Nathan let out a long sigh. He leaned against the window ledge, folded his arms in front of him, and then said, "Wife, meet Colin. Colin, meet my wife. Now let go of her, Colin, before I smash your face in."
Sara was appalled by the threat. Colin laughed. "I wonder why you don't like me holding your wife," he drawled.
He hadn't let go of Sara's hand but kept his gaze fully directed on his friend. Nathan, he decided, looked extremely uncomfortable.
Sara's comment turned his attention back to her. "Nathan doesn't like anything, sir," she announced with a smile.
"Does he like you?"
She nodded before Nathan could order Colin to quit his teasing. "Oh, yes, he likes me very much," she said matter-of-factly. She tried to extricate her hand from his grasp, but Colin held tight. "Sir, are you deliberately trying to provoke Nathan's temper?"
He slowly nodded. "Then I believe we have something in common," Sara said. "I always provoke his temper."
Colin threw back his head and laughed. Sara hadn't thought her remark was that amusing, and she wondered if he wasn't laughing about something else altogether.
He finally let go of her hand. She immediately clasped her hands behind her back to keep them safe from his grasp.
Nathan noticed that action and found his first smile. Then Colin soured it. "You didn't need a reprieve after all," he told Nathan. "Sooner would have been better than later."
"Leave it alone," Nathan ordered. He knew Colin was referring to his past remark that he wanted to leave the chore of collecting his bride until the last possible minute.
"Sir, have we met before?" Sara asked. "You did mention that from a distance…"
When he shook his head at her she stopped her question. "I happened to see you one afternoon, but alas, I wasn't given the opportunity to make my presence known to you. I was on a mission, you see, to determine if a certain possession would fit through a window."
"I'm not amused, Colin," Nathan muttered.
Colin's grin indicated he was vastly amused. He decided that he'd prodded his friend enough for the moment. "Let me move those papers from the chair, Lady Sara, and you can sit down and tell me all about your voyage."
"It isn't a happy story, Dolphin," Jimbo interjected. Since there weren't any other chairs available, he leaned against the wall. His gaze was directed on Sara. "We met with one sorry disaster after another, didn't we?"
Sara gave him a dainty shrug. "I thought it was a lovely voyage," she announced. "Very uneventful, as a matter of fact. Jimbo," she added, "it's impolite to snort when you don't agree with someone."
"Uneventful, Sara?" Matthew asked. He grinned at Colin. "The enemy stalked us at every turn."
"What enemy stalked us?" Sara asked. "Oh, you must mean those horrid pirates."
"They were only a small part of the mischief," Matthew remarked.
Sara turned back to Colin. "Pirates attacked the ship, but we chased them away quick enough. As for the rest of the voyage, I declare it was quite peaceful. Don't you agree, Nathan?"
She frowned at him to let him know his rude denial wasn't appreciated.
"You're forgetting the parasols," he reminded her.
Colin thought he'd lost track of the conversation. "What are you talking about?"
"Sara's parasols turned out to be our greatest enemies," Matthew explained. "There were three of them… or was it four? I can't remember. I tend to block unpleasant memories. I get the shivers."
"Will someone explain?" Colin demanded.
"It isn't significant," Sara blurted out. She wasn't about to let her men drag out her venial sins like soiled linen to be scrubbed clean in front of company. "Matthew's just jesting with you. Isn't he, Nathan?"
The worry in her gaze wasn't lost on her husband. "Yes," he agreed with a sigh. "He was just jesting."
Colin let the topic drop when he noticed how relieved Sara looked. He decided to wait until he and Nathan were alone to find out the story behind the parasols.
He lifted the stack of papers from the chair and hurried over to the far side of the office. After placing the stack on top of the cabinet he went back to his chair, sat down, and propped his feet up on the edge of the desk.
Sara watched him closely and couldn't help but notice that he hadn't limped at all. "Nathan, Colin doesn't have a—"
"Please don't raise your voice to me in front of your associate," she ordered.
"What don't I have?" Colin asked.
Sara sat down, adjusted the folds in her gown, and then smiled at Colin. She could feel Nathan's frown. "A surly nature," she announced. "I can't imagine why you and Nathan are such good friends. You seem very different to my way of thinking, sir. Yes, you do."
Colin grinned. "I'm the civil one in the partnership," he told her. "Is that what you're thinking?"
"I dare not agree, of course, for it would make me disloyal to my husband," she replied. She paused to smile at Nathan, then added, "But you notice that I'm not disagreeing either."
Colin was noticing a whole lot more than that. Nathan couldn't seem to take his gaze off his wife. There was a warm glint in his eyes Colin had never seen before.
"You don't have to call me sir," Colin said to Sara. "Please call me Colin, or even Dolphin like the men do, if that will suit you." A mischievous look came into his eyes, and he glanced over at Nathan before asking, "And what might I call you, Lady Sara, that isn't quite so formal? After all, you are part of this enterprise now. Does Nathan have a special nickname for you that I might also use?"
Nathan thought the question was ridiculous. He didn't particularly like the way Colin was fawning over his wife. He trusted his friend completely, of course, and aside from that fact, Nathan would never allow himself to care too much about his wife, at least not to the point where he was actually jealous. Odd, though, he was still getting damned irritated. "Colin, I call her wife," he announced. "You can't."
Colin leaned further back in his chair. "No, I don't suppose I can," he drawled. "Pity you haven't given her any other nicknames."
"Like what?" Sara asked.
"Like sweetheart, or love, or even—"
"Hell, Colin," Nathan interrupted, "will you quit this game?"
Sara straightened her shoulders. She was frowning at her husband. Nathan thought it was because he'd accidentally slipped in a blasphemy. He almost apologized, then caught himself in time.
"No, Colin, he has never called me by any endearments," Sara announced. She sounded properly appalled. Nathan rolled his eyes heavenward.
"Even if I did," Nathan said, "you damned well couldn't. Partners or not, Colin, you aren't calling my wife sweetheart."
"Why would it bother you?" Colin innocently prodded.
So that was his game, Nathan thought. He's trying to find out just how much I care about Sara. He shook his head at his friend, then added a glare so that Colin would be sure to get his message to let the topic drop.
"Nathan does have a special nickname he uses when he addresses me," Sara announced then, drawing her husband's attention. "You have my permission to use it, too."
"Oh?" Colin asked. He caught the surprised look on Nathan's face and became all the more curious. "And what might that be?"
"Damn it, Sara."
Colin couldn't believe he'd heard correctly. "Did you say—"
"Nathan usually addresses me as Damn It Sara. Don't you, dear?" she asked her husband. "Colin, you may also—"
As if on cue, Nathan muttered, "Damn it, Sara, don't push me. I…"
Even he saw the humor then and joined in the laughter. Then Matthew once again reminded them that there was business to attend to and that they'd best get on with it.
The teasing banter ended. Sara sat quietly while she listened to Colin give Nathan a catch-up on the firm's activities. She smiled when Colin announced that they had five more contracts to ship supplies to the Indies.
"Nathan, does that mean we're…"
"No, we aren't rich yet."
She looked crestfallen.
"We'll all be rich when you—"
"I know what my duty is," she blurted out. "You don't have to explain it in front of my staff."
Nathan smiled. Colin shook his head. "I haven't followed any of that," he admitted. "What is the duty you have to perform that will make us rich?"
From the way Lady Sara blushed, Colin concluded the matter was of a personal nature. He remembered that Nathan had told him the king's treasure wouldn't be handed over until Sara gave her husband an heir. Because of Sara's obvious discomfort, however, Colin decided to let the topic drop.
"For the love of God," Matthew muttered, "quit this chitchat. I'm itching to get going, Colin. I've got some personal dealings to settle before the week's out."
"Are you going somewhere?" Colin asked.
"Oh, heavens, Matthew, you haven't told Colin about Nora," Sara interjected.
"Who is Nora?"
Sara was happy to explain. She hadn't realized the details she'd given until she was finishing up her explanation. "I cannot say more, Colin, about the quickness of the wedding, for to do so would damage my aunt's reputation."
"Sara, you already told him everything," Nathan interjected dryly.
From his position behind the desk Colin had a clear view of the street beyond the open doorway. Sara had just begun to explain why she hadn't truly revealed her aunt's unusual circumstances when a black carriage swayed to a stop across the street. There were five men on horseback escorting the vehicle.
Colin recognized the seal on the side door. It was the Earl of Winchester's family crest. He gave Nathan a barely perceptible nod, then returned his attention to Sara.
Nathan immediately moved away from the ledge, motioned to Jimbo and Matthew, and then casually walked outside.
Sara didn't pay any attention to the men. She was determined to convince Colin that her aunt was a decent woman and that she would never have become so passionately involved with Matthew if she hadn't loved him with all her heart. She also wanted his promise not to repeat a word of what she'd inadvertently blurted out about her aunt.
Just as soon as he gave her the promise she wanted she started to turn around to see what her husband was doing. Colin stopped her by asking another question.
"Sara, what do you think of our office?"
"I don't wish to injure your feelings, Colin, but I do believe it's rather drab. It could be very attractive, though. We need only paint the walls and add drapes. I'd be happy to supervise this task. Pink would be a lovely color, don't you think?"
"No," he said, in such a cheerful tone of voice that she wasn't at all offended. She became a little uneasy, however, when he opened the center drawer of the desk and took out a pistol. "Pink's a woman's color," Colin said then. "We're men. We like dark, ugly colors."
His grin indicated he was jesting with her. Besides, she reasoned, although she didn't know him at all well, she was certain he wouldn't shoot her just because he didn't care for the color she'd suggested. Nathan wouldn't let him.
As to that, where was her husband? Sara stood up and started for the doorway. She spotted Nathan standing between Jimbo and Matthew across the street. The trio was blocking the door of a black carriage. Sara couldn't see the seal. Jimbo's large bulk blocked it. "Who are they talking to, I wonder. Do you know, Colin?"
"Come and sit down, Sara. Wait for Nathan to come back inside."
She was about to do just that when Jimbo shifted positions and she saw the crest. "That's my father's carriage," she cried out in surprise. "How in heaven's name did he know so soon that we were back in London?"
Colin didn't answer her, for Sara had already rushed out the doorway. He shoved the pistol into his pocket and hurried after her.
She hesitated at the curb. Her stomach suddenly tightened up. Oh, God, she hoped her father and Nathan were getting along. And who were those other men?
"Don't borrow trouble," she whispered to herself. She took a deep breath, picked up her skirts, and rushed across the street just as her father climbed out of the carriage.
The earl of Winchester was considered by many to be a distinguished-looking gentleman. He still had a full head of hair, though most of it was silver-colored, and his belly was more firm than round. He stood two inches below six feet in height. He had the same shade of brown eyes Sara did, but that was the only resemblance they shared. Her father's nose was eagle-sized. When he frowned, or squinted against the sun, as he was doing at that moment, his eyes disappeared behind narrow slits. His lips, when pressed together, were as thin as a finely drawn line.
Sara wasn't afraid of her father, but he did worry her, for the simple reason that he wasn't at all predictable. She never knew what he was going to do. Sara hid her concern and rushed forward dutifully to embrace her father. Nathan noticed how the earl stiffened in response to Sara's touch.
"I'm so surprised to see you, Father," Sara began. She stepped back and took hold of Nathan's arm. "How did you know we were back in London so soon after our arrival? Why, our trunks haven't even left the ship yet."
Her father quit frowning at Nathan long enough to give her an answer. "I've had my men watching the water since the day you left, Sara. Now come along with me. I'm taking you home where you belong."
The anger in her father's voice alarmed her. She instinctively moved closer to her husband. "Home? But Father, I'm married to Nathan. I must go home with him. Surely you realize…"
She stopped trying to explain when the carriage door opened and her older sister Belinda climbed out.
God's truth, Sara was sorry to see her. Belinda was smiling. That wasn't a good sign. The only time Belinda ever appeared to be happy was when there was trouble brewing. She smiled a lot then.
Belinda had gained a considerable amount of weight since Sara had last seen her. The gold-colored walking dress she wore was straining at the seams. Her sister was heavy-boned and given to fat anyway, and the extra pounds she'd put on had settled around her midriff. She looked more pregnant than not. As a child Belinda had been the pretty sister. The men in the family doted on her. She had curly sun-yellowed hair, a dimple in each cheek, and adorable blue eyes. As she'd grown into womanhood, however, the dimples had been swallowed up in her overly rounded cheeks. Her glorious hair had turned into a mousy brown. The darling of the Winchester family wasn't the center of attention any longer. Belinda's answer to that change in status was to console herself with food.