ALEXANDER Montgomery leaned back in the chair and stretched his long, lean legs across the carpeted floor of the captain’s quarters of The Grand Duchess and watched Nicholas Ivanovitch berate one of the servants. Alex had never seen anyone with quite as much arrogance as this Russian.
“I’ll have your head if you misplace my buckles a second time,” Nick said with his heavy accent and husky voice.
Alex wondered if in Russia grand dukes were still allowed to behead people who displeased them.
“Go now. Out of my sight,” Nick said as he waved a lace-encased wrist toward the cowering servant. “You see what I have to bear,” he said to Alex as soon as they were alone in the cabin.
“It’s a great deal, yes, I can see that,” Alex agreed.
Nicholas raised one eyebrow at his friend, then looked back at the charts spread across the table. “We’ll be docking about a hundred and fifty miles south of this Warbrooke of yours. Think someone will be willing to take you north?”
“I’ll manage,” Alex said nonchalantly, putting his hands behind his head and stretching even more, his long body taking up most of the cabin space. Long ago he’d schooled his handsome face to conceal what he was thinking. Nicholas knew some of what his friend was feeling, but Alex didn’t allow anyone to see the depth of his concern.
Months ago, while Alex was in Italy, he’d received a letter from his sister Marianna begging him to come home. She had said that he was desperately needed. She had told Alex what their father had forbidden her to tell: that he, Sayer Montgomery, had been badly injured in an accident aboard a ship and his legs had been crushed. They hadn’t expected him to live, but he had and he was confined to his bed now, a cripple.
Marianna had gone on to say that she had married an Englishman, the customs inspector for the little town of Warbrooke, and he was…She hadn’t gone into detail of what her husband was doing, probably because she was caught between loyalty to her husband and loyalty to her family and the townspeople she’d known all her life. But Alex could sense that there was much that she wasn’t telling him.
She’d given the letter to one of the many seamen in Warbrooke and hoped that it would reach Alex and that he could come home. Alex had received the letter soon after he’d docked in Italy. The schooner he’d sailed out of Warbrooke on over four years ago had gone down three weeks before and he’d been waiting on Italy’s sunny coast, not trying very hard to find another position as ship’s officer.
It was in Italy that he’d met Nicholas Ivanovitch. Nick’s family in Russia was first cousins with the tzarina, and Nick expected people the world over to be aware of this fact and to treat him with the awe and subservience that he thought his position gave him.
Alex had stepped in and saved Nick’s thick neck from a gang of roving sailors who didn’t like what Nick had said about them. Alex had pulled his sword, tossed it to Nick, and then drawn two knives, one for each hand, from his belt. Together the two men had fought back.
It had taken them an hour, and when they were finished, they were covered with blood, their clothes were in shreds, but they were friends. Alexander was treated to the Russian hospitality that was as generous as the Russian arrogance. Nick took Alex aboard his private ship, a lugger, a ship that was so fast that it was illegal in most countries since it could outrun anything on the seas. But no one bothered the Russian aristocracy since they followed no laws but their own.
Alex settled down on the opulent ship and for a couple of days enjoyed being waited on, his every wish anticipated, his every wish fulfilled by the army of cowering servants that Nick had brought with him from Russia.
“We’re not like this in America,” Alex had told Nick after his fifth mug of ale. He talked of the independence of Americans, of their ability to create their own country from a wilderness. “We’ve fought the French, the Indians, we’ve fought all the world and we’ve won!” The more he drank, the more he rhapsodized about the glories of America. After he and Nick had put away most of a keg of ale, Nick brought out a clear liquid he called vodka and they started on that. Say nothing else about the Russians, Alex thought, they can drink with the best of them.
It was the next morning, when Alex’s head was splitting and his mouth tasted as if he’d just licked the bottom of a ship clean, that the letter arrived. Nick was topside, taking his bellyache out on his cringing servants, when Elias Downey asked permission to come aboard and talk to Alexander. Nick was diverted from his shouting and complaining long enough to escort the man downstairs—he was dying of curiosity to hear what this man’s message of great importance was.
Alex merely rolled his eyes when Nick poured three glasses of vodka and set them on the table.
Alex ignored the roaring in his head as he listened to the tales Elias had to tell about what was happening in Warbrooke. He scanned the letter from his sister, but there was much that she’d not told him.
“That man she married is evil. He steals from all of us,” Elias was saying. “He took Josiah’s ship from him, said he thought there was contraband on it. He done it all legal and proper like, weren’t nothin’ any of us could do to stop him. If Josiah could come up with sixty pounds, he could sue your brother-in-law to get his ship back. That ship was all that Josiah had in the world and now he ain’t even got that.”
“What did my father do?” Alex asked, leaning forward. “I can’t imagine him letting his son-in-law take a man’s ship.”
Elias’s eyelids were beginning to droop with the effects of Nick’s vodka. “Sayer ain’t got no legs. They might as well have been cut off. He just stays in bed. Nobody expected him to live but he did—if you can call that livin’. He lays in bed, won’t even hardly eat nothin’. Eleanor Taggert runs the place.”
“Taggert!” Alex scoffed. “They still live in that backwater shack, still trying to control those damned kids of theirs?”
“James went down with his ship a couple of years ago and Nancy died havin’ the last young one. A few of the boys shipped out, but there’s enough of ’em left behind. Eleanor works for your father and Jess runs a boat around the harbor. They keep the family eatin’. Of course, you know the Taggerts, they won’t take charity from nobody. That Jess, she’s somethin’. She’s the only one that’ll stand up to your brother-in-law. ’Course it ain’t as if the Taggerts have anything to lose by standin’ up to him. They don’t own nothin’ that anybody’d want.”
Alex exchanged smiles with Elias. The Taggerts were the town joke. They were used as contrast to everyone’s bad luck. No matter what happened to you, you could always look at the Taggerts and see somebody worse off than you were. They were poorer than anyone else, and dirtier—and they covered their misery with pride.
“Is Jessica still as hot tempered as she always was?” Alex murmured, smiling at the memory of a scrawny, dirty-faced brat who, for some reason he had never understood, had singled him out to make his life miserable. “She must be about twenty now, right?”
“There abouts.” Elias’s eyes were beginning to close.
“And still not married?”
“Nobody wants them kids,” Elias said, his voice beginning to slur. “You ain’t seen Jess in a long time. She’s changed.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” Alex said just as Elias’s head slumped forward onto his chest and he fell asleep. Alex looked up at Nick. “I’ll have to go back and see what this is about. Marianna asks me to come home and help them. I doubt if it’s as bad as they make it seem. My father has always believed the town of Warbrooke to be his personal little fiefdom and now he’s having to share the authority with someone else and he doesn’t like it. And if one of those Taggerts is sticking his nose in it and stirring up trouble, it’s no wonder there’s a commotion. I’ll go back and see what it is. I heard of a ship leaving for America in about six weeks’ time. Maybe the captain doesn’t have his crew yet.”
Nick tossed back the last of the vodka. “I’ll take you. My parents wanted me to see America and I have cousins there. I’ll take you to this town of yours and you can see what is going on. A son should obey his father.”
Alex smiled at Nick and didn’t show how concerned he was about his father’s injury. He couldn’t imagine his big, loud, demanding father being an invalid confined to bed. “All right,” Alex said. “I’ll be happy to go with you.”
That had been weeks ago, and now they were within hours of docking and Alex was looking forward to seeing his homeland again.
* * *
The town of New Sussex was booming with business. There was the noise of the ships docking, of people shouting and hawking wares, of arguments. And there were the odors of dead fish and unwashed people, mixed with clean, pure sea air.
Nick stretched his big body and yawned, the sun reflecting off the gold embroidery of his jacket. “You are welcome to stay with my cousin. He has nothing much to do and he will be glad of the diversion of you.”
“Thanks just the same but I think I’ll start home,” Alex answered. “I’m anxious to see my father again and to see what mischief my sister has gotten herself into.”
They parted at the dock, Alex carrying only one bag across his shoulder. First he planned to purchase a horse and then a new suit of clothes. Everything he owned had gone down in Italy and after he’d met Nick, he’d worn nothing but the comfortable, baggy pants and shirt of seaman’s gear.
“Here! Watch that!” a British soldier, one of a group of six, yelled at Alex. “Scum like you should look out for your betters.”
Alex had no time to defend himself before one of the men pushed him from behind. The bag Alex carried fell forward just as the soldier pushed him again. Alex fell face down into the dirt, his ears ringing with laughter as he spit out dirt and debris.
He was on his feet in seconds and starting for the group of soldiers who’d already turned their backs when a strong hand stopped him. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”
Alex was so angry that at first he couldn’t focus on the sailor beside him.
“They have the right, and you’ll only get into more trouble if you go after them.”
“What do you mean they have the right?” Alex said through his teeth. Now that he was upright, his senses were returning to him. There were six of them and one of him.
“They’re soldiers of His Majesty and they have every right to do what they want. You’ll get yourself thrown in jail if you fool with the likes of them.” When Alex made no reply, the sailor shrugged and kept on walking.
Alex, after a moment of glaring at the soldiers’ backs, reshouldered his bag and kept walking. He tried to return his thoughts to clean clothes and a good horse between his legs.
As he passed a tavern, he caught a whiff of fish chowder and realized he was hungry. Within minutes, he was seated at a dirty table and eating savory stew from a deep wooden bowl, remembering meals with Nick. They had eaten with gold utensils off porcelain plates so thin they were transparent.
He wasn’t prepared when he felt the sharp tip of a sword at his throat. He looked up to see the same soldier who’d pushed him into the dirt moments before.
“So here is our little sailor again,” the man taunted. “I thought you’d be long gone by now.” The young soldier’s face changed from teasing to serious. “Get up. This is our table.”
Alex’s hands moved slowly toward the underside of the table. He didn’t have a weapon on him, but he had skill and speed. Before the soldiers knew what was happening, Alex sent the table toward them, knocking the first man down and landing so heavily on his leg that he screamed in pain. The other five attacked Alex at once.
He managed to knock two of them out, then grabbed the handle of the heavy pot hanging over the fire. It burned his hands, but it also burned the entire midsection of the man he tossed it to. He was just about to bring a chair down on the head of the fifth man when the innkeeper hit Alex over the head with a tankard.
Alex sank to the floor gracefully.
* * *
A bucket of cold, dirty water was splashed on Alex’s face, and he came to painfully. His head was roaring and it was difficult to open his eyes. Based upon the smell of the place, he was sure he was in hell.
“Get up. You’re free,” came a gruff voice as Alex tried to sit up. He managed to open one eye but closed it again against the dazzle.
“Alex,” came a voice he recognized as being Nick’s. “I came to get you out of this filthy place, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to carry you. Get up and follow me.”
The dazzle had been the several pounds of gold embroidery on Nick’s uniform. Alex realized his friend was wearing one of the several uniforms he used whenever he wanted something from someone. Nick had said that people the world over were impressed with the gaudiness of the Russian uniforms and it got him what he wanted. Alex also knew that Nick wasn’t about to dirty that uniform by giving his friend a hand.
In spite of the fact that Alex’s head was about to fall off his shoulders, he managed to hold it on and stand up. He was beginning to see that he was in a jail, a filthy place with ancient straw on the stone floor and heaven knew what in the corners. The wall he touched was cold and slimy and the slime coated his hands.
Somehow, he managed to follow Nick’s perfectly straight back out of the building and into the fading daylight. A magnificent carriage and equally magnificent horses awaited them. One of Nick’s servants helped Alex into the carriage.
Alex was hardly seated when Nick began raging at him.
“Did you know that they planned to hang you in the morning?” he growled. “I only heard about you by chance. Some old sailor saw you get off my ship and then get knocked around by those soldiers. He saw you kick the table over on one of them. Did you know you broke his leg? He may lose it. And you burned one of them and a third one still hasn’t waked up after you bashed him. Alex, a person in your station in life can’t do that sort of thing.”
Alex raised an eyebrow at that statement. No doubt Nick, in his station in life, would have every right to do what he pleased.
Alex leaned back against the seat and looked out the window while Nick continued to tell him that he couldn’t do what he’d done. While Nick was talking, Alex saw an English soldier grab a young girl’s arm and pull her behind a building.
“Stop here,” Alex said.
Nick, who had seen what Alex had, refused to have the driver stop the carriage and when Alex tried to get out anyway, Nick pushed him fo...
Biographie de l'auteur
Jude Deveraux is the author of more than forty New York Times bestsellers, including Moonlight in the Morning, The Scent of Jasmine, Scarlet Nights, Days of Gold, Lavender Morning, Return to Summerhouse, and Secrets. To date, there are more than sixty million copies of her books in print worldwide. To learn more, visit JudeDeveraux.com.
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