Taking a deep breath, she left her room and walked to the parlor.
There she saw Adrian Cabot standing, listening to Jeremy speak. When the captain turned around, she winced guiltily at his black eye and bruised cheeks. But he merely shrugged and flashed a teasing smile that seemed to share a secret with her. Socrates, dressed in his usual sailor pants, looked up and chattered happily as he started toward her and held out his arms to be picked up.
Lauren did so, unable to resist the grin on the monkey’s face. Socrates hid his head behind her neck, jiggling up and down with pleasure.
“It’s clear you’ve won a heart,” his master said. “And believe me, it’s a difficult heart to take.”
Lauren’s gaze moved from Socrates to Adrian Cabot. His voice was amused, his eyes inscrutable. She felt confusion dart through her, and an unexpected warmth.
“What about you? Haven’t you also won it?” she asked, afraid that her voice was a bit shaky.
“Me?” he said with surprise. “I think he considers me an archenemy at times. You should see the chaos he creates in my cabin, not to mention several rather painful bites he’s given me.”
“Why do you keep him if he bites- you?”
“It’s become a challenge, trying to civilize him.”
“And you’re civilized, Captain?”
“What makes you think I’m not?”
“The way you seem to enjoy war.”
“I don’t think ‘enjoy’ is the word for it. I’m merely taking advantage of something that exists.”
“But you also enjoy it. I remember your telling Jeremy that … yesterday.”
He grinned suddenly, caught by his own words. “I suppose I’m stimulated by the excitement. Perhaps we all are. If you ever ran the blockade, I think you would understand.”
“I’ll never understand violence.”
“Running the blockade is not violent, Miss Bradley. We don’t even carry armament. It’s more a matter of skill.”
“But people get hurt, don’t they? They die?”
“Every man knows the chances he takes. He does it willingly.”
“For money,” he confirmed. “It’s as worthy a cause as any.”
“That’s a cynical statement.”
He raked a hand through his hair. “Everyone has a reason for going to war. Patriotism, money, fear. The reason doesn’t make anyone less dead.”
“No,” she said in a small voice, some of the challenge lost in the sadness of the word.
He studied her face. He had enjoyed the exchange, but now he hesitated to continue. “You’ve lost someone?”
“A father. A brother.”
“How?” he asked quietly.
Lauren looked around for Jeremy, but he had disappeared. She knew it was for the purpose of leaving her and the captain alone together. Corinne was in the kitchen, supervising the meal.
Lauren swallowed. She had said more than she had meant to say, and now she had to lie. She hadn’t realized how difficult it would be. Especially when his eyes held sympathy.
Desperation must have shown in her eyes, because he suddenly backed away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to revive sad memories.”
The quiet compassion in his voice surprised her. But then everything about him surprised her, and frightened her because she was finding she
him. And she couldn’t. If she wasn’t going to start fulfilling her task now, she never would. She knew that just as she knew the sun rose every morning.
“It’s all right,” she said, looking up and meeting his eyes. “They both died in Virginia.”
“Yes.” There it was—the first lie, bold and ugly. Lauren hated how easily the words flowed from her mouth. Mr. Phillips had done his job well, selecting her, and the thought did not please her.
He was silent, and she was relieved he offered no additional condolences.
“How did you happen to come to Nassau?” he asked instead.
“My home was in Maryland. Many of our neighbors were Unionists. It grew … awkward, and Uncle Jeremy asked me to stay a few months. It seemed … best.”
His blue eyes, those startling dark blue eyes, probed hers for several moments. “It must have been difficult leaving everything you knew, your home.”
A depth of understanding flowed in his voice, and it struck her as odd in a man who made the sea his home.
“Yes,” she said simply. “And your homer’
His face clouded. “I have none at the moment.”
“Except your ship?”
“Except my ship,” he confirmed.
“Except for Socrates?”
“Except for Socrates,” he confirmed again with that slight wry smile. “But I don’t think he accepts that relationship.”
“I think he does,” she said, more softly than she intended. She found that they were staring at each other, as if in a trance. Tension radiated between them, and a growing excitement stiffened their faces, made their eyes wary as they felt something extraordinary happening, something neither wanted.
“Family resemblance?” Adrian grinned suddenly, and she knew he was trying to break that strange sense of time-lessness that had unexpectedly shrouded them.
Her gaze swept over him, over the light blue jacket that flawlessly covered broad shoulders and the dark blue trousers that hugged well-formed long legs. His hair, the rich red brown of a sun-ripened chestnut, was thick. It curled slightly, crisply, over his forehead and at his neck, emphasizing strong, clean features. The forehead was broad and broken by dark eyebrows that arched naturally in a perpetually quizzical expression. His cheekbones were high, and his mouth wide, the lips set above a square jaw. Even with a black eye and bruises, it was a handsome face. If she had not known differently, she would believe it a face of character.
you do know better.
The unspoken words jerked her back to her duty. He was an opportunist, an adventurer. Yet when he smiled … dear God, she forgot everything else.
“Now that you mention it, there is the slightest similarity,” she said, forgetting everything but the almost mesmerizing charm of that smile.
“I think Socrates would resent that observation,” he said, his eyes twinkling, coaxing an unwilling smile from her. Socrates appeared to know he was the center of attention and swung down from Lauren’s arms. Squatting on the floor, he clapped his hands together.
Lauren looked at the grinning Socrates and then up at Adrian. “No, I think he’s rather pleased.”
“He’s pleased with you and the attention,” Adrian corrected.
Relieved that some of the tension was eased by Socrates’s antics, Lauren smiled. “How long have you had him?”
“Nearly two years now.”
“And where did you find him?”
“A port in Spain.”
Lauren looked down at the monkey, who seemed perfectly content at the moment. She needed to look away from eyes that scrutinized and a smile that beguiled. “How—”
They were interrupted by Jeremy, who announced that dinner was ready and ushered them into the small dining room, where a table gleamed with silver and fine glassware.
Adrian offered his arm with a regal formality that Lauren sensed came from experience in court and with nobility. It daunted her until his hand touched hers, and she felt heat spark there and creep up her arm. His grip was firm, even possessive, and from the way his hand tightened around hers she knew that he was feeling the same uneasy attraction that assaulted her.
Dinner was a pleasant affair. Jeremy talked easily about politics and literature, and Lauren was impressed by Adrian Cabot’s range and breadth of knowledge.
The subject turned inevitably to the war. As Mary refilled the wineglasses, Jeremy leaned back and looked at Adrian. “How long do you think you can continue running the blockade?”
“As long as I have the
, and Johnny,” Adrian replied lightly. He turned to Lauren. “Johnny’s my pilot, and he knows every inlet, every river, every sandbar, and every wreck in the Charleston Harbor.”
“Is the blockade so ineffective then?” she asked.
Adrian’s tone turned serious. “No. A ship was lost this last week, and three the week before, and it looks as if Charleston might soon be closed. The Federals are attempting to take Morris Island, and if they do …”
“Will you stop then?” Lauren fought to keep a hopeful note from her voice.
Adrian shook his head. “I’ll move to Wilmington. Its Confederate coastal defenses are very strong. Once we get within their guns, we’re safe.”
“But won’t there be more Union ships then?”
“Yes,” he said. “But they cannot cover every inch of sea, and if there’s a fog bank or dark night, we can sneak through.”
“But how do you know there will be fog?”
Adrian grinned. “We pray a lot.”
Lauren wanted to retort, but she held her tongue. Jeremy, as if reading her mind, asked another question.
“You’ve had exceedingly good luck, Captain. How many runs now?”
“A few more than twenty,” he replied, “but I don’t like to talk about luck.”
“Tempting fate?” Lauren asked.
“Something like that.”
“Are you superstitious, Captain?”
It was as if no one else was in the room. Their eyes were fixed on each other, her words a bit breathless and his a bit puzzled as he tried to decipher the singular, almost magical, aura that enveloped them.
“All sailors are superstitious, Miss Bradley.”
“Even those who are English lords?”
“I can’t speak for English lords. I haven’t been one that long, and I fear I have little in common with most.”
“But how does one come to our shores?”
“Not all of us are wealthy, Miss Bradley.” His voice was curt, as if he wished the topic to end. “We, too, must earn our way. And,” he added quietly but firmly, “how do you like our island?”
The spell was broken. Her eyes dropped from his. “It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen water like this before.”
“No one has,” he said softly, then, with affection, added, “though it’s treacherous as blazes.”
Again their eyes caught. She asked more questions than any woman he’d ever met. He found it both intriguing and flattering since his experience had shown him that most women seemed to enjoy talking more about themselves. He was surprised at how much he was enjoying her.
“Reefs, shallows, wreckers.”
The corner of his mouth turned up in a quizzical smile. “Are you really interested, Miss Bradley?”
The question took her by surprise. “Why shouldn’t I be?”
“Most women aren’t.”
“And you’ve met most women?”
The challenge was there again, the challenge she continued to throw at him. His smile widened. “Most women in my acquaintance,” he amended carefully, his eyes twinkling.
“Then you have a very limited circle of acquaintances,” she said primly, but her mouth twitched with mischief. Adrian’s fascination deepened. She was very direct and very honest, and he liked both qualities. He found he liked them very much.
“Is it that much different in Maryland?” he asked.
“Do women have brains in Maryland, you mean?” Her lips were twitching even more, as if she were delighted at the prospect of trapping him.
Adrian looked over at Jeremy, who returned the glance sympathetically. “I have the highest respect for the intelligence of women,” Adrian finally said, trying to think of a graceful way out. “It’s just …”
She tipped her head with curiosity. “Just what?”
“Interests are different,” he said triumphantly.
“I’m very interested in what you do,” she retorted.
“And I’m interested in you,” he countered as a becoming blush started up her face.
Jeremy cleared his throat, and Adrian was reminded that it was not only he and Lauren Bradley at the table.
Corinne was looking at them with an intrigued expression on her face, and Jeremy looked amused. “A cigar?” he asked Adrian as he pushed back his chair.
Adrian leaned back, wondering at the speed with which the evening was passing. He looked over at Socrates, who had been given a bowl of fruit and was now sprawled asleep on a chair. He had been extraordinarily well mannered that night, and Adrian was relieved. He wondered if it was because of Lauren Bradley; he’d never seen Socrates take to anyone so rapidly, and his little imp had been on good behavior ever since.
He watched as Lauren’s gaze also went to the animal and her face softened. She was a curious mixture, full of contradictions. Direct one moment, vulnerable the next. He remembered how she’d tripped one of her assailants when most women would have fainted—or pretended to do so. But then Lauren had trembled like a leaf in the wind, and she had seemed to welcome his touch, even while wariness was apparent in her eyes.
He nodded his assent to Jeremy’s question. They would disappear into another room, and he would have time to assess the effect Miss Bradley had on him. Lauren. It was a musical name.