Read A Taste of Paradise Online

Authors: Connie Mason

A Taste of Paradise (9 page)

Anger roiled deep inside Sophia. She leaped to her feet, hands on hips, facing him squarely. “You were never one to accept responsibility, were you, Chris? Instead of accepting things and making them right, you ran. You can keep running, for all I care. Forget about me. You're very good at that.”

Spinning on her heel, she flounced off.

Sophia knew the moment the words left her mouth that she had made a terrible mistake. She didn't dare look back to see if her outburst had angered Chris as she clambered down the ladder. All she wanted was to reach the safety of her cabin.

There were only a few times in his life that Chris had been rendered speechless, and this was one of them. Damn Sophia to hell! How dare she play with his emotions! She was the one who had rejected him after the duel that took Desmond's life.

Had Sophia known that the
Intrepid
belonged to him when she chose his ship on which to hide? What was her real purpose in stowing away? Was it to bedevil him? Did she still want to punish him for killing Desmond after all these years?

“Captain, are you all right? Did something happen between you and your lady?”

“Something happened a long time ago,” Chris spat. “Sophia is a fortune hunter who enjoys playing one man against another. She's poison, Dirk, put on this earth to torment me. Believe it or not, long ago I fancied myself in love with her.”

Blaine eyed him curiously. “What happened?”

“I've tried my damnedest to forget Sophia and almost succeeded, until she turned up on the
Intrepid
. There are things in my life I'm not proud of, things that happened during my misspent youth. Sophia is responsible for the most difficult time I have ever had to face.”

“If Miss Carlisle is all that you said, I'm surprised you didn't return her to England immediately.”

There was no mirth in Chris's laugh. “I've spent the better part of seven years trying to forget what I did because of Sophia. I told myself she meant nothing to me, that it didn't matter if she was on board, but I was wrong.”

“Care to talk about it?”

Chris walked over to the railing, gripping it so hard his knuckles turned white. “Because of Sophia, I killed an innocent man, my best friend, in a drunken duel that never should have happened. The whole fiasco was a stupid mistake, and that's all I'm going to say.”

“You said Sophia was in trouble.”

A thoughtful expression crossed Chris's features as he directed his gaze at the water churning beneath the ship. “Trouble seems to follow Sophia. Once, I believed she cared for me, Dirk, but it was my friend Desmond she chose to wed.”

“What are you going to do now?”

Chris whirled, his face contorted with rage. “I'm going to do exactly what I planned to do from the beginning. Bid the minx good riddance and book her passage on the first ship sailing out of Kingston Bay for England. I hold Sophia partly responsible for a man's death. No one will ever know how much guilt I've suffered since the day Desmond died in my arms.”

“You shouldn't be so hard on yourself, or on Miss Carlisle. She must have been young when you first knew her.”

“Don't diminish her guilt in the disaster, Dirk. I'm a changed man emotionally and mentally since that fickle minx lied to me about her feelings. She made me believe she loved me, and then refused to speak to me after the duel. Damnation, Dirk, I didn't mean to kill Desmond. We were both foxed. What had started as friendly competition ended with his death. I still can't forgive myself for killing my best friend.”

Blaine regarded his friend with concern. “Take my advice, Captain—let it go.”

“Your advice has been noted and duly rejected,” Chris replied. “If you'll excuse me, I have a little matter to discuss with the lady.”

Steeling himself for a confrontation with Sophia, Chris scrambled down the ladder and paused a moment to gain control of his temper before entering the cabin. His gaze found Sophia immediately as he opened the door and stepped inside. She was seated on a chair, looking small and vulnerable. But her defenselessness did not dampen his anger.

“You're as much to blame for Desmond's death as I am,” he said with quiet menace.

Sophia leaped to her feet. “I'm not the one who killed him.”

“So you
do
blame me.”

“The only thing I blame you for is running off when I needed you. You let me face the scandal alone.”

His mouth flattened. “I should dump you in the sea and let you swim back to London. A man died because of you. That man was my friend. You led us both on until a duel for your affections seemed the only way to gain your hand.”

The color drained from Sophia's face. “I never intended for it to end in tragedy.”

“Then why did you keep us both dangling? Why did you tell me you cared for me?”

“I was seventeen, Chris! I was enjoying my first Season even though I knew I had to wed someone soon. You were my first choice, but I knew I couldn't have you. My family was desperate for money.”

“If that was true, why didn't you tell me that my circumstances put me out of the running for your hand? Why did you tell me you loved me?”

Sophia refused to meet his eyes. She was not proud of the way she'd handled the situation. She hadn't meant to provoke a duel; she'd just wanted as much time with Chris as she could get before wedding Desmond.

“I intended to tell you why I had to wed Desmond, but you became impatient and took matters into your own hands. Dueling over me was stupid. Why did you disappear after Desmond's death?” she dared.

Grasping her shoulders, Chris gave her a little shake. “Why? Because you refused to speak to me afterward. You looked at me with horror and disgust. You gave me no choice but to remove myself from your life.”

Oh, Chris, I was too stunned to speak
.
And I was worried sick that you would be arrested and imprisoned
. “I don't suppose you'd understand.” She shook her head sadly. “In the meantime, you've done all right for yourself, so why revisit the past?”

Chris gave her a self-satisfied smirk. “Judging from what I know of you now, you didn't do all right. You're still unmarried, and in trouble.”

“Damn you! You left me to face the scandal on my own. Father whisked me away to the country, and I never heard the end of it from him and Rayford. They made life miserable for me. Not a day went by without them reminding me that I'd failed in my duty to my family. Marrying wealth was no longer possible after the scandal.”

“I'm sorry to hear that.”

Sophia bristled. His apology held a note of mockery. The Chris she'd once known had changed from a charming youth to an unfeeling, cynical man.

Sophia had mourned losing Chris after he walked out of her life. Over the years, she had kept him in her thoughts. Though Sophia knew that arguing with him was feeding the flames of his temper, she couldn't help it. Chris had hurt her. Because of him she had been banished from Society, treated with contempt by her family and shunned by her friends. After her father's death, Rayford had become her guardian and tormentor. What would Chris say if he knew Ray had tried to sell her innocence to repay a gambling debt?

That, Sophia decided, was something she'd never tell Chris. He'd probably laugh and tell her it was no more than she deserved.

“I'm not as heartless as you believe,” Chris maintained. “I said I'd send you back to England, and so I will, but after that, you're on your own. Women like you always land on their feet.”

Her dismayed expression showed that his words had pierced her. She was the one who should be angry, she was the one who had lost the most: her reputation and the man who could have helped her family rise above poverty.

Chris's fingers tightened on her shoulders. God, she was lovely. Seven years hadn't dimmed her beauty. He recalled how much he had loved her, how desperate he'd been to make her his despite his lack of funds. If only she could have waited for him until his grandmother had passed away and left him her fortune. But Sophia had been too eager for a title to wait.

Sophia tried to shrug off his hands. He refused to release her. Her shoulders shook, her silence more telling than her words. He knew he had hurt her and had no idea how to fix it, or if he even wanted to. He wanted to shake her and kiss her at the same time. Kissing her won out.

Roughly he dragged her against him. Lowering his head, he captured her mouth. His kiss was not gentle, nor was it meant to be. He kissed her until she went limp and moaned into his mouth. Then he pushed her away, a stunned expression on his face.

“No! I'm not going to let you tempt me again.”

He needed to put space between them. He no longer wanted to know what kind of trouble had brought her aboard his ship, or the danger she would face upon her return to England.

“I never—”

He held up his hand. “I don't want to hear it. You're going to get your wish. I'm moving out of the cabin for the remainder of the voyage. You won't have to deal with my presence any longer. I'll send Casper for my things.”

During the last days of the voyage, Sophia felt alone and isolated. She missed Chris in so many ways. Even the crew must have suspected that something was amiss between her and Chris, for they began avoiding her. Mapes rarely made the time to entertain her with his knot-tying tricks, and, though Mr. Blaine sent her pitying looks, he no longer sought her out for conversation. Casper, bless his heart, still saw to her needs and treated her no differently than before. She saw little of Chris, for he kept his distance and was careful not to make eye contact with her.

Several days after her volatile encounter with Chris, Casper rushed into the cabin to tell her that land had been sighted. Sophia hurried topside, shielding her eyes against the glare of the sun as she searched the horizon. Then she saw it—an emerald-green jewel basking in the sun beneath a cloudless blue sky. Above the land mass rose a line of forested mountains.

Sophia raised her face to the sun, eager to set foot on land and explore the island. She hoped she wouldn't have to return to England immediately, for Jamaica intrigued her. She wanted to see more of the island before returning home to an uncertain future.

“Miss, Captain said to tell you we'll dock in Kingston Harbor tomorrow morning.”

Sophia smiled at Casper. She was going to miss the lad. “I suppose you're going to remain aboard with Mr. Blaine when the
Intrepid
leaves Kingston.”

“Oh, no, miss, I'd never leave the captain. Me and him, we belong together. I'm going with him to Sunset Hill.”

“Sunset Hill?”

“Aye, miss, that's the name of his plantation. I haven't seen it yet, but if it's good enough for the captain, it's good enough for me.”

Sophia returned her gaze to the green island rising majestically from the sea.
Sunset Hill
, she reflected, silently repeating the name. In her mind's eye she saw a splendid manor perched atop a hill. She saw herself sitting on a veranda, sipping a cool drink and watching the sun slowly sink into the ocean.

She nearly laughed aloud. That pleasant dream would never come to pass. Likely she'd find herself shut away from Society, marking time as a governess.

“I almost forgot, miss,” Casper said, shattering her impossible dreams. “The captain said you were to remain with the
Intrepid
until he made arrangements for you to go ashore.”

Sophia nodded and returned her attention to the island, attempting to recapture the pleasant imaginings of a life that could never be hers.

Sophia slept little that night; she was too excited about going ashore. Shortly before daylight, she heard noises indicating that the ship had reached its destination and was preparing to dock. Since she couldn't go back to sleep, she got up to watch the process through the porthole. Casper arrived soon after with her breakfast of bread, cheese and tea.

“How long before anyone can go ashore?” Sophia asked.

“The captain went ashore soon after the ship docked,” the lad said. “Once the crew unloads the hold, they will begin shore leave. But the
Intrepid
won't stay in port long. She's due to leave day after tomorrow for Charleston in America with a cargo of rum and sugar. I have to go now, miss. I'm needed topside.”

Sophia was too excited to eat. Instead, she followed Casper out the door and up the ladder to the deck. Her first sight of Kingston Harbor was one that would be etched in her memory forever. Men, their black skin glistening with sweat, were engaged in all manner of activity, while women of various shades roamed the streets in brightly colored dresses and turbans. She was also able to pick out white men and women on the crowded streets, garbed in typical English clothing.

Beyond the wharf, piled against lush green hills beneath a brilliant blue sky, lay the town of Kingston. Sophia couldn't seem to get her fill of the unfamiliar sounds and sights. Her eyes devoured the color and sweep of the harbor, listening intently to the cries of seabirds and the musical chanting of the slaves. Sophia remained at the rail a long time, savoring the sights and sounds and wondering what it would be like living in a tropical paradise like Jamaica.

“I've made arrangements for your return to England.”

Chris!
He stood beside her. She hadn't heard him approach. “Arrangements? What kind of arrangements?”

“You'll be staying at the King's Arms until the
South Wind
arrives. She's due in a week or so. She'll remain in port two days to take on cargo, then return to England. I've already paid for your passage.”

He shoved a large bundle at her. “I purchased clothing for you so you won't cause a scandal when you check in at the inn. Go below and change. I'll wait topside for you.”

Sophia clutched the bundle to her chest. “Chris, I'm sorry for what happened in the past. Please believe me—I never meant to intrude into your life again.”

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