Read A Taste of Paradise Online

Authors: Connie Mason

A Taste of Paradise (25 page)

Chris's heart sank. He knew without being told that Sophia was the reason for the cook's anxiety. “What is it, Chandra? Is Sophia upset over the storm?”

“She ain't here, Captain,” Chandra wailed. “The mistress drove the carriage to Kingston today and took Kateena with her. She hasn't returned, and I'm worried sick about her.”

“She's gone?” The color drained from Chris's face. The force of the wind drove him inside. Calming his rising panic, he closed the door with Chuba's help and forced himself to think rationally.

“Sophia and Kateena wouldn't start back to Sunset Hill in threatening weather. I'm sure they're fine, Chandra. Kateena has lived in Jamaica long enough to know how dangerous a hurricane can be. They probably sought shelter at the King's Arms.”

Despite his words, Chris's fears escalated. Sophia was wild and unpredictable. Kateena wouldn't be able to stop her from returning home if her mind was set on it. Sophia had proven her reckless nature time and again, but would she risk injury or death to return home?

“I'm going to ride to Kingston,” Chris announced. “I won't be satisfied until I know Sophia is safe.”

“I'm going with you,” Casper chimed in.

“You're going to stay here where it's safe,” Chris ordered sternly.

“Look outside, Captain,” Chuba ventured. “The trees are bent double; some have been uprooted. You don't stand a chance of reaching Kingston. Wait until the hurricane passes.”

Chris began to pace. “That could take hours. My gut tells me that Sophia needs me.”

That feeling remained with Chris the rest of the day as the wind howled like a banshee and bullet-like pellets of rain pelted the window panes. He paced. He tried to eat. He cursed Sophia's recklessness. She shouldn't have left the house in threatening weather. True, Sophia had no idea what a hurricane looked like or the damage it could do, but common sense should have told her something was amiss when she saw the ominous sky.

Sometime during the long night a tree came crashing down onto a section of the veranda. Chris wasn't overly worried about his workers, for he knew they and their families would seek shelter in the sturdy brick distillery. Only Chuba and Chandra remained with him in the manor house—and Casper, of course, who had refused to leave Chris's side.

Toward dawn, the wind and rain began to subside, indicating that the hurricane had passed over the island, leaving mass destruction in its wake. Chris ventured outside to assess the damage. Several palm trees had been uprooted, part of the veranda was gone, and two wooden outbuildings had been leveled. The brick distillery had withstood the onslaught, but several of the workers' huts had lost roofs and two had been leveled. As for the cane fields, the stalks that hadn't been cut lay scattered upon the sodden ground.

They could still be salvaged if the men worked fast. Chris issued orders to Mundo to begin the cleanup and then went to the stables for his horse. Much to his relief, the stables were still standing, though a bit worse for wear. The stable lad stumbled out from one of the stalls to saddle Atlas. Moments later, Chris reined his mount toward Kingston.

The road was flooded, making travel difficult. Chris had to stop several times to remove debris from the road so he could pass. Twice, trees too heavy for him to move blocked the road. In each case he found a way around the obstacle, though the detours slowed him considerably. A trip that should have taken less than an hour took four.

As Chris rode down King Street, it became apparent that the town had received the brunt of the storm. Debris from mangled shops and dwellings littered the ground. Rain stood in the roadway. Amazingly, some buildings appeared unscathed. The King's Arms was one of the lucky few.

The scene inside the inn was chaotic. People who had taken shelter in the sturdy building were rushing out to check on the condition of their homes and businesses. Chris pushed his way through the frantic exodus until he spied the proprietor.

“Ludlow,” Chris called above the din of voices.

Ludlow seemed startled to see Chris. “Captain, I'm surprised you were able to get through. The roads must be a mess. What can I do for you?”

“I'm looking for my wife. Can you direct me to her room?”

“Your wife? She isn't here, Captain.”

A spiral of fear snaked down Chris's spine. “She couldn't have left Kingston already, for I would have encountered her on the road.”

“I haven't seen your lady, Captain.”

Chris felt as if the room were closing in on him. “But . . . that's impossible. I was told Sophia and her maid came to Kingston before the storm broke. Naturally, I assumed they sought shelter from the hurricane at the inn.”

Ludlow shook his head. “I'd know if they were here.”

“Master Ludlow,” a small voice piped up. “I seen the lady.”

Chris turned to the stable lad, his hopes soaring. “Speak up, lad. Tell me what you know.”

“The lady left her carriage at the inn while she shopped in the marketplace. She returned just as it began to rain and asked me to unhitch the horse from the carriage and saddle it. I think she intended to return to Sunset Hill. She said something about wanting to reach home before the storm broke.”

“She didn't make it,” Chris whispered. “Oh, God, she's still out there somewhere. What about Kateena?”

“She wasn't with your lady,” the boy replied.

Frantic, Chris rushed from the inn, mounted Atlas and rode hell for leather out of town. Sophia could be lying hurt somewhere, or, God forbid, dead. He intended to pull all his workers from the fields and organize a search party. Perhaps she had found shelter and was even now trying to get home.

Chris found Lord Chester waiting for him when he arrived home.

“I thought I'd come over to see how you fared during the hurricane,” Chester said.

“As you can see, it could have been worse.”

“I lost half my coffee beans and my tobacco barns, but nothing that can't be repaired or replaced.”

“Did Sophia happen to seek shelter at Orchid Manor?” Chris asked hopefully. “She took the carriage to Kingston yesterday, and I can't locate her.”

“Are you implying that Sophia was out during the storm?” Chester asked, aghast. Chris nodded. “My God, man, where could she be?”

“I don't know. I hoped, prayed that she had sought shelter at the King's Arms, but she wasn't there. I'm going to send out a search party immediately.”

“Let me help. And I'm sure Wombly will want to join in the search. I'll contact him. The more men searching, the better chance we have of finding your wife.”

“Thank you,” Chris said sincerely. “We should concentrate on the area between here and Kingston. She started home on horseback but never arrived.”

Chester left. Chris organized his workers into two groups and joined one of them. It was late afternoon when Chris found Sophia's mount. He was pinned beneath a fallen tree well off the main road, his leg broken, his eyes rolling wildly in his head. Chris found no evidence that Sophia had been with the horse when it had been struck. He put the poor animal out of its misery and widened the search.

Exhaustion and waning light halted the search. The men returned to their homes for a well-deserved meal and rest. But the search continued the following day and the day after that. The only sign of Sophia was a piece of material from her dress that one of Chester's slaves found near the foothills of the Blue Mountains. How could Sophia have strayed so far from the road? Chris wondered. Had she become lost in the mountains? Was she even now trying to find her way home?

Where could Sophia be? The obvious answer was the most painful.

Sophia was dead.

Chris refused to stop searching, but after four days of fruitless tramping through the jungle, he released his men to make repairs on their homes and to gather the salvageable cane lying in the fields. He sent word to Chester and Wombly that the search was officially over, even though Chris continued looking.

Kateena had returned home to find the household in mourning. When Lady Chester arrived to express her condolences, Chris quickly set her straight. Until a body was found, he considered Sophia missing, not dead.

That night Chris dreamed of Sophia. He felt her in his arms, flushed with passion, her sweet body arched beneath his, her lush mouth gasping his name as he brought her to completion. The dream was so real, he woke up and reached for her, only to find the space beside him empty.

He missed her, dammit! He missed her vitality, her spirit. He missed knowing she was in his home, waiting for him in his bed. And that truly puzzled him. Nothing in their past suggested that Chris should want Sophia in his home, in his life.

In his heart.

Chapter Thirteen

Sophia opened her eyes to a world of pain and a sea of dark faces staring down at her. She groaned, blinked, and struggled to regain her wits. Her head pounded, the pain so debilitating she could barely string two thoughts together. Of one thing she was certain: This wasn't Sunset Hill.

“Lady, lady.”

The woman hovering above her had skin the color of tobacco. Her slightly slanted eyes held a worried expression. “Are you awake, lady?”

Sophia nodded and wished she hadn't. Her arms felt like lead as she lifted them to her head. The woman pushed Sophia's hands away and replaced them with a cool, wet cloth.

Sophia tried to summon some moisture to lick her dry lips and failed. Immediately someone lifted her head and held a cup of water to her mouth. She drank thirstily until the cup was empty.

“Where am I?” she croaked. “What is this place?”

“You were found four days ago,” the woman said in a singsong voice, “lying on the ground near our campsite during the height of the storm. The men carried you to the cave in which we had taken shelter. After the hurricane passed, you were carried to my hut. My name is Udamma.”

“I've been unconscious four days?” Sophia gasped, stunned. Her first thought was of Chris. “My husband doesn't know what happened to me.”

“We would have notified him had we known who you were,” Udamma said. “Fear not, lady; you are safe with us.”

Sophia let her gaze wander over the people gathered in the small room. Udamma answered her unspoken question immediately.

“My people are curious about you.” She spoke to them in a language Sophia didn't understand, and they drifted out the door.

“Many camps like ours thrive in the foothills of the Blue Mountains,” Udamma explained. “We are called Maroons. Some of us are escaped slaves who no longer wish to live under the yoke of slavery. Others are free people of color. We live in freedom here, our physical and spiritual needs taken care of by ‘Daddy' Sam Sharp.”

“Thank you for your care of me, Udamma,” Sophia said. “I'd like to go home to Sunset Hill now.”

A smile appeared on Udamma's dark face. “You are Captain Radcliff's woman?”

“I am Sophia, his wife. Have you heard of my husband?”

“We know that Captain Radcliff freed his slaves, and we admire his bold action. How did you come to be on the road during a hurricane?”

Udamma helped Sophia to sit up. Her head spun dizzily and then filled with a dull ache. “I was returning home from Kingston. I suppose I was foolish to brave the storm, but I was anxious to return to my husband. I've never experienced a hurricane before. My maid warned me to take shelter, but I ignored her. It won't happen again, I assure you.

“Lightning and falling trees frightened my horse and I lost control. He threw me and ran off.” She touched the bump on her forehead. “I must have hit something hard, for I knew nothing more until I woke up here.”

“We didn't find your horse. We wouldn't have found you if one of our men hadn't been late seeking shelter in the cave and stumbled upon you.”

“I'm sure my husband will reward you,” Sophia said sleepily. Her eyes fluttered shut. “I don't know why I feel so tired.”

“You are still healing, lady. Sleep. We will send word to your husband.”

Disheveled, dirty, tired and disheartened, Chris was finally ready to accept that Sophia was dead. What he hadn't expected to deal with was Viscount Caldwell waiting for him upon his return from his fourth day of searching for Sophia.

“Speak your piece, Caldwell, and make it quick,” Chris growled.

“My sister is dead, and I hold you responsible,” Caldwell blustered.

“We don't know she's dead,” Chris said, unwilling to admit what he had finally come to believe.

“How long has it been? Four days? That's a long time for a defenseless woman to be missing. For all we know, she's being held prisoner by escaped slaves, and Lord knows what they've done to her.”

“We have no reason to believe that,” Chris argued. “What is it you want from me, Caldwell?”

“Compensation for my sister's life,” Caldwell ventured. “You owe me for failing to protect her.”

Chris sighed, too bone weary for patience. “Are you saying you would have done a better job? You sold her to repay a debt, even though you knew Rigby intended to use and discard her. You're a mercenary bastard, Caldwell. Now get out of here, you're not getting one farthing from me.”

He turned and strode off, ignoring Caldwell's vile curses. He had enough to worry about without Caldwell's interference. Losing Sophia had devastated him. He was too heartsick to deal with the damage done to his plantation or worry about the
Intrepid
being in the path of the storm.

Chris walked to the house, a defeated man with little hope left. Sophia was gone. Though his mind knew it, his heart refused to accept it. She was so young, so vital, so wonderfully alive. She had said she loved him. Why hadn't he been able to return the sentiment? His guilt, already ponderous, was now suffocating.

Kateena met him at the door. “No luck, Captain?”

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