Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  Another thought struck her. Concealed under her morning gown was the sapphire studded cross Kirkland had given her, and which she’d been wearing daily. Today it was concealed under her morning gown. Though the cross didn’t have any sharp edges, it was metal and hard. Perhaps it might have some use as a tool.

  Underneath the loose sack, she managed to grasp the cross and break the slender chain with a hard jerk. There was comfort in holding the symbol of her faith, and also in the knowledge that it had been a gift from the husband she loved.

  A hoarse voice shouted, “Cap’n, there are half a dozen men galloping this way! Comin’ straight at us!”

  Hardwick’s “Shove off!” was followed by language so filthy she didn’t understand most of the words, but his snarled, “How’d the bastard get here so fast?” was clear.

  Kirkland! She was sure of it.

  The dinghy lurched away from shore, rocking nauseatingly. Water splashed over her as oars squealed in their locks from the swift rowing.

  She clasped hope as hard as she clasped her cross. Even though Hardwick had a head start, he still had to sail downriver all the way to the North Sea. Kirkland had a chance of catching up—and given the odds he’d already overcome, she wanted to believe he’d succeed this time, too.

  She swallowed hard as she realized that it would be more difficult, and far more dangerous, to assault a ship at sea rather than a coach. Kirkland and the men with him would risk death if they tried. And if they were winning, Hardwick would probably kill his prisoners before he’d surrender them. Dear God, please don’t let James be killed trying to rescue me!

  To bury the frightening thought, she tested the bonds around her wrists. The line wasn’t heavy and there was some stretch, possibly because it had been saturated by the sloshing water while she was lying on the bottom of the dinghy.

  She turned her cross and began sawing the long end against the line. It was damnably uncomfortable and there was no chance of really cutting through, but with the rubbing of the metal, the line did seem to be stretching and loosening.

  All too soon the dinghy reached the ship, the hull scraping as the vessel was secured. “Take this ’un!” a voice barked.

  Rough hands grabbed Laurel and tossed upward. For a ghastly moment she hung in midair, knowing that if she fell into the river she’d drown. Then she was jerked as other hands caught her upper arms and she was dragged onto the deck like a just-caught fish.

  As she lay there, bruised, wet, and shivering with cold, Violet was deposited beside her. Hardwick’s voice barked from above. “Lock these two sluts in my cabin while we cast off. We’ll just barely catch the tide.”

  Another voice—Moody?—said, “At least those fellows coming after us are trapped for hours until the tide rises again.”

  Laurel didn’t know much about sailing, but that didn’t sound good. Putting her faith in God and Kirkland, she went to work on her bonds again. If nothing else, the activity distracted her from how wretched and terrified she was.

  Several minutes passed before she was again lifted and draped over a sailor’s shoulder. As she was carried along, his bony shoulder ground into her abdomen, making her feel even more miserable.

  She was lowered belowdecks, passed from one set of hands to another. Carried along a narrow passage where her head and feet banged into the walls. Through a door into a more open space. The man carrying her asked, “Where should we put ’em?”

  Another man laughed coarsely. “On the cap’n’s bed, of course. He’ll probably want to take ’em both right away. After that, who knows? I think ’e wants to keep the nigger for himself, but maybe he’ll let the rest of us have the blonde.”

  “She really a countess?” the man carrying Laurel asked.

  “So they say. Doesn’t matter, they all have the same thing under their skirts.” More coarse laughter.

  A soft thump, then Laurel was dumped on the bed with Violet between her and the wall. The men left. A lock clicked. For long moments Laurel just lay there, grateful for the relative comfort of the bed and Violet’s warmth, though now it was impossible to ignore all the aches and bruises and her general feeling of sickness.

  On the deck above, there were shouted orders, the creaking of wood, the snapping of canvas as sails were unfurled. She supposed they’d have at least a little time before Hardwick returned to his cabin. Softly she said, “Violet, because my hands are up by my face, I was able to pull my gag off. Can you do that?”

  Violet shifted and it sounded like she was struggling with her gag before she exclaimed, “Hardwick tied this tight!” She exhaled roughly. “But I can breathe now.”

  Laurel was grateful that Moody hadn’t tied her gag more tightly. He didn’t take her seriously as a threat, which was certainly justified.

  “You heard just before we left the shore that horsemen were charging toward Hardwick? It was Kirkland, I’m sure of it.”

  “But he’s on the shore and we’re sailing away.” Violet’s voice was almost a sob. “It’s too late. There’s nothing he can do.”

  “It sounds like he had friends with him, and believe me, he can do a great deal.”

  “Not enough,” Violet said tightly.

  “Don’t underestimate my husband.” The sack over Laurel’s head was loose and the rope that secured the blanket around her was lightly tied, only intended to keep the blanket in place. The rope was loose enough that she was able to push her arms straight up, which dragged the sack off her head. She exhaled with pleasure. There was nothing like being blinded for a while to make oneself appreciate sight.

  Though her wrists were tied, she was able to swing herself to a sitting position on the edge of the bed. She looked around the cabin. Hardwick didn’t stint himself. The furniture was polished mahogany and rich Turkey carpets were underfoot. At the foot of the bed, a gleaming brass tube stood on a tripod, the large end by a porthole. A telescope.

  “Are you sitting up?” Violet asked.

  “Yes, I was able to get the sack off over my head. I’m looking around for anything that might help us get free.”

  Unfortunately, since it was a ship’s cabin, everything was tightly secured. There was no convenient penknife lying on the built-in desk.

  But her wrist bonds definitely seemed loose. The sawing with her cross had stretched the rope. She relaxed her left hand as much as she could and tried to wriggle it out of the looped line. It took time, scraped skin, and several words she almost never used, but finally she pulled her left hand free.

  As she tore off her other bonds, she said, “Hallelujah! My hands are free, Violet. Now to get that sack off your head and untie you.”

  Kirkland reined in his sweaty horse and stared at the dinghy tied onto the Jamaica Queen. Dear God, those two long bundles being hauled aboard had to be Laurel and Violet, and he couldn’t do a damned thing!

  “Jesus Christ and all angels,” he breathed, not sure if it was a prayer or a curse. “I wonder which of these ships I can most quickly hire to take us after Hardwick.”

  “The tide will be against us soon,” Rob said, his flat voice not concealing his suppressed fury. “It will be difficult to pursue them until the water rises again.”

  “Not necessarily,” Ashton said, his voice lethally cool. “Kirkland, remember that just before the others arrived we talked briefly about my latest infernal machine? I didn’t get a chance to say that my new steamship, Britannia, just arrived from Glasgow at the end of her sea trials. She’s docked less than a quarter mile downriver, and her draft is shallow enough to travel the Thames even at low tide. I was going to invite you all for a test ride this week.”

  A steamship! Kirkland’s head whipped around. “It can follow quickly?”

  “It can. It will.” Ashton gathered the reins of his weary mount. Behind them, one of the following carriages rumbled to a stop, and the second carriage wasn’t far behind. “There’s only a skeleton crew on board at the moment, but with your men here to help, we can catch those bastards.”

  Kirkland couldn’t remember if he’d ever heard Ashton swear before. He’d be swearing more himself if he knew stronger curse words. “Lead on, Ashton, and thank God for infernal machines.”

  “Incidentally,” Ashton said, “you may think you recognize the Britannia’s captain, but really, you don’t.”

  Kirkland arched his brows, wondering what mystery was involved. But no matter. As long as Ashton trusted his captain, that was good enough.

  The Britannia looked squat and odd among the tall-masted sailing ships, with stubby stacks and a wheel on her stern, but to Kirkland she was the most beautiful vessel he’d ever seen. The steamship was moored to a pier rather than anchored out in the river, so a gangplank was laid down when a lookout spotted Ashton approaching.

  The duke led the way aboard. He was as sodden and muddy as the rest of them, but his voice crackled with command when he said, “Gordon, we’re going in pursuit of a kidnapper right now. I trust the boilers are warm?”

  “They are,” the captain said tersely. A lean man with white blond hair and tanned skin, he froze when he saw who was behind Ashton.

  Kirkland did indeed recognize him, and he was sure Rob and Randall did as well. The captain, then not called Gordon, was probably the only student who Lady Agnes Westerfield would consider a failure. Kirkland would love to know how “Gordon” had come to work for Ashton, but at the moment, that wasn’t important. All that mattered was that he was competent.

  “One of the two women kidnapped is my wife, Captain Gordon,” Kirkland said, “so I will be forever grateful if you help us bring them safely home.”

  Gordon relaxed when he saw that his new identity was accepted. “We can be off in twenty minutes.”

  “Make it ten,” Ashton said. “Is McCarran aboard?”

  “No, he’s taking shore leave.”

  “Then I’m chief engineer.” Ashton stripped off his exquisitely tailored coat. “The men behind me can be assigned to whatever tasks are needed. A few were sailors and most are experienced in combat. If we can overtake the Jamaica Queen before she reaches the sea, we have a fighting chance of saving Lady Kirkland and her maid.”

  “Give me enough speed from the engines and we’ll catch the bastards,” Gordon said gruffly. “As soon as we’re off, I’ll have the grappling hooks brought up.”

  The captain turned to Kirkland’s men as the handful of Britannia’s crew prepared to cast off. “Which of you have sailing experience?” Half a dozen men, including Rob Carmichael, raised their hands. “Then we’ll be getting busy now!”

  As Gordon snapped orders, Kirkland said to Randall, “Since this is turning into a military operation, you’ll be in command of the assault when the time comes. I assume the plan is to roar down the Thames at full speed, pull up alongside the Jamaica Queen and lock the ships together with grappling hooks, then board before they figure out what’s happening?”

  Randall nodded. “There’s no way they’ll be able to overlook the fact that a steamship is overtaking them, but other steamers have been running trials on the Thames. We’ll probably have regular steam packet service in the next few years. Hardwick won’t have reason to believe we’re after him until we pull alongside and hook on.”

  “I wouldn’t think they’d be able to load and fire the cannon quickly, but surely they’ll have guns on board.”

  “Yes, but they’d be secured in a weapons locker. Most ship captains are justly wary of letting sailors have easy access to weapons,” Rob Carmichael said as he joined them. “Gordon doesn’t need me as a deckhand since he has enough skilled labor, so I can help with the strategizing, to the extent that can be done.”

  The steam engines began pounding and the Britannia pulled away from the pier and began chugging downstream. The great wheel on the stern churned powerfully through the dark water as the captain piloted his way out of the Pool of London.

  Kirkland said, “How do you feel about leading a boarding squad when we catch up with the Jamaica Queen, Rob?”

  “It sounds like a wonderful antidote to the quiet life of an impoverished country gentleman,” his friend replied, a wicked gleam in his eyes.

  “I thought you were managing to repair your broken inheritance?” Randall said.

  “Actually, we’re doing fine,” Rob said reassuringly. “The mortgages are under control, Ashton gave me some of the best breeding stock in Britain, and some investments I made in India are worth more than expected.” He grinned. “I only feel impoverished compared to Ashton and Kirkland.”

  “If the life of a country gentleman becomes too tedious, you can come back to work for me,” Kirkland suggested.

  “No, thank you! Agriculture is proving to be more interesting than I expected.” Rob’s voice turned hard. “But I’m quite ready to administer some justice. Men like Hardwick deserved to be exterminated.”

  “He will be,” Kirkland said tersely.

  The Britannia had cleared the Pool of London and was moving more swiftly as she headed eastward toward the mouth of the Thames. If they could maintain this speed, they should catch up with the Jamaica Queen well before the sailing ship reached the North Sea. “Randall, is it a fair assumption that Hardwick’s men won’t have time to get weapons and be ready to shoot when we board?”

  “Probably, though never stake your life on ‘fair assumptions, ’ ” Randall warned. “What we can ensure is that our men are armed and ready when we board, so we’ll have the advantage. Now it’s time to look at the grappling hooks and weaponry.”

  Kirkland and Rob Carmichael accompanied Randall. Kirkland had never fought in a pitched battle before, but he didn’t need that experience to know that it was always better to be prepared for as many contingencies as possible.

  Be strong, Laurel! I’m coming to take you home.

  Chapter 35

  Every creak of the ship made Laurel stare fearfully at the cabin door to see if Captain Hardwick was returning to his cabin, but so far there had been no sign of him. The busy river must require the captain to be on deck until traffic thinned out.

  As Laurel released Violet, she asked, “Are you hurt? There’s blood in your hair.”

  “Bruised, but nothing broken, I think,” Violet whispered. “My head and my ankle hurt the most.”

  “Lie still while I examine you.”

  “Lying still is what I can do best,” Violet said with a gallant attempt at humor. She relaxed and closed her eyes while Laurel did a swift inventory.

  Though the girl had been knocked around more than Laurel, there didn’t seem to be serious damage. Violet’s ankle was badly sprained, not broken, so she wouldn’t be able to move quickly if they had a chance of escape, but binding it would help.

  Looking for bandages, Laurel found a drawer containing expensive, carefully folded linens. Monogrammed handkerchiefs served to blot the sluggish bleeding from Violet’s grazed scalp. Two cravats gave support to the girl’s swelling ankle.

  “Rest now,” Laurel said as she tied off the cravats. “I’m going to see if I can block the door so Hardwick will have trouble getting in. If Kirkland is coming after us, any extra time will improve our chances of escaping alive.”

  Violet opened her eyes, showing the strain of not crying out from pain when her ankle was bound. “See if you can find any weapons.”

  “I don’t know how to load or fire a gun,” Laurel cautioned.

  Violet gave a smile that showed her teeth. “I can. Or a knife. I know how to gut a pig, and Hardwick is a swine.”

  Laurel firmly repressed her squeamishness. “I’ll see what I can find.”

  Almost all the furniture was built into the cabin so nothing could be moved in front of the door. She tried searching his desk, but most of the drawers were locked. The top drawer did contain a pencil as well as writing paper, so she jammed the pencil into the door lock in the hope that would make it difficult for Hardwick to enter.

  His clothespress contained a long wool robe that helped warm her up again. Though she loathed the i
dea of wearing a garment of Hardwick’s, warm was warm. She tucked blankets around Violet, who had dozed off, her face pale.

  Laurel was exhausted and would have liked to sleep also, but she couldn’t bear to be vulnerable when Hardwick returned. She tucked her sapphire cross into her bodice to keep it safe, then paced the cabin, looking for anything that might be used as a weapon.

  The telescope? She removed it from its cradle consideringly, but it was too heavy and clumsy to be an effective club. The only other loose objects were too light to be of use. Even the swiveling desk chair was bolted down.

  How long would it take Kirkland to hire a ship to pursue the Jamaica Queen? At least a couple of hours, and then there was the matter of the tides. She wasn’t sure how long it would take to sail from London to the open sea, but she had the sick feeling that it would be too long for her and Violet.

  So she paced the cabin, and prayed.

  It was full dark now, with enough light from the stars and a waxing moon to see other boats on the river. With night, there wasn’t much other traffic.

  Kirkland stood in the Britannia’s bow, straining his eyes for the first glimpse of the Jamaica Queen. Rhodes stood to his left, tight lipped and silent. Rob Carmichael and Randall were to the right, equally watchful but more relaxed. Randall in particular looked as he must have before battle. Calm, focused, and ready for anything.

  Ashton had yet to emerge from the engine room, where he was squeezing the maximum possible speed out of the engines short of blowing up the ship. Kirkland had visited his friend in the small, fiercely hot room. Ash was having the time of his life. He’d always had a very un-ducal passion for mechanical devices, and never had that skill been more vital.

  “There’s our quarry.” Rob pointed. “Just before the river bends. She’s fast, but we’re faster.”

  “Much faster.” Randall uncoiled from the railing. “Time to muster our troops so they’re armed and ready. Captain Gordon is going to blow that horrific horn of his as if we’re just passing the Jamaica Queen. Then we’ll ram the Queen, lock on, and board her. Our main deck is a couple of feet higher, which is an advantage. It’s always better to have the high ground.”

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