Authors: Connie Mason
Chris shoved his fingers through his thick dark hair as he struggled for a reply. “I care. Society no longer interests me. That life was lost to me when I fell in love with a frivolous beauty and fought a duel with my best friend for her attention.
“I'll never forget the appalled look on her face when I told her I had killed Desmond. That was the moment I realized she had been playing games with men's lives. She never wanted me. It was Desmond's money she wanted. She led me on to make him jealous. I cannot believe how gullible I was back then. I will live with the guilt until the day I die.”
“We all make mistakes, Chris. You admitted yourself that the last seven years have been profitable ones. All is well that ends well.”
Chris pushed himself from the chair and walked to the window, his gait that of a man who had spent years navigating a pitching ship's deck. “How can you call an innocent man's death a good ending? Nothing has changed to absolve my guilt. I deprived Desmond's parents of their heir. I hold myself just as guilty as the faithless chit. Lord knows I've tried to banish the girl from my memory.”
“It's just as well,” Justin said. “If you recall, her family was impoverished; they came to Town in hopes of snagging a rich husband for her. They could scarcely afford her Season. After the duel and the scandal that followed, the family retreated to the obscurity of their Essex manor. Her parents have since died, and she hasn't been seen in polite Society since the duel. The girl was but seventeen at the time. By now she must be married to some country bumpkin and living in poverty, the mother of several brats. Serves her right, I say.”
Chris turned away from the window. “Be that as it may, I will always carry the guilt of Desmond's death.” Though it hadn't been easy, Chris had done his best to forget the girl. The whole affair left a bad taste in his mouth and a pain in his gut.
Chris grew angry every time he remembered the trusting young man he had been. The girl he'd once thought he loved might have been too young to know her own mind, but she was old enough to tease and entice.
“Help me understand your need to move to the West Indies, Chris. Why this sudden urge to leave the country of your birth for good? At least as a ship's captain you returned regularly to England to discharge or take on cargo.”
Chris placed his palms on the edge of the desk and leaned forward, his blue eyes fervent with determination. “I won a sugarcane plantation in a game of chance in Kingston, Jamaica. The owner, a buccaneer who had recently won it at cards himself, had no use for it and threw it into the pot. I won the pot and became the proud owner of Sunset Hill, a rather large plantation and distillery.
“When I visited Sunset Hill, I knew becoming a planter was something I would enjoy. And I love the island. It's as close to paradise as I'll ever get. I have the money to replace aging machinery and make repairs to the house, and I own a ship to carry my purchases to Jamaica. Truthfully, the challenge has energized me, and I cannot wait to return to the golden shores of Jamaica. English winters leave much to be desired.”
“I don't like it,” Justin growled. “Jamaica is known for its frequent slave uprisings. How do you know such a thing won't happen on your plantation?”
“That won't happen because I'm going to free my slaves and pay them wages to continue working the fields and distilling rum.”
Justin shook his head. “Freeing your slaves may be dangerous. The other plantation owners won't be pleased, no matter how pure and noble your intentions. Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?”
“I appreciate your concern, Justin, but I'm determined.”
“What about the
? Will she still ply the trade routes under another captain?”
“Aye, Dirk Blaine, my first mate, will captain the
. The ship will carry rum and other commodities such as sugar, tobacco and coffee beans to foreign ports. The
will not sit idle in port.”
Justin sighed and threw up his hands. “Apparently you cannot be dissuaded. All I can tell you is to visit often and take care of yourself. With the recent slave uprisings and the history of earthquakes and hurricanes, Jamaica will present challenges you may not have anticipated.”
“I am prepared to take on new challenges,” Chris maintained.
“Then there is nothing more I can say but wish you well. How soon will you depart?”
“A week, give or take a day. My ship is being provisioned as we speak, and everything I wish to take with me has been purchased and is being stowed away in the hold.”
Justin rose. “Then you'd best come with me and bid your sister-in-law good-bye. Grace and I see you too seldom. Perhaps you will return in late fall to help me welcome our child into the world. It would mean a lot to Grace if you showed up for the christening.”
Chris slapped Justin on the back. “A child! Congratulations, old boy. I'll make it my mission in life to return for the blessed event.”
They left the study together. While Justin worried about his brother's future, Chris contemplated his new and exciting venture, a challenge he was eagerly looking forward to.
London, One Week Later
“I've come to collect my money, Caldwell. I cannot wait until your financial situation improves,” the thick-set man with thinning hair argued. “I've booked passage to Jamaica aboard the
. She sails in five days. I've been away from my plantation too long to delay my journey. If you don't settle your debt now, I'll summon the watch and have you carted off to debtor's prison. I'm sure I'm not the only man in Town who holds your vowels.”
Rayford, Viscount Caldwell, had the sudden urge to thrash Sir Oscar Rigby soundly and send him packing. However much he hated it, he had to paste a pleasant smile on his face and try to placate the man.
“Now, now, Sir Oscar, there's no need for threats. You'll get your money.”
“As soon as I'm able to repair my finances.”
“That will never happen, Caldwell. Everyone knows your pockets are empty. The amount you owe me is not inconsiderable. I can use the blunt to buy more slaves.”
The argument continued unabated. Threats flew back and forth. Voices rose to a wild crescendo, until even the three servants Caldwell could scarcely afford disappeared into the lower regions of the run-down town house.
Sophia Carlisle descended the stairs of the town house her stepbrother had rented, drawn to the study by the sound of angry voices. She had a good idea what the argument was about. Not a day went by without someone appearing at their door, demanding payment for one of Ray's gambling debts or the foppish clothing he'd purchased for himself.
Sophia froze on the bottom landing as the study door burst open and a short, stout man with nondescript features and a red face charged forward. He saw Sophia and came to an abrupt halt.
“Who are you, my dear?” the man asked.
Sophia did not care for the man's familiar manner and was about to tell him so when Rayford appeared behind the brash stranger.
“Sir Oscar, this is my stepsister, Miss Sophia Carlisle. Sophia, please greet Sir Oscar Rigby, a . . . er . . . business acquaintance of mine.”
Rigby reached for Sophia's hand and brought it to his mouth for a wet kiss. Repressing a shudder, Sophia snatched her hand away.
“Your sister, eh?” Rigby said, sending Caldwell a speaking glance. “Perhaps I was a bit hasty in my demands. Shall we return to your study to resume our discussion? I'm sure we can come to an arrangement that both of us can live with.”
Sophia backed away, wanting no part of Ray's business dealings. If he hadn't gambled away her dowry along with his wife's modest fortune, they wouldn't be in such dire straits now. She'd hoped that when Ray married Claire he'd give up his wild ways and settle down, but that had not happened.
Sophia wished herself back in their rundown manor house in the country, where she could keep herself busy helping the people in their little village. This scheme of Ray's to bring her to London to find a wealthy husband had been doomed to failure from the beginning. They had been in Town nearly a month and not one invitation had arrived, and Ray had found no one to sponsor her at Almacks or any other Society function.
“Sir Oscar,” Sophia said, nodding curtly, “I shall leave you and Rayford to your negotiations. I'm needed in the kitchen to confer with Cook.”
Rigby watched Sophia walk away, his gaze riveted on the seductive sway of her hips. He watched until she had disappeared through a doorway before reentering the study. Caldwell followed him inside and shut the door.
“Your sister is stunning,” Rigby said. “Why hasn't she married?” He tapped his chin, deep in thought. “Hmmm, Sophia Carlisle; ah, yes, now I remember. There is a bit of scandal associated with her name. She fled Town in disgrace some years back. I overheard a bit of gossip about her at one of the gambling hells shortly after you and Miss Carlisle returned to Town but paid it little heed.”
Caldwell shrugged off Rigby's words. “It was a minor incident that happened years ago. Forget Sophia. You spoke of an arrangement. I'm anxious to hear the details.”
“First, tell me if you can lay your hands on the five hundred pounds you owe me.”
“No, but if you give me more timeâ”
“No more time. I already told you I'm leaving London shortly. But there is another way you can repay your debt without it costing you a penny.”
Caldwell's face lit up. “Just tell me how and it's yours.”
Rigby rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, excitement combined with anticipation clearly evident in his leering grin. Lacing his hands behind his back, he preened before Caldwell like a strutting peacock.
After a suspenseful few moments, he blurted out, “I want your stepsister. Give me one night with her and I will destroy your vowels. If you refuse, I'll go straight to the magistrate and have you thrown in debtor's prison.”
Caldwell gaped at Rigby. “You want Sophia?”
“Indeed I do. I want her in my bed for one night. She's far superior to the female slaves available to me on my plantation and the whores I've frequented in London.”
Caldwell began to pace. “I brought Sophia to London to find her a husband. Give me time to arrange a profitable match and you'll have your five hundred pounds in cash.”
Rigby shook his head. “That's not acceptable. Is your sister untouched?”
“I have reason to believe she is.”
Rigby's eyes glazed over. “How fortunate for me. Is it a deal, Caldwell?” Caldwell hesitated. “I might even offer a little extra if she pleases me,” he added.
“Sophia will never agree. She's grown stubborn and fractious of late. I have little control over her.”
Rigby shrugged. “It's up to you, of course, whether or not you force her to obey. You could remind her that your wife will have no husband if you go to debtor's prison.”
Caldwell winced. He didn't care a fig about Claire. He had left her in the country because she would hinder his activities in Town.
Well, there was no help for it. Sophia would have to swallow her pride and face the inevitable. She was on the shelf. No man would offer her anything but an improper proposal, he now realized. Selling Sophia's favors was the only viable solution to mending his finances.
After Rigby had his night with Sophia, Caldwell intended to offer her favors to other men. Perhaps one would even keep her as his mistress. It wasn't as if Sophia would suffer as a rich man's plaything. She would be kept in style, have servants to wait on her, jewels she could sell later, and live a life of luxury. It wasn't a bad life, and Caldwell would make sure he shared in the profit. All he had to do was convince Sophia.
“Sophia will do as I say,” Caldwell assured Rigby.
“I thought you would say that. I will call on Sophia tomorrow night. Make sure she knows what I want from her.”
“Don't come until after ten; that's when she usually retires. I'll give the servants the night off and leave the house when you arrive. But I'll want my vowels returned before you visit her room.”
The agreement made, Rigby took his leave, strutting off like a cocky rooster. Caldwell remained in his study, planning Sophia's ruination.
Sophia emerged from the kitchen when she heard the front door close. While she had no idea what the obnoxious Sir Oscar wanted with Rayford, she knew instinctively that it involved money. The man made her skin crawl. She headed for the study, intending to speak to Ray about leaving London.
“What did that man want?” Sophia asked as she strode into the study. “You'd do well to stay away from men of that ilk.”
Caldwell sent her a sullen look. “You don't even know him.”
“You're right, and I don't want to. There's something I'd like to talk to you about.”
“And I have something to discuss with you, so speak your piece first, and then I will speak mine.”
Sophia felt nothing but disgust for her stepbrother. Ray's mother had been her father's first wife. She had brought her son from a former marriage with her. Rayford had inherited the title of viscount at an early age.
After Ray's mother died, Sophia's father married her mother. She had been their only child. Unfortunately, her father had grown so fond of his first wife's son that he made Rayford Sophia's guardian. Ray was an unrepentant gambler and indifferent provider, and her father had been no better. Both Ray and her father had put their own needs before those of the family, leaving the women who depended on them destitute. Sophia could barely stand Ray and knew the feeling was mutual.
“It's time to return home,” Sophia said. “There's nothing to be gained by remaining in London except accumulating more debt. We both knew that trying to find me a husband was doomed to failure.”