Lord of the privateers, p.43
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       Lord of the Privateers, p.43

           Stephanie Laurens

  Clunes-Forsythe met Wolverstone’s gaze. “Why are you telling me this?”

  In an even tone, Wolverstone replied, “In order to expedite the gathering of evidence to the point that any trial will be cut and dried—for obvious reasons, the government does not wish such a spectacle to be prolonged—I’ve been authorized to offer leniency to one of the six backers. Just one, for we don’t require more than one of you to give us the few pieces of information we’re still waiting on. To be clear, the crimes involved in the establishment and operation of the mine and profiting from it are hanging offences. The Crown’s leniency will extend only to commuting one sentence from hanging to transportation for life. That is the offer currently on the table. However”—Wolverstone paused in a histrionic manner Isobel, for one, appreciated—“once we have all the required evidence in our hands—which will be within a week, if not days—then the need for cooperation will vanish, and the offer of leniency will be withdrawn.”

  Clunes-Forsythe was patently following every word. A moment elapsed, then he asked, “Have you made this offer to the other five?”

  “To four of them. Risdale was picked up this evening—we haven’t yet spent time talking with him.”

  Clunes-Forsythe arched his brows. “And none of the others took up the offer?”

  “No.” Wolverstone smiled. “But none of them know about the investigations—all the rest I just shared with you.”

  A touch of wariness seeped into Clunes-Forsythe’s expression. “Why did you share that information with me?”

  “Because at this point, you, of the six, are the one who stands to gain most by cooperating. Consider—if, by some misbegotten chance, Ross-Courtney managed to get word out, and the king stepped in before we have the necessary evidence, and our ability to prosecute vanished, then the other backers might well walk free—but you won’t. You’re facing the gallows come what may. Tonight, your pursuit of the products of the mine led you to commit three major crimes. First, you kidnapped a lady from a ton ball. Second, you lifted a necklace worth a king’s ransom from about her neck and placed that necklace in your pocket.”

  Clunes-Forsythe’s black gaze swung to Royd. “Frobisher could have done that.”

  “No, he couldn’t have.” Dearne spoke from his position by the wall. “I was on his heels. You’d put a hood over Miss Carmichael’s head. Frobisher didn’t have time to lift the hood, retrieve the necklace, and put it in your pocket before I was there.”

  Wolverstone caught Clunes-Forsythe’s eyes. “You see? And your third crime was to shoot Frobisher, at point blank range, in front of me, Dearne, Lostwithiel, and several others. Your chances of talking your way free of any of those charges are nil.”

  Clunes-Forsythe stared up the room.

  No one said anything; Isobel found it amazing that even though there were close to fifty people in the room, no one fidgeted, let alone moved. Not even Iona, who had insisted on attending and was seated beside her. They were all waiting to see which way this would go. Wolverstone had made their position out to be much stronger—much more immediate—than it actually was. But he’d been convincing, and Clunes-Forsythe appeared to have followed Wolverstone’s careful direction.

  Eventually, Clunes-Forsythe straightened and drew a deeper breath. “If—I say if—I were to...expedite your investigations, would the commutation of sentence extend to the charges arising from my actions tonight?”

  He was going to accept the offer. Isobel felt triumph well and tamped it down. He hadn’t accepted yet.

  “That,” Wolverstone said, “would depend on those involved in those charges.” He arched a brow at Royd, to his right. “Frobisher?”

  Royd had been standing with arms crossed, legs braced, his eyes rarely leaving Clunes-Forsythe’s face. His gaze still on the man, he nodded curtly.

  Wolverstone turned to Isobel. “Miss Carmichael?”

  Her gaze also on Clunes-Forsythe, she, too, nodded.

  “St. Ives?”

  Isobel glanced around.

  His arms crossed over his chest, Devil Cynster was leaning against the edge of the fireplace. “I’m not delighted at the prospect.” The expression on his harsh-featured face made that obvious. “However, if agreeing means he’ll never darken England’s shores again and, instead, will slave away in a penal colony at the ends of the earth for the rest of his natural life...” Devil shrugged. “I suppose I can accept that.”

  Wolverstone looked back at Clunes-Forsythe. “You have your answer.”

  “In that case”—Clunes-Forsythe drew in a long breath—“you may consider your investigations complete.” He smiled, a thin-lipped gesture. “I never trust anyone and men like Ross-Courtney least of all. I’ve kept records of everything. All the details you might wish for. Far more than Ross-Courtney ever had an inkling I knew.” He raised his bound wrists and reached inside his coat. He struggled, but no one rose to help him. Eventually, he drew forth a chain from which dangled a key. “If you will send someone to my house, to my study, this key opens the safe behind my grandmother’s portrait to the left of the desk. Inside, you’ll find ledgers with all the details you might need.”

  Wolverstone walked to Clunes-Forsythe and took the key.

  “I have one question.” It was Caleb who spoke. “Pure curiosity. You just made a choice between hanging or what Cynster said. Why choose what many, especially of your age, would consider a fate worse than death?”

  Clunes-Forsythe’s brows rose. After a moment, he replied, “Ironically enough, I daresay it was the same choice those I condemned to slavery made. Where there’s life, there’s hope.”

  Wolverstone studied Clunes-Forsythe for a moment, then said, “Purely as a formality, we allege that you—along with Risdale, Neill, Lord Hugh Deveny, and Sir Reginald Cummins—were recruited by Lord Peter Ross-Courtney to fund an illegal diamond mine to be worked by slave labor in the West Africa Colony. The local management of the mine was provided by Arnold Satterly—a connection of Ross-Courtney’s and principal aide to the colony’s governor—along with Muldoon, the resident naval attaché, and William Winton, the assistant commissar at Fort Thornton. Can you confirm those details are correct?”

  Clunes-Forsythe leaned back in the chair and met Wolverstone’s gaze. “Your summation is correct in every respect.”

  Isobel smiled. She looked across at Royd as he looked at her.

  “Done.” They mouthed the word simultaneously.

  Then they laughed.

  * * *

  Triumph buoyed all those who’d been a part of the effort to capture the backers.

  Wolverstone dispatched Clunes-Forsythe to Essex, then returned to congratulate everyone. During her husband’s absence, Minerva had arranged for champagne to be served in the drawing room. The company toasted themselves. They toasted the captives. They toasted Royd and Isobel and all the Frobisher captains and their ladies, who, as Wolverstone put it, “had been critically instrumental in bringing an ugly chapter in British colonial rule to an end.”

  Isobel kept a satisfied smile fixed on her face; she felt the triumph as much as anyone, but she also had trouble ignoring the dark stain marring the left shoulder of Royd’s coat.

  When he bent to whisper in her ear, suggesting they use his injury as an excuse to leave, she dallied only long enough to place Iona under Kate’s wing. Along with all the others, Iona had returned to the ballroom, where fully half the ton waited, agog to learn what had transpired. Rather than dally in the front hall, stationary prey for all those intent on speaking with them, admiring the necklace—once again gracing her throat—and asking all sorts of prying questions, they left the carriages for the others, slipped out of the mansion’s side door, and, arm in arm, set off at a brisk pace.

  Away from the bustle about the St. Ives’ steps, the night was cool, the sky overcast, the streets relatively empty o
f pedestrians. They skirted two other residences hosting parties. Their long legs ate the distance, and soon, Humphrey was admitting them into the quiet of Declan and Edwina’s front hall.

  After reassuring Humphrey that all was well with his master and mistress, and that they and the others would be along shortly, Isobel pointed to Royd’s wound and requested hot water to be delivered to their room.

  Humphrey bowed. “At once, ma’am.”

  She turned and led the way up the stairs. Humphrey had consistently referred to her as “ma’am,” not “miss”; she hadn’t bothered to correct him, reasoning that, in truth, his choice of honorific was more accurate than not.

  Royd climbed the stairs in Isobel’s wake. Inside him, a morass of emotions were swirling, welling, and churning, surging toward breaking loose. He’d managed to keep them suppressed, managed to maintain a civilized façade, but even as they reached the top of the stairs, he could feel his control eroding.

  The wound on his shoulder stung, but getting shot had been a relief. Once the pistol had discharged, it had no longer been a threat to Isobel. Seeing her as he had in the instant in which he’d wrenched open the door—hooded and tied, with an unknown gentleman holding a pistol trained on her...he never wanted to face such a horrifying sight again.

  Capping the sequence of realizing she was missing, then grasping the fact that she’d been lured away, that moment had shaken him to his foundation, to a depth and a degree that, until then, he hadn’t realized was possible.

  To have secured her again, only to lose her... That couldn’t ever happen.

  She stopped outside Duncan’s door, eased it open, and tiptoed inside.

  Royd followed. He couldn’t understand why she tiptoed; their son slept as heavily as he did.

  Halting just inside the darkened room, lit only by a small night-light on the dresser, he watched as she gently tucked Duncan’s arm beneath the sheet, then she brushed back his hair and dropped a kiss on his temple.

  From where Royd stood, he could see Duncan’s face, in sleep more like Isobel’s than his.

  He could see her face, too—see the unconditional love that transformed her features from Amazon to madonna.

  Something inside him swelled, overwhelming all other emotions.

  When she stepped back from the bed, he reached out, caught her hand, and towed her out of the room. He shut the door, then drew her on to theirs; he opened it, swung her through, then followed and shut the panel.

  He’d forgotten just how much, emotionally, they mirrored each other. As he turned, intending to haul her to him, she flung herself at him, and he caught her.

  At the first touch of their lips, all restraint cindered. There was no argument about who was in charge; tonight, neither of them were.

  Neither of them could control this—this maelstrom of need.

  Passion was there, pulsing and strong, while desire raged, a fiery torrent in their veins, but it was need, raw and ungovernable, that drove them, a near-violent craving for reassurance.

  For the most elemental affirmation that they had weathered the challenge, that they were hale, whole, and oh-so-intensely alive.

  He loosened her laces just enough to drag her bodice down, then he feasted on her breasts. Her head tipped back, and she moaned, her nails biting into his upper arms through coat and shirt.

  Then her grip eased, and her hands went a-wandering—over his chest and down to, through his trousers, cup and caress him. Then her busy fingers found the buttons at his waist and slid them free.

  Her hand dove inside, and she found him. Held him, claimed him.

  Chest swelling, he raised his head, pivoted, and pushed her back against the door, then he bent his head and ravaged her mouth again.

  She met him, matched him, challenged and defied him every step of the way.

  His Amazon.

  He couldn’t wait. Neither could she.

  She kicked off her pumps.

  He rucked her silken skirts up to her waist, slid an arm beneath her hips, and hoisted her against the door.

  “Your shoulder,” she gasped, even as she wrapped her long legs about his hips.

  “Later.” He positioned his erection at her entrance, sucked in a breath at her slickly heated welcome, then thrust in, deep, into the indescribable wonder of her body.

  She wrapped him in warmth and welcome, in passion-slicked delight, held him tight and caressed...then he withdrew and thrust in again, deeper, farther, and she gasped and held him even tighter.

  They fell into the rhythm they knew so well, one that caught them, trapped them, built, then drove them.

  On, ever on.

  Into the waiting glory.

  Into the joy, the wonder, the scintillating pleasure neither could reach without the other.

  This was theirs.

  Forever and always.

  This joining at a depth that linked their souls.

  Where, beyond the senses-numbing, wit-shattering tumult of a shockingly glorious climax, love waited, a blessed benediction, to soothe their forever-yearning hearts.

  To reassure, to renew, to reaffirm what was, and what would always be.

  Them, together.

  For eternity.

  * * *

  Hours later, long after they’d heard the others come in and the house had settled for the remainder of the night, Royd surrendered to Isobel’s insistent prodding and consented to sit on the edge of the bed so she could tend his wound—bathe it enough to remove his ruined coat, waistcoat, and shirt, and then dab some ointment Humphrey had provided over the raw red groove.

  He set his teeth and endured, but when she stared at the ointment-daubed spot and said, “Should we bandage it, do you think?” he’d had enough.

  “No.” The word was categorical. He fell back on the bed and used the opportunity to wriggle out of his trousers. “Come back to bed.”

  “Hmm.” Through the shadows, she studied him, then she turned and set the pot of ointment aside.

  He shuffled higher on the bed to recline against the pillows and watch as she removed the necklace, stripped off her exceedingly crushed gown, then shed her stockings and garters, and finally, her chemise.

  Naked—an Amazon in truth—she walked through the shadows to the end of the bed, then, with an almost feline grace, she crawled up until she could sit straddling his waist.

  Her gaze had locked on his latest wound.

  Then, as if noticing them for the first time—which he knew wasn’t the case—she let her fingers trace old scars. “Was it true,” she asked, “what you said on the pavement—that if I hadn’t kicked that bastard, his shot would have gone lower? Or was that just you gilding the lily?”

  He hesitated—he had no idea what tortuous path her mind was taking—but...no secrets. “It was true. In such a situation, he could hardly have missed, and I didn’t reach him in time to deflect his aim.”

  Her gaze rose to his eyes. Her eyes were so dark, he had no hope of reading their expression, let alone her emotions, and even less her mind.

  “If it hadn’t been you... I don’t think I would have thought to kick him. I was so...” She paused, clearly thinking back. “I was going to say frightened for you, but that isn’t accurate—I was so far beyond frightened, even beyond desperate.”

  “You were where I was when I hauled open the carriage door and saw him holding the pistol on you.” He paused, then more quietly said, “I’d reached the point where nothing else mattered but keeping you safe.”

  Her gaze on his face, on his eyes, she nodded. “Yes. That’s it exactly. I don’t matter if I can’t have you—me living doesn’t matter if you’re not there to share my life.”

  He let a moment go by, then confessed, “That’s the way I’ve always felt about you.”

he drew in a breath, then replied, “And that might be the way I’ve always felt about you, too, but when we handfasted, I hadn’t had a chance to find out—hadn’t had a chance to experience that moment, that instant of utter selflessness. That instant when you realize that, even though we’re two people, in reality we’re effectively one.” Her gaze dropped to the long scar beneath her fingertips.

  And in an instant of blessed insight, he caught her train of thought. “I mentioned that I was thinking of rearranging roles in the company. I talked to my father yesterday, and he agreed. When we get back, I’ll be retiring as Principal Captain of Frobisher Shipping—the operational head of the company. We’ve all agreed that hat will pass to Caleb.”

  She considered that. “So what will you do?”

  “I intend devoting all my time to building and improving ships. With you.”

  She studied him, one finger beating a tattoo on his chest. “Won’t you get bored?”

  He shook his head. “Now I have you in my life again, now I’ve been reminded of how precious what we have between us is, now I have Duncan to care for, too, I don’t need missions to give my life purpose. I’ll have you, Duncan, and the ships we’ll build together. And the rest.”

  “What rest?”

  “A home. And Duncan’s nearly eight—don’t you think it’s past time he had some siblings?”

  “You just want him to have more brothers so you’ll have more sons to teach to sail.”

  He grinned. “Not true. A girl or two, or even three, would keep my life interesting equally well.”

  She laughed, but then she looked at him and sobered. After a moment, she said, “What truly frightened me—not just tonight, but in the attack on the compound, too—was the extent I would go to save you. Love might be a strength, but it’s a vulnerability, too, isn’t it? We both feel it that way.”

  “Yes, but there’s responsibility to counter that—a responsibility in being the one loved, in not taking silly, unnecessary risks. In not risking what we have unless we must.” He captured her fingers, drew them to his lips, and pressed a kiss to the slender digits. “And we both understand that, too.”

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