A low appreciative whistle, the sort any woman-loving male makes when he’s sees a pretty lass cut across the air.
Alex Haddon may be the Warrior’s captain but he moved like every other member of the crew to the bulwark. Oliver was right at his heels. A group of his men had already gathered there. They moved aside to make room for their captain.
Nor was the Warrior the only ship to take notice. Up and the down the wharf, men were lining up along the dock and gathering along their ships’ rails and looking toward the merchantman that had thwarted Alex’s meeting with Esteves. Apparently many knew what they were waiting for. Several climbed rigging wanting a better look and the air vibrated with excitement.
Alex had never seen the like. He craned his neck and noticed a knot of ships’ officers and merchants gathering at the foot of the merchantman’s gangway. This woman must be something special to produce so much interest.
The crowd of gentlemen parted. A woman of some thirty years wearing a green dress and matching bonnet stepped forward on a gentleman’s arm.
Alex frowned, disappointed. The woman was comely enough but not worth so much attention—and then, a woman holding a parasol appeared, making her way down the gangway. He couldn’t see beneath her face but his gaze was riveted by the trimmest of ankles in silk stockings he’d seen in some time.
Here was something definitely worth his time.
Her face was blocked by that blasted parasol, but what he could see, he liked. The breeze off the water teased the gauzy white muslin hem of dress. It pressed the thin material to her form, revealing long shapely legs, feminine hips, a sweetly indented waist, and curve of breasts. Beautiful, luscious breasts.
She had the body of a goddess and there wasn’t a man on the pier who wasn’t ready to fall to his knees in front of her.
“Blue,” Oliver said decisively.
“Blue what?” Jon Bowen, the sailor beside him, asked.
“Her eyes,” Oliver answered.
“What makes you think that?” Jon countered. “She could have brown eyes and hair as black as a raven’s. I like dark hair galies.”
“Look at the color of the ribbons trimming her dress and parasol,” Oliver said. “Women always chose their trimin’s to match their eyes. She’s got eyes so blue a man could swim in them. I can tell you that without even seeing them.”
“I’ll bet you a quid they’re brown,” Jon answered.
“Done,” Oliver agreed, “but you are wasting your money.”
His boast and the wager upped the ante for the Warrior’s crew. Almost all of them were gathered there, all straining to be the first to see her eyes.
Refusing the numerous arms offered to her for assistance, the beauty stepped off the gangway and daintily began picking her way past the barrels and crates, masts and spars piled along the dock. Her growing coterie of admirers trailed after them like lapdogs—and amongst them saw the elusive Esteves. The portly pilot was doing everything under his power to get under the parasol with the girl.
The sight of the pilot brought Alex’s head back to business. Damn the man. He’d fobbed off the Warrior for the merchantman because of a woman.
Alex leaned over the railing. “Esteves! I want a word with you.”
His voice of command carried in the salt air. The hapless Esteves, a silver-haired fellow with a black goatee and mustache, looked around in confusion as did everyone else.
“Up here, Esteves,” Alex said.
“Look up here, look up here,” Oliver quietly commanded the Beauty, a plea shared by his shipmates. “We just want one look at your lovely eyes–”
The parasol tilted back. There was a brief glimpse of a blue velvet cap trimmed in feathers and blonde curls as radiant as the sun. Alex dismissed the unexpected sense of familiarity. She wouldn’t be here. There was no way such a thing were possible. His mind played tricks.
Instead, he said in a voice commanding the attention of everyone on the wharves, “Yes, you , Esteves. I want to talk to you.”
At that moment, Diego pushed his way through the crowd, apparently finally finding his uncle. He tugged on Esteves’s arm, and pointed in Alex’s direction.
Everyone in the crowd looked up to where Alex stood on the Warrior’s deck , including the Beauty.
“They are blue!” Oliver declared in triumphant. His mates leaned closer to have a better look
But Alex didn’t move. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Blue eyes, blonde hair, full, ripe lips . . . a determined chin. He’d never forget the stubborn tilt of that chin—
He broke off his thoughts with a shake of his head. I t couldn’t be. There was no possibility—
Oliver heaved a mighty sigh of longing. “She’d fit right well under a man’s arm,” he said wistfully, speaking for the crew.
“And in other places, too,” Jon added slyly, a comment to which everyone else guffawed agreement, save for Alex. He knew exactly how well she’d fit in “other” places. He knew the feel of her skin, the scent of her hair, the weight of her breasts.
Oh, yes, she fit in other places very well.
Alex practically fell back from the bulkhead, suddenly anxious that she not see him. What the devil was Miranda Cameron doing the Azores of all places on earth dressed in muslins and lace and with shoes on her feet? He couldn’t believe it.
What he could believe is that she was being eaten up alive by the hungry gazes of every man in this port.
Over the years, he’d been asked why he’d never married. Oh, he flirted with women. He enjoyed them, but he would not marry and the reason was standing down there on that dock.
Alex returned to the ship’s railing with a frown. Miranda was listening to something a gentleman to her left was saying. She was completely unaware of his presence on the deck of the ship not far from her. There had been a time when they’d been so close they could sense each other’s presence–
“Is there something wrong, Captain?” Oliver asked.
Alex looked at him blankly, forgetting for a moment where he was. He brought himself back to the present. “Nothing’s wrong.” The past could stay where it was. He didn’t need her—had never needed her.
Of course, Miranda appeared as if she hadn’t needed him either. It had been ten years since they’d parted and they appeared to have been prosperous ones for her.
But then, wasn’t that just the way women were? They were like cats, always landing on their feet and equally as selfish. Certainly, the French woman who had convinced his father to desert his country and son and turn traitor had not thought of anyone but herself. Even his own mother had abandoned him, leaving him with his British father and returning to her people. There, she’d found a new man and started another family.
So, why did Alex want to believe Miranda Cameron was different? Why, against all logic, did he feel such a sense of betrayal?
Because he’d wanted to believe she was different —
“Captain?” Oliver repeated.
Alex started. He turned to see his men staring at him as if he had gone daft. He wondered what expression shown on his face and realized he was squeezing the railing of the ship so tightly his knuckles were white.
He tried to relax, feeling completely disconnected to anything that had mattered or had been of importance moments ago. Miranda and her entourage had reached the ebony painted bow of the Warrior.
She closed her parasol.
Alex braced himself. The moment was at hand. She had only to look up and she would see him—and then Esteves commanded her attention, begging to have the honor of carrying her parasol.
Immediately the other men surrounding her offered their services as well. Miranda played coy a moment. She made a great pretense of choosing the gentleman to have the honor before handing the parasol to the pilot, smiling her appreciation.
No one had a smile like Miranda Cameron. Its force was kindred to the sun bursting out behind the clouds after a storm. It filled a man with its warmth and assured him anything was possible. Anything.
Oliver, Jon, even Flat Nose and Vijay were caught by surprise by the force of that smile. Up and down the dock, men sighed in collective admiration.
“Her eyes are blue as the deepest sapphires,” Vijay said in a romantic burst Alex had not thought possible of him.. “Blue as the depths of the Great Sea .”
“Yes,” Alex agreed sourly, thoroughly disgusted by the power Miranda wielded effortlessly over men. “Or as blue as the back of biting flies.”
His crew heard him. Their heads whipped around in shock. He met their gazes with an innocent one of his own. After enduring their stares for several seconds, he said, “What? It’s a poetic term.”
Jon scratched his chin. “Poets compare women’s eyes to flies?”
“Some do,” Alex answered and couldn’t help adding, “If they are wise.”
“Now we know why you are single,” Oliver muttered.
“That isn’t the only reason,” Alex answered. The main one stood on the pier right down there in front of him.
He braced his hands against the railing. In the back of his mind, he realized he’d always known their paths would cross again someday. He just hadn’t expected it to be this one.
Nor had he anticipated the emotional impact he’d have at seeing her again. He didn’t like it. Not one bit.
Esteves holding the parasol looked for all the world to see like a silly old man. Miranda and her chaperone continued their promenade.
She’d not looked up. Had not seen Alex.
It was just as well. He had no desire to be part of the growing mob of men following her. He preferred to watch in disdain as grizzly old seamen, anxious to pay court, hurried from their ships dressed in their ruffles and lace. Some of their finery was a size too small, most of it out of fashion, and all of it was wrinkled from being packed away in sea trunks. They, like Esteves, were making bloody fools of themselves and Alex felt immensely superior that he wasn’t one of their number.
A riot could have broken out when a local merchant elbowed another out of the way while trying to gain Miranda’s attention. However, at that moment, a dinghy from the warship hit the dock with a bump and three officers clambered up to the pier, pushing on their bosun’s head for balance. They were young, vital men in full dress with gleaming gold braid on their lapels. They were following by a man moving at a more sedate pace. By the gold braid on his shoulders, he was no less a person that the captain of the ship—and his sights were set on Miranda.
Alex watched as the King’s men neatly elbowed Esteves and the others out of the way. Introductions were made. Miranda’s companion appeared ready to swoon over the honor of meeting the British commander. The pilot now looked silly holding the lace parasol, and Alex couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him.
Miranda said something and the British commander laughed as if she were the cleverest of creatures, a sound echoed by his junior offices. Their laughter made the scars on Alex’s back prickle. He rarely thought of those scars but at this moment, they felt as they had when the cuts were fresh and the pain alive.
There had been a time when he’d laughed at her jokes, too, and had confessed his secrets. A time he’d made a perfect ass of himself–
He turned away from the railing, shutting his mind to the memories. “We are we doing standing around here gawking,” he barked to his men. “We’re leaving on morning tide. You have stores to lay in and that rigging on the top gallant begs to be repaired.”
Flat Nose immediately turned to go about his business but the others were more reluctant to lose sight of Miranda. Even Oliver.
Well, Alex knew the duplicity of character hiding behind that pretty face. “Do you need an invitation to work?” he asked.
His crew came to their senses. They knew that tone in is voice. It was one not to be ignored.
They hopped to, and Alex meant to join them. Hard work was exactly what he needed to take his mind off Miranda.
But as he headed toward the quarterdeck, a new thought struck him and he stopped.
Why should he be the one to run away?
Besides, he did have some questions. What had she been up to these past years? Would she remember him if he were to place himself directly in front of her?
More importantly–had she married? Was there someone else in her life? Children she’d borne to another man?
She certainly appeared prosperous now and that had not been how he’d left Veral Cameron’s daughter.
Before he could reason it out, Alex turned and started down the gangway, heading for Miranda.