An Undeniable Passion Ch. 07byopels©
The next morning Virginia sat at the breakfast table wondering what was taking her father so long. He was never late for breakfast.
"Lucy, could you please go upstairs and check on Father?"
After a few minutes Lucy came stumbling down the stairs, tears streaming down her face.
"Lucy, what in heaven's name?" Virginia cried, rushing to assist her. The maid was so distraught Virginia was afraid she would fall.
"Mr. Templeton," she sobbed, sinking down onto one of the steps. "I think he's...he's...dead, miss"
Virginia stared at Lucy's shaking shoulders for a moment and then rushed up the stairs to her father's room. He was still in bed. He's just sleeping she thought. "Father?" she whispered. "Father," she repeated as she shook his shoulder. Even through his nightshirt she could feel that he was cold. He had died during the night in his sleep. Virginia felt the room dip and begin to spin before she collapsed to the floor.
When she awoke, she was lying on her bed, and Violet was sitting by her, holding her hand. Her eyes were red and puffy "Ginny, I'm so sorry," she said.
She sat up in the bed. She was silent for a few moments. "I'm all alone now, Vi," she whispered as tears silently slid down her cheeks.
Virginia could not believe her father was dead. His funeral had been later in the week. She didn't know how the arrangements were made, they just were and she had sat numbly through the service.
Afterwards she had told Charles that she didn't think she could possibly marry him the following week.
"Nonsense. It's just what you need," he had replied dismissively.
Ever since the Summer Ball, every time she saw him, all she could think about was what she had seen in the Harrison's garden and how he was only marrying her so that Meredith Williams' husband wouldn't suspect that she was having an affair. You mean just what you need, she thought.
She wasn't sure that he was right but quite frankly she couldn't last much longer financially. There was barely enough money left to last six months. She immediately felt a stab of guilt because she was only marrying him for his money. She was no better than he.
She sat with Violet in the parlor pondering what to do when Violet suggested they take the carriage into town. That might cheer her up. Virginia didn't really feel like it but went along anyway.
As they wandered about the bustling town, they soon found themselves near the harbor. There they could see all the ships that were preparing to depart for America. Virginia saw people boarding the ships, speaking a jumble of different languages, excitedly heading for a new life and wondered what it would be like. "Vi, I should just jump aboard one of those ships and try my luck in America."
Violet's eyes widened with excitement. "Why don't you Ginny? You don't love Charles and he doesn't love you. I'm sure he wouldn't be heartbroken if you don't get married. And since you're on your own now you can run off and have an adventure!"
"I was only kidding! I am not going to run off! And besides, those journeys are expensive and I've heard the conditions are terrible. Many people don't even survive the crossing."
Violet spotted a large ship being loaded with boxes and crates and asked a passing sailor if it was a passenger ship headed for America.
"That ship there's called the Aurora. She's goin' to America all right, she is, miss. To Virginia to be exact. But not with passengers. Just cargo is all."
Violet turned excitedly to Virginia. "Did you hear that? It's only a cargo ship. And it's going to Virginia. It's a sign. You could stow away!"
"Vi, that is the craziest idea you have ever come up with! I am not going to stow away aboard a ship!"
"How else are you going to avoid a loveless marriage to an unfaithful husband? You're due for an adventure Ginny. Take the chance!" Another sailor passed by. "Excuse me, do you know when the Aurora bound for Virginia sails?"
"I do believe it's tomorrow evenin' miss."
Before Violet could say a word, "Forget it Vi, it is out of the question!"
The next day at home, Virginia sat in the parlor waiting for Charles. They were to have lunch together. Virginia was wearing a plain black gown and staring out the window. Lucy entered and mentioned that Charles had arrived.
"My dear, how do you feel today?" he inquired, dryly kissing her on the cheek.
"Oh, a little better," she tried to say brightly. In fact she felt just as she had ever since she had discovered her father dead in his bed; numb and very alone.
After their lunch was served, she mentioned again to him that she didn't feel it was appropriate to be married so soon after her father's death. "I just don't feel it's right to have a celebration so soon after his death. There should be a suitable period of mourning."
Charles slammed his fist on the table, startling her. "I will not delay this wedding," he hissed. "I know all about your precarious financial situation and that you must marry me, so don't pretend that this is to be a joyous occasion for you," he sneered at her.
Virginia gasped, appalled that he would throw that in her face.
Not knowing that Virginia knew about the bargain he had made with her father, he misinterpreted her shock. "Oh yes, I know all about your father's gambling and how you're now close to destitute. Who do you think is paying for this wedding? Since the bride's family traditionally pays for it, I had to offer to pay the bills." Charles stood, placed both palms on the table and leaned across to her. The menace in his voice was unmistakable. "I am not prepared to pay for this wedding twice, Virginia. You are going to marry me in one week and that's final."
The color drained from Virginia's face and when she tried to rise from the table she found that her legs were shaking so much that she could not stand. Charles flung his napkin on the table and stormed out of the house.
When Violet dropped by two hours later, Virginia was in her room. She knew immediately that something was wrong. When Virginia told her about Charles' outburst and menacing behavior she was shocked. "Oh, Vi, what if his meek manner all these months has been for show and he's actually very mean? They way he ordered me to marry him on the appointed day...what if he treats me like that after we're married? Oh, what am I to do?" Virginia broke down into tears.
Violet soothed her, stroking her hair and handing her a fresh handkerchief. "You could always stow aboard that ship headed for Virginia" she laughed, hoping to lighten the mood.
Virginia lifted her head, her face stained with tears. "Yes, I could, couldn't I?"
Violet looked at her in astonishment. "Ginny, I was only joking!"
"Really, what have I to lose? A loveless marriage to an unfaithful, horrible, mean spirited husband who will most likely treat me no better than a servant? I'll take my chances in the new world!"
With that she began to pack a few belongings, along with her mother's jewelry that was left to her and few other valuable objects that she knew she could sell if she needed money. She took what little money was left and Violet even offered up her own jewelry. She wrote Charles a note saying that she could not tolerate his unfaithfulness and was running away to France. She almost left her engagement ring with the note but thought it would serve him right not to get it back. She then ordered the carriage to take them into town. The driver didn't comment on the large bag that Virginia was carrying or the sense of excitement the two girls shared.
Dusk was settling as they walked nervously towards the docks, trying to decide the best way for Virginia to get aboard without being seen. They watched the loading process for a awhile and noticed that a number of crates were loaded onto a large pallet which was hoisted up and then deposited right down into the hold of the ship. If Virginia could sneak onto and off the pallet, hiding in between the crates without being seen she would be on the ship. She could hide out in the hold, sneaking food from the kitchen at night.
Virginia sat huddled in a corner of the huge ship wondering what had come over her to make her do this. She wondered if they were too far from shore for her to swim back. Her stomach gave a rumble and she suddenly realized that she hadn't eaten since lunch with Charles and even then it hadn't been much. She had a little food and water with her but she decided to try and make it last as long as possible and she lay down to try and get some sleep.
When she awoke she had no idea what time it was, but judging from the light peeping through the loading door it was day time.
After five days her food ran out and after a full week so did her water. Her thirst and hunger drove her to attempt to steal some food. That night when she peeked up on deck she saw that the sailor on watch was sound asleep. She was able to steal across the deck, find the kitchen and grab some bread and water. She managed to do this successfully for a few more weeks, going up always late at night and only every few days. However, she noticed that she was losing strength and knew that she needed more than just bread and water and that she needed it more often. That night she barely had enough strength to stand as she stole into the kitchen. While searching for something more substantial than bread she became light headed. Her head swimming, she stumbled and crashed into a rack of pots and pans. The noise woke the cook, who slept near the kitchen. With a roar he jumped out of bed and rushed into the kitchen to find Virginia struggling to get up and out of the kitchen.
In his half awake state, he didn't realize that it was a woman on the floor of his kitchen. "Hey there, what do yer think yer doin'?" he bellowed.
He grabbed her just as she was about to flee. Virginia struggled with the man but to no avail. In her weakened condition he subdued her easily. He looked at her puzzled, wondering what a woman was doing on the ship when the night watchman and most of the crew arrived having been woken by the commotion.
"I found 'er in the kitchen, tryin' to steal food," the cook announced.
Virginia noticed the lusty stares of the men and realized that in her struggle the bodice of her dress had torn and since the cook was holding her arms back she was displaying quite a lot of cleavage. One of the men advanced and stroked her cheek. "Yer mighty pretty fer a stow away. Why don't ye come sleep in my bunk?" He eyed her torn dress and exposed cleavage hungrily.
The cook pushed him away. "We'll 'ave none of that, now. The Cap'in'll decide what to do wit' 'er."
At that moment a voice boomed, "What in blazes is going on in here?" In her weakened condition along with the stress of the moment Virginia was having enough trouble just standing, but when she saw those familiar hazel eyes staring at her in amazement she just collapsed into darkness.
Drake stared at her limp form, still being held by the cook.
"What'll we do wit' 'er, Cap'in?"
Reaching for her, he said, "Give her to me. I'll put her in my cabin for now and figure things out in the morning. Everybody back to bed."
He lifted her easily and carried her back across the deck. Looking down into her dirty face, he couldn't believe it was her. He eyed her torn bodice, greedily drinking in her exposed flesh. He softly descended the stairs to his cabin and opened the door. He approached the bed and lay her down. Staring again at her face, he stroked her hair back. Even filthy, she's still lovely, he thought.
He didn't want to leave her in his bed wearing such dirty clothes, so he gently rolled her over and undid the lacings on the back of her dress. He managed to ease it off of her and then removed the lacings from her corset and gently pulled it out from under her. Resisting the urge to see her undressed, he covered her with a blanket before he pulled off her chemise and other garments. He pulled the blanket up to her chin and stared at her again. Leaning down, he placed a kiss on her smudged forehead before extinguishing the light and locking the door behind him.
He arrived back on deck and stared up at the sky. It was heavily sprinkled with stars. Why in the world was she on his ship? What had happened to her in Liverpool to drive her away? He hadn't told her he was a ship captain so she couldn't have chosen his ship on purpose. He was going to have to wait until morning for the answers to his questions and then after that he had her in close proximity for the next seven weeks. With a smile he thought to himself that this could prove to be the most enjoyable crossing ever.
The first thing Virginia was aware of was that she was in a bed. She sighed with relief that the horrible dream she had been having was over. Without opening her eyes she rolled over. She would wait until Lucy came to wake her. She was then aware of the creaking of wood and the sound of footsteps overhead. It also felt as though the bed was moving, or rather as though the whole room was moving. Opening her eyes she realized that it hadn't been a dream at all and that she was in the cabin of a ship. Sunlight was streaming in through the porthole windows. She bolted upright and was horrified to find that she wasn't wearing her clothes and that she was naked. She pulled her knees up and drew the blanket up to her chin. Terrified, she recalled the events of the night before and wondered what her fate would be. She then remembered seeing Drake. Surely due to her hunger she had been hallucinating. At that moment the door to the room opened and she knew that what she had seen had been real.
"Well, Miss Templeton, I see that you're awake. How do you feel?" he asked jovially, closing the door behind him. He pulled the chair out from his desk, turned it to face her and eased himself into it.
Virginia ignored his question. "Where are my clothes? Who undressed me? What is going to happen to me?"
With an amused expression he replied, "I had to remove your dress as it was very dirty and I didn't want you in my bed wearing such filthy clothes." He stood and retrieved a nightshirt from a nearby cupboard. He handed it to her. "Perhaps you'll feel more comfortable wearing this for now."
"Your...your...bed?" she stammered taking the garment from him.
"Don't worry, I slept in the empty beds of the men on watch last night," he said, turning his back so that she could put the shirt on.
"But you undressed me!"
"I averted my eyes the whole time, I assure you," he replied with a smile in his voice.
At that moment there was a knock at the door. "Come in," he called.
A young sailor came in holding Virginia's belongings. "We found these in the hold, Captain."
"Thank you Forrester." Drake took the bag from him and closed the door after the sailor left. "I assume this is yours?" he asked her, referring to the bag.
Having donned the nightshirt but still holding the covers up to her chin, she nodded, staring at him in amazement. "You're the captain of this ship?' she asked him.
"Yes, I am. Welcome to the Aurora." There was another knock at the door. A sailor entered carrying a tray with a bowl of stew. The smell immediately set her mouth watering.
"Thank you Simpson," Drake said taking the tray from the man.
"This is for you," he said approaching the bed. "So if you lower your knees, I'll place the tray in your lap."
Not taking her eyes off him, she slowly lowered her knees, still holding the blanket up to her chin. He placed the tray on her lap. "Now I know you're probably extremely hungry, but try and eat slowly or you'll make yourself sick. Afterwards try and get some more sleep. I have to go back up on deck and I'm going to lock the door. If anyone knocks, don't let them in." Stroking her matted hair he added, "Not all the men on this ship are as honorable as I am." He stared at her a moment and with a smile he exited and she heard a key turning in the lock. She stared at the closed door for a moment and then looked down at the food in her lap. She picked up the spoon and concentrated on eating the stew slowly. It was the best thing she had ever tasted.
When she next awoke it was dark outside the porthole. Drake was standing by a large table covered with maps and charts. She assumed he was checking their progress and plotting the ship's course.
He wasn't aware that she was awake and she took this time to study him. She stared at his handsome profile. She watched him walk around the table with his confident stride and as he leaned over to write something, she noticed that his thick dark hair was pulled back with a ribbon and was wet. His jacket was hanging on the back of his chair and his shirt was damp in places and was sticking to him. A warmth began in her belly as her eyes traced the muscles of his arms and his back and the tapering at his torso. She admired the strength of his long legs. The warmth spread through her body, tingling her senses as her eyes slowly traveled back up, lingering here and there, and when they returned to his face, she suddenly realized that he had turned his head and was looking at her. She immediately blushed at having been caught staring at him.
He looked at her quizzically and cocked an eyebrow. Before he had a chance to say anything there was knock at the door. "Come in," he called out.
A sailor poked his head in. "Is now a good time, Cap'in'?" "Yes, yes, perfect timing." Gesturing for him to come in, two sailors entered carrying a large tin tub between them. They were followed by more men carrying large buckets of steaming water and they filled the tub. Another dropped off a bar of soap and a couple of towels.
After they had left, Drake turned to her. "It's bath day on ship and I figured you'd probably appreciate one as well. I'm sorry we don't have any perfumes or oils but I think you'll find the soap to be adequate. I've also put out a fresh night shirt. It's late so I didn't think you'd be wanting to get dressed properly. I'll be back in an hour. And then we'll talk about why you're here." He picked up his jacket and walked out.
As soon as Virginia heard the lock turn in the door she jumped out of bed, pulling the shirt off over her head. Letting out a contented sigh, she sank into the tub and felt herself relax for the first time in weeks. She vigorously soaped and scrubbed herself and washed her hair. After toweling herself off she realized that without any hair pins she would just have to wear her hair down. Standing with the coppery curls hanging down to her waist she realized that she had never worn it entirely loose like this.
She looked down at the night shirt that Drake had laid out for her. She found her bag laying on the floor and dug through it. She drew out a nightgown and pulled it on over her head. She pulled the ties at the drawstring neckline and tied them. The nightshirt only hung as far as her knees and she felt much more secure in a garment the fell to the floor.
As she was settled back in bed, working through a few tangles in her hair, there was knock at the door. "Can I come in?" Drake called out.
She drew her knees up again and pulled the blanket up to her chin. "Yes, Mr. Stratford, you can come in," she said nervously.
He carried a tray with him with another bowl of stew. A bigger bowl this time and the stew looked heartier than before. "This is for you. I assumed you would still be hungry. But still eat slowly."
She lowered her knees and he placed the tray in her lap. She tucked the blanket under her arms and picked up her spoon. As she ate he continued his work at the table. She watched him as he walked around the table. She pretended to be paying attention to her stew but cast discrete glances at him. She again admired his broad shoulders and when he leaned over to note something on a chart or measure a distance on a map, his shirt stretched over his back and she could see the muscles there as well. She studied the sculpted features of his face. The hooded hazel eyes that she knew so well, his high cheekbones and strong square jaw. She glanced at his mouth, with those beautiful full lips that she also knew so well. She watched the muscles working in his arm as he wrote and moved items about the table. Memories of how those arms had held her tightly so many times flooded through her mind, causing her breath to catch in her throat.