Authors: Jennifer McQuiston
To the amazing women who encourage me, challenge me, and amuse me every day: Alyssa Alexander, Tracy Brogan, Kimberly Kincaid, Sally Kilpatrick, and Romily Bernard.
But especially you, Romily . . . you know why.
This time around, I know so much better who to thank.
To my amazing agent, Kevan Lyon . . . I cannot believe how lucky I am to work with you! Thank you for making everything so easy.
My heartfelt thanks to the team at Avon Books, who have put their all into making me look less like an absent-minded scientist and more like a polished author than I ever dreamed I could be. Thank you to Esi Sogah for the first round of edits on this one, and to Tessa Woodward for taking the reins on this runaway horse. A special thanks to Avon publicist Jessie Edwards, who makes me look oh-so-good and appreciates that I am from Atlanta. Thank you to the always-helpful Dana Trombley, social media soothsayer and giver of excellent advice (such as â€œyou really want to tweet more than once a weekâ€). Thanks to Carrie Feron, who has taken such an active and appreciated interest in my career! And finally, this series of thank-youâ€™s would not be complete without a shout of gratitude to Avonâ€™s incredible art department . . . especially Tom Egner: I love a man who enjoys the challenge of showing see-through, soaked clothing on a book cover!
As always, thank you to my family for being so vociferously proud of me. Thank you to my husband, John, who reads my books and offers â€œpointersâ€ in all the wrong places, but who also creates the most amazing book trailers that perfectly capture the spirit of the story. And if you havenâ€™t bought my first book,
What Happens in Scotland
, my elementary-school-age daughters will enthusiastically try to sell you one out of the back of our mini-vanâ€”and probably charge you double. Just ask their poor teachers.
Southern coast of England, May 1831
want to die.
It was an important fact, albeit one he may have decided too late.
Instinct pushed his limbs toward shore and his lungs toward the heavens. Unfortunately, Death was proving a greedy bastard and did not want to loosen its hold. He was quite sure he had swallowed more of the Atlantic in the few moments he had been fighting to live than in the entire hour he had been trying to drown.
“Stop fighting the current!”
David blinked through the cold water and whisky haze that enveloped him like a too-tight glove. Despite his heart’s lumbering quest for survival, it kicked up a notch when he registered where the voice was coming from.
Someone was swimming toward him.
For a moment he was so stunned he wondered if he had died after all. He had selected this stretch of coast as much for its isolated shoreline as for its turbulent surf. He might be a coward, but he was a coward with some pride. He had not wanted witnesses to his struggle, whichever side of damnation claimed him.
Whoever shouted at him could not be mortal, not tackling the waves as she was, as if they were butter and she was a heated knife. He caught the flash of small hands, one after the other, ordered and relentless. It looked like no swimming stroke he had ever seen.
Mermaids must swim like that, he thought blearily. Only mermaids were beautiful.
It was a girl. Where were her parents that she had been permitted to leap into the waves off this violent stretch of coast, just to save his undeserving arse? He was going to have a devil of a time getting himself and a child back to shore.
And the death of another soul on his conscience, even one in need of a proper thrashing, would be his undoing.
“You are going to injure yourself,” he growled as she tackled the last set of waves that separated them.
She shifted to tread water, hands fanning out to steady herself amid the choppy waves. “I’m not the one who is drowning.” She wasn’t even out of breath, blast the chit.
A large wave picked that exact moment to slap against David’s head. His neck was slammed sideways, and seawater flooded his mouth. “I am not drowning,” he managed to spit out.
“If not drowned,” she retorted, “you’re not far off.”
She blurred before him, a bedraggled mess of brown hair and freckles. There was nothing to her sunburned features to suggest a future beauty. Her eyes were green or hazel or something equally mild. They could have belonged to any one of a hundred adolescent girls.
Unfortunately, they belonged to this one. And she was not yet through with him.
“You need to float on your back and let the current carry you out there.” She gestured behind him toward the open ocean.
“I prefer to go in that direction.” He jerked his head toward shore. “And I dinna need the help of a wee thing who can barely swim herself.”
The girl’s face colored. “Unless you are trying to kill yourself,” she said, her voice arcing high and furious, “I suggest that you stop acting like a clod and
for a moment.”
David stilled. Let the merciless waves slam into his body. Wondered if she really understood what he was doing out in the waves.
Prayed that she did not.
“The current on this stretch of beach is too strong to fight,” she told him, her pert face pinched with annoyance. “There is a sharp drop-off here, but it levels out again to about waist-deep a little farther out and the current becomes easier to overcome. From there you should be able to walk to shore.”
David stared at her a long moment, the ocean churning around them. Her eyes were hazel, he decided. And damned if her explanation didn’t make at least a little sense.
After a tension-fraught moment, he let his body go limp, allowing the current to seize him in the opposite direction his mind screamed to go. The girl watched as he was carried to the right spot, then shouted instructions as he got his feet under him.
When he had reached a position about two dozen yards away and his water-clogged boots made grateful purchase with the ocean floor, she pointed toward the beach. “Now try walking for shore!”
David uncoiled his whisky-soaked muscles, preparing to launch himself toward the safety of shore. But whatever remnant of his soul remained jerked his gaze back to the small, brown-haired girl who still bobbed in deep water. Whoever she was, she was his responsibility now, even if he was the last person on earth she should place her trust in.
“You need to come with me, lass.” His voice rang hoarse against the distance that separated them. He was resolved to live now. But he would not squander her neck in favor of saving his own wretched hide. “I can’t risk coming back to rescue you,” he called, hoping she could hear him above the roar of the relentless surf. “And I won’t leave you.”
As if in answer, the girl smiled impishly. And then she was off and swimming, tackling the current that had just proven too much for his own brute strength.
found the rocky shoreline a few minutes later. Triumph surged through her, a thumping, twitching sensation that left her breathless. She turned to see the man crawl out a little farther down the shore and collapse in a heap.
She didn’t know what she had been thinking, swimming back as she had, but the urge to show this stranger what she was capable of had burned beneath her skin. No one had ever seen her swim except Papa. Certainly not Mama, who had told her just this morning that it was not ladylike for a girl of twelve years to swim in front of others.
half so well.
But it felt natural to be embraced by waves and buoyed by salt. Far more natural than it had felt this morning, sitting still for an endless hour to have her hair put up.
Her hair. And her clothes, for that matter. Reality snagged on the splinters of those thoughts. She had been gathering shells on the beach when she spied the man struggling, and had leaped in without kicking off her boots or even untying her apron. What to tell Mama when she stumbled into the foyer, her frock soaking wet? She fell into the water?
Yes, that was much preferred to diving in. Falling in was a much more ladylike thing to happen to someone.
She trotted toward the man who had put her in this predicament. He was crouched on his knees, retching with a violence that made her stomach twist in sympathy. Who was he, and how had he come to be here? Except for her father, who had shared the secrets of this cove with Caroline and her sister, she had never seen another soul here. Brighton was an hour’s walk to the west, and the only inhabitants of this stretch of coast were the swallows that dipped and chattered in the white chalk cliffs, tending nests in the furrows wrought by wind and rain.
It occurred to her, now that the gentleman was safe, that she might not be. Well, if it came to it, she knew which parts could drop a man and leave him writhing in pain. Her father had made sure she knew how to protect herself.
The man in question staggered to his feet. He was tall, taller even than Papa had been. But despite his height and the very adult golden stubble on his face, his face had a boyish quality to it, as if he were just a few years past twenty. His damp hair fell in curls that showed every intention of lightening to gold when dry. The parts of his eyes that weren’t rubbed red from his dip in the ocean were the sort of enviable blue that brought to mind a clear, sunny day.
Now that he had escaped the surf, she could see he was wearing a red military jacket, which had somehow retained its stiff formality despite its thorough soaking. She was used to such sights in town. The nearby Preston Barracks lodged cavalry and infantrymen alike, and the officers sometimes came to Brighton on leave.
But she wasn’t used to seeing one of those officers thrashing about in the water, much less tossing up the contents of his stomach on the shore.
He dragged an apologetic arm across his mouth. “You are quite the swimmer, lass.” His words seemed thick and slurred, even accounting for his obvious brogue.
“You, sir, are not.” She began to wring out her skirts, realizing with dismay that there were bits of seaweed clinging to the hem.
“What is your name?” His voice rumbled down at her, and she peered the long way up it took to meet his eyes. She should not be speaking with this man, much less diving into the ocean save him. But what was the harm, now that the worst of it was done?
She smoothed a hand over her wet apron. “Caroline Tolbertson.”
“Miss or lady?”
“Miss.” She knew could not claim the title of lady, even if her mother was determined to fashion her as one.
“Well, Miss Caroline, I am Second Lieutenant David Cameron, and you have just saved my life.” A reluctant dimple flashed across his face, and it occurred to Caroline that this was very much the sort of young man her older sister, Penelope, was always swooning over. She loved her sister dearly, but she would never be such a ninny.
Any boy she swooned over—and she suspected she was not going to be much of a swooner—would have to be a
better swimmer than Lieutenant Cameron.
“Where did you learn to swim like that?” he asked. “I’ve never seen the like.”
Caroline paused, considering how to answer. Swimming and honesty did not often go hand-in-hand in her world. “My father taught me,” she answered, her throat tight. Saying it out loud made her loss seem far too real.
Worse, it reminded her how things had changed in the four months since her father’s death. Papa had founded the town’s first newspaper, the
, but most of the family savings had been invested in the venture. Since his passing from a sudden fever, some of the furniture had been sold, and almost all of the servants let go. They had not even been able to afford new mourning clothes, settling instead for dying their dresses black in great pots in the kitchen.
“Papa died over the winter,” she whispered. It had been terrible, seeing her father’s lungs labor for breath and his eyes shuttered with pain. He had hung on for two days, no more. Not long enough to say a proper good-bye, but long enough to extract a promise that came close to paralyzing her now.
Take care of your mother and sister, Caroline.
A father’s dying words, an assurance too easily delivered.
But how could she take care of her family when he had left them so little money?
“He always said I could do anything I put my mind to,” she added, as much to her soaked, scuffed boots as to the young man watching her.
“Your father must have thought you very special to encourage such thinking, and to teach you so well,” he said after a long moment.
She looked up, surprised. The lieutenant was the first adult who had taken the time to listen to her since her father’s death. Mama had been too consumed by grief, shuttering the windows and turning away visitors who might come to pay their respects. “Well,” she said, pleased her bedraggled soldier had not laughed at her. “You are lucky he did or else I suspect you’d be kissing the bottom by now.”
One side of his mouth quirked up. “Do you always speak your mind?”
“No.” Caroline fought the urge to squirm as he lifted a brow in disbelief. “Well, sometimes,” she admitted, trying not to chatter and failing. “Mama declares it ‘my lamentable habit.’ Although, as far as habits go. I don’t think it’s such a bad one. Not like biting one’s nails, or fidgeting in church. My sister, Penelope, does all those things. Although Penelope doesn’t fidget as much as I do.” She paused for breath and for the first time caught the distinct scent of whisky on the breeze.
A terrible thought occurred to her. “Are . . . are you
His mouth settled into a firm line. “Not drunk enough.”
The words settled into the gaps of her understanding like sand between paving stones. No wonder he had almost drowned, and no wonder he was retching like a man who had eaten too many green apples. It occurred to her, then, that the only adult who had ever praised her swimming abilities, aside from Papa, was a drunkard who very likely didn’t know his knee from his elbow.
It was a word she was not permitted to say in polite company, especially to an adult. Pity it was so fitting. A smart man would never have tackled the current off this particular stretch of beach.
Caroline hugged her arms across the front of her wet apron. “You should not swim under the effect of spirits,” she told him. “And Papa taught me you should not swim alone.”
He inclined his head and gave her a quick look up and down. “Then I am lucky indeed you were here to save me. I suppose the gentlemanly thing would be to escort you home and offer an explanation to your family for your bedraggled appearance.”
Caroline looked down at her dark, wet frock. Lieutenant Cameron was going to tell her mother. Dread seeped beneath her wet skin, chilling her far more than the cold temperature of the channel.
She knew it. She should have let him drown.
“But I won’t, you see.”
Caroline’s gaze jerked upward. “Because you’re not a gentleman?”
“Aye, there’s that, lass.” He gave her an odd look. “You’d best avoid my sort in the future, I think. But no, there’s another good reason you and I should keep this a secret and never let anyone know what happened here. I’ve just been saved by a girl who swims far better than me. My reputation would never live it down.”
Relief flooded Caroline’s limbs. She nodded, all too happy to agree to his terms, all too eager to believe his explanation. Keeping quiet would mean
reputation would stay safe too.
Perhaps he wasn’t such an idiot after all.
“I won’t tell,” she promised, crossing her heart with a damp, earnest finger.
And she didn’t. Hours later, after he had disappeared down the footpath that led back to Brighton, after she had been lectured by Mama and teased by Penelope, Caroline kept the details of their meeting, and how she had come to be soaked through to the skin, locked up tight.