Authors: Candice Proctor
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
Night In Eden
Bryony Wentworth's life is shattered when she is unjustly accused and sentenced to indentured servitude in New South Wales. Broken in body—but not in spirit—she fights for light, and for her life, wanting no part of the man who would save her, Captain Hayden St. John. But the mother in her cannot turn away from Hayden's needy infant, and the woman in her cannot deny her passion for the rugged, enigmatic man she is bound to serve.
Against the sweeping panorama of a harsh, gorgeous, and unforgiving land, two hungering souls learn to trust, to love, and to triumph over the danger that will shadow their lives—until destiny and desire become one.
"You should have told me his mother is dead. I never would have refused to feed him if I had known."
"Would it have made such a difference?" he demanded harshly.
"Of course." Her head swung back around, and he saw that her face was pale and tight with some emotion he couldn't name. "What do you think I am?"
He wasn't sure what she was. She puzzled him. Her voice might hold a soft Cornish burr, but it was a refined voice and undeniably educated. There was a pride and quiet dignity there, too, beneath her stubborn, headstrong nature, that spoke of birth and breeding.
He wondered what she'd been transported for. She obviously hadn't started out in the gutter, even if she had ended up there. He felt an unexpected stirring within him, a stirring that was part interest, part admiration, and part something else.
And it occurred to him that it would probably have been better for both of them if she
been the simple two-penny trollop he'd first assumed her to be.
An Ivy Book
Published by Ballantine Books Copyright © 1997 by Candice Proctor
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 97-90574
Manufactured in the United States of America First Edition: November 1997
For my sister Penny, with thanks
New South Wales. September 1808
Captain Hayden St. John stood beneath the overhanging eaves of the ugly Parramatta prison block and watched the matron and a male guard drag the woman toward him through the teeming rain.
The howling spring storm was quickly churning the unpaved prison yard into a treacherous expanse of slick yellow mud. Rain pounded on the shingled roof behind him and slapped into the waterlogged ground, filling the air with the fetid smell of sodden earth and decay.
Mud caked the convict woman's ragged red cloak and ugly, old-fashioned dress of cheap brown stuff clear up to her knees. Her head was bowed, her dark hair hanging in stringy clumps over a pale, hollow-cheeked face. She looked like something picked up out of the gutter— which was undoubtedly where she'd come from.
Suddenly she bucked and pulled back against the grip of her keepers and screamed at the matron, "Let me go, you filthy, lice-ridden, drunken old hag!"
Hayden leaned his shoulders against the crumbling brick wall and pulled a cheroot from his waistcoat pocket. For such a skinny thing, the woman was putting up quite a fight. Somehow she'd managed to wrench her wrist away from the matron's hold and use her free hand to claw at the arm of the guard. The man howled in surprise and pain, and let her go.
She whirled and took off at a run toward the open gates.
Hayden rested the cigar against his lower lip and made a soft sound deep in his chest that was somewhere between an exhalation of breath and a chuckle.
Matron Sarah Gooding had taken two steps after the girl, but at the sound of Hayden's low laugh she turned to glare at him. The driving rain dripped off her bulbous red nose and crooked mobcap. "I tell ye, that girl's crazy," she hollered, waving one of her ham-like arms through the air. "A body'd think no woman'd never buried a babe 'afore, the way she's carryin' on. Ye want her, Captain? Ye go get her."
The woman was halfway across the unpaved courtyard of the Factory by now. Hayden wondered where the hell she thought she was going. Even if she escaped the yard, she couldn't escape the colony. The entire colony was a prison.
Officially the Parramatta Female Factory was both the colony's workhouse and the assignment point for all the women transported from Britain to New South Wales. But for the men who came here to select a woman, it functioned more like a cross between a whorehouse and a slave market.
Except that these women were free for the taking.
A gust of wind tugged at Hayden's open greatcoat and tried to snatch the broad-brimmed hat from his dark head. He pushed away from the wall, his unlit cheroot clamped between his teeth, his long-legged stride carrying him easily through the ankle-deep muck of the yard.
The woman had almost reached the gate when her ill-shod feet shot out from under her. She went down hard, landing with her arms flung out beside her, her face in the mud....
Bryony Wentworth lay stunned, sucking in air. When she struggled up onto all fours, her hands and knees sank deep into the cold, stinking mud. Rain ran into her eyes, and she swiped at her face with the back of one arm. Only one thought raced through her head—to get back to her baby. She tried to push herself up onto her feet, but her skirts must have caught on something because she couldn't seem to move.
She twisted around, pulling at her dress with one desperate, cold-chapped hand. Then she froze. Someone had planted his black boot on the bedraggled hem between her legs.
They were tall black boots, she noticed, polished to a high sheen beneath the splattered mud. A gentleman's boots. At their heels jangled silver spurs of a type typically worn by officers of a hussar unit.
Above the gleaming black Hessians stretched heavily muscled thighs encased in buff buckskin riding breeches. Bryony had to twist her head around farther to see more. A gentleman's greatcoat hung open, revealing a frightfully large and most ungentlemanly knife strapped to a lean hip. She swallowed hard, her gaze traveling slowly upward, past a silk waistcoat to enormously broad shoulders and a linen shirt worn open at the neck with a knotted handkerchief in place of a more formal cravat.
The man was so tall she was getting a crick in her neck, just trying to look up at him. Above the white collar of his fine shirt, his throat was tanned to a tawny gold that gave him a savage look. His hair was dark, too, and he wore it long, so long it curled over his collar at the back. He had a face that seemed to be all harsh planes and sharp angles. It was a hard face, with a hint of cruelty about the uncompromising line of the mouth.
But it was his eyes that scared her the most. They were as bleak and cold as a winter sky. She thought he must be the coldest, meanest man she'd ever seen.
Then he smiled, and she was sure of it.
"Going someplace?" he asked, his lips curling back around the unlit cigar he held clamped between his teeth.
Bryony drew a shuddering breath. Her gaze fell to the muck beneath her. The rain pummeled her bare head and back. She bit her lower lip, tasting rain, salty tears, and acrid mud.
She heard a tinderbox strike and twisted around to find the man calmly lighting his cigar—no mean feat in this weather. His lean cheeks hollowed as he sucked in the smoke. He wasn't even looking at her.
He tucked the flint box back into his pocket, puffed on his cigar for a moment, then said, "My name is Hayden St. John, and you have just been assigned to me as my servant. I'm going to take my boot off your skirt now." He exhaled a stream of blue smoke. "Be wise and don't try to run away."
Bryony gathered her strength. His boot heel was still in the air when she bolted.
She barely made it up on her feet before his hand snaked out to wrap around her arm just above the elbow and yank her back so hard she slammed against him. She gasped with pain as her breasts, swollen and hard with milk for a baby that would never suckle again, crushed against his chest.
He brought his face to within a handsbreadth of hers, his mean eyes capturing her frightened ones and holding them for the length of five unsteady, pounding heartbeats. The rain poured down on them. "You listen to me, and you better listen carefully, because I don't like to repeat myself," the man said, his teeth still clutching the cigar. "You belong to me now. And if you ever try to run away from me again, I'll have you flogged. Is that understood?"
Fear, anger, hatred, and a bitter sense of defeat all burned within her, but Bryony was no fool and twelve months of prison had taught her a lot about swallowing pride and hiding hate. She clenched her jaw and nodded.
His dark brows drew together. His lean, strong fingers tightened around her arm until she could feel them digging into the thin flesh. "You'll say
when you answer me."
Bryony was a tall woman. So tall she was accustomed to looking most men in the eye—if she didn't look down on them. She didn't look down on this man. The top of her head barely cleared his shoulder. She had to tilt her head back to look up into his dark, forbidding face. She swallowed hard, hating him, hating herself.
His cold, penetrating stare held hers a moment longer, as if he could see the hate and defiance she felt burning in her chest reflected in her eyes, as if he were challenging her to give tongue to it. But fear—or perhaps it was just common sense—clogged her throat and kept her silent.
She saw something flare in the icy blue depths of his eyes. Then he turned back toward the huddle of prison buildings, his iron fist gripping her arm mercilessly as he dragged her behind him.
Matron Gooding sat on a section of a log upended in the mud outside the open door of a small, crude hut and dabbed in an ineffectual way with a dirty cloth at the bloody, nail-raked arm of the guard.
Bryony hated that guard. He was a wasted wreck of a man with narrow, stooped shoulders and a face so dirty not even the rain had managed to wash it clean. But more than the way he looked, it was the gleam she saw in his eyes when they rested on her that made Bryony's skin crawl. She'd seen that gleam before. She knew what it meant.
The tall man with the black boots came to a sudden halt that had Bryony's feet sliding in the mud. She grabbed hold of his hard arm with her free hand to keep from falling again. But she dropped it quickly, as if she'd suddenly discovered herself grasping a deadly snake.
The guard looked up and saw her. "You!" he screamed, spittle spraying over his unkempt, faded-yellow whiskers. "You goddamn filthy whore. Look what she done to me." He held out his bleeding arm. "I want 'er taken before the magistrates. I want 'er flogged. Let's see 'ow full o' fight she is after a cat-o'-nine-tails 'as decorated her back."
The guard made a grab for her. Bryony instinctively shrank back, but before the guard could reach her, Hayden St. John's hand closed over the man's wrist in a grip that made him wince.
"Eow!" he hollered, cringing beneath that ruthless hold. "What the 'ell did ye do that fer?"
"This woman is mine now." Slowly St. John opened his fingers to release the man's filthy wrist. "And I'm not taking her out of here damaged."
Matron Gooding chuckled in a way that sent her grossly distended belly bouncing up and down beneath her dirty apron. "Aye. Not much good to ye, is she, Captain, if she cain't even lay flat on 'er back under ye. Ha! Ha!"
Bryony's stomach turned over as fear and horror slammed into her. She cast a quick glance up at the harsh, uncompromising profile of the man beside her, then glanced away again, because looking at him somehow made it all seem more real.
But it is real, Bryony,
she told herself unmercifully.
She'd known this moment was coming for months, ever since she'd first learned what being transported to Botany Bay meant for the women convicts who were sent here. Even before the ship sailed from England, Bryony had heard the stories. About how the men took the female prisoners as their concubines. They said that in the old days, they used to line the women up on deck as soon as the ships anchored in the cove. The officers were allowed on board first to make their selection. Then the common soldiers. Then the rest.
Nowadays the women were usually sent to the Factory first. But that was about all that had changed. She'd heard some of the men kept the same women for years—even had children by them. But most traded their women around. Or sold them, for rum.
She'd known it all for months. But knowing didn't seem to have prepared her for the reality when she came smack up against it. Panic still coiled around her, squeezing her like a live thing. Her mind still screamed,
This can't be happening.
The same way it had screamed when they'd first thrown her into that dark, crowded, stinking prison cell in Penzance. The way it had screamed the day the jailer put his beefy hands on her breasts.
Bryony heard the matron laugh again, smelled her fetid breath and the stink of stale rum and rotten teeth. It mingled with the other odors of the prison—the stench of damp and decay, of urine and unwashed bodies and fear.
Bryony thought she might be sick.
She saw Hayden St. John's lip curl, although whether it was in disgust or disdain, Bryony couldn't be sure. "If she has anything worth taking away with her, get it," he told the matron. "And you," he added, his gaze shifting to the guard, "Fetch my horse. And bring me a length of rope while you're at it."
Bryony pressed her back against the dirty whitewashed wall of the hut and watched Hayden St. John relight his cigar. He exhaled a long stream of smoke into the cold air and looked her over appraisingly. She tilted her head back against the wall and closed her eyes.
The sound of mud squishing beneath hooves brought her head around. The guard was back, leading a big, raw-boned gray gelding. Hayden St. John took the gelding's reins and was tightening the saddle cinch when the matron reappeared, carrying Bryony's small bundle of rags. He tied it loosely behind the saddle, then reached for the length of rope and turned to Bryony.
"Hold out your hands."
She stared at the rope and swallowed hard. "Please. I won't try to run again. I... I was only trying to get back to Philip's grave. You see, they... they didn't give me time to say good-bye."
His eyes narrowed. "Philip was your baby?"
He stared at her for a long moment, then fastened the rope to his saddle. "All right." His long, callused fingers cupped her chin, none-too-gently, and he forced her to look up at him. "But just remember, I'm faster and stronger and a hell of a lot meaner than you are. Don't try anything."
She didn't say
because she wasn't capable of saying anything at the moment. He didn't press the point. He held her gaze long enough to be certain she understood, then he released her and swung up into the saddle.
He was halfway across the yard before Bryony realized he expected her to follow him on foot. She had to hurry, slipping and sliding, to catch up with him before he turned out the gate.
The road outside the prison was no more than a muddy track ribbed with deep, water-filled ruts. It oozed downhill, running roughly parallel to the rain-swollen river, until river and road finally converged at a dockside inn a mile or so away.
The wind was stronger out here, away from the high walls of the prison. It flung the rain in her face and grabbed at her open cloak, billowing it out about her as she slogged through the mud.