This Duchess of Mine Page 8

Elijah looked. The last hulk had no redcoats on the deck. It wasn’t thronged with marauding prisoners either, though.

“Empty,” Elijah breathed.

Twiddy shook his head. His oars came up and Elijah saw that his hands were shaking. Elijah took off his signet ring and handed it to Twiddy. They both stared down at the sapphire; it caught the light of the torch and sent back a flare of blue fire.

“Bring it back to me if we’re separated,” Elijah said.

“Tell them it’s my pass if you’re caught.”

Twiddy’s hand closed on the ring and it disappeared into his clothing.

They were almost past the hulk, sliding up to the king’s yacht on the far side. Music spilled from the deck and Elijah could see brilliantly colored forms meeting and separating. He watched as a plump woman laughed, tilting her head so far back that her tall wig was in danger of toppling.

Twiddy steered to the side of the yacht and threw a rope up to a servant, who reeled it in after a quick look at Elijah. “I’ll fetch the duchess,” Elijah said. “She’ll see it as an adventure. We’ll continue on—”

At that moment the yacht lurched, as if a giant hand had lifted it slightly into the air and thrown it back down.

“It’s started,” Twiddy said with a harsh gasp of air.

The black, silent prison ship, the one that had appeared devoid of life, had broken free of its moorings, struck the Peregrine, and rebounded away.

Elijah gave a mighty heave and pulled himself onto the deck. “Two minutes!” he shouted, looking down at Twiddy. The footman had run off, so he tied the rope from Twiddy’s bark to the gold-plated railing and plunged into the throng of screaming nobles.

His heart was pounding and he forced himself to walk rather than run. Where was Jemma? He saw many he knew: one of the royal dukes; Lady Fibble fainting in the arms of her husband; Lord Randulf looking particularly idiotic, with his wig knocked askew.

He had to peer around high piles of white curls, looking for his wife. She might wear roses and jewels in her hair, but never sailing ships or replicas of bridges.

There she was. On the other side of the crowd milling at the railings, waiting calmly. She must believe that there had been a small accident, he thought. But in his gut he knew that the silent, dark prisoners’ warship, now coming closer to the yacht, wasn’t accidentally drifting in the Thames.

Jemma was at the very end of the line to board the small boats for shore, her eyes searching the deck. Looking for him.

Then he was running toward her, twisting through the crush of people. They were flooding to the railing, which made it easier. The king’s servants were lowering boats. He caught sight of His Majesty with a boatful of laughing courtiers, being rowed to shore, and still the hulk drifted closer.

Then he had her, gave her one hard kiss and pulled her back to the railing where Twiddy was waiting. The hulk was almost on the boat again. Noblemen were laughingly filling the boats that had come out from shore to rescue them, paying no attention to the seemingly dead ship.

“Why—Why, Elijah,” Jemma said, breathlessly.

He picked her up and dropped her into Twiddy’s hands as if she were no more than a load of laundry. Then he vaulted the railing himself and landed in the back of Twiddy’s boat. There was no need to give the man orders.

Twiddy had an oar ready to push them away from the yacht. He jammed it back down into the water and threw his whole weight against the current to push them ahead of the two boats as quickly as he could.

“Elijah!” Jemma cried, just as a pistol barked.

“Down!” he shouted, and lunged forward, pushing her into the bottom of the boat and covering her with his body. Twiddy swore under his breath, rowing with all his might and main.

Elijah looked up to see the deck of the hulk thronged with prisoners. Five, or perhaps six, had taken a wild leap onto the deck of the royal yacht. A dilatory nobleman yelled and then fell into the water, making a fine splash. Twiddy gave another great heave, and the span of water between themselves and the yacht grew into a dark well.

Elijah let Jemma sit up. Her hair was tumbling about her shoulders, though she looked as beautiful as ever. The shore was brightly lit now, thronged with the king and his courtiers, with the little boatloads still coming ashore. And on the deck of the Peregrine, convicts waved their pistols and roared their defiance.

Twiddy shook his head and looked away, grunting at the force he put into rowing.

“The prisoners,” Jemma breathed.

“You could have been hurt,” he said. She was so beautiful. It wasn’t her golden hair nor the color of her eyes, nor the lush shape of her bosom. It was the way her lips curled, the way her eyes laughed at him, the slender fingers she held out to him. He took her hand and carefully pulled off her glove. Then he pressed her palm to his lips.

The very touch of that small palm against his lips made his heart beat faster than it had while running, while jumping the horse, while diving into the boat.

“Elijah,” she whispered, her eyes still on his.

And then she was in his lap, and Twiddy rowed away up the great River Thames while the Duke of Beaumont kissed his wife.

Chapter Three

Jemma looked flushed, happy and excited. More happy than Elijah had seen her look in…oh…forever. Perhaps since the early days of their marriage.

They didn’t show each other joy, not anymore.

And she wasn’t happy merely because they were away from the river, and safe on their way home. He caught her off the seat of the hackney and kissed her just because he could. And because the moment when she melted into his arms, when her arms came around his, wasn’t anything he remembered from their awkward beddings years ago.

There was only one thought in his mind, beating through his body with the force of a tidal wave. The minute they entered the house, he would carry her up the stairs. The hell with any servants who might be watching. He would take her straight into his bedchamber.

Finally, after years, he was taking his wife. She was his again. His—

“We hardly know each other,” Jemma whispered. She was seated on his lap, her head tucked into the curve of his shoulder.

“I do know you. Your name is Jemma, and you are my wife.” And soon I mean to know you in another fashion, he added silently.

“We separated for nine years,” she said, looking up at him. “We bungled our marriage before. I don’t want to rush into this. It’s important.”

He bent his head and nipped her lip. “I promise you that I never rush.”

She gurgled with laughter at that, and then fell silent again when he took her mouth with all the urgency in his heart. Time was finally on his side, had finally brought them together. It felt more important than life, even than death—

She interrupted that thought. “I’ve decided that we need to spend more time together. Almost as if we were courting, if that makes sense.” He couldn’t tell her…No. He wouldn’t tell her.

“I’ll woo you,” he said, snatching up her fingers for a kiss. A horrifying thought crossed his mind. “Jemma, you’re not suggesting that we shouldn’t sleep together tonight, are you?” Every muscle in his body froze at the thought.

“No.” She said it clearly, meeting his eyes. For all her sophistication, his Jemma was not the sort to banter when the subject was most important.

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