“Not so brave, Mistress Wyeth. I’m just a man doing as he must. Captain Beckett is someone I admire greatly, and he is my friend, helping me to gain a solid foothold that I might become a man of means about this town.”
“And that’s important to you?”
He looked at her, and the words slipped from his mouth. “You are important to me, Miss Wyeth.”
She sucked in her breath, staring at him.
“I beg your pardon. I most heartily beg your pardon!” he said hastily.
“But you have not offended me,” she told him. “You need beg no pardon.”
He was horrified to find himself speechless.
He was customarily the one who teased and flirted. He had confidence and ease, and he loved to make the young girls giggle and speculate.
Bartholomew Miller cut a fine figure. His shoes were buckled and bore heels, his hose didn’t display a single knot, and his breeches were impeccable. He wore a ruffled shirt, red vest and black jacket. His hair was jet-black and neatly queued beneath his tricornered hat. His eyes were light and bright and bore a sparkle of mischief that women usually found to be as captivating as his grin and his dimples. Women had always liked him, and he was grateful that he’d always managed to keep the friendship of his fellows, as well. He enjoyed life, and was fascinated by events and people.
He’d been lucky in living a life that had brought him around the globe, and he was grateful for the hard training he’d received at the hands of the British Navy. It had prepared him to captain a ship, and though he had been born and bred in Liverpool—admittedly in an area that was the cesspool of the city, he’d discovered a passion for a wild new country in the western hemisphere—the United States of America.
But this feeling was new to him. This pining, this sense of wonder just to be near a woman.
“Oh,” he managed at last.
She laughed softly, and again, just the sound of it was like music.
“My good fellow, this is America!” she said.
“Meaning every man might have his chance?” Bartholomew asked.
“Of course,” she said.
“I don’t think your father would agree,” he said.
“I’m not a child,” she told him, a flash of indignity in her eyes.
He was touched and amazed that she had so noticed him, that she might be attracted to him, as well.
But he had been around the world.
And he knew many a man like her father.
“Let me walk you home with this parcel,” he said.
They walked, and she asked him questions about sailing, about the exotic ports he had known, and the men with whom he had fought. When they reached the house—a huge clapboard with a grand porch and beautiful veranda—she laughed and insisted that he come in. He was uneasy, but her enthusiasm was such that he agreed, and he carried in the parcel, depositing it in the foyer where she directed, and then following her into the parlor. She rang a little bell, a maid came, and she ordered tea service.
The maid brought their repast, and they sat together on the sofa, still talking. She and her father had come down from New York City, where her father had been a successful banker, allowing him the freedom to come south to fulfill his dream of creating a vast shipping empire. Bartholomew was familiar with New York, but not as she knew it, and she talked about life south and north of Wall Street, and the sadness in the Five Points area, where immigrants fought and starved, and gangs often ruled the street.
Their fingers touched, their voices were quick and hurried, and they were close, so close he knew that he wanted her more than ever, and he said, in the midst of a sentence about London, “I will do anything. I have loved you so from afar, I can no longer imagine life without you. I cannot believe that you would even consider a man so humble in station as I.”
She held his hand between her own. “I believe in the dream of our country,” she said. She smiled. “I have met many of my father’s business friends and acquaintances, and most are snobbish fops. But you, Bartholomew, are not taken with your own grandeur, you don’t talk of choice and honor, you have lived in search of it. You are the man with whom I can find what I seek in life—dreams of our own creation, a world in which we make our lives what we wish them to be and are heedless of a friend’s position or his money.”
She smiled, and turned away, and pointed to a small framed likeness on the mantel. “My mother,” she said. The woman in the painting was lovely, and her daughter was in her image. “I lost her five years ago. She believed in dreams. She believed that an Irish washerwoman could earn her way and make a life. She did so. She had her own business, tailoring with several seamstresses, when she met my father. She was strong and wonderful. I loved her so much.”
“I’m sorry she is gone,” Bartholomew said. He didn’t remember his own mother. He had never known his father. His surname had come from the man in Liverpool who had taken him in, and taught him the sea, out of kindness. He had died the first year that Bartholomew had been with the British Navy.
Before either could say more, the front door opened and closed. Victor Wyeth, Victoria’s father, had come home.
“Victoria!” he called.
“In here, Father! Captain Miller and I are having tea,” Victoria returned.
Victor Wyeth, a large, robust man, strode into the room. His gaze instantly fell upon Bartholomew. That gaze created a chill that raced along his spine.
But Wyeth was polite. “Why, Captain, what a surprise,” he said, shaking hands as Bartholomew stood to greet him.
“I was struggling with a large parcel and Captain Miller came to my rescue,” Victoria said.
“That was most kind,” Wyeth said. “Whatever charge you might like to make upon me will be most gratefully paid.”
“Sir, it was a pleasure to help,” Bartholomew said.
“Father! He does not wish to be paid. He is a friend, and friends help friends,” she said.
“Of course,” Wyeth said. He looked at his watch. “But tea time is over, and I have pressing business with which I will need your assistance, Victoria.”
“Father, honestly—” Victoria began.
Bartholomew did not take his seat again. “I must be going,” he told Victoria. He smiled, telling her he understood.
And in his eyes, and in his touch as he delicately kissed her fingers in farewell, he was certain that she knew he would wait for her, a lifetime, if need be.
“I shall see you out,” Wyeth told him.
“Thank you, sir,” Bartholomew said.
The pretense ended when Victor Wyeth led Bartholomew outside. “Sir, you will not come near my daughter again, do you understand? She is a lady, and far above the reach of a pirate such as yourself.”
“I am not a pirate, Mr. Wyeth,” Bartholomew said.
Wyeth waved a hand in the air. “I know your past. You will stay away from my daughter.”
Bartholomew meant to do all the right things, but he couldn’t accept such a statement. “What if your daughter is not of the same mind?” he demanded.
“My daughter will do as I say. And I am best of friends with Commodore Porter—I can see to it that you regret any trouble you cause me,” Wyeth said.
Bartholomew stared at him. “I don’t bow down to threats, Mr. Wyeth. If Victoria tells me to stay away, then that is what I will do. Good day, sir.”
He turned and left before they could get into a screaming match, or, God forbid, a brawl. He walked down the street with his head high, his stride long and strong.
Bartholomew had expected Wyeth’s reaction; he had not known that he would shake so badly once he was away from him, or how bitter the rejection would feel when it was voiced out loud. He was glad, however, that he had not backed down, and he was equally glad that he had not allowed himself to be drawn into an altercation.
He returned to his rooms. He was exhausted. There was a bottle of rum by his bedside, and he drank deeply from it, staring at the ceiling. He reminded himself that the day had been filled with enchantment—no matter what Victor Wyeth said, Victoria had spoken her mind. Love, he determined, would have its way. He wasn’t a fool; he knew the world, and he had seen many an affair go sadly as daughters or sons obeyed their parents. His Victoria, however, would not do so. They would be together. He had to believe in the dream, because the most important aspect of the dream had proven real—Victoria herself.