The Caroline

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A challenge.

Caroline was not one to refuse such a dare and had always been too ready to be led into trouble as a girl when such a challenge had been thrown at her—daring her to climb a tree; throw a rock at a wasps’ nest; or just to dare to get rid even some of her clothes to go swimming—but she knew that she was safe with this man; at least she thought she was. Men were not always predictable. She moved closer to him along the chaise. It was dark enough that he would see very little of her in his nightshirt, despite it being as loose upon her as it was, and too big, though it was often not what was seen that was the temptation for any man but that his mind would elevate of what was not seen into a greater temptation by being hidden from view. She was not worried. She felt him change his position as she moved closer to him, and he even leaned a little into her for a moment as he changed the position of a cushion and perhaps smelled at her hair. He was mischievous. She felt him take the gun and the key from her hands and put them on the table beside him. She really was defenseless now but did not care.

“You are lucky that I heard you coming along the corridor. I guessed that it was you. I saw my curtains blow in a little as you opened your door and heard those other boards squeak. You had certainly not mounted those stairs, or I would have heard that, and so would everyone else. The other guests are already settled for the night. One of the steps near the top of the stairs, squeaks very loudly, and will be easily heard if anyone else tries to get to us that way.” She had heard that noise for herself as they had mounted it from the dining room and as others had retired earlier. “You are certainly more vulnerable here away from the boat and those who are protecting you there; at least that is the way I meant it to appear to others with us at opposite sides of the hotel. You would have been safe in my room, you know.” Safer than here, if she made any more suggestions like the one she had made about changing out of his nightshirt even if it was dark. It was not that dark.

“I know, but I came here to keep you company and because I was concerned for you. What would happen if you fell asleep?” He liked to hear that. “I could not sleep, thinking of the risk you were running for me. No one saw me come down here—I made sure of that—and I did lock your door.” She sat beside him seemingly intending to wait with him. “How long must we wait?”

“Until they come or until morning. It might be a long wait. You would have been wiser to have stayed where you were safe rather than lose a night’s sleep.”

“I am safe here with you. I could not sleep, and I could not rest knowing that you were here and risking your life to protect me yet again. If they come, what then?”

“Then, hopefully, we will be able to avoid too much violence, and we’ll find out who they are and what they intend. But we must remain very quiet or speak even more softly.”

“I understand.” She moved closer to him, beginning to feel his warmth. “I am not at all sleepy, and I want to talk. We didn’t talk very much on the Osprey, although we did sit and talk of an evening on the Caroline and during some of the meals. Even after that night that I was . . . attacked, we said very little that was important, though I know that we both thought a great deal about what had happened.” She waited to see if he would say anything to add to that, but he didn’t. “I think I would like to know more about you.” That artless comment took him by surprise. “If it would not shock you. After all, we have spent a lot of time together, and you did save my life, I think; and we spent a most pleasant afternoon together, as well as being here now as we are.”

“Why this sudden wish to know more about me? I thought Mrs. Bainbridge might have told you everything worth knowing about me.”

“Not everything. I asked because of . . . I am a woman, and I cannot help but be interested. We seem to be very much alike, you and I. I think if we had not met, that we would both have kept ourselves very much to ourselves. I suspect that you are like me and have difficulty letting other people get close to you [Mrs. Bainbridge had hinted as much], probably for the same reasons. We are both shy with strangers.” He said nothing. He felt he should let her do all the talking she wanted to do, and he would just listen. It was pleasant to listen to her. It was also safer for him. There had been few women in his life for far too long. “I have learned to be self-sufficient and independent in the last few years. It was a good lesson in some ways but not what I had expected might be my lot in life, but I did not expect to be greeted by violence when I returned, either.” He felt her change her position as she turned to look at him in the darkness. “Did I thank you for what you did both in Liverpool and the other night? I cannot remember. If I didn’t, I do apologize. I can sometimes be forgetful that way. I know I should have done.”

“You did thank me, Miss Henstridge.” She didn’t take him to task for not using her first name.

“You must also forgive me for chattering on. I tend to want to talk too much when I get nervous.” He made a slightly disbelieving sound.

“Are you nervous now? I thought I was the only one who was nervous. I hope you are not nervous about you and I being here together like this, as we are, and alone.” She hesitated but could not deny it.

“A little. I have not been alone with a man like this and never with him in his bedroom nor with me dressed so lightly, but I am more nervous at the thought that someone might try to come in here to do you harm.” He realized that she really was concerned for him, and concerned enough to override her nervousness and embarrassment.

“It is your bedroom. You also have every right to be nervous. You should be. I think I am too.” She might have difficulty believing that, but it seemed not. He had told her that twice, now. “In my life, I tend not to make friends easily. I am forever on the move, and I am unused to the company of women.” It had not seemed that way when she had seen him with that young Creole woman.

“So Mrs. Bainbridge told me, and so do I—have difficulty making friends—but you are still master of your own fate, where I may not be, of mine, at this moment. It is still a man’s world and it can be challenging to be a woman in it. After all, you altered your plans on some whim or other about heading off to Gibraltar, so she said, and came across to New Orleans instead; and now you are heading upriver. Something must have caused you to change your mind. Can you tell me about it?” She sensed that he was listening to something outside of the room, and fell quiet but then also saw him relax. She began to breathe again.

“Am I speaking too loudly?” She sounded concerned.

“Perhaps. Sounds travel farther at night and are more easily heard.”

“Then I shall sit closer to you.” He saw her stand up, bring his nightshirt closer about herself, and felt her move even closer to him, not at all as shy or as remote as she should be, considering where they were and how she was dressed.

That might be dangerous.” She was not exactly sure what he meant by that.

“What might be dangerous?” Telling me about what changed your plans or . . . or my being closer to you so that we might speak?” He sensed the uncertainty in her voice but did not immediately answer her question, but she felt she might know. She was behaving recklessly and should not be where she was. His nightshirt was obviously too large for her, and even in that dim light he could see that it did not cover all of her quite as she would have liked at the neck, where it was rather loose, and had a tendency to drift open as she moved. It was dark enough that she knew she did not need to worry about that so much, but also recognized that she had behaved recklessly in coming to keep him company as she had. She began to move away until she felt his arm gently go across her shoulder as he pulled her closer in against him.

“No. There is no need to rush off, Miss Henstridge. I would value your company.” She did not pull away but sat and waited to see what else he might do or say. It was fortunate that the night was not brighter than it was, or he would notice more of her than was decent, sitting as she was.

He had several opportunities to take advantage of her, had he been that kind of a man, back at her hotel in Liverpool as she had packed her bags in the small room she had unwisely booked that same morning. There had been another moment, as he had watched her with interest on board the Osprey in that cabin—his cabin, she knew that now—with that flimsy little bolt as he had put her things down. Then just today, they had been miles into the countryside, alone, some hours earlier; and he had not taken advantage of her or become familiar with her as other men had tried to do in a similar situation. It had nothing to do with her being armed as she had turned her gun over to him for safe keeping during that ride just as he had it now.

It became easier to believe Mrs. Bainbridge’s comments about any number of women wishing to capture him. It was not surprising. He was interesting, handsome even, despite that scar on his forehead, and he was intelligent as well as wealthy and offered more security for them than most of them might ever know in their precarious and uncertain lives. It would be easy for a woman who saw little future in her own difficult existence to give herself to him, to trap him, and to persuade herself that she loved him, if it might achieve what she wanted. Too many marriages were like that—marriages of desperation and convenience, which turned out to be most inconvenient and uncomfortable once the first euphoric moments had passed, and you began to find out what kind of a strange, moody, unpredictable creature you had tied yourself to. She was not thinking of just the man. Women were no better. No matter, it would always be better than dying a lonely and poor spinster, as she had feared, and still feared might be her own fate. She put those thoughts aside and concentrated upon what he had said.

“It doesn’t feel dangerous, even though I know that I am not adequately dressed.” He sensed that her feelings were hurt. “However, if it offends you or you feel that my being here is awkward or embarrassing for you or that I am behaving entirely improperly—as I think I possibly am—by my being here, then just say so and I shall remove myself.” She sounded quite hurt what he might think of her and tried to move away, even just a little. She felt his hand gently touch her arm to hold her steady again as his other pulled her a little closer to him. She did not feel threatened by his action but just relaxed, thankful that his response had been to hold her there.

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