A Certain Latitude

By: Janet Mullany


Bristol, 1800

This was not the way Allen Pendale had intended his departure to be. He had anticipated a nostalgic, sentimental farewell to Bristol. Seagulls wheeled and cried overhead, the winter sky was a hazy smoky blue, and St. Mary Radcliffe’s spire rose proudly among the terraced houses of the dirty, noisy city.

It was a pity that Lord Glenning, red-faced, cuckolded and irate, drove his curricle in a chaos of spilled barrels and cursing seamen along the dock toward the Daphne.

And an even greater pity that a ship could not be merely untethered and flicked forward with some sort of nautical whip like a horse and carriage.

“Pendale, you whoreson!” Glenning’s voice was audible, barely, as the Daphne meandered away from the quay, led by a couple of small rowing-boats.

The other passengers, standing in a knot on deck, surrounded by their luggage, paused and looked at Allen.

“Do your friends always bid you farewell so?” One of them, a red-headed woman asked, a cynical smile on her face.

“Only the ones I’ve cuckolded.” Now Allen could see Glenning’s bulbous face and his arm rising, then sighted the glint of pale winter sun on metal.

“Get down!” Allen shouted and pushed the woman down, landing on top of her. Breathless he waited for the sound of the shot.

“What are you doing?” The woman struggled beneath him, her face red with fury, and flailed at him with a free arm. “Get off me immediately!”

“Beg your pardon, ma’am. I was merely saving your life.”

“My life would not have been in danger, had you kept your breeches buttoned.”

“I regret I didn’t have such foresight.” He raised himself from her, sorting out cloaks, her umbrella and a reticule, and then he plucked her bonnet from under his knee.

“You’ve ruined it!” She swiped at her flattened bonnet.

“Beg your pardon,” he said again, wondering if Glenning was reloading, or merely waiting for his head to appear within range once more.

She slithered out from under him, scooting herself across the deck, giving him a fine view of her ankles and one collapsed stocking, dull and gray, revealing a pale, slender calf.

Allen listened for the crack of a gunshot, but heard only the stamp of feet and hoarse chant of the crew as they worked the capstan.

The woman was the first to stand. “A telescope,” she said in disgust.

A telescope?

He stood and peered at Glenning, who roared out inaudible curses, his fist waving in the air. Sure enough, his lordship had a telescope tucked under one arm.

“I thought—” Allen began in self-defense, his face reddening, but the woman turned away.

The gap between the sloop and the quay widened, and Allen couldn’t resist a last look at the shore to see familiar landmarks slide by.

He followed the red-haired woman, prepared to make an apology for manhandling her to the deck. “I beg your pardon, ma’am. I acted unforgivably.”

She shrugged. “I thought you were supposed to fight under those sort of circumstances.”

“Only if the woman is worth dying for or marrying,” he responded. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. Allen Pendale, at your service, ma’am.”

“I am Miss Clarissa Onslowe.”

She glanced at him with a look he was used to seeing from his clients, when they had something to hide and hoped he would not notice their reaction. Not a woman particularly skilled in the art of deception, he concluded, while wondering for a brief moment what this dowdy spinster—with admittedly attractive ankles—could possibly have to hide.

“Pendale? You are related perhaps to the Earl of Frensham?”

“My father.”

Well, of course. What did she expect, on a ship bound for the Caribbean island where the Earl owned one of the largest estates and was neighbor to her future employer? She gave Pendale an abrupt curtsy and turned away to follow the other woman passenger, Mrs. Blight, down to the cabin they were to share. Not only had Pendale been pursued by a jealous husband, but he had also been rash enough to nearly miss the tide—she gave a sniff of annoyance, and gathered her cloak and skirts to descend the steep stairway—little more than a ladder—that led below.