Miss Elspeth's Desire – Excerpt

"May I help you, Miss Forster?" He bowed and that lock of black hair flicked forward, catching her attention. When he righted himself, his eyes gazed into hers. Her chest seized, as if her very breath were stolen.

"I was about to call for Quartermaine. My sister will need to be conveyed topside." Her hands fluttered toward the cabin door.

"Then allow me."

Before she could demur, he moved within, making a bow to her sister, who smiled prettily.

"Miss Isabelle, I presume? I am Major Fitzsimmons, and I'm at your command. I have stolen from Mr. Quartermaine the privilege of carrying you above, fair lady."

Isabelle laughed. "Good morning, Major Fitzsimmons."

Elspeth grit her teeth at the humor in her sister's voice.

An uneasy emotion wormed its way through Elspeth. One she had no intention of considering, otherwise she was sure she'd find it lacking in grace. Instead, she picked up the other parasol which lay on her makeshift bed.

As Major Fitzsimmons gathered up her sister, she caught a hint of rippling muscles beneath his white shirt. Not for the first time since catching sight of him, she wondered about the man. Here was no pampered officer, yet he had courtly manners and was well-spoken. There were no rough edges to him.

Elspeth trailed them out, closing the door before ascending the stairs leading to the deck and into the sunshine. Mrs. Ellington waited for them, chairs in place and shawls at the ready. Elspeth shaded her eyes, looking out over the ocean as the major settled her sister in the rattan chair they'd taken onboard in Bombay.

"Captain Elliott tells me we should arrive in Calcutta in another two days, Miss Forster. I'm sure you and your sister will be pleased to be back on dry land."

She turned, startled by his words. "Indeed, this has been an extraordinarily long voyage. For both myself and my sister."

"Would you…" He indicated the length of the deck. "…take a turn with me?"

Casting a quick glance at her sister, she bit her lip. She felt torn by his request. It meant time alone with this virile man who made her feel quite off-balance. On the other hand, she surely should look to the interests of Isabelle. A glance at Isabelle showed her reclined in a chair with eager eyes scanning the horizon. Mrs. Ellington had taken the seat beside her, and engaged her quickly in some deep conversation.

She frowned, feeling quite unnecessary. In a fit of pique, she turned to the major with a smile. "I… Yes. I'd like that, very much."

He smiled and the softening of his features, usually so firm and sharp, gave way to the crinkling at his eyes. The look melted an area hidden deep within her chest in the region of her heart. He took her hand, the touch careful. Everything about his manner was correct, yet there was something intimate in the way he placed her hand on his arm.

With slow deliberation he began the promenade, and she moved with him, their bodies traveling in a smooth and synchronous fashion.

"How long do you plan to stay in Calcutta?" he asked.

She focused on the view ahead, the expanse of ocean a vista of blue. "I should think we shall be there for perhaps upward of a year."

Her footsteps were muffled by the sounds of men moving like well-oiled machines, in the rigging above her or mending sails.

"What could possibly entice you to stay for that long, Miss Forster?" He stopped her, one hand firmly grasping hers. The shock and surprise in both his tone and on his face took her aback.

"I have business to conduct. Merchants to meet with, and I should like to see where the cloth and spices we import are obtained from."

He looked startled at her answer before the emotion was hidden away from view. "Miss Forster, that's a man's occupation. Not for such a female as yourself."

Clear in his tone was a lack of understanding of how vital this mission was, not just to Forster Shipping but also for her personally. Anger and ridiculous disappointment churned, while a deep well of unrelieved frustration arose at the thought of the barriers her gender constantly met.

"Sir, I am more than capable—"

"That is not what I meant." His tone turned conciliatory, as if realizing he'd slighted her, but she held herself stiff. "You are a lady. Learned, but still a woman. It is unsafe for you to…"

"Major Fitzsimmons, excuse me, but I daresay that glib tongue of yours no doubt weaves a silken thread when required. To me, it is naught but a net. The net that has caught those of my sex for years."