He wasalsostrong, obviously a man who used hisbody for more than posing orprimping. She would notbe at all surprised to learn that hehad been chipping in physicallyto correct thingsat hisfamily estate, whichhe claimedwasin suchdisrepair.He had the shouldersof a workingman, not a dissolute landowner. He hada good senseof humor, and had madeher laughseveral times last night. Then, too, what other lord was likely to direct awoman tohis fountainto have her wash off, then help her climb over his own wallto avoidhaving to pass back through his guests? He was a sharp thinker, too, and commanding – -traits she possessed herself and could appreciate. And damned ifhe wasn’t the finest kisser.
Of course, she remindedherself solemnly, mayhap every man kissed like that. But good Lord, her lips were still numb and tingling, not to mentionthe inner backs of her thighs where he hadpressed those finalkisses good-bye.
Aye, she’dlike tosee more of the man.She fanciedshe’deven paya king’s ransom to bed him, but marriage? Now that was another thingentirely, and sheknew darned wellthat was the reasonMeg wasbringinghim up. It was what all of her crew wanted – for herto marryand getthem theirpromised homes.So, of course, knowing theman was inthe same position as herself, they would look to him as a prime candidate. Unfortunately, Valoree couldn’t agree with them. She would not be ruled. And Thurborne was the ruling sort. Just look howhe had not gone away and left her_alonetonight! How hehadnotaccepted her refusal to dance.Nay, he liked things his own way. Like her. And aship just couldnot have two captains.
‘Tell mesomething, "Valoree murmured now as Megopened her mouth to comment again. Closing her mouth, the older woman raised her eyebrows questioningly, and Valoree asked, "Who are you? "
The woman stiffened, her eyes turning wary, and Valoree smiled. "I noticed tonight while you were talking to Lady Thurbornethat you know quite a bit about Port Royale. You’ve been there."
"Nay, I’ve just listened well, " Meg answered quickly."Sailors willtalk whileintheir cups."
"You have been there, " Valoree insisted. "You know more about it than I. And you are of noblelineage, for all that you lookedlike a down-and-out prostitutewhenBull found you. No prostitute could walkquiteasstifflyortalkquiteasprecisely as you do. Now I’ll ask you again, who are you? "
Meg glared at her silently for a moment, then shrugged indifferently. She turned awayto clean upthemess She had made on the smalltable with her garden medley. "It does not matter. I was hired for ajoband amperformingit to the bestof myability.
That is all you need know."
"IfearI disagreewith you."Valoree stood to block her path as thewoman triedto carry thebowl of remainingsalve towardthe door. Shestared down at the suddenly nervous womanandsaid grimly, "If you are a lady and of the nobility, you may be recognized. Then ourlittletaleof your being my aunt could be ruined.I cannot risk that. Whoareyou? "
Meg hesitated, then turned aroundto drop herloadback onthe table. Wipingherhands on the apron she had donned over her gown, she sighed. "You are right, of course. Iwas born a lady.
But you need not fear my being recognized. I left London twenty-seven years ago, married, and livedin theCaribbean. On aplantation even, so that would fit rightinwiththestory wehave passed around."
"And your family? "
Her mouth tightened. "My husbanddied lastfall. We had no children, as hecould notfather them. I have no family."
Valoree heard the painin Meg’svoice ather admissionand felt pity fora moment, butshe tamped it down. Too many people were affected by this. She could not afford for pity to get inthe way of herprotectingthe men who counted onher."No parents? No brothers or sisters left here inLondon? " Her expression made Valoree’s gaze narrow. "Which is it? A brother? "
"Sister." Shesighedmiserably, herhead lowering further. "But you need notfear her acknowledging me inany way. She …I…
There wasa rift."
Valoree waited a moment, then sighed and moved backto her seat. Settling there, she gestured to the other chair as Meg glanced at hernervously. "You hadbest tell meall."
Megsatwith resignation, thenshruggedunhappily. "There is little to tell. I was young and thought I was in love. I did something foolish and found myself unmarried andwithchild."
Valoree archedan eyebrow atthat. "Whydid your family not force amarriage? "
Meg shrugged. "My father probably would have, but I did not tell them. I did notwishthe baby’s father to be forced to marry me. Hedid not believe it was his, anyway. He said ifI had given myself soeasily to him, how was he to know Iwas not sofree withothers? " Sherelated her story as dispassionately as if telling the time of day, a sure sign to Valoree that it had been incredibly painfulfor her at the time.
"Ifled toan empty cottage on the edge of anestate myparents owned, " Meg continued. "Itwas in the north. ThereI had the babe. It… it was born dead." Her voice trembled, her hands twisting viciously at her apron. Taking a deep breath, she straightened and finished. "BecauseI’d fled, my reputation would beintatters amongtheton. Itwould be quitethescandal.I had to get away, so I caught a ship for the Caribbean, metmy husband on it, and wasmarried at sea the day beforewe landed in Port Royale. Ilived thereeversince andhad absolutely no contact with my family in that time."
Valoree peeredather silently, positive the woman was lying, or at least leaving somethingout, but unsure how to force itfrom her.Or if she even hada right to.Ifit did not affect her, or her men, she really had no need to know. But… "Your parents? "
"Dead."Thewordwassaid without emotion. "Theywere both dead within ten years ofmyleaving."
Valoree nodded slowly. "So this scandal is the reason you believe yoursister, Lady Beecham, will not acknowledge you? "
"It is the reason I know she will not, " Meg snapped, then suddenly froze. Her eyes snapped up to Valoree’s, wide with shock. "How did you – "
"She looks just like you, " Valoree explained."She isthinner, meaner, and grayer mayhap, but I sawright away that she hasthe same features. I just needed something to make merealize it."
She paused. "I take it thatis whyyoudraggedthe bottle to bed andmade damn sure you would not have toattend her soiree? "
Turning pink, Megnodded.
"Didyou reallydrink it all? Or did you justswish asip around in your mouthand splash some on yourself tomake yourselflook worse? "
The woman’seyes widenedslightly. "How did you guess that? "
Valoree smiled. "Ladies do not drink rum, Meg. You made that clearatWhister’s. I thought it odd that youhad drunk it."
"Oh, well, therewasnothing else available. I had to nag Henry the next dayto gethim to bring in some brandy and such – justin case I neededanother escape in the future."
"Hmmm." Valoreeconsidered the situation, then glanced at her again. "And all thetimeson theshipwhen you appeared to be drinkingor drunk? "
Megbowed her headmiserably."The same. Isplashedsome rum on myself and pretended to be useless.I justwanted to be alone to think."
Valoree accepted thatsilently. "Haveyou seen your sister since returning? "
"I haveseen her from a distance, but Ihave not spokenwith her, "Meg said carefully. "I had intendedto avoidany functions it was likely she wouldattend, and – "
Valoree waved her to silence."We shall deal with this problem if andwhen it arises. How did you endup as you were when Bull found you? "
Meg gavea dispiritedsigh. "I was robbed.I had hired a hackat thedocks to take me to a nice inn. He hadloadedeverything on topand wastaking meto one whenI spotted…a shop I wished to look in. I hadhim stop, went in totake alook around, and when I came out, he had just drivenoff withallmy things." She shook her head with disgustat the memory."I never should have left the carriage.I should have just waited until Iarrived at the inn – "
"Most likely you never would have arrived, " Valoree interrupted quietly. "It was probably lucky foryou that yougot out. You have tobe carefulabout things like that. Thereare men justwaiting to prey onwomen travelingalone. I heard a story of a similarincidentthe day we arrived in London. A well-bred woman arrived on aship, hired a hack totake herand herservant toa relative’s, and they never made it.Theauthoritiesfound both women the next morning – dead. Alltheir belongingshadbeen taken, eventheclothes offtheir back."
Meg paled, her eyes going round with horror. Toput her at ease, Valoree quickly asked, "So you were left without your things.Howdidyour dress getruined and – "
"Oh, " Meg interrupted irritably. "I… Well, I just started to walk. I did notknow whatto do. I was flustered by the fix I found myself in anddid not pay enough attention towhere I was headed.By the timeI did, it was tofind that Ihad made my way back toward the docks." She grimaced and nodded at Valoree’s shake of thehead."Aye, Iknow it wasfoolish of me. The area was horribly run-down. The smell alone…" She paused and shuddered, then sighed"Well, I realized my folly at once, and turnedto head backthe wayI had come, buthad barely done so when I was accosted.
"Rightthere, in broad daylight, two youngruffians grabbed me andstarted todragme into an alley.I screamed, and they koshed me over the head. When I awoke, everything was gone: my jewelry, my cape, myreticule withthe last of my money. They hadleft me lying in a pileof filth. I stank and my gown was ripped and filthy. Iwas woozyand weak.I could not see any injuries, butI could feel alarge bumponthe backofmy head. I knew I needed help, and as frightened as I was to leave the relative safety of the abandonedalley where I hadbeen left, my head ached horribly and I feared if I allowed myself to lose consciousness, Iwould diethere. Itried to get to myfeet, butthe worldseemed to spinaround me, so I hadto half crawl, halfdrag myselfoutinto the street. Itwas night by then andthestreets weremuch less busy. Those people stillwalking about simply ignored my pleasfor help. I’msure theythoughtI was justwhat I lookedlike: afallen woman. Then a coupleof young nodcocks, as you would call them, came along. They were drunk and stumbling, and they assumed I was drunkas well. When Iraised a handtoward themto plead forhelp, they thought it was a drink I wanted. They hadsome fine sport emptying their bottle over me andlaughing at my pathetic state before moving on.
"The next person tocome alongwas Bull, " she finished quietly.
"Bythattime Iwasratherresignedto dying, but hestopped and seemed to look me over, thennodded to himself.
"How would you like a handout of the gutter, old girl? ‘ he asked. When I nodded dumbly, he picked me up and started walking, carrying me in hisarms as he told me what he was about. ‘We need ye fer a job, a respectable-type job – chaperoningour captain. If youdoit allrightand proper, there’s food, clothes, aplace to stay, and a cottageof yer own at the end of it. Thinkyou could playa lady? ‘ "
She laughed with real amusementnow andshook herhead."I am not evensure ifI meant to help youat that point. I simply wished to get away fromthe docks atthe time. I was still rather groggy, my head aching, while you and the dressmaker’s wife bathed, dressed, and measured me. But in the morning, when I awokeon the ship, I thought it through. I had no money. No home. And fromwhatI could tell, no family. A cottage ofmy own onan estate faraway from court, with thebeautyand peace of the country, seemed afineplace for me to sitand reflect inmy old age."
"Aye, Isuppose it is, " Valoree said, moved. She sighed. Here was another burden for her conscience, another soul whose future it seemednow depended onher.
"If I have answered all your questions, " Meg said, standing suddenly, "I thinkI shalljust – "
"Go ahead."Valoree sat back inher chair with afrownas Meg left the room. She had toget married. She had to regain Ainsley and get Henryhis roses, Pete hisown big kitchen, and Meg a home in which to settle. They alldepended on her. Her mind raced, but she kept coming back tothegossips being her best hope. She simply could not bear another party – or any engagementthat mightresult in another debacle regarding her makeup.She hadno graces to attract ahusband. If astraight-out callsent through thegossipsdid not work …well, she mightjust have toconsider Thurborne.
"Good morning, Valoree. Your face is looking abit better."
Valoree gruntedin response to Meg’s comment as she entered the morningroom. She knew by the expressions on her men’s faces, and bywhat she had seen for herself upon awakening, that the woman was lying through herladylike teeth. No doubt she was just tryingto make Valoreefeel better, but Valoree didn’t much care how she looked;she had noballs to attendtoday. She was just relieved thattheirritation had gone away.
"Well, eat upquick there, Captain, girl, and we shall head out nice and earlyto the shops, " Henry suggested with bluff good cheer.
Turningasuspicious glareon the man, Valoreedropped into the seat atthe head of the table.Peteimmediately carried in a largetrayof baked goodsthat made her stomachgrowl. "Andjust what would youbethinking we might need to go totheshops for? "
Her quartermaster hesitated, his gaze shooting to Bull and One-Eye, who sat on either side of her. When the two men nodded in encouragement, heclearedhis throatand continued, "Well, yecan’t bewearingthat slopye wore lastnightagain, so we’ll have to go find you some other muckto – "
"The hell we will, " Valoreesaid in a growl, rising to her feet.
"There will be nothing more on my face. Two such incidents wereenough."
"Now Captain, girl, " Henrytried."Iknow – "
"Ho!" No-Nosehurried intothe room, excitement lighting his eyes."There’s threefellers at the door, allof’em looking’to see the captain. Theygave me these."
"Letme see those, Robert, " Meg murmured, holding out her hand for the cards he held. Squirmingunderheruse of his real name, No-Nose handed the cards over and waited along with everyone else as she perused them.
"Lord Chaddesley, Lord Alcock, and Lord Heck-ford, " she murmuredthoughtfully, tappping the cards againstone hand.