner over the winter. I know how hard it must have been for you since poor Cyrus died."
"It has been a long winter." Laura avoided mentioning her late husband for fear her tone might betray her true feelings.
Even with the hardship his death had brought upon her family, she was happier as Cyrus Barrett's widow than she had ever been as his wife. No doubt it was wicked of her to harbour such feelings, but after the way he'd treated her, she could not summon a jot of sincere grief for the man.
"But spring is here at last," she added. "That is the only tonic I need. Now, eat Mr Crawford's trout before it gets cold."
They had survived the winter, Laura reminded herself with a faint glow of pride. Now that the nights were growing milder, she and her sisters would no longer have to share a bed for warmth. The kitchen garden would soon yield vegetables and herbs to augment their rations.
But spring might also bring a less welcome event. The winds of April and May often blew ships from the East Indies to England's shores.
As her mother took a tiny bite of fish, a brisk knock sounded on the door.
"Come in," Laura called, a hint of wariness tightening her voice.
The door swung open and Hawkesbourne's butler, Mr Pryce, strode in with an unaccustomed bounce in his step. A wide smile lightened the usual solemn dignity of his features. "My lady, Master Ford
that is, Lord Kingsfold has just arrived! He is waiting in the drawing room. I told him I would summon you at once to welcome him home."
Laura tried to form a reply, only to come over as breathless as her mother had been a few moments ago. A tempest of contradictory emotions raged within her at the prospect of facing the man who had forsaken her after she'd naively given him her trust and love.