Alastair pulled on his leather greatcoat to fight the sharp morning wind blowing in from the North Sea and watched the brooding young man help his fragile sister along the dock toward the Hurricane
. The two appeared nothing alike. She was waifish, hesitant, with a head full of white-blonde hair that fell into ringlets around a pretty, heart-shaped face and with eyes so blue, he could tell their hue from the quarterdeck.
Her brother, in contrast, was big—large boned, tall; shoulders that looked like they could carry the world and likely often did. His rich brown hair was short and straight, and Alastair knew from their brief meeting the previous night that his eyes were a stimulating whiskey brown.
He’d dreamed of those eyes last night. Although most of the dream evaporated upon waking, he remembered a gaze full of desire.
“I have a bad feeling about this, Dunn,” he confessed to his first mate.
“Aye, sir, and why is that? They look like a fine family coming aboard.”
“Yes, but the girl is very ill with something, and Morgan was unable to convince me it is not consumption.”
First Mate Conall Dunn gripped the bulwark cap until white-knuckled. “Why did you invite them aboard, sir?”
“She is not contagious, I was assured, and we need the fare, so I took the risk that the boy is telling the truth.” Alastair sighed and ran a finger over the grooves in his gold hair clasp. “Their fare will help pay for some of the bribe moneys we spent getting the Hurricane
out of Morocco, and depositing them on their island will not be far out of our way.”
Knuckles still white, Dunn spat over the side. “Damn worthless country, in my opinion. Can’t believe we’re going back there.” At Alastair’s glare, he said, “’Course, you found us cargo, so guess we should be thankful of that, and now we know how to avoid the customs men.” He kept watching their passengers as they neared the ship. “Such a sweet-looking girl. Should not have to suffer such.”
“Hmm, maybe, but if she takes after her brother, she is not going to be sweet-natured. She will be a firebrand. Uncontrollably feisty.” His lips threatened to smile just from talking about Mr. Rhain Morgan. He fought the absurd reaction, but for some reason he could not stop thinking about his two brief interactions with the young man. Once at the Red Pig and then last night to inform him they would sail today.
He could have sent one of his crew to inform Morgan of their departure, but he’d wanted to see the man again. Morgan had been in shirtsleeves, his hair rumpled as if from hours of messing it with his hands.
Only allowed several steps past the entry door of cheap rented rooms, Alastair did not feel welcome. There was faint coughing behind a closed door off to one side of the small main room, and Morgan acted as if Alastair had purposefully delayed the departure date. The meeting had not been as pleasant as he had hoped, but there was enough light to enjoy the sight of linen-covered broad shoulders and whiskey-colored eyes.
“Suppose they will be accepting with the goings-on of some of the crew?”
“We should probably give instructions to restrict the interesting activity to secluded corners belowdeck.”
“Crew won’t like that; they sign on because of the freedom they have on board.”
He only nodded. This would be an interesting sail at best, a catastrophe at worst. He should have doubled the fee.
He watched the big man help his sister over a broken crate spilled out over the dock. Turning at Dunn’s sigh, he watched the normally stoic first mate lean against the bulwark as if that move alone could help the girl safely to the ship.
“Stop being all moony-eyed over that girl. You falling for the gent’s sister will ensure our voyage is a disaster.”
Dunn bristled. “Yes, well, with all due respect, make sure to keep your prick in your drawers too, sir.”
Shocked beyond words, he watched his first mate step away from the bulwark and go about his business.
Had Alastair been that obvious with his attraction? Probably.
Yes, he had a bad feeling about this voyage. Yes, indeed!
* * * *
With everything stowed, the Hurricane
was unmoored and slipped away from the pier, floating out of the harbor and then downstream toward the North Sea. They would sail close to shore until reaching the Channel. As usual, the crew effortlessly trimmed the ship, unfurling, raising, and securing sails.
To protect against French attacks, they traveled with a contingent of Navy and other private vessels. Some ships would go their separate way as they traveled, and after Lisbon, the Hurricane
would journey alone. With about thirty ships in their group, the Thames was too crowded at this point to run at full sail, but the fleet would be ready once the river widened and they hit the estuaries.
Alastair loved this part of the trip—the anticipation of a new voyage, leaving the stench of a port town, the feel of his ship slicing through the water, taking him and his crew and cargo to wherever he wished to go. Nothing but the weather and the sea dictating what they could and could not do.
Thinking about what he’d like to do just then, he decided to seek out his new passengers.
Morgan fussed with the ropes, securing his meager possessions. His sister stood at the bulwark, gaping at the view of the summer-green river bank.
“First time on an ocean-going vessel, Miss Morgan?”
She looked over at him, and if it were possible, her wide blue eyes doubled in size. “You do look… Umm, just like Rhain said you did.” She put a petite gloved hand over her mouth. “Pardon my rudeness, Captain, but from his description, I would have recognized you anywhere.”
“Is that so? Should I be flattered or worried?”
She smiled but avoided his question. “Actually, this is my first time on anything bigger than a row boat.” She waved toward the river, which grew larger and wider as they navigated downstream. “It is so verdant and lush, and the air is already cleaner. I feel lightheaded from all the fresh air.”
The outline of her profile showed a slight resemblance to her brother. That stubborn chin and light freckling on her nose, but that was all, the rest too feminine to remind him of Morgan.
The girl turned and gave him a frank gaze. “I do appreciate you taking us on, Captain.” She held out a hand, and he took it carefully, afraid anything more than a light squeeze would break her birdlike fingers.
“I assure you, Miss Morgan, your brother paid me a fair sum, and no thanks are necessary.” Actually, her brother paid a king’s ransom for this trip, but Alastair would not freely offer that information. “There are not many ships going to the Caribbee Islands this time of year due to weather. Your brother was lucky to find us before I had cargo and headed to Constantinople.”
She clasped her hands as if in glee. “Will we see any thrilling storms, do you think?”
The girl must be daft to excite over the possibility. Well, might as well give her something to look forward to. “Yes, I imagine we will, miss. But not to worry. I have a first-class crew.”
“I’m certain you do, sir.” She smiled at him and then turned to cover a horrible, racking cough with an embroidered handkerchief.
“Shall I alert your brother?”
She shook her head and waved him on. “No, no, I’ll be fine…” She coughed again. “In a few moments.”
“With your leave.” He bowed but doubted she saw him in her bent-over position, one hand on the bulwark cap keeping her thin frame from slumping to the main deck.
He found Morgan leaning across one crate to test the integrity of a board on another, firm thighs and muscular arse pointing right at him.
Mother of God, what a sweet sight. He wanted so much to run his fingers up those firm thighs, feel the hard muscles under the worn, rough wool. Instead he waited until the man stood and Alastair asked, “Will it hold, or should I bring a crewman to shore it up?”
The man turned to appraise him. This was the first time they’d spoken since last night, and what a vision he was up close and in full daylight. His strong, sculpted lips shouted “kiss me;” his strong chin suggested the hint of a cleft when he wasn’t sporting a half-day beard. In the drab brown coat and pale-yellow shirt, he could be a clerk, but Alastair knew he was of gentle birth, for his accent spoke of the aristocracy. A third cousin to a baron perhaps, whose family lost all their money to gambling or bad investments? Alastair didn’t know, but there awaited a long journey in which to find out. And he planned to, because this man interested him.
“No, the boards seem sound enough,” Morgan said in his rumbling baritone. He tapped the crate lovingly. “This was my mother’s pianoforte, so I made certain it was secured properly.”
“Do you play?”
Morgan nodded and patted the crate again. “And my sister plays the harp. We have wasted many evenings in the frivolous pursuit of music, I’m afraid. Do you play a musical instrument, Captain?”
He checked his almost routine answer—“I’m an expert at playing the rod”—because this man was not one of his crude, seen-everything-and-done-most-of-it-too crew. He said instead, “No, but I enjoy listening. I’ve asked Swanson here”—he pointed to a man with skin such a rich black it appeared deep sapphire in dim lighting—“to show you and your sister to your quarters. Lunch will be served at two and supper at seven. Swanson will show you where the galley is. If you are feeling unable to eat, as so many do once the ship starts to sway, let someone know, and cook can make you a draught of weak salted beer. It does wonders for a foul stomach.”
Morgan blanched at the mention of the cocktail.
“Here is how I estimate our journey to go. The weather is in our favor for now, so we will make good time on the outset, but I picked up four commissions for delivery since we met Wednesday last, and we will have to make two additional stops, putting our arrival to Dominica perhaps three months from now.”
The young man looked at his sister, still doubled over in a coughing fit. “Further delays.”
The news did not apparently go down well, since the young man fairly shook with rage, fists clenched and teeth grinding. He really did need to practice hiding—if not controlling—his anger. Otherwise he would die of apoplexy.
“My dear sir, do you need a drink?”
“No, I do not need a drink in the middle of the day,” Morgan spat the words out between clenched teeth. “What I need is a captain who will give me an honest estimate. You know I have a frail sister who needs warmer climes to improve her health, and we have already waited almost two weeks. You originally assured me it would be four fortnights at the longest, depending on the location of your cargo deliveries.”
“Indeed, that was the plan I had when we met before. However, this is a working ship that makes money from delivering cargo and buying and selling goods. We have additional cargo now, thus the need for a few more, very short stops.” He found his voice rising, when normally he became slow and cold during arguments. There was something about the boy’s high color and prickly nature that made him want to roil Morgan.
“How dare you not inform me as soon as you changed your plans? I could have—”
“Could have what? Found a different ship going to Dominica this time of year?” He took two steps closer to Morgan, who stiffened but didn’t back down. Bravo for the boy.
This was the first time he stood close enough to realize Morgan was several inches the taller. He liked that. Liked that a lot. Not many men were taller than him, and the boy’s bulk would feel wonderful pushing him into a mattress. But there were better times than this to think of fucking an irate passenger.
Straightening his shoulders to act like a proper captain, he said, “I command this vessel and will not allow insubordination from my crew or my passengers. You are already committed to the journey, and one or two weeks here or there will make no difference. So I suggest, to make this trip more comfortable for yourself, you improve your attitude.”
Or else, I might just kiss those sculpted lips of yours until you melt in my arms.
He took one half step closer. So close, he could see two whiskers that escaped the morning razor. “Or else, you will spend the rest of the journey in a skiff tied to the back of the ship. Not a very comfortable ride, on that you may rest assured.” Then he moved that last half step forward so that their bodies touched, and ran a finger down Morgan’s chest under his simply tied cravat. The flesh under the summer-weight linen felt firm and warm.
“There is no need to attempt to intimidate me, sir. I assure you it will not work.” The boy’s lips pursed as if fighting off a scowl, or perhaps a smile, because that fine body shivered.
Good sign. Very good.
Alastair bit his tongue to keep from laughing at the proud boy. “Not to worry, Mr. Morgan. Intimidating you is the last thing on my mind right now.”
He casually brushed their crotches together as if by accident and enjoyed the boy’s response. Wide eyes, slack jaw, and a soft, drawn-in breath.
For two thundering heartbeats he enjoyed the man’s flushed face, then turned away and ordered his crew to set his ship to full sail.