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England, nearly four years later …
Jack walked slowly off the gangplank of the Honor's Thunder, a simple valise hanging from one hand. The sailors glanced up to watch him pass, a few nodding respectfully, but none exchanged a single word with him. There was no reason for them to. He was not really the captain. A salty fellow with many more years at sea had that esteemed title. Nor was Jack truly the owner, although he would be someday. He was simply "milord," and only spoken to when necessary.
When he stepped at last upon the soil of England, where he had not walked for more than two years—or had it been three?—the ground seemed to lurch beneath his feet.
I have sea legs.
It would take a few days to regain his land legs, he recalled dully. Land legs. Eng-land legs.
Would that those legs could turn around and stride back onto the ship. He had not returned in a long time because he did not wish to. Even now, it was only a cryptic fragment of a letter from his old friend Aidan de Quincy, the Earl of Blankenship, that prompted Jack to leave the ship at all.
The letter had awaited Jack right here in the East India Docks of London, pinned up in the dockmaster's office in appalling condition. The man had handed it to Jack with an apologetic shrug. It was crumpled and so stained with seawater that the ink had run illegibly through most of the paper. If Jack had not recognized the signet pressed into the wax seal, he'd scarcely have been able to tell from whence it came. The letter looked as though it had followed him halfway around the world, only to await him at home.
When he'd unfolded the stiffened paper, only a few startling words had remained.
"Return at once" and "your [something unreadable] awaits you here" and last but most alarmingly "you cannot flee from her forever."
Aidan could not mean her. Not the woman who still kept Jack awake long into the night, standing alone on the deck of the ship while the stars hung almost close enough to touch. Not the woman whose soft sighs and sweet whispers still filled his ears, keeping him from hearing any inviting hints from other women.
It was impossible that Aidan meant her. Jack had never told anyone what had happened at the Clarkes' house party nearly four years ago and he was quite certain that the Clarke family themselves would never speak a word of it.
Yet even the slightest possibility had pulled Jack away from his numbing routine, had compelled him to step foot upon the chill, unwelcoming shores of England.
Damned bloody coldhearted England.
As Jack walked down the docks through the wisps of dawn fog, managing to counter his sea legs and maintain his dignity in this at least, he refused to see her in the mist. Those whorls of shimmering fog did not remind him of the sweet curves of her body in the moonlight. The color of the brightening sky did not bring to mind the cloudless blue of her eyes.
As he walked on and the hour grew later, the morning breeze did not make him recall the nearly black silk of her hair brushing over his skin as she trailed kisses down his body.
No, he would not think of her.
After all, he had not thought of her in years.
The door to Brown's was untended, standing open in the morning sunlight to reveal a dark rectangle of shadowy interior. Jack blinked slowly at it, more weary than he could recall being in a very long time. Numb and weary and damned bloody cold, yet here he stood, home again.
Brown's Club for Distinguished Gentlemen was the closest thing he had to a home. Some ancestor had been a founding member, and although the membership tended toward the silver haired and stick wielding, Jack had sponsored his friends so they could all enjoy the quiet surroundings and excellent service of Brown's.
The estate of Strickland, on the other hand, was a fearsome place and one to be avoided. It was large and luxurious and contained the one man whom Jack could never bear to face again. The old marquis was a fine man, a good and just master to his people.
It was Jack who counted as the villain there.
So in the brief time he'd still been able to stand England, he'd spent his days at Brown's, with the friends who still remained. Aidan and Sir Colin Lambert had walked by Jack's side as boys and stood with him still, though he lately returned their friendship with nothing but distance and silence.
The rented cab pulled away in a clatter of hooves and creaking wheels, leaving Jack standing on the walk, gazing up.
Go on. Walk in. Learn the meaning of the letter. Your ship has been instructed to wait for you. Once you know what it is that "awaits you here," you can simply turn around and leave again.
With feet that felt as leaden as in a bad dream, Jack climbed the steps and entered the open door.
In the entrance hall of Brown's stood a group of people. Jack hesitated at the door, his grip tightening on the handle of his valise. "People" meant strangers, and strangers had a disturbing tendency to speak to him, to ask him questions, to force him to search for sensible replies in the haunted corners of his mind. Even how do you do? became an impossible test—for he had not the assembled wit nor the will to lie, but the truth would only make them back away from him and look for the soonest possible excuse to leave the room.
Baggage lay piled just inside the door. Someone was arriving. Or leaving.
There's a coincidence. So am I. Arriving and leaving, as soon as possible.
Then Jack spotted a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark hair and blue eyes. Aidan. Jack next saw Colin's fairer head, only slightly shorter, and heard his teasing voice.
Two women, one dark haired, one fiery red, stood with Jack's friends. The women were both quite pretty, noticed a distant corner of his mind. Then, more slowly, the truth rose to the surface of his mind.
Women. In Brown's Club for Distinguished Gentlemen. Moreover, the women were most certainly attached to Aidan and Colin. Either that or someone really ought to slap Colin a good one, for his hand rested intimately low on the flame-haired woman's hip. The pretty brunette with the large brown eyes turned her limpid gaze adoringly on Aidan.
My, how things have changed. Go away for a few months—
Fine. Go away for a few years and the world turns on its head.
At that moment, the two couples moved slightly apart and Jack saw her.
Jiggling eagerly on little booted tiptoes, with her head tilted back so far that her tiny tricorne hat threatened to slide from her dark curls and her wide blue eyes bright and shining with excitement, was a beautiful child of perhaps three years. She was dressed rather improbably as a pirate, right down to a tiny wooden sword thrust into the belt of her striped trousers.
The sight of her struck Jack like a blow from a real sword, directly into his chest.
Though Jack made no sound or movement, the four adults noticed him at last. The dark woman stepped forward and began to speak, something about the child. It was simply noise lost in the roaring in Jack's mind. I know those eyes.
He held up a hand and they all went very still. "I know who she is." He dropped his valise and crossed the hall to go down on one knee in front of the little girl. "You look just like your mother," he said softly.
She pulled off her silly, adorable miniature eye patch and blinked her startlingly blue eyes at him. Then she reached out to stroke his thin face with her pudgy baby fingers. "You're Cap'n Jack."
It was as if Jack's heart began to beat again in that moment, hesitantly, rustily, then growing in strength and rhythm.
No one touched him. Ever. Even his friends satisfied themselves with a quick clap on the shoulder, and that only rarely. Her tiny fingers were sticky and scented with lemon cake crumbs.
Jack would not have drawn away for all the world. He remained motionless for her inspection. "And you are?"
She put her other hand on his face, framing his darkness with pink softness. "I'm Cap'n Melody."
Melody. Of course. Any other name simply wouldn't do. "Hello, Melody. I am your father."
Melody tilted her head and gazed at him for a long moment. "I like ships," she said finally. "Do you have a ship?"
He nodded again. "I have many ships." Somehow, her childish questions seemed perfectly simple to answer.
"Can I see them?"
"Certainly." Anything else? Shall I slay a dragon? Fight off the monsters under the bed? Glare at your
suitors until they shake in their boots? He stood and held out his hand. "I shall show you my flagship, the Honor's Thunder."
"All right." She took his hand and walked him to the door, then turned to wave at the assembled pairs of wide eyes. "I'm going to go see Papa's ship. Bye!"
Wilberforce, who seemed entirely unchanged by the passage of anything as feeble as mere years, helped Melody into her little coat, then opened the door for her and Jack, bowing silently as they passed from the club.
Outside, the afternoon had advanced. Jack blinked at the brightness of the day. When had the sky become so brilliantly blue?
He looked down at the tiny pirate by his side. She looked back up at him.
Blue, like a summer sky.
One night … one night that he could not erase from his mind, no matter how far he had sailed or how long he remained gone. One dazzling night of true unity before she'd tossed him aside to wed a richer man—
The former Amaryllis Clarke, now the Countess of Compton, was going to tender her explanations, and this time she was going to tell the truth.
"Papa! I can see the house! It's a big house!"
It was quite possible that no one in the world could be as excited as three-year-old Melody could be excited. She jumped on the sprung carriage seat. She hung from the window. She even forgot her rather loathsome rag doll for two consecutive minutes.
"Yes, Melody. The Earl of Compton has a very large house." Jack picked up his tiny daughter's doll from the floor of the carriage with two fingers and put it back on Melody's seat. Gordy Ann looked like a tatty cravat tied into knots and then dragged behind a mule team for a year or so.
Yet Melody's love for her knew no bounds. Jack could hardly complain, for that expansive circle of love now included him as well.
I rank somewhere after Gordy Ann and before berry trifle. Well, perhaps I am tied even with berry trifle.
It was an acceptable place to stand. After all, he was rather partial to berry trifle himself.
At least, he had been long ago when the world had consisted of colors other than gray and tastes other than sand.
Beside him, Melody bounced on the seat and sent him a gleeful look over her shoulder. "Papa, I can see the door!" Her big baby blue eyes sparkled.
Things were looking up. His world of gray now included the color blue.
They were her mother's eyes exactly. Eyes like summer sky, like blue topaz, like the egg of a robin. Amaryllis's eyes could tease and flash and twinkle, turning unwary fellows into brainless wax in her hands.
Moreover, those eyes could turn as cold as the shadows of a glacier, like the ones he'd seen in the north seas. Like the one he carried inside his chest.
Tiring of the unchanging view from the window, for they still drove slowly up the lengthy winding drive, Melody scrambled over to the other seat to fetch Gordy Ann and then returned to Jack. Without hesitation, Melody climbed into his lap and leaned contentedly against his chest. Looking down, Jack tried to decide if he ought to put his arm about her for safety. She looked secure enough, so he let her be.
Tirelessly affectionate, Melody was like a candle flame, trying to thaw that glacier inside him. Yet even a tiny thaw might become a summer, given time enough. He tucked his arm about her, just in case the carriage hit a pothole.
He was a little surprised that she wasn't intimidated by him. Most children were, as were most adults, now that he thought upon it. Melody, however, had simply adopted him as part of the strange and unlikely family of Brown's Club for Distinguished Gentlemen and had instantly accepted him as her very own papa.
He'd known she was his at once, for she looked exactly like the only woman he'd ever loved. Even without such a reference point, Melody had seemed to simply know him.
She called him Papa to his face and Cap'n Jack to everyone else. Melody was his child and his responsibility, yet over the last three days she had become something much, much more than that. Melody was the first person in a very long time to make him feel anything at all.
Which made him doubly furious that Amaryllis could abandon his child to halfhearted foster care and go on her merry way!
Anger was also something new to his gray world. Interesting thing, anger. Anger meant that he cared about something. Each new/old emotion unfolded before his numbed soul like a letter written by him but long forgotten. Familiar, yet entirely untried.
The carriage rolled to a smooth halt. Jack looked through the window to see a vast and luxurious house. His view was limited mostly to the semi-circle of costly marble steps that led to the richly carved front doors. A flurry of liveried grooms came forward to hold the horses and to open the carriage door.
Jack was unimpressed. Strickland was older but every bit as luxurious, with five times the estate of this place. Amaryllis had married well. She was a wealthy countess. If she'd waited a little, she could have been an obnoxiously rich marchioness, who might or might not deign to notice a mere wealthy countess.
Amaryllis had never been a patient sort.
Jack and Melody were admitted to the house at once and installed in an ostentatiously formal parlor. The room was so grand and gilded and dripping with crystal that the usually irrepressible Melody clung to Jack's leg and stuck a corner of Gordy Ann into her mouth, gazing about her with wide eyes.
Jack didn't sit. He remembered that much about anger. Anger was done better standing.
In an almost-but-not-quite-rude amount of time, the door opened and Amaryllis drifted in. tall and elegant, hair as dark as fine mink, eyes like cool blue pools. Perfect features, inviting figure, exacting fashion sense. Her gown was as black as a mourning gown, but the cut was perfection.
She was every bit as lovely as the last time he'd seen her, when she was furiously demanding that her father throw him from the house, but now her liveliness was replaced by a layer of acquired ennui.
She watched him closely for his reaction, though she pretended stylish lassitude. "Jack? Is that really you?
Excerpted from Scoundrel in My Dreams by Celeste Bradley.
Copyright © 2010 by Celeste Bradley.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.