He saw her for the first time ever in a storage cellar with rain slashing at her face, standing atop a crate, struggling to fasten a window, and the first words he heard from her lips were, “Damn and blast it to Hades!”
Before he could duck his head beneath the lintel and move forward, she turned to him eyes the color of cloverleaves
and lit like lightning.
“Don’t gape, you big column of shark bait,” she shouted. “Help me!”
A blast of wind struck the building and the shop above them shuddered. Her grip slipped over the window latch.
Gabriel shoved his shoulders through the narrow doorway and in three strides crossed the room. The wind blew
hot and punishingly hard through the opening, but she did not release the latch. Covering her hand with his, he drove
the frame shut.
The building moaned, and Gabriel found himself looking down upon a nose both freckled and wet, lips both lush and damp, lashes both long and dripping, and cloverleaves that had gone entirely round. Her features were English, fine, and not unattractive. After five months at sea, he would have been one sailor in a million to resist following the trail of rainwater down her pale throat in which her pulse beat visibly to the gown laced tight around her collar, sodden, and clinging to her curves.
“Remove your hand from mine and your eyes from where they have fallen out of your head,” she said in such
an altered tone that he barely heard it below the groaning of the walls and the pounding of the rain. Rather, the
pounding of his pulse.
Too long at sea.
He removed his eyes and then his entire self. Stepping back, he offered his hand for her descent from the crate.
She lifted a single brow.
“I beg your pardon,” he said roughly, withdrawing his hand once again.
She grasped her sodden skirts and climbed nimbly down. “You are pardoned, Shark Bait. This time.”
“Lieutenant,” he corrected.
Swiftly scanning the room with those eyes that even in the murky light of this day were like the green of Highlands
mountains, she untied the ribbons at her throat, removed her dripping bonnet, and tossed it atop a barrel.
“Have you got a handkerchief?”
He reached into his waistcoat and proffered the square of linen. She glanced at his outstretched hand, then at his
face, then at his hand again, and did not move forward.
“You are a giant beast of a man, aren’t you?” she said.
“So I’ve been told.” He set the linen on a crate and backed away, curling his fingers into his palm that had
easily encompassed her whole hand. Taking up the kerchief, she unfolded it with trembling fingers and wiped the rainwater from her face. Wind and rain battered the building in frenzied fury, filling the tiny space with sound.
“I wonder how you go along aboard a ship.” Her gaze passed up and down him anew. “The crown of my head
is barely to your chin yet I found the quarters aboard our ship frightfully cramped. Unless naval ships are much
more spacious, you must spend every day bent over.”
“Aye, but only the part o’ the day belowdecks.”
The lush lips twitched. When she withdrew her gaze to look about the room, he felt the loss of that reluctant smile in his chest like the loss of air.
Nonsense. He was muddled with exhaustion from preparing the Fairway for the storm. This storage room beneath the shop was minuscule, heavy with heat, and packed with sacks of rice and grain, barrels of sugar and ham, wooden parts for furniture, skeins of silk, boxes of nails and other tools, and even one small keg of gunpowder. She strode the circumference of it, rounding him, and then halting where she had begun.
The wind blasted against the shop above and she tilted her face upward to peer at the ceiling that hung an inch above
his head. Biting her lips between her teeth, she drew a hard breath, and then looked at him again.
“I suppose you have experience with storms of this sort,” she said.
Not of this sort. But spots of pink sat upon each pale cheek now. She had tucked her hands into her soggy skirts
to hide their quivering. She was making a valiant effort to conceal her distress—more valiant than many a sailor
“ ‘Twill blow over soon enough, lass.”
“That was a lie,” she said, a dart forming between her brows. “Why did you lie to me?”
“I didna—” He bit back his retort. But his patience was frayed. There had been no sign of the Theia entering the harbor, though he had stood in the downpour until the swells were rising so suddenly and steeply over the quay he had finally been obliged to shelter here. And now this: a sharp-tongued English girl with the manners of a stevedore.
Gabriel didn’t care much for social niceties. But a man wasn’t made First Lieutenant of a ship of the line at twenty-three by failing to mind his tongue.
Minding his behavior was another matter entirely.
He bent his head and a stream of water cascaded from his hat brim. He glanced at her through the waterfall. “Would you be fretting if I remove my hat?”
The cinnamon spots that trailed over the bridge of her nose and across her cheeks crinkled together to make one big cinnamon blotch. “Why on earth should I?”
He set his hat upon a crate. Wrapping her arms about herself she watched him closely.
“Well?” she said. Some of her hair had escaped the knot at the back of her head and clung wetly to her brow
just as the fabric of her gown clung to her hips and legs.
Copper hair striated with gold.
Softly rounded hips.
The damn pulse in his head was a snare drum. He knew men whose cravings for feminine flesh got the best
of them when they finally came into port. He had never been one of those men. Women weren’t to be enjoyed
like a randy stallion taking a mare, rather with as much appreciation as a man savored a tumbler of fine brandy,
or a sublime piece of music, or a painting by an Italian master—a Michelangelo or Botticelli.
Her garments were fine, her speech cultivated, and she was old enough to know that her damp gown was not in
the least modest at present.
The stallion was winning.
“ ‘Twill be some time before the storm passes,” he said in too husky a voice. “ ’Tis miles wide.”
The brilliant cloverleaves popped round again.
“Miles?” Beneath the freckles and agitated flush, her skin was smooth—cheeks, brow, hands. She had not been
in the islands long, and she was little more than a girl.
After nearly a decade at sea, Gabriel could barely remember boyhood.
“You’ve just arrived?” he said.
“Two days ago on the Camelot.”
Gabriel knew it. As first officer on one of His Majesty’s finest ships of the line, it was his responsibility to know
the merchant vessels that docked at English ports.
“No one warned you o’ hurricanes?”
“No.” She had remarkable features: mobile and bright and expressive. “Should they have?”
“It’ll be hours still.” And it would leave a mighty mess of destruction.
“How many hours?”
“No’ till morning.”
With a long inhalation, she released her arms from about her chest. “Then we should make ourselves comfortable,” she said with newly crisp decision and swept him with another perusal, lingering ever-so-briefly on the medals pinned to his coat. “If you can. You are as wet as I, yet you look like a toy soldier, standing there so erect and unbending. I suppose sailors are accustomed to being soaked through, of course.”
“If they’re bad sailors, aye.”
Pleasure flared in her eyes. “Now, make yourself useful and help me search these crates for a woolen shawl or blanket. For I am soaked through.” She set to her task on the nearest crate, but the lid was nailed shut and her fingertips strained at the wood.
He went to her side. Scent arose from her damp hair and skin. She smelled like a memory. He withdrew the knife from his coat and pried open the lid.
“It seems that you are useful after all,” she said with a half grin that abruptly turned something very sharp in
his gut and made him want to tell her the truth. Urgently. All truths. Truths about the hurricane and truths about the
depths of the sea and the stars in the heavens and every one of the sins that made him a beast indeed.
“Lass, ’tis as likely as no’ that before this night is o’er, the sea will top the wharfs an’ swallow this building.”
“And we in it.”
“I see.” For a moment she said nothing. “After we find blankets we should look for a deck of cards or a backgammon board in these crates. For if we are to die tonight, we had better enjoy our final hours on earth, hadn’t we, Shark Bait?”
“Lieutenant.” He could not look away from her eyes. Black clouds without blotted the tropical sun, allowing
only the most reluctant light into this room, yet her eyes sparkled.
Backgammon. She had the body of a siren and the innocence of a girl.
“You’ve a disliking for sailors, it seems,” he said.
“The officers aboard the Camelot confined me to my quarters for the entire duration of the journey. They said it was not suitable for me to be atop, but I think they simply did not want me to witness them drinking the day away every day.”
More than likely they did not trust themselves with the pretty little siren wandering about.
“I think you are trying not to smile, Shark Bait. Will you attempt to deny that sailors drink excessively?”
“So, you understand the reason for my dislike.”
“Because hardworking men are fond o’ spirits?”
“Because they refused to share their spirits with me.”
They found blankets woven of soft wool and tins of biscuits. They had no lamp, which Gabriel said was for the better, and she accepted that without comment. As the storm lashed the shop above and water trickled through the seams of the window, and darkness fell, they found a cask of new rum. She said that she had never tasted rum, and asked if, being a Scot, he preferred whiskey. He replied that he did, but that any grog in a storm would do.
She smiled so readily, as though her lips were more accustomed to smiling than not. Despite her obvious breeding,
there was no maidenly modesty in her frankness. It was on the tip of his tongue to say that over both whiskey and
rum he already preferred her.
She discovered sugar, which he added to the rum to make it more palatable for her, and she sipped warily. As
the daylight waned and she explored the contents of crates and barrels, she darted glances at him—frequently.
She spoke with ease but she came no nearer to him than necessary. When the black night consumed every last wisp of light she ceased speaking. As the hurricane shook the walls, Gabriel settled onto the ground with his back against a crate. Closing his eyes, he made himself picture the Theia bobbing violently at anchor in some nearby port, its decks flooded in foam but its crew and officers tucked into some terrestrial haven.
No time left for repentance. He had thought he and Jonah would have plenty of time. Sailors perished every day at sea, but somehow he had believed them untouchable.
Invincible, Gabe. That’s what the storytellers will say of us someday. Invincible.
In the heavy darkness, her scent came to him again. Like home. Not the mossy grass of the mountains of Kallin, nor the wildflowers that carpeted the hills of Haiknayes. She smelled of woodland fir: crisp and warm and rich.
The room rattled and he felt her settle silently at his side.
“How did you come to be here in this cellar?” she said very quietly. She was close to his shoulder, closer than he
“I was watching for a ship. You?”
“I walked to post a letter and got caught up with exploring. Everything here is so different and interesting. I
was far from the hotel before I thought to turn around.” She made a sound that might have been a sigh. “I failed to heed the warnings.”
“Dinna fear, lass. ‘Twill be morning before long.”
“You are lying again, Shark Bait.” Then he felt the pressure of her body against his arm, her shoulder leaning
in. “But this time I don’t mind it.”
He did not move. He could not move. He wanted her bone and flesh pressing against his so simply. Perhaps in
these final hours that had come far too soon in his life, God was offering him mercy, a moment of innocent pleasure
after all the moments of sinful pleasure he had seized.
Something bumped against his leg. Then her fingers slipped beneath his hand. Her clasp was unhesitating, her
fingertips brushing across his palm then pressing tight against his knuckles. Palm to palm with her, he strove to
breathe and his heartbeats flew at twelve knots.
“You are lying to comfort me,” she said, “so that I will not dwell on how we are about to die.”
“Am I?” Only thin wooden walls and ceiling separated them from death, and yet the touch of a girl’s hand was all
he cared for now.
“You are,” she whispered clearly and softly beneath the storm’s scream. “It seems that I will be obliged to reconsider my poor opinion of sailors. One sailor, at least.”
Blindly he turned his face to her. He was in fact a beast of a man, and she was a little thing that he could crush
with a single arm, and he knew he should not be holding her hand, not even in this circumstance.
He bent his head closer. “Aye?”
She did not reply and her hand remained snugly in his and the night raged on.