Alexander Hampton, heir presumptive to the Earl of Cranville, pulled his snowy cravat loose and propped his buckled shoes on the sea captain’s table in an unlordly manner. Pouring a tumbler of rum from the bottle at his side, he regarded his companion with sardonic amusement.
“An old smuggler like you dares to lecture me on right and wrong? For shame, Jack. Hypocrisy is as hazardous a fault as theft.”
Uncomfortable in a proper captain’s uniform, former smuggler Jack Ruggles shrugged off his braided coat. Once in shirtsleeves like his employer, he settled down for a long bout of drinking. “Smugglin’s for them that got no better. You’re a rich man now. You got no reason to risk yourself or your partners.”
Alex quit smiling as he sipped his drink and contemplated his troublesome partners: the very proper Earl of Cranville and the very improper, Lord Rory Maclean—Jack’s former employer.
The ship hit a swell broadside and lurched. The lantern on the wall swayed and flickered, while Alex’s thoughts retreated down a melancholy path.
“Since one of those partners was your companion in crime,” Alex ruminated aloud, “I cannot believe he will frown too heavily on a little extra profit. Jacobite rebel that he is, he’d find it amusing to ignore the lazy nabobs in the West Indies. It’s the nabobs’ fault that the Yanks must pay through the nose for sugar. It’s a wonder the Yanks don’t shoot the customs officers and take matters in their own hands. I can buy the sugar cheap from the French, skip the return trip to our fair shores, sell the load in the colonies at a decent profit, give the tax collectors their tariff, and we all still come out ahead. Where’s the harm?”
“You might have a reputation as a rakehell who pursues heiresses to pay your debts, but smuggling ain’t your style. So what maggot’s in your head now?” Jack asked, taking advantage of old acquaintance. “Rory might close his eyes for politics, but not Cranville. He’d not take kindly to his heir’s venture into crime. And he’d want no part of the profits.”
Stretching his legs in their tight buckled breeches and stockings, Alex tilted his chair back at a precarious angle and carelessly tossed back the rest of the rum. With his coarse black hair tightly bound at the nape, unadorned by wig or powder, his valet would have a choking fit if he could see him now.
The earl. The damned righteous, arrogant Earl of Cranville, holder of the title, estates, and purse strings that Alex had once thought were his. He owed his current fortune to his cousin the earl, and to the earl’s daughter, and to the daughter’s husband, Rory Maclean. He wasn’t quite certain yet whether to be resentful or grateful. He returned the chair to the floor and poured another cup.
“How do the colonists survive without the damned nobility breathing down their necks and telling them what to do? Isn’t it about time his majesty considered giving peerages in America? The Duke of New York, the Marquess of Boston—look at all the younger sons that could be granted earldoms. Why, in no time we’d bring the savages under a noble yoke, and all would be as peaceful as it is in merry old England.”
Jack snorted, finally recognizing Alex’s boredom. “You found the wrong drinking partner for your flights of fancy, my lord. Seein’ as how the Yanks think they already own the land, they might protest a wee bit at the king giving them away. But you’re welcome to the task of claiming it if you like. It makes about as much sense as smuggling.”
Alex grinned at this grudging reply.
In the summer heat of the cabin, he had shrugged off his tailored coat, deciding he might as well shoot his noble image all to hell. But he was restless, and even in shirtsleeves, he couldn’t make himself comfortable.
“You’re dead set against the Indies, then? That’s a shame. Think of what your percentage would be on profits like that.” Despite his nonchalance, he watched the captain shrewdly. It wasn’t just boredom that made him tempt the ex-smuggler. Disgruntled employees had been known to involve themselves in worse crimes than padding profits.
The letter of complaint in his vest pocket crackled.
Jack favored his employer with a scornful look. “I wouldn’t want to come up against the Maclean should he ever find out I risked his wife’s ship in such a scheme. Buy your own ship if that’s the trade you seek. That bloody Revenue Act made smuggling a fool’s game. I don’t want to be hauled up before no Admiralty judge.”
Satisfied, Hampton found another topic to antagonize the old tar. “His wife’s ship! How noble-minded my cousin’s husband is. Alyson hasn’t the vaguest notion which end of the ship goes forward, much less how many ships her grandfather left her. Women are a feather-headed, worthless lot, good for only one thing. Why in the name of Old Nick the Maclean insists on treating the fortune as hers is beyond my comprehension. By law, she can’t own a thing, and rightly so, I might add.”
Jack rubbed the rum from his mustache with the back of his hand before taking another gulp. “The Lady Alyson is a fine, bonnie lass, as the captain would say. She needn’t know which end of a ship is up. That’s not for her to know. She’s made the Maclean happy and given him two brawny boys. If he wants to call the ship hers, he has that right.”
Alex agreed grudgingly. “Acquiring a fortune is one good reason for the chains of marriage, I daresay, but I’ll be deviled if I can think of any other. Old age, mayhap. The earl in his senility might appreciate a winsome wench like Lady Cranville, but the man’s been leg-shackled over half his life. You’d think he’d know better than to try it again. I’ll be bound if I can find any reason to give a woman the power to carp at me night and day. Just think what a wife would have to say when I decide to go on voyages like this! I shudder to think of it.” He shook his head in dismay and sipped at his cup.
“Aye, Dougall and Maclean both retired from the sea when they took wives, but I can’t see they suffer for it. Whenever the Maclean gets the itch to sail, Lady Alyson goes with him. I wouldn’t mind having a woman in my bed right now if I could find one willing to do the same.”
Since his thoughts were on the same subject—the lack of woman in his bed, not marriage—Alex growled a non-reply. As much as he detested the wiles of deceitful females, he regretted not having a light-skirt aboard. Six weeks was a long time. If only he could keep a woman’s material wants as satisfied as her physical ones, he wouldn’t be quite so discontented with his bachelor state. But he’d be damned if he’d go into debt again to supply the whores with their expensive trinkets.
Alex refilled his cup and raised it in a salute. “Here’s to our lovely colonial ladies, may they lift their skirts as freely as the London ones!”
Jack frowned at this disrespect. “You’ll be in for a bit of a surprise when you meet the Boston ladies,” he warned.