One Week till An Affair of Honor
Matilda Winslow blew a fallen lock of her hair from her eyes and then crawled under Captain Ford’s bed to retrieve an item that had rattled to the floor while she’d been changing his sheets. She stretched to reach a strap that appeared to be wedged behind the headboard.
When tugging from beneath failed to free it, Matilda scrambled out again, frustrated. The captain was leaving very early the next day, returning to his ship and command, and she needed to finish this job. Mrs. Young insisted the bedding be changed before he returned to the house.
She wasn’t supposed to be in his rooms at this hour. No one was. The captain, when he was ashore, ran his home under a firm set of rules that no one dared cross.
Matilda considered her options. She couldn’t leave it there in case it was important to the captain. The bed was too heavy for her to move on her own, and although she could call for help, she hated to do so. The other servants didn’t like her very much, having decided from the beginning to make fun of her at every turn. Calling out to them was decidedly unappealing, so she had no choice but to climb onto the huge bed, hoping she could reach the mysterious item without having to remake her morning’s work entirely.
It was dark behind the headboard, and she thrust her hand into the narrow space.
She touched cold metal and jerked her hand back in surprise. Matilda peered into the gap and discovered the straps attached to a buckle. Puzzled by their presence, Matilda grabbed the item and tugged it into the light. It was not what she’d expected to find.
It was a horse’s harness, but a very strange design indeed if it was intended for a normal-sized horse. The straps were made of red silk, the buckles bright silver and definitely too delicate for any beast of burden. On further exploration, she retrieved a leather mask, not unlike a satin one she’d seen the captain wear to a masquerade ball recently. It was engraved with swirls and markings to define the eyes and was sized to fit the full way around the head, almost like a cap that laced at the back with more red silk ribbons.
Intrigued, she searched again and brought out a riding crop and cat-o’-nine-tails that appeared new. The latter gave her gooseflesh just to look at it, but the strands were so soft that she wasn’t sure it could be used for punishment of any member of the captain’s crew.
She sat back on her heels, flexing the crop between her hands, puzzled. Why would the captain keep such items hidden behind his bed? Surely they belonged in his dressing room with his clothes, although some of them deserved to be in the stables. She picked up the mask again and studied the item, running her fingertips over the smooth sections where his cheeks would rest. Beautifully made, and the leather was supple as if it was worn often.
Matilda scurried off the bed and moved to the mirror to find out, but when she saw her appearance she nearly died of mortification. Her hair looked dreadful. She appeared a waif who had run backward through a briar patch.
Matilda quickly released her hair from the few pins she owned, smoothed the strands until they were tidy, and swept it up again into a neat and modest arrangement. Feeling better about herself at last, she lifted the captain’s mask into place.
The leather was soft against her skin, and wearing it made it seem as if a stranger was in the room with her. It hid her identity so well she was curious to know more about the purpose. She’d never seen Captain Ford carrying it out the door on his way to a society entertainment. She probably should not pay so much attention to the handsome captain; as a servant, his comings and goings were none of her business. Nevertheless, she had long ago admitted the man was more than a little intriguing. He was quiet, he never yelled, but somehow his brief stays in the town house managed to terrify each and every servant so much that they fell over themselves trying to please him.
He was dangerous in a way Matilda could never quite pin down. He made her wonder if falling into her employer’s arms might not be the scandal her upbringing told her it should be.
Through the eyes of the mask, she saw the door open behind her, and she gasped as she realized her employer had returned.
Matilda dropped the mask from her face and swept it behind her back, hoping to hide what she’d been doing from Captain William Ford.
His dark eyes bored into hers, flickered to the bed where her discoveries were still on display, and then back to her. His brow furrowed, which she’d learned was not a good sign. He was displeased, as he often was around her no matter how hard she tried to be unobtrusive. She couldn’t have picked a worse day to linger in his room.
The click of the door lock was very loud in the room. “Miss Winslow,” he said in his soft way, causing gooseflesh to rise all over her skin.
He came close. “What are you doing here at this hour?”
Matilda clenched the mask behind her back. “Making the bed,” she explained weakly and then prayed he would not notice she’d failed to straighten the comforter from when she’d been standing on it.
“The bed is made, although somewhat imperfectly.” He stopped a foot from her, and then his attention flickered to the mirror behind her back. His brow rose. “Show me what is behind your back.”
“I. Oh. This mask?” She offered it to him, seeing no point of hiding it any longer. He must have seen she’d been holding his possession through the mirror’s reflection, a major transgression for any servant. She’d been warned before not to touch his personal items. “It fell.”
His expression grew cold. “And the other articles. Did they fall too?”
“No.” She swallowed the lump in her throat when he would not take the mask from her shaking hand. “Only one item truly fell. I still have not retrieved it from behind the headboard. It is out of my reach, only I did not know you stored these other items there and recovered them by mistake. I will put everything back the way I found it, I promise.”
His hot fingers wrapped around her wrist and held her in place. The mask dropped from her hand. “Too late for that.”
His grip tightened, and her heart began to pound. “Captain?”
One brow lifted. “Have I not issued clear instructions that I do not want servants lingering in my bedchamber?”
Unneeded for command of a ship after surviving serious injury, disciplinarian Captain William Ford was ready to face society until he’s cornered by a marriage minded miss. He makes a desperate bargain with the maid who saved his life—act the part of a besotted lover in return for financial gain to drive the woman away—only to end up in a very real marriage to avoid the scandal of his own making.
When Matilda’s plans to marry another end abruptly, she reluctantly agrees to Captain Ford’s marriage proposal to protect his sister’s marriage prospects with his assurance of an eventual annulment and independence. She soon discovers her husband’s desire to guide her with a firm hand stirs a shocking passion in her. Does she dare gift William with her secrets and heart…or admit that his desires match her own when they never intended forever?