Wife On His Doorstep
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A half dozen people sprang into action, either screaming or throwing enough life rings to save the doomed passengers of the Titanic. As John went to the rescue he saw Megan run up the stairs, one arm still holding Foggy Dew, the other clutching her skirt high so she could move easier. She disappeared from sight about the same time he yanked Robert Winslow out of the river. Again.
Megan ran with blind panic, knowing only that she had to get away from everyone, especially Robert. At the top of the stairs she found dozens of her wedding guests staring at her, unclear about what had happened. Those who knew her, like her friends, her mother and Uncle Adrian, started toward her, but Megan knew how they felt, knew what their reaction to her mutiny would be, and so she gathered the wet cat closer to her body and headed up the next flight of stairs.
She emerged on a landing next to a short passageway and ran toward the front of the ship. It ended at a door with a sign that read Bridge—Authorized Personnel Only. She didn’t want the bridge, she didn’t want people. There were two other doors, one on either side. Without pausing, she turned the knob of the door on the right, gasping with relief when it popped open. She threw herself into a heavily shadowed room, slamming the wooden door behind her, searching for and finding the lock, which she clicked with a trembling hand.
As though sensing where she was, the cat suddenly renewed her efforts to get free. Megan released her grip, but it took a few seconds to unhook all the claws from the lace. Tearing was inevitable, but at last the animal sprang down onto a thick, red Oriental carpet that partially covered a plank floor. Still wet and obviously pregnant, the pathetic little animal wobbled toward the single shaft of sunlight that made its way through a gap in the curtains.
Megan followed and, flinging the heavy drapes aside, flooded the room with light and warmth. Dispassionately, she took in the rich, wooden walls, the framed pictures of sturdy tugboats, the navy fabric and gold-braided trim, the brass fixtures, the long mirror on the back of a door, the small round table and four captain’s chairs, the jacket draped casually across the back of one of the chairs.
The jacket brought immediate thoughts of Captain Vermont. She’d expected a jolly kind of man with twinkling eyes and silver hair to run a stern-wheeler, not the young, handsome, commanding figure who had appeared at the altar. In his early thirties, he wore a deep blue uniform, the long jacket emphasizing his height. No brass buttons or nautical cap, just longish black hair that blew in the breeze. Straight black eyebrows and piercing blue eyes seemed to brook no nonsense, nor did the expression he wore, one of slight disinterest and curious detachment, and yet he’d seemed genuinely concerned about the little gray cat.
And his voice. Rich and deep like a cup of exceptional coffee, a voice that gave tender words an edge and angry words an attitude impossible to ignore.She recalled how she’d latched on to his gaze as she’d stood at the altar, how suddenly her whirlwind courtship and hasty wedding had seemed all wrong. It was odd, but reflecting upon it now, she realized she’d gathered from the captain’s steady gaze the strength she’d needed to overcome her panic and complete her vows.
A lot of good it had done. If a man who kicked an animal wasn’t bad enough, she’d been on the verge of marrying a man who kicked an animal and then had the audacity to be proud of himself!
This after the scene that very morning when he’d informed her she would have to sign a prenuptial agreement before the ceremony or he wasn’t going through with it. Maybe she was naive, but she’d thought marriage was supposed to be based on trust, faith and love. Had she been wrong on all three counts? She’d thought him a generous man who supported her career as fund-raiser for the Riverside Hospital. In that position, she was supposed to be discerning when it came to assessing people—ha!
Still, in the end, buckling under pressure, she’d signed on the dotted line. What else was she supposed to do with her mother and all those people waiting to watch her commit herself to a man for eternity? She suddenly realized that that was what marriage was supposed to be, a uniting of the heart and spirit for eternity. She felt dizzy.
This was what happened when you let stardust fall into your eyes. This was what happened when you believed in the fairy tale that men were strong and wise and protective, when you didn’t rely on yourself, when you didn’t use your head, when you let your mother’s dreams and goals get confused with your own.
It seemed the price of a clearer vision of him was a sharper image of herself.
The cat had commenced what promised to be a long bath. Sunlight fell on Megan’s face as she stood in front of the windows and closed her eyes. Soon, she knew, her hideaway would be discovered; her mother and Robert would begin a campaign to gain admittance to this cabin and she would have choices to make.
Well, let them come, she thought with renewed determination. Let them all come and see what good it will do!
The stern-wheeler was alive with rampant rumors that ran the gamut from the truth to out-and-out fabrications. John’s favorite was that Winslow had jumped overboard in a gallant effort to save the poor little cat that Megan had dropkicked into the water because it had torn her wedding dress.
John gave orders for the ship to weigh anchor and head back toward the dock in Portland. He told Winslow’s family that since everything was paid for—one way or another—folks might as well eat and the band might as well play. Winslow promised a lawsuit, which brought a glint to John’s eye and a challenging grin to his lips.
And then Megan’s family came forward, all two of them. One was a rotund man of fifty and the other a middle-aged woman who must have once been a knockout. She nailed John with pale blue eyes and gripped his arm. She told him she’d heard that Megan had dunked poor Robert. It wasn’t true, was it?
He assured her it was.
“Is my daughter nuts?” the woman asked. “The man is loaded.”
John didn’t answer her. Instead he said, “You’re the bride’s mother?”
The woman nodded. “We didn’t meet last night at the rehearsal. Your event coordinator, Mrs. Colpepper, said you were busy...” Her voice trailed off as she waited for him to fill in the gap.
What he’d been busy doing was painting the kitchen at the house he was building high above the river. Mrs. Colpepper had read him the riot act for not showing up for the rehearsal, but jeez, he hated those things. If anything, they were worse than the actual ceremony. Marrying people was bad enough—practicing marrying people just seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.
Besides, it was a simple ceremony aboard a moored boat—what did they need to rehearse that for? As soon as he found a replacement for Colpepper, rehearsals were going to be the first thing to go. For now, he addressed the mother, “So, where is your daughter?”
The older woman gestured at the stairs. “Up there. She didn’t want to talk to me or any of her friends, or even her uncle Adrian. She didn’t even slow down when she saw us. I tell you, if her father, rest his soul, was here, he would have made her stop and listen to reason.” She turned to the man beside her and added, “My George was just like Robert, wasn’t he, Adrian?”
“In many ways, Lori,” a big florid man with a fleshy nose and a small mouth said. “Don’t worry, by now the girl’s probably rigid with regret.” The man stuck out a meaty hand and added, “Name’s Adrian Haskell, Megan’s uncle. I know how crazy the girl is about the Winslow chap. I’m sure we’ll get this fracas cleared up.”
“Where is poor Robert?” Megan’s mother asked.
“Down below,” John answered curtly. He was annoyed with Megan’s family’s reaction. He had to make a point of reminding himself that he didn’t care about this melodrama and if these misdirected people wanted to worry about the wrong party in this mess, then that was their business, not his.
He was almost at the top of the stairs when he heard his name yelled. He turned, knowing before he saw her that Mrs. Colpepper was about to tear into him again.
She stood at the bottom of the stairs, a plump woman swathed in lilac, prone to fussiness, enamored of protocol except when it came to her dealings with him.
“Listen here, Captain Vermont,” she said through gritted teeth. “I hold you fully responsible for this fiasco. If you had forbidden that cat from coming aboard as I asked you to, none of this would have happened. And then to save it before you attended to Mr. Winslow was absolutely unpardonable. I have half a mind to tender my resignation. Why, when I think of the scandal—”
“Keep everyone else down there until I find out what the blazes is going on, Colpepper, you got that?” he interrupted.
“I have no intention of denying Mr. Winslow access to his bride—”
“Especially Mr. Winslow.”
He cut her off by turning his back and resuming the climb, Mrs. Colpepper’s continuing diatribe as monotonous as the thumping slap of the boat’s stern paddle.
Besides the wheelhouse, there were two cabins on the top deck, including his own. The cabin on the left opened to reveal a dark room, the event consultant’s shipside office. As he flipped on the light, he called Megan’s name. Empty.
The other cabin—his cabin—was locked. Since he hadn’t locked it, Megan must be holed up inside. He patted his pocket for the key, realizing at last that it was in his other jacket...which was behind the door with the distraught bride. This left him no alternative but to knock.
“Who is it?” she said at once as though she’d been standing on the other side of the door, waiting.
“It’s Captain Vermont,” he said sternly, not at all amused she’d chosen his private quarters in which to take sanctuary.
“Please, just go away,” she said.
“Can’t do that,” he told her.
“Open the door and we’ll talk.”
“There are over a hundred people out here wanting to see you,” he told her.
“Well, I don’t want to see them,” she replied immediately.
“Just talk to me, then,” he said.
A long pause was followed by, “Are you alone?”
He looked down the empty passageway. “For the moment.”
“Can’t you just steer the boat back to Portland and leave me be?” she pleaded.
“Maybe I can, but I’m not going to,” he informed her.
Another long pause, then the door opened. Megan made no movement to step aside so John could enter.
“May I come in?”
“What do you want?”
He tapped the brass plaque attached to the mahogany door and said, “This is my cabin.”
Biting her lip, she said, “I’m sorry. I really am.”
John looked under her arm and saw Foggy Dew stretched out in the sunshine, licking an extended leg, her bulging middle attesting to the fact that she’d managed to hold on to the kittens. “Is the cat—”
“She’s fine. She’s almost dry.”
“But you’re scratched,” he said, nodding at her right arm. He didn’t mention what she looked like—how the tears had reddened her eyes, how the designer dress was now tattered and torn, stained with blood, cat hair and river water, how the flowers in her hair had slipped down to just above her left ear. Heck, none of these things detracted from the winsome beauty that was her birthright. Again, he noticed her high cheekbones and the flawless texture of her skin, the wispy blond strands that curled around her hairline, the cupid’s bow shape of her lips, lips absolutely begging to be kissed. John felt a deep jolt. Where in the world were these kind of thoughts coming from?
She stared down at her arm as though aware for the first time that rescuing Foggy Dew had extracted a toll.
He cleared his throat. “Come across the hall and I’ll find the first-aid kit. I know Mrs. Colpepper keeps it in her office. We’ll get you fixed up.”
“It’s not necessary, it doesn’t matter.”
He tried a different angle to budge her. “I know your mother and your fianc? want to see you. You go to Mrs. Colpepper’s office and I’ll escort them—”
“I don’t ever want to see Robert Winslow again,” she stated firmly. “He’s a jerk.”
Was it really possible this was the first time she’d noticed what a creep the guy was? Remembering he was not a counselor but a captain, he mumbled, “I, uh, happen to know there’s a certain amount of...of strain associated with getting married...”
She was shaking her head and new tears were puddling in her eyes. “I thought I could talk to them. I know I’m being evasive, but I need time to think. I just can’t face them all right now—you tell them for me, okay?”
“Please,” she added, and with an apologetic shrug, slowly closed the door again, leaving John Vermont high and dry and out of a cabin.
He pounded a fist against his leg as he strode down the passageway, determined to find a new captain for this ship pronto. “Damn weddings,” he swore beneath his breath.
An hour later he gave up trying to restrain Megan’s fianc?, figuring that by now she’d probably had second thoughts and was ready to come out and talk...and give him back his cabin.
“Meg? Listen to me. Open the door and let me in.” Winslow’s voice was cajoling.
John stood across the passageway, leaning against a bulkhead, arms crossed, watching.
“No,” she said.
John shook his head. He was beginning to suspect that nothing short of dynamite was going to blast that woman from his cabin, certainly not this bozo’s entreaties. Despite his fervent wish she’d leave, he had to admit a certain amount of admiration for her tenacity.
“I will not go away,” Winslow said. He’d stripped off the tuxedo jacket but still wore the black slacks, the white shirt and the suspenders, all of which had dried, to a point, as had his hair, but his shoes squeaked when he moved. While his voice was still persuasive, his appearance had taken a definite nosedive. He didn’t look quite so smug now.
Running a hand through his damp hair and lowering his voice, Winslow talked to the door. “You’re acting like a child,” he said, his voice as smooth as an oil slick. “You know that, don’t you, Meg? Like a little child, running away, scared and silly. Your behavior is embarrassing me and your family. Heck, it was just a stupid animal, and besides, the big brave captain rescued it, so what’s the harm? Now, come out here. Open the door.”
At his side, John’s hand rolled into a fist, almost ready to give Winslow the thump on the head he’d been asking for. He was unclear whether his desire to beat the tar out of this guy had to do with the degrading way he addressed Megan, his total disregard for animals, or the jab at himself. But the door stayed shut and retreating footsteps behind it announced clearly that Megan had moved back into the room, ending this conversation.
Winslow turned, his sour expression growing even more surly when he found John staring at him. “I hear you own this tub,” he growled.
“Then redeem yourself a little and open the door. You must have a key.”
John smiled. “Actually, I don’t.”
“Then break the lock—”
“And do what, Mr. Winslow? Drag the lady out by her hair? Dump her in the river like she dumped you? Make her walk the plank, keelhaul her, put her in shackles and lock her in the brig?”
For once the man seemed at a loss for words. He moved a few steps away, then turned back and glared at John. “I’m not through with you yet, Vermont! I have friends in high places.”
“Good for you,” John said as he pushed himself away from the wall and opened the door to the bridge, anxious only to return Ruby Rose to shore and get these people off his boat.
Megan closed the drapes and flicked on a lamp. For the first time she caught sight of herself in the long mirror, and she winced. Without pausing to think, she stripped off her wedding dress and tore the ridiculous flowers from her hair, dumping both on the floor.
Little doubts started to kick in as she found a bathroom behind the door with the mirror and washed the blood off her arm. Had she overreacted? Had she, like Robert said, been silly? Did the captain think she was silly? She suddenly had the intense desire to know what he thought, but since there was no way of finding him without risking running into her family and Robert, she decided to stay put.
Four angry red lines attested to the cat’s plight and helped ease Megan’s doubts. She rubbed soap into the wounds, rinsed them carefully, then splashed her face with cold water, pausing to look out the porthole beside the sink. The shoreline was turning from rural to city, which meant they must be close to the wharf.
Back in the cabin she was faced with the prospect of waiting to disembark in her underwear or donning the captain’s spare jacket. As she took it off the back of the chair, she wondered how, and if, she would have the nerve to face everyone. She buttoned all the black buttons. Seeing as she was just a touch over five-five, a good ten inches shorter than Captain Vermont, the jacket fell to below her knees and swamped her. She rolled up the cuffs. It was better than the dress. Anything was better than the dress.
Besides, the garment’s lining slipped easily against her bare skin while the collar was rough against her neck. It smelled of musk, as though aftershave had left its trail. It was like being wrapped in an embrace, comforting somehow. She turned up the collar and hugged the jacket close to her body.
She watched the docking process from the safety of the captain’s cabin, ignoring the repeated pleas that came from the passageway, pleas that begged her to come to her senses.
“I already have,” she whispered.
There was always a feeling of satisfaction when a voyage, no matter how small, was successfully completed, but this time the final docking of the Ruby Rose at the old wharf along the waterfront brought its captain a particularly gratifying wave of relief.
As John took off his gloves and opened the shallow drawer in which he kept them, he suffered the good-natured ribbing of his first mate, Danny Borel. Danny, aware of the wedding fracas, found it especially funny that John was out of a cabin.
As Danny left the bridge for a hot date with a leggy redhead he’d met on deck, John’s eyes fell on the extra set of keys in the drawer. Snapping them up, he tossed them into the air and caught them, chuckling to himself. Now we’ll see...
The first order of business was a post-voyage stroll around each of the three decks. Though he tried to avoid her, Colpepper was lurking by the stairs, waiting for him.
“I have half a mind to quit,” she sputtered.
He thought she had half a mind—period. He said, “It’s been a long day, Colpepper.”
“When I think of the hours I spent—”
Holding up his hand and darting down the stairs, he called, “Save it for tomorrow, will you?”
He snatched an extra bottle of champagne and a couple of spare lobsters off the ravaged buffet table and, thus armed, went back to his cabin and knocked on the door.
He heard music from within, but no one answered the knock. A muffled meow prompted him to use the spare key.
Foggy Dew sat in the middle of the small room, blinking her yellow eyes. John nudged the door closed with his elbow, set the tray on the round table, and picked the cat up, stroking her head.
“You caused a heap of trouble today,” he told the cat right before he spotted the mound of lacy white material in the corner, and in the next glance, Megan, asleep on his bunk, dressed in one of his jackets, her long bare legs crossed at the ankles, her hands resting on her flat stomach. The cat struggled to get down. John set her carefully on the rug, somewhat surprised to see her jump up on the bunk and curl into a ball by Megan’s hip.
For some time he stood off to the side, watching the peaceful—and tantalizing—rise and fall of Megan’s chest as she breathed, admiring the thick sweep of lashes that lay against her cheeks, the gentle repose of her mouth. And, once again, he imagined covering her succulent lips with his own. He imagined gathering her in his arms and kissing her awake. He imagined the look in her eyes....
He shook his head. Crazy thoughts! Ridiculous, inappropriate thoughts he had no business thinking. He made himself turn away from her and all the nebulous yearnings she seemed to inspire.
The sideboard produced silverware, napkins, water glasses. He opened the wine, poured himself a couple of inches and sat in one of the chairs, propping his feet up on another. Megan Morison was as easy on the eyes as she was stubborn, all right. He wanted her to wake up but he suspected when she did she’d start fussing, so he let her be.
The evening was wearing away when she finally stirred. She awoke slowly, and John watched, knowing all the while she was unaware of his presence, knowing he should announce himself. But he liked seeing her yawn and stretch, liked the way her lips curved when she saw the cat beside her. When she finally turned her head and saw him gazing at her, she sat up abruptly, tugging modestly on the jacket.
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