Somewhere between France and England, 1798
Sable's groan echoed through the cabin of the small sailing vessel. Rain pattered above, the boat rocking on the waves in a late summer squall. A single lantern shed its paltry light over the room, emphasizing the spartan appearance and bestowing a ghostly glow on the woman's face. The sickly-sweet smell of vomit filled the tiny space, causing her companion to grimace as he covered his nose with a scented handkerchief.
Etienne shot a concerned glance her way but did not move from his post at the porthole. Mal de mer was not something he'd anticipated; indeed, the idea had never crossed his mind. With all the things Sable had done, all the people she'd killed in the four years she'd been on the loose, the mutilation, blood, death—who would have ever guessed choppy seas would lay her low?
Just remembering a few of the murders she was suspected of committing made Etienne's stomach clench. That a young girl could be capable of such atrocities was something he still had trouble accepting. But he was learning.
He'd realized some time ago that tragedy affected everyone in different ways. Sable struck out at those she felt were responsible...or even those she felt deserved it.
Etienne took the bloodless way, slinking amongst the shadows, a whispered word here, another there, all to influence the ones in power. While most would condemn him for his choices, calling him a coward or worse, he felt no shame. Had he not employed his considerable charm and a certain amount of friendly coercion—the unkind might call it blackmail—the captain would never have agreed to aid them in their escape from France.
Etienne turned at the muttered profanity. Sable stood, weaving precariously as she made her way towards him. Moving without conscious thought, he reached her as she collapsed, her limp form weighing almost nothing in his arms. Midnight tresses fanned over her pale features, falling back as he lifted her and carried her back to the bunk.
“What possessed you to move, fool woman?” he muttered, no more expecting a response than he expected her to repent her life of crime.
“The mal de mer...will kill...me,” she moaned, her accent slipping from flawless English into her native French.
Sable sounded like any other young girl, miserable and ill. Her translucent skin, dark-ringed eyes, and colorless pinched lips could have belonged to anyone, not the ruthless killer he knew her to be.
He tucked her back into the narrow bunk, his fingers brushing her soft skin. Sable's beauty was lethal, he reminded himself. Falling prey to her charms was the swiftest way to an early grave.
As he moved away, her fingers grasped his with remarkable force. Meeting her black eyes, he frowned.
What could she need to say when she looked as though death lurked a mere breath away? Would she unburden herself in the belief she wasn't long for this world? Would she express shame for her actions? Shame for the murdered men who'd no idea what she was capable of? Shame that she'd allowed herself to be used by men in order to gain the information she needed to kill her mark?
“I never meant...”
She stopped, air grating harshly from her lungs. Etienne used his free hand to dampen his handkerchief in a bowl of water provided by a crewman. Placing the linen square against her brow in an effort to bring her some small comfort, he waited for her to continue. She said nothing. He mentally shrugged, assuming she slept, as her body desperately needed.
As the vessel crested a large wave, the water in the bowl sloshed over the side, soaking into Etienne's breeches. He cursed but it was halfhearted, more of an annoyance than the travesty to fashion it would have been.
The rain had stopped, he noticed, and the sea started to calm, signaling the end of the short-lived squall. Perhaps Sable's illness would ease now. She had to reach London alive and in relatively good health or his life would be worth nothing.
So lost in his thoughts was he that he failed to notice her eyes had opened. Her fingers clenched on his again, drawing his attention away from his damp breeches and his grim musings.
“I never meant...to die this way.”
So much for repentance for her sins. Etienne's surprise stilled any response he might have made, but it didn't matter. She'd lost consciousness.
For more of Etienne and Sable, check out Unwilling Protector, which takes place immediately after Crossing the Channel.
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