Read Swept Away Online

Authors: Phoebe Conn

Swept Away (6 page)

BOOK: Swept Away
6.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“Not see him, but why?”

Lydia shook her head, amazed Eden did not understand. “No man is pleased to find a woman he admires prefers another man to him. When the other man is his own nephew, well, the shock had to be a most painful one.”

“Stop it!” Eden leapt to her feet, no longer able to stoically tolerate her aunt’s innuendoes when they now included Alex. “I did not lure Raven out into the gardens intending to seduce him! We were merely standing on the terrace enjoying the coolness of the night air. There is absolutely no reason for Alex to feel hurt by anything that happened tonight and I’m positive Raven will tell him so. I won’t listen to another of your malicious lies. I’m going to bed.”

Stephanie had been listening at the door, and when Eden stormed by her, she had to lurch out of the way. She was torn then, not knowing whether to follow her cousin or join her mother. Finally she entered Lydia’s room. “Mother?” she called out hesitantly. “I’m not certain what we saw anymore, but Raven is not the type a woman can manipulate. He’s very much his own man.”

“Every man can be manipulated by a clever woman, every last one!” Lydia insisted as she yanked the bell pull to summon her maid. “Eden is exactly like her mother. Exactly, and if her willfulness has spoiled your chances to marry Raven Blade, I’ll send her home and I won’t mourn if she doesn’t survive the voyage. Now go to bed. You’ve fittings for new gowns tomorrow and I won’t have you going out looking pale and drawn.”

When Stephanie reached her room, she was shocked to find Eden waiting for her, but she didn’t waste a moment before venting the anger her mother had just fostered. “I had believed you to be so enamored of Alex I didn’t think you had even noticed Raven. If you have, forget it, because I won’t let you have him.”

Eden had meant to reassure Stephanie that she had no such intention, but she was not inspired to respond to her cousin’s vicious challenge with such a courtesy. “You don’t own Raven Blade,” she replied proudly, “and you never will.” With a satisfied smile, she left her cousin to smolder in a tormenting mixture of jealousy and dismay.

Chapter Three

July 1863

Bound for the port, Raven left their townhouse before Alex was awake the next morning. Because he knew neither of them would be in any mood to be entertained the rest of the week, if ever, he had left the message he planned to stay on board the
Jamaican Wind
several nights while he made the final arrangements for the cargo they would be carrying home.

“Home,” he recalled fondly, for indeed Jamaica was home to him. He had never felt welcome in London despite his numerous trips there. The city was not only terribly overcrowded but filthy as well, and now that the underground railway was being constructed, there seemed to be twice as much noise and dirt. All in all, he considered it a horrid place, one he would avoid whenever possible in the future.

He was far more comfortable among the colorful folk who inhabited the docks, and in the rowdy taverns that catered to sailors’ tastes, than he was being entertained by Alex’s elegant circle of friends. He could laugh out loud in a tavern, swat the barmaids on the fanny, and down ale until he passed out if he wished. He could relax completely and be himself instead of the reserved gentleman London society required him to be.

Alex knew how he felt and had taken him to the clubs where gentlemen gambled until dawn, but while the atmosphere was reasonably relaxed at such places, he had not been even remotely tempted to return on his own. He was not averse to an occasional game of cards, nor to playing for high stakes. He simply preferred the company of friends he respected to that of men who maintained their wealth by extorting high rents from the impoverished tenants who populated their estates. They were parasites in his view: living off the sweat of others while the most strenuous labor they ever did was to shuffle a deck of cards. Surely that was no way for any self-respecting man to live no matter how many titles he could claim.

Raven had been born into a hostile world where even a child had to work from dawn to dusk in order to survive. Alex might have rescued him from that wretched environment, but Raven had never forgotten it. He considered men who pursued no useful work, or philanthropic endeavor either, to be insufferably weak and avoided them whenever possible. The problem was, he had been unable to do so for the last few weeks, and as a result, he was eager to return to his ship, where he felt completely at home and where there would be work for him to do that mattered.

He whistled as he strode up the gangplank, and then broke into a wide grin when the mate came running to meet him. “I’m pleased to see you’ve kept the ship afloat without me,” he called out in greeting.

“Aye, that I have, and it weren’t no small job either,” Randy MacDermott replied. “And what about you? Have you found yourself a bride yet?”

“No, the women here aren’t nearly as pretty as the ones at home.” Raven gave the stocky red-haired mate a playful cuff to the shoulder, and then kept their conversation centered on the shipping trade but he had not forgotten that Alex would soon be calling on Eden, nor how sad that meeting would surely be.

 

When Alex arrived at Lydia Lawton’s, she and her daughter were out, but recognizing him as a frequent visitor Anna showed him into the parlor and hurried out to the garden to inform Eden that she had a caller.

“Lord Clairbourne is here?” the astonished blonde gasped.

“Yes he is, miss, and he’s asked for you.”

Eden was so unnerved she almost forgot to send Anna for refreshments. She had never expected to see Alex that day. That he had come alone frightened her, for after his first visit Raven had always been with him. She wiped her palms on her billowing skirt and prayed he had not come to tell her goodbye.

When Eden came through the door, delightfully pretty in pale blue, Alex was so enchanted by the shyness of her smile he broke into a wide grin. “It’s such a lovely day,” he began. “Would you show me the gardens?”

For an instant Eden wondered if he were making fun of her desire to visit the terrace at the previous evening’s ball, but the warmth of his smile quickly banished that suspicion. “Yes, of course, the flowers are so lovely I spend my every spare minute there. I believe my aunt has roses of every possible hue.”

Eden took Alex’s arm as they left the house. After a leisurely stroll they made their way to a marble bench shaded by an arched trellis covered with climbing roses. The sweet scent of their bright yellow blooms reminded Alex of the abundance of tropical flowers that perfumed the air on his island home. He was pleased the garden provided a setting as romantic as his mood.

He had rehearsed several versions of his proposal, striving to evoke passion rather than pathos, but Eden’s haunting topaz gaze proved terribly distracting. Memories of Jamaica had brought Raven to mind, and because his hopes for his nephew were a primary concern, Alex decided to begin with him.

“I told you that I had hoped Raven would take a bride on this trip, but I didn’t tell you why.”

“It’s not for the usual reason?” Eden asked, greatly relieved he had not spoken about last night. She was delighted he had chosen to ignore the unfortunate way the evening had ended. Clearly he was as fine a gentleman as she had thought, and if he could pretend the incident had never occurred, she would follow his example.

“The usual reason?”

“Well, yes, to have a woman to love, a woman with whom to have children and share the rest of his life.”

“Yes, for those reasons certainly, but there’s another consideration in his case.”

This time Eden remained silent. Alex was frowning slightly, an expression he seldom wore, and while she was extremely curious, she thought better of interrupting him again.

“You mustn’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you, Eden, not your aunt, nor Stephanie, nor anyone else.”

“You have my word on it.” The puzzled blonde sat forward slightly, greatly intrigued by the secret he wished to confide. She had never seen him in so serious a mood and could not suppress a small shiver of dread.

Seeing that he had frightened her, Alex took her hand and patted it lightly as he spoke. “The men in my family have all been bright and handsome, but unfortunately none has been blessed with a long life. I am the first to live past the age of thirty-five. That’s why I’m so eager for Raven to take a wife now, so that I can meet her. I’m thirty-eight, Eden, and I haven’t much more time. I may appear strong, but I’m not. At any minute my heart may cease to beat. Quite frankly, I’m always amazed when I awake each morning, for I never really expect to survive the night.”

Alex’s skin glowed with a healthy tan, and his blue eyes were so bright and clear she did not understand how he could possibly be in imminent danger of death. “That can’t possibly be true,” she protested immediately. “It just can’t be.”

Alex placed her fingertips on his wrist. “This should be proof enough for you,” he murmured confidently. “What do you feel?”

At first she felt nothing at all, then finally she did detect a faint pulse but it did not echo her own. Instead, it was an erratic rhythm that caused her eyes to widen in dismay. “Oh Alex”

Alex raised a fingertip to her lips to still whatever burst of sympathy she was about to make. “Yes, I know, it’s a shame but there’s nothing we can do about it. We have a decision to make, Eden, one of the most important of our lives. I’ve enjoyed your company more than I have ever enjoyed any other woman’s, but it wasn’t until last night that I realized it was possible for us to become more than affectionate friends.”

As he grasped both of her hands in his, Eden felt certain Raven had betrayed her confidence. Because Raven had not impressed her as having any tact, she was certain he had done it poorly too. Deeply embarrassed that Alex knew how she felt about him, her cheeks filled with the heat of a bright blush.

While that show of demure innocence was charming, Alex was too anxious to hear her reply to his proposal to waste any more time in getting to it. “I’ve made the mistake of doing the thinking for the both of us, Eden. I thought since I couldn’t offer you a long, as well as a happy life together, I should keep my feelings to myself. But if you love me as dearly as I love you, then we ought to seize whatever time we can have together, without any regard for the precarious state of my health. We ought to live each and every day to the fullest, and never worry about what tomorrow might bring.

“I would be deeply honored if you would become my wife. I know what I’ve said has probably shocked you. If you want some time to consider whether or not you want to marry me, I’ll try and be patient, but I hope you won’t keep me waiting too long. Please believe me, if your answer is no, I’ll understand why and we’ll simply go on as before. I’ll be your escort whenever you need one but you must never tell anyone that I’m not as well as I look. Pity is the last thing I want from anyone, and most especially not from you.”

That Alex had possessed the courage to propose, after giving her a good reason to refuse him, made Eden love him all the more. “No one is guaranteed a long life, Alex. I might be trampled by a team of runaway horses tomorrow, or trip and drown in my bath. I could catch cold and die of pneumonia within a week. Or I might come down with typhoid and die like Queen Victoria’s dear Albert. Just because I’m healthy today doesn’t mean that I’ll be alive tomorrow.”

“Accidents happen, people fall ill,” Alex agreed with a shrug. “I’ll concede that, but my death is inevitable, Eden. You mustn’t delude yourself with false hopes.”

“Everyone’s death is inevitable,” the determined blonde replied.

“What are you saying?” Alex studied her expression closely, hardly daring to hope that she meant what he thought she did. He had never thought any woman would willingly choose to share his life when the end was so near. That a young woman as lovely as Eden would even consider such a grim prospect both thrilled and astonished him.

Eden knew her aunt would have a hysterical fit at the boldness of her response, but that did not prevent her from making it. “I had friends who married young men knowing they might not survive the War. That didn’t concern them. All that mattered was that they would spend whatever time they had together. I know I’m not a proper bride for an earl. I’m only half English, but I love you, Alex, and I’d be proud to be your wife whether it’s for fifty years or only one.”

The sincerity of that heartfelt compliment brought a low moan to Alex’s lips and he nearly crushed Eden with the enthusiasm of his embrace. He kissed her then with all the passion he had thought he would never again express. He kissed her again and again until they were both so breathless he had to draw away.

“I don’t think we ought to waste any time being engaged,” Eden suggested persuasively. “Do you know an Anglican priest who can perform a wedding ceremony this afternoon?”

Alex could not help but laugh at her enthusiasm for their marriage. “All of London will be talking about us for weeks, if not years to come. You realize that, don’t you?”

“So what? If they have nothing better to do than to gossip about two people who fell in love, then they aren’t worth worrying about.”

“That sounds like something your mother might have told you.”

“No, she never said that, but you’re right, she might have. She married the man she loved regardless of how greatly that decision shocked London society. I hope there’s an opportunity for you to meet him. My father is a wonderful man.”

BOOK: Swept Away
6.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

To Breathe Again by Dori Lavelle
Mississippi Cotton by Paul H. Yarbrough
WindDeceiver by Charlotte Boyett-Compo
The Phoenix Crisis by Richard L. Sanders
Destiny's Detour by Mari Brown
Vegas Two-Step by Liz Talley
Logan by Melissa Schroeder