"I won't turn away from you," she said steadily. "No matter what it is. It happened on the prison hulk, didn't it? It has to do with the real Nick Gentry. Did you kill him, so that you could take his place? Is that what torments you?"
She saw from the way Nick flinched that she had struck close to the truth. The crack in his defenses widened, and he shook his head, trying to navigate past the breach. Failing, he gave her a glance filled with equal parts of rebuke and desperation. "It didn't happen that way."
Lottie refused to look away from him. "Then how?"
The lines of his body changed, relaxing into a sort of wretched resignation. He leaned one shoulder against the wall, facing partially away from her, his gaze arrowing to some distant point on the floor.
"I was sent to the hulk because I was responsible for a man's death. I was fourteen at the time. I had joined a group of highwaymen, and an old man died when we robbed his carriage. Soon afterward we were all tried and convicted. I was too ashamed to tell anyone who I was-I simply gave my name as John Sydney. The other four in the gang were hanged in short order, but because of my age, the magistrate handed me a lesser sentence. Ten months on the Scarborough ."
"Sir Ross was the magistrate who sentenced you," Lottie murmured, remembering what Sophia had told her.
A bitter smile twisted Nick's mouth. "Little did either of us know that we would someday be brothers-in-law." He slouched harder against the wall. "As soon as I set foot on the hulk, I knew that I wasn't going to last a month there. A quick hanging would have been far more merciful. Duncombe's Academy, they called the ship, Duncombe being the officer in command. Half of his prisoners had just been cleared out by a round of gaol fever. They were the lucky ones.
"The hulk was smaller than the others anchored just offshore. It was fitted for one hundred prisoners, but they crammed half again that amount into one large area belowdeck. The ceiling was so low that I couldn't stand fully upright. Prisoners slept on the bare floor or on a platform built on either side of the deck. Each man was allowed to have sleeping space that was six feet long, twenty inches wide. We were double-ironed much of the time, and the constant rattling of chains was almost more than I could stand.
"The smell was the worst of it, though. We were seldom allowed to wash-there was always a shortage of soap, and we had to rinse with seawater. And no through ventilation, just a row of portholes left open on the seaward side. As a result, the reek was so powerful that it would overcome the guards who first opened the hatches in the mornings-once I even saw one of them faint from it. During the time that we were locked down from early evening until the hatches were opened at daybreak, prisoners were left entirely to themselves, with no guards or officers to observe them."
"What did the prisoners do then?" Lottie asked.
His lips parted in a feral grin that made her shiver. "Gambled, fought, made escape plans, and buggered each other."
"What does that word mean?"
Nick shot her a swift glance, seeming startled by the question. "It means rape."
Lottie shook her head in bewilderment. "But a man can't be raped."
"I assure you," Nick said sardonically, "he can. And it was something I had a rather strong desire to avoid. Unfortunately boys of my age-fourteen, fifteen-were the most likely victims. The reason I stayed safe for a time was because I had made friends with another boy who was a bit older and a damned sight more hard-bitten than I."
"Yes. He watched over me when I slept, taught me ways to defend myself...he made me eat to stay alive, even when the food was so foul that I could barely swallow it. Talking with him kept my mind occupied during the days when I thought I would go insane from having nothing to do. I wouldn't have lived without him, and I knew it. I was terrified of the day he would leave the hulk. Six months after I'd boarded the Scarborough, Gentry told me that he was due to be released in a week." The look on his face caused Lottie's insides to tighten into cold knots. "Only one week left, after surviving two years in that hellhole. I should have been glad for him. I wasn't. All I could think about was my own safety, which wasn't going to last five minutes after he left."
He stopped, sliding deeper into the memories.
"What happened?" Lottie asked quietly. "Tell me."
His face went blank. His soul had clenched hard around the secrets, refusing to release them. A strange, cold smile flickered on his lips as he spoke with utter self-contempt. "I can't."
Lottie stiffened her legs to keep from leaping out of bed and rushing to him. The heat of unshed tears filled her eyes as she stared at his dark, shadowed form. "How did Gentry die?" she asked.
His throat worked, and he shook his head.
Faced with his silent struggle, Lottie sought for some way to tip the balance. "Don't be afraid," she whispered. "I'll stay with you no matter what."
Averting his face, he squinted fiercely, as if he had just been exposed to brilliant light after spending too long in the dark. "One night I was attacked by one of the prisoners. His name was Styles. He dragged me off the platform while I was sleeping and pinned me to the floor. I fought like hell, but he was twice my size, and no one was going to interfere. They were all afraid of him. I called out to Gentry, to pull the bastard off of me before he could-" Breaking off, he made a strange sound, a shaky laugh that contained no trace of humor.
"And did he help you?" Lottie asked.
"Yes...the stupid bastard." His breath caught in a low sob. "He knew there was no point in doing a damn thing for me. If I wasn't buggered right then, I would be after he was released. I shouldn't have asked for his help, and he shouldn't have given it. But he drove Styles off, and..."
Another long silence passed. "Did Nick die during the fight?" Lottie made herself ask.
"Later that night. He'd made an enemy of Styles by helping me, and retribution wasn't long in coming. Just before morning, Styles strangled Nick in his sleep. By the time I realized what had happened, it was too late. I went to Nick...tried to make him wake up, to breathe. He wouldn't move. He turned cold in my arms." His jaw shook, and he cleared his throat roughly.
Lottie couldn't let it end there, without knowing the full story. "How did you switch places with Gentry?"
"Every morning the assistant medical officer and one of the guards came down to collect the bodies of the men who had died during the night, of disease, or starvation, or something they called 'depression of the spirits.' Those who hadn't finished dying were taken up to the forecastle. I pretended to be ill, which wasn't difficult at that point. They took us both up to the deck, and asked who I was, and if I knew the dead man's name. The guards knew hardly any of the prisoners-to them we were all the same. And I had changed clothes with his...his corpse, so they had little reason to doubt me when I told them I was Nick Gentry, and the dead boy was John Sydney. For the next few days I stayed in the forecastle, feigning illness so I wouldn't be sent back down to the prison deck. The other men who'd been brought there were too sick or weak to give a damn what I called myself."
"And soon you were released," Lottie said quietly, "in Gentry's place."
"He was buried in a mass grave near the docks, while I went free. And now his name is more real to me than my own."
Lottie was overwhelmed. No wonder he had wanted to keep Nick Gentry's name. In some way he must have felt that he could keep a part of him alive by retaining it. The name had been a talisman, a new beginning. She couldn't begin to understand the amount of shame he had attached to his true identity, believing that he was responsible for his friend's death. It wasn't his fault, of course. But even if she could make him admit the flaws in his reasoning, she could never expunge his guilt.
Lottie slipped out of bed, the thick-piled wool carpeting prickling beneath her bare soles. As she approached him, she was swamped in a sense of utter inadequacy. If she treated him with kindness, he would receive it as pity. If she said nothing, he would take it as a sign of scorn or disgust.
"Nick," she said softly, but he would not face her. She went to stand before him, listening to the broken pattern of his breathing. "You did nothing wrong in calling out for help. And he wanted to help you, as any true friend would. Neither of you did anything wrong."
He dragged his sleeve over his eyes and drew a shuddering breath. "I stole his life."
"No," she said urgently. "He wouldn't have wanted you to stay there-whom would it have served?" A hot trickle touched the corner of her lips, flavoring them with salt. How well she understood guilt, the self-hatred it caused, especially in the absence of forgiveness. And the person that Nick needed forgiveness from was dead. "He can't be here to absolve you," she said. "But I'm going to speak for him. If he could, he would tell you, 'You're forgiven. It's all right now. I'm at peace, and you should be as well. And it is long past time for you to forgive yourself.'"
"How do you know he would say that?"
"Because anyone who cared for you would. And he did care for you, or he wouldn't have risked his life to protect you." Stepping forward, Lottie put her arms around his rigid neck. "I care for you, too." She had to use her full weight to make him bend to her. "I love you," she whispered. "Please don't turn me away." And she brought her mouth to his.
It took a long time for him to respond to the soft pressure of her lips. He made a faint sound in his throat, and slowly his shaking hands came to her face, holding her still while his mouth molded over hers. His cheeks were wet with sweat and tears, and his kiss was bruising in its fervor.
"Does it help to hear those words?" Lottie whispered when his mouth lifted.
"Yes," he said hoarsely.
"Then I'll say them whenever you need to hear them, until you begin to believe." She slid her hand behind his neck and tugged his head down for another kiss.
Nick startled her with his sudden wildness. Picking her up with frightening ease, he carried her to the bed and dropped her to the mattress. He tore his own clothes off, ripping plackets of buttons rather than take the time to unfasten them. Climbing over her swiftly, he straddled her and split the front of her gown with his hands. Dimly she realized that Nick's need to be inside her was so violent that he had lost all self-control. Kneeing her legs wide apart, he pushed the head of his sex against her, demanding entry. Her body was unprepared, her flesh dry and tight despite her willingness to receive him.
Sliding down her body, Nick took her with his mouth, his large hands gripping her h*ps and pressing them firmly to the bed as she arched upward in surprise. His tongue plunged into her, wetting and softening the tender flesh. Finding the delicate peak just above the vulnerable opening, he drew the flat of his tongue against it, over and over, until he caught the intimate scent of her desire. Levering his body upward, he mounted her again, and drove his hard organ inside her.
As soon as Nick entered her warm body, his blind ferocity seemed to drain away. He hung over her, his muscular arms braced on either side of her head, his chest moving in deep, irregular breaths. Lottie was pinned beneath him, her flesh throbbing around the thick shaft that impaled her.
His mouth came to hers again, this time gentle as he possessed her with long, teasing kisses, the tip of his tongue stroking the insides of her mouth. She had secretly cherished the memory of his other kisses, the sweetly fervent brushes of a stranger's lips...but this was so different, dark and heady and powerful. She ached for his touch, gasping with relief at the soft tugs of his fingers on her nipples. He used all his skill to arouse her, teasing her with shallow strokes that enticed rather than satisfied. Wanting more, Lottie tried to pull him closer. He resisted, maintaining the languid rhythm, hushing her with kisses when she protested. Suddenly he plunged inside her with one long drive. Bewildered, Lottie stared at his intent face. "What are you doing?" she asked faintly.
His mouth brushed over hers with kisses of soft fire. And as he possessed her, she gradually came to understand the pattern he was working within her...eight shallow thrusts, two deep...seven shallow, three deep...progressing until he finally gave her ten heavy, penetrating plunges. Lottie cried out with wrenching pleasure, her h*ps lifting against his sleek weight as she was filled with volatile sensation. When the burning delight had begun to fade, Nick altered their positions subtly, moving farther over her, nudging her knees wider, adjusting the angle of his sex. He thrust deeply, sealing their bodies together, and circled his h*ps in a slow, steady rhythm.
"I can't," Lottie said breathlessly, realizing what he wanted, knowing that it was impossible.
"Let me," Nick whispered, tireless and wickedly adept as he continued the gentle circling, using his body to pleasure her.
She was astonished by how quickly the heat rose again, her senses welcoming the patient stimulation, her sex turning slick and swollen as he moved inside her, over her, against her. "Oh...oh..." The sounds were torn from her throat as she reached another crest, her limbs jerking, her cheek pressed hard against his shoulder.
And then he began the entire cycle again. Nine shallow, one deep...
Lottie lost count of how many times he brought her to ecstasy, or how much time passed while he made love to her. He whispered in her ear...endearments...intimate praise...telling her how hard she made him...how sweet she felt around him...how much he wanted to satisfy her. He gave her more pleasure than it seemed possible to bear, until finally she begged him to stop, her body trembling with exhaustion.
Nick complied with reluctance, pushing deep inside one last time, releasing his pent-up desire with a shuddering groan. Compulsively he kissed her again, as he withdrew from her sated body. Lottie barely had the strength to lift her hand, but she caught at his arm and murmured thickly, "Will you stay?"
"Yes," she heard him say. "Yes."
Relieved and tired, she sank quickly into a fathomless sleep.
Sunlight streamed in through the windows, which Lottie had left open the night before to admit the cool air. She yawned and stretched, wincing uncomfortably at the strained muscles in her thighs and the unusual ache she felt in her- Suddenly remembering the previous night, Lottie rolled over. A shiver of pleasure went through her as she saw Nick sleeping on his stomach beside her, his long muscular back gleaming in the rising light. His head was half-buried in a pillow, his lips slightly parted as he slumbered. The growth of a thick night-beard shadowed his jaw, lending a disreputable cast to his handsome face. Lottie had never experienced this kind of passionate interest in anyone or anything...this keen desire to know every detail of his mind, body, and soul...the pure delight of being in his presence.
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