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A lthough Miles stood well back from where the Coronea had docked, the push and crush of humanity threatened even his studiously crafted calm. Hordes of disembarking passengers wrestled with their belongings as they forged toward land, a never-ending snake creeping down off crowded decks.
The ripe stench of coal fires, harbor rot, and hundreds of bodies overpowered the clean salt of the ocean. Seabirds circled and swooped in a chaotic dance. Beyond the prickly masts of anchored ships, the sky had lost the garish colors of dawn, given over to the glare of midmorning. Miles touched the back of his neck where a light wind teased his hair. The cool seaside air reminded him of Southampton.
I watched thee on the breakers, when all was storm and fear.
But Lord Byron’s words offered Miles no comfort, only an odd sort of foreboding.
Four months had lapsed since the will reading, when Viv’s siblings had also learned the details of their assigned companies. There in the library, Miles had passed the time glaring at his wife’s exquisite neck and marinating his lustful, resentful thoughts in Hennessey. He’d awoken to find himself alone in a guest room in Old Man Christie’s brown-stone.
He grimaced and shifted his gaze across nearby faces, baffled by an embarrassment he rarely suffered. But the emotion refused a lengthy stay. Anger took its place. The whole Christie clan had decamped to their mansion in Newport. Holidays with the family, but that hadn’t included Miles.
Viv had left him a note. Yet another elegant, prissy note to say she was leaving.
So he’d sobered up. And made a decision.
After catching the first steamer back to England, he’d evaded his father long enough to gamble his way into a bit of ready cash. Then it was off to Cape Town. But damned inconvenient timing, the war against the Boers. Passenger traffic had slowed to a trickle, with Viv stuck in the States until the February armistice. The ink had yet to dry on the official peace accord. Time wasted, yes, but also time spent resolving how to get what he wanted.
Vivienne Bancroft would come back to him. Willingly.
With a hand to his brow, he looked toward the luxury clipper’s topmost deck. Viv would be up there among that tangle of people, along with the manservant he’d sent to intercept her luggage.
Intercept . . . and then hold hostage.
Impatiently swiping at a cluster of midges, he craved a drink—not just any drink, but a long, stinging, obliterating swig of cognac. But he hadn’t touched a drop since leaving New York that fateful morning. A good game required sobriety, which few of the world’s casual card players understood. And Vivienne was anything but an easy mark. He would need all his wit and wile to keep from falling under her spell like a bloody fool.
Miles found himself twirling his wedding ring. That little hypocrite—all decorum and indignation until her mouth met his.
Had beastly Sir William given his daughter a plump dollop of cash, she would’ve had the financial means to end their marriage. Miles would’ve gone back to London, alone, solvent enough to keep the family estates intact. But little else remained of her dowry.
Instead, the challenge of Old Man Christie’s bequest offered an unexpected one-million-dollar reprieve. Stretching his arms, Miles stood away from the crate and sucked in cooling gulps of air. Damn and blast. Far, far too much money to ignore.
His scant head start aside, during which he’d secured accommodations in Kimberley and completed banking transfers, he and Viv would need to learn quickly: every major player, every aspect of the diamond trade, and even the bloody weather. They were starting near to zero. He should have been terrified but a sharp thrill sped the beat of his heart.
Beyond the challenge of earning that rich sum, he had a score to settle. Viv had left him. The surprise of finding their London town home abandoned still made him shake. One year spent fending off polite rumors about his marriage had been one year too long.
The crack of a whip snapped his attention toward a man sitting atop a heavily laden wagon. The road leading away from the docks, clogged with dark bodies, permitted no room for the vehicle to pass. Burly and dough-faced, the wagon master wasn’t directing his whip at the donkeys straining against their tethers, but at people.
“Get off there,” the driver shouted. He threw his weight into the next strike of braided leather.
A young woman screamed and fell. Those nearby snatched her arms and hauled her upright, saving her from the crush of feet and hooves. Blood streaked along her shoulder, and her worn homespun dress was torn and covered in dust.
With relentless clarity, the Cape’s autumn sunshine illuminated every face twisted by concentration and fear. The donkeys continued to bray. The wagon master raised his arm again. Leather sliced through the air, this time striking a tall shirtless man whose dark, scarred back had already suffered the bite of a whip.
“Out of the way, you kaffir scum!”
Across three months, the colony had subjected Miles to many such scenes. Perhaps the difference, on this occasion, could be traced to the bitterness Viv churned in his blood. His arms ached with the need to pummel his fretfulness into submission—or pummel someone . The lawlessness of the colony, the otherworldliness of it, gave him permission to do what his tedious title had never permitted: take matters into his own hands.
“Oh, bloody hell.”
He strode into the crowd, abandoning his role as a mere bystander. Fully a head taller than most of the hunched, scrambling people, he fixed on the wagon master. Every successive crack of the man’s whip filled Miles with sizzling indignation. Like most of the British Empire, Cape Colony hadn’t permitted slavery in almost fifty years. That didn’t stop some colonists from treating Africans as they would the lowest animals.
Miles didn’t consider himself a do-gooder, but such a flagrant abuse of power assaulted his most basic principles. It wasn’t sporting and it simply wasn’t British.
He elbowed his way through the throng until the wagon master loomed above him on the bench. Miles quickly climbed aboard, senses centered on his target. The wagon master turned just as Miles balled his fist and let it swing. A satisfying crack of bone rewarded him as his opponent’s nose gave way.
Blood streaked the man’s mangy beard with crimson. Narrow-eyed anger replaced his stunned grimace. He reared back the butt of his whip and brought it down like a cudgel. Miles used his forearm to deflect the blow, then retaliated with a flurry of jabs to the gut.
Foul exhales accompanied the wagon master’s sharp grunts, but his flab seemed to absorb the impact of each punch. Winded, he tottered slightly. His guard dropped. Miles snatched the whip. When the man’s expression bunched around the need to continue the fight, Miles jabbed the butt of the whip against that bloody, broken nose. The wagon master howled and clutched his face.
“Are we quite through?” Miles demanded, his throat stinging.
His opponent sank onto the bench and nodded once. Rage still flared across his expression but his shoulders caved forward.
“Good.” Miles slowly, deliberately coiled the whip. “Now I suggest that you notice the situation here on the docks. Too many people, for one. Laughably poor engineering. But that’s no excuse for whipping people.”
“They’re bloody kaffirs,” the man said, his voice muffled behind his hands. “Beasts like these here donkeys.”
Miles glanced across the sea of faces, more dark than light, and wondered again at the state of the Cape. Ripe, vital, raw, it perched continuously on the edge of violence. He tasted its bitterness in the air and felt it itching under his skin—a shocking sort of awakening.
“No more beastly than the rest of us,” Miles said.
He hopped down from the wagon, not so negligent as to disregard a defeated opponent. He’d often seen desperation or pride draw out a confrontation, and harbored no compulsion to go another round. Too much animal in that man.
As the immediacy of the fight seeped from his body, Miles shivered. He eased back into the crowd on legs just shy of steady, intent on returning to the machinery crate. Surely Viv had found her way off that damned clipper by now.
He bumped into a solid wall of ebony flesh and found himself looking up at a man—a rare occurrence. Before him stood the same shirtless African who’d taken one of the wagon master’s cruel strokes. His shaven head gleamed.
“Pardon me,” Miles said.
“Thank you.” The African’s deep bass was melodic, like the notes of a bassoon. Across his back would be those old silvery scars and a fresh line of split skin, but his expression was none so grim. “Boggs is a scourge.”
Miles raised his eyebrows. “A scourge? Nice word.”
“I speak the truth.”
“And I believe you. My hope is that I won’t require his services.”
“Hire a wagon,” the man said. “I’ll drive for you instead.”
Miles studied that dark African face. Every feature was as he’d seen in caricatures and even so-called scientific journals: the wide, flat nose, the large lips, and the fathomless black irises surrounded by white. Those demeaning illustrations hadn’t captured what it was to look upon such a man. Miles found intelligence and a rugged, hard-edged dignity—a refreshing change from the feckless gentlemen who’d comprised his social circle in London.
“You need a work pass,” Miles said.
Without a work pass, Africans could be subjected to police harassment or even expulsion from the city limits. In Kimberley, the constant threat of diamond theft tainted all manual laborers, regardless of skin color, but Africans bore the heaviest burden of suspicion.
“Good, because I need reliable workers. I’m returning to Kimberley, if you’re interested.” He held out his hand. “Call me Bancroft,” he said, omitting a significant part of his identity—namely, his title.
The man stared at Miles for a long moment, then shook hands. His grip was strong, his expression intent. “I’m Umtonga kaMpande. But you English seem to find that a challenge.”
“No argument here.”
“Because you have shown the kindness of a friend, I ask that you call me Mr. Kato.”
“That is a kindness in itself, Mr. Kato. Any woman? Any possessions?”
Miles nodded. “Good.”
With nothing more by way of niceties, he turned and strode back toward the Coronea , toward Viv, glad to know that the tall African would follow.
Viv brushed a gloved hand across her forehead and pinned the porter with a hard look. “What do you mean they’ve been taken care of? ”
The short man, bulky and rippling with menacing muscles, simply shrugged. “Your baggage has been taken care of, ma’am.”
Fear brushed up her spine. Had her things been stolen? Hardly on African soil for five minutes and already a snag. She took a quick breath. “By whom?”
“He said he was your husband, ma’am. Lord Bancroft.”
She locked her knees against the impulse to sink onto the foot-worn planks of the dock. “My husband,” she whispered.
Of course he would come. She’d been willfully naïve in believing her trip to Newport would signal her intention to remain separated.
Miles indulged every vice that caught his fancy. His passion for gambling reigned supreme over alcohol, women, and even his blasted cigars, but perhaps his uncanny luck had run out. He must truly need money if he had come to the Cape, ready to make himself a nuisance in exchange for a portion of her earnings. And if he held her possessions, then he awaited the confrontation she’d evaded in New York.
This time he’ll get it.
She needed her belongings. Every last item would be necessary if she were to endure the twenty months that remained of her contract.
No, more than a year and a half was too much to consider. She wouldn’t dwell on the immensity of her task, choosing instead to relive the lessons of her father’s many successes. One day at a time. One foot in front of the other. Piece by hard-earned piece. She could prop her hopes on no more complicated buoys. In doing so she would find the strength to survive this trial. Deep inside, she would rediscover the tenacity of an urchin who’d once stolen a dying vagrant’s dinner just to quell her own aching hunger—and the resilience on which that quiet girl had depended when her mother was jailed and hanged.
But at the present, she simply needed to find her husband.
She signaled to Chloe Tassiter, her maid, who handed the porter a shilling. “Can you take me to him, please?” Viv asked.
As nimble as a fleeing rabbit, he ducked into the crowd, navigating passengers, porters, and incalculable bags and trunks. He jostled to clear a makeshift path. The same foot journey without his aid would’ve been terribly difficult, two women consumed by pressing bodies.
Unlike her siblings, Viv had endured the grueling burden of an impoverished youth and the secret knowledge of her illegitimacy. That meant balancing the strictures of good society with the example of Sir William Christie’s limitless ambitions. She never failed to appreciate when her way was made easier by the privilege she now enjoyed—privilege she would labor ceaselessly to keep.
Good heavens, a million dollars! She’d be able to return to her home in New York, to her gardens, to her life. And she would finally be free of the title she’d learned to wear like a horse harness across her shoulders. But she could take nothing for granted until she’d dispensed with her father’s assignment.
Viv bumped a coop full of clucking hens and bruised her hip. She and Chloe didn’t so much walk as gush toward some unseen destination. Children struggled to haul crates twice their size, kicking scrawny dogs that nipped at bare feet. Men who may have been fathers to those children—or worse yet, their keepers—waited at the wagons and loaded the possessions, always pocketing the coins.
Chloe took Viv’s upper arm and offered a reassuring squeeze. “Courage, my lady.”
Although a servant since her youth, Chloe had never lived as roughly as this. Raised on Lord Bancroft’s ancestral estate, she knew service and she knew her station, but her blue eyes were wide and she sucked on her lower lip. On those crowded docks, Chloe Tassiter may as well have been royalty.
Viv, however . . . Her body ached with a deep recognition. She had once hidden in the shadows of a similar world, her days marked by stealth, fear, and hunger. She breathed its filth and knew its secrets.
“My lady, do you know where we’re going?” Chloe asked.
A shudder wiggled through Viv’s stomach—that sudden, queasy feeling of being taken advantage of. The porter could be leading them anywhere. Suddenly, her husband’s volatility held more appeal than those beastly unknowns.
“I say.” Viv lifted her voice above the din. “Where are you taking us, man?”
“Just there.” The porter nodded toward where a wagon waited along a footpath.
Viv stopped short.
Miles, Lord Bancroft, leaned against one large wheel. Only, she’d never seen him in such a state. Gone was the snide aristocrat, preened to perfection. In his place stood a taut, muscular man whose waistcoat gapped open along a lean abdomen. His neck was bare, the collar undone. He’d rolled his shirtsleeves. A coiled whip dangled from his belt and rested against his hip.
Blinking back the grit and sunshine, Viv struggled to assemble the jigsaw of new impressions. Thick hair he normally tamed with pomade stuck out in spiky disarray. The coffee-dark color was streaked through with lighter strands, kissed by bright midday. Every indecently exposed inch of flesh had assumed a luscious caramel shade. Too much time spent in the sun, her mind argued. But the color suited him—much better than the pallor of genteel boredom and too much time spent in gambling halls.
A taunting grin turned him from merely handsome to maddeningly so.
Miles . . . wearing a whip. He’d turned positively heathen.
Viv tried to tell herself that she didn’t want to see him there, obviously pleased to have taken her by surprise. Yet she could not deny a flush of relief. Twenty minutes on the docks had stripped away months of preparation, when she’d waited out the Boer War by studying all she could find about the diamond trade. Confronted with the stomach-sick shock of the Cape, she realized that her will alone would not be enough. Never had she felt more gallingly female.
She needed him. He knew it. And her pride would suffer.
For the sake of that bonus, however, Viv met him at the wagon. “My lord,” she said simply.
“My lady.” Miles bowed, more sarcastic than respectful. “Surprised to see me?”
She ignored his gloating question and nodded toward her possessions. “Is everything accounted for?”
“Mr. Nolan tells me as much.”
Glancing to where Adam Nolan sat among her crates and trunks, Viv allowed a tight smile. “Good. I trust him.”
“Meaning you’d count everything twice had I been in charge of the matter,” Miles said.
The hard emotion in his eyes tempted her to recoil. She remembered that afternoon in the library and the silent anger he’d turned her way. Yes, she’d left him. And she’d left all over again, preferring her siblings’ loving company to his unpredictability. Her reasons remained strong and valid. No glare, no matter how intimidating, would change her mind.
A fine spray of dried blood formed a ghastly constellation across his rumpled white shirt. That he’d already found trouble was hardly a surprise. Trouble and company. A massive African wearing breeches and little else sat on the wagon bench, reins in hand.
Her attention returned to Miles, to his shirt, to his tanned neck and forearms. To the vigorous width of his shoulders and the ready strength of his thighs. This version of her husband was new. All new—at least on the outside.
Just how long had he been here? Had he arrived when the peace concluded in February? Or even earlier?
“We have tickets for the train to Kimberley,” she said, banishing her fascination. “Can your man take us to the station?”
Miles’s grin returned, that reckless expression so out of place in polite society, but so startlingly at home on the Cape Town docks. “We’re all yours, my lady . . . for a price.”
Tender skin chafed beneath her elbow-length gloves, and the cleft between her breasts flared with heat. Better than anyone, she understood that apparent courtesies from her husband would be met with a reckoning. The gleam in his dark eyes told Viv that the last thing he would demand of her was money.
© 2011 Carrie Lofty