After rescuing six children abandoned in a boat, Captain Drake Nesbitt is determined to ensure their safety and locate their unknown parents. But first, he needs someone to nurture the babies. He's grateful for the support of kindhearted Lady Susanna Trelawney.
Although Susanna has given up all hope of marriage and happiness after her fiancé's betrayal, the adorable children evoke all her maternal instincts. Soon she's falling for her tiny chargesand their handsome rescuer. Can Susanna convince committed bachelor Drake that he's more than just a onetime hero, but a man who has room in his heart for a family after all?
Matchmaking Babies: Seeking forever families and speeding up the course of true love.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Porthlowen, Cornwall 1812
There! It is leaking right there!"
At the shout, Drake Nesbitt looked down into his ship where his first mate and crew were struggling to fix the damage The Kestrel had suffered after crossing the path of a French privateer. Sunlight sparkled on water in the depths of the ship. Hurrying to join his crew, he muttered under his breath as he pulled off his new boots. He had thought the last of the holes in The Kestrel had been plugged yesterday.
He set the boots where the water would not reach them, then joined his crew. They stepped aside to let him examine where water washed into the ship with the rising tide. He pushed away a lantern. Even though it would have helped him see the damage to the hull, he did not want his crew to view his frustration. They must have enough of their own.
For a fortnight The Kestrel had been moored in Porthlowen, a cove beneath the hills rising like broken steps to the Cornish moorland. The mouth of the cove narrowed to a curved strait between high cliffs, providing a sheltered mooring for his ship and a fast current on the tides that would take them back to open water once his ship was seaworthy again.
His ship. He enjoyed saying those words. He had worked hard for years to be able to invest in the ship and finally buy her outright. Now he worked even harder to save enough to purchase another, with his eye on building a fleet of trading ships along the southern coast of England.
He had known it would take time to make repairs, but he ached to be back upon the sea, to know the freedom of moving with the waves, to escape the memories that still gnawed on him whenever he set foot on land. When he steered his ship from one port to another, he could avoid risking his heart as he did once. Then, he had ended up looking like a fool.
That pledge had echoed through his head every day and every night, anytime when he was alone and his thoughts caught up to him. He had believed Ruby was as precious as the gem whose name she shared, so he'd offered her his heart, despite the difference in their social standing. He had dared to believe that the daughter of a baronet and the captain of a trading ship could ignore the canons of Society and marry and live happily for the rest of their lives.
It had not been Society that destroyed his hopes. Ruby had betrayed him when, within hours of his setting sail after they had pledged their unending love to each other, she was seen in the arms of another man.
Standing up as much as he could in the cramped space, he said, "Close it up, lads."
Drake climbed to the main deck, knowing that the crew would work better without the captain watching over their shoulders. He sat on the stairs to the quarterdeck and tugged his boots back on. The soft leather was as comfortable as he had hoped when he saw it hanging in the cobbler's shop. The boots were stylish, too, but he did not care what was de rigueur in Society. Treating himself to a new pair of boots had been a spur-of-the-moment decision, the kind he made with skill. The proof of that was the profit from The Kestrel's recent voyages where he had followed his instincts with cargoes and routes.
However, he had bought his new boots in Penzance days before The Kestrel was ambushed by French privateers and half their cargo of barley and wheat was ruined during the battle. The other half had been unloaded in Porthlowen. He had sold it for far less than it was worth because the damp grain would have gone bad before he reached the merchants waiting for it in Dublin. Now he had to reimburse the English traders who hired him to deliver their goods. In addition, he had bills to pay for the supplies needed to repair the ship.
Gazing at the masts where the sails were tightly furled, he sighed. Two wasted weeks. How much longer before they could leave Porthlowen and be on their way again? He had never expected it would take longer to handle the repairs than to make arrangements to hand over their French prisoners to the local authorities.
A fierce smile pulled at his lips. The Kestrel had been damaged, but the French ship now sat on the bottom of the sea and the French privateers who had survived were in cells more than fifty miles away in Dartmoor Prison. There, they would stay until the English defeated the French. He had no pity for them in spite of tales of how appalling the conditions were in prison. He was glad there were fewer privateers to hound honest men trying to earn a living in the waters around Britain.
For now, fixing The Kestrel, which had been riddled with shot, forced Drake and his ship to remain in the harbor. He glanced toward the village that followed the crescent cove. Living in a small cottage and staring at the same scenery day after day would be a slow death for a man like him, especially when the siren song of the waves lapped upon the rocks and the sand. He raised his gaze toward the fine house situated where the moor met the cliffs that hid the cove's entrance. He had been told an earl resided there, but even such a luxurious life offered no appeal to him.
There were times when he imagined coming home to a woman and children who awaited his return eagerly. Sparkling eyes, warm lips, and arms that welcomed himand only himinto them.
Familiar footsteps behind him, echoing hollowly on the deck, broke into Drake's thoughts. Grateful to escape the memories of his greatest humiliation, he turned. "Benton, what happened below?"
His first mate, a gangly young man who never seemed to gain an ounce, raked his hand back through his sweaty hair, leaving red spikes across his head. "We missed one, Captain."
"I meant I missed one." Benton shook his head, a glum expression lengthening his usually cheerful face. "I thought I checked every inch of her, but I didn't see that small hole. We will start at the bow and go back to the stern on both sides all over again."
"Good." He allowed himself a smile as his first mate met his eyes. He trusted Benton with both his ship and his life. The crew called them Lightning and Thunder because they had learned that when there was trouble, Drake would be there in a flash, with Benton following quickly behind him.
"It should not take long to fix that one small hole, Captain, or to examine the complete hull."
"Take the time you need, because I don't want to get under way and find the ship is taking on water again."
Drake paused as he was about to answer. A strange sound, like a faint cry or mew, wafted over the water.
"What was that?" he asked, tilting his head to try to capture the noise.
Benton shrugged. "A gull probably."
The thin sound came again. Louder this time.
"That doesn't sound like a gull." Curiosity urged Drake forward. He reached the starboard railing in a pair of steps. Gripping it, he shadowed his eyes with his other hand. "Look."
It was a jolly boat, a small boat used to transport men and cargo from a ship to the shore. It was close to the rocks. Dangerously close. Even as he watched, the bow bumped hard against the wall of stone.
Something moved inside it. Was that what had made the whimpering sound? Had someone been so cruel as to toss kittens into a boat and push them out to sea? If he got his hands on
The rest of the thought vanished as tiny fingers rose over the side of the boat and waved in his direction.
Benton gasped. "A child?"
Drake did not answer. He ran toward the plank down to the wide stone pier where The Kestrel was moored. He reached the quay in a pair of long steps and raced along the shore toward where the jolly boat slammed against the rocks over and over. It would not survive long, for the wood was already dried with salt stains and pocked with holes.
He sped past seaweed that had dried in thick clumps on the rocks. Clambering up one of the giant boulders, he jumped into the water on the other side. The water was cool, but he paid it no mind as he flung himself forward, wading toward the boat. Hearing shouts, he looked back to see several of his crew on the pier. They motioned wildly with their hands. He glanced forward and groaned. A small child was trying to stand up in the boat. If he did, he was sure to tip the boat over and end up in the water.
Drake reached the boat and grasped its bow to steady it. Only then did he look inside. His eyes widened as he counted six children, the youngest not much more than a newborn. It was swaddled, a piece of blanket covering its eyes so the sun did not burn into them. In addition, there were three older boys, possibly as old as three or four, and two girls who must be twins, because they were almost identical. One of the older boys, the one who had been struggling to stand, said something. It was baby gibberish, and he guessed that boy was closer to two years old.
"Sit down," Drake said, forcing a smile.
The boy hesitated, a stubborn scowl furrowing his brow beneath his wispy, brown hair.
"Sit down, and we'll go for a ride up onto the sand. Doesn't that sound like fun?" He needed the children's cooperation or they could set the small boat awash before he got them around the rocks and to safety. He doubted any of them could swim, and he did not want to have to choose which one to save.
The children began to giggle as he splashed through the water, keeping himself between the boat and the rocks. He grimaced when the waves lifted the boat and struck him so hard that he stumbled against stone. He fought to regain his footing. The sand slipped away beneath his boots.
He snarled wordless frustration under his breath. His new boots! Why hadn't he paused the short second it would have taken to yank them off?
His self-recrimination was interrupted by a sharp cry. An older boy sobbed loudly as a blond boy pinched his arm again.
"Stop that!" Drake snapped.
That set the blond boy to crying, too.
Benton waded through the waves and seized the other side of the jolly boat. "What is wrong with them?"
The younger boy began weeping, as well.
Drake motioned for his first mate to help him steer the small boat to shore. With two of them to balance the boat that wanted to skip and dance on each wave, they made short work of climbing out of the water and dragging the boat onto the sand.
All the children, including the baby, were howling now. Drake fired orders to his crew. Food and something to drink for the older children. The baby must be fed, too. Telling Benton to see to the children's needs, he turned on his heel.
"Captain?" called his first mate.
"What?" He did not keep his barely restrained rage out of his voice.
"Where are you going?"
Fury whipped through his words. "To find the rotters who put these children in a boat and left them to die."
"But how will you know who did this?"
"There is always one person in any village who can be counted on to know everyone in that village. He would know who is capable of putting these children in a boat and setting them adrift. In addition, he will be willing to help."
"Who is that?"
"The parson." He scowled as water squeezed between his toes in his ruined boots. "And when, with his help, I find those curs who were so cruel, I will make sure they are sorry they ever set eyes on these children. I promise you that." He strode toward the village.
Closing the book, Susanna Trelawney leaned back in her chair. The household accounts had balanced. At last. She needed to speak to both Mrs. Hitchens, the housekeeper, and Baricoat, the butler, about checking their reports more closely, because she had found too many mistakes. She was thankful for Mrs. Ford. As always, the cook's records were exact to the last ha'penny.
Just as Susanna liked. With a sense of order in the great house, chaos could be kept at bay. Her family could go about their lives without having to worry about something unanticipated upsetting them.
As it had that horrific week when grief had held the house and her family in its serrated claws, shredding their hearts. Her own heart had not had a chance to heal from being broken by the one man she had ever loved. Franklin Chenowith had run off to marry another woman on the very day that the banns were first read for Susanna's wedding to him. Susanna had considered that woman, Norah Yelland, her bosom bow. She had surrendered her sense of control when she fell in love, and she had paid the cost, losing both of her best friends in one instant.
The cost had been too high, and instead of vowing to love Franklin till death did them part, she had tried to forgive them. She had struggled with it, and she promised herself that she would never allow herself to be so foolish again. She would remain in control of her emotions and her life.
No matter what.
No! It did no one any good to dwell on the past. Instead, she should work to keep everything in proper order so serenity could reign in the house.
Susanna patted the accounts book and sighed. She loved working in this quiet room with its burgundy walls and coffered ceiling, even though the hearth was too narrow to heat the room much above freezing on the coldest winter days. She gazed out the window toward the moor. The undulating ground offered perfect grazing for both cattle and sheep. Like most of the windows in the great house Cothaire, it offered no view of the sea. A beautiful vista would be lovely, but cold winds blasted the seaside of the house, pitting any window glass and chilling rooms. Any room in Cothaire that faced the sea had thick exterior shutters that could be closed and locked from the outside in advance of a strong storm.
The sea was an integral part of their lives. Many of the villagers provided for their families by fishing and trading upon its waters. Her sister Caroline's husband had been one of them until he was killed far out at sea less than a week after Mama's sudden death. It had been a terrible time, and if she could have spared her sisteror her two brothers and her fathera moment of that sorrow, she gladly would have.
"Lady Susanna?" came a familiar voice from the doorway.
"What is it, Venton?"
The footman, wearing the family's simple gray livery, dipped his head in her direction. She and Venton had grown up together at Cothaire because his mother had been the nursery maid when Susanna was the last one living within the two-story nursery. Knowing Susanna was lonesome because she was more than a decade younger than her brother Raymond, Mrs. Venton had brought her son to the nursery with her until Susanna was almost six.
Since then, their lives had gone on separate but parallel paths. Venton had worked hard to rise to the rank of footman, and Susanna had learned to handle a household and be a proper wife to the man chosen for her by her father, the Earl of Launceston. Then her future had changed when her mother died five years ago and Susanna took over the management of her father's house while her older brother Arthur, who was the heir, assisted in running the estate.
"Lady Susanna, his lordship requests your presence," Venton answered, and she again pushed aside uncomfortable thoughts about the past. Lingering on them was silly.
"Of course. Where is he?"
"The smoking room."
Her brows shot skyward before she could compose herself. As she stood, she affixed a calm expression on her face, though curiosity roiled inside her. The smoking room was the domain of her father, her brothers and their male guests. She could not remember the last time sheor any other femalehad been invited into it.
What a surprise! And she had hated surprises ever since she got such a public one when Franklin failed to appear for the first reading of their wedding banns.