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Диксон Хелен

Mistress Below Deck

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«Mistress Below Deck» - Хелен Диксон

Kidnap, deception…and forbidden desire Tobias Searle’s ship is no place for a lady – especially one as wilful and spirited as Miss Rowena Golding. Tobias is chasing pirates, she her kidnapped sister – and the price to board his ship is one night in his bed!Rowena despises Tobias’s arrogance, is immune to his lethal charm, and certainly doesn’t quiver at his touch…her stubbornness wouldn’t allow it! But she’s boarding that ship come what may. Masquerading as a cabin boy, she’s prepared for the dangers of the high seas…but is she prepared for the notorious Tobias Searle?
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‘No helpless female would dare to board my ship alone, and with nothing on her person for protection.

‘You deserve a commendation for sheer guts, Rowena. I salute your courage and your boldness. You are undeniably brave—as well as beautiful. But your father is in debt to me up to his ears. Would you compound that debt by adding to it?’

‘There is something I could give in payment.’

‘Could you, indeed? You mean that you and I could have—a very delightful arrangement?’

His voice was like silk, and his eyes had become a warm and very appreciative blue, and Rowena knew immediately what price he was asking her to pay. She felt fury rise up inside her—not just with him, but with herself and at the excitement which stirred at the very idea…

Helen Dickson was born and still lives in South Yorkshire, with her husband, on a busy arable farm, where she combines writing with keeping a chaotic farmhouse. An incurable romantic, she writes for pleasure, owing much of her inspiration to the beauty of the surrounding countryside. She enjoys reading and music. History has always captivated her, and she likes travel and visiting ancient buildings.

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Helen Dickson




The open solitude of the land above Falmouth beckoned fifteen-year-old Rowena. She rode with reckless abandon away from the house as though the devil himself pursued her. Her scarlet skirts covered the horse’s flanks and her unbound dark brown hair streamed behind her like a ship’s sprightly pennant. Her cheeks were poppy red, the colour heightening the intensity of her eyes, their blue-green aglow with the excitement and exhilaration of the ride.

Did not her father call her a gypsy, a vagabond—all because she was too restless to be caged within the house? Her father was right. She did look like a gypsy and she was a gypsy at heart, for in her soul there was a wildness, a yearning to be free of all constraints, that made her feel like one.

When the attack came it seemed to come from nowhere. She had no time to defend herself as she was dragged from her terrified horse and thrown to the ground. Wrenching herself away from her assailant, she shrieked, but he stifled the sound, clapping his hands over her mouth. She immediately began fighting, blindly thrashing in an iron grip that pinned her to the ground. She pushed against his chest to break free, but his arms became bonds, forcing her arms to her sides, and his mouth grinding down on hers prevented her cries of rage.

Inwardly she raved. It was disgusting to be treated like this, absolutely disgusting. The depraved beast was intent on ravishment, without tenderness, without decency, as without mercy he began tearing at her clothes. Every twist of her body to escape his lust caused him to utter obscenities.

Horror at the abuse gave her frenzied strength. She fought against his brutal strength, her mind somehow refusing to accept what was happening. Tears of outrage streamed from her eyes and her soul screamed against this violation.

‘Such spirit, such defiance, my little pretty,’ the man said, laughing low in his throat. ‘Your protests are useless. It will be better for you if you do not fight me, darlin’.’

Rowena recognised her attacker—it was Jack Mason, captain of the Dolphin, her father’s ship. Earlier, when her father had introduced her to him, he had squeezed her hand and she had looked openly and without fear into his admiring eyes. His look was heavy lidded, beguiling, hungering, and had she not been a naïve fifteen-year-old, she would have been alarmed and wary, and would certainly not have been found riding alone in the open countryside.

Determined to be free from this nightmare, in one last desperate thrust she brought up her knee into his groin and shoved him away. With a yell of pain he doubled over on the ground, clutching his damaged manhood, and, taking her chance, Rowena wriggled away. On her hands and knees she looked down at him as he writhed in agony. He was seething, his eyes bulging with rage and filled with murder.

‘Think again if you intend to ravish me,’ she hissed, her eyes glaring her hatred. ‘Did you mean to frighten me?’

‘I would enjoy frightening you,’ he gasped. ‘Indeed, I would heartily like to hear you scream for mercy.’

Rowena shot to her feet.

‘Do you think to convince me of your brutal ways? Ha!’ she retorted, laughing bitterly. ‘You are as I shall always remember you—on your knees where you belong.’

Captain Jack Mason’s cold grey eyes narrowed dangerously. ‘I warn you, Rowena Golding, do not laugh at me.’

‘I do laugh at you,’ Rowena sneered and flung a further taunt full into his face. ‘Do you think I would give myself to the likes of you? You are only fit to mop the decks on my father’s ship. Aye, Jack Mason, unfit company for gentlefolk—and, more’s the pity, you are too ignorant to know why.’

Turning from him, she hauled herself on to her horse and galloped away. The man on the ground watched her go, cold murder curling round his heart. ‘Go, you little bitch,’ he ground out. ‘But you’ll be dealt with, I’ll see to that.’

Chapter One

May 1721

Lord Tennant’s masquerade balls were famous affairs, which were talked about from Land’s End to the Tamar. They were attended by the cream of Cornish society, all in a fantastic display of costumes—some quite outrageous—men in medieval, Turkish, Arab, more than one Henry VIII and Richard III, and much more that quirked the imagination. Some of the ladies had come as Good Queen Bess and two as the tragic Mary Stuart. There were Spanish mantillas, flounced skirts, elaborate wigs and fluttering ivory-and-lace fans.

In keeping with the spirit of the evening, Rowena had danced every dance with this partner and that. Despite being a great success and basking in the admiration that turned every head in her direction and brought an appreciative gleam to each male eye, in her hauteur she had no particular opinion for any of them.

As Queen Cleopatra, she was wearing a plain white linen gown and gold girdle about her slender hips; it revealed more of her shapely assets, which was considered by some to be quite shocking and indecent and would have sent her widower father into a fit of apoplexy had she presented herself for his inspection before they had left Mellin House for the ball.

Matthew Golding was a cripple and unable to attend, but such a grand occasion as this served as a marriage market for all unmarried girls. Facing financial ruin and desperate to find husbands for his two daughters, he had insisted on them attending under the chaperonage of his good friend and neighbour, Mrs Crossland, who had two daughters of her own.

As the evening wore on Rowena became bored and she found that the sparkle with which the evening had begun had evaporated. Her head beneath the heavy black fringed wig felt hot and was beginning to ache, and she was sure the kohl around her eyes beneath the mask was beginning to run in the heat.

‘I feel so hot I shall have to slip out for some air,’ she told Jane, her seventeen-year-old sister, who was dressed as a Grecian lady.

Jane was as different to Rowena in temperament and looks as it was possible to be. Pretty and small featured, Jane’s pale skin was flushed with a lovely rosy glow, her green eyes sparkling. Her whole body was surging enchantingly towards Edward Tennant, who was watching her from across the hall. Rowena intercepted the look that passed between them and her face became thoughtful. Edward was Lord Tennant’s youngest son, a handsome youth, and he had danced two dances with Jane. She looked away. Their father would be well pleased if a match could be made between them.

‘If you must. Is Edward not handsome, Rowena?’ Jane said breathlessly, her eyes shining in his direction.

Rowena’s look was keen and Jane turned eagerly to her, her radiance shining from her eyes, her expression that of all those who had found love and longed to speak of it.’

‘He is quite handsome, I do agree, and he seems much taken with you, Jane.’

‘I do hope so. Who’s that with him?’

Rowena’s eyes were drawn to the tall, indolent figure standing beside Edward. He met her gaze with the cool expression gentlemen always seemed to assume when presented with an attractive woman, but there was a leap of pleasure in his eyes behind his silver mask, which she knew was answered in hers. His identity was a mystery to her, but his manner bespoke the privileged class, of generations of men of superiority and honour. Averting her gaze, she turned to her sister.

‘I’m going outside. If you must know, this wretched wig is making my head hot and unbearable. I have to take it off, else I swear I shall scream.’

‘Then go to the ladies’ retiring room. I’ll come with you if you like. Mrs Crossland was most insistent that we were not to leave the house.’

‘I really do need to go outside for a bit. I’ll be back before Mrs Crossland notices I’ve gone.’

Jane watched her go. No one, except perhaps their father, had ever defied Rowena’s dangerous spirit, nor had the courage to try to curb it.

Through a succession of governesses had been employed to educate her, not one had had the resolution that was needed to discipline Rowena Golding.

She had a hot temper, had Rowena, which could flare in a second from mere annoyance to a rage from which one would flee in alarm. Without a mother and their father a cripple, Rowena had taken on the mantle of responsibility for her family, which gave her a degree of freedom not experienced by many of her peers. In her spare moments her laugh rang frequently across the hills around Falmouth, where she had grown up as free and wild as an unbroken pony.

Rowena ventured deeper into the gardens, smiling with amusement on hearing whispers and giggles and the odd shriek of laughter coming from the undergrowth—the gardens were full of dark places and dark deeds. Eventually she found herself in an enclosed, secluded arbour, where she tore off her mask and wig and shook her thick, dark brown tresses free.

A moment later she heard a sound. She looked towards it, her senses suddenly alert. Something or someone was watching her. Her heart began to race, urging her to turn and run back the way she had come. But then a man, tall, long-limbed, dark and mysterious in the shifting shadows, stepped into the arbour. It was the man she had seen with Edward Tennant.

She let out her breath, unaware until that moment that she had been holding it. ‘You startled me.’

‘Do not be alarmed. I mean you no harm.’

His voice was unusually deep and rich in timbre. She could not make out his face, which was hidden by a silver mask and the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat on which a black plume curled with a flourish.

He drew close, his eyes gleaming through the slits in his mask, and as she was about to step back, murmured, ‘Dear God! Never have I seen the like!’ Lifting his gaze from the gentle curve of her slender hips encased in the gold girdle, he stared into the vibrant beauty of her face. How did she get away with it?

On his arrival he had been a figure passing among the throng, a mysteriously ominous keen-eyed observer of the masquerade. This young lady had not escaped his notice—in fact, she had stood out like a black sheep in a field of white. He had watched her, with a toss of her head and a wide smile on her carmine lips, almost with wild abandon dance first with one gentleman and then another, just two who vied with many for her attention and to make her laugh—too loud at times, causing heads to turn to see what Matthew Golding’s undisciplined daughter was up to now.

Like everyone else he had been unable to tear his eyes from her, and he had observed the leap of interest in her own when she had met his gaze. He had thought her outrageous, a young woman who evidently believed she was above every consideration, every rule, every discipline that life and society dictated. He had been amused and strangely stirred by her appearance, as any man with a drop of red blood in his veins would be.

Recovering quickly from her initial discomfort, Rowena stiffened, clutching her mask and wig in both hands at her waist. ‘What are you staring at?’ she retorted rudely, her eyes dark and dangerous.

‘At you, lady,’ he answered softly. Deliberately his gaze raked over her from top to toe. ‘Did no one think to tell you that your costume is outrageous for a young marriageable lady, who with behaviour such as this will never attract the attention of a husband?’

‘And how do you know I don’t already have a husband?’

‘Had you a husband, I doubt he would allow his wife so much freedom and abandon with every one of your partners.’

She scowled, feeling a certain amount of discomfort at the way he was looking at her. ‘Would you please stop looking at me like that? I find it most annoying.’

‘If you don’t want to be looked at then you shouldn’t make a spectacle of what no sane man can resist. You can’t expect men to be unaffected by the sights you display so audaciously.’ Again he let his gaze wander speculatively over her.

Rowena was angry now without really knowing why. Perhaps it was because his words had a ring of truth to them. She had started to regret her choice of costume the moment she had stepped on to the dance floor and every face she saw was secretly smiling, covertly sneering. Suddenly she had felt stark naked. What she had done was childishly defiant and she wished she had chosen something more demure to wear.

‘What right have you to lecture me on what I should wear? It is nobody’s business and certainly none of yours, whoever you are.’ The hot flash of temper exploded quite visibly. Her nostrils flared and her soft pink mouth had thinned into a hard line, straining to find the words to punish him.

‘Then if anything should happen to you, you will have no one to blame but yourself.’

‘Why, you rude, insolent…’ Her mouth gaped in amazement and the scathing words with which she intended to berate him stuck in her throat. It wasn’t often she was lost for words, as she was now as she confronted this presumptuous stranger.

Her eyes blazed into his while her mind struggled to find something to say to reduce him to his rightful place, but even while she did so, something in the core of her sensibility, independent and wilful, dwelt on his hard, lean body and the pleasing shape of his mouth, and the dark depths of his eyes glinting at her from behind his mask. He was a head taller than she was, with wide shoulders, yet his waist and hips were slim. He stood indolently in front of her, his manner telling her plainly that it was of no particular interest to him whether he offended her or not.

‘What a capricious and flighty manner you have, along with courting danger, young lady, being out here alone in the dark.’

‘And what kind of danger could there possibly be, surrounded as I am by so many revellers?’

‘Precisely—with the majority of the gentlemen so drunk out of their minds they would not give a jot for your reputation.’ He let his amused eyes drift to her flushed face and his smile was mocking. ‘You should know better—unless, of course, you have arranged a tryst with one of the young men you danced with.’

‘Of course I haven’t,’ she snapped, her cheeks flushing an indignant red. ‘What are you doing here? Did you follow me?’

‘No, I did not, but I did see you leave.’

Rowena studied him thoughtfully. ‘You are unfamiliar to me, and I know most people hereabouts.’

His lips, well cut and firm, lifted at the corners with a hint of humour. ‘That’s because I’m not from—hereabouts. My home is in Bristol.’

‘Then that explains why I’ve never see you before. I trust you were invited to Lord Tennant’s ball?’

‘Actually I wasn’t. I am in the area for a short time and thought to sample some of the town’s novelties. When I was told about the masquerade ball, I thought, why, what a pleasant way to pass an evening. Behind a mask one loses one’s identity, so who would know I was not invited? The amusement would help me spend my time until I have to leave.’

‘And you are amused?’

He chuckled low in his throat. ‘I have heard Lord Tennant’s masquerade balls are informal, but this is informality with a vengeance. I also heard that his parties are famous for their diversions—which appears to be correct, for it seems that the accepted way of sitting out a dance is to crawl into the undergrowth with one’s partner to indulge in pleasures other than dancing. Like you, after partaking of the revelries I sought a solitary place, wishing to take respite.’

‘Then I would be obliged if you would seek another arbour in which to be solitary and leave me to mine.’ She frowned at his attire. This man intrigued her. He interested her, and so she satisfied that interest in the only way she knew how—by asking questions. ‘Forgive me, but who or what are you supposed to be? It’s bad manners not to come in fancy dress to the masquerade.’

His smile deepened into an amiable grin, showing strong white teeth. ‘My face is covered, but I am not given to dressing myself up and looking like a complete idiot. I have my reputation and my dignity to uphold.’

‘But if no one knows who you are, it doesn’t really matter, does it?’

‘Not to you, perhaps, but it does to me.’

Rowena regarded him with interest, responding to his completely easy and natural manner. His eyes twinkled wickedly through the slits in his mask, making her wish she could see the man and his expression behind it, suspecting he was grinning wolfishly. ‘But if your costume was clever and original, you wouldn’t look like a total idiot.’

He laughed, then said, ‘You look extremely elegant—and exceedingly provocative. It is clear you have put much thought into your costume—and succeeded in not looking like an idiot.’

‘You know who I am supposed to be?’

‘How could I not? You have enough kohl painted around your eyes to supply half the ladies in Egypt. Cleopatra would be envious. But I am curious as to the identity of the real you.’

‘It is no secret. Even though I wear a mask, everyone knows who I am. My name is Rowena Golding—and there isn’t a man or woman in Devon or Cornwall who doesn’t know my father, Sir Matthew Golding.’

He stared at her quite openly, behind his mask his eyes narrowing. ‘Miss Rowena Golding?’ He should have known, of course, for who else could it be? This was the girl whom the whole of Falmouth gossiped about, the whispers rustling like wind through the bracken on the land, whispers of how Matthew Golding’s daughter rode her fleet-heeled mare with all the wildness that was in her, and by God, he could see why. She was undeniably magnificent.

The gentle curves of her body all rippled beneath the fine material of her gown. Any female dressed in such revealing garments was bound to attract attention, but it was not just her lack of clothing that drew every male eye at the ball to her—it was her defiant, direct stare, the way she tossed her imperious head, the challenging set to her shoulders, and the way she moved with a sensual arrogance. But the most interesting—and more than a little surprising—thing of all was that she was Matthew Golding’s daughter.

Becoming thoughtful, he considered her apace, then, recollecting himself, took a step back and said abruptly, ‘Don’t you think you should return to your chaperon, Miss Golding, before she comes looking for you?’

They were the exact words needed to release her from the strange spell his voice and presence had cast upon her. ‘I need no one to tell me what to do, sir,’ she uttered sharply. ‘But it is time I returned to my sister, since it is almost time for us to leave.’

Rowena turned in the entrance to the arbour and looked back. The impact of his gaze was no less potent for the distance now placed between them. As if moved by forces beyond her control, she inclined her head in recognition of the strange contract conjured up between them.

Her companion of a moment before merely smiled intimately and watched her go, with a promise in his eyes that said he would see her again.

Mellin House was set in a sheltered fold surrounded by well-tended, spacious gardens and with a fine view of Falmouth and Flushing across the Haven. It had been built by Matthew Golding’s grandfather, the man who had purchased a modest sailing vessel, trading between Bristol and the Channel ports, buying warehouses to store his goods, and expanding to make his business a thriving concern.

He would have been proud of his grandson’s exploits. Matthew had become the owner of two trading vessels—the Rowena Jane and the Dolphin, trading between Cornwall, Gibraltar and the Mediterranean ports, where, taking on cargoes such as wine, lace and polished marble, they would sail on to the West Indies, the ships returning to Cornwall heavily laden with highly profitable cargoes of sugar, tobacco and possibly rum.

Today, however, Matthew Golding was facing bankruptcy. He was also crippled, having been shot in dubious circumstances four years ago on Antigua. Rowena had not been made privy to the details, but she remembered well the time he had been brought home on the Rowena Jane. The Dolphin, in command of its captain, Jack Mason, had sailed away from Antigua and nothing had been heard of the ship, its cargo or its captain since.

Matthew had expelled a great deal of hot air and vows of revenge against Tobias Searle, the man who had shot him, and Jack Mason, the scoundrel who had stolen his ship.

And now, seated at the table in his downstairs room where he conducted his beleaguered business affairs, he was awaiting the arrival of yet another suitor for his eldest daughter. Rowena had never met Phineas Whelan. He was more than twice her age, but many a lass would be honoured to have attracted the attention of such a man.

Having no need for another’s wealth, owning land and property in Cornwall and beyond, he was willing to overlook Rowena’s lack of dowry. Matthew hoped she would look on him with more favour than the others she had rejected outright, but she was proving stubborn.

Though Rowena was tempted to ride out of Falmouth to avoid meeting Mr Whelan, she resisted the temptation and instructed Annie, the housekeeper of many years, to have a fire lit and refreshments served in the drawing room. Her lovely face was composed as her mind became locked in bitter conflict with her conscience. Their situation was dire indeed. She felt compassion for her father, a person who by her action to defy him in this marriage to Mr Whelan would be wounded. She must put his wishes and the needs of her family before her own, to curb the wilful need to escape the restrictions marriage to any man would bring.

In the next halting moment, doom descended when a loud knock sounded on the door.

Her mind flew ahead with her nerves. Annie must not have heard because the knocking came again. In frantic haste she went into the hall, meeting Jane as she emerged from the kitchen to answer the door herself.

‘It must be Mr Whelan,’ Jane said, whipping the apron from round her waist as she crossed to the door.

With calm deliberation Rowena smoothed her troublesome hair from her brow and tried to soothe her anxieties as she watched Jane raise the latch and open the door. The space seemed entirely filled with a tall dark figure.

‘Please come in,’ Jane said to their father’s visitor, flushing prettily when her eyes beheld the handsome visage.

Rowena stepped forward to receive Mr Whelan, halting abruptly when he stepped into the hall. Her gaze travelled up from expensive brown leather boots, over a dark green redingote, to the face beneath the brim of a tricorn hat. Her breath froze in her throat. His face was by far the most handsome face she had seen. How tall he was, she thought, lean and superbly fit. There was an uncompromising authority, an arrogance, to the chiselled line of his jaw, and his aquiline profile and tanned flesh would have been well at home at sea.

Yet humour came quickly, softening the features, and crinkles of mirth appeared at the corners of his eyes. His eyes, compelling, bold, mocking and piercingly blue, were totally alive, as if searching out all life had to offer and determined to miss nothing. They openly and unabashedly displayed his approval as his gaze took in the length of her. The slow, lazy grin that followed and the wicked gleam in his eyes combined to sap the strength from her body.

Rowena knew at once that here was a man unlike any other she had known, a man of power, diverse and complex, who set himself above others. She felt slightly irritated by the intensity of his inspection, yet at the same time stirred by it.

This was no doddering, whiskery old man, she realised, but a man handsome and virile in every fibre of his being. That he exceeded everything she had imagined him to be was an understatement.

The man swept off his hat to reveal a short thick crop of black hair. His rich deep voice was as pleasing as the rest of him, but, when Rowena heard it, it rendered her momentarily speechless.

‘Well, well, Miss Golding. What a pleasure it is to meet you again.’

She stared at him in amazement, recognising something in his stance and in the deep timbre of his voice. Realisation that this was the man she had met at Lord Tennant’s ball hit her like a thunderbolt. He was watching her steadily now and she was glad she had tied her hair back with a bright red ribbon. If only her father had told her what he looked like, then perhaps she would not have been so reluctant to meet him. She felt her spirits lift and was unable to shake off the thrill of seeing him again.

Dear God, he was so handsome! Perfect. A supremely eligible suitor. Never in her wildest imaginings had she visualised a man quite like this. It just went to show that her wilful, rebellious heart was as susceptible to a handsome face and a pair of laughing blue eyes as the next. Any woman would be flattered, honoured, to be courted and wed to such a man.

‘You! So it was you lurking behind a mask at the ball! Oh—I had no idea.’

‘Clearly. Do you mind?’

Rowena, who had been paralysed into inaction by the knowledge of his identity, laughed outright, feeling as if a heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Mind, she thought, her common sense raging and her heart racing, surely there had to be some mistake? As she studied him intently, her face was alight with curiosity and caution.

‘Why should I mind? My father said you were coming. You are expected.’

‘Indeed?’ His eyebrows crawled upwards with a certain amount of amazement, and for a moment he looked somewhat bemused, but then he smiled, a slow, secretive, knowing smile. ‘Forgive me if I seem surprised, Miss Golding, but I expected to be received with resentment, not kindness.’

To her annoyance, Rowena found herself flushing scarlet. ‘I apologise if I appeared rude on our previous encounter, and if my father told you of my unwillingness to meet you. You see, I’m an obstinate, selfish creature—at least that is what he’s always telling me—and for the sake of relieving my own feelings, I care little for offending and wounding others. I am relieved to see you are not in the least as he described you to be, and that you greatly exceed my expectations. Has he told you much—about me, I mean?’

‘I know a good deal about you, Miss Golding. I’ve made it my business,’ he murmured, catching a tantalising scent of her flesh as she moved closer, his eye drawn to the scooped neck of her gown and her creamy, perfect skin. For a long moment his gaze lingered on the elegant perfection of her glowing face, then settled on her entrancing soft blue-green eyes. He felt himself stir in sudden discomfiture as his blood began to throb in his veins. ‘And I’m looking forward to getting to know a good deal more about you.’

‘Oh—yes, of course you are. This is my sister, Jane.’

Jane looked at the stranger before resting her gaze on her sister curiously, and then a knowing smile curved her soft lips. Rowena had shown an interest in no man beyond a willingness to engage in flirtation of the very lightest kind with local boys, and here she was, gazing at this stranger with the air of someone who has been transported to another world, fidgeting like a restless colt and with stars in her eyes, her cheeks a delicate shade of pink to match the roses on the hall table.

‘I’ll go and get some refreshment, Rowena.’ Jane quickly disappeared back to the kitchen where she was helping Annie prepare the evening meal.

The visitor was looking at Rowena in a way that warmed her body and brought a quickly rising sense of excitement. ‘I hope you won’t be disappointed, and that, along with everything else, you will be satisfied with the arrangement you made with my father.’

The humour vanished from his smile, replaced by a quizzical puzzlement. ‘Everything else?’ His look became thoughtful, and then into his eyes came a look of understanding, like a sudden flame, and he smiled slowly, as if in secret amusement. ‘Yes, Miss Golding. Be assured that I shall be more than satisfied.’

‘Never having been properly introduced, you know very little about me.’

He tilted his head to one side as he studied her face, that glimmer of secret amusement in his eyes. ‘I know that your name is Rowena, that you are the elder of Matthew Golding’s two daughters. You have lived in Falmouth all your life and your mother died several years ago. I know you were a child of unpredictable disposition, that you and your sister were well educated by a string of governesses.

‘I also know that your father has a penchant for self-destruction. He’s got himself into an appalling financial situation, and once his creditors discover his dire circumstances he will have to run for the Continent or risk facing an unpleasant, prolonged stay in a debtors’ prison. As a result he is now striving to procure for you a wealthy husband, regardless of age, status or your feelings on the matter. In short, you are loyal to a fault, left to perform the biddings of your father’s avarice. Is this correct? Tell me if I’m wrong.’

Rowena swallowed, her spirit, like her pride, shattered. She acknowledged the truth of his words with a slight, regal inclination of her head, thankful that none of this mattered to him. ‘I’d say your information is entirely accurate. I’m the only thing standing between my father and absolute ruin.’ Her lips curled bitterly. ‘What a pathetic creature you must find me.’

He stood for a moment, his imperturbable penetrating gaze studying the hurt his words had brought to her eyes. The sun filling the hall had brought a bloom of rosy colour to her delicately boned cheeks, setting off a sparkle in her jewel-bright eyes, the blue-green orbs slanting slightly upwards, thickly fringed with black lashes. There was a naïvety about her and an indescribable magnetism that totally intrigued him, as well as something special and fine.

‘I’m sure you are many things, Miss Golding, but being pathetic is not one of them. Now, isn’t it time you took me to your father?’

‘Yes, of course. Please come this way.’

‘A moment of your time, Rowena, before we go in.’

She paused and gazed up at him, noting how his expression had hardened. He had used her Christian name for the first time; though she noticed it, she liked the sound of it, the familiarity, and could not protest.

‘You may be amazed by what you hear. I apologise beforehand for misleading you.’ Without waiting for a response, he opened the door and strode into the room.

At the sudden interruption Matthew looked up from some papers he was scrutinising. With stupefied slowness his eyes focused on the man who had burst in.

‘What the devil…?’ He stared blankly, giving no hint of recognition at first, but then he froze, an expression of stunned horror on his face, and when he spoke the first word came out in a sibilant hiss. ‘You. How dare you enter my house uninvited? What do you want—and what the devil are you doing with my daughter?’

Rowena felt a strange slithering unease as she hovered in the doorway. Fear began to congeal in her breast and run its tendrils through her veins as she watched the two men.

The visitor walked to within a yard of where Matthew Golding sat beside the fire in his cumbersome wheelchair and stopped. His eyes flicked over the older man’s portly frame with contempt. As Matthew made a feeble attempt to straighten his neck linen, the corners of the taller man’s mouth twisted in derision.

‘I want answers, not questions, Golding. This is not a social call. I want justice, and by God I will have it. I am here to collect a debt. When I left Antigua I thought you were dead. Imagine my surprise when I discovered you are very much alive. You must have known I would catch up with you sooner or later, that I wouldn’t let it pass.’

Matthew’s face took on a look of incandescent rage. ‘What the devil are you talking about? How dare you force yourself into my house?’

Rowena was speechless, frozen in shock, unable to assimilate what was happening. She gaped at her father in blank confusion. When she moved towards him, bewilderment was written all over her face. ‘Father, what is this? And why are you not pleased to see Mr Whelan? Did you not tell me you were expecting him?’

Matthew looked at Rowena as if she had taken leave of her senses. ‘You brainless, witless girl,’ he snarled. ‘This isn’t Phineas Whelan.’

Rowena stared at him through eyes huge with horror and disbelief. ‘He isn’t? Oh, God,’ she cried. With sudden, heartbreaking clarity all the pieces of this bizarre puzzle began to fall into place. The whole gruesome picture was suddenly presented to her in every horrendous detail. In the space of two seconds, all those images collided head on with the reality of what it all meant, bringing her whirling around on the stranger in a tempestuous fury.

He smiled sympathetically. ‘I apologise.’ He cocked a mocking brow. ‘I take it that Mr Whelan is a suitor?’

‘How dare you?’ Rowena hissed with poorly suppressed ire, stepping closer to the intruder. ‘How dare you do this? Of all the treacherous, despicable, underhand… How dare you tell me you were Mr Whelan?’ Her mind screamed at the injustice of it, and her fury increased a thousandfold when she found his eyes resting on her with something akin to compassion or pity. It was too much to bear.

‘I didn’t.’ His tone was brusque where before it had been soft. ‘You assumed. I am sorry. I’m not proud of deceiving you. You do right to put me in my place.’

Rowena’s eyes narrowed into slanted slits of piercing green. ‘Your place? Just who are you?’

A crooked smile accompanied a slight inclination of his head. ‘Tobias Searle—at your service.’

This pronouncement of the name that had bedevilled them all since her father had been brought home close to death was like acid on a raw wound to Rowena. ‘You fraud. You disgusting fraud. You’re no gentleman, that’s for sure, and you are not welcome in this house. How dare you come here hoping to be received?’

Tobias stared at her with a look like a man who has just realised that the fragile flower he has casually picked is in actuality a hornet’s nest. It came to him that there was a changeling in the room, for this termagant was not the winsome girl who had let him in. The face that had been so open and radiant was now closed and turned against him.

‘I was quite prepared not to be received. I considered it wise not to tell you who I was until I had been admitted to your father.’

‘You told me my father was expecting you.’

His lips curved in a cynical smile. ‘That was true. He has been—for the past four years, in fact—but I confess I wasn’t invited.’ He fixed his gaze on the man in the chair. ‘Have a care, Golding,’ he warned, ‘for I would not hesitate to expose your ugliest secret to the illustrious people of Falmouth and beyond.’

‘What do you want from me?’

‘I would like to say I want recompense for a cargo of rum and sugar you stole from me, but it is as nothing compared to the compensation you owe to the families of the men who perished on one of my ships—the Night Hawk—when it was fired in Kingston Harbour four years back. The lengths you went to to prevent the ship collecting the cargo you coveted for yourself was nothing short of murder. Men who were asleep on board didn’t stand a chance of saving themselves.’

Purple veins stood out on Matthew’s forehead, his eyes protruding from their sockets as he glowered up at the other man. ‘That was not my doing,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I swear it. Jack—Jack Mason—’

‘I know Jack Mason. Captain Jack Mason, the master of the Dolphin—your vessel, I believe.’

‘Aye—and Mason, renegade that he is, made off with it and left me to rot on Antigua.’

‘Perhaps like everyone else he thought you were dead—myself included. Had I known you had survived the shooting, I would have been here sooner.’

‘Mason’s the one you should be looking for, not me. I had nothing to do with what happened to your ship.’

‘I am looking for him, only I’m having a little difficulty in tracking him down. But I shall—be assured of that. You were there that night. You saw what happened. As owner of the Dolphin, who had command of his own crew, I hold you responsible. Believe me, Golding, I am no respecter of your standing in society and I would gladly see you ruined and your house razed to the ground for what you have done, so do not think for one minute that my threat is idly voiced.’

Matthew’s usually florid features had become chalk white and his breathing shallow and rapid, as he felt the ghosts of the past begin to claw at him with savage fingers. ‘What is it you want from me?’

‘I’ve told you. Compensation for dead men. It’s a matter of human decency. Compensation for their families and for those men who were badly burned, some blinded, some with life-limiting injuries, men who will never work again, who are unable to support their wives and children.’

Appalled by what she was hearing, Rowena stared at him. ‘What are you saying?’ she cried. ‘That my father killed those men?’ The look he gave her said it all. ‘But that’s outrageous.’ She looked at her father. ‘Tell me it’s not true. Tell me he’s lying.’

‘Rowena, I did not do what he accuses me of. I may not always have done what I should, but at least I have no man’s death on my conscience.’

‘But you were there. You sailed on the Dolphin to the West Indies. I would like to know the truth of it.’

‘Damn you, Rowena. You think your father a killer, do you? I was there, I admit that, but I was nowhere near the Night Hawk when the fire started.’

Rowena believed him. She knew what Jack Mason was capable of—she hadn’t forgotten his attack on her before he had sailed for the West Indies. She directed her hard gaze on Tobias Searle, icy fire smouldering in the green of her eyes. ‘You speak of compensation for the families of those men who died. What of my father? Does he not warrant compensation from you, sir, for shooting him in the back like a coward and leaving him a cripple?’

‘And that’s what he told you, is it?’ He looked contemptuously at Matthew with a lopsided smile. ‘You have been living under a misconception. I am not a man who would shoot another in the back. God knows I wanted to shoot you; had I done so, I would not have maimed you—I would have killed you. As I recall, you were the worse for drink on the night I ran you to ground on Antigua. I doubt you can remember much of what happened. But that is not what I am here for. The debt, Golding. I do not intend remaining in Falmouth overlong, so it must be paid within the week.’

‘And it is thanks to you making me a cripple—despite what you say to the contrary—and unable to conduct my business as I would like, that I lack the wherewithal to pay,’ Matthew said, refusing to believe Searle innocent of shooting him.

Slowly, distinctly, the younger man said, ‘I have heard you soon won’t have a pittance to your name. Do you think I don’t know you have money lenders and creditors hounding you—and I don’t doubt you have even used your daughters’ dowries to put towards paying them?’ His smile was sarcastic. ‘They are like sacrificial lambs to your ambitions, are they not, Golding? However, after meeting your eldest daughter—’ he turned his head, his gaze leisurely sweeping over Rowena appraisingly ‘—I’m somewhat surprised there have been no takers. She would make the most charming companion. Perhaps I should make a bid for her myself.’ Tis obvious she doesn’t take after you.’

Matthew clenched his hands into tight fists. ‘Keep yourself away from my house and your filthy hands off my daughter. She’ll have nothing to do with the likes of you.’

Undaunted, Tobias smiled blandly into Rowena’s rage-filled eyes. ‘I am tempted to try to change her mind—if she would allow it. It would be interesting to see what might come of it.’

Her chilled contempt met him face to face. ‘Why? To try to thwart my father? Do not even think of adding me to your long string of conquests.’

He smiled with wry humour. ‘Conquest? You mistake me, Rowena. Don’t be too hasty. I might be prepared to be—generous.’

‘Generous? What are you talking about?’

‘Aye,’ Matthew said, clearly bemused, ‘explain yourself.’

‘I am not usually an impulsive man, but in exchange for your daughter’s hand in marriage, I would be prepared to reduce your debt to me.’

‘Why, you arrogant, pompous oaf!’ Rowena gasped. ‘Your callousness disgusts me. I would marry the ugliest, oldest man on earth rather than have anything to do with you.’

‘Never!’ Matthew railed over his daughter’s surprised gasp. ‘I won’t have a daughter of mine married to the likes of you. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep away from her.’

Tobias considered Matthew with open mockery. ‘Why not ask Rowena what her pleasure might be?’

‘I’d kill you before I’d see her take up with you. So be warned.’

Tobias laughed derisively. ‘I’d be careful with my threats if I were you, Golding. The last time you threatened someone, he put you where you are now. I don’t think I have anything to worry about.’ He looked at Rowena, who was glaring at him with eyes burning with indignation. ‘Do not concern yourself, Rowena. I mean you no harm.’

‘My name is Miss Golding to you,’ she retorted, twin spots of colour growing on her cheeks. ‘Take your offers and endearments and inflict them on some other willing ear.’

‘And this Mr Whelan you mistook me for—is he someone your father hopes to saddle you with? Rich, is he? Rich enough to get him out of his mess?’

‘That is none of your business. One way or another the debt will be paid in full. I promise you that. Now will you please leave. As I said, you are not welcome in this house.’

The muscles flexed in his cheek, giving evidence of his constrained anger. ‘I don’t intend staying any longer than necessary. I find merely being in this house with the man who murdered members of my crew extremely distasteful.’

He took a step closer to his adversary, his eyes merciless in their intensity, and his next words were uttered slowly, like uncoiling whips. ‘But heed me and heed me well, Golding. Were it just a matter of the cargo you stole from me by burning my ship, I might have seen fit to cancel your debt in view of your unfortunate disability—and if you had agreed to my offer to marry your daughter. But since my offer has been rejected, you will pay in full for what you did to those men. I swear, if you try to evade your obligation, I will crush you out of existence. There will be a scandal, but it would be worth the scandal to see you go under. You have a ship for sale—the Rowena Jane. I might have a buyer to put your way, which will go some way to settling your debt.’

Rowena stepped forward, her hands clenched in the folds of her dress. She felt sick and more than a little afraid of this new threat to their future security, but her anger and indignation were much stronger. Pride warred with the years of resentment she had harboured against her father’s weakness to succumb to his disability, which had seen his once-thriving business slip into a decline, but he was still her father and the ties of blood and duty bound them irrevocably. Loyalty and anger rose like a phoenix out of the ashes of her resentment towards this stranger who had tricked his way into her home.

‘I think you’ve said quite enough,’ she said, seething, incensed that this man wasn’t who she thought he was.

What a fool she had been, what an absolute idiot. For one mad, irrational moment, when he had arrived, she had been so relieved and happy to find him young and handsome—her suitor, she had thought—that she could scarcely speak. She had let herself hope. No sunshine had ever felt so warm, been so bright, dancing on her face as she had looked at him. Wrapped in that magic circle of enchantment, she had wondered what it was about him that was so in tune with her, with the flesh, the bone and muscle of Rowena Golding. Now her eyes took on a steely hardness.

‘I hate you for this. I’ll hate you till the day I die.’

‘You do right to hate him,’ Matthew seconded. ‘Now get out of my house.’

Tobias looked at Rowena. Her face was as white as a sheet, and the young woman to whom it belonged was trembling like a flower ravaged in the wind. He nodded slowly. ‘I’m sure you do hate me, Miss Golding, and I can’t say that I blame you, but when you consider what your father intends for you and your sister, then I would reserve a large measure of what you feel for him.’

After he gave her a curt bow, Rowena watched him stride to the door, where he paused and glanced back over his shoulder. His gaze rested on her, those sharp blue eyes burning with something other than anger, something she could not quite lay a finger to.


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