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by Cara Elliott

Lamplight pooled over the rough-planked tavern table, the tiny flicker of oily flame stirring a fresh wave of briny smells. Dead mackerel, decaying seaweed . . . along with several pungent odors that Sophie Thirkell did not care to identify.

Breathing shallowly through her mouth, she leaned into the glow and flashed a sweet smile. “Please, sir. It’s a matter of utmost importance that I reach London by Christmas.”

The grizzled figure seated across from her scratched at his salt-streaked beard, dislodging a shower of silvery fish scales. “Oiy, I wud of course like te help a damsel in distress. But . . .” His gaze strayed to the plump leather purse lying tantalizing close to his mug of ale. “But yer gentlemun friend makes an awfully compelling case fer his own needs.”

A poor choice of words, to put it mildly.

Scowling, Sophie slanted a look at Bentley, Lord Leete. Despite the sudden Atlantic gale—a storm so violent that it had broken the mainmast of her father’s merchant ship, forcing the captain to seek refuge in this remote Cornish cove—their aristocratic English passenger managed to look perfectly poised and polished in the raggle-taggle surroundings.

Or rather, perfectly irritating and infuriating.

The raging seas had swept away the schooner’s gig and jollyboat, and the tiny fishing village had only one small sailing craft that the inhabitants were willing to sell to the stranded travelers. Despite his fancy title, the odious viscount was being extremely ungentlemanly about the situation.

“Oh, fie—where is your sense of noblesse oblige, sir?” she demanded. “I thought all you highborn lords were supposed to have a sense of chivalry.”

“I’m afraid my personal feelings must be submerged in favor of my country’s needs, Miss Thirkell,” replied Bentley primly. Paying her no further heed, he turned back to the village elder. “As I said, Mr. Pengareth, I am a diplomat with the Foreign Office returning from an important mission in America. So much as I sympathize with the young lady’s desire to celebrate the holidays in Town, I cannot help but insist that my request take precedence.”
“Request—ha!” muttered Sophie bitterly. “It’s your coins that speak with a golden eloquence.”

“It is not my fault that your captain’s sea chest was lost in the storm,” said Bentley. Unfortunately, the iron-banded box containing her father’s money had been moved to the jollyboat when the schooner was in danger of drifting onto the rocks, so it, too, had been washed overboard, leaving her with naught but a pocketful of pennies.

“Be reasonable, Miss Thirkell,” went on Bentley. “I have a highly confidential report to deliver to Whitehall regarding negotiations between our two countries, and it must arrive in time for s special council meeting scheduled to take place on the evening of December 25th. In light of such circumstances, don’t you think that you are being a bit childish to grouse over missing a Christmas goose dinner with all the trimmings?”

Sophie bit her lip to keep from uttering a very unladylike word in retort. His assumption was unfair and untrue, but somehow the elegant, effortlessly assured Lord Leete had the uncanny ability to make her feel like a scrubby little hellfire hoyden.

This wasn’t the first time they had met. The viscount had been in Boston for several months prior to embarking on the fateful ocean voyage, and as her father, a wealthy merchant who one of the city’s leading citizens, often entertained foreign diplomats with lavish suppers and fancy balls, the two of them had sailed in the same social circle.

And the waters had always turned choppy whenever the currents brought them together.

“Were my concerns merely centered around my stomach, you would have cause to rake me over the coals, sir, she responded. “However, they are not. I, too, have been delegated to deliver an important package. And while it may not have the same international repercussions as your mission, it is . . . it is . . .”

Arching an imperious brow, Bentley waited for her to go on.
Sophie hitched in another breath of the foul-smelling air, blinking back the sting of salt against her lids. “It is very important to me and my family, no matter that we make up a very tiny, insignificant part of your diplomatic world.”

For an instant a ripple of emotion seemed to darken is his gaze, but then he looked away and the curl of his gold-tipped lashes hid his eyes.

Pengareth blew out a regretful sigh. “Well, missy, I get yer drift, and yer story of kith and kin touches my heart.” He thumped a callused fist to his chest to emphasize the avowal. “But alas, a boat costs money.”

“Which I haven’t got,” she said softly.

The fisherman twitched a silent shrug of sympathy but his eyes remained riveted on the viscount’s purse.

“Then I assume the matter is settled,” said Bentley. He spoke in a low tone, but to Sophie’s ears, his words seemed to take on an insufferable thrum of arrogance as they echoed off the tap room walls.

Gathering her skirts, Sophie turned for the door with an angry swoosh of silk.
Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.

“Just one last question, Lord Leete.” She paused and looked back over her shoulder. “Who is going to sail your newly-purchased vessel for you?”
The wavering flame caught a flutter of surprise flitting over his features. “Er . . .”

He could hem and haw all he wanted, thought Sophie. But no amount of fancy talking was going to change the fact that he was a complete landlubber. Indeed, during the ocean voyage, it had become abundantly clear that he didn’t know a hawser from a ratline. While she, on the other hand, had been around her father’s fleet of sailing ships all her life.

“I . . .” Bentley gave another a small cough to clear his throat. “Why, it’s very simple. I shall hire one of the Bulldog’s crewmen.”

“One of my father’s crewmen?” said Sophie. It was her turn to waggle a brow. “Oh, I highly doubt that Captain Brewster can be convinced to spare any of his prime hands.”

“But—” squeaked Bentley, for once losing his air of calm composure. However he quickly inhaled a steadying breath, and reassumed a self-assured smile. “Never mind. I am sure that Mr. Pengareth can recommend a local man who will gladly sail my boat for a handsome fee.”

“All the way to Lunnon?” The fisherman make it sound as if the city were located on the newly discovered planet of Uranus. After carefully counting out the coins in the purse, he shook his head. “Besides, ye’ve only got enough here te cover the price of boat.”

“I promise you that the man will be paid in full as soon as we reach our destination.” A pause. “Along with a extra bonus for the Holidays.”

Sophie gave an audible sniff.

“One can’t eat promises,” pointed out Pengareth. “Nay, ye won’t be finding anyone in this cove willing to abandon his nets on the word of a fancy stranger. Not with French privateers and the pesky Revenue cutters adding extra waves to the treacherous Channel waters.”

Despite the shadows swirling in the salty air, Sophie saw the tic of a tiny muscle mar the smoothly shaven line of the viscount’s jaw. “My good man, I assure you my word is gold.” A rustling of cloth and oilskin rose above the sound of slurped ale. “Look, I have proof that I am a diplomat, engaged in an extremely important mission for the Crown.”

Pengareth squinted at the document thrust under his nose.

“See, here are my official credentials from the Foreign Office,” added Bentley, tapping a finger to the ornate wax seal and crimson ribbon attached to the paper, just below the elegant lines of copperplate script.

“I have a feeling that Mr. Pengareth can’t read,” murmured Sophie. “Which leaves you stranded in these isolated waters.” She paused to let her words sink in. “That is, unless you care to negotiate.”

“What do you have in mind?” he asked through clenched teeth.

“A compromise.” Her mouth curled up at the corners. “Isn’t that an essential element of diplomacy, sir?”

A faint ridge of color rose to his cheekbones. “One of them,” he said tightly. “However the key to a successful compromise also includes the ability to work in harmony with each other. I, for one, always look to forge a partnership with someone who understands the importance of prudence and restraint. A predilection for bold, brash behavior is likely to lead to trouble.”

Sophie kept her smile pasted in place, though in truth his words cut like a knife. He was right to chide her for being a rebel against the strictures governing female deportment . . . but why, oh why, did he always seem to bring out the worst in her? From the very first awkward encounter, when she had splashed claret punch on his immaculate ivory-colored waistcoat while displaying a knife trick, to the horribly embarrassing moment when—

“Well?” he asked, breaking the stiff silence. “What is it that you propose?”

“You have the boat, and I have the skills to sail it,” replied Sophie. She might be outspoken and independent to a fault, but no one had ever criticized her nautical expertise. “So, seeing as we both wish to reach London by Christmas, I am suggesting that we pool our resources, as it were.”

A low hiss of air leaked from his lips. “Impossible! What you suggest is highly irregular—not to speak of highly improper. We can’t travel together unchaperoned. Why, your reputation would be ruined. And so,” he added grimly,  “would mine.”

“You can either stick to your rigid English rules and remain marooned here in . . . in . . .”

“Penpillickentish Bay,” piped up the fisherman.

“Or you can throw caution to the wind,” challenged Sophie. “Which is your only prayer of dropping anchor in the River Thames by December 25th.”

Ebb and flow.
The sound of the waves slapping against the stone jetty drifted in through the slatted shutters. The wind howled, its keening note thrumming with the echo of his earlier words.

Trouble, trouble, trouble.

“So, what’s it going to be, Lord Leete?”