Chapter 87/88: Danger! Explosive Cargo!
“Should we split up?” Ms. Linton whispered, glancing down both corridors. I shook my head and pointed to the corridor on the right.
“Smell that? That way smells of oil and smoke. The engine room will be down there. Lord Dalgliesh would never keep such sensitive papers near a burning fire. Let’s go this way.” Ms. Linton nodded, her expression shifting to amazement. I led her down the corridor, peering into smaller storage rooms filled with crates and sacks. No sign of it. Tamping down frustration, I continued down the corridor until I reached a dead end. Suppressing irritation, I reviewed my options. Upon reaching a decision, I turned back around to face Ms. Linton, who was looking at me with her eyebrows raised.
“All right. Let’s turn around. I think there was another junction not too far back. We can…” I stopped as I heard the faint sound of voices getting closer and closer.
“...everything been stored down here?”
“Yes, everything, apart from these last few sacks.”
Leaning down, I whispered into my secretary’s ear, “Stay calm. We will just walk past them. Remember, those are soldiers, just like us. We can simply walk past them.” Ms. Linton nodded, fear evident on her features.
“And the men didn’t open a single crate or sack?” I wondered suddenly why the voice sounded so familiar. Then,
“Yes, Lord Dalgliesh.” I stiffened, a curse falling silently from my mouth. Beside me, Ms. Linton hissed,
“Just soldiers?” Her voice trembled, betraying the panic she felt. Moving quickly, I pushed her into a side room. Eyes scanning the room quickly, I looked for a place that would hide us from my greatest enemy. I shuddered to think what he would do to me, to Lillian. Taking in the room, I saw that there was barely any space for me to move. The small room was full of sacks and smaller crates but in the very center was a crate I estimated to be about 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Quickly, I made a decision. Hefting my cane, I wedged it between the lid and the walls of the crate. I pushed on the cane for a few seconds and the lid popped open.
“Mr. Linton, I will enter the crate first. Close it after you.” Without another glance back, I leaped over the lid and landed in a soft pile of wood wool. Outside, the clicking of footsteps was getting closer and closer. Ms. Linton pulled herself up, muttering faint curses and fell in unceremoniously, pulling the lid on behind her. She landed with faint thump on me, and I winced at her weight.
“Where do you want the sacks, your Lordship?” A gruff voice asked from outside the room.
“Yes, your Lordship.”
Ms. Linton’s fingers started to wander, trailing down my chest, exploring. In the relative safety of this crate, I let myself relax. They didn’t know we were here. Ms. Linton’s fingers swept towards my legs, coming to rest at a particularly tender spot. I stiffened and swallowed a gasp as she tightened them around me.
“Mr. Ambrose?” Mr. Linton whispered above me. “Where are you?” I couldn’t believe it. Here she was, touching me in the most inappropriate way possible, and she didn’t even realize it was me? I released a soft groan as she placed more pressure on my crotch, whispering in confusion, “Why am I on a sack of potatoes?”
I snapped. “If you would please get your fingers off of me, Mr. Linton. I am not a sack of potatoes!” She gasped and her fingers flew away. She shifted uncomfortably on my legs, unconsciously moving to sit at the place her fingers had just vacated. I swallowed, gritting my teeth. She had to have no idea what she was doing. She had to. Or else I would have to greatly adjust my view of Ms. Linton as a lady coming from a respectable family. Ms. Linton gulped audibly, accidentally grinding down on me yet again.
“You said, ‘If you please,’” She whispered. “That’s almost as bad as ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ Since when do you have the time to spare for civilities?” I leaned up, hands coming to grip her shoulders tightly. I couldn’t see anything due to the darkness that had enveloped us, but I guided myself instinctively to her ear.
“At present,” I breathed, “I find myself with free time at my disposal. At least until Dalgliesh is far enough away for us to get out of here! But you are right, I won't make the same mistake again. Now be still and be quiet, once they are gone we can continue on our mission.”
We both quieted as footsteps approached and the sound of a man’s voice got louder as they stopped outside the room. Ms. Linton buried her face into my chest, and I resisted the strong urge to wrap my arms around her. She was shaking imperceptibly, but the sound of her breathing had stopped as she held her breath.
“What should we do with this sack, my Lord?”
“See if there's still room in that room.” The footsteps approached and the door opened. Ms. Linton breath hitched as the man approached our crate. Giving in, I lifted my arms and wrapped them around her, pulling her tighter into my chest. She shook against me, but seemed to have calmed slightly. Then, the strangest thing happened as she eased into my embrace. My own frayed nerves, though well contained, settled within me.
While it was true that my worst enemy was now only an inch of flimsy wood away, it didn't seem to matter as much. Lillian was in my arms, closer than anyone, any woman had ever been before. My senses were filled with her. Were the feel of the worn wool of her red coat and the warmth of her back against my fingers the cause of this tingly sensation? Or was it her hair, wild and soft, brushing against my cheek? Or maybe it was the smell of her? I never once believed that something as simple as a smell could incite feelings of safety and… Comfort? But it was true. The scent of cheap lemon soap and something so distinctly Lilly, pervaded my senses and filled me from within. Maybe it was the smell of the melting chocolate that she always seemed to have in her mouth.
Why- No, how was it possible that this girl, someone whom I'd so staunchly professed as insufferable and weak, how was it that she had this effect on me? She was only a secretary, and I'd had many secretaries before her. I had never once felt this urge to… Embrace them before. Not until her.
Unbidden, memories of a late night in my office came to the forefront of my mind. The way she'd looked, wrapped in the towel I'd used just that morning… The slide of her hair against my fingers… The feel of her lips under my own, open and wanting…
My fingers slipped up her arms and up her neck, coming to a stop on her face. She shuddered above me, breath puffing against my neck. Leaning up, I whispered into her ear,
“Silence. Simply silence. They must not hear a thing.” Still, my fingers stroked. First over the curve of her cheeks, then the slope of her nose. Then the creases at her eyes. She shook above me, breaths uneven.
Stop! Rikkard, stop. What are you doing? This is inappropriate behavior for a gentleman to engage in with a lady.
And yet… I could not stop. My thumbs stroked down her cheeks, nearing the dangerous expanse of her lips. Her hands, dormant until now tightened into fists on my chest. Her fingers grabbed a fistful of my tailcoat. The urge to snap at her to release her grip on my impeccable coat was strong, but stronger still was the urge to crush my lips to hers. To feel them against mine again… It would me forget everything around me. Even the presence of my greatest enemy. But her lips were not on me yet, and the sound of Dalgliesh’s voice jarred me out of my stupor. My fingers stilled as I strained to hear his words.
“Very well. I will go and instruct the Captain about our course. You men check that everything is secure and then take up your posts. Understood?”
“Yessir!” The men clicked their heels in salute as Dalgliesh left the room.
I sighed in relief, and against me, Lillian’s breath heaved out in a gasp. My sinful, wonderful, wandering hands continued their thorough exploration of Lillian. They swept down her shoulders now, and I couldn't help but tighten my arms around her, pushing her closer to the burning sensation of something in my chest, melting a hole somewhere near my heart.
Lillian’s every shiver against me reverberated against my skin, warming me to depths I’d never felt before. You are only doing this to calm this woman down, remember! If she screams you’ll be found out. You are only comforting Lillian lest she screams in terror. You need to let her go, soon.
I didn’t listen to my own good advice. It was hard to listen to anything when she was in my arms, like this. When I could feel her heart beating against my own. Breast to breast… My breath hitched as Lillian again shifted on my lap, coming dangerously close to finding out how badly she affected me.
“It won’t be long now… Be still for a little longer… just a little longer…” Was that my voice? I couldn’t recognize it. Wasn’t I known for such a harsh, unforgiving tone that many had burst into tears at just one reprimand from me? Then, what was this- this voice that did not call to mind unmentionable fury but soft, forgiving care? I must be going mad. Lillian pressed against me, closer.
“Soon, Mr. Linton, soon.”
Through the darkness, a voice boomed. “Ey, look! This crate ain’t shut right!”
We both froze.
“Well then, what are ye waiting for? ‘ere!” We heard a clinking sound, and then- the crate shuddered under the heavy blow of a hammer slamming the lid shut. Immediately, I realized what had happened. We were trapped in this crate, on its way to Dalgliesh’s territory, without Karim. And worse- Lilly was on top of me!
As soon as the soldiers had left, I unwound my arms from Mr. Linton. I’d had a few seconds to think things through, and I knew we had to move fast if we were to make it off this ship in time.
“Mr. Linton! You do not have time to scream hysterically yet. You have to get up and see if you can get this lid open!” Miss Linton spluttered indignantly at the jibe. Before she could open her mouth to complain, I snapped at her. “Now, Mr. Linton! Before the ship begins to sail!” A sharp intake of breath told me she’d understood what was happening.
Miss Linton shifted atop me, hands lifting as she pushed against the roof. Her knees dug into my thighs, and I suppressed my hiss of pain.
“Maybe you should try pushing with your shoulders instead.” I suggested, as calmly as possible, though fear thrummed through me. Every second we wasted in getting this crate open, the more our chances of getting out of here alive slimmed.
“Um, Mr. Ambrose I’m not tall enough to reach the top of the crate unless…”
“I uhm… I-I sit on your lap.” Lillian mumbled, quietly. I stiffened, the thought of what she’d need to do racing through my head. Calm down. Get everything under control. Breathe.
But how could I breathe, when everything she was permeated the air around me?
Lillian shifted forward, lifting a bit on her feet. I spread my legs apart, making it easier for her to settle against me. She crouched over me and the dull thump of her shoulders hitting the wood above us echoed in the darkness. Her thigh muscles bunched and loosened against my stomach, and a breath shuddered out of me. My fists bunched against the wood wool at my sides. I could tell that while her initial pushes against the crate had been strong, the amount of space the crate alloted her was too small to allow her any leverage. Lilly started to weaken, her legs shaking beside me. Without thinking, my hands rose to her thighs, long fingers bracing against her muscles. Miss Linton gasped, a tremor shaking through her that I could feel reverberating down my hands.
“Mr. Linton, I am waiting.” Somehow, I managed to keep the want from my voice.
She grumbled angrily. “I’m trying, sir! But this damn thing won’t move!”
“Can you shift over so that I can get on top?”
A pause. Some rustling. Then-
“No. There’s not a lot of room on either side of us, and if we tried we might get tangled.” The image of us intertwined flashed through my mind. No! I expelled the thought with a little more difficulty than normal.
“All right.” Was it just me, or was my voice starting to sound hoarse? “Try again.”
Lillian resumed her attacks upon the wood, my hands still braced against her thighs to keep her steady over me. Finally, her strength gave out, and she collapsed directly onto my lap. I was practically convulsing with the effort not to move against her. She was so, so close.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ambrose. I can’t… I’m so tired.” Lillian melted onto my chest, her own mashing into mine. Oh God her… They were so soft…!
“Mr. Ambrose?” Her voice, confused, shook me out of the hot fog clouding my mind. “Are you feeling alright? You’re all flushed.” Her hand, which had landed on my neck, moved upwards and cupped my sweating cheek.
“Ahem. I’m quite fine. Take a few moments to recover, Mr. Linton. But hurry! We must get off this ship before it leaves the harbor!”
And with those words, the ship rumbled to life. My heart stopped. I was stuck in here, with her still on top of me. And worse still, we were likely on our way to our death.
I slumped back into the wood wool, defeated. On top of me, Lillian had done the same though her hand was still resting on my face. Her mouth, it seemed, was near mine as I could feel her breath puffing against my heating cheek. I sensed that, were I to move my head 5 millimeters to the right, I would be kissing her once again. The temptation was so, so strong. Except, of course, I did not want to kiss my secretary. No, I did not want to kiss Mr. Victor Linton. Miss Lillian Linton on the other hand… Well.
And, judging by how Lilly had practically leaped across my office desk and tackled me into a kiss, I warranted that she’d wanted me too.
You forget, of course, that Lillian was drunk out of her mind then. You’re both sober now, and you know she’ll likely punch you in the face, even if you are her boss.
Or… She’ll kiss me back.
Yes. Or she’ll kiss you back. But then she’ll want you to marry her, and marriages mean expensive weddings. And children! Children are very expensive.
I couldn’t deny that. No matter how this unfamiliar urge to hug her close and press my lips to hers was overwhelming, I would not yield. You do not need anyone, remember that. Yes. I know, even if the thought of being alone, of being without Lillian was like a stab wound to the gut. And I would know.
“What happens now?” Her voice came out of the darkness, her breath rushing out against my lips. Burning them.
I paused. Do I bother lying to her, or should I just tell the truth? It was very likely that we were sailing towards our death. If Dalgliesh were to discover us hiding on his ship… I shuddered to think what he would do to Lillian, especially if he discovered who she really was. Quickly suppressing that thought, I chose to answer truthfully:
“We stay here, shut in this crate, until we reach our destination Mr Linton.” Mister. It will be even harder to deny that now.
“I know that, Sir. And then?”
“That depends on the circumstances.”
“Could you elaborate, Sir?”
“I do not feel very communicative at present, Mr. Linton.”
“When do you ever, Sir?” My lip twitched upward. Why bother suppressing it? She can’t see you anyway.
“Adequate point, Mr. Linton.”
Lillian seems to have gained back some energy during the course of our banter. Something fuzzy filled my chest at the thought that a conversation with me could still bring the life back into someone. For years, I’d been used to quick acquiescence and polite interactions. Only with her had that standard been changed.
“So what will happen, Sir?”
“Either the crate is opened by a single soldier, in which case we will overpower him and attempt an escape. Or it is opened in the presence of Lord Dalgliesh- in which case, we die… Bravely, of course.”
I continued, against all my judgement: “At least, I will. You, of course, have my permission to die cowardly, Mr. Linton.” The unspoken reason hung between us for a moment. Then, Lilly shifted into a sitting position, ramming her elbow into my stomach and jamming her backside onto my lap.
“Oomph!” The breath rushed out of me at the electrifying contact between us.
“No thank you! I’ll go for the brave option, if you don’t mind, Sir!” She growled from above me. She paused, shifting on my half-hard length. I sucked in a breath, hoping she wouldn’t say anything. “Sir…?” She asked, hesitantly. “What is that?”
“... My wallet…”
“You have a very oddly shaped wallet, sir.” Her fingers came to rest on it. “Why is it-?”
The crate started to rock from the force of the waves hitting the ship, saving me. Or so I thought. Lillian slipped down my legs, brushing my ‘wallet’ on her way down. Swallowing my gasp, I tried to ease myself away from her. Then another wave rocked the ship forward, causing Lillian to slip forward, back on to my lap. It became an exquisite, unbearable, unending, cycle of press down, draw back. Press down, draw back.
“What- what is that?” Trying my hardest to keep myself under control, I answered:
“The sea. We have left the Thames and are now out in the Channel.” Minutes passed in silence. Not that I noticed. Heat, unbearable, pressing heat was surrounding me. Melting me. Hardening me.
“Mr. Ambrose? Are you sure you’re alright? Your skin is getting hot again.”
Damn her! Can’t she see (feel) what she’s doing to you?
“No. I’m f-fine, Mr. Linton.”
“If you’re sure…” Lillian answered hesitantly. Press down, draw back. Press down, draw back. Press down. Draw back. Press. Down. Draw. Back. Press down. Draw back. Press-
“I just wondered Sir… the center of the world? What is it? I mean, if we’re going to die in any event, you can tell me, right?”
The question was more effective than any freezing cold shower. It roused me from the hot, humid fog of my innermost mind and back into the present. I blinked up at Mr. Linton, angling my head toward his face, or as near as I could figure.
“Tell me!” The pressure on my shoulders increased as she gripped them tighter.
“Tell me!” Her breath rushed against my skin.
“Tell me! Please. Don’t people who are condemned to death get a last wish before they die? Well, I have one.”
Me too. Kiss me.
“Tell me, please.” Her voice was quiet, a desperate plea in the darkness. “Tell me what the file I’m going to die for is about.”
A shudder ran through me at the thought of her death. Of her death, at my hands. This beautiful, brave, foolish, stupid, woman who had followed me into the depths of this dark ship to chase her dreams of independence and adventure.
“You want to know what the file contains?” I heard a sharp intake of breath in front of me. “You want to know what the center of the world is, Mr. Linton? Fine! I’ll tell you…”