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14 September 1825
If you’re goin’ to have a wife, you might as well tup her right.
That bit of wisdom came courtesy of a father long lost to John Nylander, but the essence of the sentiment had somehow stuck after all these years.
A man didn’t need to love his work to do it well.
This belief had taken Nylander far, from cabin boy to captain of the Fortuyn, the East Indiaman currently being defreighted beneath his watchful eye on the banks of the muddy Thames. If he no longer derived pleasure from the work, he did, at least, experience the cold satisfaction of a job done with skill and precision. It didn’t need to thrill him.
A breeze swirled off the river and cooled the beads of perspiration coating his neck. Pleasing, that north wind on the exposed patch of skin, even if it did little to lower the heat of exertion that didn’t want to abate. It was as if he contained a furnace inside his chest. All of a sudden, his head went light, and he reached for the rail at his side. The feeling passed as quick as it had come on.
The First Mate stood at his side, a sheaf of papers extended and an expectant look in his eye. How long had the man been standing there? And how was it Nylander hadn’t noticed?
“Yes, Mr. Smythe?”
“The final accounting, sir.”
Nylander accepted the papers with a curt nod. He shuffled through the stack, a cursory glance confirming the numbers all lined up, and handed them back to the mate. “It’s ready for the hands of Danner.”
“I’ll rush it to the warehouse now, sir.” Mr. Smythe pivoted on his heel, his efficient step already on the move.
From his vantage point at the base of the main mast, Nylander watched a group of sailors set about rolling fifty barrels of spices and dyes—payment for delivering a pair of high-spirited Thoroughbreds to an Ottoman sultan—down the gangway to the warehouse to be readied for distribution through England. Escaped from the poop deck, a flock of chickens clucked past, brushing Nylander’s trousers with their affrighted wings. A swift apology on his lips, the mess boy raced behind them and attempted to contain the fractious birds.
Nylander shifted his gaze toward the waist of the ship, where the cooper set about repairing gunpowder barrels damaged by a rough night of roiling seas off Cape Vares. Beyond the cooper, a group of men inspected the rigging and sailcloth for rips and signs of wear beneath the watchful eye of the boatswain.
Temptation, sly and magnetic, tugged at Nylander. In a matter of an hour, they could weigh anchor and be gone from London, a town he’d never had much use for. They’d already waded through the necessary bureaucracy of the Pool, and the last of their small cargo was now rolling off the ship. Their work here was nearly done.
But it wasn’t anything related to his trade that stayed the command to weigh anchor in his mouth, rather it was a personal tie. He’d promised his oldest friend in the world that he would attend a dinner tonight, and he wouldn’t beg off. Even if it was a meal that would consist of, at minimum, seven full courses soaked in butter, cream, and salt. What did a man need with such rich fare that was like as not to give him gout?
He breathed out a snort. What sort of man was Jake now that he’d become the noble Viscount St. Alban? The two of them had been inseparable in their youth and early manhood spent aboard small sloops, trading up and down the coasts of the Orient, before they’d graduated to the larger merchantman vessels that could handle the open sea. A few years younger, Nylander had observed Jake with the keen eye of a worshipful little brother, and Jake had treated him as such, though no blood connected them. The Van Rijns, Jake’s Dutch mother’s family, were a tight-knit bunch, but not so insular that they hadn’t been able to admit an orphan of eight years into their midst and raise him as their own.
Now Jake existed in a rarefied world that Nylander hadn’t the faintest notion of.
He shook his head free of the thought. He may not know Jake’s new world, but he knew the man. Jake hadn’t asked for this life, hadn’t wanted it. For his own part though, Nylander couldn’t understand why. If he had the opportunity to own land, English land, he’d seize it with both hands and never look back. A man put roots down in land. The sea was a shiftless, impermanent mistress. He would take land over water any day.
Of course, water was all he’d ever known, all he would ever know. He’d accepted that fact years ago. How many orphaned boys were offered the opportunity to rise as high and amass the amount of wealth as he had?
“You might have a problem,” sounded a voice behind him.
Nylander jerked around. Tall and lean to the bone, the man before him personified the word trouble, wolfish light glimmering in his dark eyes and silvery scar racing along the sharp ridge of his right cheekbone. He’d picked up the man in Gibraltar, accepted his coin for safe passage, and spoke not another word to him for the duration. He’d expected the passenger had made his way off the Fortuyn with the other cargo.
He squared up to the man and crossed his arms over his chest. “What problem?”
“The Free Reaver.”
Nylander didn’t need to ask the man to explain himself.
“It followed us all the way from the Bay of Biscay until we came within sight of Cornwall.” The man’s gaze glittered. “Never knew a pirate barque to allow an East Indiaman with cargo to pass without incident. Curious, wouldn’t you say?”
Nylander unclenched his jaw. “Might you be making an implication?” he asked on a low rumble of menace.
A sardonic twist to his mouth, the man shook his head. “More of an observation. You know who captains the Free Reaver, I expect.”
“Aye,” Nylander grunted. “There’s not a sailor in the Atlantic who doesn’t.”
The man nodded and shifted his carryall bag to his back. “Then I’ll be taking my leave.” The man’s hand shot out for Nylander to shake. “My most sincere thanks for the ride, and Godspeed, Captain.”
Nylander’s brow creased as he watched the man stride down the gangway. To his ear, a note had ribboned through the man’s final words that ran counter to his initial assessment. Just now, the man had sounded aristocratic.
Nylander gave his head a shake. It mattered not. What mattered was that he was gone. A history lay within that man, one he didn’t want to get tangled up in.
You might have a problem.
There was no might about it. He had a most definite problem with the Free Reaver and the pirate who commanded her.
And no solution.
Around Nylander, the pace of the crew began to slow, the day’s end drawing near, as was tonight’s dinner. Beads of sweat had coalesced into a narrow rivulet that now trickled down his spine. The north wind grew stronger, threatening to pick up into the sort of gale that could give a ship trouble on the open sea. His eyes cast upward to the blue sky darkening into steel gray. A chill stood the hairs of his arms on end, yet the furnace raged on inside him.
Directly above his head, a loud pop and snap of hemp ripped through the air, followed by the swift zhush of rope rushing through rigging at a too-rapid velocity. Just as his brain registered that an object was falling, fast, he heard a shout. “Captain!”
Nylander’s gaze shot up in time to see an object . . . a man . . . closing in on him as quick as gravity allowed. He ducked backward before the man crashed down on his head, but at the last moment, reactively, he reached his arms out and stabilized his feet for the coming blow. The man slammed into him with the force of a thirty-six pound cannonball at short range, but his arms held, even if his legs didn’t. In an instant, he was flat on his arse, the inert weight of the man sprawled across his legs, and struggling to catch the breath that had been knocked out of his lungs.
Through a haze black at the edges, Nylander watched the crew roll the man off him and onto his back. As if from a great distance, he saw it was the cabin boy. Well, boy might be a stretch, the man was two and thirty years, but he was small as a lad of twelve. Nylander had a strict policy of refusing any crew member under the age of seventeen.
A sailor bent low over the cabin boy’s supine body, his ear pressed against the man’s mouth. The ship went so still, one could hear a pin drop. The sailor’s head popped up. “’E’s alive!”
The men erupted into a raucous, relieved cheer. “Ye saved ’im, cap’n!” one of the crew called out. Another crewmate held up a ragged end of rope. “Snapped clean through. Rot, I expect.”
Several slaps of good cheer landed on Nylander’s back as he came to his feet by slow increments, his body angered at what his mind had commanded without a second thought. What the blazes had he been thinking? He hadn’t. It was ever his difficulty in a situation that called for quick, decisive action. He saw a problem and became the solution before he thought.
He paid the price later, without fail. Like now.
He ran his hands through loose hair that brushed his shoulders and reknotted the leather tie that held it in place at the nape of his neck, tucking a few errant strands behind his ear.
“Sure as I stand ’ere, ’e’da bin done for if ye’d not been steppin’ in,” Nylander heard behind him and tried not to flinch at another jovial slap to his back. He needed a long soak in a steaming tub. His back, his arse, his entire body barked its displeasure from head to toe, unwilling to understand that he hadn’t a choice. The man would have died.
Not on his watch.
Watch. He fumbled his timepiece out of his pocket. Bloody hell.
The long soak would have to wait. He had just enough time to sponge off the grime of the day’s work and don his one set of fancy clothes. He swallowed back a surge of nausea, ignored the heat pulsing through him in waves and the nascent ache in his head, and willed his body to straighten to its full height before pointing his feet in the direction of his cabin.
He had an aristocratic dinner to attend in his too near future when all he really wanted was to lie down for the next, oh, three or four years.
Her boots a swift click-clack against cobblestones that matched the gray sky above, Callie kept her chin high and her mien calm. The outside world needn’t see the storm that swirled inside her.
Her raging case of nerves came down to two factors. One, she was in London. Two, she hadn’t the faintest idea why she’d been summoned five days ago.
It couldn’t be good. That she knew with certainty.
She loathed London. Its haste, hustle, and bustle. Its grime. Its stench. Its buildings, narrow and long, crammed shoulder to shoulder, and possessed of the vaguely military look of tall, skinny soldiers holding their collective breath. She’d only been here once before, and that was enough. Already, she was champing at the bit to leave.
Her grip tightened around the worn leather handle of her travel bag to still her tremble. Again, the question pressed in: Why on earth had the Viscount St. Alban beckoned her?
The man hadn’t invited her all the way from the north coast of Devon to meet face-to-face and discuss agriculture. She’d been running Wyldcombe Grange since her late husband Georgie’s death and before this new Viscount St. Alban had taken up the reins of the viscountcy. The man had never once expressed a desire to know her better, or at all, as the case was. Which further begged the question: What did the man want?
She rounded the corner onto Cleveland Row, scanning the houses to her left and right. Number 3 lay ahead. A most disagreeable possibility for the viscount’s summons poked at her. Namely, he was a man, and she a woman. Like a majority of men, he might be uncomfortable with a woman in charge. She’d met plenty of that sort of man these last few years.
Caution in her tread, no small amount of anxiety, too, she ascended the four wide steps of Number 3. She’d only stayed here the once, and that was years ago, in the first year of her marriage. Her preference for the country had suited Georgie’s preference for Town perfectly.
Her head tipped back until her neck ached as she took in the measure of the mansion. In the dusky light of impending night, the manse gleamed and shone, announcing to the world that though it might be part of it, it was also above it. Even the fetid London air smelled better here.
Shoulders squared, she tapped the door knocker once, twice, thrice for good measure, and waited. If St. Alban had called her here because she was a woman, well, she wouldn’t surrender with a whimper. Male or female, she was the first person to run the Grange in the black in twenty years.
Like a nagging muscle ache, a familiar thought wiggled into her mind. Another option did lay open to her. You can walk away.
She was still somewhat young, having been widowed two years ago at age three and twenty. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that her father could arrange another marriage for her. She wasn’t naive enough to hope for a love match, Georgie’s reaction to her physical person was a testament to that impossibility. But a woman didn’t need the conditional love of a man, not when she had the unconditional love of her child.
She could quit the Grange and pursue that life. Wife, mother, the roles she’d been promised, that had been denied her. But . . .
She loved the Grange. And, in some ways, wasn’t it like her child?
But does it love you back?
Of course not. But the work was satisfying, and she had a knack for it. She wasn’t about to give it up, not without a fight.
On silent hinges the Viscount St. Alban’s front door swung inward, and an elegant, liveried servant stared out at her, a question in his eyes for three heartbeats too long. Awareness of the country bumpkin she must appear crept through her. Her woolen travel pelisse and gown, unadorned brown and a good five years out of fashion. Her boots, black and practical, possibly still coated with Devonshire mud. And, of course, her duck-cloth travel bag, drab gray and frayed at the edges.
She’d never managed to be in fashion, or to care that she wasn’t. It was simply out of the realm of possibility for her. She was too unfashionably tall; her body too unfashionably skinny; her eyes too unfashionably brown; and her hair too unfashionably red and frizzy for her to have ever been a fashionable Miss, even in the very first blush of her youth. So, she’d shrugged her too bony shoulders and stopped trying.
Now, standing on the stylish doorstop at this most fashionable address, she considered that she could’ve given it more of an effort.
At last, the servant took pity on her and spoke. “May I be of assistance?”
Callie resquared her shoulders and drew herself up to her fullest height, which was half an inch shy of six feet. “Inform the Viscount St. Alban that the Viscountess St. Alban has arrived.” A hesitation. “Please.”
The servant’s eyebrows shot skyward. Aristocrats didn’t say please. Ever. “The Viscountess St. Alban? I believe his lordship is fully aware of the Viscountess St. Alban’s whereabouts as she and he are in the drawing room with their guests.” A heavy beat loped past. “Together.”
The hot splotch of a blush spread across Callie’s chest and up her neck, and she silently thanked her lucky stars for her unfashionably high collar. Her preference for blouses that buttoned all the way up to her chin made it impossible for anyone to know that she blushed three times a day, at a minimum. She cleared her throat and attempted to right the conversation that had gone horribly sideways. “The Dowager Viscountess St. Alban.”
On a deferential bow, the servant retreated three steps and swung the door wide. “Of course, my lady. If you will follow me.”
Callie stepped inside the bright and spacious foyer. As a child, she’d imagined the homes of the aristocracy stuffed to the brim with every expensive thing in the world, like her parents had done with their nouveau riches. But when she’d actually entered one of those homes upon her engagement to Georgie, she’d found the opposite to be true. Those with power and privilege allowed a few priceless pieces—a Ming vase, a Roman Venus—to speak their wealth for them. Understatement shouted infinite privilege like no amount of gilded finery ever could.
And she had no use for any of it, never had.
Footsteps echoed as she followed the servant into the study, pleasantly dark with rich woods and floor-to-ceiling shelves surely packed with every book known to mankind. She’d only ever been in this room once, but she was certain not one book had populated it when Georgie had been its master.
“If you will please wait here, I shall see if his lordship is in.”
“You said he’s in the drawing room with his wife and guests. Of course, he’s in.” Callie never had an ounce of patience for London manners.
A smile teetering on the edge of distress creased the servant’s face. He bowed in polite goodbye before shuffling through the doorway and out of sight.
“For pity’s sake,” Callie exclaimed to the empty room. Getting to a viscount in London was like peeling away the layers of an onion to reach its stinking center.
In Devonshire, it wasn’t possible for a lord to remain so insulated from the world outside the manor. That wasn’t to say a country lord couldn’t try. Georgie had, an effort that had run the Grange into the ground.
Movement caught at the corner of her eye. A man radiating confidence with every step strode into the room. He could be none other than the Right Honorable Jakob Radclyffe, Fifth Viscount St. Alban, the personification of the ideal aristocratic lord. And the exact opposite of the Viscount St. Alban who had preceded him in both appearance and bearing.
Georgie hadn’t been so very tall. Or so very imposing. Or so very unabashedly handsome. Except this man’s handsomeness wasn’t at all pleasing to Callie’s eye. His were the sort of looks that could be used as a weapon. With the man’s arrival in the room, the tremble had returned to her hands.
“If it isn’t the Dowager Viscountess St. Alban,” he said, the words spoken on a friendly enough note, even if a slender thread of irony might have woven through them. “Nice to put a face to the name.” He gestured toward a plush leather chair opposite the room’s grand oak desk. “Would you care to have a seat?”
On a silent nod, Callie lowered herself to a perch on its firm edge and settled her travel bag at her feet, keeping it close at hand. She wouldn’t be making herself comfortable. Her fists clenched tight at her sides, and her nails dug deep crescents into her palms, the pain enough to stay the tremor. Across shiny oak, eyes the disconcerting blue of a pale-eyed sheepdog observed her. They were the sort of blue that bore into skin and bone, straight to the essence. Her heart banged out a hard, unsteady thud.
St. Alban slouched deep into his chair, at absolute ease. “I take it the roads were clear. We weren’t expecting you until the morrow.”
Callie willed a steady voice. It wasn’t that she lacked the courage to deal with this man, but it so happened that her future lay in his hands. “Yes, your lordship.” The words emerged soft and skittish, unlike the confident and commanding voice her workers at the Grange knew. How she hated London, this room, and this blasted cocksure man, what they reduced her to. “There wasn’t a drop of rain the entire journey.”
“Remarkable. And you came here straightaway?”
“From the Gloucester Coffee House.”
“That was the final stop. I walked from there.”
“Most ladies don’t walk in London, particularly those unfamiliar with its environs.”
Callie shrugged. “It’s not a far distance by Devon standards.”
St. Alban drummed contemplative fingertips on solid oak a few rounds. He gave one final tap, shot to his feet, and strode to the brass whiskey cart situated near the bay window overlooking a garden. Callie intuited he wasn’t the sort of man who sat still for long.
“Would you like tea to be brought in? You must be exhausted after all your breakneck journeying and walking.” He held up a crystal decanter possessed of the amber glow that characterized a fine whiskey. “Or perhaps you’d prefer a drop more bracing?”
“Neither, my lord,” she spoke around the lump in her throat. If she could hear it, surely he could, too.
He poured a few fingers into an etched crystal tumbler before returning to his seat. Again opposite each other, they resumed staring across the desk. It was possible she would crawl out of her skin if the man didn’t state his business soon.
“You’re wondering why I summoned you to London.”
She nodded. Her voice had proven unreliable.
“How long have you resided at Wyldcombe Grange?”
“These last five years.” She swallowed. “Upon my marriage to the late Fourth Viscount St. Alban.”
“And do you enjoy the Grange?”
“Enjoy?” she asked, nonplussed despite her nerves. “Enjoyment has naught to do with it. The Grange is my life.”
St. Alban’s head cocked, assessing. He was trying to decide what kind of woman she was. “I appreciate your forthrightness, so I’ll return you the favor. Simply put, I’m selling the Grange.”