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by Elaine Lowe
Description: Helena Gracechurch is far too occupied by thoroughly unfeminine concerns to fall in love. She's got a business to run, a brother to protect, and a sinister cousin to avoid marrying. But her lusty thoughts about the man she's just hired to captain her flagship are quite vexing and she has to keep her mind focused if she expects her world to remain afloat. The new Earl of Belforth, Raymond Talbury, has arrived from Spain to find his family destitute and his position as a bachelor precarious. He needs money, not romance. But when he meets his new employer, all he can think about is getting the fiery redhead in his bed, or anywhere else he can have her. There really is no way he can refuse her offer of a mutually satisfying undertaking. They both harbor secrets, but their feelings for each other are plain. Will circumstances and a menacing relative drive them irrevocably apart, or will their wanton venture succeed beyond their wildest dreams?
eBook Publisher: Resplendence Publishing, LLC/Resplendence Publishing, LLC, 2010 2010
eBookwise Release Date: October 2010
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [277 KB]
Reading time: 180-253 min.
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You are still beautiful, old girl.
Helena Gracechurch stood silent on the bustling Bristol docks and looked up at the flagship of Gracechurch Shipping. The Grebe was not a new ship, but her rigging was still graceful, her keel cut a fast swath through the water, and a fresh coat of paint gave her the colors of her namesake, rich brown and reds that would race across the sea like a bird in flight.
Mother would be proud.
Michael Gracechurch had named the ship in honor of his wife, Marion, who had passed her distinctive auburn hair and warm brown eyes to her daughter. A wistful longing filled Helena as she recalled her one trip in the open sea, where the family traveled together during a brief bout of peace on the seas. Her father had taken everyone, even Geoffrey, who had not yet seen three years of age, and they'd traveled all the way to Jamaica. Twelve-year-old Helena had loved everything about the sea and the ship. The sounds of the sails whipping in the wind and the sailors singing in their work. The feel of the sun and the wind upon her face. The salt tang of the air. The naked backs of the sailors as they heaved upon the ropes-- No, I must not entertain such thoughts!
Her towheaded little brother's incessant whining brought her back from the edge of sinful lust-filled conjecture as to the beauty of the sweaty male body.
"Ellie, why must I be here again? David's got a new horse, and he promised me a ride if I could be there by three."
She took her brother's elbow in a firm grip. "I'm sure David will still have his horse tomorrow, Geoffrey. In the meantime, Captain Saunders has requested to see me, and it is a good time for you to become more acquainted with the Grebe and our other ships." She walked up the gangplank, tugging him with her and trying not to look at the men laboring around her on the decks. Or wonder what they were thinking of her as she walked by.
"Ah, Ellie, call me Geoff, won't you?" her brother wheedled. She rolled her eyes. "Besides, I already know her bow to stern. I'd make a fine midshipman if you or Father would let me join up!"
It was an old argument, and one that she did not wish to repeat at the moment. She set foot on the deck and loved the slight sway she felt aboard, even though the ship was in port. The ship was clean, the decks sparkling, if a bit worn. Captain Saunders ran a tight ship, and her sailors were experienced, as luck had prevented the British Navy from recruiting crew from the Grebe during any press gang sweeps through the town.
The constant motion and hum of noise on the deck of any ship slowed and stopped as the crew took in Geoffrey and Helena's presence. A mate disappeared in search of the captain, and a few of the crew sent them friendly smiles. Still, she was all too conscious of being the only woman aboard, as Sarah, her maid, was so petrified of water that Helena did not have the heart to force her attendance for proprieties' sake. She tried not to think of what these sailors did in port while they were on leave, what kind of debauchery must go on in the alehouses surrounding the docks. What secret knowledge of male and female relations she would never be privy to because of propriety and her responsibilities. She smoothed down the gray bombazine skirt of her walking gown and wrapped her pelisse around her as a stiff March gust assailed the deck.
"Miss Gracechurch, 'tis a pleasure, ma'am." Captain Horace Saunders emerged from below, his limp pronounced as his injured leg dragged across the slick deck. She nodded her head in acknowledgement of his half bow and gave a subtle pinch to Geoffrey's arm to force him to remember his manners.
Captain Saunders treated her with the utmost respect, due to the longstanding nature of his employment with her family. Still, Helena thought that the severity of her high-necked dress, tightly bound hair and spectacles lent her authority that her mere twenty-two years could not have achieved otherwise. No one would look upon her to flirt, no matter how much she may have longed for it.
She shook off such shameful thoughts and forced her mind to the business at hand. "Captain Saunders, I'm here to survey the Grebe and to address the concerns you mentioned in your latest correspondence."
Saunders swept off his hat suddenly, realizing that when addressing a lady, especially with bad news, it was best to be as polite as possible. "The Grebe is in excellent fettle, Miss Gracechurch, if I do say so." He cleared his throat awkwardly and began to totter alarmingly on his bad leg while searching for his next words.
Helena thought it best to intervene before any mishap should occur. "Captain, perhaps we could continue this discussion in your quarters? I would be pleased to listen to you, but my brother is eager to see the ship and I do not think his youthful spirits can be gainsaid much longer."
Captain Saunders smiled in gratitude and gave an awkward half bow. "Of course Miss. Perhaps in a half hour then? I would then have ready all the necessary paperwork for you to take to your father."
"Of course, in a half hour then, Captain." She gave him a wry little smile and turned away, letting him limp back to his quarters in peace. She sighed, unhappy to continue the charade that her father was still in charge of Gracechurch Shipping when she was in fact the one running the entire operation and had for upwards of a year now. But what decent Captain would work for a woman, when most would not even let a "lady" set foot on their ship?
"Run along, Geoff. Go investigate as you long to do." Geoffrey smiled at her and slid across the smooth deck, his eyes plastered to the delights of the rigging. "And don't go too high, Geoffrey. I don't want to have to have anyone fetch you down!" He turned and stuck out his tongue, and she repressed a giggle, surprised at how she longed to be able to return the gesture. But no, she must maintain the stern decorum expected of her, or no one would take her seriously. The world was a harsh place for women, and she had to keep her senses about her at all times.
The wind sang through the slack lines of the ship, and she sighed in tune with the lonely sound. A ship this fine was made to dance through the waves, plying her trade with a happy heart, not trapped in a sullen port like Bristol. Times were tough, the embargo against the Continent and the numerous wars England had suffered through for the past decades had been hard on shipping. And for Bristol, the recent abolishment of the slave trade had made times very tough and complaints very loud in many quarters.
But in the Gracechurch household, there had only been rejoicing. Helena was glad that her mother had lived to see her dream come true and the slave trade die before she herself quit this earth. Marion Gracechurch had been a staunch activist and a loud opponent of slavery, and her husband, Michael, had followed suit, participating in none of the trade in sugar or rum or items that had the reek of human suffering. It had been a hard decision, but in the long run, Gracechurch Shipping earned respect and patronage and a stable business that kept them afloat during the years of Napoleon.
And now it was up to Helena to keep Gracechurch Shipping, and her brother's legacy, alive and out of the clutches of fortune hunters and spendthrift relations who were slobbering for their chance at riches. She had to take advantage of the new peace, but she had not the connections of her father. Ideas she had, but who would listen to a girl in a man's world?
Her steps had wandered as aimlessly as her thoughts, and she found herself before a ladder to descend to the next deck. Throwing caution to the wind, she pulled her skirts into one hand and risked the journey into the dark of the lower decks. It was cool and dark, but the smells of dozens of men living in close quarters were prevalent, no matter how clean Captain Saunders kept his ship. She heard the rhythmic creaking of the Grebe in the calm water of port and another noise. A soft grunting, as though something or someone was in pain.
Worried, Helena followed the noise, past the swinging hammocks and a dining table thrust out of the way. Into the hold, where all the cargo was stored, she tracked the sound, which got louder and louder by degree.
It sounded like not one but two people, caught in the throes of some kind of pain. If she wasn't mistaken, it was a man and a woman--though she questioned why another woman would be aboard?
She tiptoed closer until, with nary a creak, the well-oiled door to the bow's storeroom opened. Inside, in the dim light filtering through the porthole, she could see two figures locked together. The moaning woman sat on a crate, her skirts pushed up to her waist and her bodice pushed down to reveal her jiggling breasts. A man stood between her thighs, his trousers around his ankles and his buttocks moving rhythmically as he thrust into the woman's privates. Grunts and moans echoed through the room and the slick wet sound of flesh hitting flesh sang its own song.
Helena was struck speechless. This kind of fornication was supposed to be ugly, vile, forbidden. But it was not--it was stirring, beautiful. The woman's face was contorted with a mixture of pain and rapture. It was the most profound emotion she'd seen on anyone's visage. And the man--the power, the drive behind him, the tautness of every muscle--Helena licked her lips, wanting to know such feelings, such strength.
The woman wore the clothes of a tavern girl, scratchy dull wool. Her skin was rough too, but her red hair shone even in the dim light. The man had dark hair and the tanned skin of a sailor. Helena could almost picture herself as the woman, with a man driving himself between her own thighs.
Stifling a gasp, she backed away, just as the woman cried out to the heavenly father and scraped her nails down the sailor's back. The man seemed to convulse, thrusting harder with uneven but powerful strokes, until he collapsed against the woman, holding his weight up with a hand on the hull. A beatific smile graced the face of the woman as she held him to her, both of them gasping for breath.
Helena turned and ran, every image she had just seen burned across her memory. Her half-boots clattered against the wooden deck and she almost leapt toward the ladder, scurrying up into the daylight to escape all the feelings the dark whispered she should explore.
She tried to calm her breathing as the men above deck turned to stare at her. She was sure her brilliant blush would give away what she'd just been witness to, but no one dared speak of it as she sat upon a crate amidships and tried to look calm and collected.
Helena never expected to know passion. She wore her hair in severe, plain buns and donned spectacles when she could, all to look older than her twenty-two years. High-necked, plain gowns and heavy stays flattened her rebellious bosom. She went to her mother's enthusiastic, abolitionist church every Sunday and read the Bible when she had the time. She wanted to be an upstanding, guiding light to her brother, who had been deprived of the guidance of their dead mother and their ill father for most of his young life.
Perhaps, when Geoff was older and able to look after himself and Gracechurch Shipping, she might enter into a marriage with a widower who sought an old maid such as her. But Geoff was only twelve, and that was a long, long way away.
"Miss Gracechurch? The Captain can see you now." A young man bowed before her and she jumped slightly, having heard nothing of his approach.She tried to recover her wits and thank the mate before rising and walking toward the Captain's cabin. She gave a moment's thought to Geoffrey, but decided that he would be unlikely to get into trouble above decks--at least, less trouble than she'd got herself into below.
"Captain Saunders." He rose and she sat quickly in the chair opposite his worktable. "Please, Captain, you have known me for an age. Be seated and don't bother with the formalities."
He looked suddenly sad. "I know, Miss Gracechurch. I could not be more proud of you than if you were my own daughter. You do such a wonderful job for your father, and you are as beautiful and kind as your mother." Helena blushed at this, unused to such praise.
"Thank you, Captain. Those words from you mean a great deal to me."
"That said ma'am, I'm afraid that my leg is getting worse with each passing season. I do not think I will be of much use to you for much longer. I would like to retire ma'am. Your father has been very generous over the years, and I will be set up very well with my savings."
She nodded and gave a soft smile. It hurt, but she had known that this day would come. "We shall deeply miss you, Captain. Gracechurch Shipping will not be the same without you at the helm of the Grebe." It might be impolite to ask so soon, but she was at a loss." Do you have any ideas about a suitable replacement?"
He furrowed his wrinkled brow. "Unfortunately, Miss, my first mate is relatively new. A good man, but not one I would entrust a cargo to for a few years yet. Not when the seas are still unsettled after the war. Most of the captains I am well acquainted with are older, like me, veterans of the wars and ready to give up the siren song of the sea for a settled life."
She sighed. "Thank you for trying, Captain. I would appreciate any thoughts you have on the matter."
"I suggest you ask Mr. Saksville. The doctor is well respected in town and is well acquainted with most men of the nautical persuasion, as he's the best physician who'll see the likes of us." The Captain smiled ruefully.
Helena smiled back. Alan Saksville was a good friend of her father's and she'd known him since she was very small. So much that when younger she'd called him Uncle, and Geoff still did. He regularly checked on her father's progress and was one of the few people who knew and understood the dire situation of Gracechurch Shipping, given the frailty of Michael Gracechurch. He would be an immense help.
"Thank you so much, Captain. And I will miss you deeply."
"And I you, Miss Gracechurch. And the sea. I shall always miss the sea."