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LORD OF THE PRIVATEERS
THE ADVENTURERS QUARTET VOLUME 4
PROLOGUE (SECOND HALF)
Dawn wasn’t even a suggestion on the horizon when Isobel stepped onto the planks of Aberdeen’s main wharf. In a traveling gown of bone-colored cambric with a fitted bodice, long, buttoned sleeves, and full skirts, with a waist-length, fur-lined cape over her shoulders, she deemed herself ready to sail. A neat bonnet with wide purple ribbons tied tightly beneath her chin, soft kid gloves, and matching half boots completed her highly practical outfit; she’d sailed often enough before, albeit not usually on such a long journey.
She paused to confirm that the five footmen, between them carrying her three trunks, were laboring in her wake, then she turned and strode on.
Flares burned at regular intervals, their flickering light dancing over the scene. The smell of burning pitch and the faint eddies of smoke were overwhelmed by the scent of the sea—the mingled aromas of brine, fish, damp stone, sodden wood, and wet hemp.
The Frobisher berths were already abustle—a veritable hive of activity. Stevedores lumbered past with kegs and bales balanced on their shoulders, while sailors bearing ropes, tackle, and heavy rolls of canvas sail clambered up gangplanks. Accustomed to the noise—and the cursing—she shut her ears to the crude remarks and boldly walked toward the most imposing vessel, a sleek beauty whose lines she knew well. The Corsair was one of two Frobisher vessels making ready; over the gunwale of the company’s flagship, Isobel spied Royd’s dark head. She halted and studied the sight for an instant, then turned and directed her footmen to deliver her trunks into the hands of the sailors waiting by The Corsair’s gangplank.
She was unsurprised when, on noticing her, the sailors leapt to assist. All the men on the wharf and on the nearby ships knew her by sight, much as they knew Royd. Throughout their childhoods, he and she had spent countless hours in these docks and the nearby shipyards. At first unacquainted with each other, they’d explored independently, although Royd had often been accompanied by one or more of his brothers. In contrast, she had always been alone—the only child of a major industrialist. In those long-ago days, these docks had been Royd’s personal fiefdom, while the shipyards had been hers.
In that respect, not much had changed.
But when Royd had hit eleven and his interest in shipbuilding had bloomed, he’d slipped into the shipyards and stumbled—more or less literally—over her.
She’d been a tomboy far more interested in the many and varied skills involved in building ships than in learning her stitches. Although she’d initially viewed Royd’s incursion into her domain with suspicion and a species of scorn—for she’d quickly realized he hadn’t known anywhere near as much as she had—he’d equally quickly realized that, as James Carmichael’s only child, she had the entree into every workshop and vessel in the yards, and no worker would ignore her questions.
Despite the five years that separated them—an age gap that should have prevented any close, long-term association—from that moment, Royd had dogged her footsteps. And once she’d realized that, as the eldest Frobisher brother, he had access to the entire Frobisher fleet, she had dogged his.
From the first, their relationship had been based on mutual advancement—on valuing what the other brought in terms of knowledge and the opportunity to gain more. They’d both been eager to go through the doors the other could prop wide. They’d complemented each other even then; as a team, a pair, they’d enabled each other to intellectually blossom.
They’d encouraged each other, too. In terms of being single-minded, of being driven by their passions, they were much alike.
They still were.
Isobel watched her trunks being ferried aboard and told herself she should follow them. This was what she’d wanted, what was necessary—her traveling with Royd to Freetown so she could fetch Katherine back. That was what was important—her first priority. Her second…
When she’d informed Iona of her intention to ask Royd to take her to Freetown—to browbeat him into it if she had to—Iona had looked at her for several seconds too long for comfort, then humphed and said, “We’ll see.” When she’d returned from Royd’s office and told Iona of her success, her grandmother had scrutinized her even more intently, then said, “As he’s agreed, I suggest you use the hiatus of the journey there and, if necessary, the journey back to settle what’s between you.”
She’d opened her mouth to insist that there was nothing to settle, but Iona had silenced her with an upraised hand.
“You know I’ve never approved of him. He’s ungovernable—a law unto himself and always has been.” Iona had grimaced and clasped her gnarled hands on the head of her cane. “But this state you’re both in—as if a part of your life has been indefinitely suspended—cannot go on. Neither of you have shown the slightest inclination to marry anyone else. For both your sakes, you and he need to settle this before you become too set in your ways—I wouldn’t want that for the Frobishers any more than I would wish it for you. Living your life alone isn’t a state to aspire to. The pair of you, together, need to decide what is and what isn’t, accept that reality, and then move on from there.”
Iona had held her gaze, and Isobel hadn’t been able to argue. Despite settling things between Royd and her being much easier said than done, she had to acknowledge that Iona had it right—for multiple reasons, the current situation couldn’t go on.
But Iona’s reaction to Royd agreeing—and when Isobel had reviewed the exchange, she’d realized he’d agreed without any real fuss—had raised the question of why he had. Did he have some ulterior motive in mind with respect to her? Just because she’d seen no sign of any such ambition on his part didn’t mean it wasn’t there—not with Royd.
She glanced up at the ship, then nodded a dismissal to the waiting footmen, hauled in a breath as if strengthening invisible shields, raised her skirts, and started up the gangplank. She couldn’t understand why Royd hadn’t married someone else; once he did, her way forward would be clear. But he hadn’t, so now she was faced with the necessity of exorcising their past and putting it to rest once and for all.
That was her secondary objective for this trip—to kill off the hopes that haunted her dreams and prove to her inner, still-yearning self that there truly was no hope of any reconciliation between them.
He’d handfasted with her, warmed her and her bed for three weeks, then disappeared on some voyage for the next thirteen months with no word beyond his initial assurance that the trip would take a few months at most.
And then, without warning or explanation, he’d returned.
He’d expected her to welcome him with open arms.
Needless to say, that hadn’t happened—she’d told him she hadn’t wanted to see him again and had shut the door in his too-handsome face.
“Handsome is as handsome does”—one of Iona’s maxims. To Isobel’s mind, she’d lived that, and as witnessed by the past eight years, it hadn’t gone well. But for some godforsaken reason, her fascination with Royd had still not died. She needed to use this journey to convince that naive, yearning self who had once loved him with all her heart that Royd Frobisher was no longer the man of her dreams.
She needed to use this journey to eradicate every last vestige of buried hope.
To extinguish the kernel of her once-great love.
She’d been walking upward with her eyes on the wooden plank. She reached the gap in the ship’s side, raised her head—and looked into Royd’s face. The very same face she would dearly love to strip of its power over her witless senses.
She was a long way from succeeding in that. Her heart performed a silly somersault, and her nerves came alive simply because he was close.
Then he added to her difficulties by extending his hand.
She was quite sure he did it on purpose, to test her. To try, in his usual challenging way, to discover what she intended on the voyage—whether she would insist on the rigid distance she preserved while sailing with him when testing their latest innovation or whether she was going to acknowledge that this voyage was different. That this was personal, not professional.
In for a penny, in for a pound. If she was going to use the journey to resolve what lay between them, she might as well start as she meant to go on.
Steeling her nerves and every one of her senses, she placed her gloved fingers across his palm—and clamped down on her reaction as his fingers closed firmly—possessively—over hers.
“Welcome aboard, Isobel.” Inclining his head, he handed her down to the deck.
He released her, and she could breathe again. She nodded regally. “Again, thank you for agreeing to let me sail with you.” She raised her gaze and met his. “I know you didn’t have to.”
A quirk of his black brows spoke volumes.
“Capt’n—” Royd’s quartermaster, who’d been backing toward them while relaying orders to crew in the rigging, swung around, saw her, grinned, and bobbed his head. “Miss Carmichael. Always a pleasure to have you aboard, miss.”
“Thank you, Williams.” She knew and was known to all of Royd’s crew; all had sailed with him for years. She glanced at Royd. “I’ll get out of your way.”
He waved to the stern deck. “If you want to remain on deck until we’re at sea, you’ll be least in the way up there.”
She assented with a nod and walked to the ladder. Royd followed, but he knew her well enough to allow her to climb unaided; she was more than accustomed to going up and down ladders while wearing skirts.
She felt his gaze on her back until she gained the upper deck. She stepped away from the ladder, then glanced back and down. Royd had already returned to Williams, and they were discussing which sails Royd thought to deploy for sailing out of the harbor.
Once they hit the open seas, he’d fly most of his canvas, but negotiating the exit from the basin and the mouth of the Dee required a fine touch and much less power. Courtesy of the improvements she and Royd had made, when under full sail, The Corsair was the fastest ship of her class afloat—another reason she’d petitioned him to take her to Freetown. Quite aside from the assured speed, she was eager to see how the alterations she’d tested only on short forays into the North Sea performed on a much longer journey.
Lifting her gaze from Royd’s dark head, she looked along the main deck. From all she could see, they were almost ready to cast off.
Turning, she saw Liam Stewart, Royd’s lieutenant, standing ready at the wheel. He glanced her way and smiled.
She smiled back and nodded. “Mr. Stewart.”
“Miss Carmichael—welcome aboard. I hear you’re sailing south with us all the way to Africa.”
“Indeed. I have business in Freetown.” She realized that where Royd had been, so, too, had Stewart. “I take it you’ve visited the settlement before.”
Stewart nodded. “We’ve sailed into the harbor there several times, but not in the past…it must be four years.” He cast her an apologetic glance. “Being a relatively new settlement, it will have changed significantly since last we were there.”
She grimaced, but Stewart wasn’t the man who would be by her side when she ventured into the settlement in search of her cousin.
“I need to run through the checks on the rudder. Royd and I normally do that together, but”—Stewart nodded down the ship—“he’s busy resetting those rigging lines. Would you like to stand in for him?”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure.” She walked purposefully toward him. Meeting his widening eyes, she smiled sweetly and reached for the wheel. “But if you think I’m going to be the one hanging over the stern, you’re sadly mistaken.”
He grinned sheepishly and surrendered the wheel. While she swung the wheel, halting at the usual positions, he checked that the rudder responded freely and swung to the correct angle.
By the time they were done, Royd was calling for the lines to be cast off. He strode down the deck and came up the ladder in rapid time. Straightening, he saw her standing behind the wheel.
She savored his blink of surprise—then she stepped aside and gestured to the vacated position. “Your wheel is yours, Captain.”
He cast her a look as he strode forward, but the instant his hand touched the polished oak, his focus shifted. One glance confirmed that the lines had been freed. He glanced at Stewart as he came to stand by the rail on the other side of the wheel. “Very well, Mr. Stewart—let’s get under way.”
Stewart grinned. “Aye, aye, Captain.”
Isobel gripped the rail and watched as, with Stewart acting as his spotter, Royd eased The Corsair from her berth, working with only a jib.
As he feathered past the ships anchored in the basin, he called up more sail, but gave the canvas only enough play to have the hull gliding forward. Then they were through the narrows and turned, and the mouth of the Dee lay ahead, unobstructed by any other vessel, and Royd called for full mainsails. Topsails and topgallants followed in rapid order, then he called for the royals…and the ship lifted.
Literally lifted as the wind caught the unfurling sails and powered the vessel on.
Feeling the wind buffeting her bonnet, Isobel pushed it back so it lay across her nape, the better to appreciate the ineluctable thrill of speed.
And yet more speed as the skysails unfurled.
She listened with half an ear to the rapid-fire instructions as this sail was drawn in, that eased, and the ship, now well out from the shore, heeled to the south.
She couldn’t stop smiling.
As he had several times since they’d left the wharf, Royd glanced at Isobel’s face—let his eyes drink in the sheer joy displayed there, openly, for anyone to see. Emotionally, it was like looking into a mirror; this was something they’d always shared and patently still did—this love of the sea, of racing over the waves, of harnessing the wind and letting it have them.
Yet another strand in the net that still linked them.
Usually on a voyage, after steering the ship past the river mouth and into the ocean swells, once he felt the hull riding smoothly and was satisfied with the set of the sails, he would hand the wheel over to Liam, who normally stood the first watch from port. Today, when his lieutenant sent him a questioning look, he shook his head and remained where he was, with his hands on the wheel and Isobel beside him.
When she sailed with him during the testing of their improvements, she rarely stood anywhere near him; if she came up to the stern deck, she would stand at one rear corner where, from his position at the wheel, he couldn’t see her.
So although she’d sailed with him often in recent years, this was different. He wanted to prolong the moment, to wallow in the connection, in the shared passion that still linked them, in the magic that still reached to their souls. To experience again the mutuality of the sensitivity that had them glorying at the feel of the wind in their hair and of the deck surging beneath their feet.
She didn’t look at him—he would have felt her gaze—so he looked at her frequently. He drank in her delight and felt the same joy move through him—and felt closer to her than he had in years.
Patently, this element of their togetherness was still there, alive and very real, strong, and apparently immutable.
If this aspect of their long-ago connection—the plethora of shared needs and desires that had urged them to the altar and seen them handfasted—had survived the years unchanged…what else remained?
He had to wonder—and wonder, too, about the past eight years of being so very definitely apart.
Why had she turned from him?
And why had he allowed it?
The latter wasn’t a question that had occurred to him before, yet…standing alongside her again, aware of all he felt for her still, it was a valid question.
Eventually, their tack took them farther from land, and he reluctantly brought the magical moment to an end. With a few words, he surrendered the wheel to Liam, stepped back, and turned to Isobel.
Instinctively, Isobel swung to face Royd; her senses leapt, and she realized remaining close had been a tactical error…then again, wasn’t this what she wanted? To explore what remained between them, put whatever that was into some more mundane context, and, hopefully, cauterize her ridiculous sensitivity to his nearness. She couldn’t retrain her senses if she didn’t allow herself to dally close to him.
That said…she pushed away from the railing. “Perhaps someone can show me to my cabin?” From long experience, she knew that the only way to deal with Royd was not just to keep the reins in her hands but to use them.
His face was always well-nigh inscrutable; she could read nothing from his expression as he inclined his head. “Of course.” He waved her to the ladder.
She walked across, turned, and went quickly down.
He followed and dropped lightly to the deck beside her.
She’d assumed he would summon one of his men—his steward, Bellamy, for instance—and consign her into their care. Instead, he stepped to the companionway hatch, pulled it open, and waved her down. “I’ve moved my things out of the stern cabin. It’s yours for the duration.”
“Thank you.” With a haughty dip of her head, she went down the stairs. She stepped into the corridor and started toward the stern. “What cabin are you using?”
Having worked on The Corsair over the past years, she knew the ship’s layout. Unlike most vessels of this class, Royd’s personal ship had fewer cabins, but each cabin was larger; his captain’s cabin took up the entire width of the stern and was unusually deep.
“I’ve taken the cabin to the right.”
The captain’s cabin had doors connecting to the cabins on either side, creating a multi-roomed stateroom. She’d gathered such spaciousness and the luxurious fittings were a reflection of the quality of passenger Royd occasionally ferried to and fro; he rarely did anything without calculation and some goal in mind.
She walked unhurriedly along the corridor, striving to appear entirely unaware, even though, with him prowling at her heels in the confined space, her every nerve was alert and twitching.
Clearly, she had a long way to go to eradicate her Royd sensitivity.
The door to the stern cabin neared, and she slowed. Then she stiffened as, in one long stride, Royd closed the distance between them, reached past her, grasped the knob, and sent the door swinging wide.
Ignoring the warmth washing over her back, tamping down her leaping nerves, she inclined her head in thanks and swept through the door.
Her gaze landed on the figure kneeling on the window seat.
He’d been staring out at the dwindling shore—she raised her gaze and saw the last sight of land vanishing into the sea mist—but he’d turned his head and was looking at her.
Panic gripped. Hard.
Every iota of air left her lungs. She swung on her heel, slammed both palms to Royd’s chest, and tried to shove him back so he wouldn’t see…
He’d halted in the doorway. He didn’t move, didn’t shift an inch. One glance at his face confirmed that he was staring across the cabin, transfixed.
Her pulse hammered. Unable to—not daring to—shift her gaze from his face, she watched as realization dawned, as he grasped the secret she’d hidden from him for the past eight years…then shock stripped all impassivity from him.
He dropped his gaze to hers. Fury—fury—burned in his eyes.
Mingled with utter disbelief.
She couldn’t breathe.
Through the roaring in her ears, she heard the thump as Duncan’s feet hit the floor.
Royd’s breath caught, and he wrenched his gaze from hers. He looked across the room, then his eyes narrowed, his features set, and he looked back at her.
She stared into his eyes. So many emotions roiled and clashed in the gray…anger, accusation, hurt. She couldn’t take them all in.
Her senses wavered, then swam. Her vision grayed…
Royd was already reeling when Isobel’s lids fell, and her head tipped back, and she started to crumple—
With a muttered oath, he caught her. It took a second for him to register that she truly had fainted, that she was limp and unconscious. He’d never known her to faint before—panic spiked and swirled into the cauldron of emotions surging through him.
He juggled her, then hoisted her into his arms and straightened.
He felt as if he was swaying, but the sensation owed nothing to the motion of his ship.
A rush of footsteps neared. “What did you do to her?” The boy skidded to a halt an arm’s length away. He looked up at Royd, sparks and daggers flashing from eyes that were all Isobel, his young face pale—Isobel-pale—but his jaw setting in a way Royd recognized. Fists clenching, the boy glared up at him. “Let her go.”
The command thrumming in the words was recognizable, too.
Royd dragged in a breath. Looking into a face so like his own was only adding to his disorientation. “She fainted.” At present, that was the most critical issue. He hefted her more securely against his chest. “We should lay her down.”
The boy’s glare barely eased. “Oh.” He glanced around. “Where?”
“The bed.” Royd nodded to the bed hidden behind its hangings. “Draw back the curtains.”
The boy rushed to do so; he grabbed handfuls of the heavy tapestry fabric and hauled the curtains to the bed’s head and foot, revealing the sumptuously plump mattress and large pillows.
Royd knelt on the bed and laid Isobel down with her head and shoulders on the pillows. He’d never dealt with a fainted female before, and that it was Isobel only added to his near panic. He undid the ribbon holding her bonnet in place, then raised her head, pulled the now-crushed bonnet from under her, and flung it aside. He eased her back to the pillows, loosened the ties of her cape, then smoothed her hair back from her face.
She didn’t wake.
The boy scrambled up from the foot of the bed and crawled to kneel on her other side. He peered at her face. “Mama?”
Royd sat on the side of the bed. He picked up her hand, drew off her glove, then chafed her hand between his; he’d seen someone do that somewhere.
The boy studied what Royd was doing, then picked up Isobel’s other hand, tugged off her glove, and roughly rubbed her hand between his own. His gaze locked on her face as if willing her to wake.
Royd found his gaze drawn to the boy’s face, his profile, but the strangeness of looking at himself at an earlier age was too confounding. He forced his gaze to Isobel. He frowned. “Does she often faint?”
The boy’s lips set. He shook his head. “I’ve never seen her do this before. And the grandmothers have never said anything, and they yammer about such things all the time.”
Grandmothers, plural. Royd made a mental note to investigate that later.
“Will she be all right?” The boy’s quiet words held a wealth of anxiety.
Royd wanted to reassure him, but wasn’t sure what he should say. Or do. After flailing through the clouds of distraction in his mind, he reached for Isobel’s wrist, checked her pulse, and found it steady and strong. Relief flooded him. “Her heartbeat’s steady. I doubt there’s anything seriously wrong.”
The boy had watched what he’d done, but wasn’t sure…
“Here. Let me show you.” Royd reached across and lifted Isobel’s hand from the boy’s. He traced the vein showing through her fine skin. “Put your fingertips just there. Press a little and you’ll be able to feel her heart beating.”
He waited while the boy tried; the lad’s face cleared as he felt the reassuring thud of his mother’s heart. “What’s your name?”
The boy glanced briefly his way. “Duncan.”
Royd forced himself to nod as if that wasn’t an earth-shattering revelation. The firstborn sons of the Frobishers bore one of three names in rotation—Fergus, Murgatroyd, and Duncan.
He let his gaze skate over the lad—all long skinny limbs and knobbly knees, gangly like a colt. He’d been the same; so had Isobel. “How old are you?”
“I’ll be eight in October.”
He could have guessed that, too.
He looked at Isobel’s still-unresponsive face. He had so many questions for her, he could barely think of where to start. But first…what did one do to revive a woman who had fainted? “I don’t have any smelling salts.” Bellamy might have some somewhere, but Isobel would hate the crew learning of such uncharacteristic weakness. “A cold cloth on her forehead might help.” He rose, crossed to the washstand, and dipped a small towel in the pitcher. After wringing most of the water from the cloth, he returned to the bed. Duncan helped him drape the cold compress across Isobel’s brow.
Royd stood back and watched. Duncan sat back on his ankles, waiting expectantly.
Isobel didn’t stir.
“Let’s try raising her feet.” Royd grabbed two of the extra pillows and handed them to Duncan. “I’ll lift her ankles—you push those underneath.”
Once that was done, they waited another minute, but Isobel remained comatose.
Royd frowned. “I’m certain she’s only fainted.” She’d been so stunned, so shocked, to find Duncan there. He looked at the boy. “She’s safe here—she can’t roll out of the bed.” It was a ship’s bed; it had raised sides. “I suggest we leave her to recover in peace. Meanwhile, we can get some air.”
He needed to breathe. Deeply. He needed to feel the wind in his face, to let it blow the fog from his mind.
Then he needed to grapple with the reality of the son he hadn’t known he had.
At the mention of getting some air, Duncan’s attention had deflected to him. “You mean go up on deck?”
Royd held his son’s gaze—so much like Isobel’s. “You’re too young to go into the rigging, so yes—on deck.”
For a second, Duncan wavered; he looked at Isobel again, then he shuffled back down the bed and hopped off. He straightened and tugged the short jacket he wore into place.
After one last glance at Isobel, Royd led the way to the door.
Duncan trailed after him.
When he reached the door, Royd glanced around and saw Duncan staring back at the bed.
“She will be all right, won’t she?” he asked.
“Is she often ill?” Royd would have wagered on the answer being no.
“Well, then.” He opened the door and led the way out. “Let’s leave her to rest.” More quietly, he added, “Perhaps she needs it.”
She was going to need to be very wide awake when next he got her alone.
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