That leftBeecham. Hewas aperfectlynice man, unlike Daniel, who wasan evil, irritating bastard. He was smart, unlike Daniel, who didn’t know enough to take a woman when she offered herself. Hewasalso good withmoney. In fact, from what Henry could findout, hehad absolutely no need for her money, so she was not quitesure of his motives for offering tomarry her. That was bothersome. He had taken her to a coffeehouse for his appointment, andValoree had enjoyed herself.Daniel hadshown up, of course, but hehad not done anything at all to emphasize anyfaults Beecham might have. She supposed he didn’t really have any. He didn’t rattle on about himself endlessly, or talk snidely about others. In fact, he wasa very quiet man. He didn’t sniffle orwhine asHavershamhad … or hadthatbeen Griswold?
He did not waste hismoney on gamblinglike Hawghton, and he certainly had not tried to slip his foot under her skirts like Scrantom. He was just a nice man who would make a fine husband.
But therewould never beany passion there. She was positive of that. Beecham had not tried to kiss ortouch her in any way during his appointment, but she knew despite that, his kisses would be justas mildand unassuming as hewas. Unlike Daniel’s kisses, which curled her toes andsinged herinsides.
Sighing, sheleaned her head back onthechair, closing her eyes again, her mind drifting. Sheheardthemenmoving about, talking quietlyas theymade their way tobed, butshewas suddenly too tired tobother getting upto goto bedherself. She knew she was falling asleep right therein thechair, but couldn’t seem to rouse herself enough care.
Shewasn’t sure what itwas that woke her. Perhaps itwas a sound that disturbedher dreamless rest, or perhaps it was her neck, which wasstiff and sore from nodding off in the chair.
Whatever it was, she woke abruptly, hereyes darting aroundthe dark room.Thefirehad goneout while she slept, but the smoky scent of itwas still in the air.
Grimacing at the pain in her neck, she rubbed atitirritably and forced herself to get up. Bed was where she belonged. She stumbledtoward the line of light beneath the salon door, thinking she would have to cuss out the men in the morning for such foolishness. They were obviously getting lazy on land if they were not even bothering to putthecandles out before retiring.
The last thing they needed was a fire.
The waveof warm, thick smoke that rolled over her as she opened the door was enough to wash such thoughts from her mind.Thelight had not been from candles at all, but from across the hall. The library door was open, and showed thefire licking its way up the drapescovering the window inside.
Bellowingat the topof her lungsforher men, Valoree hurried into the room, taking in the situation at a glance. The drapes were ablaze, and the firewas spreading from there. Runningforward, she snatchedat thecurtains, ignoringthe pain that shotthrough her fingers as she did, and ripping the drapes from thewindow.
She letgoas soon as they fell, thengrabbed up her skirts and proceeded to try stomping on the flames.Someone grabbed her from behind and moved her outof the way.
"Get outof here! Your skirts’ll catchfire. Go wakethe others!"
Henry shouted, pushingher toward the door.
Valoree hesitated, then left himto it andchargedupthe stairs, roaring at the top of her lungs as she went.One-Eye met her as she reached the upperlanding.
"What’s goingon? " he asked, still half-asleep but waking up quickly.
"Fire, " Valoree snapped, pausing to push Meg’s door open without knocking."Get up!" she yelled, hurryingin to shakethe old woman awake. "Move it, Meg. We’vegota firebelow."
"What? " the woman muttered, sitting up groggily, then immediately began coughing. Thesmokehad followed Valoree upstairsand was now rolling across the ceilingin large, billowing waves.
"Come on!" Valoreetuggedthe womanout of bed, grabbed a wrapoff thechair, tossedit around her shoulders, and bundled her quickly out of the room.She was just intime tosee Bull and Skully head downthestairs. Hurrying the older woman along, Valoreeran her down the stairs and pulled the frontdoor open.
She wasaboutto shove Megthroughwhen Henryshouted, "It’s out!"
Pausing, she whirled to stare through the smoke-filled entry toward the men comingout of the library. "What? " she askedin amazement.
"It hadn’t got far, "he explained, waving his hand in frontof his face and movingto join her where sheand Megnowstood inthe open door. "I managedto get thedrapes put out, and your shout woke Petey. He came out ofhis room off the kitchen, grabbed a pail of water on the way, and threw that over the rest." He shrugged. "That wastheend of that."
Sighing, Valoree sagged against the door frame, breathing in the fresh air that was rushinginto the entryeven asthesmoke drifted slowly out."What happened? What startedit? "
Henry shook his head, pausingto cough, then spat outthrough the door before saying, "There was nothing that could have started it accidentally. I putthe candle out after Ifinished writing them invites to Beecham andHawghton."
"You’re sure? " Valoree asked sharply, then took in the affronted lookthat immediately covered his face. Of course he was sure. Despite her thoughts onseeing thelight under thesalon door, she knew noneof themenwould make a mistakelike that.
Thirteen years hadtrained them well. You had to be extra careful about things like that onboard ship. You couldn’t runout adoor, or climbout a windowto escape a fire on a boat. Your only options were burning to death or jumping ship, then either drowning or being shark bait.
"Aye, I’msure, " he said testily. "Besides, it looked likethe fire started withthe drapes atthe windowbehindthe desk chair, and thereain’teven a tablethere, let alone a candle that mighthave sparkedit."
"It’s a curse, that’s what started it, " Skully muttered.
"Someone’sput a curseof bad luck onusfor sure, ’cause that’s all we’vehad sincewe came toLondon."
"There’s no curse, " Valoreesaid impatiently as themen began toshift. Therecould never bea moresuperstitious lot of men thanpirates. And the last thing sheneededright now wasforthe men to start harping on badluck, curses, and such. "As faras bad luck goes, aye, we’vehadsome, but we’ve had goodluck, too.
We haven’t lost a singlemanin five years of pirating.Whatother crewcanclaim that? " shesnapped, then sighed and went on. "As for these ‘accidents? ‘ callingthem a curseis foolishness."
"Aye, she’s right, " Henry agreed. "We can’tjust claimit’s bad luck; therehavebeentoo manyinstances forthat."
"And too many for them to be coincidence, even." she continued. "But they still could be. The first incidence we thought a robbery attempt, and it may havebeen.Ifso, we were lucky. They got away with naught and wesuffered little but a knockon my head."
"What about the carriageaccident? " One-Eye asked. "No-Nose brokehis leg."
"Aye, and ifyouaskme that was luck, too. Had Henry, Meg, and I been in the carriage instead of riding behind in Lord Thurborne’s hack, we wouldbe dead now.No doubting it. I say one broken leg is better than threedead any day." She allowed that to sink in, then continued. "Asfor thefire, we were lucky again. It was caughtearly, it’sout, andno one was hurt."
She sighed again, a frown twisting her mouth.Therehadbeen too much bad luck. Evenshecould seethat, but she didn’t want the men to get jumpy. "We have been lucky. But I wantto make sure thereis nothing to worry about. TomorrowIwant a couple of you men to go talkto the owner of the wagonagain, andfind out what you can. Then ask around near where the accident occurred, see if anyone saw where the fellow whowas driving ranto."
"You thinkit wasn’t an accident? " Henry said. Valoree paused.
"Idon’t know. I’djustfeel better finding out what we can." She glanced overthemen, then sighed. "Iwill seeLord Beecham and Hawghton again tomorrow and decide whichof them to marry; then we can getout of here. Thenit will be over. Now it’s late.
Whydon’t you men head offto bed? "
Meg wasthefirstto turn away toleave, butthemen did follow.
Valoreestood staringaround the library once they were gone, frowning at the fact that, somehow, a curtainwith nothingnearby to hold a candle had been aflame. If she were the superstitious sort, she mightbelieve it was a curse, or some such thing as Skully had suggested. But Valoree wasn’t superstitious. She was slightly cynical. And to her the answerseemed quiteclear that someone had setit.
Sighing, she left the libraryas well, butshedidn’t seekout her bed. Insteadshe crossed the hall to thesalon, only tofind Henry there, seated on the settee, dealingcards out onthe low table before it.
"Hazard or hearts? " heasked as shemovedto the sideboard to pour them botha drink.
"Hearts, "Valoree murmured, carryingglasses over to joinhim.
He knew her too well. She should have realized he would know she would not simplyretire and risk another fire, or any such accident, befalling them while they slept. He had figured she would sit up all night to stand guard against any further "accidents" while everyone slept, and meant to keep her company.
Picking up the hand he had dealt himself, Henry announced, "Skully andBullare going to spot us in a couple of hours;then One-Eye andPetey will take over forthem."
Valoree just gruntedand picked up her cards.
Valoree closed the door behind Hawghton with a snap and turned toeyeHenry."When doesBeechamget here? "
"Heshould be alongshortly. Ischeduled themone afterthe other. Hawghton lefta little early."
"Aye, well, you can crosshimoffthe list.Beecham it is, " she announced, walking back intothesalon.
A fewminutes later, Valoree wassittingstaring into the fire when Henry entered. Forcing herself tosit upand doingher best notto look as depressedas shefelt, she raised an eyebrow in question."Aye? What is it, Henry? "
"Well." The man hesitated, then straightened his shoulders and decided to get to the point without anyshilly-shallying. ‘The men and I were talking, and we’ve decided ye shouldn’t marry Beecham."Seeing hereyes narrow, fiercely, he quickly wenton.
"He’s too weak for ye, Captain. Ye’dwalk rightoverhim;then ye’dloathe him for lettin’ ye. Ye need someone stronger, like Thurborne there."
"I – " she beganharshly, but he interrupted before she could blast him.
"So One-Eye’s gone back to the boat to let the men know what’s about, and havethemtake avote on who we want ye to marry. I’m thinking they’ll all vote for Thurborne, too, once One-Eye tells’em they should. We surely wouldn’t have donethis had we not known ye really like the man anyway. We’ve all caught ye shilly-shallyingwith himat one point or other during the last twoweeks.Weknow yelike the fella."
Valoree flushed at his announcement, herface heating up like toast overthefire as she realizedthat she and Thurborne had been spotted in their passionate clinches.
"I – " she began furiously, but paused abruptly, her mind ticking over what he was saying. They were going to vote she shouldmarry Thurborne.She’d get a lifetime with the man. It meant a lifetime battle for her independence, and a lifetime strugglenot to be secondary tohim, but also a lifetime of passion, of finally gaining satisfaction from the man, of his finally scratching the unbearabledamn itchhe had workedso hardat buildingwithinher. And it wasnot even as if she wasgiving in.
They were basically forcing herto do it.
Or were they? If she gave inon this, mayhap they weren’t forcing her at all, and weeksfromnow …well, perhaps months…
Okay, it would probably be years. Yearsfromnow, whenher itch wasscratched and she came out of her desire-fogged state, she would awake to find she had given up her independence for somethingthat wouldnot last. She hadto considerthat. But she wasn’tgiven thechance asBull opened the doorand rumbled, "Beecham."
Valoree frowned at the news that the man was there, then glanced at Henry. "If you have finished arranging my life? "
Nodding, Henry turned and moved toward the door. Bull stepped outof the wayfor Beecham to enter. Her"uncle" paused togreet himon the wayout, then murmured something about instructing Petey toprepare atea tray. With that he left them alone. Unlike he did whenever Daniel was present, this time Henry left the door open.
"Thurborne’snot here? " Beecham asked insurprise. He came tojoin her by the fire.
Valoree made a face at the question. Apparently it had not gone without notice that Daniel always seemed to be hanging about. She hoped that he wasn’t also aware of their "shilly-shallying, " as Henry had put it. Beechamwas too nice a man forher to wishhis feelings or hispride hurt.
Sheblinkedas that thoughtran through her mindand stuck.
Beecham was toonice a man forher todeliberatelyhurt.Damn..
. She was going soft! She would have blamed it on being in London, but she knew that wasn’t the only reason behind it. It was Meg’s influence, her disapproving looks, her gentle remonstrances.
It was alsothe dresses she wasforced to go about in herein London.Meg had forcedthe men to returnall her breeches and boots to theboat after she’d discoveredherniecein them. That hadleft her withlittle choicebut togo about withthe air running upunderherskirts, and those silly, uselessslippers as heronly footcovering. Itwas hardnot to feelfeminine in that gear. And it was also Daniel, with his kissesand caresses, making herfeel like awoman forthe first time inher life. Butbeing a woman did not feel sobad when hisarmswere around her, and the heat was burning her up from the inside out.
Aye, she was going soft, she admitted with regret.
"… that is why I have always admired Thurborne. I know I would never have had thecourage to deal with and hunt down privateersand pirates."
"What? " Valoree cried in amazement as Beecham’s words registered.Obviously She hadmissed a greatdeal ofsomething that theman had been saying, and someveryimportant things, too. Seeing hisstartled expression, she forced herself to speak more calmly. "I mean, Ifearyou spokesofast I did notgather all that." It was true.If he had spoken slower, she might havetuned back in at anearlier point."Huntdown pirates and privateers? "
"Aye. Thatis what he was doing in the Caribbean all those years.Atfirst he was justthe king’sman, assessing thecargo of variousprivateers in theareaand taking the king’s fortypercent. But then when thatCaptainReddied – Are you quiteallright? You appear pale. Are you not feeling well? "