The Captain’s Confidant – Ashtyn Newbold

Light speckled the dark sky, each star blinking in confusion as the sea threw crests over the horizon line. If stars existed to guide him, then why did Colin feel so lost? No, lost was not the correct word. He might as well have been pushed beneath the surface of the sea, held captive by the tumultuous weight of the water as it crashed down upon him. Adrift. Breathless. Empty. But hadn’t he always been at the mercy of the waves? He had been tossed to and fro enough in his life that he should have known his peace would be temporary. And peace aboard a ship was difficult to come by. Colin’s hand shook as he raised the letter to his gaze again, squinting at the words in the dim light the stars provided. He had already read it countless times, and the parchment was becoming limp with the sea spray. If he could fling it into the waves below, he would. But the contents of the letter were already anchored to his heart, and casting it away would do little to stop the destruction it had set into motion within his chest. The ink that had not bled down the page from the moisture of the sea water only remained on certain words and phrases. …is now your responsibility. Return to Thorncarrow… Death.

Keep his promise… Colin closed his eyes, crumpling the damp page into his fist. If these were to truly be his last moments aboard this ship, he could not use them to wallow. The letter had thrown him far off course. But life had a tendency to do that. Bearing burdens and new responsibilities with undeterred confidence was the best way to seek revenge on fate’s cruel hand. Acting strong was the first step to feeling strong. Hiding emotions. Mourning in silence. Forgetting himself. Colin cried out in anger as he flung the letter into the dark waves.

And then he turned his back on the sea. * * * Discovering Lord Chesham’s greatest irritant was more difficult than Bridget had anticipated. It seemed no matter what she did or said, it would be overlooked. His pale blue eyes, edged in hair-like red veins, watered as they stared at her. Did the man know how to blink? So singular was his focus on her, Bridget could hardly formulate a new sentence before he fired another question at her like the shot of a pistol. “Are you fond of animals?” His nasally voice grated at her ears. “When they are on my dinner plate, yes.” Bridget had noted a tuft of fur on his sleeve, and she had yet to determine if it belonged to a cat or a dog. A nervous chuckle escaped him, and he rubbed at his bloodshot eyes. Perhaps that habit was what had created the array of wrinkles surrounding them.

That, or his advanced years. When he lowered his hands, his gaze remained fixed on her face. “Well, I do suppose that is one purpose of animals.” “Animals exist only to be eaten and to cause me great vexation.” Bridget paused to carefully observe the twinge in his brow. Had she finally discovered his irritant? Whatever had left that fur on his sleeve clearly meant a great deal to him. Relief slunk through her tense muscles, and she leaned against the back of her chair in the drawing room. Lord Chesham had been much more difficult to decipher than all the others. But now that she held the end of a thread, all she had to do was tug. “I care little for cats in particular,” Bridget said, glancing once again at the tuft of fur on his sleeve.

Only a cat could deposit such a pile of fluff. “Any house I am mistress of in the future would have to be free of the detestable creatures.” She met his gaze with a pensive expression. “One way or another.” His throat bobbed with a visible swallow, and for the first time all evening, his gaze flitted away from her face. Ah. So his cat was worth more than twenty thousand pounds to him. Bridget smiled, triumph rising in her chest. Lord Chesham’s fingers twitched in his lap. “What has inspired your dislike of the creatures?” “Oh, I would not venture to call it dislike.

” His features lifted. She frowned, just enough to scare him a little. “It is hatred. Pure hatred, my lord.” Lord Chesham paled, and she could almost see his interest scattering from his eyes like autumn leaves in a windstorm. “I see.” Bridget angled her body so she faced Lord Chesham more fully—and so that her back faced her elder brother Matthew. If he discerned what she was up to, her schemes would be put to an end. And where was the entertainment in that? Lord Chesham’s expression shifted to one of optimism, but there was a wariness in his gaze that had been absent earlier that evening. “I suspect, despite your insistence on disliking—er—hating cats, you would like mine.

She is truly a magnificent animal.” He reached inside his pocket and withdrew a miniature portrait in a gilded frame. For politeness’ sake, Bridget looked upon the depiction without showing the aversion she felt. Painted in miniature within the frame was Lord Chesham, his cat held close to his own face, its head nestled against his own. Both pairs of pale eyes stared ahead, and for a moment, Bridget wondered if Lord Chesham and his cat were ever mistaken for one another. She tore her gaze away from the portrait. What a silly—and disturbing—thought. She jumped when Lord Chesham spoke again, his nasally voice close to her ear. “I consider her to be my dearest friend.” He gazed ardently at the portrait before—to Bridget’s relief—he tucked it back inside his jacket.

“She is the most beautiful creature I have ever beheld. And just as well-mannered. She sleeps at my side every night and eats only the finest of meats. I daresay she eats even better than I do.” He gave an airy chuckle. “I think you would have no difficulty coming to adore her more than you have adored any other animal.” He spoke of the creature as if it held every piece of his heart. Bridget shifted uncomfortably and cast a quick prayer upward for the woman who would one day compete to replace his cat in his affections. Thank heavens it would not be Bridget. “I’m afraid that is impossible,” Bridget said, preparing the words she knew would drive him away for good.

“If any animal were to claim such ardent affection from me, it would be a dog.” “A…d-dog?” He gulped, averting his gaze once again. “Just the same, my lord. I hope that should not alter your opinion of me too severely.” She waited, truly hoping for the opposite. Already, his interest seemed to be turning to vexation. “Those dreadfully dirty, smelling things? Even as puppies they are…repulsive.” “Some might say the same about cats.” Or rather, about Lord Chesham’s obsession with his cat. His expressionless face gave another twinge of displeasure, and Bridget masked her smile by turning her head toward Matthew.

Her brother still watched their exchange, and it was only a matter of time before he would see fit to intervene. Louisa, Bridget’s companion, had been observing from a closer proximity—the chair on Bridget’s left side— but had remained as quiet as Bridget had schooled her to be. Louisa knew why Bridget couldn’t give false hope to Lord Chesham or any other man for that matter. But Matthew would never understand just how far away from Larkhall Bridget’s heart truly was. And she would never tell him. Ever. Especially not when word of her foolish attachment would easily spread to their brother, Oliver. If he discovered just how in love Bridget was with his closest friend, she would never hear the end of his teasing. He would try to gently reduce her hopes in an effort to protect her. But what did she have if not hope? She had men like Lord Chesham.

“Perhaps you should see her picture again,” he said. “I have more miniature portraits with me at present. I am certain I can convince you that she is superior to any dog.” He made to reach inside his jacket. Why on earth did the man carry these likenesses with him to dinner parties? Bridget had been schooling herself for years not to be impolite, so she listened with half an ear as he rambled on about his cat. When the conversation turned to the many unimportant details of his daily schedule, she didn’t bother to interrupt with any connections to her own life. If she let him, he would go on all evening. Men did love to speak of themselves. When the party finally ended and Lord Chesham and his miniature portraits were securely riding down the dark road away from Larkhall, Bridget stepped away from the window, turning to Louisa with a sigh of relief. “I don’t think he will return with any hope of furthering our acquaintance.

” Louisa crossed her arms, tipping her head to one side. “It did seem as though he still has a bit of hope for you.” Bridget’s stomach fell. Louisa was quite skilled at deciphering people, so Bridget could not take her opinion lightly. She tapped her chin. “Perhaps I did not insult his cat enough.” Louisa smiled before her round brown eyes focused on something over Bridget’s opposite shoulder. “Why would you dare insult the creature?” Her brother Matthew’s deep voice could fill a room, but today it was soft and teasing. “Lord Chesham’s cat is quite possibly the best thing he has to offer.” Bridget turned to where her brother stood on her opposite side, casting him an accusatory glance.

“Did you intentionally invite him here to pursue me, knowing how greatly he would vex me?” “I thought you would find him tolerable enough,” he said with a shrug. But there was a hint of teasing behind his eyes. “How could I have found his obsession with his cat tolerable?” Bridget planted her hands on her hips. “Well, you could be certain that he would always care for the cat more than he would care for you, so you would be free to do as you please without the constant attention of a husband.” Bridget laughed under her breath. “He would have been infinitely more tolerable if it had been a dog.” Every time she thought of dogs, and particularly men and dogs, she couldn’t help but think of Captain Foster. Colin. A flutter erupted in her stomach. She swallowed and looked down at the floor.

Matthew let out a sigh, raking a hand over his dark hair. “Do you still refuse to go to London?” “Only because you do.” Bridget raised one eyebrow, locking eyes with her brother. It was her one point that he could not argue against. He spoke little of what had hardened him against London and the idea of marriage, but perhaps he had experienced too many disappointments. His heart had taken one fall too many—that much was clear by the way he kept it hidden. “I still do not understand your sudden interest in finding me a husband,” Bridget said. “It has been months of the same routine of you inviting eligible men to Larkhall with the intent of introducing them to me. When will you give up the effort?” Bridget glanced at Louisa. She was, first and foremost, Bridget’s dearest friend and confidant.

She had been invited to stay at Larkhall with her sister as a guest the year before, but without a suitable guardian to return to, Louisa had been permitted to stay at Larkhall as Bridget’s companion. Even with Matthew as her employer, Louisa always took Bridget’s side of any argument. “Louisa will affirm my words when I say that you are wasting your time inviting these men here.” Louisa gave a reluctant nod, casting her brown eyes at the floor. “It is true, Mr. Northcott. I think Bridget is simply too stubborn.” Why did that feel like such a compliment? Bridget threw Louisa a warm smile before turning her attention back to Matthew. He rubbed one side of his face. “I have introduced you to men far better suited to you than Lord Chesham.

You did not even give them the opportunity to further your acquaintance.” “You still have not explained why you are so eager to see me married. I am not a financial burden.” Bridget widened her eyes to emphasize her words. “I have learned much from Aunt Crauford about managing the household. Until you are married and there is a true mistress of Larkhall, I will help fill that role.” Matthew’s eyes flashed. Bridget stiffened. She had struck a sensitive chord. For a moment, she feared he would be angry with her, but he simply let out another sigh, staring at her for several seconds before speaking.

“It is not that I doubt your capability. And I know how you feel about the notion of love, and your desire to not be pursued for your dowry.” He paused. “But there is a reason I… hoped you would be able to find a man to your satisfaction by now.” A wave of curiosity struck Bridget’s chest. The satin ivory sleeves of her evening gown crinkled loudly as she crossed her arms. “By now?” Was she suddenly out of time? The age of eighteen couldn’t be considered spinsterhood by any opinion in society. Matthew shifted on his feet, a rare sign of discomfort in his otherwise confident facade. “Oliver and I have been invited to Beldburgh. We will be away for at least two months, and I would have been much more comfortable leaving you behind if you were well taken care of.

” He lowered his voice, casting a sideways glance at their elderly aunt who sat just beyond the doorway of the nearby sitting room. “I don’t like the prospect of leaving you here with Aunt Crauford as your only semblance of a guardian.” Beldburgh. Bridget barely prevented her jaw from dropping; she had spent a great deal of time learning to abandon that childhood habit. She clamped her teeth together. “Why are you going to the north?” Her heart pounded. “When are you leaving?” Bridget couldn’t stop the questions from spilling out one after another. “Why haven’t you told me of this?”

.

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