Trapped in the Arctic ice, intrepid explorer Captain Conrad Essington was driven on by thoughts of his fiancée, Katie Vickers. Finally home, he's ready to take her in his arms and kiss away the nightmare of that devastating winter.
Except the past eighteen months haven't been plain sailing for Katie, either. With Conrad believed dead, and her reputation in tatters, Katie has relinquished all hope of her fiancé ever returning to save her. Now he's back, can the dreams they've both put on hold at last come true?
|File size:||467 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
EnglandOctober 1st, 1820
'No , let go of me.' A woman's strained voice carried over the rolling hills of the West Sussex countryside.
Captain Conrad Essington kicked his horse into a canter, and as he crested the rise in the road he spied a gig beside it, the horse grazing lazily on the tall grass. Up a gentle hill, just beyond the shade of a wide ash tree, a man and woman stood together. The setting sun blazed behind them, turning them into little more than silhouettes. The woman tried to walk away, but the man grabbed her by the arm.
'Listen to me,' he demanded.
She twisted out of his grip. 'No, I won't hear it.'
'Can I be of some assistance?' Conrad slid off the hired horse and flicked the reins over the animal's head.
The man let go of the woman and offered a dismissive wave. 'I assure you, we're fine.'
Conrad continued up the hill, not so easily dissuaded.
'And you, my lady?' The brown grass crunched beneath his boots, releasing the sharp aroma of warm, dry earth. Conrad pulled in a lungful of air. Even with the nip of autumn in the air, after a year and a half in the stinging cold of the Arctic, this was paradise. 'Are you well?'
The glare of the sun behind her blotted out all but the roundness of her hips beneath a dark-green dress and the light ringlets of blonde hair framing her face.
'No, not at all.' The familiar melody of her voice more than the waver in her words slowed Conrad's steps. It drew from somewhere deep inside him a happiness and comfort he hadn't experienced since he'd stepped aboard HMS Gorgon and set sail in search of the Northwest Passage.
She started cautiously down the hill towards him, entering the shade of the tree. The shadow freed her from the overpowering sun and brought her cheeks and fine nose into focus. Her brilliant blue eyes stopped Conrad and he stood in awe as she approached.
'Katie?' In the dark hours of the long winter aboard HMS Gorgon, when the sun had lain hidden beneath the horizon, months away from shining on him and his crew, he'd dreamed of this moment, of seeing her again. It was all he'd thought about during the long walk across the ice and snow, and in the ship coming home. It was the one thought which had guided him since disembarking in Portsmouth this morning. He'd sent his lieutenant, Henry Sefton, ahead to London with Conrad's official report so Conrad could set off in search of her. He hadn't expected to stumble upon her on the London road, or for her to be more beautiful than he remembered.
'Conrad?' Uncertainty as much as the fading daylight danced in her eyes, making them glow like the low polar sun on the ice. 'Is it really you?'
'It is.' He raised his hand to touch her cheek, then hesitated, afraid if he caressed her she might disappear like one of the many mirages he'd seen hovering above the Arctic sea. Returning to England and Katie had seemed like an impossible dream when he'd imagined it from the cold hold of a ship buried beneath darkness and ice. Even a mile back, when the tang of chalk from the Downs had at last replaced the mouldy stench of bilge water clinging to him, his weary mind still couldn't believe his trials were over.
Now, with the curve of Katie's small chin so close to his palm, her thick eyelashes fluttering with each disbelieving blink, the grip of the nightmare began at last to ease.
He was home.
Conrad brushed her face with his fingertips and the tender warmth of her skin made him shiver for the first time in more than a year from something other than cold. Despite the shadows beneath her eyes, the faint blush spreading under the smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose could hold his gaze for hours. He shifted closer, craving the sweet taste of her lips parted with surprise. He'd been too long without her and the comfort of her embrace.
Conrad leaned down, ready to claim her mouth, but Katie didn't rise to meet him. His hand stiffened against her cheek while he waited for the adoring woman he'd left over a year and half ago to embrace him, but she didn't. In her eyes wasn't the love she'd seen him off with in Greenwich, nor was it simply disbelief. It was a lack of faith, the same blistering kind he'd seen in Aaron's eyes before he'd walked out into the snow to die. Conrad's stomach clenched as hard as it had the night he and Henry had watched the sea ice harden around Gorgon.
'Miss Vickers, do you know this man?' the gentleman asked, his intrusion as much a shock as the silent gorge opening between Katie and Conrad.
'I do.' Katie stepped back out of Conrad's grasp, her blush deepening with something Conrad sensed had nothing to do with the strength of the afternoon sun. 'Captain Essington, allow me to introduce Mr Prevett.'
Conrad straightened and dropped his hand. His fingers, stiff after months of near frostbite, tightened into a fist at his side. He stared at Katie, as unsure of his position now as when Gorgon had sailed north beyond the known regions of the map. He searched Katie's face for some silent explanation, reluctant to hear the one he expected her to provide.
'Captain Essington is my intended,' Katie clarified.
Conrad's hand eased. Whatever had shifted between them, at least this still remained.
Mr Prevett's gaze jerked back and forth between Conrad and Katie before an awkward smile broke across his thin lips. 'Captain Essington? Why, I can't believe it, all of England thought you were dead.'
'So did I, more than once.' Conrad laced his fingers behind his back as though on deck and examined the man as he would an unruly junior officer. 'Tell me, Mr Prevett, what are you doing out here, alone with Miss Vickers? Have you no care for her reputation?'
'Her reputation?' Mr Prevett snorted before a fierce glare from Conrad sobered him. 'We were searching for fossils. I've had a great deal of luck finding them in this vicinity.'
Mr Prevett, who could be no more than thirty, appeared too finely turned out for a man hunting only bones. 'It seemed as though you were having a more heated discussion than one about fossils.'
'We were having a disagreement regarding a certain line of research he wished me to pursue,' Katie hurriedly explained. 'I told him he should abandon it, as I have my own ideas about how best to proceed with my research.'
'Speaking of which, I must be getting home. My wife is expecting me.' Mr Prevett shuffled past Conrad, pausing beside him, but not too close. 'Congratulations on your return, Captain Essington. I look forward to reading your papers when you publish them.'
'I'll be sure to send you a copy.' Conrad replied, the demands of publishing the details of his expedition paling beneath the desire to be alone with Katie.
Mr Prevett hurried away down the rise and soon the grinding of wheels over dirt joined the fading plod of the horse as it drew the gig out of sight.
Katie didn't watch Mr Prevett leave, but remained focused on Conrad, sliding her opal ring on and off her finger, the movement jerky and fumbling.
'Did you really forget me so soon?' Conrad accused, suspicion hard in his voice.
'So soon?' Katie shoved the ring back on her finger. 'You promised me you'd only be gone for six months, for as long as the Arctic summer lasted, but it's been over a year since you were supposed to return. I thought you were dead, everyone did. How dare you come back now and accuse me of anything?'
Conrad trimmed his suspicions like a sail in a storm. A calm head would win the day, just as it had seen him and his men through the winter. 'I only want to know what was happening between the two of you.'
'What you saw was the result of your having been gone, of you chasing your ambitions and leaving the rest of us to deal with the consequences.'
Katie rushed past Conrad and down the hill, as livid as the day his uncle, the Marquis of Helton, had turned from ruining Katie's reputation to destroying her father's. For the better part of the last year, she'd borne the malicious whispers of London and the snubs of the Naturalist Society alone. Now Conrad was here, tossing suspicions on the heap his uncle had worked so hard to build.
'Katie, wait,' Conrad called after her, his quick footsteps muffled by the soft earth.
She stopped to face him, further accusations silenced by the sight of him moving through the grass. He isn't dead.
Her heart leapt in her chest, but the pain of everything she'd suffered since he'd left trampled her joy. If only he'd come back before all the troubles had begun. 'I waited for you for over a year, I won't wait any longer.'
She turned her back on him and made for the road, the dust kicked up by Mr Prevett's gig choking her along with the biting injustice of Conrad's return. She'd prayed so many nights for him to come home. For her prayers to be answered after it was too late stung as much as the day she'd finally accepted he'd perished.
Though he wasn't dead.
She pressed her fingers to her temples, trying to take it all in, but it was too much, especially on the heels of the other shocks she'd suffered today. Her spirits dropped lower at the sight of her canvas satchel lying beside the road, set aside by Mr Prevett before he'd driven off. Inside was a selection of her papers and sketchbooks, the ones she'd been so eager to show to Dr Mantell. She curled her fingers in against her palms, her fingernails as sharp as Mr Prevett's betrayal. It was the second time she'd been deceived by a man she thought her ally in her fight to regain the Naturalist Society's recognition. She didn't know Mr Prevett had been swayed by London gossip enough to believe she would become his mistress. At least he hadn't tried to force himself on her like the other false friend.
She stopped in front of the sad canvas bag sagging over its leather bottom. Was there any person in England who wouldn't fail her? The strangling loneliness of her youth, when her father used to lock himself in his study to work for hours, filled her again.
As much as it galled her to admit it, her mother was right; the only person a woman could rely on was herself.
She snatched up the bag, then turned to see Conrad standing by his horse, stroking the length of the animal's tan nose. The changes which had shocked her as much as his resurrection were highlighted by flecks of grey in his sandy hair. He was still a rock of a man, but noticeably leaner, his jaw tighter and more angular, but it was his dark eyes which stunned her the most. They held none of the optimism and excitement which used to illuminate them before he'd left. It was as if the chill of his experiences still draped him, the way her sorrows hung around her in the quiet house she'd once shared with her father in Whitemans Green.
'It's getting late. We should be going.' The tender tones which had graced his voice on the hill were noticeably absent.
'There's an inn not far from here. I can walk there and spend the night, then take the coach home in the morning,' she feebly protested, knowing she had little choice but to join him. Even if she could reach the inn before midnight, she didn't have the money to pay for a room, or the coach to Whitemans Green.
'You know me better than that, Katie.' He came forward and took the satchel by its scarred wooden handles, his fingers brushing hers as he grasped it.
'You needn't be a hero, Conrad.' The time for him to save her had already passed.
'Then let me be a gentleman.' The circles beneath his eyes darkened with the fading daylight. It wasn't just exhaustion blackening them, but something like the despair of loss, a sadness she was all too familiar with. She slid one finger cautiously over the back of his hand, the desire to comfort him as he'd once comforted her overwhelming. He'd been the rock upon which she'd planned to build her life, then he'd sailed away.
She let go of the bag and a heaviness descended over her as he turned and walked back to the horse. With misgivings she followed, noting the ripple of his muscles beneath his faded uniform as he tied the satchel to the saddle bag, the force with which he pulled the leather straps tight telling.
Once the satchel was secure, he took the reins and settled one foot in the stirrup. Stiffness marred his movements as he mounted, but it didn't diminish the power of him. His sturdy frame reminded her of the beams used to support the quarry wall and the trees in the fields encircling the mines. They'd spent so many lazy afternoons in the tall grass together beneath such oaks, the fossils she'd collected scattered about the blanket to keep the edges down as his solid legs intertwined with hers. In the words of love and temptation he'd whispered in her ear, she'd forgotten the loneliness which had marred her life. The memory made her cheeks burn with delight and regret. She should have followed her instincts instead of her heart and never fallen in love.
He clicked his horse into a walk, bringing it beside her and extending his hand. Red patches of raw skin marred the palms, like old blisters which had healed. It tore at her to see such blinding evidence of what he'd endured, but she was careful to subdue the urge to comfort him. She, too, bore bruises from the last year and a half, only hers weren't as obvious as his.
'Perhaps we should walk.' In the face of so many startling events, she could hardly climb in the saddle with him and expect to maintain what little remained of her calm.
'It'll take too long and we're already losing the light.'
He was right, but it didn't lessen her unease as she placed her hand in his and slid her foot over the toe of his boot in the stirrup. She exhaled with surprise at the strength he used to pull her into the saddle, the vigour which had first caught her notice three years ago when he'd sought out her father's expertise overwhelming her again.
She settled herself across his thighs, his chest against her shoulder as troublesome as the front curve of the saddle digging into her buttocks. She shifted, working to keep her balance, worried as much about being this close to Conrad as toppling over on to the ground. She gasped as he slid one hand around her waist to steady her, then took the reins with the other and set the horse in motion.
'What happened between you and Mr Prevett?' he asked.
She rocked uncomfortably against him as the steed ambled down the wide lane marked by brown parallel wheel tracks with dry grass growing in between. She kept her back straight, attempting to maintain some distance between them, and ignored the shift of his thigh muscles beneath her own. She didn't want to tell him, or relive any of the ugly moments of the past eighteen months, especially the night she'd nearly been compromised, but he'd seen too much for her to dismiss it easily. 'I asked him to drive me to Dr Mantell's so I could share with him my papers and drawings of Father's best fossil specimens. Mr Prevett mistook my request as an invitation for something more.'
'Why did he think you might indulge him?' His body tightened against hers, making her heart race, his solid presence as disturbing as his sudden return.
'Because while you were gone, your uncle did everything in his power to ruin me,' she retorted, her base reaction to his nearness more unnerving than his question. 'As you saw, he succeeded.'
'He hasn't succeeded for good. Whatever he's done, I'll undo it and make him pay,' Conrad said sternly. 'I promise.'