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 BridgeóAuthorized Personnel Only. She didnít want the bridge, she didnít 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 captainís chairs, the jacket draped casually across the back of one of the chairs.
The jacket brought immediate thoughts of Captain Vermont. Sheíd 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 heíd 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 sheíd latched on to his gaze as sheíd 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 sheíd gathered from the captainís steady gaze the strength sheíd needed to overcome her panic and complete her vows.
A lot of good it had done. If a man who kicked an animal wasnít bad enough, sheíd 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 heíd informed her she would have to sign a prenuptial agreement before the ceremony or he wasnít going through with it. Maybe she was naive, but sheíd thought marriage was supposed to be based on trust, faith and love. Had she been wrong on all three counts? Sheíd 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 peopleóha!
Still, in the end, buckling under pressure, sheíd 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 didnít rely on yourself, when you didnít use your head, when you let your motherís 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 Meganís 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. Johnís 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 Winslowís family that since everything was paid foróone way or anotherófolks might as well eat and the band might as well play. Winslow promised a lawsuit, which brought a glint to Johnís eye and a challenging grin to his lips.
And then Meganís 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 sheíd heard that Megan had dunked poor Robert. It wasnít true, was it?
He assured her it was.
ďIs my daughter nuts?Ē the woman asked. ďThe man is loaded.Ē
John didnít answer her. Instead he said, ďYouíre the brideís mother?Ē
The woman nodded. ďWe didnít meet last night at the rehearsal. Your event coordinator, Mrs. Colpepper, said you were busy...Ē Her voice trailed off as she waited for him to fill in the gap.
What heíd 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 enoughópracticing marrying people just seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.
Besides, it was a simple ceremony aboard a moored boatówhat 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, ďSo, where is your daughter?Ē
The older woman gestured at the stairs. ďUp there. She didnít want to talk to me or any of her friends, or even her uncle Adrian. She didnít 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.Ē She turned to the man beside her and added, ďMy George was just like Robert, wasnít he, Adrian?Ē
ďIn many ways, Lori,Ē a big florid man with a fleshy nose and a small mouth said. ďDonít worry, by now the girlís probably rigid with regret.Ē The man stuck out a meaty hand and added, ďNameís Adrian Haskell, Meganís uncle. I know how crazy the girl is about the Winslow chap. Iím sure weíll get this fracas cleared up.Ē
ďWhere is poor Robert?Ē Meganís mother asked.
ďDown below,Ē John answered curtly. He was annoyed with Meganís familyís reaction. He had to make a point of reminding himself that he didnít 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.
ďListen here, Captain Vermont,Ē she said through gritted teeth. ďI 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 scandalóĒ
ďKeep everyone else down there until I find out what the blazes is going on, Colpepper, you got that?Ē he interrupted.
ďI have no intention of denying Mr. Winslow access to his brideóĒ
ďEspecially Mr. Winslow.Ē
He cut her off by turning his back and resuming the climb, Mrs. Colpepperís continuing diatribe as monotonous as the thumping slap of the boatís 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 consultantís shipside office. As he flipped on the light, he called Meganís name. Empty.
The other cabinóhis cabinówas locked. Since he hadnít 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.
ďWho is it?Ē she said at once as though sheíd been standing on the other side of the door, waiting.
ďItís Captain Vermont,Ē he said sternly, not at all amused sheíd chosen his private quarters in which to take sanctuary.
ďPlease, just go away,Ē she said.
ďCanít do that,Ē he told her.
ďOpen the door and weíll talk.Ē
ďThere are over a hundred people out here wanting to see you,Ē he told her.
ďWell, I donít want to see them,Ē she replied immediately.
ďJust talk to me, then,Ē he said.
A long pause was followed by, ďAre you alone?Ē
He looked down the empty passageway. ďFor the moment.Ē
ďCanít you just steer the boat back to Portland and leave me be?Ē she pleaded.
ďMaybe I can, but Iím not going to,Ē he informed her.
Another long pause, then the door opened. Megan made no movement to step aside so John could enter.
ďMay I come in?Ē
ďWhat do you want?Ē
He tapped the brass plaque attached to the mahogany door and said, ďThis is my cabin.Ē
Biting her lip, she said, ďIím sorry. I really am.Ē
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 sheíd managed to hold on to the kittens. ďIs the catóĒ
ďSheís fine. Sheís almost dry.Ē
ďBut youíre scratched,Ē he said, nodding at her right arm. He didnít mention what she looked likeóhow 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 cupidís 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. ďCome across the hall and Iíll find the first-aid kit. I know Mrs. Colpepper keeps it in her office. Weíll get you fixed up.Ē
ďItís not necessary, it doesnít matter.Ē
He tried a different angle to budge her. ďI know your mother and your fianc? want to see you. You go to Mrs. Colpepperís office and Iíll escort themóĒ
ďI donít ever want to see Robert Winslow again,Ē she stated firmly. ďHeís a jerk.Ē
Was it really possible this was the first time sheíd noticed what a creep the guy was? Remembering he was not a counselor but a captain, he mumbled, ďI, uh, happen to know thereís a certain amount of...of strain associated with getting married...Ē
She was shaking her head and new tears were puddling in her eyes. ďI thought I could talk to them. I know Iím being evasive, but I need time to think. I just canít face them all right nowóyou tell them for me, okay?Ē
ďPlease,Ē 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. ďDamn weddings,Ē he swore beneath his breath.
An hour later he gave up trying to restrain Meganís fianc?, figuring that by now sheíd probably had second thoughts and was ready to come out and talk...and give him back his cabin.
ďMeg? Listen to me. Open the door and let me in.Ē Winslowís voice was cajoling.
John stood across the passageway, leaning against a bulkhead, arms crossed, watching.
ďNo,Ē 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 bozoís entreaties. Despite his fervent wish sheíd leave, he had to admit a certain amount of admiration for her tenacity.
ďI will not go away,Ē Winslow said. Heíd 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 didnít look quite so smug now.
Running a hand through his damp hair and lowering his voice, Winslow talked to the door. ďYouíre acting like a child,Ē he said, his voice as smooth as an oil slick. ďYou know that, donít 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 whatís the harm? Now, come out here. Open the door.Ē
At his side, Johnís hand rolled into a fist, almost ready to give Winslow the thump on the head heíd 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. ďI hear you own this tub,Ē he growled.
ďThen redeem yourself a little and open the door. You must have a key.Ē
John smiled. ďActually, I donít.Ē
ďThen break the lockóĒ
ďAnd 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?Ē
For once the man seemed at a loss for words. He moved a few steps away, then turned back and glared at John. ďIím not through with you yet, Vermont! I have friends in high places.Ē
ďGood for you,Ē 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 catís plight and helped ease Meganís 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 captainís 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 garmentís 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 captainís cabin, ignoring the repeated pleas that came from the passageway, pleas that begged her to come to her senses.
ďI already have,Ē 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 heíd met on deck, Johnís 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 weíll 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.
ďI have half a mind to quit,Ē she sputtered.
He thought she had half a mindóperiod. He said, ďItís been a long day, Colpepper.Ē
ďWhen I think of the hours I spentóĒ
Holding up his hand and darting down the stairs, he called, ďSave it for tomorrow, will you?Ē
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.
ďYou caused a heap of trouble today,Ē 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 Meganís hip.
For some time he stood off to the side, watching the peacefulóand tantalizingórise and fall of Meganís 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 sheíd 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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