August 9, 1824
Royd Frobisher stood behind the desk in his office overlooking Aberdeen harbor and read the summons he’d just received a second time.
Was it his imagination or was Wolverstone anxious?
Royd had received many such summonses over the years Wolverstone had served as England’s spymaster; the wording of today’s missive revealed an underlying uneasiness on the normally imperturbable ex-spymaster’s part.
Either uneasiness or impatience, and the latter was not one of Wolverstone’s failings.
Although a decade Wolverstone’s junior, Royd and the man previously known as Dalziel had understood each other from their first meeting, much as kindred spirits. After Dalziel retired and succeeded to the title of the Duke of Wolverstone, he and Royd had remained in touch. Royd suspected he was one of Wolverstone’s principal contacts in keeping abreast of those intrigues most people in the realm knew nothing about.
Royd studied the brief lines suggesting that he sail his ship, The Corsair, currently bobbing on the waters beyond his window, to Southampton, to be provisioned and to hold ready to depart once news arrived from Freetown.
The implication was obvious. Wolverstone expected the news from Freetown—when it arrived courtesy of Royd’s youngest brother, Caleb—to be such as to require an urgent response. Namely, for Royd to depart for West Africa as soon as possible and, once there, to take whatever steps proved necessary to preserve king and country.
A commitment to preserving king and country being one of the traits Royd and Wolverstone shared.
Another was the instinctive ability to evaluate situations accurately. If Wolverstone was anxious—
“I need to see him.”
The voice, more than the words, had Royd raising his head.
“And I need to see him now. Stand aside, Miss Featherstone.”
“No buts. Excuse me.”
Royd heard the approaching tap of high heels striking the wooden floor. Given the tempo and the force behind each tap, he could readily envision his middle-aged secretary standing by the reception desk wringing her hands.
Still, Gladys Featherstone was a local. She should know that Isobel Carmichael on a tear was a force of nature few could deflect.
Not even him.
He’d had the partition separating his inner sanctum from the outer office rebuilt so the glazed section ran from six feet above the floor—his eye level—to the ceiling; when seated at his desk, he preferred to be out of sight of all those who stopped by, thinking to waste the time of the operational head of the Frobisher Shipping Company. If callers couldn’t see him, they had to ask Gladys to check if he was in.
But he’d been standing, and Isobel was only a few inches shorter than he. Just as the glazed section allowed him a view of the peacock feather in her hat jerkily dipping with every purposeful step she took, from the other side of the outer office, she would have been able to see the top of his head.
Idly, he wondered what had so fired her temper. Idly, because he was perfectly certain he was about to find out.
In typical fashion, she flung open the door, then paused dramatically on the threshold, her dark gaze pinning him where he stood.
Just that one glance, that instinctive locking of their gazes, the intensity of the contact, was enough to make his gut clench and his cock stir.
Perhaps unsurprising, given their past. But now…
Nearly six feet tall, lithe and supple, with a wealth of blue-black hair—if freed, the silken locks would tumble in an unruly riot of large curls about her face, shoulders, and down her back, but today the mass was severely restrained in a knot on the top of her head—she stared at him through eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate set under finely arched black brows. Her face was a pale oval, her complexion flawless. Her lips were blush pink, lush and full, but were presently set in an uncompromising line. Unlike most well-bred ladies, she did not glide; her movements were purposeful, if not forceful, with the regal demeanor of an Amazon queen.
He dipped his head fractionally. “Isobel.” When she simply stared at him, he quirked a brow. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Isobel Carmichael stared at the man she’d told herself she could manage. She’d told herself she could handle being close to him again without the protective barrier of any professional façade between them, too—that the urgency of her mission would override her continuing reaction to him, the reaction she fought tooth and nail to keep hidden.
Instead, just the sight of him had seized her senses in an iron grip. Just the sound of his deep, rumbling voice—so deep it resonated with something inside her—had sent her wits careening.
As for seeing that dark brow of his quirk upward while his intense gaze remained locked with hers…she hadn’t brought a fan.
Disillusionment stared her in the face, but she set her mental teeth and refused to recognize it. Failure wasn’t an option, and she’d already stormed her way to his door and into his presence.
His still overwhelming presence.
Hair nearly as black as her own fell in ruffled locks about his head. His face would make Lucifer weep, with a broad forehead, straight black brows, long cheeks below chiseled cheekbones, and an aggressively squared chin. The impact was only heightened by the neatly trimmed mustache and beard he’d recently taken to sporting. As for his body…even when stationary, the masculine power in his long-limbed frame was evident to anyone with eyes. Broad shoulders and long strong legs combined with an innate elegance that showed in the ease with which he wore his clothes, in the grace with which he moved. Well-set eyes that saw too much remained trained on her face, while she knew all too well how positively sinful his lips truly were.
She shoved her rioting senses deep, dragged in a breath, and succinctly stated, “I need you to take me to Freetown.”
He blinked—which struck her as odd. He was rarely surprised—or, at least, not so surprised he showed it.
He’d stiffened, too—she was sure of it. “Yes.” She frowned. “It’s the capital of the West Africa Colony.” She’d been sure he would know; indeed, she’d assumed he’d visited the place several times.
Stepping into the office, without shifting her gaze from his, she shut the door on his agitated secretary and the interested denizens of the outer office and walked forward.
He dropped the letter he’d been holding onto his blotter. “Why there?”
As if they were two dangerous animals both of whom knew better than to take their eyes from the other, he, too, kept his gaze locked with hers.
Halting, she faced him with the reassuring width of the desk between them. She could have sat in one of the straight-backed chairs angled to the desk, but if she needed to rail at him, she preferred to be upright; she railed better on her feet.
Of course, while she remained standing, he would stand, too, but with the desk separating them, he didn’t have too much of a height advantage.
She still had to tip up her head to continue to meet his eyes—the color of storm-tossed seas and tempest-wracked Aberdeen skies.
And so piercingly intense. When they interacted professionally, he usually kept that intensity screened.
Yet this wasn’t a professional visit; her entrance had been designed to make that plain, and Royd Frobisher was adept at reading her signs.
Her mouth had dried. Luckily, she had her speech prepared. “We received news yesterday that my cousin—second cousin or so—Katherine Fortescue has gone missing in Freetown. She was acting as governess to an English family, the Sherbrooks. It seems Katherine vanished while on an errand to the post office some months ago, and Mrs. Sherbrook finally saw her way to writing to inform the family.”
Still holding his gaze, she lifted her chin a fraction higher. “As you might imagine, Iona is greatly perturbed.” Iona Carmody was her maternal grandmother and the undisputed matriarch of the Carmody clan. “She wasn’t happy when, after Katherine’s mother died, we didn’t hear in time to go down and convince Katherine to come to us. Instead, Katherine got some bee in her bonnet about making her own way and so took the post as governess. She’d gone by the time I reached Stonehaven.”
Stonehaven was twelve miles south of Aberdeen; Royd would know of it. She plowed on, “So now, obviously, I need to go to Freetown, find Katherine, and bring her home.”
Royd held Isobel’s dark gaze. Although he saw nothing “obvious” about her suggestion, he knew enough of the workings of the matriarchal Carmodys to follow her unwritten script. She viewed her being too late to catch and draw her cousin into the safety of the clan as a failure on her part. And as Iona was now “perturbed,” Isobel saw it as her duty to put matters right.
She and Iona were close. Very close. As close as only two women who were exceedingly alike could be. Many had commented that Isobel had fallen at the very base of Iona’s tree.
He therefore understood why Isobel believed it was up to her to find Katherine and bring her home. That didn’t mean Isobel had to go to Freetown.
Especially as there was an excellent chance that Katherine Fortescue was among the captives he was about to be dispatched to rescue.
“As it happens, I’ll be heading for Freetown shortly.” He didn’t glance at Wolverstone’s summons; one hint, and Isobel was perfectly capable of pouncing on the missive and reading it herself. “I promise I’ll hunt down your Katherine and bring her safely home.”
Isobel’s gaze grew unfocused. She weighed the offer, then—determinedly and defiantly—shook her head.
“No.” Her jaw set and she refocused on his face. “I have to go myself.” She hesitated, then grudgingly confided, “Iona needs me to go.”
Eight years had passed since they’d spoken about anything other than business. After the failure of their handfasting, she’d avoided him like the plague, until the dual pressures of him needing to work with the Carmichael Shipyards to implement the innovations he desperately wanted incorporated into the Frobisher fleet and the economic downturn following the end of the wars leaving her and her father needing Frobisher Shipping Company work to keep the shipyards afloat had forced them face to face again.
Face to face across a desk with engineering plans and design sheets littering the surface.
The predictable fact was that they worked exceptionally well together. They were natural complements in many ways.
He was an inventor—he sailed so much in such varying conditions, he was constantly noting ways in which vessels could be improved for both safety and speed.
She was a brilliant designer. She could take his raw ideas and give them structure.
He was an experienced engineer. He would take her designs and work out how to construct them.
Against all the odds, she managed the shipyards, and was all but revered by the workforce. The men had seen her grow from a slip of a girl-child running wild over the docks and the yards. They considered her one of their own; her success was their success, and they worked for her as they would for no other.
Using his engineering drawings, she would order the workflow and assemble the required components, he would call in whichever ship he wanted modified, and magic would happen.
Working in tandem, he and she were steadily improving the performance of the Frobisher fleet, and for any shipping company that meant long-term survival. In turn, her family’s shipyards were fast gaining a reputation for unparalleled production at the cutting edge of shipbuilding.
Strained though their interactions remained, professionally speaking, they were a smoothly efficient and highly successful team.
Yet through all their meetings in offices or elsewhere over recent years, she’d kept him at a frigidly rigid distance. She’d never given him an opportunity to broach the subject of what the hell had happened eight years ago, when he’d returned from a mission to have her, his handfasted bride whom he had for long months fantasized over escorting up the aisle, bluntly tell him she didn’t want to see him again, then shut her grandmother’s door in his face.
Ever since, she’d given him not a single chance to reach her on a personal level—on the level on which they’d once engaged so very well. So intuitively, so freely, so openly. So very directly. He’d never been able to talk to anyone, male or female, in the same way he used to talk to her.
He missed that.
He missed her.
And he had to wonder if she missed him. Neither of them had married, after all. According to the gossips, she’d never given a soupçon of encouragement to any of the legion of suitors only too ready to offer for the hand of the heiress who would one day own the Carmichael Shipyards.
It had taken him mere seconds to review their past. Regardless of that past, she stood in his office prepared to do battle to be allowed to spend weeks aboard The Corsair.
Weeks on board the ship he captained, during which she wouldn’t be able to avoid him.
Weeks during which he could press her to engage in direct communication, enough to resolve the situation that still existed between them sufficiently for them both to put it behind them and go on.
Or to put right whatever had gone wrong and try again.
In response to his silence, her eyes had steadily darkened; he could still follow her thoughts reasonably well. Of all the females of his acquaintance, she was the only one who would even contemplate enacting him a scene—let alone a histrionically dramatic one. One part of him actually hoped…
As if reading his mind, she narrowed her eyes. Her lips tightened. Then, quietly, she stated, “You owe me, Royd.”
It was the first time in eight years that she’d said his name in that private tone that still reached to his soul. More, it was the first reference she’d made to their past since shutting Iona’s door in his face.
And he still wasn’t sure what she meant. For what did he owe her? He could think of several answers, none of which shed all that much light on the question that, where she was concerned, filled his mind—and had for the past eight years.
He wasn’t at all sure of the wisdom of the impulse that gripped him, but it was so very strong, he surrendered and went with it. “The Corsair leaves on the morning tide on Wednesday. You’ll need to be on the wharf before daybreak.”
She searched his eyes, then crisply nodded. “Thank you. I’ll be there.”
With that, she swung on her heel, marched to the door, opened it, and swept out.
He watched her go, grateful that she hadn’t closed the door, allowing him to savor the enticing side-to-side sway of her hips.
Hips he’d once held as a right as he’d buried himself in her softness…
Registering the discomfort his tellingly vivid memories had evoked, he grunted. He surreptitiously adjusted his breeches, then rounded the desk, crossed to the door, and looked out.
Gladys Featherstone stared at him as if expecting a reprimand.
He beckoned. “I’ve orders for you to send out.”
He retreated to his desk and sank into the chair behind it. He waited until Gladys, apparently reassured, settled on one of the straight-backed chairs, her notepad resting on her knee, then he ruthlessly refocused his mind and started dictating the first of the many orders necessary to allow him to absent himself from Aberdeen long enough to sail to Freetown and back.
To complete the mission that Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, had, via Wolverstone, requested him to undertake.
And to discover what possibilities remained with respect to him and Isobel Carmichael.
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