Safe in the Earl's Arms

By: Liz Tyner
Chapter One

 Being wrapped in a shroud of sailing cloth—a shot ball secure at his head and one at his feet—and tossed into the Aegean Sea could only increase Warrington’s spirits. He linked his fingertips together, braced his elbows against the railing and ignored the sting of the wind slapping his hair on to his face.

 His brother’s sparring remarks didn’t help.

 Warrington turned his head from the words. ‘I swear you are not related to me,’ he grated out, interrupting the flow of Ben’s jests. ‘You talk more than any two women I’ve ever heard.’

 Ben chuckled, moving so their shoulders touched briefly. ‘And you’ve made me proud on the voyage. Not of you, of course. Of myself. I’m a fine captain to be able to have an old melancholy miss like you on board and still keep from throwing you over the side.’

 ‘You’ve sailed us to an island that doesn’t even have the comforts of hell.’ Warrington used both hands, pushing back the hair from his face, and then he rested clenched fists on the railing of the ship.

 ‘You do not give me the respect due me,’ his brother said, shaking his head in exaggerated dismay. ‘I saved our lives by steering us here when the ship caught fire. You may have the title, but an earl drowns just as quickly as a mere captain when a ship sinks.’

 Warrington didn’t speak, hoping to let Ben have the last word and himself some silence.

 He’d had to leave England—he’d thought his memories would be easier to bear at sea. He’d been wrong. His wife’s face wouldn’t appear in his mind, but he could see the letters of her name carved on to the crypt.

 He leaned into the rocking of the boat, letting it numb his mind from the endless days of sameness broken only by tribulation aboard the Ascalon. He wanted dry boots, freshly blacked, and not covering sodden stockings. Sea-misted trousers dried stiff and looked no better than a stable master’s discards.

 Across the water, he saw the longboat returning from shore, and hoped the Ascalon could cast off with the next tide. With the crew back and the repairs almost finished, surely they would leave soon.

 In minutes, the longboat thumped against the side of the ship. Gidley, the first mate, reached his gnarled hands to the top of the ladder. His face came into view. The mate’s eyes twinkled and he’d not yet moved on to the ship. ‘We have us another one of them problems yer so good at solvin’, Capt’n Ben.’

 Warrington watched his younger brother take a forceful step forward.

 ‘If anyone has stolen a goat this time, I’ll personally throttle them until they are unconscious.’ Ben straightened his shoulders and stared at his second-in-command.

 ‘Not goats, Capt’n.’ Gidley pulled himself on to the deck, his face showing a barely reined-in pleasure at whatever news he was about to speak.

 ‘What, then?’ the captain asked.

 ‘It be a woman.’ Gidley spoke slowly and stepped aside to give the other three men from the longboat a chance to board. They rushed in behind him, feet thumping on to the deck, faces anxious to hear the response.

 ‘A woman?’ Ben straightened and strode to Gidley. ‘The island is practically afloat with whores.’ He spat the words out. ‘Why can’t the men understand how to handle a simple transaction and be done with it?’

 ‘Well...’ Gidley gave a demure smile. ‘This one claims she be savin’ herself for the capt’n.’ He stepped back against the railing, one arm resting on the wood, and with the other hand pulled his gangly chin whiskers. ‘I tried to give myself to her in yer stead, but she’d have none of it. Capt’n, she said. Kept insistin’ she had a treasure for the capt’n.’

 Ben smiled, his even teeth too white in the sunlight. ‘Is she lovely?’

 Gidley shrugged, but his grin flashed back hearty approval. ‘She’s some kind of mark here.’ He touched above his breast. ‘The birthmark...’ he smiled ‘...pulled my sight right to her breasts.’

 Not a ripple of emotion passed behind Ben’s eyes. He turned to Warrington, indicating the shoreline with a quick tilt of his head. ‘Go ashore and see what the woman wants.’

 Warrington could not believe his brother’s words. He examined Ben’s face and took a step towards him. ‘No.’ Warrington shook his head.

 Ben’s eyes lost all familial ties. ‘Captain’s orders.’ The smug words slashed in the air.