From "Chapter One"
She was free.
The irony of the thought made Alexandria smile. Here she stood, in the unprotected shadows of night, amid the deserted warehouses of London's unsavory docks. She was totally alone but for a relentless dream and a well thought out plan to guide her. Yet she felt no fear, only exhilaration. She had waited long enough. It was time.
She inched her way through the narrow path between the buildings and paused to listen. Instinct told her it was safe. Cautiously she stepped out into the inky blackness. The March night was cold and gloomier than usual due to the heavy fog that clung to the wharf and hid the Thames from view. But Alexandria could feel the river's presence. She had a sixth sense for the water; a born sailor, her father had once grudgingly admitted. Of course, sailing in a sheltered cove off the English Channel was quite different from sailing the ocean in a storm. But then, the weather was the captain's concern, not hers. All she had to worry about was getting to the ship. The ship that, according to the answers to her discreet questions, would be departing at daybreak.
Alexandria stretched her cramped limbs. She had stood pressed against that blasted brick warehouse wall since four o'clock when the gatekeeper officially closed the docks for the day. Hardly daring to breathe, she had heard the sounds of the busy wharf subside -- the hoists and winches ceasing to unload cargo, the workers filing out, jovial at day's end. At last all had grown quiet. But still she'd dared not move; not until she could be concealed by darkness. Until now. It had seemed an eternity.
The pungent smell of beer accosted her, together with a burst of raucous laughter that caused Alexandria to start. But it was only the sailors who frequented the numerous alehouses along the docks, celebrating their last night of freedom before taking to the sea. Soon the intoxicated revelers began to sing a cheerful bawdy tune in exuberant though slightly off-key voices. Alexandria grinned. There was no danger here. The men were too deep in their cups to notice her. Unless, of course, they mistook her for one of their doxies, she thought with a troubled frown.
Another howl of laughter sent her scurrying along. The blood pulsed through her veins faster and faster. A delicate apparition in the night, Alexandria looked anything but a doxy. Her muslin gown was of a rich Devonshire brown, its simple skirts rustling about her ankles with each rapid step of her slippered feet. To avoid tripping, she stilled the movement by clutching the soft folds between her nervous fingers. Although she possessed an innate regal carriage and grace that bespoke noble birth, Alexandria was aware that soon she would be transformed from a well-bred miss to an outcast of the haut ton.
Pushing these thoughts aside, she moved silently over the wooden boards of the dock.
She could make out the dim outlines of the ships now, their wooden hulls bobbing and tugging to be set free. But the powerful hawsers that bound them securely to the dock were stubborn and would not relent. The tall masts, bare and waiting for their sails to be hoisted, towered above the decks and were but vague shadows in the murky sky. Waves lapped gently at the shoreline, their caressing motion causing the ships to sway slowly from side to side.
Alexandria slowed, caught her breath, and paused before each ship. She squinted, studying the carefully lettered names one by one. It was difficult to make out the words, so dense was the fog. Thus far it had served in her favor. Now she found herself fervently hoping it would lift by morning, else she'd be going nowhere and all her scheming would have been for naught.
At the end of the dock she found her mark and caught her breath in wonder. The ship was more splendid than she had ever imagined, sleek and powerful, the words La Belle Illusion boldly printed on its impressive bow. Compared to Alexandria's small skiff, The Sea Spray, on which she did her own covert exploring, La Belle Illusion was positively grand.
Tearing her gaze from the vessel, she glanced furtively left, then right. The night was still but for an occasional shout of laughter from far away. Triumphant, the taste of victory on her tongue, she hurried up the ramp and onto the ship.
She was just releasing her breath when she saw the man. He sat on the deck, directly in her path. Obviously he was here to guard the ship against trespassers. Her heart sank to her feet. How could she have been so stupid?
She was trapped. Trapped. Frantically her eyes searched for safety. Any place where she could hide. But there was no escape. Her plan had failed.
Tears wet her lashes as she imagined what fate would await her at home. Her mother would suffer an immediate attack of the vapors. Upon recovering, she would deliver lectures and accusations, resulting in more stringent chaperoning and a more structured life.
Worst of all, it would mean a Season of introductions aimed toward a loveless, empty marriage to a cold, uncaring nobleman. Life was already intolerable. Alexandria couldn't bear for it to be more so.
She stepped forward, prepared to beg. Perhaps the man would take pity on her, allow her to escape and find other means of arriving at her destination.
"Sir..." The word was barely a whisper. The man gave no response. "Sir?" she murmured, a bit more audibly. He responded with a loud snore.
Alexandria couldn't help herself; she began to giggle. It was all so preposterous, and her nerves were taut to the breaking point. The poor man was out cold, his head sagging on his shoulder, an empty bottle lying beside him. Hardly a fearsome adversary. She said a silent prayer. The fates continued to smile down upon her.
Sweeping past the ineffective sentry, Alexandria hurried to the stern of the ship, then down the cramped stairway. Here she hesitated. Which door to try? She put her ear to the widest one, listening intently. No sound came from within. She reached out hesitantly, pressed the handle, and pushed the door open.
In the darkness she could barely make out the outline of a desk and a trunk in one corner and a narrow bed in another. The bed caught her eye. Perfect! Quietly closing the door behind her, Alexandria hastened across the room and slid beneath the neatly made berth. She offered herself hearty congratulations on the excellent choice of a hiding place.
Judging from the sparse contents of the room, she hoped this cabin would be unoccupied during the voyage. It would serve her well.
As she settled herself on the hard floor, prepared for a long and uncomfortable night, Alexandria smiled.
Her new life had begun.
She was free at last.
"Off on another adventure, are we?" The caustic words received no immediate reaction from the powerful, virile man who strode down the seemingly endless marble hallway of the mansion. Ignoring the butler's attempt to assist him, he flung open the heavy door and glanced toward the waiting carriage. Assured that all was ready for his departure, Drake Barrett turned cold green eyes to address his younger brother's mocking comment.
"You were well aware of my intention to sail today, Sebastian," was the icy reply.
The slighter, thinner man considered his brother's response. "I suppose I should be used to your comings and goings by now, Drake. Tell me, does Father know you are leaving today?"
Drake leaned against the open doorway, a humorless smile on his face. "Of course."
"Then I need not ask what sort of mood I will find him in. We both know how he feels about his beloved elder son, Marquis of Cairnharn and heir apparent, pursuing his less than acceptable activities, now, don't we?"
Drake folded his arms across his broad chest. "I'm sure you will do your best to comfort him, Sebastian. You always do."
Sebastian gave him an innocent look. "Well, someone has to be here to look after him. After all, his health is not what it used to be. "
"Yes, I know. So try to remember that and spend less time gambling at White's and more time at home."
"Is this touching concern all for Father, or is it for Samantha?" Sebastian asked shrewdly, his cool blue eyes watching Drake's face.
Drake frowned at the mention of his sister's name. "Sebastian, she's just a child. Yes, I worry about her. When I'm away, you are the only one here to look after her. "
Sebastian gave a derisive laugh, turning away. "We both know how little comfort she takes in my presence, Drake. As far as our little sister is concerned, the sun rises and sets on you."
Before Drake could respond, a tall, slender young girl flew into the room and flung her arms about his waist.
"Drake! Were you planning to leave without saying goodbye?" she asked, her voice quavering, her soft green eyes brimming with tears.
Drake's hard expression softened as he stroked the sable hair back from her lovely, anxious face.
"Of course not, Sammy," he soothed gently. "I was planning to go to the stables and search for you. I have never left without seeing you first, have I?"
She shook her head, a worried pucker forming between her brows. "You will be careful? You will come home safely?"
"Yes and yes." He laughed, giving her a hard hug. "And I expect you to behave yourself while I am away. Is that understood?"
She nodded, wiping her eyes. "Just come home soon...please?" "As soon as I can," he promised, squeezing her hands. He glanced over her head and met his brother's cold stare. "I need to talk to Sebastian before I leave, little one. Why don't you go for your ride now? I'll be home before you have time to miss me."
With a pang of guilt he watched Samantha go, then turned toward Sebastian. "As soon as I reach Canada, deliver the supplies to York, and load the timber for our shipbuilding company, I will return."
"That will take months. Aren't you concerned about the fate of Allonshire during your absence?" Sebastian's voice was laced with sarcasm.
"Allonshire is quiet during the Season. If Father were...