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Whirlwind Affair
Chapter One
A shiver snaked down Alberta Brown’s spine, and she gripped the Seaward Lady’s wood railing.  Hoping she appeared outwardly calm, she quickly scanned her surroundings.
       Crewmen shouted to one another, laughing as they tossed thick ropes and adjusted sails in preparation for the ship’s imminent arrival in London.  Voices from the bustling English port drifted over the tangy sea-scented air, blending into an indistinguishable hum.  Passengers stood in clusters around the ship’s rail, chatting in excited tones, grinning, waving to people on the docks.  Everyone appeared perfectly normal and eager at the prospect of stepping on dry land after nearly three months at sea on the voyage from America.  No one’s gaze appeared fixed upon her.
       Still, she could not dismiss the eerie sensation of menace.  The weight of someone’s stare surrounded her like a shroud.  Her heart thumped in slow, hard beats, and she forced herself to draw a deep, calming breath and return her attention to the nearby active port.   I am perfectly safe.  No one is trying to hurt me.
       She prayed to God it was true.
       Yet she couldn’t banish the sick feeling it was not.   She glanced downward, at the frothing water tossed upon the hull as the ship cut through the gentle waves, and her stomach turned over.  Dear God, less than three hours ago she’d fallen into that indigo water…
       A shudder passed through her, and she squeezed her eyes shut.  The shock of being shoved from behind, falling…falling, desperately clawing the air, frightened cries ripped from her throat, cut off when chilling water closed over her head.   She would be forever grateful to the trio of barking dogs who’d alerted a quick-witted crewman to the accident.  Yet, in spite of his fast thinking and her swimming ability, she’d nearly drowned.
       The accident.   Yes, that’s what everyone was calling it.  An improperly secured winch had swung around, catching her between the shoulders, propelling her over the side.  Captain Whitstead had reprimanded the entire crew.
       But was it really an accident?  Or had someone purposely unfastened the winch and pushed it toward her?
       Another chill edged through her, and she sternly told herself it was merely due to the fact that her hair remained damp under her bonnet.  Yet she could not ignore that her near-tragic tumble into the sea was not the first strange incident to befall her on this voyage.  First had been the inexplicable disappearance of her silver wedding band.  Had she lost it--or had it been stolen?  While the piece held no great monetary value, she sorely missed the sentimental token as it was a physical reminder of what she’d had…and what she’d lost.
       Then there was that headlong flight down the stairs, which had thankfully not resulted in any broken bones, although the painful bruises marking her skin had taken weeks to fade.  She’d felt a shove…common sense told her it was merely an accidental jostling, yet she couldn’t dismiss the feeling that she’d been pushed.  And what of the mysterious stomach malady she’d suffered last week?  No one else had been ill.  Could someone have tampered with her food?
       But why?  Why would someone wish her harm?   She’d asked herself that question dozens of times, yet could not arrive at a definite answer.  She wanted to believe she was perfectly safe, but an inner voice warned her that the possibility she wasn’t was all too real.  Had some threatening menace from the past followed her to England?
       She glanced around again, but noted nothing amiss.   Her unease abated a bit and she gave herself a mental shake.  The ship would be docked in less than an hour.  She’d simply melt into the crowd and disappear into the anonymity offered by a large city.  No one knew her here.  No one knew…
       Her gaze lowered, riveting on her black mourning gown, the stark bombazine rippled by the brisk breeze.  An image of David’s smiling face flashed through her mind, and she squeezed her eyes shut in a vain attempt to ward off the onslaught of pain that thoughts of her late husband still brought, even now, three years after his sudden death.   Dear God, would the ache squeezing her heart ever cease?  Would she ever truly feel whole again?
       Her fingers involuntarily drifted over the material of her gown, while in her mind’s eye she pictured the small item hidden beneath the voluminous folds, sewn into the hem of her petticoat.  To keep it safe.  And always close to her.  Especially after the unexplained disappearance of her wedding band.  This is the last leg of my journey, David.  After I right this last wrong, I’ll be free.
       “Alberta!  There you are.  The boys and I have been searching for you everywhere!”
       Allie turned toward the familiar, imperious voice, grateful for the interruption of her disturbing thoughts.  Baroness Gaddlestone approached Allie with a vigor that belied her plump figure and sixty-three years.  Of course, part of the reason for the baroness’s brisk pace was the three energetic Maltese straining at the ends of their leads.  “The boys”, as the baroness referred to her furry brood, dragged their mistress along as if they were mighty oxen and she a produce-laden cart.
       Pushing her worries firmly aside, Allie crouched down to receive the enthusiastic yip-filled greeting the small balls of fluff bestowed upon her.
       “Edward, behave yourself,” the baroness scolded as the smallest of the trio dampened Allie’s face with joyful kisses.  “Tedmund! Frederick! Cease at once!”
       The boys blithely ignored their mistress as was often the case when they were excited, but Allie enjoyed the noisy confusion that followed the dogs like a bouncing shadow.  Indeed, she owed them a debt she could never repay.  Their insistent barking had alerted the crewman when she’d fallen overboard.   She therefore quite willingly overlooked their individual bad habits and focused on their undeniable charm.  What did it matter that Edward was fond of marking as his own every bit of wood and rope within his reach?  Of course, on a ship, this kept the small dog quite busy, and he fell into his doggie bed each night completely exhausted.
       And how could she fault Frederick’s predilection for nipping ankles when he’d all but dragged her rescuing crewman to the rail while his brothers barked themselves hoarse?                      Her gaze found Tedmund, who had wandered several yards away to engage in his favorite activity, this time with a discarded pile of rags.  Oh dear.  She had tried on numerous occasions to explain to Tedmund that it was not polite to try and make puppies with anything other than a female dog, and then only in private, but Tedmund remained unrepentant.
       After discreetly removing Tedmund from the pile of rags, Allie doled out equal parts of affection for all three dogs, then stood and gazed down at their prancing antics.  “Sit,” she commanded.
       Three canine bottoms instantly settled on the deck.
       “You simply must explain to me how you do that, my dear,” the baroness said, her voice tinged with exasperation.  “I’ve been unable to calm them since I told them we were arriving home this morning.  You know how anxious they are to run in the park.”  She beamed a smile at her babies.  “Don’t worry, darlings.  Mama promises to bring you for a nice, long walk this afternoon.”  The boys’ tails swished across the deck like a trio of mops at the happy news.
       Warmth stole through Allie.  She genuinely liked the baroness whose bright green eyes and rounded, yet somehow elfin, features reminded Allie of a grandmotherly sprite.   She was grateful to the woman for hiring her on as her traveling companion.  Without the baroness, she wouldn’t have been able to afford the passage to England.  And there was no denying that the baroness’s lively, talkative nature and her energetic pets had relieved some of the loneliness Allie had lived with for so long.
       “You were looking for me, Lady Gaddlestone?”
       “Indeed, my dear.  I wanted a private moment to thank you for your excellent companionship on this voyage.   My previous companion who accompanied me to America proved most unsatisfactory.”  She leaned closer to Allie and confided,  “Several times I detected the odor of brandy on her breath.  Most shocking.   But worst of all, she had no patience with the boys.  Edward, Tedmund, and Frederick could not abide her at all.  Oh, that Mrs. Atkins was simply horrid, wasn’t she boys?”  The baroness wrinkled her nose and shivered, and the boys narrowed their black eyes and growled their agreement.  Allie could almost hear them saying, “Yes, Mama, she was horrid, and if she ever dares come back we’ll bite her ankles, chew her shoes, and piddle on her bedclothes…again.”
       “But you, my dear,” the baroness continued, smiling warmly at Allie, “you are what I call a ‘dog person.’ Not everyone is, you know.”
       “I enjoyed your company as well, Lady Gaddlestone.”  She looked down and winked at the trio of mischief makers.  “You and the boys.”
       “Yes, well, I hope you enjoy your visit to my country.”  Her gaze flicked over Allie’s black mourning gown.  Sympathy softened the woman’s features, and reaching out, she clasped Allie’s hands.  “Clearly you adored your David, but three years is long enough to mourn, my dear.  I understand perfectly that it’s difficult to move on.  Heavens, I never thought I’d recover when Gaddlestone passed on.  But time does heal those grieving wounds.”
       Allie pressed her lips together to keep them from trembling.  “Some wounds can never truly heal,” she said quietly.
       “I understand how you feel, my dear.  But you’re still young.  Don’t close your mind to the possibility of finding happiness again.  The Season is just beginning.  A mere word from your friend, the Duchess of Bradford, could offer you entre into any soiree you wished to attend.  ‘Twould do you good to socialize a bit.”  Her gaze turned speculative.  “I recall you saying that the duchess’s brother-in-law will meet you at the dock?”
       “Very handsome young man,” the baroness mused.  “Known him since he was a boy.  Always high spirited, and quite the charmer.  Of course there was that trouble several years ago, some transgression or another…”  A frown creased her brow.  “I cannot recall the details.  I was traveling in the north at the time, and my mind isn’t what it used to be.  Most vexing.”  Her expression cleared.  “Oh, but you know how these gossipy things flare up, then fizzle out like a doused flame once the next enticing on dit kindles to life.   I remember most clearly that Lord Robert’s instance occurred just before Lord Feedly’s only daughter eloped with one of their footman!  Oh, such a scandal!  That news usurped all else at the time, and reached me, even all the way up in Newcastle.  And I do recall that Lord Robert’s misconduct did not concern a young lady, so you’ve nothing to worry about.  Lord Robert has always been a perfect gentleman.”  She waved her hand in a dismissive gesture.  “Naturally young men are prone to find themselves knee-deep in at least one mishap, and this happened a long time ago.  I’m certain he’ll prove an entertaining escort during your journey to Bradford Hall.”
      The baroness gave her hands a final squeeze, then released them.  “Come along, boys,” she said.  “’Tis time for your morning snack before we disembark.”  To Allie she called, “I’m sure we’ll see you on the pier, my dear,” as the boys pulled her away.
      Alone again, Allie reached into the deep pocket of her skirt, withdrawing the last letter she’d received from Elizabeth, now the Duchess of Bradford.  The brief missive had arrived two weeks before Allie sailed to England.
      Unfolding the thick vellum, she re-read the words, although she knew them by heart.

     Dear Allie,
     I cannot tell you how excited I am at the prospect of your visit.  I am so eager for you to meet my wonderful family, most especially my husband and darling son.  Unfortunately I will not be able to meet you in London as I’d planned--but for a very happy reason.  At the same time your ship is scheduled to arrive, Austin and I shall be awaiting the imminent birth of our second child!  Indeed, by the time you arrive at Bradford Hall, I may already be a mother again.  Please do not worry that your visit will be inconvenient.  I recovered from James’s birth with what Austin calls alarming speed, and as you know, I am most robust.  And do not worry about your journey to Bradford Hall.   The estate is only several hours from London, and I have already extracted a promise from Austin’s brother Robert that he will meet your ship and escort you here.  I’ve enclosed a sketch of Lord Robert, and I shall give him one of you so that you can easily find each other at the pier.
     I am counting the days until we see each other again, Allie.  I’ve missed you so!
     Wishing you a safe journey, your friend,
       Allie stared at those last two words that always brought an ache to her heart.  Your friend.  Yes, Elizabeth, you have always been my friend.  If only I had appreciated and understood that more…I bless your forgiving nature.
       Drawing a deep breath, she slowly slid the letter behind the second sheet of vellum and stared at the sketch of Elizabeth’s brother-in-law.   Elizabeth’s considerable talent with charcoals had only grown over the years, and the image all but leaped from the page.
       It would be easy to pick this man out of a crowd.  She perused his features and her stomach knotted.  He reminded her of David in so many ways…his crooked smile, his laughing eyes, the boyish charm so evident in his expression.  Except Lord Robert Jamison was even more handsome than David, something she would not have thought possible.
       She recalled Lady Gaddlestone’s words regarding Lord Robert.   There was that trouble several years ago, some transgression or another.  What had he done?  The instant the question popped into her mind, she shoved it aside.  It did not matter.  His past was of no interest to her.  Nor did it matter what he looked like.  He sparked no interest in her other than the fact that she wanted him to get her away from the docks and the menace she’d felt as quickly as possible.  Still, guilt pricked her at the thought of his wasted trip to fetch her.
       How would he react when she told him she had no intention of traveling to Bradford Hall with him?
                                                                                * * * *
      Robert Jamison stood on the pier, watching the Seaward Lady’s crew secure the majestic vessel to the berth.   Dragging a deep breath into his lungs, a smile eased across his face.  Damn, but he loved the docks.  Loved the sight of crewmembers working in perfect unison hoisting sails and securing ropes.  Loved the cacophony from the vendors hawking everything from meat pies to bolts of colorful silk.  He even loved the harsh medley of smells that combined with the pungent sea-scented air to create a scent that could be found nowhere else in England.
      He scanned the faces of the passengers waiting to disembark, but saw no one resembling the smiling young woman in the sketch Elizabeth had drawn.   Of course, it was difficult to distinguish faces at this distance.  Like everyone else meeting passengers, he waited at a safe distance away from the swinging winches unloading the travelers’ trunks and the ship’s cargo.
      Slipping the sketch from his waistcoat pocket, he gazed upon the face that had piqued his interest from the first time he’d seen it--months ago--when Elizabeth had given him the drawing, along with a request to meet Mrs. Brown at the dock.  It was one of the most attractive faces he’d ever seen--lovely not simply because of the pleasing features, but due to the joy that flowed from her smile.  The warmth and laughter shining in her eyes.  And the sense of mischief and fun that seemed to radiate right off the vellum.   He would have no trouble recognizing this woman in any size crowd.  Indeed, his pulse quickened at the very thought of seeing this lovely creature in person.  As he knew Elizabeth had hoped.
      Tucking the sketch back in his pocket, he recalled the comment Elizabeth had made just before he’d departed Bradford Hall yesterday.  Perhaps you’ll like my friend, she’d suggested--a phrase he’d heard from the female members of his family more times than he could count.  Ever since he had casually mentioned last year that he’d like to settle down and start a family, his sister, sisters-in-law and his mother, were only too eager to toss eligible females his way.   At first he hadn’t objected to their efforts since his own search for a wife wasn’t yielding any results, and he couldn’t deny that he’d met an amazing number of charming ladies, some of whom he’d liked quite well, and several with whom he’d discreetly shared far more than a waltz.
      However, as time wore on and he hadn’t chosen a bride, the introductions had grown awkward, and his family, most especially Caroline, had grown impatient with him.   “What on earth is wrong with you?” his sister now demanded every time he didn’t fall madly in love with the latest woman she’d brought his way.   “She’s beautiful, charming, amenable, docile, wealthy, and for reasons I cannot explain, she adores you.  What the devil are you looking for?”
      He didn’t know, but he did know he hadn’t yet found “the one.”  The one who made him feel that “certain something”--that elusive spark he saw every time Austin and Elizabeth exchanged a glance.  Every time Caroline and her husband Miles were in the same room.  Each time his brother William smiled at his wife Claudine.  He’d seen it everyday, growing up, between his parents until the day his father died.  He couldn’t name it, couldn’t explain it.
      But by damn, he wanted it.
      Wanted the happiness and completeness his siblings enjoyed.  Wanted to bounce his own child upon his knee.  Wanted a wife to share his life with and to make love to every night.
      Now all he had to do was find her.
      But that was proving bloody well difficult.   Damn it all, it seemed he’d met every unmarried woman in the entire country.  Still, perhaps his luck was about to change.  Elizabeth thought he might like the lovely Mrs. Brown.   In fact, he recalled her exact words-- I have a feeling you’ll find the happiness you seek in London--and Elizabeth’s “feelings” had an uncanny way of coming true.  Indeed, the way her intuition, or perception, or visions, or whatever one chose to call it, had led to his brother William’s incredible rescue, was legendary in his family--and a closely guarded secret.  They’d opted not to tell anyone else so as not to expose Elizabeth to the inevitable curiosity and skepticism her unusual talents would provoke.
      Had her words been in reference to Mrs. Brown?   Or had she in some way meant finding some relief, some peace, from the heaviness that lay upon his heart?   A series of images flashed through his mind, and he braced himself as if to receive a blow.  The fire roaring out of control.  The panicked shouts of men, the terrified screams of the horses.  The sounds lived in his head, haunting him.  Then Nate’s face…
      He squeezed his eyes shut until the disturbing image faded.  He’d never discussed that night or Nate’s death with Elizabeth, but she did have that unnerving way of knowing things…
      When he’d asked her to translate her cryptic comment, she’d merely graced him with one of those indecipherable female smiles that claim I know something you don’t know.   Well, he would know--whatever it was--soon enough.  The passengers were making their way off the ship.
      He craned his neck, scanning each person’s face as they approached.  A pair of young men.  Definitely not.  A middle-aged gentleman, followed by a weary-looking couple each holding the hand of a small child.  Robert smiled at the children and received gap-toothed grins in return.  Returning his attention to the passengers, he clicked off mental “no’s” as a clergyman, a portly gentleman, and a gaggle of chatting matrons passed by.  Where was Mrs. Brown?  It seemed almost everyone had disembarked.
      His gaze flicked over a woman swathed head to toe in mourning black, and another mental “no” quickly formed in his brain.   Although Elizabeth had told him Mrs. Brown was a widow, her husband had died years ago.  She’d no longer wear mourning clothes.
      Still, there was something about the woman’s face that brought his gaze back to her.  Those wide-spaced eyes, and that intriguing dimple in the center of her chin…and the way she was looking at him, as if she recognized him…
      Confusion assailed him, and he lifted a hand to shade his eyes from the sun.   This couldn’t be the right woman.   Where was the bright smile?  The radiating joy?  The sense of  laughter and mischief?    Sadness, seriousness surrounded this woman like a dark cloud.  He gazed beyond her, but the only passenger behind her was a plump matron struggling down the gangway with a trio of small, yapping white dogs.
      He returned his attention to the woman in black.  She walked toward him swiftly, her eyes scanning his face.  He caught a brief glimpse of an errant brown curl that escaped her black bonnet.  Recognition slapped him, and although he realized she was indeed Mrs. Brown, his mind struggled to equate this woman with the sketch Elizabeth had given him.  They were precisely alike…yet nothing alike at all.
       “You must be Lord Robert Jamison,” she said, stopping several feet away from him.  “I recognize you from the sketch Elizabeth gave me.”
      I wish I could say the same.   Sympathy for her washed over him.  Clearly she’d adored her husband as his death had tragically depleted her.  Her eyes, the color of fine, aged brandy, appeared haunted and anxious in her pale face.  How sad that mourning had taken such a toll on her.  How unfair that a man she so clearly loved had been stolen from her, taking all her laughter and joy with him.  She looked tiny and frightened in her stark clothing, as if her state of grieving had literally swallowed her whole.  He shoved aside the disappointment and pity he hoped didn’t show on his face, then offered her his most charming smile and a formal bow.
      “I am indeed he.  And you must be Mrs. Brown.”
      “Yes.”  Not even a ghost of a smile touched her lips.  Indeed, her expression grew even more grave as her gaze darted about their surroundings.   He watched her, feeling uncharacteristically short of words.   He wracked his brain for something to say, but she surprised him into further silence by stepping closer to him.  So close, in fact, that the tips of her shoes touched his boots and her black skirt brushed his breeches.   So close that her scent drifted over him, a tantalizing combination of sea air and…he inhaled deeply…some sort of flower.  Before he could identify the delicate, elusive fragrance, she rested her gloved hand on his sleeve and rose up on her toes, leaning toward him.
      Egad, she meant to kiss him!   Was this how things were done in America?  The only other American he’d ever met was Elizabeth, and he couldn’t deny she possessed a forthright, friendly manner, although not quite this forthright.  Still, he didn’t want to hurt Mrs. Brown’s feelings by rebuffing her very un-Britishlike greeting.
      Lowering his head, he brushed his lips over her mouth.   And everything in him stilled.  For the space of several heartbeats, he couldn’t move.  Couldn’t breathe.  Couldn’t do anything save stare down into her shocked eyes while two impossible words pounded through his brain.
      At last.
      A frown yanked his brows downward, and he stepped back from her as if she’d turned into a pillar of fire.  At last?  Bloody hell, he’d gone mad.  The next stop for him was Bedlham.
      Two bright crimson spots stained her cheeks.  “What on earth are you doing?” she asked in a voice that trembled with unmistakable outrage.
      Now he’d done it.  Whatever she’d been about, clearly she hadn’t intended for him to kiss her.  And he wished to hell he hadn’t.  His mouth still tingled with the hint of her taste, and he barely resisted the almost overwhelming urge to lick his lips.   Or lean down and lick hers.
      Undeniably unsettled, his gaze roamed her face, taking in her becoming blush, the dark lashes surrounding her golden brown eyes, the pert nose painted by a smattering of pale freckles, the dimple gracing her chin, and then her mouth…such a lovely, plump mouth.  Moist, deliciously pink, the bottom lip lusciously full, and the top lip, impossibly, even fuller.
      Good God, what sort of cad was he to entertain even the hint of a lustful thought toward her?  The woman was in mourning.  Not that he’d had a lustful thought.  Certainly not.  That inexplicable tingle he’d felt had merely been…surprise.  Yes, that’s all it was.  She’d surprised him.  And that jolt he’d felt?  Nothing more than embarrassment.  Yes, he’d simply made an ass of himself.  Not the first time, and unfortunately most likely not the last.
      Relieved that he’d settled everything back into the proper perspective, he took another step backward.  “My apologies, madam.  I meant no offense.  In truth, I thought you’d meant to kiss me.”
      “And why would I possibly want to do that?
      Amusement rather than offense at her question and tone nudged him.  “Perhaps an American greeting custom?”
      “Absolutely not.  I’d merely intended to ask you something, in a discreet manner.”
      “Ah.  You wished to whisper in my ear.”
       “And what did you want to--“
      “Alberta!  There you are, my dear.”
      Robert turned toward the high-pitched voice.  A short, plump, fashionably dressed matron walked crookedly toward them, trying without much success to control three small white dogs that seemed intent upon jerking her in three different directions.  Even if he had not recognized the formidable Lady Gaddlestone, there was no mistaking her dogs, those mischievous little charmers he clearly recalled from the last time he’d seen them when he’d mentally dubbed them Sir Piss-a-lot, Sir Bite-a-bit, and Sir Hump-a-leg.
       “Tedmund!  Edward!  Frederick!  Cease at once!”  The baroness pulled back on the leads, barely halting the trio before they dragged her past him and Mrs. Brown.  One of the beasts promptly lifted its leg and watered a weed that had sprouted between the cobblestones.  The other two pranced about, one eyeing his ankle as if contemplating a nibble, while the other regarded his calf with an unmistakably lustful gleam.
       Raising his brows, Robert intoned, “Sit.”  Three canine bottoms instantly hit the cobblestones, and three sets of shiny black button eyes gazed up at him.
       “Marvelous, Lord Robert,” the baroness said, her breath puffing in exertion.  “Although I must say it is quite vexing that the boys will listen to a near stranger rather than their Mama.”
       “Ah, but Teddie, Eddie, and Freddie and I are old friends, are we not?”  Robert crouched down and tickled his fingers over their silky fur and was promptly presented with three tummies to rub.  “We enjoyed several invigorating strolls during your last visit to Bradford Hall.”  He arose, much to the boys’ dismay, and made the baroness a formal bow.  “A pleasure to see you again, Lady Gaddlestone.  I see you are already acquainted with my sister-in-law’s friend, Mrs. Brown.”
      “Indeed.  Alberta proved a wonderful traveling companion.  A stroke of genius on my part, hiring her.”
      Hiring her?  What was the baroness talking about?  He glanced at Mrs. Brown and noticed that although a blush stained her cheeks, she lifted her chin and regarded him with an expression that would have done Prinny proud, almost as if daring him to look upon her with disfavor for undertaking employment.   Which he did not.  Still, the fact that she had surprised him.  And whetted his curiosity.
      Before he could think upon the matter further, the baroness continued,  “I would have been utterly inconsolable if she’d drowned this morning.”
      Robert stared at the baroness.  “Drowned?”
      “Yes.  La, it was frightful!”  A shudder shook Lady Gaddlestone’s ample frame.  “The dear girl was hit in the back with a runaway winch, and over the side she went.  Thank heavens the boys saw the entire incident.  They nearly barked themselves into apoplexy.  Captain Whitstead performed a brilliant maneuver and the crew pulled dear Alberta, who, bless the saints can swim like a fish, from the sea.”
      The baroness waved her hand in front of her face, and Robert prayed she wasn’t about to swoon.  He recalled that the baroness was not prone to draping herself artistically over a fainting couch and ringing for her hartshorn--thank goodness--and true to his memory, she rallied.  Once assured that she was steady on her feet, he turned his attention to Mrs. Brown.  “I’m sorry you suffered such a terrible ordeal.  Were you hurt?”
      “No.  Just frightened.”
       “Oh, but you never would have known she was!” Lady Gaddlestone interjected.  “She was utterly marvelous, remained perfectly calm, bobbing on the surface like a cork.  Heavens, I would have screamed like a banshee, then sunk like a rock.   Captain Whitstead was most impressed, and dubbed her ‘unsinkable.’  As for me, I’m certain I’d have succumbed to the vapors for the first time in my life if I hadn’t needed to rescue one of the other passengers from the boys.  All three of them quite inexplicably threw themselves upon Mr. Redfern’s ankles!   Oh, such snapping and snarling as I’ve never witnessed from my babies!  Luckily Mr. Redfern was very understanding when I explained that all the excitement had adversely affected the boys’ delicate constitutions.  Of course, his trousers will never quite be the same, I’m sure.”
      She drew a quick breath, then plunged on, “Now we can only pray that dear Alberta does not suffer any lingering affects, such as a congestion in the chest.”  She pinned a stern glance on Mrs. Brown.  “You must take a hot bath the minute you’re settled, then take yourself off to bed.”
      Mrs. Brown nodded.  “I--“
      “And you,” the baroness intoned, swinging her gaze to Robert, “shall make certain she is well taken care of until she is in the duchess’s care.”
      “Of course.”
      “Excellent.”  Lady Gaddlestone nodded, clearly satisfied that her dictates would be obeyed.  “Now I understand the duchess is close to giving birth.  Has the child arrived yet?”
      “Not as of this morning.”  A laugh rumbled in Robert’s throat.  “But Austin has already paced a ditch in the drawing room.”
      “Well, I shall expect to be informed when the babe arrives so I may schedule a visit.  I just adore purchasing baby gifts.”  She gave Robert a thorough up and down inspection.  “You’re looking quite fit, young man,” she proclaimed with an approving nod.  “Hard to believe, but I dare say you’re even more handsome than when I saw you last.  You’ve the look of your father about you.  That same devilish gleam in your eye.”
      “Thank you, my lady.  I--“
      “Perhaps you can cheer up Mrs. Brown a bit,” the baroness plowed on.  “Poor dear is still in the doldrums over losing her beloved David.  Laughter is what she needs.  I’ve told her at least a dozen time that she’s far too serious by half, have I not, Mrs. Brown?”
      Mrs. Brown had no opportunity to reply for the baroness continued,  “She enjoyed the boys, however.  They managed to coax a number of smiles from her.  Remarkably pretty woman when she smiles, which is of course not to insinuate that she isn’t remarkably pretty when she isn’t smiling, which is sadly most of the time, but when she smiles she is very remarkably pretty.  Tell me, dear boy, don’t the duke and duchess have a dog?”
      “Yes.  They have--“
      “Excellent.  Canine company will do Mrs. Brown a world of good.  And now, dear boy, tell me, are you married yet?”
      “I’m afraid not.”
      The baroness raised her brows and pursed her lips, and Robert could almost hear the gears turning in her head.  “Excellent,” was all she said, and Robert was not certain he wanted to know what she meant by it.  She glanced beyond Robert and waggled her gloved fingers.  “My carriage is ready to depart.”   She extended her hand and Robert obligingly bent and brushed a kiss over her fingertips.
      “Always a pleasure, Lady Gaddlestone.  Welcome home.”
      “Thank you.  I must say it is a relief to have both feet planted back on English soil.”  She turned to Mrs. Brown.  “I shall see you again before you return to America, my dear.”
      “I hope so, “ said Mrs. Brown.
      “You may count upon it.”  Giving the leads a slight tug, she set her brood in motion and was nearly yanked off her feet.  “Good bye for now,” she huffed as she staggered away.
       The instant he judged her out of earshot, Robert turned to Mrs. Brown and offered her a sheepish grin.  “I rather feel as if I’ve just been rolled over by a runaway carriage.”
      Allie looked up at him, at his striking countenance, lopsided grin, and mischievous eyes, and her throat tightened.  With his ebony hair and dark blue eyes, he looked nothing like blonde, brown-eyed David, but his teasing manner, his easy smile…they were so achingly, hauntingly familiar.  Clearing her throat, she said, “Lady Gaddlestone is really very kind.”
       “I would never imply otherwise.  She could, however, talk a saddle off of a horse.”  His gaze roamed her face, his eyes reflecting concern.  “You’re certain you’re all right after your accident?”
      Accident.  “Yes, thank you.”
      “Now that the baroness has departed, perhaps you will tell me what you’d been about to say before she arrived.”  A teasing light sparkled in his eyes.  “Something you’d wanted to whisper in my ear?”
       Heat suffused Allie’s face.  Did this man take nothing seriously?  Not only had he had the temerity to kiss her, but now the gall to tease her about it!  She clutched her gown to keep from touching her lips where he’d kissed her.  How could such a feathery touch, one that had lasted less than a second, have affected her so?  He surprised me, that is all.  That rapid beating of my heart…merely the result of the unexpected.  And the unwanted.
       She cast a glance around the bustling dock area and another chill crept down her spine.  Someone was watching her.  She knew it.  Biting back her unease, she said, “I’d simply planned to discreetly ask you if we could leave here as soon as possible.  I’d noticed Lady Gaddlestone coming toward us--”
       “Ah.  Say no more.  I quite understand.  Even people we like can sometimes prove exhausting. We shall depart immediately.”  He smiled at her and offered his arm, tilting his head with another David-like gesture that made her teeth clench.  “My carriage is right this way.”
       When she hesitated to take his arm, he simply grabbed her hand and settled it in the crook of his elbow.  “See there?” he said.  “I don’t bite.  Hardly ever.”
       She fell into step beside him, trying to reconcile the impulse to snatch her hand away from him and the undeniable relief the safety of his presence offered.  His arm felt firm and muscular beneath her fingers, more so than David’s had.   And although Lord Robert was several inches taller than David, he matched his longer strides to her shorter ones, unlike David.  She’d always felt as if she had to run to keep up with her husband.
       When they arrived at a handsome black lacquered carriage, Lord Robert instructed the waiting footman to fetch her trunk.  He then handed her into the carriage and settled himself on the plush, gray velvet squabs across from her.   Deciding the time had arrived to tell him, she cleared her throat.
       “I’m afraid I owe you an apology, Lord Robert.  You traveled all this way to escort me to Bradford Hall to see Elizabeth, but I’m afraid I must remain in London for at least a day or two.  I have some business affairs to see to.”  She forced her hands to stay still and not pluck at the material of her gown.   “There are several matters regarding my late husband’s possessions that I must take care of.   He’d resettled in America, but he was English, you know.  From Liverpool.”
       “No, I didn’t know.”  He glanced down at her mourning gown.  There was no mistaking the sympathy in his gaze.  “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
       She lowered her lashes so he couldn’t read her eyes.  “Thank you.”
       “Although it’s not exactly the same, I know what it’s like to lose someone you love.  My father died several years ago.  I miss him every day.”
       He looked as if he were about to say something more, but when he remained silent, she said softly,  “I understand.  I think about David every day.”  Drawing a deep breath, she continued.  “I’m certain you’re anxious to return to Bradford Hall to await the birth of your niece or nephew, and I’ve no wish to inconvenience you further.  If you could recommend a reputable inn, I’ll arrange my own transportation to the estate when my business is completed.”
       He was clearly surprised, but he did not question her.  Instead, he offered, “An inn is not necessary, Mrs. Brown.  Elizabeth and Austin would insist you stay at their London townhouse.”
        “Oh, but I couldn’t--“
       “Of course you can.  Elizabeth would have my head if I allowed you put up at an inn.  And as I have several business affairs that could stand my attention, I have no objection to remaining in London until you are ready to travel to Bradford Hall.  I have rooms on Chesterfield which is only a short distance from the townhouse.”
       She studied his face, and a warning tension gripped her stomach.  Something had flashed in his eyes when he’d said several business affairs…that same evasiveness she knew all too well, thanks to David.  But the look had been so fleeting.  Had she imagined it?
       “That is a very kind offer, Lord Robert but--“
       “Kindness has nothing to do with it, believe me.  It is simply a case of self-preservation.  If I were to show my face at Bradford Hall without you, after giving my solemn vow to bring you there, my honor would be irreparably impinged.”  A slow grin lit his face.  “And Elizabeth would harangue me until my ears fell off.”
       For the briefest instant, Allie felt herself involuntarily responding to that grin, allowing its warmth to wash over her.  Dear God, it was so like David’s grin…
       His expression turned to one of concern.  “Are you all right, Mrs. Brown?  You suddenly appear a bit pale.”
       “I’m fine.  I was simply thinking…”
       “That you remind me very much of my husband.”
       He seemed surprised at her words.  Then he smiled gently, his eyes full of sympathy.  “Thank you.”
       At that moment, the footman arrived with her trunk.  After it was secured to the top of the carriage, they departed, leaving the scents and sounds of the docks behind.  As they moved further away from the riverfront, Allie relaxed a bit, until she glanced at the man sitting across from her.  The man who was another David, only this time wrapped up in an even more attractive package.  He’d thanked her for the comparison to David.  He’d thought she’d paid him a high compliment.
      If you only knew, Lord Robert.  If you only knew…

                                                                                           * * * *
       Lester Redfern emerged from the long shadows cast by the wooden hull of the Seaward Lady.   He narrowed his eyes on the departing black lacquer carriage, then spit onto the cobblestones.  Damn it all, the woman possessed the devil’s own luck.  How the blazes were he supposed to kill the chit when she were always surrounded by chattin’ old biddys and yappin’ dogs?  He glanced down at his torn trouser cuffs.  Bloody stupid beasts.  They ruined wot would have been a perfect murder.   And weren’t it just his rotten luck that the Brown woman could swim?
      And now she’d gone off with that fancy toff.   He set off swiftly on foot to follow the carriage carrying his quarry.   Curse the saints, his employer would not be pleased that she weren’t already dead.  But I’ll see to it that she’s taken care of.  I’ve never failed in a job before, and I ain’t about to start now.  By this time tomorrow, she’ll be dead.  And I’ll be a very rich man.

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