“God help me! Gold help me! but they have died the death of men. Who knows what death the poor fellows in the boat have died!” – ‘The Piccaroon’ from Tom Cringle’s Log by Michael Scott.
Anastasia Steele stood facing her mirrored armoire with a feeling of utter despair. Fingering a rogue tendril of hair, she attempted to tuck it neatly into her hastily coiffed hairdo. It was of no use. She had already watched yet another tooth of her favorite bone comb fall to the patterned rug of her bedroom floor and she feared her ministrations were about to cause the loss of another one. The comb was an old favorite, ornately carved with intricate floral detail, a gift from her mother, reminder of better times and she could ill afford a replacement. Reflected in the mirror was her dearest friend and employer, Lady Katherine Kavanagh, who was currently sprawled in a rather unladylike fashion across Ana’s bed, scribbling with intensity into the pages of her journal. Upon a heavy sigh from Ana, Kate looked up to see her fighting to bring her errant curls under control.
“Honestly, Ana, it isn’t as though you are attending Almack’s. Here,” Kate tossed down her papers and stood swiftly, making her way around the bed to where Ana was barely containing her frustration, “let me.” Kate lifted Ana’s one ‘good’ bonnet from the stand on the dressing table and thrust it down upon her friend’s head. With a few quick twists and tucks, she had Ana’s heavy, dark waves carefully concealed by the navy blue brim. “There. Lovely.”
Kate turned Ana back to the mirror where, to her utter amazement, Ana found that she did at last look vaguely presentable. A few pinches of her pale cheeks to bring forth a rosy blush, combined with both the sky blue of her gown and the azure lining of her bonnet, brought out the lustrous violet blue of her eyes. By contrast, Kate’s peach skin tones and sea foam irises, remarkably framed by her obedient shining, gold locks, were complemented by the soft blushing pinks of her gown and hair ribbons. The two young women were quite the pair as they stood together facing the mirror. One fair with a graceful, confident allure, that some would describe as a classic beauty, the other dark and exotic, a mysterious mix of hidden passion and vulnerability. Their looks and demeanor were often commented upon by men and women alike, when they attended balls and soirees about London. Speculation was rife about their continued single status, neither young woman spoken for, nor were they particularly interested in the advances of prospective husbands. At 23, they were treated with respectful curiosity by the men and outright mistrust by young debutantes and their mamas. Young women who were avowed spinsters, and happy to continue from one season to the next, viewing proceedings from the shelf, should be unattractive at best and plain at worst. Neither Kate nor Ana could be described in such a manner so had become targets for scorn and mistrust. They did not particularly care for the high opinion of others, although they did not flaunt society. They were like-minded souls who were content with their lot in life, although Kate, by virtue of birth, was overly courted and fawned upon by the eligible bachelors of each successive season. While everyone was patently aware that The Honorable Miss Anastasia Steele was merely a paid companion with no expectations or titles of her own. Kate loved Ana as a sister, nonetheless, and was in no hurry to find herself a matrimonial match that might bring their current arrangement undone.
“Are you sure that you will be able to complete this task alone. The docks are no place for a female and I should never forgive myself if something were to happen to you.” Kate fussed a little as she assisted Ana into her walking jacket. Frowning as she brushed at the slightly worn fabric, Kate refrained from expressing her desire to purchase a new one for Ana. She knew her dear friend would never accept such charity.
“We have discussed this, Kate. If you did not have to call upon the Captain for this favor then you would not call upon him at all.” Ana watched as Kate’s eyes clouded with sadness and anger. Her friend hated that she had to ask anything of Captain Christian Grey and Ana did not blame her. His contribution to Kate’s current predicament was something not easily forgiven. However, their inquiries had all led to one result, that the only man in London who could help them was her arch nemesis and that left Kate with no other option.
“I still hate that you have to go anywhere near the man. I despise him and would not wish his presence on my worst enemy.” Kate had walked to the window, her arms hugged around her body, protectively. Ana crossed the room and wrapped her arms around her friend from behind. After a moment she felt some of the tension leave Kate’s body. Kate did not take her eyes from the view. “Just remember, if you meet any resistance, remind him how much he owes me. He will give me this favor and then…”
Ana waited, and hoped that somewhere in Kate’s heart there might be forgiveness. It was a vain hope.
“…then I never want to see or hear of Captain Grey again.”
At the bottom of the stairs Kate turned Ana to face her once more presuming to check her attire.
“You must go straight there and straight back. Do you have the note?” Ana nodded and held up her reticule where Kate’s letter was contained. So much depended on Ana gaining an audience and with it this favor. “Be careful, my dear, and… thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Ana kissed Kate’s cheeks before turning to walk out to the waiting carriage. Luke Sawyer, Kate’s coachman, groom and protective, loyal servant frowned at Ana as he handed her into the coach.
“I don’t like it, Miss.” Ana stopped on the step and turned to face him. This had been his mantra since Kate and Ana had discussed their plan with him. She placed a hand on his handsome face before settling into her seat. Luke had pulled the blinds down to give her privacy and protect her anonymity. Grateful, Ana found her entire journey to the wharves was filled with a curious mixture of anticipation and trepidation. As she got closer to her destination the feelings were amplified with the increased bustle of noise and the unseemly odours of rotting fish that assaulted her senses. Finally, she felt the vehicle came to a halt and, in the absence of a footman, waited for Luke to climb down and open the door to hand her out. As per their plan, the carriage had stopped in the merchant area some way back from the water and the wharves. It would do no good to have the Kavanagh crest appearing in parts of London that were less than salubrious.
“Are you sure about this, Miss?” Sawyer eyed her with some concern. He had enabled many unladylike trysts for Ana and Kate over the years, including midnight trips to Vauxhall Gardens to view the fireworks but he had argued vehemently with them about the wisdom of leaving Ana unattended on the wharf.
Ana looked at this servant who had become a friend many years ago. “Yes, I am sure. You must take the carriage back to the townhouse and I shall summon a hansom cab once I have completed my task.”
“Have you done what I asked of you, Miss?” He glanced furtively around, checking that no one was close enough to overhear his inquiry.
“Yes.” Ana fingered her locket, where she carried a copy of the missive that she would pass on to the right person if Captain Grey agreed to assist them.
“I don’t like it, Miss Ana. I don’t like it one little bit.” He repeated, his concerned eyes pleading with hers. She knew what he thought but she was going to do it anyway. She placed a reassuring hand on his arm.
“Luke, I will be fine. Now go.”
With a surly harrumph, Sawyer climbed back up into the drivers seat and encouraged his horses on, leaving Ana to negotiate her way down to the water to find her quarry. Taking care to blend into the shadows as much as she could, she kept her eyes focused down and slightly ahead, not engaging anyone on her journey. Her nerves were on high alert for pickpockets and footpads but she hoped that her plain attire would not mark her as a person who should not be here. Within a few minutes she had arrived at her destination and taking care to stand a few feet back from the dock, Ana peered up at the most magnificent ship she had ever seen. The Ruby Queen, with its sleek lines and tall masts, stood proudly amongst other boats that were moored at the docks, a testament to modern engineering. Ana was mesmerized by the panels of highly polished wood, the intricacies of hundreds of ropes, the crisp white canvas of the furled sails amongst the rigging and the sheer enormity of the vessel. She was beautiful and Ana felt at once impressed and intimidated. How could a captain of a ship like this be enticed to hear her out? Her insignificance was magnified as she approached the ramp.
“Here ducks. Where do you think you’re going?” An unruly group of women stood to the side of the gang plank, obviously plying their wares to any unemployed sailors. Ana was a little taken aback by the salaciousness of their attire and the casual nature of their address but then she was hardly an example of the upper classes. Her eyes immediately went to her own slightly worn although thoroughly serviceable boots peeping from underneath an equally as ugly but functional gown. The colors suited her well enough but they were not much better than those of the whores albeit they were cleaner and more carefully mended. No, she did not think that they were addressing her socially as one might a newcomer to the local parish. By the narrowing of hardened eyes and the toothless sneers, she understood that they were eyeing her as potential competition. Ana blushed furiously at the thought and rather than engage with the women, she turned her attention to one of the sailors who was descending the gangplank with a heavy hessian sack thrown over his shoulder.
“Excuse me, Sir. Could you tell me where I might find Captain Grey?” The sailor barely halted long enough to look her up and down before he turned and grunted in the general direction of the ship’s deck. Glancing up the narrow gangplank, Ana was at a loss as to what to do. She hesitated, placing one careful foot on the unsturdy looking wood as she reached a gloved hand to grasp the rope.
“If you’re looking for Captain Christian, he’s in his quarters, on board the ship. When ye get yerself aboard ask for Mr Taylor, the first mate. He’ll see ye right.” One of the more sympathetic looking women in the group, who may have held the traces of an attractive face beneath the grime, called out to her. Ana gazed back, a little confused at having found an unlikely ally. The woman smiled but the warmth didn’t quite reach her eyes. At least she had all of her teeth. Ana tried to make her return smile a little more genuine before starting her ascent of the slanted boards. “Oh, and tell the Captain, that Miss Andrea is ready and waiting to give him what he needs. You tell him that I’ll give ‘im a spit and polish, lovey.”
The other women clutched their stomachs, cackling with laughter as Ana pondered her words. Surely the crew would clean the Captain’s rooms and boots. There would be no need of a woman’s services on board a ship except for…oh! Ana paused at the top of the gangway and looked back down at the women who were thumping each other on the back with hilarity. Blushing furiously she collided with a solid body and had to step back a little to see his face.
“May I help you, Madam?” The stern look and fierce eyes almost had Ana scurrying back down the gangplank and Kate’s mission bedamned. Then the giant of a man smiled at her in a kindly way and she knew that she had to at least try to see the captain. This man, clearly was not the captain. He wore a stern black dress coat of sturdy wool and dark gray breeches to match. He had the demeanor of a man who could take charge, there was no doubt about that. But he was eyeing her in a way that stated an assessment of worth, not a dismissal. With this man she still had a chance.
Sucking up all the courage she could Ana stood her ground and lifted her chin. “To whom am I speaking, Sir?” As formal introductions went, this one would have to do and she could see that he knew they should not be talking at all. However, she had stumbled on board his ship so she was not quite sure of the proper protocol. Barreling on with a semblance of authority and purpose seemed to be the right approach. Even if one felt neither purposeful nor authoritative.
“Mr Taylor, M’am. First mate. And you have stepped aboard the HMS Ruby Queen, finest vessel in the King’s waters.” Mr Taylor doffed his cap and bowed rather formally to her. Ana was at first a little awestruck but then quickly recovered enough to bob a little curtsy. “Now, how may I be of service?”
“I have come to see Captain Grey on a matter of great importance.”
“And you are…?” His natural inclination to lean forward to hear her answer did not fill Ana with much confidence. His height and demeanor were already intimidating enough without adding proximity into the mix.
“Miss Anastasia Steele.” Trying to remain defiantly confident, Ana straightened herself as tall as she could. It really didn’t help.
“And what makes you think the Captain will see you?” There was a twinkle in the man’s eye as if he felt that her sudden show of gumption was a cause for mirth. She didn’t much like that he might be making fun of her but she did so like the warmth of his smile. And he did speak and act like a gentleman, which gave her some hope.
“I have a missive for him from my employer, Lady Katherine Kavanagh.” Mr Taylor quirked a surprised eyebrow. He so very clearly recognized Kate’s name, so that would be a good thing, would it not? Ana resisted the urge to cross her fingers behind her back.
“Well, a missive sounds awfully important, m’lady. Perhaps you should come this way.” Ana found the chuckle in Mr Taylor’s voice rather reassuring, if a little condescending. A quick glance around indicated that a few onlookers were mildly interested in her progress aboard the ship. At this point, Ana was more concerned about ensuring that she left the vessel in a timely fashion and in one piece. Just as she was about to follow Mr Taylor, she noticed a black carriage arriving down on the dock. There was something familiar about the crest but she could not quite make it out at this distance. She did, however, notice the flick of the carriage blind. Mr Taylor had arrived at a set of doors to the rear of the ship and had turned to wave her through. His cough caught Ana’s attention and she hurried to join him, casting one last look at the carriage before she passed through the doors.
As they descended the narrow stairs into the bowels of the ship, Ana found herself eager to note her escape route. The problem with remaining vigilante in this way, was that any sense of grace and decorum she might have presented to the world were lost the instant that she stumbled at the bottom of the stairs and had to be supported by her guide. Righting herself quickly she pulled away from his touch, an almost haughty expression on her face. Once more he chuckled, turning to amble ahead of her, down the long, dark, narrow corridor. That chuckle just might earn Mr Taylor a kick on the shin, Ana thought. He glanced over his shoulder at her as if he had heard her thoughts and she couldn’t help but giggle. In spite of herself, she found she rather liked Mr Taylor.
Halting in front of two ornately carved doors, Mr Taylor’s face became very serious. He straightened his jacket before knocking with the back of his hand. The resonant sound on the highly polished wood denoted quality and Ana’s hopes that the Captain might be a man of some refinement were raised. Given the purpose of her mission here, she did not much like her chances of success but a little hope would go a long way in opening negotiations with some confidence.
“Come.” A very masculine voice barked from the other side of the closed doors. Goodness, so much force in one small syllable.
“Captain, Sir. A Miss Anastasia Steele.” The glare from the Captain caused Ana to step back into the shadows out of his sight. Goodness me, this man is even more intimidating than his second in command. There were no more reassuring glances from Mr Taylor as he cleared his throat a little before continuing, “Companion to Lady Katherine Kavanagh.”
The Captain, who had been furiously concentrated in his writing, paused at the mention of Kate’s name. Leaning back in his chair, the Captain studied Mr Taylor for a moment, then he replaced his quill into the inkwell on his rather expansive desk in a slow deliberate movement. Ana watched the path of his hand through the air, quite mesmerized by the control he seemed to be exercising, as if he was restraining his own impulse to hit something, perhaps a wall, rather hard. She swallowed. This did not bode well.
“I see. Bring her in, Taylor.” In a flash of optimistic brilliance, Ana saw her chance to take control of the situation and with a bravado she didn’t completely feel, she strolled determinedly past Taylor into the middle of the Captain’s cabin. However, once she arrived there she saw the error of her ways as the Captain stood slowly from his chair. From his rather large chair that was housed behind an even larger desk, that stood across from an enormous four poster bed. All of this reflected the extremely large man who was now striding around to meet her with some purpose making Ana feel quite dwarfed in his presence. “Lady Anastasia.”
“Miss Steele.” She immediately corrected. His hand paused and then extended again and she almost thought twice before placing her small gloved hand in his. In spite of his mistake, he raised her hand to his lips and pressed a chaste kiss. She could swear she felt the heat of his lips through the fabric before she snatched her hand back. His grim expression gave very little away.
“My apologies, Miss Steele. You have me at a loss. I would have expected Lady Katherine. Why has she sent you, in her stead?” Tipping his dark head to one side as he cast an appraising glance, Captain Grey had the hard look of a man who had seen far too many campaigns. Only when Ana chanced a peek up into his cool gray eyes did she see that he was in fact, a much younger man than she had expected. Surely this could not be the Captain Grey of whom she had heard so much.
“Lady Katherine is indisposed and has sent me with a …request.” Ana tugged at her reticule, struggling with shaking fingers to prise it open. Finally, she was able to wrest the parchment from the purse and she thrust the small folded note at the Captain. Raising one meticulously arched brow he reached to take it with what Ana could only think of as long and beautiful fingers. So mesmerized was she, that she almost forgot to release the note into his care.
Her embarrassment was palpable, as Captain Grey looked over her shoulder at Mr Taylor and gave the briefest of nods. When Ana heard the doors close, she understood that her self-appointed guardian had been dismissed and suddenly she no longer felt safe. No, not safe at all. The Captain waved her to a plain wooden seat without a word as he crossed to his own chair to read, enlisting the assistance of a small hurricane lamp. Ana perched on the edge of the chair, her hands primly clasped on her lap and glanced around the room once more. Apart from the overly large furniture, the room was quite sparse and incredibly… clean. Her mother would be impressed. Her mother would be attempting to marry her off… or worse. She thought it best not to consider the embarrassment that might ensue if her mother knew she was meeting in private with the great Captain Grey.
The tapping of his fingers on the table as he read played on her nerves. The longer he took to read, the more her chances of holding whatever reputation she had once presumed to preserve, diminished. Ana was quite sure the Captain was well aware of that fact. He probably relished it. However, given the nature of her mission, he would understand why Kate had felt compelled to send Ana in her stead, she was sure. Unaccompanied or not, the fate of Kate’s brother was in his hands and it was vital that no one should know that she was here.
“Are you aware of the contents of this note, Miss Steele?” The depth of his tone rumbled through the floor, startling Ana out of her reverie. She inhaled a sharp breath when she felt her nether regions spontaneously clench at his voice. Mortified at her own response, Ana frowned.
“Yes, Sir.” Kate had dictated the note to Ana late last night after they had returned from the ball. Kate, was exhausted and fretful over yet another round of fending off eager suitors. Some of their propositions had been quite unsettling, even ludicrous. It seemed that in the years since her parents had died the wolves had been circling in ever-diminishing circles and now the only person who could keep them at bay was at the mercy of the Captain’s good graces. In short, Kate needed Captain Grey’s rather notorious expertise to extricate her brother from France, post-haste.
“So you are aware that Lady Katherine has requested a favor?” Ana held his gaze as best she could. There was little that she didn’t know about the predicament in which her friend currently found herself. She was also patently aware that Captain Christian Grey, although from a fine family, was in fact a bastard son and presumed to act like one. Young ladies, engaged in matrimonial pursuits from season to season, were mystified at the seldom seen Captain, often romanticising his existence beyond belief. Ana tried not to listen too closely but they had cast him as variously a master swordsman, a government spy and a cutthroat pirate king. Sitting here opposite the man, Ana could see why he aroused such speculation and she made a mental note that they had omitted ‘mythological god’ from their lists.
“Captain Grey, I have full knowledge of the request that Lady Katherine has made. It is her fervent wish that you should present yourself and your…friend…to her at your parents’ masque two days hence. Once you have formally introduced her then she will no longer be in need of your services.”
“And what makes her so confident that I can fulfill this request?” He crossed his thick arms across his body as he watched her with a considering gaze. He was beautiful in his stillness but like the calm waters of a tidal sea, Ana sensed that there were hidden and menacing undercurrents. To her horror, she found that rather than be afraid, as she should, she found him deeply attractive. This said very little about her taste in men.
“We have it on good authority that you can.” Their primary source had been quite adamant that the only person who could fulfill Kate’s request was Captain Grey. If there had been any other choice, then Ana would not be here.
“Why did Lady Kavanagh not come herself?” A dark and vulnerable look washed over his face, something that Ana almost mistook for remorse. Only Captain Grey, the great Captain Grey, had little use for remorse.
“I should think it would be obvious. She has her reputation to consider.”
“Yet, you have no qualms about your own reputation. You must be a very dedicated friend. My apologies, paid companion, am I correct?” His question was uttered with such complete disdain that Ana felt the need to refrain from visibly showing the shudder that went through her spine. She had the feeling that if he sensed weakness, he would pounce on it. Once more she lifted herself bodily, seeking to find her own inner strength. His opinion of her status caused enough anger to give her confidence.
“It is honorable work for a woman of my station.” Keeping her voice as level as possible Ana refused to demure to his accusations. Yet, the intensity of his gaze caused her to cast her eyes downward. She bit back the retort she so desperately wanted to offer and in doing so almost drew blood from her lower lip.
Across the room she heard a hiss, as if the Captain were in pain. Quickly raising her eyes she saw that he had indeed leaned back, his arms braced in tension on the arms of his chair.
“Please don’t do that.”
“Do what, Sir?” At once, he was out of his seat and moved to a position in front of her. Grasping her elbows, he lifted her from her chair and Ana was sure that, for reasons she could not quite grasp, the Captain was about to toss her unceremoniously from his cabin. She gave a small unbidden whimper of surprise and bit down harder on her lip as tears of humiliation at her impending failure pooled in her large blue eyes.
“Why did Lady Katherine not come today?”
“But, Sir, her reputation…”
“I am well aware of the tenuous hold Kate has on her reputation, Miss Steele.” And there it was. The moment that Ana first knew that her heart had simultaneously engaged and been trodden on. The Captain had called her friend, Kate and Ana knew without hesitation that he held a tendre for her. Most men did. She blushed at her own disappointment. Of course, a man as compelling as Captain Christian Grey, belonged with someone like Lady Katherine Kavanagh. Only, Kate would not entertain a second thought for Christian Grey, unless it was to see him buried six feet underground. To say that she hated him with a passion would have been an understatement.
“You were sent to tempt me, Miss Steele and I feel compelled to send a message back to your employer that it will not work.” Ana’s focus, so recently on his highly polished boots, now shifted immediately back to his face. What on earth was he talking about?
“Truly, Sir, I do not know what I have done. Pray tell me and I shall ensure that it shall never happen again.” Christian eased his hold enough to have her off balance and Ana had to place her hands on his chest to steady herself. The rock hard form beneath her palms shocked her and she looked down at her fingers, unsure that they were hers at all. Her full bottom lip sneaked beneath her teeth for a third time as she tried in vain to control the molten sensations coursing through her body. She had been held by men in ballrooms before but as a lady of limited means and dancing ability, never this close. She suddenly understood why young ladies who had completed a turn about the floor in a waltz felt compelled to swoon.
Christian for his part had a feeling that he had lost complete control of both this meeting and his faculties. He had specific knowledge of the predicament that Lady Katherine Kavanagh now found herself in and he had not been averse to being of assistance if asked. In fact, he had been quietly affecting his assistance for years even without her request. Now, however, he wondered if that was not a folly. Instead, of the feisty and tenacious Lady Katherine of his childhood, he was faced with her rather plain and wholesome companion, who by rights, should not have incurred any response in him. However, when he looked past her rather dowdy attire he saw a young woman of such beauty and allure that she stole his breath. For whatever reason, Miss Anastasia Steele, chose to hide behind her true self behind this plain facade. He had once seen her in Kate’s company, across a crowded ballroom. He had thought her exquisite then, but not for him. Yet, here she was, on his ship, in his cabin, in his arms, her beautiful face aghast at his actions, confused at his words and he wanted nothing more than to kiss those lips that she insisted on mistreating.
Holding her more gently now, he could not explain why he felt so drawn to her. Her eyes were large deep violet blue orbs that peered at him from beneath thick, dark lashes. The dusting of liquid at the corners spoke of unshed tears, the pink tinge to her pale skin announced her embarrassment for sins she did not understand. She was small in his arms and he leaned closer to breathe in her unique scent. Lily and rosewater with a hint of cinnamon. As he did, her succulent lips parted in perfect supplication, the temptation too much for any red-blooded man to resist. Closer, and agonizingly closer, her eyes closing in anticipation. It would take a second to taste her. Just once.
This could not happen. He pushed her away from him and resisted reaching out to steady her as she stumbled. Turning away from her he clasped his hands behind his back. “Please leave.”
His expectation was that she would do as she was told. To his surprise there was no movement behind him although he could sense her breathing. Perhaps, he had pushed too hard after all and she was quite without the wherewithal to take her leave. A quick glance over his shoulder was all he would allow himself, to check that the poor woman hadn’t in fact ended up in a puddle on the floor. What he saw floored him.
Miss Anastasia Steele obviously didn’t do humiliation and certainly not for a man like him. Oh, she could be polite and demure with the best of the well-heeled ladies of her class but she would not allow him to make her feel any less than her station. So when Christian chanced to glance at her, Ana was standing arms akimbo, working up a full head of steam. This he had not expected.
“Captain Grey. Your family association with Lady Katherine goes back generations. I understand that you might feel that it is not your responsibility to assist us in any way but I implore you to show some heart.”
Her supposition that he, the bastard son of the Duke of Carrick, should do anything based on familial obligation was flawed. And he would tell her so, as soon as he felt able to turn around and face her without completely embarrassing himself. Breathing deeply, while her little foot tapped out a military tattoo on the floor, allowed him some space to bring himself under control. Eventually he turned to face her.
“Miss Steele. Familial obligation is exactly what I am trying my level best to avoid. I will assist Lady Katherine out of a sense of duty to her brother, my friend. If you or she had bothered to ask that particular question, you would know that my ship is being readied to sail in less than a week’s time to France where I hope to extricate Lord Kavanagh from the Parisian prison in which he resides, myself. As to my wish to see you gone. Do not think for a moment that I don’t know that my mother is behind your visit here today. I will not be maneuvered by you nor she, madam.”
“Your mother? What does your mother have to do with any of this? Neither Lady Katherine nor I have seen Her Grace in months?”
Christian threw caution to the wind and stepped closer to the little fireball who stood so enticingly before him. The longer she stayed in his presence, the closer he came to throwing her on his bed and his mother could be damned. The look in Ana’s eyes told him that she really did not know why she had been sent here. With cause to reassess, he flexed his fingers at his sides. If she was lying, she was very good at it and he would not hesitate to punish her. However, if she was telling the truth, then his mother had become more manipulative than he had ever imagined. A strategic retreat was called for.
“Be that as it may, Miss Steele, I will assume guilt until innocence is proved. Please tell Lady Katherine that I will attend her prior to the Ruby Queen’s departure. This will most likely take place without much warning, that is unavoidable. The likelihood of my presence at Her Grace’s masque is minimal but…” Anastasia Steele had opened her pretty little mouth to argue with him and he held a finger to her lips. Once more he found himself mere moments from kissing her, her siren’s lure stronger than any other he had experienced in his life. The thought of holding her close again, in a waltz or a tryst, was a very strong temptation. One to which he would not succumb, for her sake and his, “…I will do what I can to arrange a meeting with Captain Blackheart.”
When he released her, Ana stumbled backward with relief. She did not like the chances of Kate agreeing to receive him on any given day in the foreseeable future. But he had just promised her what she came for. A meeting with the pirate captain of the Black Diamond, Captain Blackheart. The informant who had brought them their best lead to date for locating Ethan, had been insistent that Blackheart was the only person who could effect a rescue. Now, after six years of waiting, it seemed that they were closer than ever to bringing him home. The tears of relief threatened.
“Taylor will see you out.” He heard her move and as an afterthought added, “I presume that you have a carriage and a companion outside this door, Miss Steele.” A statement, not a question.
Mr Taylor stepped into the room upon the mention of his name. How odd? “No, sir, Miss Steele arrived on foot. I presume that she will need some assistance to return from whence she came, safely. Our mutual friend is on the dock as we speak.” A message had just been passed between the two men that Ana did not understand but the Captain let out a slight muffled curse.
Christian felt his anger rise quickly. If Ana had been sent to try him, then she was doing it rather well. When he glanced at her, he noticed how still she stood, a lady of great expectation. Then it dawned on him what Taylor was saying. That she had come alone. The Lady Katherine of his youth was a risk taker and a rebel but even in the midst of her most heinous schemes, she would never allow herself to be caught in an unladylike position. The fact that she would allow it now for someone for whom she held great love and admiration, indicated that Kate was not the woman that her family would have wanted her to become. It was up to him to protect Miss Steele, and there was no doubt that every bone in his body wanted to do just that. He strode over to a closet in the corner of the room.
“Summon the carriage, Taylor.” Ana, who seemed unsure of what to do, turned to follow Taylor as he retreated from the room. “Not you, Miss Steele. You wait here.”
His tone brooked no argument but he was quite sure she would argue just for sheer sport.
“I am quite capable of getting myself home in one piece, Captain Grey.” She had such a sharp retort and he wondered if she ever thought before speaking her mind. Clearly not.
“This is not a subject for discussion, Miss Steele.” He threw his great coat around his shoulders, shrugging it on with speed. Snapping up his walking stick, he stalked back to where she stood, ready to give him another verbal slapping. She was tiresome, and beautiful, and she totally confounded all of his good sense. More than that, he found he was intensely angered by her actions in coming here today. Unreasonably so. In fact, he didn’t trust himself alone with her right at this moment but he would not chance her taking any more foolhardy risks once she left his presence. “I shall escort you home myself.”
“I shall escort you home myself.”