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The Adventures of Ratha James: Part Thirteen
The sun was setting in a blaze of citrine and ruby light into the churning cobalt sea beyond the massive diamond-paned windows when Ratha finally stepped into the glorious St. Clare library. Maddie, Joona, and an unusually weary-looking Eric sat near the warmth and light of a crackling fireplace on the far side of the room, soft conversation enveloping them with the love of longstanding friendship. Each looked up when the door opened, their words halting as Ratha strode towards them, a scowl tugging her lips downward and darkening her bright eyes. Eric St. Clare rose from his seat and moved to meet her with a warm smile, pulling her to him in a brotherly hug that squeezed what little breath she had left from her lungs. Even after all this time, he worried for her safety and to see her and Madeline alive again and home brought him such fierce joy. When he finally released her it was only to lead her to an overlarge chair beside Maddie and to fetch her a glass of port.
Doing her best not to wheeze, Ratha sank into the chair with relief, breathing in as deeply as she could manage in her borrowed gown. She accepted the port with a small smile and took a deep drink, letting the liquid burn it’s way down her throat to her belly, warming her from the inside out. In brilliant contrast to the jagged fire inside her, the crystal goblet was cool and perfectly smooth in her rough, weathered hands. She bit back a rye smile at the sight of her scarred hands holding something so perfect and fragile before setting the goblet down with a decisive clink. Looking back at those before her, she leveled a pointed glare at the red-haired woman sitting before her, her brows arching questioningly.
“Well Joona St. Clare,” she huffed, gesturing down to the emerald gown in disgust. “Why am I in this monstrosity?”
“I think you look lovely Amalee,” Maddie offered with a grin, running an appreciative hand over her own rose pink gown with unabashed pleasure. The sea had yet to take Madeline’s enjoyment of beautiful things and Ratha doubted it ever could. Madeline was born to see beauty in a cruel, sparkling world.
“That’s not the point,” Ratha said with a wave of her hand and a ghost of a smile at her friend’s deserved happiness. But her eyes never left Joona’s. Some new secret lurked beneath their sharp green surface, churning in the depths where love and intellect normally resided. Ratha’s heart beat a little faster. “What is it Joona, what haven’t you told us?”
“There’s a merchant ship moored in our shipyard,” Joona admitted, her mouth a slight grimace. “You’ll have seen it no doubt as you came into port.”
“Yes,” Amalee nodded, thinking back to the ship bearing the garish orange and silver flags with entwined songbirds that had given her pause before she had arrived. A matching grimace turned her mouth downward as well, settling into port with strange ships and crews so close by was never something she enjoyed, but the bulk of the St. Clare’s fortune was made on the seas and ships came and went through their shipyard far too often for it to frighten her away. The vessels never stayed long, and the crews were kept bust unloading a foreign cargo or loading a new one bound for some exotic destination before settling sail on the next earliest tide. Her women had strict orders to stay well clear of the St. Clare shipyard and the men who worked them and the sailors who passed through them. Their names and faces did not need to become known. But her women knew this well and St. Clare had never before felt the need to draw her aside just to mention a ship. Her stomach tightened into a thick fist. “Is it dangerous?”
“No,” Joona said slowly. “But there was a storm at sea some weeks ago and the vessel was badly damaged, the hull breached and a mast snapped in two. The repairs will take some days and in that time the crew will work and sleep aboard their own ship. They will not be a danger to you and yours so long as your women remain out of their way and in their sight. But unfortunately…”
“But unfortunately what?” Ratha demanded, her heart beating so fiercely that sure it would explode out of the confines of her blasted gown at any moment.
“Unfortunately, you have already been noticed. Or rather your beauty has. It seems the Captain was quite intrigued with a certain person, and asked Eric just who the exquisite brunette was wearing men’s trousers and boots as though she was born in them.”
Ratha’s face paled. How on earth did a sailor recognize her as a woman from such a distance, especially with her long hair — her most telling feature — tied up and out of her face?! “What did you tell them?”
Joona held her friend’s gaze, the very air tense with unspoken possibilities before her lips curved upward. “That you were my cousin of course. Fresh from Ireland with a few companions and on the hunt for an English husband to rival my own.”