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Authors: Phoebe Conn

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BOOK: Swept Away
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“You know how badly I want you to find a bride as precious as Eden. Don’t let anything deter you from that quest. I don’t want either of you to be alone and I pray the future will bestow many blessings on you both.”

There was a postscript mentioning several gifts he had neglected to include in his will, but Raven’s eyes were too filled with tears to make out the details. He slumped back in his chair, certain he understood the true purpose of Alex’s letter, even if it had not been stated in so many words: Should he and Eden fail to fall in love with others, Alex was giving them his permission to wed. It was a heartbreakingly generous thing to do, but overwhelmed by the sorrow that had prompted Alex to make such a suggestion, Raven sent Peter back to Briarcliff with no more than a verbal acknowledgment that Alex’s letters had been received.

Chapter Five

August 1863

Raven waited until two days before the end of Alex and Eden’s month-long stay at Briarcliff before he began to move his clothing out of the captain’s cabin. Alex had left nothing in his quarters, so the process was a relatively simple one he would have completed before noon had Peter Brady not interrupted him. This time the groom was in tears and the envelope he handed Raven bore Eden’s feminine handwriting rather than Alex’s bold script.

“Is Alex dead?” Raven asked without needing to open the letter.

Peter nodded, then pulled out his handkerchief and blew his nose. “He and his bride were down in the lower pasture watching the colts that were born last spring. I heard her calling for help, but by the time me and John reached them, Lord Clairbourne was already dead. We’d spoken with them a few moments before when they’d walked by the stables. They were always outdoors, liked the sunshine they said. I wasn’t around then, but those who were said his lordship’s father died just as sudden.”

Badly shaken, even though he had known Alex’s untimely death had been inevitable, Raven sank down on the bunk as the groom began to praise Alex as the finest man he had ever known. “Yes, he was that,’ Raven readily agreed.

Peter was not ashamed to weep openly, but Raven stubbornly refused to give in to tears even though the powerful emotion that threatened to prompt them stung his eyes and filled his throat with a painful knot. Swallowing hard, he knew he would spend the rest of his life grieving for Alex, but he intended to do it in his own way.

Seeking to distract himself from the sound of Peter’s heartwrenching sobs, he ripped open the message Eden had sent. It was brief, but a more poignant plea than he had expected from her.

 

Dear Raven,

My darling Alex is dead. Please come to Briarcliff. I need you desperately.

Eden

 

The enormity of what they would both need was more than Raven could bear to contemplate in depth, but clearly Eden expected him to help bury her late husband. To refuse to attend Alex’s funeral was unthinkable. It was more than a hundred miles overland to Briarcliff, and while it was a pleasant journey when made by carriage with the nights spent in inns, the need now was for all possible haste. When Raven questioned Peter, he discovered the groom had ridden a succession of rented horses at a wild gallop to reach London in under two days, but Raven was confident he could sail the
Jamaican Wind
into Lyme Bay below Briarcliff in well under that time. Calling for the mate, he explained what they had to do and why.

Randy MacDermott had seen Peter’s downcast expression when he had come on board, but he had not suspected the groom’s errand had been of such a tragic nature. “How did it happen?” he immediately wanted to know.

“Assemble the crew, and I’ll tell you all at the same time. I know there are several men on shore, but we’ve no time to send anyone out to find them. We’ll just have to leave word that we’ll return in a few days. We haven’t received everything I ordered from the London Armoury, so we’ll have to come back to load the balance anyway.”

Randy stared at Raven, his expression a mask of confused disbelief. “Alex is dead, and you’re concerned about the cargo?”

“No!” Raven denied hotly. “I don’t give a damn about the cargo, but I’ll not leave munitions Alex paid good money to buy sitting on the dock. Now hurry and assemble the crew as I asked.”

Randy knew Alex and Raven had been close, and he could not understand why Alex’s sudden death had not had the same devastating effect on Raven as it had on him. Raven was not an easy man to get to know, but Randy had always thought he knew him as well as any man did, until now. Now he was looking at an aloof stranger who had just given him an order he quickly obeyed.

Far from immune to the sorrow that flooded Randy’s eyes with tears, as he went up on deck Raven felt as though he were the one who had died. He mouthed the words he knew his crew would be deeply saddened to hear, but kept himself from reacting to their chilling effect. He dug his fingernails into his palms and forced his own grief down deep inside his soul as he watched the grown men who had served Alex before him cry like motherless babes.

Shocked and filled with dismay, the crew asked questions Raven answered as truthfully as possible, but he did not admit Alex had not been in as good health as they had all assumed. Heart trouble ran in the family, was all that he would reveal. When a melancholy silence settled over the crew, Raven nodded to Randy and the mate began the series of orders that would get them under way. Readily understanding the need to reach Briarcliff as soon as possible, the men dried their eyes on their shirtsleeves and ran to their places.

Peter had left the last horse he had ridden at the nearest livery stable, and never having sailed, he grabbed the rail and hung on with a frantic grasp as the sails were unfurled and the
Jamaican Wind
pulled away from the dock. On any other day, he would have been teased unmercifully by the crew, but now no one felt up to making jokes.

As swift as she was beautiful, in full sail the
Jamaican Wind
was a glorious sight. Raven set a course that kept them close to the coast as they passed through the English Channel, and with the entire crew working to speed their way, they were able to drop anchor in Lyme Bay the following afternoon. It had been three days since Alex’s death, and they all hoped they had not arrived too late to attend the dear man’s funeral.

 

 

Approaching the house from the sea, Raven recalled the first time he had visited Briarcliff. The elegant stone mansion had looked like a castle to a child of eight, and he had asked Alex if he were a king. Alex had laughed, tousled his curls, and told him it was a drafty old place he did not like half as much as his home on Jamaica, but Raven had still believed Briarcliff to be a palace fit for a king.

Peter Brady followed Raven up the worn stone path. The groom had insisted upon carrying the captain’s valise, and had volunteered to return to the
Jamaican Wind
to inform the crew of the funeral plans once they had learned them. “Lady Clairbourne wanted to wait for you. I hope that we’ve arrived in time.”

“We’ll hold a second service if we’ve missed the first,” Raven assured him.

Peter had never heard of anyone having two funerals, but he dared not question Raven’s remark. When they reached the terrace, the captain turned back to survey the grounds of the impressive estate that now belonged to him, but Peter saw only sorrow in his dark eyes, rather than a warm glow of pride. Thinking perhaps he wished to be alone for a moment, he stepped by him.

“I’ll take this on up to your room, m’lord.”

“What? Oh yes, thank you.” Raven was unaccustomed to being addressed in that fashion, and needing some time to get used to it, he was indeed glad to have a few moments to gather his thoughts before entering the house. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his gaze focused on the
Jamaican Wind
anchored in the bay. He had always felt more at home on the sea than on land, and despite what he knew would be an entirely new set of responsibilities, he did not want his life ever to change.

Startled by the sound of Eden’s voice, Raven wheeled around to find her running toward him. She was dressed in a gray gown she had worn for one of their afternoon outings, but his opinion of her was so low, he was not surprised to find she had not chosen to wear black as any other newly widowed woman surely would have.

“Eden,” was all he managed to gasp before she threw herself into his arms.

“Oh Raven, I knew you’d not disappoint me!” Eden hugged him tightly, enormously relieved and reassured by his presence. She closed her eyes and held on to him for a long moment, grateful for his warmth when she felt chilled clear to the bone. Raven was shocked by the enthusiasm of Eden’s greeting until he remembered that she had always been a far more demonstrative person than he. Certain they were being observed from the house by the servants, and possibly a great many people paying sympathy calls, he responded by enfolding her in a light embrace and patted her back with what he hoped would pass for a soothing rhythm.

To his utter dismay, he immediately discovered the sensation of holding the fair beauty was far more pleasurable than merely dancing with her had been. She was pressing her whole body against his as though he were her dearest relative, and even though he was appalled by her boldness, he had to fight the nearly overwhelming impulse to cling to her just as tightly.

Her perfume was a light floral scent that not only clung to her somber clothing but also graced her tawny hair. As she lay her head against his chest, her upswept curls brushed his chin like a silken caress, sending his senses reeling. He was unable to draw a breath for a moment as with a lover’s grace Eden swayed against him. Appalled by the speed of his body’s predictable and, he was certain, totally inappropriate response, he forced himself to grasp her waist firmly and pushed her an arm’s length away.

“Forgive me,” Eden begged, for a few seconds as disoriented as Raven. The usually aloof young man’s embrace had been so like that of her beloved husband that she knew she had lingered in his arms far too long. Not ashamed to admit how badly she needed his comfort, however, she attempted to smile as bravely as she had all day.

“Would you like to sit with Alex for a while before I tell them to close the coffin?” she asked considerately.

Not even tempted to spend a few minutes alone with the dead man, Raven shook his head. “No, thank you. I want to remember him as he was.”

Eden took Raven’s arm as they started toward the double doors that led into the house. “I wish I had been able to do that but he died in my arms. One minute we were laughing together, and in the next he was gone. Did Peter tell you what happened?”

“Yes.” Raven knew it would be polite to inquire how she was getting along, but the answer was too obvious to merit wasting his breath. Eden was doing beautifully. He stood by her side as she calmly gave Jonathan Abbot, the butler, the order to close Alex’s coffin and see that it was promptly delivered to the church in Exeter. Apparently she had been awaiting his arrival, and now saw no reason for further delay. Raven reminded himself that Alex had been dead for three days, but still Eden’s haste to have the funeral struck him as unseemly.

 

 

Eden slipped her hand into Raven’s as they took their places in the first pew. The church was filled to overflowing with sailors, townspeople, servants, and tenant farmers. It was an unusual gathering but she had known most of Alex’s close friends would be in London and unable to reach Briarcliff in time to attend the service. She was pleased that so many others who had known and admired her husband had wanted to be with him now.

They knelt frequently for prayers during the service, but she did not release Raven’s hand. Unlike Alex’s, his palm was callused, evidence of his active life at sea, and she found that sign of physical strength immensely comforting. Alex had never been strong, despite his zest for life, but she needed the strength his love could no longer provide and drew it from Raven.

She and Alex had not discussed his funeral, but Eden was pleased when Robert Boyer, the priest who had known him for many years, was able to provide a moving eulogy. She had wondered if Raven might not wish to give it himself, but thoughtfully did not force him to refuse when he did not make the offer voluntarily. She knew him to be a very private person who kept both his thoughts and feelings to himself. Respecting that right, she sat by his side, too numbed by grief to weep, and said her own goodbyes as silently as he.

That Eden kept running her thumb across his palm nearly drove Raven to distraction and finally he grasped her hand in both of his to make such an intimate gesture impossible to continue. Had the woman no idea what she was doing to him? he wondered. Didn’t she care? Or was she deliberately trying to seduce him just as she must surely have seduced Alex? That struck him as the most obvious explanation but didn’t she at least have the decency to wait until Alex was buried to do it?

When it came time for the pall bearers to carry Alex’s coffin to the adjacent cemetery, Raven leapt to his feet, eager for the excuse to be among the first to leave the church. The service had been a fitting tribute to Alex’s memory but as deeply aware of Eden’s presence as he was of the tragedy of the occasion, Raven had seen and heard little of it. Now he just wanted to get outside where he would be able to breathe deeply without filling his lungs with the incense-laden air that reminded him all too vividly of the smell of death.

BOOK: Swept Away
10.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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