About the book
It was a wonder, the way she found herself. Not in her name, but in his arms...
Merial Hanraham has no recollection of who she is.
Found unconscious in a dinghy with nothing but a mysterious coffer, she is taken on board by a crew of British sailors heading to England.
Christopher Buckthorn, son of the Duke of Heyerdahl and proud captain of the “Valkyrie”, never expected to find a woman with no memories floating in the middle of the ocean. Especially not one as stunning as Merial.
Amidst old superstitions turning the crew against her and pirates constantly on their tail, Merial and Christopher must piece together the fragments of her returning memories.
And the key to the truth might just lie in a riddle carved on the mysterious coffer; a single word to unveil not only Merial’s true identity but also the name of the person hunting her…
She woke to screams, a fist pounding at her door.
Bolting upright on the narrow inn bed, she scented smoke, saw with panic reaching to close her throat, the glow of flames under the door. The heavy fist pounded again, and a voice yelled, “My Lady!”
Clad only in her linen shift, she snatched the covers back from the bed, a wild thought whipping through her mind—do I have time to change into clothes? Grabbing a robe, she threw it over her shoulders, and ran to open the door. Her father’s steward stood there, sweat running in rivulets down his face from the heat of the fire.
“We must go, My Lady,” Stephan, the steward’s assistant cried, coughing from the smoke, rushing into her room to grab her satchel, her shoes.
The steward frantically waved at them from the doorway, coughing, turning his head to watch something in the hallway.
“Papa,” she screamed, trying to dash past the assistant. “Mama!”
“They cannot get out,” the steward, Conrad, yelled, even as she began to cough from the thick smoke. “They are trapped. We must go or we will all die.”
The steward grabbed her hand, pulling her with him while the assistant seized the satchel. He led the way, turning away from the rooms where her father and mother lay. Hauling back on his grip, she turned in a wild effort to rush through the flames that ate through the walls, the ceiling. A beam crashed to the floor in front of her—flames devoured the rug and reached for her bare feet.
“No, Papa,” she cried, coughing, weeping. “No.”
“They are gone,” the steward shouted, yanking on her hand again. “We must go, or we will die, too.”
Terrified, she ran with the two servants, rushing down the stairs amid the crush of the other survivors in the inn. Thrown heavily against the wall by a panicked woman carrying a screaming child, she followed the hand that pulled her along, out the front door and into the cool, sweet darkness, the sweat from the flames’ heat already drying on her body.
The inn was engulfed. Men came with a horse-drawn wagon loaded with barrels of water. The horses plunged and tried to rear, their manes tossing redly under the light of the fire. Buckets of water were heaved onto the flames, but how they hoped to put them out was beyond her comprehension. Several men soaked the structures to either side in the hope of saving them, as there was no more hope for the inn.
Like many who had escaped the inferno, she paused, coughing, gagging, to watch in horror as the conflagration consumed everything it touched. “Papa,” she whispered. “Mama.”
Numb with shock, she might have stood there and gaped until dawn had Conrad not tugged on her hand. “We must go. The horses have not been hurt.”
“No,” she screamed. “I cannot leave them.”
“My Lady, there is no time. They will know you survived. They may be watching us even now.”
She bit her knuckles to halt the scream of horror and grief from emerging, even amid all the other cries from the survivors and the neighbors roused from their slumber to watch the inn perish in fire and smoke. Conrad pulled her around to face him, his hands boldly planted on her cheeks as he stared fiercely into her eyes.
“Your father made provisions,” he said, his own tears coursing down his face and she knew they were not from the smoke. “Just in case. We ride to the docks.”
“Yes. We will take a ship for America, for Philadelphia. Your aunt is there. She will look after you. Here he comes with the horses.”
The assistant ran down the cobbled street leading two saddled horses. He had slung her satchel—with the cedar wood box inside—over the pommel of the one he swiftly mounted, and threw the reins of the other to the steward.
“Forgive me, My Lady,” Conrad said, and picked her up with his hands on her waist and flung her aboard the nervous, prancing horse. Her bare feet dangling, she clutched the pommel in a death grip as the steward mounted behind her.
Kicking the horse into a headlong gallop, the steward held the reins in one hand while his other held her lightly about the waist. At this time of night, the streets of London were empty and dark, and the horses’ hooves cast sparks from the cobbles. Unfamiliar with this part of the city, she clung to the saddle, her tears of grief and fear whipped back from her eyes.
Miles they galloped, lather blooming on the horses’ necks and chests. She heard their gasping breath, scented the salt from their hides. Then she smelled the fish tang of the river, saw below them the moon glinting off the Thames. Though it was hours before dawn, lights flared from many of the ships moored at the docks.
“The ship sails on the tide,” the steward said in her ear. “I hope we get there in time.”
Down the steeply curving hill the horses plunged, their shoes often sliding on the slick cobbles. She feared her mount might fall, flipping over backward to crush both of them under its weight. It kept its footing, however, and raced on, galloping hard to the shipyard.
The assistant reined in his horse, and leaped from the saddle. He seized the satchel from his pommel, and let the horse go with a slap to its rump. The steward also reined in, and slid down, then assisted her down, and set her on her feet. Her hand in his, he led her across the wharves to the huge ship, its prow rearing high above them.
As the steward spoke to the ship’s master, she looked back at London, the crushing weight of her grief all but forcing her to her knees. “Papa,” she whispered. “I am so sorry. I left you behind. Please forgive me.”
She wept silently, ashamed of her cowardice in running away, crying for her loss, for the deaths of those she loved. Even as she wept, the steward’s hand wrapped around hers and led her up the gangplank and onto the vessel, and her heart felt as though it were being ripped from her chest as she left everything she ever knew, and loved, behind.
The Valkyrie soared effortlessly over the calm, blue sea, under full sail nearly as swift as a bird. Her owner and captain, Lord Christopher Buckthorn, stood near the bow. With his hands held behind his back, he listened to the wash of the sea under the ship’s wooden hull, and gazed out at the distant horizon.
If the clear skies and stiff winds continued, he estimated the ship would drop anchor in London on the Thames within three weeks. Yet, he also knew the weather was too often fickle this time of year. A brisk breeze one day, calm the next. Squalls blew up with little warning in this part of the Atlantic, but he’d never met a squall he could not best.
A sudden shout from above had him turning toward the crow’s nest above him.
“Ahoy, Cap’n,” the sailor yelled. “Something in the water, ten degrees to starboard, sir.”
Christopher pulled the spyglass from his belt, and peered through it even as Richard Mayhew, his first mate, ran to join him. “M’lord?”
Ignoring him for the moment, Christopher focused intently on the object bobbing up and down gently on the waves. It was a dinghy, that much he could tell, but was there something in it? It appeared as though there could be, and from this angle he couldn’t see what it was.
The words to shout up to the sailor stilled in his mouth as the man in the crow’s nest called down, “There be someone in the dinghy, Cap’n.”
“Prepare to come about,” Christopher told Mr. Mayhew. “Furl the mainsails. Slow us down and bring us alongside.”
Staring intently through his glass again, Christopher half-listened as his orders were relayed through Mr. Mayhew. Behind him, the crew scrambled up and down the lines to lower the boom and furl the great canvas sheets that caught the wind and sent the Valkyrie hissing through the sea.
The ship slowed her pace considerably as only the jib drove her forward, and the sea swells had her bobbing like a cork. The rudder guided the Valkyrie toward the small dinghy, and Christopher saw her course would take her right next to the tiny boat.
“Steady as she goes,” he ordered.
“Steady as she goes.”
Setting his spyglass aside, Christopher leaned over the gunwale to watch as his ship slowly drifted toward the small craft. “Get the hook and grab a hold of it,” he bellowed.
A sailor ran toward him with the huge iron hook tied to a length of rope. Twirling it over his head a few times, he threw it out and down, then swiftly drew the slack in as the hook caught the edge of the dinghy.
“Cap’n,” he said, awed. “It be a gal.”
“Tie it off,” Christopher ordered, staring in shock at what appeared to be an unconscious woman on the bottom of the boat. “Lower the ladder. I’m going down to fetch her up.”
As other crew lowered the slender rope ladder over the side of the hull, Christopher removed his hat and jacket for greater mobility, and handed them to Mr. Mayhew. Mayhew stared down, then he swiftly crossed himself.
“Think she be dead, M’lord?”
“I expect I will find out shortly.”
After quickly and effortlessly climbing down the rickety ladder as the dinghy sped alongside the huge ship towering over it, Christopher gingerly stepped onto its bottom. The unstable craft rocked under him, threatening to spill him into the sea. He crouched to both stabilize it and check the woman’s wrist for a pulse.
It was there. Strong, it throbbed under his fingers, and her flesh was pliable and warm. He gazed up into the faces along the gunwale that stared down. “She is alive. I will carry her up.”
“Cap’n is bringing her up,” Mayhew shouted to the crew.
Carefully standing in the rocking boat, Christopher lifted the unconscious woman into his arms. She weighed almost nothing, as light as a child, and he could not help but notice her slenderness, her almost fragile beauty. Not daring to keep looking at her for fear they would both be pitched into the sea, he carefully lay her face down over his broad shoulder.
Now with both of his hands free, he grasped the thin rope ladder and started to climb. Half fearing she might slide down over his back and vanish under the waves, he paused now and then to steady her weight evenly. As he was a big man, a hand taller than most, Christopher had little difficulty in reaching the gunwale with his burden.
“Easy,” he told Mayhew and the sailors who reached to take her from him. “She may have injuries.”
“Set her down in that shade there,” Mayhew ordered as he helped carry her to the deck.
Christopher completed his climb, then happened to glance back down into the dinghy before ordering the sailor to unhook it and let it loose on the open sea. A wooden box lay half under the seat, almost unnoticeable with the woman’s body covering it. He glanced back at Mayhew and the crew surrounding the strange woman.
“There is something else in there,” he said. “I am going back down.”
Once again, he scampered down the ladder, as nimble as a cat, and dropped lightly into the dinghy. Once again, he was forced to balance the small boat with his weight as he bent to pick up the wooden box. It was made of plain cedar wood, with no markings save a strange alphabetical set of buttons on the side. He hefted it, but heard nothing from inside it. “Not jewels or coins,” he murmured, then glanced up at the faces staring down once more.
“Catch,” he called up.
Throwing it upward, a sailor named Andrews caught it neatly. “Got it, Cap’n.”
Taking a moment to gaze around the small craft for anything else of note, he stiffened. He narrowed his eyes at the small holes in the wooden sides, just below the top edge. Counting five of them, he crouched and stuck his finger through one. Glancing around, he observed they were just above the spot where the woman’s head was.
Back on his own deck, Christopher ordered the dinghy cast off. He gazed down at the woman, almost closer to being a girl, he estimated, and wondered what to do with her. There was no place for a woman on board a sailing ship with a crew of men. Men of the sea were coarse, foul-mouthed, and crude, and if this lady was of the gentry as he suspected, well, that was not a good mix at all.
Christopher glanced at Mayhew and the question in his steady blue eyes. He cleared his throat. “I expect I will place her in the guest cabin,” he said at last. “I will look after her.”
Mayhew’s expression spoke of his relief. He was not comfortable around women, and Christopher wondered if his superstition about ladies on board a ship being bad luck preyed upon his mind. As he glanced around at the crew, he observed the uneasiness in their eyes. No doubt they did believe the superstition.
“That be a good idea, M’lord,” Mayhew said on a gust of breath. “Ye being a gentleman and all, ye’d not, er, take, er—”
Christopher lifted his right brow. “Take advantage of her? Of course not.”
Mayhew stiffened. “I meant nothing by it, M’lord. It be just that, men being men, ye see.”
“If I catch any man on board being less than a gentleman to this lady,” Christopher intoned, his voice low and hard, “he will be whipped until the bones in his back show white. Am I clear?”
The crew gulped and quickly assured him of their good conduct, tipping their caps to him and knuckling their brows.
“Good,” Christopher snapped. “I will take her below.”
He picked her carefully up in his arms, and carried her across the deck and down the steps. The guest cabin was next to his own, which he felt would assist him in keeping a watchful eye on her. It was also fairly roomy for a cabin on board the crowded ship, and as private as his own. Mayhew, as first mate, had a cabin across from hers, and he hoped his fear of women would keep him at arm’s length.
Setting her gently on the wide and comfortable bunk, Christopher covered her decently with a blanket, then sat beside her. Clearly she was injured, but how badly? His gentlemanly protocols forbade him from touching a woman unmarried to him, yet there was no woman on board who could examine her.
“It is up to me, I expect,” he muttered. “I dare not have any of those oafs look at her.”
He had no physician on board, and most injuries that occurred were fixed by the most competent. Christopher thought that title fell to the aged Colin Pierce, a sailor who had traveled extensively, and sailed under him for the last three years. Pierce knew how to fix just about anything on the human body, but Christopher could not permit him to look at her.
I will see what I can find, then ask his advice.
Bracing himself for doing the dishonorable, he carefully felt around her skull, under her wealth of jet black hair. Lifting her neck, his fingers found crusted blood and a large knot on the left side of her head.
“Aha,” he murmured. “That is something, anyway.”
He doubted her back had been damaged, as it felt firm when he carried her, but that did not mean she did not have broken arms or legs. Feeling a right cad for touching her, he carefully ran his hands down her legs while they were under the blanket, and discovered no terrible swellings or breaks. The same for her arms, and he could not bring himself to touch her torso for possible broken ribs.
“I expect you will tell me if you hurt somewhere when you wake up,” he told her.
She lay silent, breathing evenly, her lashes sooty against her pale cheeks. Studying her high cheekbones, large eyes, and full lips, he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He wished her eyes were open so he might see their color, and wondered if they were of a dark, sultry shade.
He grinned at the silliness of talking to her. “Do not die, My Lady,” he said. “I want to get to know you.”
Leaving her for the time being, he left the cabin, and closed the door behind him. Back on the deck, he found Mayhew had ordered the Valkyrie under full sail and back on course. That was one, among many, things he liked about Mayhew as his first mate. The man knew what needed to be done, and saw it through.
Mayhew approached and knuckled his brow. “Might I ask how the lady be, M’lord?”
“Still unconscious, but has a huge lump on her head,” Christopher replied, his eyes scanning the rigging, the sails, the crew as they worked, even as his mind lay elsewhere. “I need Mr. Pierce, on the double.”
As Mayhew left his side to call for Mr. Pierce, Christopher strode across the deck to the sailor at the wheel, and checked their heading. The hand knuckled his brow, keeping a firm hold on the ship’s wheel, and offered him a slight bow. “Cap’n.”
“Good work,” Christopher said. “Maintain this course.”
He turned around to observe Mayhew hustle Mr. Pierce toward him, seeing the scrawny, unshaven old man who had more experience at sea than any seaman Christopher had ever known. Both knuckled their brows.
“Cap’n,” Pierce said, his brown eyes narrowed from a lifetime of squinting in the sun, salt, and spray, and his lips puckered around his almost toothless mouth. He was old, that was for certain, but still as strong and agile as he had been when he was young.
“Mr. Pierce,” Christopher said, “what can be done for an unconscious person with a lump on her head?”
“Nae much at the moment, Cap’n,” Pierce replied, his Irish accent almost brazen. “She be awake, then bedrest till she recovers.”
“I see. How long might she remain unconscious?”
Pierce shrugged. “I cannae say, Cap’n.”
Nonplussed, Christopher nodded. “I may need your advice later, Mr. Pierce. Carry on.”
Pierce knuckled his brow, then trotted back to his duties. Mayhew eyed him with concern. “What we be doing with a woman on board, M’lord?” he asked in a hoarse whisper. “You know they be bad luck.”
“I am quite aware of the superstition regarding women, Mr. Mayhew,” Christopher replied. “Would you suggest I throw her overboard?”
Mayhew’s eyes bugged from his head. “No, of course not, M’lord. I just cannot help but fear the old saying that women be bad luck.”
“We have a minimum of three weeks till we dock, Mr. Mayhew,” Christopher told him firmly. “If they crew gets wind of your worries, then there will be no end of them fussing over it as well. You keep your mouth shut about it.”
With a sharp nod, Christopher walked on. He inspected the work, the way the ropes were tied, the set of the sails, the crew working industriously under his eye, all the while worrying about having a woman on board his ship. Not the silly superstition, of course, but of the crew’s morale in general. As she recovered, he certainly could not order her to remain in her cabin and out of sight.
Having a female, and a very beautiful one, strolling about the decks might create all sorts of havoc among the men on board. He had little doubt they would not harm her, but not tying a knot correctly because a sailor’s eyes watched her and not his task? Heaven forfend. Christopher shook his head.
Hours later, as the sun set, the wind died and he ordered the sails rigged for the night. Christopher lit a lamp, and went below decks. The crew, save the helmsman and the night watch, had also gone below for their evening meal and the dram of rum he allotted them every evening. At the door to the guest cabin, Christopher opened it, and let the light fall upon her frightened face.
Her head aching as though struck by an axe and split in two, Merial gazed at the room around her with no comprehension of where she was or how she had gotten there. When her eyes first fluttered open, she stared at a wood-beamed roof, and felt the gentle rocking of the bed under her, heard the clear sound of the wind caught in canvas.
I am on a ship. How do I know that? Have I been on a ship before?
She did not know. She tried to remember ever being on a ship at sea, yet, details, memories of any voyages at sea, escaped her.
Lifting her hand from the blanket that covered her from shoulders to feet, she rubbed the painful spot, felt the crusty lump on her head, and tried to remember what had happened. Nothing came to her. She remembered nothing from before she woke, and stared at the beams above her.
Frowning slightly, Merial half sat up, and lifted the blanket covering her. Her gown of rich gold, yellow, and white hues gave her no idea, either. She did not remember donning it, buying it, or what she had worn the day before. Rubbing her brow, she tried to think through her problem.
“Why can I not remember?”
Fear and horror stole over her.
I cannot remember anything. Who am I? What am I? What happened to me? How did I get here?
The more she tried to remember, the more her head hurt. The more her head hurt, the more scared she grew. “What happened to me?”
Not daring to get out of the bed, Merial lay back, frightened, frustrated, and worried about leaving the small room.
Who and what is out there?
She heard male voices, laughter, singing, the sound of their steps above her, and she dared not venture out. Who knew what they might do to her?
Time passed slowly, and from the small round porthole above her, Merial knew night grew close.
Will I starve down here? Does anyone know I am here?
Surely someone knew, someone would come, for how else did she get here? Who covered her with the blanket? With her fears and worries gnawing at her, she almost cried out as the door swung open.
Staring into the lamplight, and the shape of a man beyond it, terror leaped down her throat. Frozen with panic, Merial knew, knew, that shadowy man had come to kill her. She had nothing to hand to fight with, could not escape, was as cornered in this room as a mouse in a trap while the cat stalked near.
“You are awake.”
The friendly, kind voice startled her nearly as much as his presence, and he lowered the light so it showed her his warm, smiling face, as well as his lack of sword or pistol or club. “How do you feel?” he asked, closing the door, yet not approaching her.
“S-scared,” she stammered. “C-confused. Who are you?” Merial clutched the blanket to her as though that might protect her if he attacked.
He hung the lantern on a hook, and bowed smoothly. “I am Lord Christopher Buckthorn, second son of the Duke of Heyerdahl, and Captain of this vessel, the Valkyrie.”
Merial studied him in the light, observing his tidy coat, muslin shirt, the silk cravat, and his pale breeches, how big he was. Yet, he was also quite handsome with thick blond hair that curled around his neck, large ice blue eyes, and a smile that helped to calm her.
“And you are?”
Merial yanked her eyes from him, as she knew openly staring was exceedingly rude. “Merial Hanrahan,” she replied softly.
“Miss Hanrahan,” he said, “welcome aboard. I fear you caught us well out to sea without a chaperone. How are you feeling?”
His smile continued to soothe her frazzled nerves, but she held the blanket tightly around her for comfort. “Where are we?”
“Eastbound to England with a cargo and mail from America,” he replied easily. “About three weeks from port, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”
Merial gaped, astonished, finding it strange she knew what he spoke of, just as she knew her name, but unable to remember how she came to be aboard a ship. “The Atlantic? America? How did I get here?”
Lord Buckthorn gestured toward a chair. “May I sit?”
He sat down, straightening his coat, his smile gone. “We found you floating in a dinghy some hours ago. I pulled you out myself, and I promise I only touched you when necessary. None of my crew laid a hand on you.”
Merial felt her face heat at the thought of this man bringing her up from the sea and placing her on this bed. “I suppose you did what was best,” she replied, her voice faltering.
“I do know you hit your head, Miss Hanrahan,” he continued, “but touching you was necessary to assess your injuries. I am, and will remain, a gentleman.”
Merial gazed down, abashed and shamed that this man touched her while she lay unconscious. Where might his hands have roamed while she could not defend herself, and had none to defend her? “I, er, I—”
“Please be at ease, Miss Hanrahan,” Lord Buckthorn said hastily, his expression concerned, his hand half extended. “Are you well?”
Something in the way he spoke endeared him to her, and Merial found herself smiling shyly. “As well as can be expected. I suppose I should thank you for looking after me, My Lord.”
He looked relieved. “I must thank you for not being offended, Miss Hanrahan. I promise, I would not have done so were it not important. I am not familiar with the name Hanrahan, yet your gown, your manners, inform me you are gently born. Who is your family?”
Merial’s throat closed up as swift fear seized her once again. She could not remember. She must have a family, she must have had a home, yet no memory of them surfaced. Struggling to find an answer, her head pained her again.
“I am sorry,” she whispered, frantic, terrified. “I do not know. I cannot remember.”
Lord Buckthorn frowned, and leaned forward. “You cannot remember your family?”
“No.” The words choked her as she tried to explain. “I do not remember anything before waking up in this room.”
“I know my name, obviously, and I knew I was on a ship at sea,” she continued, her mouth dry. “Yet I cannot remember being on a ship before.”
Lord Buckthorn sat back in his chair, staring blankly into space. “I vaguely recall hearing something of this,” he murmured. “A head injury erasing memories. Yet, in time, I believe, the memories do come back.”
Hope rose as her terror sank a fraction. “Truly?”
“Of course, I can make no guarantees,” he replied, then smiled. “Save these. You will be safe here, Miss Hanrahan, and cared for. None will harm you. I will see to it you have food and this cabin for your privacy, and when you are able, you may come up on deck.”
Merial found a smile for him. “Thank you, My Lord. You are most kind.”
“Now then,” he said, standing. “What may I bring you? I am yours to command. Might you be hungry? Thirsty? I alone will bring you what you need.”
“I, I am a bit thirsty,” she admitted. “I do not feel hungry, however.”
Lord Buckthorn smiled. “I will bring you fresh water, wine from my own stock, and perhaps a mug of soup or broth. Believe me when I say I hired the best ship’s cook in the kingdom.”
Merial could not help but answer that sweet, boyish grin despite her fears. “That sounds lovely.”
He gave her a small bow, then left the cabin, closing the door behind him. Pushing back the blanket, she sat up carefully. Her head throbbed in time with her heartbeat, and a wave of dizziness and nausea swept through. Seizing hold of the bunk’s edge with both hands, Merial swallowed hard, waiting for the sick feeling to pass.
It did, albeit slowly, and she stood up. Only then did she discover that in addition to her painful head, her movements awoke a number of aches across her body. Still, she knew they were insignificant and no permanent damage had been done. Her balance swiftly returned to her as she walked around the room.
Once more, Merial tried to remember what had happened to her, yet the attempt merely served to bring on the pain in her head. Breathing deeply helped dispel some of it, and she took a moment to gaze out the porthole. Moonlight shimmered off the rolling swells of the sea, the stars glittered in the deep inky sky over the horizon. The beautiful sight and its calming influence did little, however, to assuage her feelings of utter helplessness and desolation. Rather, it added to her loneliness and fears.
I am alone on a strange ship, friendless, and lost.
Before she turned away, she caught a rapid glimpse of a shooting star flashing across the heavens. “Perhaps that is a good omen,” she murmured.
A knock at her door startled her. “Come in.”
Lord Buckthorn swung it open, awkwardly holding a tray complete with a pitcher and decanter.
“I brought you this,” he said, his eyes widening slightly at the sight of her standing. “Perhaps you should not be up yet.”
Merial self-consciously brushed her hands down her wrinkled gown, having been trained from infancy that a woman should never be alone with a man not her husband. And here she was, with no possibility of a chaperone, and alone with a handsome man.
My mother would have a fit if she knew.
The random thought that came from nowhere startled Merial, yet she could not remember her mother, bring her face into her mind, nor recall her name.
But I had a mother who taught me proper behavior. I know what is expected of me, but do not remember how I know this.
Lord Buckthorn gazed at her, his brows furrowed in concern. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Merial brushed her gown again, feeling its stiffness from having once been wet. “I was just trying to remember.”
Lord Buckthorn set the tray on the table, then gestured. “I brought water, bread, broth, as well as wine. Please, will you not eat and drink? I know you must be terribly thirsty.”
“Thank you, I will.”
He held the chair for her as she sat down, and she motioned toward the other chair. “Will you sit with me?” she asked, glancing up.
“I would like that.”
He sat in the other chair, and poured wine into two goblets as Merial reached for the water. She had no idea just how thirsty she was until the cool water touched her tongue, and she gulped it down with unseemly manners. With a smile, Lord Buckthorn poured more from a pitcher into her cup, and she swallowed that down as well.
“Forgive my poor manners, My Lord,” she said, feeling her face heat.
“No apologies necessary,” he replied easily, taking a drink from his wine cup. “The sun would dry you out and kill you while you floated out there.”
The bread and broth tasted nearly as wonderful, but her appetite still had not come back. Nor could she seem to get enough water. “I do not understand why I am not hungry,” she murmured.
“I suspect you have been through a tremendous shock, Miss Hanrahan,” he replied. “You will start feeling better soon.”
Picking up her goblet of wine, Merial took a sip, hoping it might help soothe her headache. “What do you think happened to the ship I was on?”
Something crossed his expression so quickly she wondered if she had truly seen it.
“I dare not venture an opinion just yet,” he replied. “I do not have enough information. But that you were on a ship at one time, there is no doubt. You could not have survived long in the dinghy, so you did not set sail in it from England, that is for certain.”
Merial sipped her wine, desperate to remember. “And there is no land anywhere near where we are?”
“None.” His icy blue eyes rested on her with warmth and compassion. “We are three weeks from London, five from New York. We have seen no other vessels since our departure.”
“Perhaps it went down in a storm,” she suggested.
Lord Buckthorn shook his head. “How did you get into the boat, Miss Hanrahan? Who put you there? You were not in it long, as you are hardly sunburned, perhaps less than half a day. There have been no storms. Indeed, this is quite the mystery.”
“If I could only remember.” Frustration and fear rose once again in her heart. “What if my memories never come back? I will not know my family if ever I meet them. I will never know what happened, never understand where I came from. What will become of me in the future?”
As she spoke, Merial knew her voice lifted in near hysteria, but she could not seem to help it. Her heart raced, her head feeling as though it might burst at any moment. Lord Buckthorn made to reach for her, but he drew his hand back at the same moment Merial flinched from him.
“Calm yourself,” he said, his voice low, soothing. “You have only recently awakened from a traumatic injury. You must give yourself time to heal.”
Holding her arms across her stomach, staring at the table, Merial nodded. “I will try,” she whispered. “But please understand I am so very frightened.”
“Believe me when I say I do understand,” he replied quietly, and his deep yet gentle voice did much to quiet her fears. “When we dock in London, I will do my very best to help you return to your family. My father and my older brother have considerable influence in the city. If anyone knows the Hanrahan name, they will.”
Merial finally glanced up to meet his kind eyes, and tried to smile. “You are so good to me, My Lord. I hope that one day I may be able to repay you.”
“That will not be necessary,” he told her. “Just seeing you safe and back in the arms of those who love you is payment enough. So please, drink your wine and try not to be afraid.”
Merial did her best to obey him. He spoke to her about his vessel, the Valkyrie, his noble family, and the shipping business his father, the Duke of Heyerdahl, had founded. Between the food and the wine, it was not long before Merial grew tired, and she fought to keep her eyes open.
Lord Buckthorn noticed, and stood. “Get some sleep, Miss Hanrahan,” he said lightly, picking up the tray. “Perhaps, if your appetite has returned, you will join me in my cabin for breakfast.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Once again, he gave her the polite bow, and left her alone. Merial ambled, now unsteady on her feet, and gazed out into the darkness again. Above her, the tramp of feet informed her of the night watch pacing the deck, and she dimly heard a voice call the hour.
Blowing out the lamp Lord Buckthorn had left her, she undressed slowly, and hung her gown on a hook. Lying down on the bunk garbed in her shift, she covered herself with the blanket, grateful for it as the night sea air had grown chilly. Staring into the darkness for a time, she felt sleep overcome her at last.
Fire. Red and orange flames reaching for her. A man’s face, his mouth open as he shouted something at her. His expression of anger, of fear. A horse galloping under her. The wind in her hair.
Merial woke abruptly in the darkness, panting, panic gripping her throat.
Did I just scream?
Sweat trickled down her ribs, her body hot despite the cool breeze wafting through the round porthole. She sat up, the blanket pooling in her lap as she fought the fear, the terror.
I am safe. I am on board the Valkyrie.
The vessel creaked as she swept through the waves, the canvas sails snapped as the wind ebbed and flowed. Merial’s breathing gradually grew quieter, and she heard the watch call the hour.
Her head throbbed as she rubbed her face with her fingers, pondering the idea of going back to sleep.
I will not be able to.
Covering herself back up with the blanket, Merial tried to remember the dream that terrified her, but all she could recall was fire.
What fire? Where?
Gazing at the round porthole, slightly lighter than the darkness in her cabin, she wondered at the significance of the fire in her nightmare.
He strode down the cobbled street in East Chepe, disgusted by the sights, smells, and the fact that he was clad in foul wools, a cloak covering him from head to toe. He sweated in the heat and the heavy garment, but did not dare wander in this part of London while wearing the fine clothes and jewels he often did while in his own neighborhood, or his townhouse.
“God rot this hellhole,” he muttered, glancing at the cluttered shops, the buildings that appeared as though they had not been repaired since the Middle Ages. “They would slit my throat for a copper, I would wager.”
Apprentices hawked their masters’ wares, their shouts grating on his ears. Children ran past him, and a pair of curs fought over the scraps tossed into the street by a matron who stared at him with scorn.
Had he not the need for the disguise, he would have had the woman thrown into gaol for not offering him proper respect. Wishing he could at least rail at her, he clamped a tight rein on his temper and walked on, searching for the tavern where he was to meet his henchmen.
They had done their work well. The ton mourned the deaths of the Earl of Dorsten, his Countess, and their daughter, all tragically killed in a fire the night before last, while staying at a London Inn.
The poor dears, the bodies were so charred identification was next to impossible. What were they doing at an inn? Perhaps it was not the Dorstens at all. No, they were recognized, and were not counted among the survivors. When will the funerals be held?
The fire was ruled an accident, the ton moved on to the next scandal, the next bit of juicy gossip, and life went on. He did not dare meet his henchmen at his townhouse. No, they might be seen and questions asked. Thus, he had donned this ridiculous, foul-smelling disguise, left his horse at a livery stable, and walked through the trash, the excrement, and the milling commoners to the tavern.
Entering, he found it dark, gloomy, with lit tapers hardly able to thrust the darkness back. Yet, he welcomed the smoke and murky atmosphere within it, for surely none would recognize him in here. A hand lifted, beckoning him to a high-walled booth. Joining the two occupants, he finally threw the hood back from his face.
“Welcome, M’lord,” said the man who had called himself Jones.
He knew it was most likely not his real name, as the other had called himself Smith. “Di’ ye bring th’ gold?” Smith asked, his beady, greedy eyes on him.
He brought the leather pouch out from under his cloak, and set it on the table, glancing around for anyone who may be paying the three of them a little too much attention. Yet, he kept it close to him, his hand hovering near to prevent one of them from grabbing it.
“All three are dead?” he asked, his voice low.
The pair exchanged a quick glance, and he knew they were about to tell him a lie.
“Aye, M’lord,” Jones answered. “All three.”
He pulled the gold closer to his body, leaning menacingly over the table. Staring them in the eyes, he said, “You tell me the truth. Right now.”
Smith’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. Shooting a glance at his partner, he said, “The girl got oot.”
Leaning back against the booth, he stared at them, feeling as though the world was crashing down about his ears. Rage swamped him, flooded him, and he nearly yanked his knife from its sheath to slit both their throats where they sat. “The girl got out.”
“Aye. Them servants was quick, like,” Jones said, his voice a near whine. “Grabbed her, dragged her oot.”
“The ‘ad ‘orses waitin’, M’lord. Musta figgered we was comin’. Done galloped away faster ‘n you can say Bobs yer uncle.”
“Do you two imbeciles know what this means?” he grated, glaring his fury, feeling spittle forming at his lips. “That girl can tell the courts, the magistrates, what I had done. She knows too much. And you let her escape.”
“We, er, dint let ‘er escape, M’lord,” Smith protested, his voice low. “We could’nae get close. We done what ye asked.”
“You were to kill all of them,” he barked, then shot a glance around the tavern. No one seemed interested in them, or if they overheard his loud remark, they did not care. Turning his fury back onto them, he lowered his voice. “The job is not done.”
“Aye, it be done.” Jones met his furious stare, his own anger burning in his deep-set eyes. “Gie’ us uir gold, and we be oan uir way.”
He opened the neck of the pouch, and picked out several gold coins. He slapped them on the table, and put the leather bag back under his cloak. “You want the rest,” he snarled, “you find and kill the girl.”
“That nae be what we hired oan fer, laddie,” Jones said. “You owe us the rest o’ it.”
He leaned over the table again, smoothly drawing his knife from its sheath. With a lightning move, he slashed the blade across Jones’s cheek, laying it open. The man fell back against the booth with a hoarse cry, his hand at his cheek, yet unable to stem the flow of blood.
He whipped the knife at Smith, pointing it at the man’s nose while Smith stared at its deadly edge, his eyes wide. “Now this is what is going to happen, laddie,” he snarled. “You will keep that as payment for your work, and that is all you will receive. Choke on it for all I care, but you come near me again, I will kill you like the rabid mongrels you are.”
Rising from the booth, he stared down at them, murderers and cowards both, then spat. His spittle landed on the table between them, their eyes not leaving his. Flipping the hood once more to cover his face, he said, “Have a good day, gentlemen.”
Leaving the tavern, muttering foul curses under his breath, he vented his rage by viciously kicking loose stones out of his way. It was a good thing no curs or children came within reach of his boots, for he would have kicked them as well.
“The girl is alive,” he muttered amid the swearing. “She is alive. By all that is holy, I will find her, and send her to perdition along with her bloody parents.”
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