Felipe rose from his bath, naked and dripping. He’d tried furiously to pleasure himself, yet all he could envision was his lover’s skin searing from her bones.
He hadn’t meant to kill anyone, but his drunken carelessness had cost many lives. They were still pulling bodies from the ruins when he’d fled his ancestral home.
In the cruelest twist of fate, he had survived the blaze. His wounds healed without infection, leaving nothing more than pale, baby-soft scars running up his forearms and down his thigh. The ducal physician assured him that even those would fade in time.
It had been six months since the fire, and still he could not clear the images from his mind. His victims’ families wanted restitution, while he desired peace and quiet. Felipe needed to grieve, needed to gather his wits before returning home. He’d never been a coward before, but found he could not face those who needed him most.
So he had come here, to this remote outpost on the Mediterranean, a crumbling, forgotten castle belonging to some distant de Torme relative that the world had forgotten. As long as he kept quiet, and stayed away from the village, no one would find him. Here, he could recover in the solitude he craved.
Well, almost solitude…
His manservant, Iago, slipped into the steamy, candlelit antechamber. The man moved in near silence, yet Felipe tracked his movements as he drained the copper bathtub, and then slipped the brocade dressing gown over his shoulders. If Iago knew his secret—that his master could find neither solace nor release in this wretched place, he never said a word.
Felipe was grateful for that.
The shame was his alone to bear.
He tied the sash around his waist, frowning. “Has the storm not passed?”
“I’m afraid not, Your Grace. It seems to grow worse as the night goes on.”
The one freedom Felipe allowed himself was his nightly walk along the terraza overlooking the cliffs and the sea below. The soft rhythm of the waves soothed him, and the only time his soul did not weep was when he lost himself in the sea’s song.
More than once he’d considered throwing himself into the watery depths, but he was the last Duque de Torme, and had a duty to his ancestors to carry on the family name.
What a pity to be driven indoors by the same tempestuous Catalan weather he used to love so much. Tonight, the storm rattled the windows and stuttered the candles. Only a fool would venture out of doors in such a gale.
He turned to leave the steamy bathroom when a noise stopped him.
“Iago…did you hear that?”
The manservant paused in the doorway. “Hear what, Your Grace?”
“That.” A second whistle blasted. “What is that?”
Both men strained their ears to hear through the thunder and crashing waves. After a moment, another whistle cut through the air. It was a distress signal. Judging from the sound of it, the ship was not far away.
Felipe ran to the window, fighting with the latch. At last, he pushed the leaded panes open, pelting his face with rain. His eyes scanned the rocky beach below—the place where he knew the beach to be—but he could not see. The storm was so severe, the visibility so limited, that he could hardly make out anything at all. The night was nothing but roiling blackness, stretching into infinity.
He leaned further out the open window, feeling as if he were leaning off the edge of the world. Then, one solitary signal flare lit up the sky, and sputtered into orange mist.
A steamer foundered just beyond the breakers.
“Dios mio,” Felipe whispered, crossing himself. “They are surely lost.”
The ship pitched in the storm, dumping Julia’s glass of champagne onto her lap. Bubbling liquid seeped into her skirts, ruining the one dinner dress she owned.
Julia did her best to mop it up before anyone else at the table noticed. Thank goodness Lady Anne was a poor sailor—the old woman had taken to her bed, too ill to brave the storm—or else Julia might never hear the end of it.
It wasn’t her fault she was poor. Silk dresses were expensive, and she could afford but one on the paltry wage Lady Anne paid, though Julia was fond of her elderly employer, and looking forward to their trip abroad.
Now, she sat in the dining room, surrounded by guests in their finery, with her stomach in her throat, and her lap fizzing. Thunder clapped, the ship swayed, and Julia swore that was seawater splashing the windows, not the driving rain. She’d never seen such a storm. If the keeling, rolling, and pitching of the ship had her feeling nervous, poor Lady Anne must be frightened out of her mind.
Julia felt a pinch of guilt for leaving the old woman in the cabin. She really ought to check on her employer.
She placed her soggy napkin on the table and stood, excusing herself to her dinner companions—who looked rather green.
From the dining room, Julia walked through the corridor, careful to keep one gloved hand on the wall to steady herself. But the varnished paneling was slick and smooth, and the floor beneath her feet tossed. She stumbled, staggering from left to right, grasping for anything she could. A hard impact with a gilded plant stand knocked the breath from her lungs. Reeling, she cracked her head on polished wall so hard her vision flashed.
Just her rotten luck—if the ship wasn’t lost in the storm, Julia was going to get herself killed walking in this maelstrom.
This ought to have been the trip of a lifetime. Instead, both she and Lady Anne were miserable.
As she sat on the floor in a puddle of wet skirts and potted palm, a steward burst into the corridor. His face was white as a sheet. When he saw her, he dropped to his knees amid the chaos, trying frantically to wipe dirt from her skirts.
“Oh, Madam! Oh, Madam!” His wet hands on her sodden skirts turned her lap into a smear of mud and champagne. The frock was certainly ruined now. “Are you all right? Have you hurt yourself?”
She calmly pushed his hands away. “I’m fine, thank you. I tripped. That’s all.”
“You should not be walking the halls in this weather, Madam. It isn’t safe. Best get back to your cabin, and wait out the storm.” The steward helped her—with some difficulty—to her feet. “Shall I escort you, Madam?”
“It’s Miss, actually. But no, thank you, I can make it there myself.” A woman in her mid-twenties, people often assumed she was a married lady. Not for lack of trying, of course, but when one had a tarnished family name and no dowry to erase the stain, suitors were few and far between.
That was why she’d taken the position as Lady Anne’s paid companion—a lack of any other option.
“Not to worry, Miss,” the steward said, kindly. “Storms like these are common in the Mediterranean. Tuck yourself into bed tonight, and tomorrow, you will awaken to the sun shining.”
As he spoke, Julia felt the fronds of the ruined palm tickle her stockinged calves. They seemed to shudder beneath her skirts. She lifted her hem and stepped aside, annoyed with the entire situation. She wanted very much to be tucked into her bed, not knocked about the hallways like a shuttlecock.
To her horror, she realized it wasn’t the palm fronds that were shuddering. The carpeted floor beneath her seemed to tremble. The crystal chandelier above her head danced. Even the steward’s waxed mustache appeared to waver.
Suddenly, the ship lurched, sending Julia tumbling into the helpless steward. Lightning cracked and thunder clapped. The steamship groaned, as if in agony. The entire vessel seemed to scream out a warning—wait, no, the ship was screaming. A siren pierced the air.
She pressed her soiled gloves to her ears, as if she could block out the sound. “What’s happening?”
The poor steward’s face fell. Julia didn’t need him to say the words. She knew from his expression that their situation was dire. “We’ve hit something,” he said. “I suggest you return to the dining room, and await instructions…”
“Are we sinking?”
Another whistle pierced the air. “We must follow proper protocol…”
“But are we sinking?” She grabbed his jacket lapels. “I’ve an elderly woman traveling with me. She cannot go into the water. What are we to do?”
“You will both be safest in the dining room, where everyone can be accounted for. Do not fear, Miss. We have trained for this.”
Julia picked up her muddied skirts and tried to run. The listing of the ship made her footsteps clumsy, and she nearly tripped again. The steward called out to her, “Where are you going? The dining room is this way!”
She turned, only for an instant. “I must go back to my cabin.”
“Then put on your life vest, Miss, and return as quickly as possible.”
With a nod, she left the steward. Julia raced through the tilting, rocking, groaning corridor. By now, other passengers had emerged from the card room, ballroom, and their bedrooms to see what all the commotion was about. She pushed past them. No doubt, Lady Anne would have something to say about her unladylike behavior—no woman of good breeding or proper manners lifted her skirts to run like a wild thing, even in a crisis. A lady must walk unhurried, chin up and shoulders back, straight to certain death.
Someone would recognize her, even in her current state, as she dashed down the first class stairway, taking the steps two at a time. They would peach on her to Lady Anne, gossip about them both over tea, or cut them from nightly bridge games in the Rose Salon. Lady Anne would be humiliated. Julia might even be sacked. But she would worry about that later, when they were both safe. Surely, a lack of decorum could be overlooked in the midst of a sinking ship.
Stopping only to catch her breath, Julia glanced down the walnut-paneled hallway. The gilt sconces began to flicker. Suddenly, the steamer grew deathly silent. No one screamed, no one rushed about. The luxurious corridor seemed to dip and twist. A lone tea tray rolled toward her, dropping silver and china as it gained speed.
She dodged it at the last minute, and the heavy thing crashed into the wall behind her.
The impact broke the spell, and—once again—the ship erupted in chaos. Children cried, clinging to their mothers’ dressing gowns as their nannies dragged them from their beds. A woman in a velvet dinner dress staggered through the hallway, bleeding profusely from her forehead. A steward chased after her with a handkerchief, trying to render aid.
Julia watched it all unfold from her place against the wall. She whispered a silent prayer, and then pulled herself together. Though her heart pounded in her chest, and her head spun with every roll of the steamship, she had to find Lady Anne. She had to be strong for both of them, because tonight would not be the night either woman met their maker.
“Lady Anne!” Julia pounded on the cabin door.
Surely, the woman wasn’t sleeping through a shipwreck.
“Lady Anne! It’s Julia. Will you let me in?” Still no answer. She pounded with all her might. “Lady Anne, please! Open the door this instant.”
The door across the hall flew open. A gentleman in evening dress emerged carrying two life vests. “Miss Denman, by God!”
“Have you seen Lady Anne?”
“I’m afraid not, my dear. I’ve just come down myself to fetch a life vest for my wife. Most passengers have gathered in the first class dining room. Perhaps Lady Anne has gone there.”
Could her employer have dressed herself and walked upstairs in the time it took to reach their cabin? It was a long shot, but it was the only hope she had. Julia clung to it like a lifeline.
She nodded, swallowing. “I’m sure you’re right.”
“Not to worry, Miss Denman. But…here, take this.” He handed her one of the life vests. “Better safe than sorry, eh?”
“Yes, of course. Thank you.” She clutched the padded canvas to her chest, too shy to slip it on—even over her clothes—in front of a man. “I shall meet you in the dining room.”
“Good luck!” He waved, and then disappeared down the swaying corridor.
The electric lights flickered again. She prayed the ship would not go dark. It would make rescue so much harder. How would a relief vessel spot them at night, in the blackness? How could she swim to shore if she could not tell what was land and what was sea?
While the hallway was empty, Julia slipped the life vest over her head, and looped the belt securely around her corseted waist. She wore enough silk, crinoline, and chiffon to drag an elephant straight to the sea bed. If she went into the water now, at least she would float.
Julia rapped on the cabin door one last time. “Lady Anne? Lady Anne!”
Again, no answer. Her employer must have heard the commotion, and been escorted upstairs by a maid or steward, or perhaps one of their neighbors. The old woman probably sat in the dining room, drinking a glass of sherry, wondering what on earth had happened to her traveling companion. Really, Julia ought to go upstairs herself, and put everyone’s mind at ease.
Pressing her gloved hand to the paneled wall, she guided herself back the way she came. Julia retraced her steps from the hallway, to the staircase, and up toward the first class dining room. As she walked through the dipping, swaying corridor, she felt her feet begin to slip and sink.
The carpet was wet.
No, the carpet was soaked.
Oh, dear God! The ship was taking on water!
Julia ran with all her strength to the flapping double doors. Usually, two doormen greeted her with a smile and a flourish, but now they were gone. In their place, blood smeared down one of the glass panes in hot, red rivulets.
She opened the doors for herself.
In the dining room, splintered chairs lay scattered about. Uneaten food piled in the corners, along the walls, where it had slid as the ship listed. Shards of plate and china turned the soggy carpet into a minefield. Julia watched her step as she crossed the room, yet somehow still managed to snag her hem on a shattered champagne glass.
She did her best to pick the broken glass from her silk skirts, before joining the other passengers at the Captain’s table. Or, rather, where the Captain’s table should have been. In its place, stood dozens of men and women in various states of dress, all talking over one another in the panic.
An officer did his best to calm them. “Ladies and gentlemen, please!”
“Ought we to evacuate?” A woman asked, clutching a long strand of pearls to her breast. “Abandon ship?”
Voices raised in argument. No one wanted to brave the churning waters. It seemed far more sensible to stay onboard, and await rescue.
“We have sent emergency transmissions and signal flares,” the officer replied. “We are close enough to the coast that someone will come. There is no need for alarm, and absolutely no reason to leave the comfort and safety of the ship.”
Julia pushed past the crowd of passengers to get a better view. She recognized the man from the hallway who’d given her his life vest. He stood with his wife and two small children. She also recognized a few of their neighbors, some of whom had been very friendly over the course of the voyage. Lady Anne was nowhere to be found.
“Pardon me!” She raised her voice above the din. “I’m looking for Lady Anne Ibston. An elderly woman. Cabin B-08. Surely, you remember her. Has anyone seen her?”
The group muttered and shook their heads.
Julia wanted to scream. She was the worst companion, paid or otherwise! Her employer was missing, and they were all going to die.
Suddenly, the ship rolled hard to one side. A wall of water crashed through the dining room windows, flooding the carpets, and swirling debris around the helpless passengers’ feet.
Julia’s skirts sagged heavily, and as the wave receded, it nearly pulled her down into a heap of silk and seawater. If it wasn’t for the officer grabbing her life vest and hauling her backward, she might have been swept through the windows.
“My goodness,” Julia said, wide-eyed. “That was clo—”
Before she finished her sentence, another wall of water breeched the dining room. This time, no one could hold their footing. A blast of cold, salty seawater overtook the passengers. Julia lurched forward, falling to her hands and knees. Water flooded her mouth and nose, burning her eyes. Blinded, she reached for anything to steady herself—a table, a chair, a strangers’ ankle.
At last, her fingers wrapped around a secured table leg. Julia held fast, even as the wave receded.
But the tide seemed to pull the ship down with it. Down, down, down… Dinner plates, half-eaten roast chicken, and something that felt like a gentleman’s walking stick smacked her in the face as the dining room listed. Julia’s heavy skirts and slick, gloved hands were no match for the strength of the sea. She fought against the wet carpet to keep her balance, but it was no use.
She felt her grip slipping. Her lungs burned with every wet, salty breath.
When the second wave broke through the room, Julia did not have enough stamina to fight it. A fierce suction pulled at her skirts, taking her two silk slippers right off her feet. The power of the water pried her hands from the table leg. Julia screamed—for help, for God, for a miracle—but her words died in her throat.
The ship broke apart as she was dragged out the window into the cold, black Mediterranean.
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