The heat radiating up his arm from their touch jolted him, and his body reacted in ways he'd never experienced. He'd been with many women intimately, but this was a feeling beyond anything he'd ever known or felt. A warm tremor moved through him, finally settling low in his abdomen.
Before meeting Mrs. Watkins, the women he'd had affairs with never interested him long enough to want anything beyond a quick, mutually satisfying romp in the sheets. He'd never had a mistress because of his business, though he was known to visit only the finest establishments with the most-skilled courtesans his connections could afford him.
Never had he met a woman and instantly... craved.
He looked down at the tiny hand in his, which was far easier than looking into the depths of her amber-colored eyes, or focusing on her luscious pink lips. And he craved her like he had no other.
He found his tongue and thanked her for her time and promised to return in the morning. Feeling the room closing in on them, he realized that he'd completely forgotten that there was another man in the antechamber and at least two others in offices nearby. She'd made him forget the world outside this room so much that he could have easily reached down and kissed another man's wife. And while he'd enjoyed the favors of more than a few willing wives over the years, he always had to know beforehand if the woman was in a certain type of relationship with her husband. The last thing he wanted was some lovesick spouse calling him out.
When it came to dallying with married women, the other rule he kept was never dallying with the wives of friends. And he hoped to hell Watkins wasn't a likable chap, because Lucky definitely had to watch himself where Mrs. Watkins—
Watkins—was concerned. He wanted the red-headed beauty in the worst way. Right now he felt the need for a cold swim, and as water cold enough to subdue his rising ardor wasn't likely to be found around here, a confessional and penance might do the trick.
Once he exited the building, he walked briskly toward town intending to find a confessor.
ary-Michael closed the door to her husband's office and plopped into his over-stuffed leather chair. Her nerves still rattled from the man's touch. How had she maintained her calm business-like demeanor when all she wanted was to melt into a puddle of muck at the man's feet? Thinking on it, she decided that the way he held himself, the way he spoke, dressed, and walked all contributed to the air of confidence that intrigued and aroused her. All of it together made him so... captivating.
And then he touched her. Yes, she'd held her hand out first to shake his, so theoretically, she'd encouraged his touch, but oh, heaven–Mary-Michael smiled in the empty room. That was forward!
At one point she felt as though she might lose his interest, just as she had on many occasions in the past when a potential customer discovered M. Michael Watkins was not a male, but she quickly touted her credentials and areas of study she'd focused on when learning this trade, all so as not to lose this possible sale. She knew Mr. Watkins would be proud.
Laying her head on her crossed arms on top of the desk, she heaved a deep, trembling sigh. God help her. This was not good. What was his name again, this friend of Ian Ross? He had a British accent, but his surname wasn't English. Was it Spanish or Italian? Portuguese perhaps? She sighed as she recalled his image. He had an exotic appearance, with a swarthy, olive-skinned complexion and head full of shaggy, wavy hair. His strong square jawline and chin bore a smattering of stubble, as though he'd not shaved recently. Instead of making him appear unkempt and disgusting, it had the opposite effect on her. He appeared rakishly handsome in his finely tailored and starched white shirt, form-fitting buff-colored breeches and high black leather boots polished to a near mirror-shine–unlike her own scuffed black work boots.
The man also wore no coat, likely because of the unseasonably warm weather, but she felt sure that if he had, it would be of the same superior quality as his breeches and linen shirt. And under all that fine clothing, he looked to be well-muscled and very fit, telling Mary-Michael that he obviously spent his days working right alongside his crew.
She sat up and stared out the open windows into the busy shipyard, and recalled the full lips that had captured her gaze more than once. Mary-Michael had had to force herself not to let it linger there, for he could easily have suspected she was a woman of loose morals had he caught her. This business was hard enough for a man. The only credibility she had—and she fully recognized this—was in her marriage to her husband, one of the finest shipbuilders on the eastern seaboard. And she realized that she only had a short time remaining to establish herself before he passed away, and she would be left on her own. Which is why she could never have her reputation called into question. Ever. Not if she intended to keep and run Watkins Shipbuilding after Mr. Watkins' passing.
Though she might not remember the man's name, she certainly remembered his look. And the one time he smiled fully, she got a glimpse of even white upper teeth, with the lower ones just slightly, endearingly crooked. It didn't detract from his looks at all and was perhaps the tiniest of imperfections in the most perfect specimen of man she'd ever seen in her life. Oh, and his eyes... Surely his dark brown eyes could see into her soul, witnessing all the conflicted emotion his presence created within her. Something that had never existed until he arrived. The man was unnerving and quite simply beautiful. She could think of no other word to describe him but beautiful.
Suddenly, the project her husband mentioned a few days earlier was now forefront in her mind. Mary-Michael now had to reconcile the morality of it against the reality. She was a married woman with a husband who couldn't give her what she so desperately wanted, because that wasn't the kind of marriage they had. And she was not willing to attempt adoption again—especially after the pain of having what was very nearly her son and daughter taken from her as they cried out for her with outstretched arms. To this very day she still cried about it, only now it wasn't several times a day. It wasn't even every day. But all she had to do was think about them and the tears welled.
She forced herself to change her thoughts to something more pleasant, and the image of the ruggedly handsome captain came to mind. And she thought about what her husband had recently proposed to help her achieve this one last dream before his death. If she gave birth to a son, she and her husband would have an heir for the shipyard.
But she had to conceive this child first.
Flustered with all these emotions, and unable to think clearly about work, Mary-Michael stood and collected her light jacket, ready to call an end to the long day. As she left the office, she said goodnight to Andrew, asking him to lock up on his way out. She walked through the long hallway, lined with framed drawings of the most prominent vessels her husband's shipyard had built over the thirty years he'd been in business. She wanted to draw something on par with
for this client. A vessel sleek and fast, able to cut through the waves and fly with wind.
Wending her way into the shipyard stable, she saw her driver busy hammering a shoe to the horse's hoof and changed her mind. "Victor, I think I shall walk home this evening. I could use the exercise." Not to mention the time to think on what she'd now tell her husband about the visitor and what he wanted. She also needed to reconcile these errant emotions which were sure to get her into trouble if anyone noticed.
"It's not safe for a young woman such as yourself to go walkin' through these streets near the docks." Victor, Mr. Watkins' servant for longer than she's been alive, started his usual rant about her walking. "One never knows what mischief lies around a corner out there now-days." He set the horse's foot down and looked at the four to check them for balance. "If you'd give me a few minutes, I'll have the ol' girl between the shafts in no time, and get ya home safe soon enough."
Mary-Michael leaned against a post and watched as he picked the hoof up again and removed the temporary nail holding the shoe, took the file from his back pocket and began to rasp more hoof away.
"Besides, I wasn't expectin' ya to leave early today."
"It's not early, Victor. Why, it's almost time for dinner. Besides, you know walking helps me clear my head after a busy day. We have a potential new client and I want to think about some designs from the notes I took during the meeting. He'll be coming back tomorrow morning to meet with Mr. Watkins."
"At least get one of the lads from the Dutchman's crew to walk wit' ya. You know Mr. Watkins don' want you walkin' alone with that lawman pesterin' you."
Mary-Michael began the trek through the yard toward the street. "He can't hurt me, Victor. I can out-run him if I had to." She held up a hand to wave at him as she kept walking. "See you at the house," she said, calling back at Victor.
Once through the yard, it was only a short eight blocks to the house she shared with Mr. Watkins, and their servants, Victor and his wife Sally. She could run the distance in less than ten minutes, but a nice leisurely walk through the wharf business area wasn't as bad as people often thought it was. For certain there were the shady types, the drunken rogues who hung around the alleyways near the pubs waiting for their doors to open, though the constable kept most of them in line. But for the most part, people down here were hard-working, church-going people. She should know, this was where she'd grown up. Now every day she passed the dry goods store she once lived above as a child before the fever took her parents, leaving her and her brother George orphaned. This was her home. She'd never left Indian Point in her life, except to visit Mr. Watkins' farm several times a year. Her community wasn't as bad as Victor always made it out to be.
The houses on Washington Street weren't like the houses further in town with lots of extra rooms for visitors. Most of these modest homes belonged to tradesmen and their families, and thus were on the small side. Though the home she shared with Mr. Watkins was one of the larger of these, it wasn't by much. Mr. Watkins had added onto the house when his first wife Abigail had been with child, so this house had four bedrooms, where most had two or three. He'd also turned one of the two downstairs sitting rooms into a study for himself not long after that first wife passed away trying to deliver their babe. Mary-Michael had spent many hours in that study reading educational tomes from Mr. Watkins' vast collection.
She crossed her front porch, relishing the tiny bit of evening breeze they caught up here on the slight knoll over-looking the bay, and pushed open the door. "I'm home, Sally," she called out as she went down the hallway looking for Mr. Watkins in his study. She tossed her jacket on the banister rail and heard Sally acknowledge her from out in the kitchen. "I walked, so Victor will be along soon. He was nailing a shoe on Buttercup when I left. She must have lost it when Victor brought Mr. Watkins home at noon." She knocked softly on her husband's office door, and after getting no reply, she thought perhaps he was asleep. Cautiously pushing the door open, she discovered she was right. The gray-haired old man sat in his favorite wing chair in the corner, holding the evening paper, sound asleep.
His cloudy eyes opened and he smiled. "Ah, Mary, my girl. A man couldn't have a better companion."
"I'm also your wife, Mr. Watkins." She poured herself a glass of water and took a seat across from him on the settee.
"Aye. You are that."
"What's Sally cooking for dinner?" Mr. Watkins made a great show of raising his paper and snapping the wrinkles from it.
"I don't know, sir, but it smells delicious."
"She doesn't cook a thing that isn't, my girl." Her dear, wizened husband brought the page right up to his face and began to peruse the headlines. "So how is everything at the office?"
"It got interesting right before I left," Mary-Michael said.
The elderly man lowered his paper enough to meet her gaze. "How so?"
"I had a visitor. An Englishman. He said he is the partner of a Mr. Ian Ross, formerly of Indian Point." She awaited his recognition of the name and when he smiled, she knew he'd remembered. "He said Ian has inherited his uncle's title. He is now the Earl of Something, Mr. Watkins. Your old friend's son is a nobleman and the two men are partners in a tea importing company."
Her husband folded the paper and nodded his nearly bald gray head. "It's why Hamish had to send his only child to live with that old..." He cut off what he was going to call the man, likely so as not to offend her. "What did he want, this visitor. Was Ian with him?"
"No, sir, he was not." Mary-Michael tempered her excitement and continued. "This gentleman said he admired the vessels under construction as he walked through our yard."
Her husband's gray eyes danced with merriment. "Did you tell him they were all your designs?"
"Yes, though you know I am uncomfortable doing so. We only spoke for a few minutes. The man said he and his partner are looking at expansion of their business. They would like two new clippers." When her husband's eyes grew wide with interest, she went on. "They are in need of boats that can compete in the tea trade. They're currently sailing a pair of twenty-one-year-old clippers from Jorgensen's yard up in Halifax."
Mr. Watkins continued to nod, acknowledging their competitor, and she went on.
"They have one hundred and twenty footers now, and he's looking at one hundred and eighty or eighty-five feet. With that, I can increase his cargo capacity by sixty to eighty percent and get him where he needs to go faster, but I didn't tell him that." Mary-Michael couldn't stop the grin from spreading across her face.
Mary-Michael considered her words. "Well, like most men, he didn't seem comfortable discussing business with a woman. In fact, I think he'd rather deal directly with you. And secondly, I wouldn't want to promise any percentage increase in his profit until I knew exactly what he wanted in materials, accommodations and trim."