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Rosalie Whitwell is crossing the North Atlantic on a packet ship with her father and her cousin Charlie. As Charlie walks Rosalie back to her cabin, he lectures her for having missed dinner to look after an encroaching fellow passenger.
Charlie stopped with her outside her cabin door. “You’re always a good sport about it. You’re a good sport about everything. But you can’t let people like that take advantage of you. Someday you’re going to have to learn to stand up for yourself.”
“But I like—”
“I know, I know. You like doing it. I suppose you’ll be giddy with joy tonight, going to bed hungry because you missed your dinner.” He shook his head, as if recognizing the hopelessness of arguing with her. “The devil of it is, those do-good tendencies of yours are starting to rub off on me. I took a stab at charity work myself tonight.”
At the teasing note in his voice, she searched his face. “Why? What did you do?”
He flashed one of his ready smiles. “I invited that Deal fellow to join us.”
“Oh, Charlie! Did you really?” A pang knifed through her at learning she had missed her chance to become acquainted with the marquess.
“Yes, asked him straight out. And do you know what he said?”
“‘I’d love to’?” Rosalie suggested in a hopeful tone.
Charlie laughed. “Not a bit of it. He said, ‘Thank you, but I shouldn’t wish to intrude,’ and gave me such a cold, hard stare, it fair bored through my skull. He made it perfectly clear he wished to be left alone. It’s exactly as I told you, Rosie. The man dislikes being spoken to.”
She drooped with disappointment. “Mrs. Howard thinks so, too. She says he’s too mindful of his own consequence to sink to dining with mere commoners.”
“As much as I hate to agree with that mushroom, for once she’s right. Some people are just unsociable, Rosie. If it’s any consolation to you, we’re far from the best society he’s snubbed. Even at White’s, he simply sits by himself and ignores everyone.”
“But why be so standoffish?” With a frown of concentration, Rosalie dug in her reticule for the key to her cabin. “We’re all in the same boat—literally. What else is there to do on an ocean crossing, except mix with one’s fellow passengers?”
Charlie shrugged. “I shouldn’t worry about the man. I daresay he’s never given us a second thought.”
Rosalie sighed. “No, I suppose not.” Retrieving her key, she unlocked her cabin door. “Good night, Charlie, dear.”
“The same to you, and tell Uncle I hope he’s feeling better. I suppose we’re blessed to have outgrown seasickness, eh?”
She nodded and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. She was blessed indeed—for that and for having taken so many voyages on so many vessels that she now ducked instinctively when passing through a doorway, and always kept one hand for herself and one hand for the ship. She scarcely noticed the constant crash and thump of waves against the hull or the creak of the boards, and it had been years since she’d last rolled out of her narrow berth at night.
Perhaps someday she might even be blessed enough not to spend most of her life at sea.
Charlie continued to his own cabin, and Rosalie stepped inside. The door communicating with her father’s quarters was still ajar, just as she’d left it before leaving for dinner. She reached up to remove the mosaic earbobs she’d acquired in Rome.
“Papa? How are you feeling?” she called through the open doorway. “I’ve been sitting with poor Mrs. Howard. She was suffering from the rough seas, too, though she seems a good deal better now.”
There was no answer. Rosalie dropped her earbobs on the dresser and went to the doorway. “Papa? Are you awake?”
When he didn’t reply, she stepped into his cabin to check on him one last time before preparing for bed. He was in his berth, still fully dressed but with his eyes closed. Should she wake him so he could change into his nightclothes? She set a hand on his forehead to check whether he might be feverish.
A moment later, Rosalie burst headlong from the little cabin in a blind panic. Flinging herself across the passageway, she began pounding on the first door she saw, the one directly across from her father’s cabin. “Oh, God! Help!” She hammered the varnished wood with the side of her fist. “Please, I need help!”
She was still pounding on the door when it opened a few seconds later. Rosalie had only a moment to register the pale, astonished face of the Marquess of Deal before he gripped her strongly by the wrists.
“Miss Whitwell,” he said in a voice of command, “whatever is the matter?”
It startled her to hear Lord Deal address her by name. “It’s—oh God, my father—” She glanced back toward Papa’s berth.
The marquess, still in his dinner clothes, released her and strode without another word into the cabin. She followed, watching as his tall figure bent over her father’s body.
She raised a trembling hand to her throat. “Is he…?”
Lord Deal looked over his shoulder at her, compassion in his dark eyes. “There’s a young gentleman traveling with you, is there not?”
She nodded. “My cousin, Charlie Templeton.”
“You should go to him. I’ll see to matters here.”
“My father’s not dead.” Why had she said that? In her heart, she already knew it wasn’t true. Papa’s forehead had been as cold as stone.
Lord Deal straightened and stepped toward her. “You’ve had a shock. You should be with family.”
She was shaking all over. “You have to help my father.”
“I’ll send for the captain.”
“He’s not dead.” Her knees gave way, and she reached out blindly behind her for support.
A strong hand caught her by the arm. “Steady, Miss Whitwell.” Gently, the marquess helped her through the connecting door to her own cabin and eased her to a seat on her berth. “I’ll fetch your cousin for you.”
“No, don’t go!” She was frantic with alarm.
“I’ll be back presently, I promise.”
She seized him by the sleeve. “No, please. Papa can’t be dead! What will happen, if he should be? They don’t—” She choked on the words. “They don’t bury passengers at sea, do they?”
“Let me fetch your cousin.”
But in her panic, she couldn’t seem to let go of Lord Deal. One hand still gripping his sleeve, she burst into wrenching sobs.
“Miss Whitwell…!” Even through the blur of tears, Lord Deal’s expression looked so dismayed that, despite her own hysterical grief, Rosalie couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He was a virtual stranger, yet here she was, clutching his sleeve in a death grip, her anguished sobs escalating to outright keening.
He went to his knees, to meet her at eye level. He leaned forward and, somehow, she ended up with her face against his shoulder and his arms wrapped around her. “Shh. It’s going to be all right.” His voice was calm and soothing, so understanding she could almost believe him. “You’ll get through this, I promise you.”
His reassurance only made her sob harder.
“It’s a shock, I know. But you’re not alone.”
“What’s going on here?” Charlie said from the doorway. “Good God, Deal, what did you do to her?”
Instantly, the warm arms and solid shoulder pulled away. “I didn’t—”
Charlie crossed to her in two swift steps to peer down into her face. “What happened, Rosie? Did he try something?”
“She needed help,” the marquess said behind him. “It’s Lord Whitwell—”
Rosalie raised a shaking hand and pointed to her father’s cabin.