Book View Café Publishing Cooperative
Edition March 11, 2014
Copyright © 1991 Patricia Rice All rights reserved
Cover design by Kim Killion
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portion thereof, in any form.
First published by New American Library, New York 1991. This is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Alex examined the motley throng below. Well-dressed gentlemen in dark broadcloth and tricornes, who were quite likely merchants, mixed with tradesmen in long jerkins and leather breeches, right alongside of a gang of ruffians in tattered shirts and worn sailor’s garb. Despite their differences in station, the entire mob seemed to be in general agreement on the topic of the gaudily dressed gentleman’s ancestry. Interesting, but not worth more of his time.
He went in search of Jack and found him staring down at the crowd with a frown of concern. “What’s the racket about down there? Are the natives always this restless?” Alex demanded.
“See that gent in the bright coat?” Jack pointed out the well-fed, elegantly-clad fellow. “That’s the customs officer. It looks like he’ll be tied up for a while. We can’t unload until he approves our papers.”
Hampton grimaced. “In that case, lower the plank. I’m going ashore. I’ll leave the unloading in your expert hands.”
Several of the mob turned to stare as Alex descended from the Cranville Enterprises frigate. Apparently deciding he was no danger, they returned to their shouting. Alex elbowed his way through the crowd without interference.
He eyed the row of tidy brick structures along the wharf with irritation. Somewhere amid those unimposing structures worked an expert troublemaker. He would locate the crotchety old gentleman, demand an explanation, maybe even have him sign an affidavit to the effect that it was all a mistake, and then he would find the nearest promising tavern and a good whore.
He trudged along the wharf searching for a name to match the letter in his pocket. He cursed the heat, the noisy mob, and the wretch who had forced him to leave his creature comforts to make the interminable journey to this forsaken hole.
His partners had insisted the man was a trusted merchant and that any complaint must be taken seriously. But Alex had personally overseen the loading of the ships in question. He would have bloody well known if there were any illegal goods in that hold before they sailed. Someone was trying to stir trouble, and he damned well intended to know why.
The warehouse with “Wellington Storage” emblazoned in bold letters above the office door was not difficult to locate. From the size of the structure, this was no small operation. No wonder his partners had insisted on investigating. Still, men were known to get senile.
Alex stepped into the dusky interior without hesitation. A long counter separated the office from the lobby. He admired the neatness of the small room in comparison to his dust-and-cobweb-infested offices back in England.
A clerk appeared from a hidden doorway. With only one small window over the high account desk, the room relied on a single lamp for illumination. Alex could discern little of the clerk but slim height and an unusual smock. Peremptorily removing the letter from his pocket, he consulted the signature to verify his memory.
“I have come to see E. A. Wellington. Is he here?”
“I am E. A. Wellington. May I help you?”
He started at the husky, sensual timbre of that voice. As the clerk strode forward, the sun caught a copper glint in long, glossy, chestnut hair pulled back in a single black ribbon.
Alex skeptically raked his gaze over E. A. Wellington’s odd garb. Breeches and stockings appeared beneath the smock, but the shoes were much too small to be a man’s. His gaze probed the contours of the flowing blue muslin without success.
He finally settled on the unmistakably feminine features above the uncollared cloth. Large, haughty eyes regarded him with dislike from beneath arched brows.
He met the dislike with coldness. “I’m not inclined to deal with females or underlings. I wish to speak with the E. A. Wellington who wrote this letter, and I wish to do it immediately. I haven’t journeyed here from London to be fobbed off by charades.”
The clerk stepped to the counter and removed the letter from his hand. She was above middle height, but not so tall that he couldn’t look down on her lustrous hair. A woman with hair that thick could drive a man to distraction wondering what it would look like if the ribbon came untied. Alex held his lust rigidly reined as she regarded the letter.
She returned it to the counter and met his furious eyes. “I am Evelyn Amanda Wellington, and I wrote that letter. I will assume you are not Lord Cranville. Does this mean I am dealing with an underling?”
Alex’s temperature shot up another few degrees. He had known men to quake in their shoes when he regarded them with less fury than he did this female now. His own cousin used to run at the sight of him, and even now regarded him with caution when he went into a temper. How dared this impertinent female keep up this game and make veiled insults?
“I am Alexander Hampton, Miss Wellington, if Wellington you truly are. Lord Cranville is a silent partner in Cranville Enterprises. He has no interest in the shipping line. That is my territory. Perhaps I would do better to ask to see your father.”
Spots of red colored her high cheeks. Generous lips compressed above an obstinate chin. “You may ask as you wish. He died last autumn, well before this letter was written. In any case, I always handled his correspondence when he was alive. If you have come to answer the charges in that letter, you will have to deal with me.”
Evelyn met the stranger’s thick-lashed eyes with as much ferocity as she could summon. She was accustomed to dealing with blustering ships’ captains, irate merchants, and lecherous delivery boys. She was not accustomed to the impact of furious square-jawed giants with eyes she would give gold for. Lud, but a person would have to be a saint to look into those eyes without quivering. She had to remember her anger before she could catch what he was saying.
“…answer the charges! I came here to demand you retract them before my partners believe I have taken up a life of crime. Cranville Enterprises does not and never will engage in the practice of smuggling. I, personally, have no desire to hang for French brandy. I trust you are prepared to give evidence of your charges.”
“The best evidence will be the contents of your current shipment.” Evelyn kept her simmering temper in check. That he had actually come in person to answer her letter threw doubt on the charges, but his scornful attitude rubbed salt in open sores. She was tired of being treated as less than a person because she was female. She could run this warehouse as competently as her father had, as she had in fact helped him to do these last years. This man had no right to look at her as if she were lower than a snail.
“Then find someone to send with me, and he’s free to inspect every damned crate and keg addressed to Wellington Storage. Then I expect a written letter of apology to pacify my partners in this matter.”
“It would be very surprising if the smuggling continued after that letter was received, but on the possibility that you kept the letter quiet and are not involved, I will accompany you. Give me a minute to find someone to mind the desk.”
Striding toward the back room and untying her smock, Evelyn was startled into halting by her visitor’s irate reply.
“I refuse to take a fool female into the hold of a ship to faint at the first rat she encounters! Give me someone with a little experience and a stout stomach.”
Evelyn glared at the arrogant London gentleman with his clipped, haughty accents and narrow mind. “I have been visiting the holds of ships since I was ten. How many years have you spent in them, Mr. Hampton?”
She could tell she’d hit her target. Hampton gave her a curt nod. “Very well, if that’s your wish.”
Satisfied she had pierced his thick hide, Evelyn hurried to the back room, where she removed her smock and pinned her hair up in a thick swirl. Generally she wore breeches only when she was working with the stock in back, but she saw no reason to change to go into a ship’s hold. The men who worked on the wharf were accustomed to her unusual garb.
She called to Jacob to mind the front, and he popped from behind the stacks. “You’re leaving me here alone?” her brother asked in incredulity.
Evelyn grinned and tugged at a long curly lock escaping from his queue. “You keep telling me you’re eleven going on twelve. That should be old enough to stand out there and tell anyone who asks that I’ll be right back.”
Jacob jerked his head away from his sister’s undignified caress. “I can do that, easy,” he said scornfully, following her to the front.
He studied their fashionably dressed visitor with evident interest. Like Jacob, Evelyn couldn’t help but notice that Hampton’s expensive attire clung naturally to wide shoulders and flared neatly at the waist. The immaculate lace at his wrist and throat bespoke wealth, the black satin bow at his nape reflected simplicity, but the short vest revealing the Englishman’s trouser buttons held both of them fascinated, for different reasons. Jacob always complained about the long vest hitting him above the knees. Evelyn thought long vests far more decent than short, especially if all men were built as… formidably… as Mr. Hampton.
“Mr. Hampton, this is my brother, Jacob. Jacob, mind your manners!” Evelyn scolded as she turned to find him standing on his toes in an attempt to see over the counter.
The man’s coldly chiseled features exhibited no amusement at her brother’s obvious fascination. Irritated at her own interest, she hurried out of the dim office into the bright light of day.
Hampton seemed uncertain whether to offer a lady in breeches his arm. Scorning any hint that she might not be able to walk the wharf unaided, Evelyn solved his dilemma by striding toward the crowded ramp ahead of him.
She frowned at the mob screaming curses, but it wasn’t an unusual sight anymore. Everyone’s temper had mounted since the rumors of Parliament’s newest attempt to draw blood from a turnip. Things would go back to normal once sensible heads in his majesty’s cabinet listened to reason. She couldn’t believe an entire government could be so dunderheaded as not to realize that there weren’t enough coins in all the colonies to pay what the Stamp Act required if it were put into law.
As they reached the nearly impassable region between the ships, Hampton grabbed her arm and blocked her from the overheated, unwashed bodies closing around them. Unconcerned by the half-dressed state of the sailors and deaf to their familiar obscenities, she shook free of his hold and walked up the loading plank with the same ease as if it were a grassy hillside.
On deck, he caught her arm again. His grim expression as he glanced down at her breeches brought heat to her cheeks.
She’d learned to ignore the looks of the men with whom she worked, but she was suddenly too aware of how her men’s clothing must have revealed more than it should as he’d followed behind her up the ramp.
He tugged her toward the hold without speaking, and she wisely held her tongue. The captain hurried toward them, but Hampton waved him away. Fear tickled her stomach as she recognized the power this man wielded. He owned this ship and dozens more like it. All these men were at his command. If he truly were a smuggler, he need only lock her in the hold and set sail. No one on board would dare question him.
Sending Hampton’s tight-lipped visage a furtive look, she decided he looked quite ruthless enough to do that or worse. Lud, why hadn’t she seen that before? Was she so enamored of those dark eyes that she had taken leave of her senses?
At her resistance to his hold, Alex sneered impatiently. “What’s wrong? Having second thoughts about wetting your elegant slippers?”
Pride tilted her chin higher at his reference to the sturdy leather brogans she wore to protect her toes from dropped crates. “I should think that you would be more concerned with your pretty gold buckles and silk stockings, Mr. Hampton. I’m dressed more sensibly for this expedition than you.”
Muffling a curse, he handed his hat to a seaman and clattered down the steps into the dark hold. The lantern scarcely illuminated the steps. He lit a second lantern and held out his hand to help her down.
Despite her bold words to the contrary, Evelyn despised these excursions into the moldy confines of a ship’s interior. She didn’t like the stench, the creaking darkness, or the ever-present threat of rats. Even though she wore none, she had the urge to lift her skirts from the water and debris of the lower depths. Without conscious thought, she accepted Hampton’s offered hand.
The contact almost shocked her into flight. Large, strong fingers wrapped around her smaller ones, making her insides do a strange little dance. Surely she had held a man’s bare hand before. Was she coming down with a sickness? When she would tug away, Hampton’s fingers closed tighter.
Frightened, she studied him in the uncertain light. An oddly mocking look creased his face, but it did not seem directed at her. He scanned the rows of barrels and crates until he found what he was looking for.
“Your shipment is over there, Miss Wellington. Shall I call someone to pry them open?”
She could read the familiar brand burned into the wood, but she shook her head. “Only the crates of porcelain, Mr. Hampton. And it might not be wise to open them under any eyes but ours. I, too, am averse to having my neck stretched.”
He turned his gaze on the mentioned part of her anatomy, and she blushed again. She shook her hand free and strode determinedly to the cargo, searching for the symbol that would indicate a shipment from Staffordshire.
Behind her, Hampton shouted for aid.
“If all my men are under suspicion, Miss Wellington,” he replied in low undertones, “then we had better remove more than the suspected cargo to the warehouse.”
Two men clattered down at his command. Hampton pointed out an assortment of crates he wished removed, gave orders that the porcelain be treated with respect as it was a wedding gift.
With imperious calm, he took Evelyn’s hand again, ignoring her tug of protest as he led her back to the gangway.
Back on deck, they were confronted by his frowning captain. “You can’t remove the cargo until customs approves it. There’s still a ruckus down there that don’t look like it will end soon.”
Releasing Evelyn, Hampton walked to the rail and glanced over. “The man in orange is the one we need to see?”
He pointed to her Uncle George— looking his officious best in satin. Sighing in exasperation at the commotion George was causing, Evelyn muttered “rust,” but her companion ignored her correction and waited expectantly. Once she assured him that the man in rust was the customs officer, Hampton jammed his hat on his head and headed down the ramp.
Evelyn watched with interest as he shouldered his way to his goal. A head taller than most of the crowd and hiding a muscular physique beneath his silks and laces, Hampton had no difficulty carving his arrogant path. Uncle George looked bewildered as Hampton caught his arm and began hauling him through the crowd, but Evelyn knew he was as much relieved as alarmed.
George Upton had never known when to keep quiet or how to deal with the results once his tongue was loosed. Hampton was doing him a favor. Without a target, the mob would eventually disperse.
Evelyn shook her head in despair that a relative of hers could be so lacking in common sense. Thank goodness he wasn’t a blood relative.
Uncle George gave no sign that he recognized her as Hampton hauled him on board and ordered that he begin inspecting the cargo. Upton preferred not to acknowledge the fact that he had a niece who wore breeches. Evelyn leaned back against the railing while Hampton carefully chose the crates he wanted removed first.
Obviously accustomed to authority and expecting efficiency to match his own, the Englishman paid no heed to the customs officer and the captain frantically flipping through the manifest to keep up with his selections.
When the first of the crewmen began hauling the crates down to the wharf, Hampton took her arm and steered her down the ramp to follow them back to the warehouse.
Once inside the dry comfort of her office with her little brother standing guard outside, Evelyn examined the crates, pushing the porcelain shipment to the front.
“I’ll need a crowbar to open these. Where do you keep them?” Hampton demanded.
If he had been any one of the sea captains or effete aristocrats who graced her uncle’s drawing room, Evelyn would already have the crowbar in her hand. If Hampton had even wore the garb of a soldier, she could despise him and would have no difficulty returning his rudeness.
Instead, he sauntered with muscular grace in the direction she indicated, and she could almost feel the strength in his hands as he returned with the tool and pried at the wood.
To her shock, she realized she had already forgiven him of all charges of smuggling. There were many other things she couldn’t forgive him for, but his striking looks and shiny black locks would cease to be a worry as soon as he was gone.
The lid of the first box popped off, and he removed the top layer of packing material. In triumph, he lifted the hand-painted porcelain. “Staffordshire, madam. Not brandy. Have you any further proof?”
Evelyn knelt beside the crate and set aside the lovely dishes on top. Removing the second layer of packing, she uncovered a gleaming row of bottled brandy. Lifting a bottle for his inspection, she raised a wry eyebrow. “Brandy, sir. Not Staffordshire. Do you need further proof?”
As he grabbed the bottle from her hand to inspect it, the commotion outside grew louder. They both glanced out the wavy panes of glass.
A half-dozen red-coated soldiers were marching in the direction of the warehouse. Hampton hit the cork with his hand and buried the bottle in its bed of straw.