That Perfect Someone Page 22

 Pirate seemed an odd epithet under the circumstances, Julia thought, even a bit mild coming from James. But no one else there seemed to think so.

Georgina swung around. “You"re going to make me miss what sounds like an exciting trip just because of a little jealousy?”

His golden brow shot up once more. “You had doubts?”

“But—”

“You gained one amazing feat today, George. I agreed to rescue the blighter. Don"t press your luck.”

She nodded reluctantly. He relented enough to add, “You won"t miss anything, m"dear. I"m not going to demand his release without documents to back it up. And I know just who to see to obtain those documents. All aboveboard. Quick. We"ll be back in a few days.”

Chapter Twenty-seven

JULIA HAD BORROWED JAMES Malory"s words to assure her father late that afternoon that she wouldn"t be gone long. She"d stood in quite a big puddle of guilt while she"d confessed to him what she had set in motion—and related what the Earl of Manford had done to Richard and what the earl had predicted would befall the Millers. The scandal and all repercussions from it weren"t going to blow over as her father had thought. The earl would see to that.

“I"m so sorry,” she"d ended. “I just got used to doing what needed to be done without discussing it with anyone first, and this needed to be done without delay. So it"s all been arranged, Lord Malory has agreed to help. His ship sails with the next tide—and I"m going to be on it.”

“You? Why?”

“Because I refuse to reward the Earl of Manford for being evil. There has to be a way out of this contract without his harming our businesses and besmirching our family"s good name.

Richard"s answer was to disappear, but that"s not an option for me. So I"m helping Richard out of this horrendous situation his own father has forced on him. Now he will be beholden to help me figure out a way to end this.”

“And that"s all you"re hoping for?”

“Yes—of course.”

Why had she blushed when she"d said that? She still didn"t know. But he must not have noticed because all he"d said was “You really have grown up, haven"t you, dearest?” She didn"t feel grown-up as she stood on the deck of The Maiden George three days later.

The vast ocean surrounding the ship could make anyone feel small and insignificant. Even the convict ship appeared as only a dot on the horizon.

James and Drew had spotted the other vessel last night. They could have reached it sooner if they hadn"t run into a storm while crossing the Channel that first night. James"s ship was unusually fast because he"d removed all the cannon for his last trip, when speed had been essential. But the transport ship had left London only two days before they had set sail, not a whole week earlier as they"d initially thought. Apparently, convict ships could be docked in London for weeks, even months, because they wouldn"t sail until they had a full load of convicts to deliver.

James had insisted they wait until morning to close the gap between the ships. No one had argued with him because his reasoning was sound. He didn"t want British officers who were eager for their beds to be making decisions rashly. That could lead to unnecessary conflict.

Gabrielle joined Julia as The Maiden George raced to catch up to the convict ship. Gabrielle said nothing, just offered quiet support. Julia needed that. She was afraid they"d find Richard ill because of this ordeal, maybe even physically hurt again, too hurt to be reasoned with. And she would only have a couple of days with him.

But then she found herself talking to her new friend about her fiancé. Whatever Ohr had told them would have been Richard"s version. Not that she wanted to paint herself blameless when she wasn"t. Her temper and Richard"s snobby, nasty remarks had been a volatile combination.

They were equally at fault for never being able to get along.

“I had such a terrible temper back then,” Julia admitted, ending the tale. “And he always seemed to know just how to provoke it.”

“Do you still?”

Julia chuckled. “I don"t really know! I don"t recall any tantrums after Richard"s last visit.

But just thinking about him still makes me angry, so I stopped thinking about him.”

“That doesn"t sound like the Richard I know,” Gabrielle said. “From the time I first met him, he was a happy-go-lucky charmer, always grinning or laughing, always teasing and joking about something with his friends. He appeared not to have a serious bone in his body.” Hearing that, Julia felt a wave of sadness and guilt that turned her stomach. Had she taken the joy of life from him when they were children? She"d seen glimpses of the man Gabrielle knew and cared about. The teasing charmer Julia first met at the ball before she knew who he really was. The gallant man at the hotel who had jumped up and swatted a bee away from her despite his sore body. The laughing man at the hostelry who had tossed her on his bed and kissed her—that definitely hadn"t been the old Richard! Of course, he was an adult now, and her old nemesis resurfaced directly after that kiss.

“You"re right, we"ve described two different men,” Julia said quietly. “In all those meetings I had with him through the years, I never once, ever, saw him smile. He sneered a lot though.”

“Amazing how a few years can change someone, isn"t it?” Gabrielle said.

“Years, possibly, but more likely circumstances. You met and knew the man who had left his troubles far behind. Away from his father and the threat of an unwanted marriage, he found peace, I guess, and became the man he always could have been if he hadn"t grown up with a tyrant for a father. And I"m sure he will again be the man you know, once he puts all this behind him.”

“But you"ve had it just as hard, haven"t you? With this unwanted marriage always hanging over your head?”

“It wasn"t so bad when we were children. Once I went home from those visits, or Richard did, my life returned to normal and I was quite happy. It was only when I reached a marriageable age that I began to worry about my future. I do want children after all, a real husband. Love.”

“Do you have someone in mind?”

Julia laughed bitterly. “I"ve been engaged all my life, and to a lord no less. Everyone knows that. The men of my acquaintance treat me as if I"m already married. I was only just going to start looking for a husband because enough time had passed and I was having Richard declared dead. Then he showed up and ruined that plan.”

Gabrielle flinched. “This is such a sad situation. Richard"s never caused me any worry, until his misguided infatuation with a married woman, but that is nothing, compared to his being hauled off to a penal colony on the other side of the world! But who could imagine a father like his.” Gabrielle sighed. “I wouldn"t be surprised if James had the right of it. The earl probably isn"t Richard"s real father and has treated him so abominably because he was forced to accept and raise his wife"s bastard.”

“You mean a convoluted punishment for her sins taken out on the boy, revenge as it were?” Gabrielle nodded. “More understandable than a parent being this cruel—unless he"s insane.”

“No, he"s not insane. If he is, he"s able to mask it with a normal facade.”

“Ohr said Richard truly hates his father, so I don"t doubt that he would prefer it if he was a bastard.”

“That doesn"t get him and me out of this situation, though,” Julia said. “Throwing that in the earl"s face isn"t going to make him hand over that horrible contract. By law, Richard bears his name, and so he fulfills the requirement of the contract, bastard or not.”

“Time to go below deck, ladies,” Drew said as he walked up to his wife and put an arm around her waist. “While it"s reasonable that the man"s fiancée and friends would come along to see to him released, James doesn"t want the distraction of women on deck.” Gabrielle snorted at her husband. “That ship is only five days out of England. They aren"t starving for the sight of a woman yet.”

“Are you going to argue with James about it?”

Gabrielle chuckled at him. “Not a chance. Come along, Julia. We should probably let Richard get cleaned up before we talk to him anyway. I don"t doubt it"s going to be all he"s thinking about, after being locked up for over a week. He"s so meticulous about his appearance. He can dress in rags but they have to be clean rags! I always thought that was a little odd, but of course I had no idea he was a lord. More understandable, knowing that.

Lordly types do seem to be raised to always put their best appearance forward.” Julia realized how little she knew about the man she"d been engaged to all her life. But she had to agree with Gabrielle"s last remark. She couldn"t recall ever seeing Richard other than neatly attired and clean. Another edict of the earl"s, that his boys weren"t allowed to ever get dirty?

They were nearly abreast of the other ship. Julia hadn"t even noticed, they"d been so deep in conversation. She was suddenly beset with acute nervousness.

“I"m glad you"re so confident of the outcome of our intervention here,” she said to the couple.

Drew replied, “Don"t worry. Never known a man who could twist arms as well as James Malory can.”

Chapter Twenty-eight

JAMES SUMMONED DREW BEFORE he crossed over to the transport ship. James had dressed for the occasion. He didn"t often make the effort to look so lordly, but today he did. Though his white cravat wasn"t excessive, his buff-colored jacket was superbly cut, his boots gleamed, and his waistcoat was of the finest silk.

“You come with me,” James said. “If the captain denies his involvement in this plot, someone who knows Richard will have to go down in the hold to point him out.”

“I take it you"d rather not?”

“It"s not a matter of druthers, Yank. After I establish how bloody high and mighty I am, the captain will find it more plausible if I decline to enter his hold and delegate the onerous task to Richard"s manservant. The stink, you know. It"s bound to reek already.” Drew choked back a laugh. “So I"m to play the role of servant who can"t afford to be so fastidious?”

“Exactly, and not one bloody word from you or you"ll give away your nationality.”

“Oh, come now.” Drew grinned. “Americans make just as good servants as Englishmen do.”

“Perhaps, but an English lord wouldn"t be caught dead with one.” That was an old dig. James was much too fond of referring to Americans as barbarians to ever admit it just wasn"t so. And Drew had grown immune to those particular digs over the years. Mostly.

The captain didn"t meet them on deck, but they were shown directly to his cabin. Having them brought to him was a rather obvious tactic to establish his superiority. Which evaporated as soon as James introduced himself.

“James Malory, Viscount Ryding. Good of you to see us, Captain … ?

“Cantel,” the man answered as he leapt to his feet behind his desk.

“Captain Cantel.” James tilted his head slightly in greeting. Drew had to admire James"s own tactic. Earlier, Drew had shouted across decks that the matter was urgent, which got the other ship to lower their sails and prepare to be boarded. But James had just put the captain at ease with his cordial greeting. To leave him unprepared for a broadside …

The first salvo took the form of the official documents James took out of his breast pocket and dropped on the desk. The captain gave him a curious look as he picked them up and began reading one. He began to frown. James didn"t wait for him to finish reading.

“As you can see, it has come to our attention that you are transporting an innocent man. You are to release him to me immediately.”

Captain Cantel didn"t answer for a moment. He was still reading, then his eyes flared wide.

“One of the prisoners is a lord? Mistakes of this magnitude don"t happen, Lord Malory. There is no one by this name in my hold.”

“Hadn"t thought you"d be stupid,” James said drily. “But I"ll allow that you already fully understand the consequences of your involvement in this plot, so I actually can"t blame you for trying to deny it.”

Captain Cantel"s face flushed with color. “Truly, I have no idea what you"re talking about. I can show you my manifest. Every prisoner below is listed and accounted for.” Then he barked an order to the crewman who"d escorted them: “Go take a head count.”

“Stand where you are,” James countered that order in a tone that paralyzed the sailor.

“Now see here—,” Cantel began to bluster.

“You don"t actually think I"m going to give you the opportunity to hide the evidence, do you?”

“Don"t insult me any more than you already have, Lord Malory.”

“Or?”

Drew groaned inwardly. James was supposed to be pulling rank, not throwing weight, but Drew had to allow his brother-in-law was much more accustomed to the latter.

James didn"t give the man a chance to answer, adding, “You aren"t thinking of actually crossing me, are you?” He unexpectedly grabbed the crewman standing next to him by his shirtfront, lifted him by it, and slammed one of his meaty fists into his face. He let the fellow fall slowly to the floor, quite knocked out, before he glanced at the captain again and said with distinct menace, “I wouldn"t advise it.”

“This is an outrage,” the captain blustered, but his statement lacked any heat.

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