A lthough Miles stood well back
from where the Coronea
had docked, the push and crush of humanity threatened even his studiously crafted calm. Hordes of disembarking passengers wrestled with their belongings as they forged toward land, a never-ending snake creeping down off crowded decks.
The ripe stench of coal fires, harbor rot, and hundreds of bodies overpowered the clean salt of the ocean. Seabirds circled and swooped in a chaotic dance. Beyond the prickly masts of anchored ships, the sky had lost the garish colors of dawn, given over to the glare of midmorning. Miles touched the back of his neck where a light wind teased his hair. The cool seaside air reminded him of Southampton. I watched thee on the breakers, when all was storm and fear.
But Lord Byron’s words offered Miles no comfort, only an odd sort of foreboding.
Four months had lapsed since the will reading, when Viv’s siblings had also learned the details of their assigned companies. There in the library, Miles had passed the time glaring at his wife’s exquisite neck and marinating his lustful, resentful thoughts in Hennessey. He’d awoken to find himself alone in a guest room in Old Man Christie’s brown-stone.
He grimaced and shifted his gaze across nearby faces, baffled by an embarrassment he rarely suffered. But the emotion refused a lengthy stay. Anger took its place. The whole Christie clan had decamped to their mansion in Newport. Holidays with the family, but that hadn’t included Miles.
Viv had left him a note. Yet another elegant, prissy note to say she was leaving.
So he’d sobered up. And made a decision.
After catching the first steamer back to England, he’d evaded his father long enough to gamble his way into a bit of ready cash. Then it was off to Cape Town. But damned inconvenient timing, the war against the Boers. Passenger traffic had slowed to a trickle, with Viv stuck in the States until the February armistice. The ink had yet to dry on the official peace accord. Time wasted, yes, but also time spent resolving how to get what he wanted.
Vivienne Bancroft would come back to him. Willingly.
With a hand to his brow, he looked toward the luxury clipper’s topmost deck. Viv would be up there among that tangle of people, along with the manservant he’d sent to intercept her luggage.
Intercept . . . and then hold hostage.
Impatiently swiping at a cluster of midges, he craved a drink—not just any drink, but a long, stinging, obliterating swig of cognac. But he hadn’t touched a drop since leaving New York that fateful morning. A good game required sobriety, which few of the world’s casual card players understood. And Vivienne was anything but an easy mark. He would need all his wit and wile to keep from falling under her spell like a bloody fool. Again.
Miles found himself twirling his wedding ring. That little hypocrite—all decorum and indignation until her mouth met his.
Had beastly Sir William given his daughter a plump dollop of cash, she would’ve had the financial means to end their marriage. Miles would’ve gone back to London, alone, solvent enough to keep the family estates intact. But little else remained of her dowry.
Instead, the challenge of Old Man Christie’s bequest offered an unexpected one-million-dollar reprieve. Stretching his arms, Miles stood away from the crate and sucked in cooling gulps of air. Damn and blast.
Far, far too much money to ignore.
His scant head start aside, during which he’d secured accommodations in Kimberley and completed banking transfers, he and Viv would need to learn quickly: every major player, every aspect of the diamond trade, and even the bloody weather. They were starting near to zero. He should have been terrified but a sharp thrill sped the beat of his heart.
Beyond the challenge of earning that rich sum, he had a score to settle. Viv had left
him. The surprise of finding their London town home abandoned still made him shake. One year spent fending off polite rumors about his marriage had been one year too long.
The crack of a whip snapped his attention toward a man sitting atop a heavily laden wagon. The road leading away from the docks, clogged with dark bodies, permitted no room for the vehicle to pass. Burly and dough-faced, the wagon master wasn’t directing his whip at the donkeys straining against their tethers, but at people.
“Get off there,” the driver shouted. He threw his weight into the next strike of braided leather.
A young woman screamed and fell. Those nearby snatched her arms and hauled her upright, saving her from the crush of feet and hooves. Blood streaked along her shoulder, and her worn homespun dress was torn and covered in dust.
With relentless clarity, the Cape’s autumn sunshine illuminated every face twisted by concentration and fear. The donkeys continued to bray. The wagon master raised his arm again. Leather sliced through the air, this time striking a tall shirtless man whose dark, scarred back had already suffered the bite of a whip.
“Out of the way, you kaffir scum!”
Across three months, the colony had subjected Miles to many such scenes. Perhaps the difference, on this occasion, could be traced to the bitterness Viv churned in his blood. His arms ached with the need to pummel his fretfulness into submission—or pummel someone
. The lawlessness of the colony, the otherworldliness of it, gave him permission to do what his tedious title had never permitted: take matters into his own hands.
“Oh, bloody hell.”
He strode into the crowd, abandoning his role as a mere bystander. Fully a head taller than most of the hunched, scrambling people, he fixed on the wagon master. Every successive crack of the man’s whip filled Miles with sizzling indignation. Like most of the British Empire, Cape Colony hadn’t permitted slavery in almost fifty years. That didn’t stop some colonists from treating Africans as they would the lowest animals.
Miles didn’t consider himself a do-gooder, but such a flagrant abuse of power assaulted his most basic principles. It wasn’t sporting and it simply wasn’t British.
He elbowed his way through the throng until the wagon master loomed above him on the bench. Miles quickly climbed aboard, senses centered on his target. The wagon master turned just as Miles balled his fist and let it swing. A satisfying crack of bone rewarded him as his opponent’s nose gave way.
Blood streaked the man’s mangy beard with crimson. Narrow-eyed anger replaced his stunned grimace. He reared back the butt of his whip and brought it down like a cudgel. Miles used his forearm to deflect the blow, then retaliated with a flurry of jabs to the gut.
Foul exhales accompanied the wagon master’s sharp grunts, but his flab seemed to absorb the impact of each punch. Winded, he tottered slightly. His guard dropped. Miles snatched the whip. When the man’s expression bunched around the need to continue the fight, Miles jabbed the butt of the whip against that bloody, broken nose. The wagon master howled and clutched his face.
“Are we quite through?” Miles demanded, his throat stinging.
His opponent sank onto the bench and nodded once. Rage still flared across his expression but his shoulders caved forward.
“Good.” Miles slowly, deliberately coiled the whip. “Now I suggest that you notice the situation here on the docks. Too many people, for one. Laughably poor engineering. But that’s no excuse for whipping people.”
“They’re bloody kaffirs,” the man said, his voice muffled behind his hands. “Beasts like these here donkeys.”
Miles glanced across the sea of faces, more dark than light, and wondered again at the state of the Cape. Ripe, vital, raw, it perched continuously on the edge of violence. He tasted its bitterness in the air and felt it itching under his skin—a shocking sort of awakening.
“No more beastly than the rest of us,” Miles said.
He hopped down from the wagon, not so negligent as to disregard a defeated opponent. He’d often seen desperation or pride draw out a confrontation, and harbored no compulsion to go another round. Too much animal in that man.
As the immediacy of the fight seeped from his body, Miles shivered. He eased back into the crowd on legs just shy of steady, intent on returning to the machinery crate. Surely Viv had found her way off that damned clipper by now.
He bumped into a solid wall of ebony flesh and found himself looking up at a man—a rare occurrence. Before him stood the same shirtless African who’d taken one of the wagon master’s cruel strokes. His shaven head gleamed.
“Pardon me,” Miles said.
“Thank you.” The African’s deep bass was melodic, like the notes of a bassoon. Across his back would be those old silvery scars and a fresh line of split skin, but his expression was none so grim. “Boggs is a scourge.”
Miles raised his eyebrows. “A scourge? Nice word.”
“I speak the truth.”
“And I believe you. My hope is that I won’t require his services.”
“Hire a wagon,” the man said. “I’ll drive for you instead.”
Miles studied that dark African face. Every feature was as he’d seen in caricatures and even so-called scientific journals: the wide, flat nose, the large lips, and the fathomless black irises surrounded by white. Those demeaning illustrations hadn’t captured what it was to look upon such a man. Miles foun...