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“BIT SHORT THERE, Mr. Cross,” Liam said, counting his pay as the merchant doled it out, coin by slow coin. “Tha’s sixty barrels in yon wagon, no’ fifty.”
The man frowned, recounting. “Ahh, so it is, Mr. Brock, so it is. There,” he said, depositing another coin into Liam’s waiting palm. “Ye’ll be here tomorrow?”
“I will. For three hours. I’ve a lecture early on.” He took his leave and followed the wharves north, wondering where David was. They had planned to meet for a swim and a pint.
“Per-er-ch . . .you wanna buy an-ee per-er-ch?” Liam winced as the fishwife crossed his path, the piercing pitch of her cry grating as she strove to compete with the bellow of the oysterman, both eager to unload the day’s end goods.
The only thing still on the wharves was the air. Still and close, so dense it was near a chore to take a satisfying breath. A blessing in a way, as he’d vow the putrid stench from the leavings of the trade was thick enough for the eye to see, hanging heavy, quivering, as it wafted about the quay. Reaching the dock he and David had settled on, he stripped off his shirt and boots and dove in.
Damn, it was wicked hot. Untying his hair, he ducked his head to slick the long, black strands back from his face before he retied it. He’d give David another minute, then he’d leave without him. Pulling himself out, he sat, closing his eyes to shut out the chaos of the quay as he turned his face to the sun.
He heard the clip-clop of hooves at the same time the shot rang out. Then a child’s scream. Clutching his shirt, he leapt up and raced through the narrow alleyway to Water Street, sidestepping debris and those standing in his way. The carriage stood at the entrance of the close, skittering to and fro as the horse carting it reared, its front hooves dancing high. A woman knelt by a crying child, cooing comfort while her hands patted her about, presumably searching out harm done.
He reached for the reins, speaking softly to the beast while the driver tended to his coach and righted the baggage. Little by little the horse calmed and the carriage stilled.
He cast a glance down the road and scowled. The Haberdash lads. And if their swagger was any indication, both were lushed.
Jamie Haberdash carted the fowling piece over his shoulder; his twin Angus carted the string of birds. Thirteen years old, what was their father thinking, giving them a gun and letting them wander about? With a final whisper to the horse, he released the reins and walked to meet the boys.
“Good evening, lads.” He reached for Jamie’s gun, depositing it over his own shoulder. “Your ma ken you’ve been drinking?”
“We have not, Mr. Brock!” Angus said, hiccuping, his face scrunching as he struggled to assume an indignant expression, the shock of red curls, freckles, and easy smile proclaiming anything but. Liam resisted the urge to reach out and tousle his hair. “It’s hunting supper, we were.”
“Aye, to be sure. And it’s good lads ye are, bringing home a passel of birds like that.”He reached inside Jamie’s shirt, pulling out the flask. He opened it, sniffing, his nostrils flaring as scents of the sea and peat rose and stung his nose. Upending it, he winced as he watched the precious remainder flow out, mingling with the muck that was Water Street.
“Mr. Brock!” Jamie protested, reaching for the flask. Liam pulled his hand back, out of reach, until he’d emptied the flask of the last drop.
“Ye ken ye can get locked up, discharging a firearm on city streets? What would your ma say then, her birds decorating Mrs. Deputy Sheriff’s table?” Tucking the empty flask into the boy’s pocket, he handed back the gun, indicating the carriage with a nod.
“That woman in yon carriage complains? Ye’ll be finding out for yourselves, quick enough. Now get on home, lads, afore she has a mind to.”
“She’s coming, Angus. Run!” Jamie urged, tugging on his brother’s arm. The boys disappeared as they darted up an alleyway, hastily mingling with the market crowd.
“Sir! You let them, go? That little girl could have been killed! What were you thinking? How on earth will they ever learn?”
Ah, hell. The woman was of a mind to complain.
He turned, then grinned, his eyes traveling over her in frank appreciation. The word “luscious” sprang to mind. Her forest green jacket hugged every curve like a well-made glove, and the woman had curves aplenty. She wore her jet black hair swept up high, framing a set of full, red lips and clear green eyes shaded by long, thick lashes. A mosquito hovered above the perspiration pooling at the base of her neck, and his hand rose to brush it aside before he thought the better of it.
“No worries, ma’am. I’ll speak to their mother. They’ll learn quick enough, trust me. She’s a fast hand with the switch. Is the lassie unharmed?”
“Yes, I believe so. No thanks to those hooligans you’ve let escape.”
He took her elbow and led her back to the carriage. “Are ye newly arrived in Philadelphia, then?”
“Unhand me.” She yanked her elbow from his grasp. “Tell me, is it customary in America to let children discharge firearms on city streets while men approach women half-dressed?”
Her eyes traveled over him—with nothing akin to appreciation, and he saw himself as she must: barefoot, shirtless, wearing soggy trousers carrying more stains and tears than he cared to count.
“Hmmph. Ye look full enough dressed to me. Is it they’re wearing even more layers o’er in England, then?” he asked. He stooped to retrieve his shirt, slapping it hard against his thigh to shake off the dust. “Like as not, ye’ll find it too hot here.”
She picked up her skirts and climbed into the carriage with neither a word nor backwards glance.
He grunted, turning away as well. Striking though she was, he wasn’t of a mood to play. He was too weary from the day’s labor in the heat, and too heartbroken at the thought of the fine whisky that now lay in the dust. He walked back toward the wharf, thinking his boots had damn well better be where he’d left them.
And they were. Which left him with only the thought of her eyes.
Haunting green eyes she’d had. Reminded him of the sea.
And he’d near lost his soul to the sea, once.