His momentary shock faded and he met the golden brown-eyed gaze of a young lady. With straight auburn hair of undetermined length tied back and bound in netting, her golden-red-brown eyebrows arched delicately over an expressive, curious gaze. A sprinkling of freckles spread across her cheeks, over the bridge of her nose and up to her forehead. She stood near chin-height to him, and wore what appeared to be charcoal-gray breeches, and a short-sleeved, lightweight, dove gray jacket, that fell over the hip. Under that, a white blouse buttoned up to the chin to protect her modesty. She had a pretty face, even though her eyes appeared tired, and her smile looked almost forced.
"May I help you?" Now she sounded a tad put out that he'd kept her waiting for his reply, her wide-brimmed straw hat dangling by its tied strings from her fingers.
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. "I'm looking for, Mr. Spenser Watkins, or a Mr. M. Michael Watkins."
-Michael Watkins, and my husband, Mr. Spenser Watkins, has gone for the day." She fumbled with her pad and pencil and her hat and jacket while she waited for him to reply.
Damnation. The first intriguing young woman he'd met in a long time and she was married. Seemed to be his luck of late. Mrs. Watkins was interesting-looking—no, attractive, very attractive. Attractive and yet... different. The rake in him wanted to see just how married she was. Maybe, if he played his cards right, he just might get–God, he hated when his friends said it–but perhaps he might get lucky.
He grinned what he hoped was his best smile. "My name is Lucky Gualtiero, Captain of
currently riding at anchor in your harbor."
Her eyes widened, then just as quickly narrowed and she squinted as though inspecting a bug under a magnifying glass, and thought to see through him to the truth. It made him somewhat uncomfortable. "My partner and I founded Empire Tea Importers, and currently sail two one-hundred and twenty-foot clippers—"
"—that beat the
in the Transatlantic Challenge last summer," she finished for him.
"Aye, we did." Lucky didn't enjoy bragging, but in this instance he was proud of what he and Ian had accomplished. They had beat what was purported to be the fastest clipper on the ocean to date. A clipper that was built right here in this very shipyard. "My partner and I are looking to expand our tea import business by adding two more ships to our fleet. We are in the market to have some custom work done and your shipyard came highly recommended."
Her eyebrows rose and she smiled a crooked smile at him. "Oh? By whom? McKim?"
"No. My partner, Ian Ross-Mackeever."
"He knows of our work?
"Yes." He saw her struggle to place the name.
She pursed her lips and squinted, apparently deep in thought as she seemed to search her recollections. "Ian Ross. Why does that name sound familiar? Likely he's had work done here before."
"No. His father worked for... your husband."
"That's right." Recognition registered on her face and she smiled. "Ian is Hamish's son. No, Hamish Ross worked
my husband. They were partners. Mr. Watkins still speaks of his dear friend often."
Lucky followed Mrs. Watkins to the office. She held the door for him and he entered, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light of the entrance hall. He paused just inside the door and waited for her. Then it struck him.
Had he lost all manners?
held the door open for
and obedient lamb that he was, he followed her. She had to be no older than twenty-two or twenty-four and she was married to Spenser Watkins? He'd gotten the impression from Ian that Watkins was an elderly man. And what was even more disconcerting than the age difference, was the fact that she was so... so... comfortable in her position, even in her scandalous clothing. She didn't get flustered or nervous as a young woman at home would have upon meeting a gentleman while she was alone. Alone and awkwardly dressed.
Oh, there was no lack of modesty, for she was covered from chin to toe even in this sticky heat. He was sure her baggy breeches, light jacket and tall leather boots served the purpose for working in a shipyard. That big straw hat did an excellent job of keeping the sun off her face because while she was not as milky-fair as the young ladies at home, she bore the healthy glow of someone who enjoyed the outdoors, much like his sisters.
Lucky appreciated the sway of her bottom as he followed her up the stairs, then through a narrow corridor toward a great, open ante-chamber with a bank of open doors where she motioned him in. He wondered at her position in the business as he met the gaze of one gentleman standing at a drafting table who nodded a simple greeting. The man worked on making copies of the architectural print spread before him, as two other men in rolled-up shirtsleeves worked in offices with doors also open to the main antechamber. This, he was certain, was to aid in the circulation of air for as he was quickly learning, summer in Baltimore was a hot and muggy season indeed.
Mrs. Watkins led the way through an open door, one marked Spenser Watkins in black lettering on the frosted glass pane. She left this door wide open as she went into the room. His eyes followed her trouser and jacket-clad form as she moved behind the desk. She unbuttoned and removed her loose jacket, revealing her sleeveless white, high-necked blouse underneath and exposing her bare arms. Lucky's mouth suddenly felt dry as the desert in Africa. Not only was she beautiful to look upon, the woman was lithe, graceful, and in his opinion perfectly formed. What in heaven's name was she doing working in a shipyard? And the men in the antechamber behaved as though her presence was normal and accepted.
"Please. Have a seat." She motioned to a chair and put her hat on the rack with her jacket, then took a seat herself behind a large, masculine desk. She began to rifle through the drawers in search of something, then lifted out a fresh sheet of paper and a sharpened pencil.
Lucky didn't know how to say what he wanted, and instead asked, "Will your husband be in the office tomorrow?"
If he hadn't been paying attention he would have missed it—the change in her expression. It was so subtle, but there nonetheless. It had gone from warm and friendly to business-like and reserved.
"Yes," she replied. "He doesn't tolerate the midday heat very well at his age so keeps morning hours, returning home around noon. If you would rather speak directly with him, he is usually here around seven a.m. We tend to get more work done in the office early in the day when it is cooler. In the afternoon, you can usually find me out in the yard where the breeze off the bay makes the outdoors more bearable."
Lucky nodded. What had come over him? He'd been confident in his skills to bed her only a moment ago, and now.... He cleared his throat, nervous that his next words might offend her, but he'd never encountered a woman–a young woman–in such a position of leadership in a male-dominated business such as this. "Mrs. Watkins, I'll be frank with you. I have never done business of this magnitude with a woman."
"Not many men have," she said setting aside the pencil and lifting her tired gaze to his. She must have recognized his hesitation. "And you are not the first to have this reaction, but I assure you I am quite competent in what I do." She pointed at the wall of windows beside them. "Each one of those ships out there in that yard was designed by me, and built by the men who work for my husband's shipyard. There are twenty-eight vessels of my design currently sailing the world. I might be relatively young, but I am more current in the mechanic arts as it applies to naval architecture, and the engineering of composite materials than most men currently designing clippers. If you would like references I can give you the names of boats and their owners. Some of whom still do not know a woman designed their ship." She stared straight into his eyes and said, "But you know the most famous of my designs rather well, don't you captain? One day you'll have to tell me how you did it. How you beat Captain McKim."
Lucky felt he was surely gaping at her, unaccustomed to such dialog coming from a woman. He didn't want to be rude to the woman, but even she admitted this situation was quite unusual.
She lifted the pencil again, and rolled it between her hands. "Now, what is it you are looking for, Captain? You mentioned custom work."
"Yes." He cleared his throat and noticed a spark of interest rise in her expression when she glanced up at him. "My partner and I are looking for new builds. Two of them."
She smiled. "That is my specialty. If it relieves your concerns, all business related to the transfer of funds and signing of contracts, will be handled through my husband, our firm's legal counsel, and our accountant here at Watkins Shipyard."
"Good," he replied, relieved she'd not been offended by his statement.
She was very much professional and all business as she said, "I'd like to know what you need. What do you want in a boat? What size, type, number of masts, cargo hold, guns, cabins, construction? I engineer the design according to what your needs and desires are." Astonished at hearing her speak, Lucky did not interrupt her, as he was eager to hear what she had to say.
Mrs. Watkins confidently leaned back in her husband's too-big chair, her elbows resting on the armrests which pulled the material of her shirt tight across her slight bosom. "Here at Watkins, we craft solid wood hulls of oak, cedar or cypress, all of which is prevalent in these parts. We then sheath the hull in a fifty-fifty copper and zinc alloy, to reduce the speed of erosion. We clad on top a layer of tar one-quarter of an inch thick. The plate is up to twenty-four inches above the load waterline at aft and amid, graduating up to thirty-six inches above at the bow. All logs are milled and seasoned here on site. We have our own loggers, blacksmiths, fitters, and coopers."
His mouth went dry and he was unable to peel his gaze away from her face as she spoke. This fascinating woman was talking to him of ship construction. At home, talk of this sort was usually left for the company of men. How on earth had she received the education necessary to do something only the brightest of men in the world could do? Still dumbfounded, he shook his head. "I'm going to admit to being knocked off kilter with your questions. I hadn't prepared myself to discuss these things with a... a woman, and..." He felt a bit sheepish, and uncomfortable. "I don't mean to offend you."
She grinned at him again. A full, true smile. Her teeth were white and mostly straight and she had two dimples, not just the adorable one on the left. She was truly enchanting and vibrant, not milky-white, or rouged. This young woman radiated beauty from within, and it caused his heart to skip a beat, maybe two, even though she was married. "None taken, I assure you. If it would make you feel better, I can have my draftsman, Mr. Andrew Nawton, come in and take notes with us."
"No," he began, then cleared his throat, still a bit nervous as he glanced out to the drafting table beyond the open door. "This is fine." Lucky reached into the file folder and handed Mrs. Watkins their specification sheet. "The top half—" he motioned to the upper portion of the sheet, "has our requirements. Where this section—" he pointed below that, "is a wish list, of sorts. If they are possible, we'd like to see them done also." He pushed the pages across the desktop to her.
Mrs. Watkins scanned the pages and began to make notes. "We can do single tree masts, though I recommend composite—especially for the main and fore—simply because of the size." She looked up at him with luminous, golden-brown eyes and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth preventing him from replying. He had to get over this fascination with her, especially if they were to conduct business. He didn't want to offend the woman's husband. "But we can discuss that later," she added through her smile, before she turned her attention back to the sheet in front of her and continued to scribble her notes. She looked up at him again. "One hundred eighty-five feet is lengthy," she said. "Depending on how she's sparred, it could appear too long, or visually unbalanced. What's your cargo?"
"Tea," he replied. "And perhaps other cargo, eventually."
"Human cargo?" Their eyes met and he understood her meaning.
"Never." He tried not to sound too judgmental. He knew slavery was an accepted practice in the States. Even though he didn't agree with it, he didn't want to offend the potential shipbuilder for his business.
She exhaled a deeply held breath and relaxed her shoulders, which told Lucky exactly where she stood on the issue. And thankfully they were of one mind.
"Good. I don't think my conscience would allow me to build for the slave trade," she replied and continued asking him questions and making notes. "What is your timeline for delivery? We are about to have a slot open for a new build. Though only one right now, as we're soon to have
is the nearly completed boat at the dock, her owner is expected at the first of the month for transfer of ownership. At the moment, construction is running ten to twelve months, and I don't foresee it getting any faster as my yard is fully utilized right now."
Lucky could only nod his head in agreement, still a bit unbalanced by the whole discourse. They continued their discussion on specifications and requested items, closing with Mrs. Watkins asking for a few days to sketch something he might like. Lucky, again, could only agree, so dumbstruck and fascinated by this intelligent wisp of a young woman.
"Please, come by tomorrow morning. Say, around eight. I will make sure Mr. Watkins is here. I'm certain he would love to hear how Hamish's son fares." She backed the chair away and stood. When she reached out with her ungloved right hand, intending for him to shake it, Lucky stared at it for a moment. At home, a young lady was never so forward as to offer her hand to a gentleman she did not know, much less an ungloved hand. It felt as though he'd entered a strange land with strange customs and courtesies. But rather than offend her, as she might be designing his and Ian's new tea clippers, he reached out and took it, holding it lightly between his thumb and fingers.