Lord of the privateers, p.4
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       Lord of the Privateers, p.4

           Stephanie Laurens
 

  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.

  “Hardly ever.”

  “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.

  * * *

  Fifteen minutes later, among other startling revelations, Royd had learned that this was Duncan’s maiden voyage. Small wonder he was so eager to see and try everything. Royd had taken him up to the stern deck and reclaimed the wheel, to Duncan’s transparent delight. He clung to the forward railing, peering down the deck and peppering Royd with questions.

  Then the companionway hatch flung back and Isobel emerged.

  Erupted from the depths was nearer the mark. Royd had seen her “wild” many times before, but he’d never seen her this...frenzied.

  Her gaze landed on him and Duncan, then, her expression curiously blank, she strode for the ladder. Despite her skirts, she was up in a blink. She stepped onto the deck, her gaze already locked on Duncan.

  Royd clenched his jaw. From Duncan’s prattle of the past minutes, it was plain the boy had been starved for all things nautical, yet the desire to be on the sea, to sail, ran in his blood. What had Isobel been thinking to keep him landlocked?

  But that question would keep until later. First, he would stand by and listen to her deal with their son. Aside from all else, she was focused on Duncan to the exclusion of literally everything else. Even him—yet another surprise for him to assimilate.

  Duncan released the railing and swung to face her; from the corner of his eye, Royd saw the boy straighten, stiffen. He didn’t hang his head. Rather, he tilted it upward a touch—to an angle Royd recognized. He struggled not to grin.

  Sea, meet granite crag.

  He’d had enough clashes with Isobel to recognize the signs. He shifted his stance so he could keep mother and son in view without being obvious.

  Isobel halted before Duncan, her hands rising to grip her hips. “What are you doing here?” Her tone was low but unsteady, a warning of imminent explosion.

  Evenly—fearlessly—the boy replied, “You said you were off on this voyage—that it was just a trip, and there was no danger involved.” He cut a glance Royd’s way, for all the world as if, having now met Royd, he was re-evaluating her veracity. Then he looked back at her, and his features set. “I’m on summer holidays for weeks and weeks yet, and you know I’ve always wanted to sail. If there’s no danger, then there’s no reason I can’t sail with you.”

  Royd kept his eyes forward and his expression noncommittal, but he rather thought Isobel had been hoist with her own petard.

  Her gaze boring into Duncan’s, she folded her arms across her chest. “So you stowed away. How?”

  “In your trunk—the brown one.”

  From the corner of his eye, Royd watched her stiffen.

  “What happened to the clothes and shoes I had in there?” Her normally low voice rose an octave. “Good God—where are they?”

  “In your other trunks. I just squished things a bit more than they already were, and they all fitted—there was plenty of room.”

  Isobel stared at her errant offspring and didn’t know what to say—not with his newly alerted father standing behind him. But at least Duncan had had the sense not to jettison her clothes; wrinkled clothes could be ironed—given her height, replacing clothes was much more difficult. She eyed him. “What about your clothes?”

  “I brought two other sets in my satchel—and my comb.”

  The most horrible thought struck. “Heaven help us—what about those at home? Did you think—”

  “I left a note to be delivered to Great-grandmama.” Duncan’s tone was the one normally accompanied by a glance heavenward, but he was clever enough not to add the action. “She’ll have it by now.”

  Her wits were still giddily reeling. Her breathing hadn’t yet steadied—she was still too easily pitched off kilter by the revelations that just kept coming. She drew in a deep breath, exhaled, then determinedly drew in another; she was not going to faint again.

  Refocusing, she discovered that two pairs of eyes were watching her closely—with near-identical looks suggesting their owners were poised for action, such as catching her if she swooned again. Lips setting, she fixed Duncan with a commanding stare. “Go down and wait for me in the cabin”—she saw his expression harden and close, and rashly relented—“or down there, if you prefer.” With a wave, she indicated the main deck. “I need to talk to Captain Frobisher—”

  “Tell him.”

  She inwardly started at Royd’s dictate—his tone made the words exactly that. Her eyes leapt to his face, and she met his hard gray gaze.

  Before she could even begin to think, he reiterated, “Tell him now.”

  She stared into Royd’s implacable gaze, felt the brutal force of his will... She could stand against him, but at what cost—to them both, and to Duncan, too?

  And given Duncan had almost certainly guessed...was there any point in putting off the moment?

  Given the timing of his birth, Duncan’s paternity had never been in doubt, but she’d steadfastly refused to name his father, to confirm or deny, which had made it easier for others to let matters lie and treat Duncan as solely hers. But she’d never lied to Duncan—and she couldn’t lie to Royd.

  And the look in his eyes made it clear that he wasn’t going to allow her to quit his deck without making a clean breast of it.

  She drew in a long, deep breath. Ignoring the way her heart thudded, she clasped her hands and lowered her gaze to Duncan’s now-curious face. She looked into his eyes—her eyes in a young Royd’s face. “I’ve always said I would tell you who your father is one day. It seems that day is today.” Her voice threatened to quaver—so much would change the instant she said the words—but she firmed her chin and forced her voice to an even tone. “Your father is Captain Royd Frobisher.”

  Duncan didn’t even blink. His gaze swung to Royd, taking in his features, not so much noting the similarities—he’d already done that—but confirming them. “Truly?” The question—laced with inquisitive interest and a touch of hope—was directed at Royd.

&
nbsp; He shifted his gaze to meet Duncan’s. “Yes. And no—I didn’t know, either.”

  With that, father and son looked at her, and she found herself the focus of twin gazes carrying a wealth of unspoken accusation.

  She had no idea how to counter it, how to respond. She felt as if she was swaying entirely out of time with the rolling of the deck. Breathing grew difficult again. She cleared her throat. “I’ll leave you two to get acquainted. I believe I need to lie down again.”

  With that, she cravenly turned tail, walked stiffly to the ladder, and started down.

  Royd watched her go, a frown in his mind if not on his face. He’d never seen her run before, certainly never from a potential confrontation. She thrived on drama and challenge—and what could be more challenging and dramatic than this situation?

  He glanced at Duncan and saw much the same perturbation openly displayed on the boy’s—his son’s—still-expressive face. Clearly, Duncan knew his mother’s proclivities and also thought her retreat somewhat strange.

  Royd looked down the length of his deck. He noted the crew members here and there; none were close enough to overhear conversation on the stern deck. Yet it was true that what Isobel and he had to discuss would be better addressed in private—away from eyes as well as ears, and without the object of their discussion standing between them. Perhaps her retreat had been strategic.

  Duncan had remained beside him, his hands lightly resting on the forward railing, his gaze—as far as Royd could tell—fixed forward, most likely unseeing.

  Royd waited, expecting that, with their relationship confirmed, Duncan would have questions.

  When the silence from that quarter continued, he glanced, faintly puzzled, at the boy.

  Just as Duncan turned to look up at him. The boy’s features had grown stony; Royd realized Duncan’s expression was now closed, forming not just a screen for his thoughts but a shield.

  When Duncan continued to study his face as if trying to make up his mind about something, Royd arched a brow in unspoken invitation.

  Duncan straightened, squared his shoulders, then drew in a breath and asked, “Are you married, then? To someone else, I mean.”

  Royd blinked. “What?” For a second he was at sea—what had prompted Duncan to ask that?—then he realized. “Good God, no!” His tone underscored the denial in an entirely convincing way.

  Even as the words left his lips, light dawned, and reality struck.

  He paused to let his mind trace the connections that had suddenly become so very clear. Rapidly, he reviewed the scenario revealed and checked his understanding, then, as much to himself as Duncan, said, “Now I think of it, I believe I’m married to your mother.”

  He was as good as, wasn’t he?

  And that, in large part, was why she had never told him about Duncan.

  * * *

  Royd spent the rest of the day fielding eager questions from his son. Most of the barrage concerned ships and sailing, but here and there a query about the Frobishers crept in. For his part, when he could get a query in, he learned that Duncan lived at Carmody Place and had been schooled with the rest of the children on the large estate by governess and tutor, but that discussions were being held about him going to a grammar school next year.

  Royd and his brothers had attended Aberdeen Grammar School; he made a mental note to inform Isobel that Duncan would be attending there, too. No need to send the boy away—a decision that found ready favor with Duncan. Once he’d extracted an assurance from Royd that he would always be welcome to explore any Frobisher ship in port, Duncan wasn’t going to readily accept any circumstance that would prevent him from taking up the invitation.

  Royd didn’t get a chance to discuss anything with Isobel until after night had fallen. Until after he and she sat down to dinner in the main cabin with their son. Just like a normal family. As it happened, the meal went off without even one awkward moment; Duncan led the way, leaving his parents to follow. Later, Isobel put Duncan to bed in the cabin to the left of the captain’s cabin. Royd watched from the main doorway, noting all the signs of mother-son affection that, regardless of the situation, were evident. When Isobel reached to turn down the lamp, he tipped his head toward the companionway. “I’ll wait for you on deck.”

  She met his gaze and nodded.

  He went up to the stern deck to check with his navigator, William Kelly, who presently had the wheel. They exchanged comments about their route southward, then fell into a comfortable silence.

  Royd leaned against the stern railing, looked up at the night sky, and waited. As the hours had passed and his new reality had taken shape and taken hold, his fury had abated, replaced by a powerful need to examine, learn, reassess, and then reform and rebuild—if he could.

  If she would.

  Several minutes later, Isobel emerged from the companionway hatch. She’d thrown a shawl about her shoulders. Knotting it against the breeze, she saw him heading for the ladder down to the main deck. She crossed her arms, holding the shawl close, and led the way to the bow.

  When he joined her, she was leaning against the starboard gunwale, staring out at the darkness ahead.

  The ship was running hard before the wind; he and his men knew this route like the backs of their hands, and he needed to reach London with all speed. Although clouds had blown up and now covered the moon, sufficient starlight remained to paint the occasional crest phosphorescent bright, creating flashes of brilliant white on the rolling night-dark sea.

  He halted behind Isobel and, with a hand on the smooth upper rail, braced himself against the irregular pitching. None of the watch was close enough to hear them, and the wind would whip away their words regardless. The stance she’d deliberately taken meant he couldn’t see her face, but at this point, that might make the discussion they had to have easier. Certainly easier to keep on track.

  She remained silent, but he’d expected that—that it would be up to him to lead. He started with what was, to him, the most pertinent question. “Why?”

  He sensed rather than heard her sigh, but her head remained high, and her voice, when it reached him, was strong.

  “You weren’t there. You’d left and hadn’t come back.”

  “But I did come back. Why didn’t you tell me then?” Why didn’t you tell me I had a son?

  “Because if I had, you would have taken him from me. Given Duncan was a child born of a failed handfasting, all rights regarding him would have rested with you as his father. I would have had no say in his upbringing or his life—no right to keep him with me.”

  He frowned. Why would he have taken...? His perception whirled like a kaleidoscope; when the facts settled again, they formed a different pattern—one altered to accommodate what he’d just heard. What she’d just revealed.

  The only reason for her hiding Duncan’s existence was if she had decided she didn’t want to marry him.

  Yet there was still something out of alignment; the pieces still didn’t fit. In all the years since, she’d never even encouraged any other suitor.

  “Isobel—”

  “You would have.”

  There was so much conviction underlying the words, he felt forced to consider...and he had to admit, if she’d wanted to marry another, and he had known about Duncan...

  In a rush of emotion, he remembered how he’d felt when she’d told him to go away and had shut the door of Carmody Place in his face. She was the mercurial one, but in truth, he wasn’t far behind her when it came to temper, although he burned cold while she flamed hot. He’d been frigidly angry and hurt—a dangerous combination. She’d been one of the few people who could truly hurt him—he’d given her his heart, after all—and she had. She’d crushed his heart and flung it back at him. Or so he’d thought.

  She was right. Regardless of what she’d intended to do, if he’d k
nown about Duncan then...he couldn’t say what he might or might not have done.

  She shifted fractionally and tightened her grip on the shawl. “Know one thing—I will never allow you to take him from me. Remember that. Believe that.”

  He had no trouble doing so. He knew her nature, how passionate and devoted to her causes she became. How she gave her whole heart, and even her soul, to protecting and nurturing those she loved—like Duncan. Like Iona. Like Katherine Fortescue.

  More than any other, he’d been the recipient of her passion and devotion once upon a time.

  And he missed that, too; he had every day since she’d slammed that damned door.

  Looking back...he couldn’t explain, even to himself, why he hadn’t tried harder. He had attempted to talk to her in the days that followed, but after twice meeting a blockade—manned by her family, admittedly; he hadn’t succeeded in speaking directly to her but had assumed they’d acted with her blessing—he’d ended in an even fouler temper and had walked away and never gone back.

  He’d given up on her, on them, and on all the promise that he’d thought they’d had.

  And he’d felt righteous and entirely justified in doing so. She had rejected him, after all.

  Pride had risen up, sunk its claws deep, and ridden him.

  To his mind, he’d returned a conquering hero, albeit one not publicly acknowledged; that mission had been covert first to last. He’d been riding high, sailing home with his ego inflated by the immense satisfaction of a job done better than anyone could have hoped. It had been a quiet triumph. Regardless of her not knowing the details, he’d expected her—his handfasted bride—to welcome him with one of her brilliant smiles and open arms. Instead...the reality had been so very different, he’d struck back by turning and walking away.

  She hadn’t lived up to his dreams—the dreams that had kept him alive, his skills and talents honed and focused, through all the preceding hellish months.

  He’d wanted to hurt her as she had hurt him—so he’d walked away and left her.

  He hadn’t appreciated then what he’d been walking away from—not just a son but the one woman—the only woman—with whom he would ever contemplate sharing his life. His soulmate. His younger self hadn’t understood the magnitude of all that title encompassed, but he’d always known that she was his—his other half, his anchor in life’s storm.

 
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