His head pounded and felt in motion, causing his gut to clench and heave. Finn Callaghan gingerly opened his eyes and realized the swaying wasn’t in his head. The stench, creaks, and groans brought back a past he remembered in vivid detail.
How did he get in the hold of a ship?
Childhood memories of traveling with his family from Ireland to find a better life in America came rushing back. They had only enough funds to travel in the steerage. Nearly a hundred bodies crammed in the hull of the boat—all looking for a better life. His family survived the weeks of travel by rationing the food they’d brought with them washed down with rain water caught in barrels on the deck and lowered down to them in buckets.
That happened twenty years ago but all the images, scents, and sounds bombarded him and he shivered. The past ten years working for the railroad he’d shoved those hardships to the back of his mind.
Finn stared in the darkness. How the hell did he get from a saloon to the hold of a ship? He rubbed a hand over his aching head. He didn’t even drink anything to give him a headache.
A moan slithered through the silence.
He wasn’t alone.
Holding his breath he listened intently. There it was again not as strong.
“Hello? Who else is here?”
A breathy gasp lingered in the air.
He’d been around long enough to know a female sound when he heard it.
“I won’t hurt you. If you’re able, speak up so I can find you and we can find a way out of here.” Once the sound of his voice died out, he strained to hear a voice or movement to judge if this woman was injured.
“Who are you?” asked a definitely feminine voice.
He smiled. His assumption had been right. He had a feeling she was one with more backbone than most men from the gumption in her tone.
“Finn Callaghan. And you?”
“Why are you down here?”
He shook his head at her question and business-like tone. Pain slashed from his forehead to his neck. Finn pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead and tried to collect his thoughts. She’d asked why he was down here. Hell if he knew.
“Last I remember I was at the Red Dog Saloon looking for workers for the Oregon Steam and Navigation Company.” He remembered the man behind the bar handing him a cup of coffee, he drank the hot drink, and everything else was blank.
Rustling sounds to his left registered where she was.
“You work for Mr. Ainsworth?”
Now he heard the breeding in her words. What was a woman of her class doing in the hold of a ship?
“My father has used his transportation services and helped him with funding.” The rustling and the sound of her voice grew closer.
“How did you get down here?” Finn stared in the direction of her approach but he couldn’t see any better than if a sack were over his head.
She huffed. “I followed my younger brother to the docks. My father is out or town and I promised I’d keep an eye on Georgie.”
He caught a floral scent as her voice stopped within arm’s reach. What he wouldn’t give for a lantern.
The vessel lurched and her body plopped in his lap. Small hands pushed at his thighs as she righted herself. Even being groggy and hurt, he sprang to life when her hand grazed his crotch. He was, after all, a man, and when a female was this close and touching him where few touched, he couldn’t tamp the reaction.
The hint of embarrassment and perhaps the knowledge of what she’d touched put a smile on Finn’s lips.
“Just don’t smack my head, it’s aching enough without more jostling.”
“Oh! Are you hurt? Is that how they put you down here?”
The hands that had shoved off his thighs glided up his arm, his neck, and gently ran through his hair feeling his skull.
“Oh my! You have a rather large, hot bump on the back of your head.”
Her fingers skimmed across the ache taking with them a bit of the pain.
As much as he enjoyed her attention, they had to find a way out.
“How did you end up here, and how long do you think we’ve been sailing?”
Her hands left his hair and she sighed.
“Like I previously said, I followed Georgie to the docks. He has been gambling a lot. I wanted to find the people and tell them to not allow him in their games.”
Finn snorted. “If they were winning against your brother there is no way they’d quit allowing him in their games.”
A very feminine huff puffed warm air across his cheek.
“I discovered that knowledge when I confronted the men. Then my brother had the gall to tell them to take me to pay his debt.”
Her tone confused Finn. She didn’t sound frightened or appalled, she sounded mad. “Why would he tell them to take you?”
Another huff of air teased his shaggy hair.
“Because I’m older and have shown interest in the family business. Father threatens Georgie all the time that if he doesn’t straighten up I’ll inherit everything. If I die or disappear, Georgie would get everything.”
The matter-of-fact statement of her brother wishing her dead stunned Finn. “You’re taking this pretty well. I don’t think I’d be as level-headed if my brother wanted me dead.”
“I’ve grown up knowing he resented me and as we became adults, hated me.” She sighed. “He’s my only sibling, and I would change places with him if I could but it didn’t happen that way. All he has to do is quit womanizing and gambling and Father would hand the company over to Georgie, but he doesn’t want to give up the women and cards. So I believe he doesn’t want the company, only the money. And once Father learns of this stunt, he will make sure Georgie never gets another penny from the business.”
Finn stared in the dark trying to see this woman. She must be an uncomely spinster to have such a detached outlook on her family and her life.
“How will your father learn of this stunt if you’re sold or whatever these people had in mind?”
Her silence was the first sign she realized how dire her situation.
She cleared her voice, but he heard the tightness of fear as she said, “My driver will go home when I don’t return to the carriage and send a telegraph to my father that I entered the dock area and didn’t return. I’m sure he’ll get the police involved and I will be rescued.”
“Lady—what’s your name?”
“Miss Hawthorne…” Her father loaned Ainsworth money. “Are you Archibald Hawthorne’s daughter?” If she was the daughter of one of the richest bankers in the area, he knew how much her brother had to gain by getting rid of her.
“You know my father?”
“I haven’t met him but I know who he is. Anyone who does business in Portland knows who Archibald Hawthorne is.” With this new information, Finn’s head started pounding anew. He had the wealthiest man in the state’s daughter sitting beside him. If he returned her to him, he’d, no doubt, be rewarded. This information doubled his determination to get both of them out of here. He enjoyed working for the OSNC but he would rather be his own boss. There was a good chance getting Miss Hawthorne back to her father would put him closer to his dream.
“How long have we been moving?” They had to get off this ship before they were too far out to sea.
“I would guess a couple hours. But it hasn’t been smooth. I think we’re traveling along the coast.”
He found himself straining to see her in the darkness. He’d never met a woman who proved so knowledgeable. “How do you figure that?”
“We’ve traveled by ship to San Francisco and the Orient several times and you can tell when the ship moves out of the river and into the open ocean. This is the movement of a coastal voyage.”
“I hope you’re right. It will make getting you back to your father easier.” Finn pushed his back against the brace behind him and shoved to his feet.
Prudence raised her chin, looking up even though she couldn’t see the man she was incarcerated with. But she heard his deep voice drift upward, suggesting he had stood. The swaying of the vessel would make walking around hard without something to hold onto. She reached up clasped his tree-like legs and slowly pulled herself to her feet. She’d lost all dignity when the two men had shoved her to the floor and rolled her up in a carpet. She hadn’t let Mr. Callaghan know how much it hurt to have the last thing she saw be the gloating and greed in her brother’s eyes.
She had always felt the animosity from her brother but until today she had not realized how deep it was etched into his being.
“Watch where you put your hands. That’s the second time since meeting you that you’ve touched where only a prostitute or a wife should touch.”
Heat scorched up her neck and blazed her cheeks. She couldn’t even squeak out an apology the mortification had frozen her movement.
“Let me help.” Large hands wrapped around her upper arms, drawing her to her feet. She could feel his breath flutter across the top of her head.
“You’re a little thing. Whatever gave you the idea you could go to the docks alone?”
His comment fortified her with the anger she needed to get out of this predicament. “You believe because I’m a small woman I cannot handle myself. You think I need a big strong man to help me. I’ve been in the worst parts of the city helping those less fortunate and have come across many unsavory people, but I have always kept my wits and returned home unscathed. I do not need a man to keep me safe.”
Mr. Cavanaugh made a noise she could have sworn was a groan.
“Miss Hawthorne, I’m not sayin’ you can’t handle yourself. I’m only offering to partner with you to get us both out of this mess. After we get away from this boat you can do whatever you please.” His hand moved up her arm to her neck and felt along the neckline.
“What are you doing?” She pushed his hand away before he touched her inappropriately.
“Checkin’ to see if you’re a white ribbon lady.”
“You mean a suffragette?”
“That sounds like the word.”
“I do not adhere to all their principles, but I do believe a woman can hold the same job as a man when it does not involve physical strength.”
“Then let me do what a man does best.” He grasped her hand and started moving. She realized he had his other hand on the wall of the ship. “Did you overhear anything that might work in our favor?”
“I believe this ship is picking up more cargo before it heads out to sea.” The firm grip and warmth of his hand started a tingle up her arm. She’d held hands with men before but something about his man and his manner warmed her chest and settled a smile on her lips.
“Good, there’s a better chance we can swim to shore.” He stopped and she could feel him looking down at her. “Can you swim?”
“Yes. We have a house on the Willamette and spend our summers swimming and boating.” Hearing the pride in her voice made her sound superior. She loathed her contemporaries who acted and sounded that way. “I did not mean for that to—“
“Sound like you’re better than me?”
Heat blazed another path up her neck. “Yes.”
“Don’t worry, I know my place. Growing up in the cities back east and being an Irish immigrant I learned about the classes.”
She stared into the darkness as he continued walking, tugging on her hand. “You don’t sound Irish.”
A derisive laugh floated back to her.
“That’s because I worked hard to blend in. Moved out of the city at twenty and went to work for the railroads headed west. Now I work for Ainsworth and have the honor of calling many men, and their wives, friends. Many of them, if I’d stayed in the city and clung to my roots, would only know me as the help or the Irish blacksmith or store clerk.”
As much as she wanted to deny it, she knew it was the truth. The people her father socialized with and called friends did have the attitudes Mr. Cavanaugh spoke of.
“I wish I could deny it but growing up and as an adult I have witnessed what you say.”
A thin beam of light sliced through the darkness, giving her a one inch glimpse of the man holding her hand. His hair appeared a bit on the long side and black. The light caught in his blue eye and his eyelid snapped shut. He turned his head, giving her a brief glimpse of a cheek with a day’s worth of dark whiskers.
“Mr. Cavanaugh, will you be able to function in the sunlight?”
“Finn. Call me Finn, after all, you’ve already fondled me rather intimately.”
A hand cupped her mouth.
“Shhhh,” he hissed in her ear.
“What’re we going to do with that lady?” a rough voice asked as the light grew and the door hatch above opened revealing bright light.
Finn pulled her into the shadows at the side of the ship.
“Captain says we can use her how we want and sell her when we get to China. Heard them Chiney like our women.”
Prudence inhaled sucking in the stench of the hole they were being held in and the muskiness of the man still holding his hand over her mouth.
“Don’t worry. They won’t lay a hand on you and we’ll get out of here,” Finn whispered in her ear.
His words eased her fears and her anger. Between the two of them they’d get off this ship. And when she returned home, she’d make sure Finn was compensated for his help. She nodded.
He removed his hand. His warm breath moistened the nape of her neck. “When they both get down here, I’m going to knock them out. You hightail it up the ladder, but don’t pop your head out. Check to see if anyone is looking. I’ll be right behind you as soon as they’re both on the ground.”
She nodded and he slipped away from her, deeper into the shadows.
The first man stepped off the ladder. He turned in a circle as if looking for her. She realized Finn couldn’t take this man out until the second one was down the ladder or he could scurry back up and warn the rest of the ship.
She stepped out from the shadow so the man could see her. A tug on her skirt told her Finn was behind her and wasn’t happy with her move.
Finn wanted to grab the woman around the waist and pull her into the shadows with him, when she stepped into the light of the hatch. Her copper curls shimmered in the sunlight. She held her small head tall on a long slender neck. Even though she was a good head shorter than both the men, she appeared to peer down her nose at them. She was one feisty lady. And as her head moved for her to get a better look at the man coming down the ladder, Finn realized she was drawing both men closer to him.
“I wish to speak to the captain of this ship,” she said in a regal tone.
Both men now stood only ten feet from her. Finn’s heart raced, hoping he could knock out both men before one of them shouted and the whole ship came down the ladder. He should have used the light from the hatch to scan the area for weapons instead of using it to study the woman standing in front of him. He’d thought her no bigger than a child when he held her in his arms, but watching her stand up to the men she looked as formidable as any man he’d had a set-to with.
“The captain gave us orders to do what we want with you.” The smaller of the two men said. His eyes widened as he scanned the length of Prudence.
Finn’s anger flared at the leering gaze. He’d only known the woman a short time but she held many qualities he admired, and she didn’t deserve someone the likes of this man ogling her.
“If you want us to bring you food and water, you’ll do everything we say.” The other man took a step toward Prudence.
She took two steps back, drawing them away from the ladder and closer to the shadows where he hid.
Finn slowed his breathing and slid his feet sideways to get to a position more to the side of the men as they advanced on Prudence.
“Now you can’t hide from us down here. It’s small and there’s two of us,” the smaller man said, lunging at Prudence. He caught her skirt as she stepped into the shadow. The garment ripped. The sound excited the second man. He giggled and leaped into the shadow where Prudence disappeared.
Anger and chivalry shot Finn into the light. He smashed his fist into the smaller man’s face, knocking him backward into a post.
“Hey!” The other man shot out of the darkness. Finn turned in time to take a punch in the gut. He folded from the impact and shot forward, butting the man in the mid-section with his head. The sailor folded with a startled cry.
“Whack!” the sound of wood meeting a skull rang through the hold. Finn spun and found his first victim on the floor with blood trickling down his face and Prudence standing over him holding a board. Her skirt hung crookedly where it had been ripped at the waist.
Fin pivoted back as the man in front of him started to scramble into the shadows. He grabbed the man’s boot and slammed his fist into the sailor’s face. He moaned and slumped to the floor.
“Go!” Finn said and waved to the ladder.
Prudence held up her skirt and ran to their only means of getting out of the hold. He followed right behind. She stopped as he’d instructed and peeked over the edge, looking in all directions. She backed down a rung, and he stared up into her big wide eyes.
“I saw a man straight ahead standing at the railing and one up on something higher to my right. Behind me I only saw the side of the ship. I can’t see behind the door.”
He mulled over the information. “Can you peek again and try to see which side of the ship the land is on?” He hated having to make her do this but she was smaller and less likely to be seen than he and they would lose precious time climbing back down the ladder so he could go first.
She peered back down at him. “I couldn’t see for sure, but I think it’s the direction there isn’t anyone standing.”
“You said you can swim. How do you feel about jumping off a ship into the sea?”
Her eyes squeezed shut and her chest expanded as she drew in a deep breath. “If it’s the only way to get off this boat alive and not become a man’s possession, I can do it.”
His admiration for this woman blossomed every time she showed her strength. He squeezed her foot. “Then climb the ladder and run for the side of the ship. I’ll be right behind you.”
Her eyes glistened. “We’ll swim to shore together?”
She scurried up the last few rungs. Finn followed close behind, his head reaching the opening as she stood and ran for the side.
A shout pushed him to his feet. He sprinted to the side as he saw Prudence’s feet disappearing over the edge. The boom of a gun sent him hurling over the ship’s side.
His body speared the water feet first and carried him downward. He fought to the surface and scanned the surface. The water tossed him up and down.
“Prudence! Prudence!” Where was she? She said she could swim.
His heart raced as he moved his feet and searched the surface for a sign of Prudence. Something red popped in and out of his view. He swam toward it, hoping he found Prudence conscious. It seemed like an eternity when he finally caught up to the red and discovered it was her rust colored skirt and red petticoat floating on the top of the water.
“Prudence!” He dove, trying to search the murky depths for her. His eyes stung and his heart beat so hard his chest ached. He bobbed to the surface and noted the ship wasn’t stopping to get them. Resignation and loss for such a strong woman set heavy in his heart as he swam toward the shore. His only conciliation—she’d drowned and not been violated.
Deep in his thoughts it took a moment before he registered a sound other than the waves. He stopped swimming and bobbed along the surface.
His heart sped up and he spun in the water again scanning the surface. Prudence rode to the top of a wave and then back down. She was alive!
He set off in the direction he last saw her.
“Finn! Over here!”
The excitement in her voice gave his arms a new surge of energy.
He found her clinging to a piece of drift wood. Finn embraced her and hugged. She let go of the log and wrapped her arms around his neck. Nothing had ever felt so wonderful as this woman clinging to him.
“Don’t let go of the log, we’ll need it to get to shore.” He draped his arm over the log and rubbed a hand up and down her back as a wave carried them up toward the sky. “Hang on tight!”
Finn clung to the log as Prudence wrapped her arms and legs around him.
The wave crashed down and they went under water but popped back up closer to land. They continued this cycle until Finn released the log and they swam side by side to a rock outcropping. The waves banged against the rock, spraying ten feet in the air. It wasn’t a safe place, but they both had to rest before they could swim any farther.
Finn helped Prudence drag her tried body onto the rock.
They stretched out side by side, staring up at the sky and sucking in long breaths of air.
When he finally caught his breath and felt strong enough to sit up, Finn raised up and stared out at the ocean. The ship was a tiny speck on the horizon.
Prudence placed a hand on his arm. “Thank you, for getting me off that ship.”
Finn took his time studying her narrow face, large eyes, small nose, and bow-shaped lips. She was pleasing to look at, but even if she wasn’t she’d captured his interest when he didn’t know whether she was comely or uncomely.
He placed a hand under her chin. “When I get you back to your father, may I ask permission to court you?”
Her lips curved into a beautiful smile and her eyes glistened. “If you don’t I’ll be deeply disappointed.”
Finn smiled and knew he’d met a woman that was his equal.
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