England, April 1814
Once the sloop from Jersey came to dock at Portsmouth, Clarissa was annoyed and then indignant to find herself suffering the interrogation of customs officers who swarmed over the ship. The apologetic captain informed his passengers that because the ship had come from the enemy French-influenced isles of Guernsey and Jersey, the English government felt it necessary to check for contraband and spies. From Clarissa’s observation, it appeared that the customs men were bent on seizing all the liquor, tobacco, and silks they found, regardless of whether or not they were legally held. Only after they had ransacked every cabin, opening trunks and barrels, spilling what they did not want willy-nilly over the floors and decks, did they allow the passengers to disembark.
The disagreeable interlude left Clarissa impatient and angry. The crossing had been difficult, with a sudden squall causing delay. As each and every hour passed she had grown more anxious. By the time the port of Plymouth came into view, she was half convinced that her aunt must already be dead.
As she stepped off the gangway, she was engulfed in the teeming life of the pier. Crates, bales, and barrels of every size and description formed an intricate maze through which she and the other passengers were forced to negotiate a path. Hundreds of boisterous soldiers and sailors, disembarking or waiting to board the many military vessels choking the harbor, stood about openly ogling the female passengers. As the daughter of a major general, Clarissa had long ago become accustomed to their high-spirited braggadocio. But now their scarlet coats and blue jackets were reminders of both her father and her husband and, with their deaths, all that she had left behind. Life on the Peninsula seemed a world away, as did the role of daughter of the regiment.
When she raised her head to scan the wharf for a sign that might direct her to a coaching inn, she noticed that a couple ahead of her had paused to stare at the adjoining pier where another ship was unloading. As she reached them the woman pointed a finger as she said, “Would ye look a’ that, Henry!”
Curious to know what had caught their attention, Clarissa turned to look toward the large square-rigged ship, letting her gaze slip in envy over the details of the ship that was so much grander than the tiny cramped craft aboard which she had sailed.
And then she saw him.
He stood at the head of the gangway, legs apart and fists on hips. He wore a full-sleeved shirt, unfastened nearly to the waist to reveal a mat of fine black hair on a golden chest. The hems of his baggy trousers were stuffed into gleaming black boots. A wide leather belt embroidered with colorful designs spanned his narrow waist. Tucked behind it was the curved blade of a scimitar. As he surveyed the port city, a sudden breeze caught and billowed out his burnoose, making him seem as majestic as a ship’s mast under full sail.
From her perspective, and through the dimming effect of her widow’s veil, Clarissa could not distinguish his features. Yet as he made his way down the gangway, his stride confident—no, masterful, she thought in admiration—she was reminded of the only man she had ever known who possessed this combination of swaggering authority and icy disdain.
“Uncle Quentin?” she whispered incredulously.
Was it possible? But of course! It would be like him to turn up in England long after everyone had given up hope of seeing him again.
Flooded with giddy joy and relief that Aunt Heloise would not now have to face her last days without the comfort of her long-lost husband, Clarissa rushed toward the adjacent gangway with a hand lifted in greeting. “Uncle Quentin!”
She gave no thought to the spectacle she was making of herself as the crowd on the pier parted to allow her passage. Uncle Quentin enjoyed spectacles, preferred them, Aunt Heloise would say.
As he reached the dockside, she stepped into his path and impulsively threw her arms about him, hugging his hard-muscled body. For a moment she rested her head on his chest, struggling to master strong emotions of gratitude and relief. Then she lifted her head and said in the Arabic language he had taught her many years earlier, “Welcome home, burra sahib. We feared you were dead!”
One moment she was enveloped in the thick folds of his linen robes, which held the commingled aromas of ambergris, tobacco, and the unique scent of the man. The next she was being propelled backward to arm’s length by hands on her shoulders.
For several seconds she stood blinking up at the dark figure whose features were eclipsed by the brilliance of the sun directly behind him. Then she thought she understood the reason for his surprise. He did not recognize her in her widow’s weeds.
She reached up to draw back her veil and said in the elaborately formal speech of the East, “Has it been so long, great master, that you do not recognize your humble handmaiden?”
Stepping out of his shadow to allow the sun to fall fully upon her face, she saw his features clearly for the first time.
An arresting face gazed down at her. The jutting nose, black brows, and long mouth nestled in a silky black goatee marked him as a man of uncompromising temperament. A faint scythe-shaped scar over his left brow marked him as a man of action. Eyes, green and hard as jade, stared out at her from a face burned brown by the sun. It was a handsome and dangerous face … but it was not her uncle’s.
“Bismillah!” Clarissa whispered, echoing Uncle Quentin’s favorite phrase. “I beg your pardon,” she murmured and tried to back away.
He did not release her. As his cool green gaze passed deliberately over her, she felt a distinct chill though the day was warm. Then her face seemed to catch fire with embarrassment. Yet she could not look away. She saw his pupils expand until the irises became brilliant coronas, marking the depth of his interest.
When he spoke, his voice was surprisingly warm, the tone shockingly intimate. “Do you know me now, Bahia?” he inquired in Arabic.
“Of course not! There’s been a mistake,” Clarissa replied in English. Belatedly realizing she had been released and feeling even more foolish, she turned abruptly away. But she had not thought to look where she was going and stumbled against a barrel, hissing in pain as the rough slats bit into her shin.
A hand grasped her upper arm, exerting enough pressure to steady her, and then dropped away. “You are impetuous, are you not?”
Clarissa glanced up in amazement. “You speak English!”
“I’m not aware that it’s a crime,” he replied, revealing that he not only possessed a command of the English language but that he spoke it as well as any noble. “You’ve injured yourself. Let me see.”
He took a step toward her, and she hastily retreated, fearing that he would try to examine her. “That won’t be necessary.”
“As you wish.” He smiled now, and in that wicked gleam of teeth she discovered a further reason to make a quick escape. Like some black-pelted panther he was exciting—and disturbing. Even so, she had a sudden irrational desire to touch him again.
As it was wont to do in moments of extreme agitation, a portion of her mind stood apart to survey the scene. Here she was, a widow swathed in mourning black, while a man dressed as an Arab corsair looked down at her as though if she even leaned in toward him, he would heave her over his shoulder and make off with her through the streets of Plymouth. Not that she would ever have done such a thing. The urge to move closer to him arose from the same primitive impulse one had to stroke any sleek and beautiful predator—and she knew it would prove to be just as dangerous.
The idea that she, a lady, was actually thinking such thoughts struck her as absurd, and she lifted a hand to still the laughter that threatened her. If she laughed in his face surely he would think her mad.
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