Only You – Elizabeth St. Michel

Nicholas Rutland, heir apparent of the fourth Duke of Rutland shook his head to erase a thick fog that crowded his brain. Where was he? He eased his aching body into a seated position where rough wood, greased with muck, slicked his fingers. He groaned, the same sludge saturated his backside. If only the damn swaying would stop. Doused with water, he sputtered and choked. He squinted at the bright sun coming through the grate above. A man pressed his pock-marked face against rusty iron, his ferret-like eyes, dancing with gleeful malevolence, the obvious sponsor of the bucket of water thrown on him. “His Lordship’s awake, Capitan,” Pockmark said, sneering at Nicholas. “How’s that knock on your head?” Nicholas raised an unsteady hand, sweated with the effort. His fingers touched a lump at the back of his head. White starbursts of light popped. His arm went limp and dropped against the wall of his prison. A five-by-six cube, he guessed. Barely enough room for a man to lie down. “Why don’t you come down here and we’ll find out?” “Got some fight in you, eh? You’re shaking.

Wet your breeches?” Pockmark laughed. Nicholas clenched his hands, his blood rushing with the urge to slam his fist into the man’s pitted face. “Move aside, Damiano.” Overhead, sails snapped and shadowed a groomed man of forty. “Move aside, Damiano,” the man repeated, his high thin voice squealed in heavily accented English. Not Dutch like the droll Van Dyke beard he bore. Spanish? “Welcome aboard the Santanas, Lord Rutland. I am Capitan Diogo.” Nicolas’s gaze clouded as he fumbled with memories. Who was Capitan Diogo? And why was he imprisoned? “I am at a loss for I do not know you.

Perhaps you can enlighten me.” “Who I am does not matter other than I have been well-compensated for your voyage.” The captain looked down his nose and sniffed. Kidnapped. Shadows clawed his mind, churning and rising. His sister, Abby’s betrothal party at his ancestral home at Belvoir Castle. He had been summoned by his father to attend an important meeting. A shockwave hit him and he’d been thrown to the ground in front of his brother’s laboratory. Fire. Heat had singed his face.

Crushing pain in the back of his skull. “My father will pay for my return,” he rasped. “Your father is dead,” Captain Diogo said matter of fact. “Dead?” Nicolas swallowed the nausea that rolled through his stomach. Not true. “Everyone dies…a bitter unchangeable law of life.” Diogo shrugged, his eyes dull. “The Senor who paid me gave instructions to inform you that your father, Duke Richard Rutland, and your brother, Anthony, were lured to the laboratory and killed in an explosion. Your sister, Abigail has been put on a ship to suffer your same fate.” Bile clawed in his throat.

Dead? Killed? No. It can’t be. Except his shackles said otherwise. His soul splintered like shards of glass. “Why?” “You do not think the Rutland’s would have enemies?” Nicholas glared. “Return me at once. I’ll pay you twice as much.” Capitan Diogo stroked his beard. “I think not. The risk of entering the Thames again is troublesome.

I’ll make additional profit from Brazilian slavers for a buck like you.” Not a chance in hell was he going to be anyone’s slave. “I demand to know who paid you.” Captain Diogo laughed. “You are not in a situation to demand anything, Lord Rutland. Enjoy our hospitality, I will see you again.” “I’ll see you in hell,” Nicholas called after the lowlife scum, then rolled over and heaved his insides. He wiped his mouth on his jacket, then sat huddled, arms wrapped around his drawn-up knees for warmth. His father? Anthony? Dead? No. Poor Abby.

How vulnerable she was. He scrubbed his face with his hands remembering the terrible fight he’d had with his father in the library during the ball about changes he wanted to make to the estate…and his father’s stubborn refusal. Hot blood rushed through his veins. He stabbed stiff fingers through his matted hair. The years he’d spent adhering to his father’s obsolete, fruitless policies. All the arguments, the harsh words. For naught. His chest seized. Oh, God. Tears welled.

If only he could take it all back. But he couldn’t. Words once said can never be taken back. He straightened, sucking in a deep breath. He swore Captain Diogo and the crew of the Santanas to perdition. The sail high atop cracked and flapped violently. If his Maker delivered him from this hell, he would find whomever had done this to his family. He would make them pay. He would make them all pay. Nicholas slammed his fist into the wall.

“Hold my hand.” Nicholas jerked his head back, stared at a filthy hand stuck through an apple-sized hole in the wall in front of his chest. A woman? “Please hold my hand.” Her small voice broke. Well-shaped fingers, filthy yet unlike the ill-bred inhabitants of St. Giles with their twisted, claw-like talons. A lady’s hand? He accepted what was offered. “I heard the captain’s orders to stop dosing you with laudanum yesterday. The nausea, sweating, headaches and fatigue will wear off.” Laudanum.

Of course. He’d deduced as much. How else would they have managed to imprison him without his knowledge. Warmed by her touch and soft voice, he gently closed his fingers around her trembling hand. “You fought like a bull every time you woke. They were afraid you would hurt yourself and deprive them of their profit. They kept you drugged.” “More likely, I would hurt them.” He snorted. “You are a prisoner?” “We are the only two prisoners aboard.

The scoundrels on the dock in London who paid Captain Diogo made sure there were no witnesses to our abduction and that we’d never reach the coasts of England again.” “Who are you and why have you earned this voyage?” “I was caught in Baron Sutherland’s home.” He had heard of Baron Sutherland. A good friend of his now dead father. “You are a thief.” He withdrew his hand, but she held fast. “I am not a thief.” “If you say so.” “If I told you the truth would you believe me?” “A thief? Plying your trade, not only stealing everything that is nailed down but the nails as well.” He heard her intake of breath like the indrawn wind that filled the long sweeps, tilting the ship to a sharp angle.

He had difficulties with thieves, had come to blows with a horde who had invaded the Rutland townhouse. He would not forget that night when they were bent on killing him, and neither would the thieves he had dispatched one by one. Yet the woman didn’t have to tell him she was caught in the Baron’s home. She could’ve made up a story. He was kidnapped and he didn’t do anything. What if she wasn’t a thief? But what other reasonable explanation was there? He kicked a chamber pot and it clanged in the corner. “Think what you wish. You may be a murderer for all I know, but since we’re in this together, I’ll allow your illusions,” she said. “My illusions? Am I to take that from someone whose tools may be deception and misdirection?” The iron framework of the hatch that sealed them was divided, half in his four-walled cell and half in hers. Her arm filled the tiny hole, barring a glimpse of her.

How old was his traveling companion? Young? No. A safe bet, she existed as a hoary bent crone predisposed to a life of crime. Yet her voice possessed a musical quality and intimated something sacred and pure in her humanity— like his sister’s. Abby. How was she faring? Gently reared, she would not survive the rigors at sea under ruthless men. He didn’t want to think of the horrors she’d encounter. Gloom darkened his cell. He had quarreled with his sister, had caught her in a grievous lie. She had faked an engagement to her best friend, Sir Humphrey until she decided what she wanted to do with her life. Nicholas had ordered her to marry Humphrey and live with the consequences.

To marry a man she did not love. A vein throbbed in his jaw. Like Nicholas, forced by his iron-handed father to marry a woman he had no feelings for to fulfill his duty. To accept the responsibility that came with being a Rutland. “How long have we been sailing?” Nicholas shook his head, the effect of the drug, tunneling his vision and pounding his head. “I tugged out a loose nail in the floor and scratched twenty-seven marks on the wall, four weeks into the Atlantic, and too far to swim back to London.” His chin sunk into his chest. He would not last long enslaved in Brazil. Whomever was his enemy wanted a slow death. A fitting end for killing a man in self-defense? He stared at her hand.

Her fate was worse than his. He could imagine what evil men did to a female slave. Sailors yelled orders to each other high in the shrouds. He heard a bucket of water sloshed onto the deck and the swish of a mop. “They are lying,” she whispered. “Go on.” She gripped his hand, apparently afraid he’d let go. To assure her, he rubbed his thumb over her knuckles, smeared the dirt. “I didn’t know until Captain Diogo conveyed his message to you now from the man who had you kidnapped. On the docks in England, you were lying down and bound behind me.

The laudanum given me had worn off. I feigned sleep. Your sister must have been kept in the room next to ours for they referred to her as Lady Abigail. They took her and another man, embarking on a ship before us.” “Outside our building, a very angry gentleman shouted at Captain Diogo, demanding he disappear to Brazil at once. The gentleman complained about a delay and said they left the laboratory too soon. Could he have been talking about your father and your brother? Do you think they left before the explosion and that’s why the gentleman hastened your departure?” The ship tilted again and latticed sunlight from above chased away the shadows of his cell. His blood rushed. He tightened his grip on her hand. “The gentleman, was he in charge? Did you get a look at him? Are you sure of what you heard?” “You’ll have to take the word of a thief.

” She withdrew her hand. He deserved her scorn. Strange as it was, he missed the human contact of her hand, missed her warmth. “I did not see the gentleman and he was definitely giving the commands.” Nicholas swallowed, his throat dry as sand. “Lady Abigail is my sister. At her betrothal ball, I called her out on her sham engagement. I argued her case with my father as well as my own complaints. He wouldn’t listen, intolerant of any breach to his authority. I went to the stables to cool my temper and was intercepted by a servant with a message to meet my father in my brother’s laboratory.

How strange when I had left him seconds before.” “Do you think your disagreement delayed your father and saved his life?” The woman had given him possibilities—had given him hope. He owed her a debt of gratitude. By God, if I ever get free of this hellhole, I’ll go back home and do whatever my father demands. He heard voices above. The hatch above was thrown open. “Dinner time.” Damiano lowered a bucket to the woman on the other side of the wall. “I should come down and help you eat? Eh, senhorita?” Like his sister, Abby, his fellow prisoner was a woman without protection. “Leave her alone, swine.

” “Insolent dog. You will be sent deep inside the jungles of Brasilia where you will die toiling in the hot tropical sun. Impossible to escape.” Damiano hurled the contents of a bucket on Nicholas and slammed the grate. “Eat like a swine, your lordship. There won’t be any more until tomorrow.” Nick wiped cold suet and watery rice off his shoulder. He doubted if any of it was edible. A rat scurried over his boot intent on the garbage. Nicholas kicked the offending rodent.

“I fear Damiano,” the woman said. “He is worse than the captain,” said his fellow prisoner. Nicholas grunted and peered through the hole, but the fading gray light, filtering from above kept his traveling companion obscure. She shoved her fist through the opening, unfolded a hand of food. “Eat. Keep up your strength. To escape.” “In the middle of the Atlantic?” He scoffed. Ridiculous. But she was right about needing strength…for whenever the time came.

He took the proffered food, and then eating, he sank into a sea of silence. The words, degrading and dehumanizing, were something he preferred not to think about, reminding him of the filthy wretch he’d become. His clothes were torn by his captors. He wrinkled his nose at a stink that rivaled the worst of London’s sewers. The lack of water to wash and several weeks’ growth of beard was far from the cleanliness to which he was accustomed. His valet would have an opinion. To escape, she’d said. Pretty transparent, it was…trying to jerk him from sinking into despondency. She did not know despair had no chance with him. Vengeance had emerged as his new master.

Alexandra Sutherland shivered in the darkness. Hours passed since they had spoken. “Lord Rutland, have you wondered about the name of this ship and its crewmate? Santanas means Satan. Damiano means to kill.” “You know Portuguese?” The mockery in his voice set her teeth on edge. Thief had branded his thoughts. Let him think what he wanted. “I learned a little Portuguese at my employer’s.” “And he is a thief, too?” Stubborn, spoiled man. Certainly, not a Sir Galahad.

Vicar Thompson was the gentle soul who had educated her and far from a thief. “He was very giving toward me.” “So, you stole for him and he offered you a warm bed.” Heat rose to her face. “You insufferable clod. How dare you insinuate—” She bit back the rest of the scathing words on her tongue. She needed an ally, not an enemy. Taking a deep breath, she shoved more food through the hole again. If only she could thrust it down his throat. “Be forewarned, you should not bite the hand that feeds you, and—I refuse to answer any more of your provocations.

” “Provocation? A sophisticated word. Well-learned—” “For a thief? I read.” He grunted his disbelief. “What did you read last?” Despite his antagonism, the deep timbre of his voice was like an eternal god, commanding denizens of the earth. As if she needed the sound of his voice to feel his very presence taking up the space all around her. No doubt he was intelligent and had been educated in the best of England’s schools. She gritted her teeth. With certainty, he considered her illiterate. “Something you should read. Common Sense.

” “You approve of the American, Thomas Paine’s clear and persuasive prose, inciting the common people of the Colonies to revolt against the King?” Clever to test her. Well, if he wanted a challenge… “I believe the author marshals moral and political arguments for an egalitarian government.” He scoffed. “You agree with Paine’s claim that a mind is a vessel not to be filled, but a fire to be kindled?” She smiled for the first time in a long while. “Not Paine, but Plutarch. Anymore questions, Lord Rutland?” “Proves you are a weed among stones. So, I’m in the company of an educated thief. Your name?” His voice boomed like a thunderclap, a demand not a request. She stiffened, her emotions too raw for his scorn. No reason to go into her real history, unable to prove her true ancestry in any event.

She chose to give her adopted name. “Alexandra Elwins.” “Miss Elwins,” he repeated. She looked heavenward. His reckless defiance of Damiano and Captain Diogo, left no doubt of his authoritative nature. With all the ferocity of a winter tempest, he dared to quarrel with his captors. She reversed her earlier opinion of his intelligence. He was insane or feeble-minded. “Why did you champion me?” He sighed. “You needed my protection.

” “I am grateful.” Regardless of his belligerence, she needed someone to communicate with as much as the air she breathed. “What do you think motivated the man who abducted you and your sister, and lured your father and brother to the laboratory?” “If I knew—” His voice deepened, too complicated to point to one single emotion. “I am unable to explain anything,” he said, the sharpness in his voice betraying his unwillingness to do so. If he wanted to keep his own counsel, then fine. Alexandra closed her eyes, fighting an onslaught of images that flashed through her head. The leering Damiano dropping into her cell, his rough hands and drooling mouth moving over her body. So far, he’d been put off by the captain’s watchful eye. The smirking Damiano indulged in countless taunts of the new hell awaiting her. The terrors she would face in Brazil.

Stripped naked, men groping her breasts, to be prodded and probed in the most intimate places, and then sold to the highest bidder. To be used by men to satisfy their lusts. Her mind spun with the odious insults Damiano had described over the past weeks, in lurid detail, what ghastly fate was in store for her. She squeezed her eyes shut. Think of other things. Positive things. How to escape…or the low, deep and commanding voice of her fellow prisoner. Was the man on the other side of the wall the heir to the Duke of Rutland? She had seen him once, two years before, while visiting London. He was talking to friends in front of the Palace of Westminster. Molly’s friend had affirmed the Rutland ducal coach and Alexandra had glimpsed him from behind.

Dark-haired. Broad-shouldered. Would a handsome face match that rich masculine voice of his? Perhaps not. More a haughty, pinched-faced aristocrat, pale, and possessing a penchant to wipe his beak-nose. She recalled a scandal following Lord Rutland, a noted pugilist after someone had died at his hands. No wonder Captain Damiano kept him drugged. The newspapers had trumpeted that Lord Rutland had committed murder with one fatal punch to another Lord. Competing testimony by witnesses, fanned by sensational articles in the London Chronicle had moved public opinion against Lord Rutland. She shrugged, unable to determine his guilt or not. In her cell for days, Alexandra had counted each grain and knot in the planks.

She peered through the hatch, every inch of canvas fully drawn, the bellies so rounded and hard they looked ready to burst, and speeding her away from her beloved England. She sat in the gloom, her companion choosing to sink into his sullen reflections. His silence taunted her, reminding her how she had arrived at this wretched point in her life. Isolated in Deconshire, Alexandra had felt different from the people who resided there, different in her way of growing up. Old memories taunted her of a far easier life, and goaded misplaced childhood years to the surface. Driven by curiosity and frustrated by her adoptive parents’ lack of information, Alexandra had resorted to snooping. She tore the cottage apart and found a gold covered Bible, far more elegant than anything Molly and Samuel could afford. Written in the family Bible were her real parent’s names. She had confronted Molly and Samuel Elwins who had posed as her parents. To have been lied to all those years.

Molly and Samuel sat her down and talked. Her real mother, Lady Lucy Sutherland had died during childbirth. Molly Elwins had been hired as Alexandra’s wet nurse and nanny, nurturing Alexandra. Two years later, her real father, Baron Stephen Sutherland had remarried and soon afterward, died. Molly had doubts about the new baroness. When Baron Sutherland had died suddenly while in good health, Molly became even more suspicious and started eavesdropping. From an overheard conversation Molly had learned Alexandra’s stepmother, Lady Ursula Sutherland, had poisoned the baron, thus enabling her own son, Willean, to become the heir of the barony. What terrified Molly was an unfortunate accident planned for the three-year old Alexandra to ensure Willean’s inheritance. Powerless to prove the foul deed, and to protect the little girl, Molly and Samuel had swept the child, Alexandra away in the middle of the night, leaving no trace of their footsteps. For seventeen years, they hid in the small fishing village of Deconshire in southern England where they provided a simple and good life.

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