His Californian Countess (4 page)

Baker raised an eyebrow and stared as if considering her. Then he nodded. “Fine. We will do the ceremony first,” Baker said to Reverend Willis.

Willis nodded back. “I’ll need the names.”

“The man taken ill is Lord Jamie Reynolds, Earl of Adair, and this is Miss Helena Conwell.”

“Excuse me,” Amber interrupted. “My name is Amber Dodd. I am merely traveling in Helena’s stead. We traded places in our accommodations.”

“So you truly didn’t know the earl?” Captain Baker asked.

“I didn’t. It was a bit of a mistaken identity,” she said. “Helena failed to inform the earl of the change in her travel plans.” She glanced at the bed. “Jamie, are you still with us?”

“What’s holding…this back?”

She looked toward the men in the doorway. “Captain? Reverend?”

Reverend Willis cleared his throat and motioned Amber back to the bed. “I don’t know how to address a man of English peerage so we’ll just go with both his names. Make sure this is all legal and binding. Jamie Reynolds, Earl of Adair,” he said in a loud voice, “do you take this woman, Amber Dodd, for your lawfully wedded wife?”

“I do, Pixie,” Jamie rasped and smiled sadly.

The minister went on, unaware of the poignant moment. “And do you, Amber Dodd, take Jamie Reynolds, Earl of Adair, for your lawfully wedded husband?”

“I do,” she said.

Amber was grateful he had dispensed with all the promises they’d likely never be called on to test. And he certainly needn’t mention that death would part them. It was standing in the room, a dark witness, ready to claim him.

Captain Baker then read aloud the codicil and signed it at Jamie’s nod. Then Jamie scrawled his signature upon it. She returned to the door. “I will pray for his life, ma’am,” the captain said.

“And I will continue to do the same,” Reverend Willis added. “I will also write up the marriage papers and give them into the captain’s keeping.”

She nodded her thanks, then closed the door.

“It is done then?” Jamie asked.

“It is, but the entire affair was unnecessary. You’re going to get well. I’ve promised, haven’t I? I never break a promise.”

His energy spent, he nodded slightly, smiled sadly, then took a ring off his little finger and slid it on hers.
It fit. She wondered if that was prophetic. And if it was a prophecy, what did it mean? Was she destined to wear it as his widow or, queer thought that it was, did it mean they were destined for each other? Whichever it was, while she stared at her left hand, he fell back to sleep.

Amber stored the codicil in her trunk and resumed bathing him, fighting the fever ravaging his body. She wanted him to live, but the longer he hung on, hovering between life and death, the more she cared about him. She prayed that if he were to die God would take him before she cared even more for him. But then she quickly revised her thought because the truth was…she already cared for him too much.

And now she was married to him.

This adventure had become her worst nightmare come true.

Chapter Four

J
amie opened his eyes and found her standing over him. He’d never have thought such selflessness would be part of her character. And the plainness of her dress and even plainer hairstyle surprised him, too. He hadn’t thought Helena, an upper-class princess, would own a garment so worn and simple. “Oh, you’re back again,” she said in that sweet voice. It lured him from sleep time and again even though pain awaited.

“And you’re still here,” he quipped, scarcely recognizing the hoarse sound of his own voice.

“I promised you I’d be here. Will you try to take some broth and tea? I think my grandmother’s recipe is keeping your fever down a bit.”

Just then sunlight flooded through the skylight and illuminated her lovely face. It wasn’t Helena. It was Pixie. He struggled to gather a name from his fevered brain. She was Amber. He’d thought she must be part of a dream, but she was real. So he
had
met her on deck.

Jamie nodded to her question about the broth and tea. He didn’t feel up to eating or drinking, but he didn’t
want to disappoint her. She was taking care of him. The least he could do was cooperate and help himself.

Her lovely smile made the agony of swallowing worth the pain. He didn’t feel the same way when he tasted the bitter liquid he’d watched her mix with water and the contents of an envelope. “That last…quite disgusting,” he complained.

She laughed and laid a cool cloth on his forehead. “Your opinion of the doctor notwithstanding, we need to do everything we can to get you well. Meara is counting on us.”

Us? Jamie frowned as a fog rose between them and he felt his mind begin to descend into chaos. He fought to hold on to clarity, but could feel it slipping away. “Meara? You know my wee one?”

The pixie frowned. “No, you told me of her nearly a week ago. It’s easy to see how much you love her.”

Meara. His sweet trusting little angel. He shouldn’t have left. “Been…away…too much,” he tried to explain. He wanted to hide in his mind. He forced his eyes open and beheld captivating Helena. She floated next to his bed. Seeing her there made no sense. She hated him. But she needed protection. He had to make her see reason. “I gave…my word.” Speaking had grown agonizing, but she had to understand. “His blood…on my hands. Promised…Least…I can do. Died to save me.”

 

Amber sighed. So she was Helena again. Why did that bother her so much? She stared down at Jamie’s tortured expression and forgot her own upset. She knew the story of Harry Conwell’s murder and it clearly haunted Jamie.

He stared up at her, now engulfed in delirium. She
decided to play along. What difference did it make if a delirious man thought she was someone else?

“It wasn’t your fault,” she told him. “It was someone angry over his mining interests.”

“Not sure,” Jamie whispered. “Gowery said…but…I wonder—” His eyelids slid closed.

He was gone again, but he had been lucid for a longer time than he’d been in nearly a week. Since the day he’d pushed her to marry him.

Amber plunked down on the stool next to the bed. Lord above! She’d married him. She’d come to care for him. And he could still die. His fever kept spiking toward sundown. She wanted to believe he’d live so badly, but even his recovery posed a huge problem for her—for her heart. While he’d been lost in delusions and delirium, she’d seen the honorable man his unguarded mind revealed him to be. And more and more she became ensnared and enthralled by a pair of fevered violet eyes.

 

Several hours later Jamie’s fever spiked again. It raged for hours as if in response to her refusal to give up hope. Then he began sweating and she prayed the fever would break for good.

Exhaustion pressed in on her as she blotted his forehead to keep the sweat from running into his eyes. He tossed and turned and once again muttered names and the occasional coherent phrases about his terrible up-bringing and his need to protect his child from the same man English law would have made her guardian.

It surprised her that he was such a good man considering his life under his uncle’s cruel tutelage. No matter what happened between them in the future, she was at peace with her decision to marry him for Meara.

His skin had begun to peel quite severely a few days earlier and, according to the healing book, the disease had about run its course.

The sweating continued into the long, hot afternoon. She changed his soaking sheet several times. The crew had refused to get close to the diseased bed linens, but they did bring her fresh buckets of water so she could wash them. After she changed the bed, she dropped the sheets into a bucket of vinegar and water. After they’d soaked for a while, she rinsed them in a second tub of clean water, then gave them a soak in baking soda. That was how the book, which had almost become as precious to her as her Bible, said to clean everything that came in contact with him.

Their quick wedding seemed forever ago. In her weariness she’d lost count of exactly how many days that was. That she’d become Lady Adair that day seemed impossible. She looked down at herself and chuckled. She’d certainly set the entire aristocracy on its ear if right then they could see the woman the Earl of Adair had married.

Jamie finally quieted and the profuse sweating lessened. He was cooler to the touch than he’d been since the day she’d entered the cabin. By sunset her back ached and exhaustion licked at her heels. Though he’d not awakened since morning, he finally slept comfortably. She was no longer in the least squeamish about the personal nature of the tasks the doctor had pushed her to perform. She bathed him thoroughly, and found it difficult not to admire the beauty of him.

At last she had a few minutes for herself. Behind a blanket she’d hung in the corner, she washed in cool water and changed into one of Helena’s silk shifts. After
pushing the buckets of dirty water out to the cabin boy for disposal, she sank onto a pallet she’d made on the floor. Praying they’d both sleep all night and that Jamie was on the mend at last, Amber fell into exhausted sleep.

 

Soft breathing came from somewhere next to Jamie. From below and next to him. He glanced down and found his golden sprite curled up on the floor amid twisted sheets and blankets. It was the pixie from his dreams.

He must still be dreaming. Only in a dream would someone so lovely and innocent be there, ready to fulfill his most deep-seated wishes. If only she were real.

But whatever she was, wherever he was, he was drawn like a moth to a flame. Wondering which of them would be singed, he slipped from the bed to the floor and reached out to touch her golden hair. As he tangled his fingers in her wavy tresses, he waited, anxious for the burn.

But the fire was only in his blood.

She sighed and turned her face into his hand. He hardened and melted at once. It seemed the most natural action in the world to sink down next to her and pull her close. He captured her chin as he settled his lips over hers. The moan that escaped her called to him. Captured him.

Made him want.

Her.

Made him need.

Only her.

He parted her lips with his tongue and she granted him entrance with another sigh. He tasted sweetness and hunger and prayed it was hunger for him. Sliding his palms lower, he found her fine-boned, delicate shoul
ders and ever so gently kneaded them. Then he stroked downward over her back, her gently rounded buttocks. Her warmth heated his blood, especially when he realized that only a thin silken shift separated them. That knowledge tempted him as nothing before ever had. Finally his fingers found the hem of her shift.

His palms came in contact with her thighs and he was amazed that her skin was silkier than her shift. He was obsessed with her. “So silky. So soft,” he whispered. He had to have her.

He skimmed his fingertips upward over her thighs and feathered them over her hipbones. She shivered and made strangled little sounds, tempting sounds that provoked a desperate need in him. He wanted to hold those perfect hips and mount her, but he fought the urge. There was all that enticing territory above to explore and he had all day and night. That was the beauty of a dream. He had as long as he wanted or needed. He trailed his fingers over her flat belly. It was even softer than the rest of her.

When he cupped her smooth, tempting breasts, she moaned again and a whispered word burst from her lips. “Please.” And then again, “Please.”

“I know,” he murmured, hoping to soothe her. He didn’t know how he knew what she wanted—what she needed. But this was his dream so, of course, what he wanted she wanted. And he wanted to pleasure her. A dream lover like his pixie deserved his best efforts.

He sought and found her warm, hot center and stroked her moist core, first one finger, then two. With his thumb he circled the one spot he knew would drive her wild.

It did. She cried out and tipped her hips as if seeking more, rocking against his hand. “Please,” she sobbed.
“I…I need—I need….” She tossed her head and held her arms out to him.

She might not understand all he’d made her feel, but he did. “Oh, yes, sprite, I do, too,” he assured her. They needed to lose themselves in each other. He gave in to all his secret desires. He shifted over her and covered one of her sweet nipples with his mouth and suckled her till she cried out again. Her scent—a combination of flowers and musk—seemed to surround him, then desire overwhelmed him.

He pulled her hips toward his and entered her tight core.

She made a small distressed sound and he tensed. Even a dream lover deserved care and consideration. “It’s all right. Don’t worry. I’ll make it good for you.”

Something was different about this coupling from those he’d had with his wife. Try though he might, his mind was too clouded with passion and need to identify what he’d missed or to consider anything beyond the desire this dream woman had stirred in him. He was no longer sure of even who she was—the sprite or Helena, he could no longer tell.

Knowing he had to coax her back to him, he covered her mouth with his and caressed her lips with his own. When she opened them on a gasp, he twined his tongue with hers. She was soon with him again and he rewarded her trust by carefully pressing forward, then pulling back. He rocked on her till he was buried to the hilt in her sweet depths. “Better? My God, tell me it’s better!”

She nodded, sucking in a breath. “Better than better. Perfect,” she breathed. Her tightness caressed him and rapture called, but he struggled to hold himself in check.
He supported his weight on his forearms as best as he could, but soon, shaking with need, he lost himself. All thought fled his mind when she circled his waist with her long, slender limbs.

Somehow he managed to fight back from the precipice of satisfaction, desperate to ensure pleasure for the magical woman in his arms. Sweet breath puffed from her lungs in the rhythm of his thrusts. Then when he could no longer hold off reaching for the ultimate rapture, her muscles began to pulse around him and he gave himself over to the wonder of the dream. Her cries of ecstasy tore through the little room and he gladly followed her. As he emptied his seed into her keeping, he cried out her name.

Helena.

Feeling as if she’d drained every ounce of strength from him, he rolled to his side to keep from collapsing on her. Chilled, he flipped the blanket over them both, and then pulled her along his side, settling her head against his shoulder. Exhaustion closed in on him, but he managed one more coherent thought. Who would have thought Helena would be so passionate a lover? This dream was better than any he’d had before he’d given up the idea of marriage between them.

As the fog in his mind closed in on him, Jamie felt a tear drop on to his shoulder, then another. But he couldn’t manage to ask why she’d cry.

 

Amber tried to hold on to her emotions, but one tear fell then another and another. How could a heart break and allow the owner to live with such pain? She would rather die than have him know the destruction one word—one name—had wrought within her.

It had all seemed like a dream at first. Indeed, she had
had similar dreams for days. With every fiber of her being Amber had believed this was a dream, as well. He’d been so sick and she’d been so afraid to believe he was on the mend that awaking in his arms had truly felt like a secret wish come true.

A fantasy.

A dream.

Then, when things she’d never imagined or heard of began to happen between them, she’d fully awakened and thought the real Jamie had come to her, wanting to make their desperate unromantic marriage a real one. And God help her, after all her protestations that she wanted no man in her life, in her exhausted sleep-deprived mind she’d wanted him. She’d believed the beautiful act they’d performed together came from feelings in each of them that matched perfectly.

Those traitorous emotions had grown against her will while she’d nursed him. Now she’d have to use all her willpower to obliterate them. Because he’d turned the dream she’d awakened to from beautiful reality to a nightmare with the shouted name of the woman he believed her to be.

Not Amber. Not even Pixie.

Helena.

Beautiful, wealthy and proper Helena.

So now Amber lay, silently weeping, unable to move away without risking his awakening and seeing how deeply he’d wounded her. The abyss of troubled sleep claimed her before she could stem the flow of her tears. While she slept in his arms, her dreams were full of confrontations that featured Jamie and Helena with Amber in the role of their child’s governess or some other lowly servant.

 

Jamie stirred and Amber woke with a start. Morning light flooded through the porthole, illuminating the cabin and sending reality crashing in on her like a mighty wave, assaulting her heart and soul. Everything between them last night had been a fraud.

She recoiled and tried to scramble away when Jamie’s gaze fell upon her face and anger marched across his features. He tightened his grip on her shoulder and pushed himself up on one bent arm, staring down at her with narrowed, furious eyes.

It was then that she remembered she was ignominiously nearly naked in the arms of her counterfeit husband. He’d taken her body when he thought she was his high-society love. Or maybe it was she who was the counterfeit in this marriage. After all, it was she who was not the woman he thought he’d wed. She was not his precious Helena.

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