Stefanie Sloane
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The Sinner Who Seduced Me Excerpt

“Are you comfortable?”

Clarissa swept the dark, dank ship’s cabin with a critical eye, then looked at James. “Not in the least. Did you specifically request the most inhospitable of ships or was it merely my luck?”

James took one step toward the scarred lattice-backed chair where Clarissa sat, the planked floor creaking ominously under his boots. Then he stopped, uttered some sort of oath, and turned abruptly toward the captain’s bed situated along the wall of the low-ceilinged cabin.

This would be the first significant amount of time they would spend in each other’s company since their unexpected reunion. Clarissa had insisted James accompany her on horseback rather than ride in the carriage. And then she’d shut herself up in her room for the entirety of their stop last night. Clarissa couldn’t help but miss the distance that had so conveniently separated them until now.

“There is a blockade in effect, Clarissa. Besides, it is important that we not be seen. Our presence will draw less attention in a ship of this nature rather than a more ‘hospitable’ vessel,” he said tightly.

“By nature, I assume you refer to the fact that it is piloted by common criminals?” Clarissa sat straighter in order to gain some relief from the tightly wound fabric about her chest. Unwanted emotion churned in her stomach. Anger? Fear? Certainly, though there was something else. Something she didn’t want to consider too closely.

“Are you well?” James asked, leaning against the opposite wall and folding his arms across his chest.

Clarissa breathed as deeply as she could, the binding fabric chafing against her skin as she did so. “Why would you ask such a question? No, of course I’m not well. You’ve placed my mother in danger, forced me into service, and torn me from my home.”

She rose from the chair and leaned her head against the wall, the wood rough beneath her forehead as she attempted to draw another, deeper breath. “Really, James, you’ve grown lack-witted in our time apart,” she added caustically, her head beginning to spin. Dimly, she heard the sound of footsteps, then his hands were upon her, ripping the linen shirt from her waistband, before slipping them beneath the soft fabric. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, batting at his hands as she tried to escape his hold.

He spun her around and yanked the bindings loose, quickly unraveling her with deft skill. “When I asked if you were well, I was referring to your physical state. This,” he paused, holding a fistful of the bindings at her eye level before tossing the length of fabric on the floor, “was slowly suffocating you.”

Clarissa stared at the length of soft white fabric on the floor, drawing in welcome draughts of briny sea air while she caught her breath. “I’m sorry,” she said simply, unable to look at him.

“For what, Clarissa?” he asked, gently catching her chin and turning her face up to his.

His touch was just as she remembered. Firm, yet gentle. “It’s been so long, and yet I’ve fallen into our old pattern.”

He cupped her cheek in his hand, his eyes searching hers. “Of quarreling? Yes, it has been quite some time, but I remember that part clearly.”

Clarissa shrank back, pressing against the rough wall behind her. James’s nearness suddenly threatened to overwhelm her senses. “It takes two to quarrel—”

“Clarissa,” he interrupted, laying one finger against her lips. “Please, I’ve no desire to fight with you. What’s in the past is just that—in the past.” He removed his finger and stepped back, gesturing for Clarissa to take the chair while he lay down on the bed.

She instantly missed the feel of his skin on hers—and hated herself for it. She knew he was right. There was no point in wasting time when her mother was in danger. And James was, in all likelihood, her only hope of assuring her mother’s safety. Durand and the rest of his gang were hardly the sort to inspire confidence in their promise to leave Isabelle unharmed if Clarissa completed her assignment. And to succeed, she needed James’s help.

Still, his transformation troubled Clarissa; his ability to remain calm and rational in her presence confused her. Or was it her response to him that frayed her nerves? She watched as he effortlessly folded his arms and cradled his skull in his intertwined fingers.

“And the present?” she queried, suddenly needing to think upon anything else but their shared past.

He appeared to be rocking slowly back and forth, the movement of the waves below providing an easy rhythm. “Once we arrive in Dover, we’ll travel by coach to Bennett’s London home—no more than a two-day ride. You’ll begin the painting no later than—”

“You misunderstand me,” Clarissa interrupted, tucking the tails of the linen shirt into her snug breeches. “What I meant was, how did you find yourself here, in the employ of such men?”

James dropped one booted foot to the floor. “Why do you want to know?” he asked, shifting to look at her.

“Why?” Clarissa parroted in disbelief. “Although you broke my heart, you were, at one time, an honorable man, James.” She struggled to remain calm. “I suppose I’m curious, that’s all. Why would the son of a British peer cast his lot with such a crew?”

James turned his head and stared once again at the low ceiling above him. “I broke your heart? Is that how you remember it?” he asked, his voice a low murmur.

“How else should I remember it? My father ripped apart the fabric of his marriage by taking a mistress and exposing my mother to the worst sort of pain imaginable. And you refused to lend your support to me—and my mother—at what was arguably the most difficult time in our lives—”

“You would not listen to reason,” he interrupted, his tone bitterly savage.

Clarissa gasped and clapped a hand across her mouth.

“And I’ve no doubt you’ll not listen to reason now,” James added, abruptly swinging his legs over the side of the bed and rising. “I’ve already told you, I’ve no desire to quarrel with you. How I came to work for Les Moines is of no consequence to you. Complete the painting so that you may return to Paris and your mother. That is all you need think on.”
He snatched the single lantern that lit the cabin and stalked toward the door.

“Where are you going—and why must you take the only light?” Clarissa asked, her throat thick with emotion.

James turned, fixing her with a stony gaze. “To fetch a pair of scissors, and I assumed you’d rather not alert the blockade ships to our presence with the light.”

“Wait, why would you need a pair of scissors?”

“For your hair.” He closed the lantern’s shutters then stepped over the threshold, slamming the door behind him.

Clarissa picked up the rickety chair and threw it against the door, finding satisfaction in the sound of the ancient wood splintering as it broke apart.

 

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