Summer's Knight

Summer's Knight

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Virginia Brown

February 2015 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-942

Will their passion survive her dangerous secret?

 
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Shipping heiress Summer St. Clair flees from an arranged marriage only to end up penniless and alone in the unfamiliar streets of London. Her ordeal turns into a different type of challenge—one even more frightening—when a dangerously handsome rogue offers his protection.

Jamie Cameron pledges to be Summer's chivalrous knight . . . but he secretly longs to possess this woman of beauty and spirit. Carefully planning the ultimate seduction, he never expected her innocent charms to pierce his armor and expose his lonely heart.

From London's bawdy back alleys to the wild Scottish Highlands, Summer and Jamie wage a thrilling tug-of-war. Yet even as she succumbs to his fiery touch, Summer keeps a dangerous secret, a secret that might shatter the deep love that has grown between them.

Virginia Brown is the author of more than fifty novels in romance, mystery, and general fiction. Her bestselling Dixie Divas Mystery Series continues in 2015 with a sixth novel. She lives in a small Mississippi town that inspires her stories about Holly Springs.

 


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Excerpt

 

Chapter 1

New Orleans, Louisiana

April, 1804

"WHY, YOU CAN marry my niece if you want her so badly, Freeman,” came the faintly amused drawl. "It will keep her fortune in our hands, eh?”

Summer St. Clair, walking unobserved on the second-floor landing, jerked to a halt at that languid comment. Her fingers dug into the smooth, lustrous wood of the bannister that curved gracefully up from the foyer below, and she couldn’t move for a moment.

As the two men crossed the foyer to the parlor, her uncle’s voice drifted to her again, cool and slightly chagrined. "Something must be done soon, for Summer reaches her majority next year. I dare not risk losing control of her money. We need it to further our cause.”

Summer leaned forward as they passed into the parlor, her heart pound­ing fiercely. Their voices were easily heard.

"And Talleyrand in France?” Tutwiler asked. "He will accept the money to—”

"Hush!” Barton Shriver’s voice was sharp. "It is not to be discussed, un­less behind closed doors.” There was a pause. "France is not at war with the United States, Freeman, but with England. There will be no repeat of the XYZ Affair since the settlement of 1800. But I do believe that contribu­tions will be accepted and rewarded, and our fortunes will be made.”

A rasping laugh greeted this statement. "Yes, and I expect Napoleon will be most grateful once he is in possession of New Orleans again.”

Summer’s teeth bit into her bottom lip. This was more than a marriage discussion—this was treason! Her fingernails scraped over the bannister as she edged closer to the bottom of the stairs, and she heard her uncle ask lightly, "What do you offer for my niece?”

"Anything. Everything. I just want her,” Freeman rasped, sending a shud­der along Summer’s spine. "I crave the wench in my bed...”

The fat, sweaty swine! She’d seen Tutwiler paw other young women not quick enough to elude him but had managed so far to avoid it herself. Other young ladies had family to protect them, and he had not been bold enough to pursue them openly. She had no protection. Her uncle was only too glad to sell her to the odious creature. The thought of Tutwiler having the right to touch her made Summer sway with nausea.

I crave the wench in my bed...

Summer pushed impatiently at a pale curl that dangled in front of her eyes. Curse Barton Shriver. He was no blood kin, but her late maternal aunt’s husband was her closest living relative. He had greedily seized the St. Clair estate upon her family’s death, when she had been merely fourteen years old. A year later, he had told her that she was of a marriageable age and had instructed her to smile at men he approved of and snub those he didn’t. When she’d refused, he’d sent her to a convent. Though she had not been raised a Catholic, the nuns had agreed to take "a poor young lady unhinged by her parents’ death and in need of rest and repose” in exchange for a generous donation to their order.

Shriver’s intent had been to teach her a lesson in obedience, and it had taught her well. She’d been locked in a small cell. "For her own protection,” "she might harm herself,” "upon her physician’s orders,” had been several of the explanations given the good sisters.

Summer had languished for three months and had come out having learned an important lesson: She was a minor; therefore she had no voice. And being a female was another strike against her. Now she was twenty, but not yet of age. For the past five years Barton Shriver had used her as a pawn, hinting at marriages for her but never making a formal betrothal, always plotting to further his cause with the most advantageous alliance. Still, she’d had no idea that he would be so greedy or foolish as to stoop to treason.

A light shudder racked her again, and fear deepened as she stood indeci­sively on the landing. Shriver’s and Tutwiler’s voices were an indis­tinct murmur now, as they lingered in the front parlor, where she could visualize them drinking what was left of her father’s fine brandy.

A faint sneer curled her lips. Jean Claude St. Clair would have made short work of Shriver. That thought brought a knife-edged pain slicing along the still-tender memories of her dead parents and brother. There were times when the pain was so sharp that she felt as if someone had, indeed, plunged a knife into her heart. How could fate have been so cruel as to allow her loved ones to die from a fever and leave her alive and bereft?

With a sigh, Summer finally stirred herself enough to tread quietly down the stairs. The hem of her muslin gown frothed around her ankles as she slipped like a silent wraith past the parlor, with its half-closed doors.

She had to do something to stop her uncle from whatever he planned against the American government—after all, her mother had been a third-generation American, and her French father had fought in the American Revolution and become a fiercely loyal American who had expanded her mother’s inheritance into a shipping empire. It wasn’t just her being betrayed, but her country that was in danger. What could she do? Then it came to her.

Instinct spurring her, she reached the front door. She knew where she would go. There was only one person who might be able to help her...

Her hand touched the coroneted latch of the door, and then Summer saw Chantal. She put a finger to her lips and quickly shook her head. The maid’s smooth coffee-colored face shuttered, and she gave a short nod of her brightly turbaned head. Chantal knew about Shriver and his rapacious clutches, but she was just as caught in his web as Summer was.

With Chantal’s silent benediction, Summer eased out the front door. Sun­light struck her in hot, bright rays as she crossed the smooth tiled patio bordering St. Charles Avenue. The courtyard was tiny. A profusion of bougainvillea, begonias, and other bright, gay flowers flowed gracefully over stone urns and from terra-cotta pots. Wrought-iron balustrades laced the front of the two-story house that had just been re-painted a luscious shade of blue.

Summer passed through the tall gate and shut it with a click. She felt a mounting sense of urgency as she scurried down the banquettes that ran alongside the houses, which crouched close to the narrow streets. She had to reach Garth. He would know what to do.

Garth. Just his name made Summer’s stomach flip and her heart do funny things in her chest. He was so handsome—a big blond Adonis. If only he would do more than chuck her under the chin and call her "little duckling.” But Garth Kinnison didn’t seem to know she existed except as the daughter of the man who’d helped him buy his first ship, a sleek, two-masted schooner that could outmaneuver pirates and still carry a full hold of cargo.

The St. Clair shipping lines had long boasted of plying routes to any­where there was trade. But now that France and England were at war again after the short-lived Peace of Amiens treaty, it was much riskier. And it was said that Napoleon was about to become the French emperor. Did that mean he would try to wrest back the lands he’d just sold?

Her uncle obviously seemed to think so. And it looked as if he meant to help the Corsican. Shriver had expressed French loyalty to his Creole neighbors. Yet he had been instrumental in helping to arrange the Louisiana Purchase, using St. Clair money to further his own private interests along the way. It had given him the power he sought so eagerly, and his known willingness to trade with both sides had given him a notoriety that fre­quently embarrassed Summer.

Many of the older aristocratic families were unwilling to snub Summer openly because of her father, but gradually, she had been left out of social events because of her uncle and his sordid business practices. Now Shriver’s influence was far-reaching—and the St. Clair name was growing soiled. Even worse, he skimmed the profits from the shipping business to exploit his own shady schemes.

Summer hailed a carriage when she was far enough away from the house not to be seen. As it careened down the narrow streets, she stared blankly out the windows, barely aware of her reflection: blonde hair streaked with brown, blue eyes like her mother’s, a blur in the glass. They traveled through a part of town that she didn’t frequent, that indeed, she rarely saw anymore. Such sights were not to be looked upon, Chantal often scolded, not by a delicate young woman of quality such as Summer Léonie St. Clair, and she shouldn’t visit the riverfront.

The St. Clair docks teemed with the bustle of enterprise and bawdy sea­men, but Garth wasn’t in the offices as he should have been. Anxiously, Summer asked where he could be found.

"I believe he’s on his ship, Miss St. Clair,” the harried clerk answered. He paused with an armload of papers, giving her a keen stare. "Is there some trouble?”

Everyone knew the daughter of the former owner and that she would one day own these lines. Summer had spent long, happy hours here as a child, sitting on her father’s lap and doodling on scrap paper. Now Shriver ran the business with a heavy hand.

"No, I just need to discuss something with the captain. I’ll find him, Perkins. Thank you.”

As she walked down the crowded quays to find the Sea Dancer, Summer began to wish she had not so impulsively come to the docks alone. Men stared at her boldly, and her chin lifted faintly as she tried to ignore them. She should have brought Chantal along with her. No decent woman walked out without her maid or a chaperon.

When she found the vessel bobbing in the deep channel against a wooden quay, Summer heaved a sigh of relief. It was still being loaded. Yawning hatches stood open and ready to receive more goods. The wooden brow was down, slung from ship to quay. She lifted her skirts slightly to keep the hems from dragging over the filthy planks as she skimmed up to the main deck. The ship was empty, save for the watch, who nodded politely and said that Captain Kinnison was still ashore.

"He had a meeting with Mr. Tutwiler, I believe. Shall I tell him you were here, Miss St. Clair?” the sailor asked.

Summer paused. She needed to see Garth now, but she certainly didn’t need to allow Tutwiler or her uncle to see her here. "No, perhaps I’ll see him later,” she said, and the man nodded.

Summer started back down the brow, then decided to leave Garth a note. She didn’t want to risk running into her uncle in the offices, and it was urgent that she get a message to Garth before Shriver was able to put his awful plan into action.

Turning, she went back up the gangplank, ducked into the hatch, and climbed down the narrow, musty companionway to the lower deck and the captain’s cabin. She knew the way well. She’d frequently visited with her father.

When she’d written the note, she left Garth’s cabin and started back up the narrow ladder to the main deck. Then she heard men’s voices on the upper deck and recognized Freeman Tutwiler’s raspy accents. Freezing in place, she realized she couldn’t allow Tutwiler to see her on the ship and tell her uncle. She fled back down the steep ladder and into Garth’s cabin.

She looked around wildly, then spied the tall cabinet built into the wall. It took only a moment to secrete herself in the cedar-redolent cabinet and shut the door. The air was stuffy, and she batted gently at the clothes hang­ing around her as she sat with her knees scrunched up and her chin resting on them. It was uncomfortable, but necessary.

She crouched and waited, her muscles cramping as she heard the men enter the cabin. Her neck began to ache from being bent into an awkward position, and she shifted to get more comfortable. Something pressed into her back, and she gave a start when she saw a faint glimmer of eyes in the shadows. Then she relaxed. It was only a gold-headed cane, with the face of a lion and two glowing topaz chips for eyes.

Her fingertips brushed against the chain she wore around her neck. A small, simple gold necklace with her initials, entwined S’s, dangling from the links, it had been a twelfth-birthday gift from her father, and her hand closed over it as if for luck. Briefly closing her eyes, she whispered a prayer that she would somehow manage to get away from her uncle and the hate­ful Freeman Tutwiler. Then her attention was diverted by recognizable voices.

Garth’s deep baritone sent a shiver down her spine, and she smiled in the dark cabinet as she heard him discussing business details with Tutwiler in a faintly contemptuous tone. She didn’t bother to listen to the words but only waited impatiently for them to finish so she could throw her woes on Garth’s broad shoulders. He would rescue her, be her knight in shining armor.

Garth would help her. She’d make him help her. And then maybe he would take her in his arms and finally declare that he loved her and had only been waiting for her to grow up so he could marry her. Then he would kiss her, and her life would be good again.

And then, she thought grimly, Barton Shriver will have to leave New Orleans astride a rail—tarred and feathered!

The vessel rocked gently, bumping against the quay. It was too warm in the closet, and the men’s voices droned on and on. Her eyelids grew heavy, and she yawned.

Summer never knew when sleep overcame her, or when the ship left the New Orleans port and sailed down to the Gulf.


 

 

Chapter 2

London, England

May, 1804

"WHY WON’T YOU take me?” Summer stared up at Garth Kinnison with disbelieving eyes. "Why?”

The ship carrying Summer as an inadvertent stowaway had just an­chored at the port of London. She’d been put into a jolly boat with Garth and carried to shore, but she still could not quite believe he would do this to her. Despite her confession of her infatuation for him, Garth Kinnison adamantly refused to allow her to remain on the Sea Dancer.

He helped her from the bobbing boat to the security of a long dock and then joined her. His first mate, Oliver Hart, stood close by. Summer didn’t even notice the light rain as she looked up at Garth. Her rib cage hurt where her heart slammed painfully against it.

"Why?” she asked again, her voice a hoarse whisper.

"Summer, you’re a pretty girl,” Garth said gently, stroking her soft cheek and gazing down at her with an enigmatic expression, "but I cannot keep you with me.”

Anger edged her voice as she spoke. "You’ve brought me this far, in­stead of putting me off in Pensacola—I insist that you keep me with you.”

His voice was impatient. "I told you, girl, that Spanish Florida was no place to leave you to wait for a ship back, even with a hired chaperon. They still have civil conflict on occasion. Now I’m sending you to board a ship in Southampton. I’ve given you a letter of introduction to a friend, and he will see you are taken where it is safer.”

Summer’s stare was disconcerting, and she knew it. "But you could have left me elsewhere, and you didn’t,” she persisted, despair edging her voice. "I’ve been no trouble—I don’t understand you.”

Cupping her chin in his hard, callused palm, Garth said, "The West India docks are crowded, and I have a perishable cargo. London’s legal quays leave cargo open to smuggling and plunder, and I can’t afford that. I have a lot of work to do, and you’d only be left to your own devices. Besides, Shriver’s too powerful a man to make my enemy.”

"Is that why you won’t take what I said seriously? I heard him say those things about money for Napoleon, and—” Her protest ended in a slight gasp when he grabbed her arm and snapped at her to be quiet before a zealous Englishman overheard them.

"It’s nothing to worry about, Summer,” he added in a kinder tone when she rubbed sullenly at her bruised flesh. "Now, be a good girl, and go back home.”

Summer said in a small, fierce voice, "I will be sold to Tutwiler in a de­praved marriage, and you don’t even care.”

She’d tried to make him care on the long voyage, but he had avoided her as if she carried a deadly plague. There was a bitter irony in that. Other men had leapt at the chance to court the heiress to the St. Clair shipping company. Not Garth. He seemed to care little that wedding her would make him rich.

"I can’t stop an arranged marriage, girl. Neither can you. ’Tis the way of the world for young ladies.” He gave a shrug of his brawny shoulders. His pale eyes were hooded as he said softly, "Take a lover after you wed. It’s done all the time.”

Jerking her head up, Summer glared at him. "Maybe I will. Are you avail­able?” she shot at him and saw with chagrin the amusement glittering in his eyes.

"Perhaps, when I return to New Orleans, and you are a little older.” A laugh threaded his voice, stiffening Summer’s spine with humiliated fury. "Go with Oliver. He’s found you a maid to chaperon your return, and I’ve provided you with a heavy purse.”

His amusement strengthened her resolve as nothing else would have done. So much for my fair knight, she couldn’t help thinking bitterly. Her chin lifted.

"Present your bill to my uncle, and he will see that you are repaid,” she said in a taut voice. She would not cry. She had humiliated herself enough by pleading with him to keep her.

But when she was tucked into a hired post chaise—a bright yellow vehi­cle pulled by a pair and managed by a postboy—and given into the care of a hard-faced woman, Summer almost surrendered to tears. Garth did not want her. He would not rescue her from Freeman Tutwiler.

First mate Oliver Hart stuck his head inside the door of the coach and said softly, "Remember, miss, that your last name could invite trouble for you. Do not use it. The captain has arranged passage for you under the name of Miss Smith, and Mrs. Beasley will watch over you well.”

"I’ll remember,” Summer said coldly. Even her name was a hindrance. Her father had been French, and she was in a country at war with France. Besides which, if anyone connected her to the St. Clair shipping fortune, she might find herself in grave difficulties. Just the year before, a young heiress had been abducted, compromised, then ransomed back to her fran­tic parents for a huge amount of money. It was doubtful that Barton Shriver would bother to redeem his niece; he would consider it a blessing that she had been removed. Well, she’d dealt with the fortune hunters her uncle had teased with her inheritance and knew how to avoid them well enough. A villain was a villain.

"I’ll remember,” Summer repeated.

The first mate shut the door with a farewell nod.

The coach jerked forward, and she gave a last glance back at Garth as he stood with the wind ruffling his blond hair. When she’d first awakened in his cabinet and discovered that he’d sailed out of port with her aboard, she’d thought her prayers had been answered. She’d stayed hidden until she was sure they’d sailed too far to return her, and then confronted him, cer­tain he would take her with him, maybe marry her.

But he hadn’t. He’d at first been furious, then resigned, and had told her she would have to go home. He’d kept to his word, it seemed.

Slicing a glance toward her uncommunicative chaperon, Summer set­tled back against the worn squabs of the coach in dull acceptance of her fate. Rain pelted the coach, and she could hear the coachman swearing softly on his high perch above. The sharp scent of saltwater and fish thick­ened the stale air of the coach. It was chilly. Huddling into the volumi­nous folds of her cloak and shifting the satchel of clothes Garth had bought for her, Summer stared out the windows at the dreary series of vast ware­houses.

Cargoes of wine, sugar, timber, raw silk, ivory, coffee, tea, and aro­matic woods such as cedar and mahogany were stacked as high as they possibly could be, and huge hoists lifted them from vessel to dock or to drays. Despite the drizzle, men worked to load and unload cargo, and the noise was tremendous. Hammers thudded, saws grated on wood, tackles groaned with shrill, unremitting whines, and bells clanked tinnily. Though a familiar sight, it was chaotic, frightening. Men shouted, whips cracked, coaches rumbled on the stones, and the penetrating odor of fouled water seemed to seep into her very bones.

Scrunching down in the seat, Summer slid another glance toward her companion. Mrs. Beasley seemed respectable enough, but something in her broad, stolid face made Summer shift uneasily on the seat. Oh, well, she would only have to suffer the woman’s presence for a short while.

Summer glanced out the window again and saw her blurred reflection in the glass pane. She was fiercely glad to see that her woebegone expres­sion had hardened into one of grim determination.

She thought suddenly of the time a young man had told her she had a face like an exotic cat’s. She’d laughed at him then, but now she could see a faint resemblance. Her wide blue eyes slanted slightly at the outer corners, and her face was oval, with a small chin and mobile mouth that could stretch into a feline smile at the slightest notice—or at least, had smiled often before her parents’ death. The last few years had been so unhappy, she rarely smiled anymore.

And there was certainly nothing to smile about now, as the post chaise rocked wildly over narrow, curving roads that led out of London toward Southampton. Daylight gave way to gray mist, and timbered buildings gave way to foggy expanses of brush and trees punctuated by the occasional hut or pub illuminated by wavy light. The vehicle swayed alarmingly, hooves a loud drum against the hard-packed road, the jangle of traces and rumble of wheels a steady roar in her ears. It gave a shudder suddenly, then skewed violently to one side before sliding to a stop in a precarious tilt. Thrown to the floor in a heap of skirts and cloak, Summer struggled out from under wool in time to hear the postboy damn a mail coach for running them off the road.

There was the sound of slurping mud and more curses, and in a mo­ment the coach slid slightly, then righted with a shudder. Slivers of light poked through the cracked window. Her chaperon had somehow remained on the hard horsehair seat, but her bonnet had slid down over her face, and her skirts twisted around her knees. Summer swallowed a giggle as Mrs. Beasley pushed the bonnet up, and a limp fabric flower dangled against her nose so that she swatted at it as if it were an annoying fly.

"Great bloody fools,” the woman muttered, then glared at Summer. "You needn’t look so amused, missy.”

Whatever she might have replied was forgotten as the coach door was wrenched open, and Mrs. Beasley turned and shook a finger in the post­boy’s face. "What are you great idiots about, nearly killing us with your ham-handed driving? I’ve a mind to demand our passage money back, I do.”

The boy merely shrugged. "Pyrford’s jus’ ahead. It’s got a good inn with a common room. Wait there, and I’ll let ye know when we git th’ coach outer th’ ditch. That’s all that kin be done.”

When Mrs. Beasley seemed inclined to argue, Summer said quickly, "Oh, do come along. I’m weary, bruised, and would like a hot meal.” She stepped down from the coach and stood in a light rain, then pulled up the hood to her cloak, picked up her satchel, and began walking along the slick, rutted road. Mrs. Beasley followed reluctantly.

The inn at Pyrford was on the banks of a slow-moving river. In spite of the slight drizzle that dampened her as she walked, Summer grudgingly admired the soft countryside with its deep woods and shady glades. The air smelled clean and sweet, with a hint of wood smoke. Puddles soaked her shoes and stockings, drenched the hem of her skirts, so that she was glad to see the village inn just around the next curve of road. Behind her, Mrs. Beasley plodded along, feet squelching in the mud, muttering under her breath with each step.

When she entered the common room of the inn, she was shown to a ta­ble looking out over the river. A fire burned on the hearth, heating the room. Summer wrinkled her nose at the acrid bite of smoke as Mrs. Beasley lowered herself onto a bench next to her with a gusty sigh.

The innkeeper approached their table, showing a gap-toothed smile. "What kin I git fer ye, miss?” he asked, the question directed at Summer.

She ordered a pork pie and fruit; Mrs. Beasley asked for steak-and- kidney pie, a pudding, and several tarts. "And a bit of ale to wash it down with,” she added with a pleased smile.

Eventually, a steaming hot pork pie that was more crust than meat was set in front of Summer, along with a dish of small, shriveled fruit covered in custard sauce. Summer was so hungry, she didn’t care.

Mrs. Beasley ate noisily, then heaved herself up from the chair and across the room. Glad to see her go, Summer ate slowly, leaving a few bites of the pork dish so she wouldn’t seem a glutton. Her mother had always insisted upon such manners. Summer shut her eyes. Maman. She had looked so cold and still on her funeral bier, but her life had been warm and vivid.

Sighing, Summer opened her eyes and wiped her hands on a shabby square of napkin. Propping her chin in one palm, she gazed out the window at the rain-pocked river. She heard the innkeeper set down a tankard of ale on a nearby table and turned her head, slanting a glance from beneath her lashes. There were only three other people in the inn: two shabby-looking men in a corner and one dark, dangerous-looking man sprawled indolently in a chair near the fire. Her gaze moved toward him, and she saw that he was looking at her.

She looked away, but not before she had an impression of dark eyes, black hair, and a strong, masculine face. It was his eyes that startled her, riveting, staring at her, a faint smile curving his lips. He lifted his tankard of ale in a silent salute to her, and she flushed.

Who did he think he was? Or she was? She was no loose female to be im­pressed with idle admiration. Still, it was hard not to steal glances at him from time to time.

Shifting and crossing long, lean legs clad in the snug-fitting pantaloons and Hessian boots of a dandy, the man displayed an air of shabby gentility until she glanced at his face. It was a strong, hard face, with one dark brow that slashed straight over his eyes, and high, rugged cheekbones that angled sharply down to a chiseled mouth that looked ready to smile. It was a most handsome face, a rogue’s face. A face women would admire. How could they not?

Summer, however, was in no mood to admire a man, not when the sting of Garth Kinnison’s rejection was so strong and achingly sharp in her mind and heart. She looked back at Mrs. Beasley, who had come from somewhere across the room to sit by her again. The woman’s fleshy face looked grim, and Summer suppressed a twinge of annoyance at Garth for sticking her with such a gargoyle.

Daylight began to wane. Summer looked up as the innkeeper lit the lamps, grumbling about the cost of oil, and she saw the postboy come in the door. Finally!

She stood and reached for her still-damp cloak, but her relief was short-lived. The postboy abruptly announced that the post chaise could not be fixed, that an axle was broken, and they had sent to Woking for another.

"It’s almost dark. Ye’ll ’ave to stay th’ night ’ere, I’m afraid,” he added, shrugging at Summer’s dismay. "There’s no ’elp for it.”

Mrs. Beasley rapped a heavy hand on the table. "There are rooms over the pub here. Shall I bespeak one from the innkeeper for us, miss?”

"Yes, please,” Summer murmured dispiritedly. She sank back into her chair. She didn’t care suddenly if they ever got to Southampton. At least this chill, weeping weather fit her mood. Besides, why rush the inevitable inter­view with Barton Shriver? He would be furious at her truancy and would perhaps hasten the marriage to Tutwiler. I crave the wench in my bed... A shudder tickled her spine.

When Mrs. Beasley returned, announcing that a room had been pro­cured, Summer lifted the purse she had hanging beneath her cloak and stared hesitantly at the unfamiliar currency. Mrs. Beasley’s eyes glittered slightly at the sight of the money, but she only helped Summer select the two shillings and three pence from the jumble of strange coins to pay for their meal.

Summer stood up and pushed back her chair. When she turned to go up­stairs, her glance dragged across the figure still reclining lazily in front of the fire. The man looked directly at her, his jet eyes under one straight black brow raking her with interested curiosity. A bolt of alarm shot through her at the man’s intent scrutiny. Drawing her cloak more closely around her as if she could hide, she looked quickly away from his gaze.

Curse him. What did he want? She felt flustered under that heavy stare and stumbled over the hem of her cloak as she walked through the maze of scattered tables. Her face heated. She thought she saw him smile, a quick flash of white teeth in a dark face. Plague take him!

She could still feel his eyes on her as she reached the stairs to the sec­ond floor and could not resist a backward glance. To her dismay, the rogue stood up and swept her a mocking bow, his actions graceful and provoking. She set her teeth, and her face flamed.

He must think her interested, when she was only wary of a man who sat in a shabby inn with his booted feet propped on a table and a sword dangling from his side. He looked more like one of the highwaymen she’d heard roamed the high roads of England than any kind of a gentleman.

Swirling around, Summer stumbled over the bottom step of the sag­ging stairs and heard his soft laughter. She did not look back again but lifted her skirts in one hand and fled up the dingy staircase to the second floor.

Weary, heartsick, frightened, and more alone than she had ever been in her life, Summer St. Clair lay down fully clothed on the corn-husk mattress and fell asleep almost immediately.

SHE DIDN’T KNOW what woke her. Perhaps a faint scratch along the floor or a guarded whisper. But whatever it was, she awoke just in time to see something at her window—dark, wavering forms that were menacing and terrifying.

A loud scream burst from her throat as she sat bolt upright, and the fig­ures at her window—there were two, she could see that—scrambled out the open shutter with muffled curses. She screamed again and heard pound­ing footsteps in the hallway outside her room. She was completely alone. Mrs. Beasley was not on her cot across the room.

Half-sobbing, Summer stumbled to the door and saw that the bolt had already been drawn. She yanked open the door. The innkeeper stood there in his nightshirt, nightcap askew.

"What is it?” he demanded, and Summer pointed mutely to the win­dow.

As the innkeeper dashed to the open window, someone appeared in the hallway with a lantern, and light danced into the room in shifting sprays.

"Who was it? What happened?” the lantern holder asked, and the inn­keeper turned with a disgruntled oath.

"Robbers, is my guess.” He glanced toward Summer. "Are ye missing en­nything, miss?”

Suddenly Summer realized why someone had been in her room. She walked to the chair where she had placed her cloak and reticule and was not at all surprised to find only her cloak and small satchel still there. Neverthe­less, she knelt and looked for the heavy purse under the chair.

The innkeeper grunted. "Ye won’t find it, is my guess.”

He was right. Summer straightened and looked at him. "Can’t you catch them?”

"They’re far and away by now, though I guess we can put the consta­bles after ’em right enough,” he said in a grudging tone. He eyed her nar­rowly. "Did they get it all? All your coin?”

Summer nodded. "Yes,” she said, "everything I had.”

"Ah,” the innkeeper murmured, his manner deferential and sympa­thetic. "Then ye’ll have to be sendin’ a message to yer family, I suppose, so that ye can pay yer bill.”

"I have no family,” she forced out miserably, "no one to help me. Not here.” She looked around wildly. "And my maid is gone... Ah, sacré bleu!” she spat, using Chantal’s favorite expression without thinking.

Staring at her suspiciously, the innkeeper growled, "Ye don’t be French, d’ye? We be fightin’ th’ French.”

Summer stared at him. "No, I’m American.”

"Ye’re American?” the innkeeper pursued, his beetling brow lowering as he began to see his payment fade away. His jaw thrust out, and he growled, "Then how d’ye expect to pay fer yer night’s lodging, may I ask?”

It was then Summer realized her mistake. She stammered out a feeble plea for mercy, but it was only a few minutes before she found herself on the front stoop of the inn. Her cloak, the innkeeper said, and the pitifully few clothes she had in her cloth bag, would be applied to payment for the hours she had stayed there.

Numb, Summer could only stare at him. He closed the door in her face, and she stepped off the stone stoop into the squelching mud of the yard. At least it had stopped raining, she reflected as she looked around her. The clouds were gone, and a thin moon cast a dim light on the muddy ground as she picked her way across the brick courtyard.

It finally occurred to her to wonder where Mrs. Beasley had gone, though in truth, she suspected she had taken her purse and fled. No doubt, she was in league with the dangerous man from the common room. There was little Summer could do about it now. Her most pressing problem was to find a place to sleep that was reasonably warm and dry.

She looked around. Her teeth began to chatter, and she wrapped her arms around herself and hunched her back against the wind. She’d have to find something before she turned blue. Certainly not the stable, not with the ostlers sleeping there. She’d be about as safe as a hen in a fox’s den.

Summer spotted a low building that she assumed was a coop for the fowl she’d seen clucking and pecking around the side yard, and trudged toward it. But the innkeeper’s geese took a hearty dislike to her presence and drove her out amid a loud honking and beating of wings, nipping at her with painful beaks. She tried to stand her ground, but one wily old gander arched his neck so menacingly and hissed so savagely at her that she finally retreated, but not before flinging a handful of mud toward the enraged fowl.

She spent the remainder of the night propped against a low stone wall that bordered the river. It was, surprisingly enough, the driest spot she could find, as a mulberry bush had kept the ground from becoming too soaked. Huddled beneath the bush with a root for a pillow and wet branches for a quilt, Summer fell into a light, troubled sleep.

SOFT SUNLIGHT pricked at her eyelids, and Summer sat up suddenly, confused. There was no rocking of a ship, nor was she in her familiar bed, and then she remembered the horror of the night before. Her stomach rumbled, and recalling the bits of pork pie she had left on her plate, she wished she had not been quite so fastidious.

Wiping her hands on her skirt, she emerged from the spreading branches of the mulberry into the sunshine. It was one of those rare days that seem spawned in paradise, with golden light filtering over the country­side and all of nature as in tune as a symphony.

"Fiddlesticks,” Summer muttered resentfully at the world in general.

She could see the front door of the inn from where she stood. Horses milled about in the yard, steam blowing from their nostrils and tails whisk­ing in the air, and people came out of the inn well-fed and content, ready to resume their journeys.

It was hard for a young woman who had been gently bred and reared, ex­isting in luxurious surroundings all her life, to watch with an empty stomach and dirty face as those fortunate enough to be well-fed and clean went about their business. Summer sighed and perched on the top of the wall ridging the river below.

Swinging her feet, she banged the heels of her fraying slippers against the stone wall, her hands folded tightly in her lap. She had nowhere to go. She had no money. Her only hope was to return to the port of London and pray that the Sea Dancer had not yet sailed.

Ridiculous that passenger ships sailed from one port and cargo from an­other. Why weren’t the ports closer together?

Straightening, Summer dragged her thoughts back to her present predic­ament. She was truly in dire need. All she could think to do was clean herself up as best she could, then approach a decent-looking person with her sad tale and a plea for help.

Summer peered ruefully down at her clothes and soiled hands. "Well,” she murmured, "it’s the cold river for you, my girl.”

Cautiously, she edged her way along the stone wall furred with moss and lichen, until she found a spot close enough to the water to allow her to lean over without falling in. Pulling herself to the top of the stones, she balanced precariously. Her skirts hung over the edge, and she drew them up; her white stockings were stained, her pumps muddy. If she could just dampen her feet the slightest bit, she could wash the mud from her flimsy shoes.

The stones scraped her palms, and she felt shaky as she drew her legs up under her and poised, trembling, on the wall. She poked one foot out toward the water.

"Hold, lass,” came a strong male voice, startling her. The stones were wet and slippery; to her dismay, she felt herself sliding from the wall toward the flowing river currents.

"Hold, lassie,” came the voice again, closer this time and commanding. "Dinna jump!”

Summer could have replied that she had no intention of doing any­thing so foolish, but she was busily occupied with trying to keep her bal­ance. A small, frightened shriek burst from her throat as she felt herself falling; she clenched her teeth together and braced for the cold splash that would greet her.

The splash didn’t come.

Instead, hands gripped her by the skirt just before she teetered over the edge, holding her as she swung wildly. Glancing around, intending to grab at her rescuer, Summer instead found herself fighting him. It was the dark-haired, dangerous-looking man from the common room in the inn, the rogue who had stared at her for so long, had watched her purse...

"You,” she managed to gasp out, eluding his efforts to haul her back over the wall to safety. "Thief! Robber!”

Instead of appearing angry or worried that she’d recognized him, the man laughed. His dark eyes glittered, and he flashed a cocky grin. He held her easily when she tried to avoid his reaching hands.

Panting with fear, Summer kicked out at him with one foot, but it put her too much off balance. She heard the rip of material and felt the gather­ing rush of a fall, then heard the man’s rough curse as he tried to grab her.

It should have been easy for him to hold her, yet when he tried to ad­just for the shift of balance, he lost his own. Summer pitched forward and felt her would-be rescuer go with her, over the stone wall and into the swift, cold waters of the rain-swollen river.

It wasn’t very deep, but it was deep enough to thoroughly drench them both. Floundering about, trying to scream for help, Summer choked on the fast-moving water, her hands slapping helplessly against it. Oh, why hadn’t she ever learned to swim? If she could just find her footing, she could make it to the side... Summer’s slick-soled slippers skidded from under her, and she plunged beneath the water’s surface again, choking as dark water swirled over her head.

Dimly, she heard someone snapping at her to "Close yer mouth before ye bloody well drown,” and felt a hand snag a fistful of her hair and lift her, still choking and sputtering, from the water. Then she was hauled unceremo­niously onto the muddy bank, coughing.

She coughed until her rib cage ached; water seeped from her nose and dripped into her eyes. Flopping back miserably, she lay gasping for breath, her eyes closed.

"D’ye think ye’re a bloody mermaid?” a voice growled at her from only a few inches away, and Summer opened her eyes to glare up at her rescuer.

His straight brow was drawn down into a furious scowl, and his jet-black hair was plastered close to his skull; he looked even more danger­ous. She shuddered and closed her eyes again.

"No,” she choked weakly. "I can’t swim.”

"The devil ye say. Then I guess ye were just thirsty. Wha’ were ye about, lass, jumping in the water if ye canna swim?” the irritated voice demanded. "Were ye tryin’ to drown yerself?”

Her eyes snapped open again, angrily this time. She was incensed that he would think she meant to kill herself in a shallow river. "If I were trying to drown myself, I believe I could do better than a ditch, with all of England surrounded by ocean.”

Sitting down and leaning back on his elbows, his clothes clinging to his body in wet, uncomfortable folds, James Cameron allowed her a grudging grunt of acknowledgment. He glanced at his wet clothes glumly. He should have known better. The next young woman he saw poised on the edge of a stone wall and bending over a river would go unrescued. There was no glory or gratitude in it, that was certain.

It was just that she’d looked so desperate from a distance. He had heard what had happened to her, of course, when he’d come down for his break­fast. Then he’d stepped outside to see the hapless female perched atop the stone wall.

It had occurred to him that she might do one of those inexplicable fe­male things that were inherently melodramatic and usually ineffective; gallant that he was, he had hurried to her rescue and ended up in the river with her.

There had been an expression of intense concentration on her small, fierce face that had convinced him of her grim determination at the time. Now she just looked like a half-drowned kitten. An enraged kitten, at that.

She sat in a puddle of wet clothes and pale stringy hair that dripped ceaselessly into her eyes, and she glowered at him as if it were his fault she was wet. "How do you expect me to get any help now,” she demanded angrily, "when I look like a goose caught in the rain? No one will want to come near me.”

"If you’d just keep your mouth shut, you might get an offer from some­one who’s half-blind and addled to boot,” Cameron muttered as he rose to his feet. He gazed down in disgust at his boots; when he moved his toes, he heard a loud squelching sound. His shirt was ruined; his coat was beyond hope. Only his pants were reasonably serviceable, but they clung to the long muscles of his legs like a second skin, outlining every portion of his lower body to the discerning eye. His gaze swung back to the girl.

She looked much the same as he; her muslin dress was smoothed over her curves and almost transparent from the water. He noted that the thin material hid little from his view, and he didn’t mind staring. She was slen­der. Her ivory skin prickled with gooseflesh at the moment but looked as if it would be very soft to the touch. She had a small waist, gently flaring hips, and her quivering legs were long and well-formed. Not bad at all, he mused.

Jamie’s gaze drifted again. Thin material did nothing to hide faint rosy nipples tipping her round breasts, puckered from the chill water. His brow rose. What perfect little breasts she had: small, firm, uptilted, and the tight crests seemed to beg for the touch of his hand. Or lips.

A happy smile slanted his mouth, and his gaze lifted to her widening eyes. She stared at him with apprehension, and her tongue flicked out in a feminine gesture to moisten lips that were already wet.

There was a strange look in her eyes, as if she didn’t know where to glance or what to say. Jamie felt a familiar tightening in his groin, and he knew it would be quickly evident in the tight, wet pants. Maybe it was better if she didn’t know how easy it was to interest him. He knelt down, resting on his heels, his arms crossed casually and braced over his knees.

"The best thing to do under these circumstances,” he said calmly, "is to get dry first. Then we can decide whose fault it was.”

Her head tilted back, and her mouth quivered slightly as she said, "It was yours. There’s no need to discuss it further.”

"Fine,” he said lightly. "It was my fault. Now come with me, and we’ll put on dry things.”

The lass hung back with a miserable face. "I... I can’t. My money was stolen last night, and the innkeeper—”

"I know. Don’t worry about it. I think that under the circumstances, he’ll be most amiable. I’m certain he’ll give you back your clothes, seeing as how you’re in need.”

She shook her head, and water droplets sprayed everywhere. "I don’t think so. He was very annoyed when last I saw him.”

"We’re old friends,” he assured her. "I’ll explain.”

She stared at him narrowly. "Are you certain it was not you in my room last night? I saw you watching me earlier.”

"Lass, if it had been me in your room, I would not have been after your purse,”he said with a grin, "and I would not have left so quickly.”

A pulse beat rapidly in her throat and her eyes widened, and he felt her uncertainty all the way to his bones. She cannot be that innocent, he thought, and for a moment only stared at her.

AS HIS DARK, liquid gaze focused on her, Summer crossed her arms over her chest and lifted her chin. Her heart thudded hard against her chest at the predatory light in his eyes.

During the weeks at sea, she had enjoyed just watching Garth from afar. She had flushed the first time he’d stripped to the waist and climbed agilely up the rigging. A fiery heat had suffused her face and neck with color and made her throat tighten, and Garth had noticed her owl-eyed stare and sent her below decks.

The next time, she had managed to school her reaction more carefully.

Admittedly, Summer had very little experience with men. She’d not been prepared for the funny, tight feeling in her chest when she looked at Garth, or for the dreams that had come to her in the night as she lay in her chaste bed, feeling curious flushes in her body that she couldn’t explain. It was odd, how her body frequently reacted in ways she’d never thought existed, as if it were rebelling against all she had been taught. Like now, when this dark-eyed stranger looked at her with knowing eyes, and her body became strangely hot.

It was crudely evident from the tone of his voice and the flare in his eyes what he meant. She might be innocent, but she had listened enough to other young ladies to hear plenty of conjecture about what went on be­tween men and women. She had thought about it and thought about it and finally come to the private conclusion that sex was something a man wanted that a woman merely endured, and that sometimes it took only a few minutes, and sometimes all night. Whichever, men never seemed to tire of doing it or talking about it, even in oblique ways, such as this man was now doing.

She swallowed the lump in her throat.

"Sir, I find offense with that remark.” Her gaze was steady, half-defiant, half-wary. "I am not what you may think. I am a decent woman who finds herself in a difficult position at the moment.”

That one black devil’s brow lifted slightly, and her rescuer favored her with a nod. "My apologies if I have offended you, milady,” he said, sweep­ing her a bow that was only half-mocking. "My offer still stands, if you wish to take it.” He offered her his bent arm as if they were at an elegant ball and waited.

Sighing, Summer slipped her small-boned hand into the crook of his arm, resting her fingers on the hard bulge of his muscle. She had little choice. And perhaps this arrogant, brash man could be persuaded to help her get back to the port of London.


 

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