With lush sensuality and unerring insight, Sylvia Day explores the underpinnings of intimacy and desire.
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Seven Years to Sin
By SYLVIA DAY
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Sylvia Day
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeven years later ...
"I beg you to reconsider."
Jessica, Lady Tarley, reached over the small tea table in the Regmont family parlor and gave her sister's hand a brief squeeze. "I feel I should go."
"Why?" The corners of Hester's mouth turned downward. "I would understand if Tarley was with you, but now that he has passed ... Is it safe for you to travel such a distance alone?"
It was a question Jess had asked herself many times, yet the answer was moot. She was determined to go. She had been given a brief window of time in which she could do something extraordinary. It was highly doubtful she would ever be presented with the opportunity again.
"Of course it's safe," she said, straightening. "Tarley's brother, Michael—I should become accustomed to referring to him as Tarley now—made the arrangements for the voyage, and I will be met at the dock by someone from the household. All will be well."
"I am not reassured." Toying with the handle of her floral-patterned teacup, Hester looked pensive and unhappy.
"You once wanted to travel to faraway places," Jess reminded, hating to see her sister so distressed. "Have you lost that wanderlust?"
Hester sighed and looked out the window beside her. Through the sheers that afforded some privacy, one could see the steady flow of Mayfair traffic in front of the town house, but Jess's attention was focused solely on her sister. Hester had matured into a beautiful young woman, lauded for her golden glamour and stunning verdant eyes framed by thick, dark lashes. She'd once been curvier than Jess and more vivacious, but the years had tempered both traits, forging a woman who was slender as a reed and serenely elegant. The Countess of Regmont had acquired a reputation for notable reserve, which surprised Jess considering how charming and outgoing Lord Regmont was. She blamed the change on their father, and his blasted pride and misogyny.
"You look pale and thin," Jess observed. "Are you unwell?"
"I grieve for your loss. And I must confess, I have not slept well since you first announced your intent to travel." Hester looked back at her. "I simply cannot comprehend your motivation."
Nearly a year had passed since Benedict had gone on to his reward, and he had been severely ill for three months prior to that. There had been time enough for Jess to reach a state of resigned acceptance to life without him. Still, bereavement clung to her like fog over water. Family and friends looked to her for the cue to leave the past behind, and she had no notion of how to give it to them. "I require distance from the past in order to grasp the future."
"Surely retiring to the country would suffice?"
"It did not suffice last winter. Now another Season is upon us, and we are all still trapped beneath this cloud hovering over me. It is necessary for me to break away from the routine into which I have fallen, so everyone can move forward with life as we now face it."
"Dear God, Jess," Hester breathed, looking pale. "You cannot mean to say that you must leave us as Tarley did for all to heal. You are still young and marriageable. Your life is far from over."
"Agreed. Pray do not worry over me." Jess refilled Hester's teacup and dropped two lumps of sugar into it. "I will be gone only long enough to make arrangements for the sale of the plantation. I shall return refreshed and revitalized, which, in turn, will reinvigorate all who love and worry over me."
"I still cannot believe he bequeathed that place to you. What was he thinking?"
Jessica smiled fondly, her gaze moving around the cheery parlor with its yellow silk drapes and blue floral accents. Hester had redesigned the space shortly after her marriage, and its style reflected the optimism so innate to her. "He wanted me to be entirely self-sufficient, and it was a sentimental gesture. Tarley knew how much I loved our trip to Calypso."
"Sentimentality is all well and good, until it sends you on a journey halfway around the world," Hester muttered.
"As I've said, I want to go. I will go so far as to say I need to go. It is somewhat of a farewell for me."
Groaning, Hester finally capitulated. "You promise to write and return as soon as you are able?"
"Of course. And you promise to write back."
Hester nodded, then picked up her cup and saucer. She downed her hot tea in one unladylike swallow. A fortifying drink.
Jess understood. She'd needed a few of those herself as the anniversary of Tarley's death loomed. "I will bring you gifts," she promised in a deliberately light tone, hoping to elicit a smile.
"Just bring yourself back," Hester admonished with a wag of her finger.
The gesture was so reminiscent of their childhood. Jess couldn't resist asking, "Will you come after me if I tarry overlong?"
"Regmont would never allow it. However, I could likely convince someone to go after you. Perhaps some of the matrons who are so concerned over your welfare ...?"
Jess gave a mock shudder. "Point taken, my ruthless sister. I shall return posthaste."
Alistair Caulfield's back was to the door of his warehouse shipping office when it opened. A salt-tinged gust blew through the space, snatching the manifest he was about to file right out of his hand.
He caught it deftly, then looked over his shoulder. Startled recognition moved through him. "Michael."
The new Lord Tarley's eyes widened with equal surprise, then a weary half-smile curved his mouth. "Alistair, you scoundrel. You didn't tell me you were in Town."
"I've only just returned." He slid the parchment into the appropriate folder and pushed the drawer closed. "How are you, my lord?"
Michael removed his hat and ran a hand through his dark brown hair. The assumption of the Tarley title appeared to weigh heavily on his broad shoulders, grounding him in a way Alistair had never seen before. He was dressed somberly in shades of brown, and he flexed his left hand, which bore the Tarley signet ring, as if he could not accustom himself to having it there. "As well as can be expected under the circumstances."
"My condolences to you and your family. Did you receive my letter?"
"I did. Thank you. I meant to reply, but time is stretched so thin. The last year has raced by so quickly; I've yet to catch my breath."
Michael nodded. "I'm pleased to see you again, my friend. You have been gone far too long."
"The life of a merchant." He could have delegated more, but staying in England meant crossing paths with both his father and Jessica. His father complained about Alistair's success as a tradesman with as much virulence as he'd once complained about Alistair's lack of purpose. It was a great stressor for his mother, which he was only able to alleviate by being absent as much as possible.
As for Jessica, she'd been careful to avoid him whenever they were in proximity. He had learned to reciprocate when he saw how marriage to Tarley had changed her. While she remained as cool in deportment as ever, he'd seen the blossoming of her sensual nature in the languid way she moved and the knowledge in those big, gray eyes. Other men coveted the mystery of her, but Alistair had seen behind the veil, and that was the woman he lusted for. Forever beyond his reach in reality, but a fixture in his mind. She was burned into his memory by the raging hungers and the impressions of youth, and the years hadn't lessened the vivid recollection one whit.
"I find myself grateful for your enterprising sensibilities," Michael said. "Your captains are the only ones I would entrust with the safe passage of my sister-in-law to Jamaica."
Alistair kept his face impassive thanks to considerable practice, but the sudden awareness gripping him tensed his frame. "Lady Tarley intends to travel to Calypso?"
"Yes. This very morning, which is why I'm here. I intend to speak to the captain myself and see he looks after her until they arrive."
"Who travels with her?"
"Only her maid. I should like to accompany her, but I can't leave now."
"And she will not delay?"
"No." Michael's mouth curved wryly. "And I cannot dissuade her."
"You cannot say no to her," Alistair corrected, moving to the window through which he could view the West India docks. Ships entered the Northern Dock to unload their precious imports, then sailed around to the Southern Dock to reload with cargo for export. Around the perimeter, a high brick wall deterred the rampant theft plaguing the London wharves. The same wall increased his shipping company's appeal to West Indian landowners requiring secure transportation of goods.
"Neither can Hester—forgive me, Lady Regmont."
The last was said with difficulty. Alistair had long suspected his friend nursed deeper feelings for Jessica's younger sister and had assumed Michael would pay his addresses. Instead, Hester had been presented at court, then immediately betrothed, breaking the hearts of many hopeful would-be swains. "Why is she so determined to go?"
"Benedict bequeathed the property to her. She claims she must see to its sale personally. I fear the loss of my brother has affected her deeply and she seeks a purpose. I've attempted to anchor her, but duty has me stretched to wit's end."
Alistair's reply was carefully neutral. "I can assist her in that endeavor. I can make the necessary introductions, as well as provide information that would take her months to discover."
"A generous offer." Michael's gaze was searching. "But you've just returned. I can't ask you to depart again so soon."
Turning, Alistair said, "My plantation borders Calypso, and I should like to expand. It's my hope to position myself as the best purchaser of the property. I will pay her handsomely, of course."
Relief swept over Michael's expressive features. "That would ease my mind considerably. I'll speak to her at once."
"Perhaps you should leave that to me. If, as you say, she needs a purpose, then she'll want to maintain control of the matter in all ways. She should be allowed to set the terms and pace of our association to suit her. I have all the time in the world, but you do not. See to your most pressing affairs, and entrust Lady Tarley to me."
"You've always been a good friend," Michael said. "I pray you return to England swiftly and settle for a time. I could use your ear and head for business. In the interim, please encourage Jessica to write often and keep me abreast of the situation. I should like to see her return before we retire to the country for the winter."
"I'll do my best."
Alistair waited several minutes after Michael departed, then moved to the desk. He began a list of new provisions for the journey, determined to create the best possible environment. He also made some quick but costly adjustments to the passenger list, moving two additional travelers to another of his ships.
He, Jessica, and her maid would be the only non-crewmen aboard the Acheron.
She would be within close quarters for weeks—it was an extraordinary opportunity Alistair was determined not to waste.
* * *
From the familiar comfort of her town coach, Jessica stared at the sleek ship before her, her gaze following the proud line of its polished deck and the soaring height of its three masts. It was one of the most impressive vessels docked, which she should have expected considering how anxious Michael was about her making the journey. He would have taken great pains to secure her comfort and welfare. She suspected it helped him grieve to hover over his brother's widow, but that was one of the aftereffects of losing Tarley that made her want to flee.
The scent of the ocean drew her attention back to the industriously noisy West India docks. Excitement made her heart race, or perhaps it was apprehension. Society on the lush Caribbean island—such as it was—had fewer preconceived notions about her, and the pace and structure of social interactions were more relaxed. She looked forward to enjoying moments of solitude after the past few months of well-intentioned suffocation.
Jess watched as in quick succession her footmen carried her trunks up the gangplank to the main deck. The bright blue of Pennington livery was conspicuous among the less colorful attire of the seamen around them. Soon enough, there was no reason for her to delay in the carriage any longer.
She alighted with the help of a footman, smoothed her pale lavender silk skirts, and then set off without looking back. As she gained the deck, she felt the rolling of the ship beneath her feet and took a moment to absorb the sensation.
Jess turned her head and watched a portly, distinguished gentleman approach. Even before he spoke, his attire and bearing told her he was the captain.
"Captain Smith," he introduced himself, accepting the hand she offered him with a bow "A pleasure to 'ave you aboard, milady."
"The pleasure is mine," she demurred, returning the smile he offered from the depths of a coarse white beard. "You command an impressive ship, Captain."
"Aye, that she is." He tipped up his hat to get a better look at her. "I would be 'onored to 'ave you join me for the evenin' meals."
"I would enjoy that very much, thank you."
"Excellent." Smith gestured at a young seaman. "Miller 'ere will show you to yer cabin. If you 'ave any questions or concerns, 'e can see to them."
"I'm very much obliged." As the captain went about the business of preparing to set sail, Jess turned to Miller, who she guessed was no more than ten and seven.
"Milady." He gestured ahead to an open companionway and stairs leading below deck. "This way."
She followed him across the midship, fascinated by the courage of the men climbing the rigging like industrious little crabs. But as she descended the stairs, her admiration was redirected to the vessel's impressive interior.
The paneled companion- and passageway gleamed with polish, as did the brass hardware that secured the doors and hung the flashlamps. She'd been uncertain of what to expect, but this attention to detail was a surprise and a delight. Miller paused before a door and knocked, which elicited a shouted permission to enter from Jess's abigail, Beth.
The cabin Jess entered was small but well appointed; it held a narrow bed, a modestly sized rectangular window, and a wooden table with two chairs. On the sole by one of her trunks sat a crate of her favorite claret. Although it was the smallest space she'd ever occupied as a bedchamber, she found the limits of the cabin comforting. And she was deeply appreciative that, for the next few weeks at least, she would not have to anticipate how to respond to others in a manner that made them feel better.
Reaching up, she withdrew the pin securing her hat and handed both to Beth.
Miller promised to return at six to take her to supper, then ducked back out to the passageway. After the door shut, Jess's gaze met Beth's.
The abigail bit her lower lip and spun in a quick circle. "This is a grand adventure, milady. I've missed Jamaica since we left."
Jess exhaled to ease the knot in her stomach, then smiled. "And a certain young man."
"Yes," the maid agreed. "I'm, too."
Beth had been a blessing the past few days, keeping Jess's spirits high while everyone around her had been so disapproving of her plans.
"An adventure," Jess repeated. "I think it will be."
When the knock came at Jess's cabin door shortly before six, she set aside the book she'd been reading and stood with some reluctance. Beth was mending a stocking on the opposite side of the small table, and the quiet companionship had been most welcome.
Setting her work down, Beth went to answer the door. As the panel swung open, Miller's young face was revealed. He smiled shyly, showing slightly crooked teeth. Jess dismissed Beth to enjoy her own meal, then followed the young crewman to the captain's great cabin. As they neared the wide door marking the end of the passageway, the plaintive notes of a violin grew in volume. The instrument was consummately played, the tune sweet yet haunting. Enamored with the music, she quickened her step. Miller knocked once, then opened the door without waiting for a reply. He gestured her into the sizable cabin with a gallant sweep of his arm.
Excerpted from Seven Years to Sin by SYLVIA DAY Copyright © 2011 by Sylvia Day. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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