The Princess Stakes - Amalie Howard Page 0,2

he would have been spared the monstrosity, but no, sodding fate had had other plans. His scowl deepened as the identity of the man approaching became clear. The harbormaster.

“Thornton,” he said, wiping damp palms on his breeches, one hand curling lightly over the end of the flintlock pistol tucked into his waistband. He walked to the edge of the rail and propped a booted foot onto the rigging. “What can I do for you?”

The man was red and sweating profusely when he came to a stop at the gangplank. Rhystan noticed a wiry local hurrying behind Thornton’s bulk but did not recognize him. “It’s of grave import, Duke.”

“Captain,” Rhystan corrected through his teeth and fought a sneer. The man was full to the brim with his own consequence, though he wasn’t above taking extra coin to line his own pockets from time to time. “Spit it out then, this matter of grave importance.”

“Immediate passage is required,” he said. “To England.”

“We will make it worth your while, sir,” the boy standing behind Thornton piped up.

Rhystan frowned, his eyes on the harbormaster. “The Belonging isn’t a passenger ship. And might I remind you that you have your own steamship, Mr. Thornton, which I suspect is much better equipped for comfort than this one.”

“Not for me, Your Grace,” Thornton spluttered, wiping a handkerchief over his perspiring cheeks. “For Lady Lockhart.”

“Lady who?”

“Lady Lockhart, Captain,” the small manservant replied. “She needs passage to England and can pay handsomely.”

Rhystan frowned, racking his brain for a face to match the name, but none came to mind. Either way, the Belonging was no place for a lady. The ship was fickle enough as it was, having once been a converted auxiliary steam warship that had belonged to a dodgy American privateer, and the living quarters were less than lavish. Enough for him, of course, but nothing compared to the guest accommodations on the rest of his fleet.

He waved an arm toward the rest of the ships docked in the harbor. “I don’t care if she’s the queen herself, I’m not taking any passengers. Find someone else.”

Thornton shook his head. “None of the other packets are due to leave port tonight for England. Yours is the only one. She must depart without delay.”

He glanced at the houseboy behind Thornton. “Why can’t she leave tomorrow or the next day?”

“It’s a matter of some expediency, sahib, sir,” the boy stammered, and Rhystan frowned at the Eastern form of address he’d heard frequently when he’d been stationed as an officer.

“Who is your lady? Lady Lockton, you said?”

“Lady Lockhart, Captain.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar, though he could not place it. Then again, he hadn’t set foot on English shores in a while. All the names of the peerage sounded the same. “Tell your mistress to speak with Captain Brooks. He sails the day after next.”

“That’s too late.”

“Why does she wish to leave so desperately?”

“There’s been a death in the family. Your ship is the soonest on the ledger.”

The reason struck an unexpected chord of understanding and sympathy within him. Death had a way of upsetting everything. This unknown lady was racing against time for closure, while he was doing the same, only he was trying to beat the clock to get to his purportedly ailing mother in time. Rhystan could empathize more than anyone.

The boy must have noticed his hesitation because he started forward and bowed deeply. “I implore you, sahib. Please, reconsider.”

“Where are you from?” Rhystan asked, curious.

“Joor,” the boy replied and then gulped as if it was something he shouldn’t have disclosed.

But Rhystan was too stunned to dwell on his reaction. Joor. What were the odds?

Unwanted and unwelcome memories, long buried from Rhystan’s youth, rushed up to greet him. He shook himself hard and ground his jaw. What was in the past was in the past. He hadn’t thought about Joor—or what had happened there—in years. And for good reason.

A feminine lilt rose in his head: I’m yours, Rhystan.

He throttled the recollections with brute force. Sarani Rao had never been his, not when she’d jilted him for an earl. Rhystan appreciated the irony, considering he now held the most venerated title of the English aristocracy, a half decade too late. Joor and that faithless princess were parts of his past that needed to remain dead and forgotten.

“Captain Brooks of the Voyager,” he said to the servant, dismissing him and turning on his heel. “Tell him I sent you.”

* * *

Sneaking onto a ship in the dead of night wasn’t ideal. Or