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River Avon, Bristol
ELISABETH LONGED TO RETURN HOME, and it had been only days since they’d left—two days, nine hours, and heaven knows how many minutes, every one of them biting cold. She stood alongside the trunks, her foot tapping a quick rhythm beneath her skirts as she closed her eyes, briefly shutting out the chaos of the quay. Faith, now it was to be months, months, before she would know if Rhee, her best friend, had managed to snare William’s attention at church on Sunday. They’d had a foolproof plan worked out; it couldn’t have failed. Well, unless he—
Her father, finally. Given his grim expression, it wasn’t the first time he’d called her, but in the midst of this mayhem, how could he have expected she’d hear him? Her heart softened as she looked at him, and she pushed back the hood of her cloak and smiled.
He looked so handsome. His fair hair was carefully arranged beneath a stiff new hat, for Papa always seemed to have a new hat, and this one hid his thinning hairline quite nicely. And of course that was a must, given she’d finally convinced him to forgo wearing a wig. The cut of his coat flattered his tall, slim frame, and the garment hung without a hint of strain about his shoulders. His shoes were spotless, their silver buckles gleaming, and the ornate black clocked stockings on display beneath his coat stretched taut to his breeches. Why, he was practically in full dress to board a ship, for mercy’s sake.
Thin lips pressed tightly together, he clutched a fistful of papers in one hand while gesturing to her impatiently with the other. “We’re to board, Elisabeth. You must pay close mind to me. You wouldn’t want to get lost in this rabble now, would you?”
“I’m sorry, Papa. No, of course I wouldn’t.”
He grabbed her elbow, holding her tight. His stride was purposeful and sure, and others, less sure, moved out of his way as he pulled her toward the longboat.
“What of our luggage, Papa?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at the pile they had abandoned.
“It’s taken care of. You needn’t concern yourself. Put your hood up. The wind is rising; I can’t have you taking ill.”
“Mr. Hale!” one of the seamen called out, motioning them forward. Her father raised his handful of papers to acknowledge him.
She pulled the hood of her cloak over her head and turned again, feeling the scrutiny of someone’s eyes. Two men, members of the crew, she hoped, were loading their trunks onto a cart. Neither were paying her the least mind. Her father tugged, and she followed him onto the wharf. The man who had called out reached for her, his large, bony hands guiding her carefully into the boat that would transport them to the Industry.
She wished she had thought to grab a bit of Bristol sand. She may never return; it would have been nice to have a small piece of some part of Britain. She looked back at the city, saying a silent goodbye.
There! That man—the one slumped against the side of that warehouse, his thumbs hooked in the waist of his breeches—he was the one staring.
No, not quite a man; he probably wasn’t much older than she. But he was as big or bigger than most men. Even slouched, she could see that he was tall, his shoulders broad, his chest wide. He didn’t glance away when he saw her turn; he met her gaze directly.
A lock of dark hair escaped his cap and hung low over his brow. If his meager possessions were anything to judge by, he was likely one of those her father had named ‘rabble,’ one of those traveling in steerage. Or perhaps he was merely boarding one of the ships sailing to Ireland, and didn’t need to carry much. She was too far to make out the detail of his features, but his bearing intrigued her. He conveyed confidence; he certainly hadn’t lowered his eyes when she’d noticed him watching her. Not arrogance. Not a challenge. Merely curiosity?
She felt an odd pressure beneath her stays, and her hand rose without thought to push back at the sensation. Her father pulled on her elbow to sit, and she fell back against him as the crew rowed the boat away from the dock, her eyes still on the boy as he watched her.