Home > The Other Miss Bridgerton (Rokesbys #3)(2)

The Other Miss Bridgerton (Rokesbys #3)(2)
Author: Julia Quinn

Poppy squeezed between the boulders, idly noting that one of them wasn’t as large as she’d originally supposed, then made her way into the mouth of the cave. Should’ve brought a lantern, she thought, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, although Elizabeth certainly would have wanted to know the reason for that . Hard to explain why one might need a lantern while walking on a beach at half noon.

Poppy took a few baby steps in, nudging her shoes carefully across the ground, searching out rough spots with her feet since she couldn’t possibly see them with her eyes. It was difficult to tell for sure, but the cave seemed deep, stretching out far beyond the light at the opening. She moved forward, emboldened by the thrill of discovery, edging slowly toward the back . . . slowly . . . slowly . . . until . . .

“Ow!” she yelped, wincing as her hand connected with something quite hard and wooden.

“Ow,” she said again, rubbing the sore spot with her other hand. “Ow ow ow. That was . . .”

Her words trailed off. Whatever she’d smacked her hand into, it wasn’t a natural outcropping of the cave. In fact, it felt rather like the splintery corner of a rough wooden crate.

With tentative movements, she reached her hand back out until it connected—more gently this time—with a flat wooden panel. No doubt about it, it was definitely a crate.

Poppy let out a little giggle of glee. What had she found? Pirates’ booty? Smugglers’ loot? The cave smelled musty, and it felt unused, so whatever this was, it had probably been there for ages.

“Prepare for treasure.” She laughed, saluting herself in the darkness. A quick check confirmed that the crate was far too heavy for her to lift, so she ran her fingers along the edge, trying to determine how she might get it open. Drat. It was nailed shut. She’d have to come back, although she had no idea how she’d explain away her need for a lantern and a crowbar.

Although . . .

She cocked her head to the side. If there was a crate—two, actually, one stacked atop the other—in this section of the cave, who knew what might be farther back?

She edged into the gloom, her arms stretched gingerly in front of her. Nothing yet. Nothing . . . nothing . . .

“Careful there!”

Poppy froze.

“The captain’ll kill you if you drop it.”

Poppy stopped breathing, relief washing over her when she realized that the rough male voice was not directed toward her.

Relief that was instantly replaced with terror. Slowly, she brought her arms back to her body until she’d enveloped herself in a tight hug.

She was not alone.

Using excruciatingly careful movements, she edged as far behind the crates as she could manage. It was dark, and she was quiet, and whoever was here ought not to see her unless—

“Will you light the damn lantern?”

Unless they had a lantern.

A flame blazed to life, illuminating the back portion of the cave. Poppy’s brow furrowed. Had the men come in from behind her? And if so, how had they entered? Where did the cave go?

“We don’t have much time,” one of the men said. “Hurry up and help me find what we need.”

“What about the rest?”

“It’ll be safe until we get back. It’s the last time, anyway.”

The other man laughed. “So the captain says.”

“He means it this time.”

“He’ll never quit.”

“Well, if he doesn’t, I will.” Poppy heard a pained grunt of exertion, followed by “I’m getting too old for this.”

“Did you move the boulder in front of the opening?” the first man asked, exhaling as he set something down on the ground.

So that was why she’d had to squeeze in, Poppy realized. She should have wondered how such a large crate had fit through the small space.

“Yesterday,” came the reply. “With Billy.”

“That scrawny mite?”

“Mmph. I think he’s thirteen now.”

“Never say it!”

Good God, Poppy thought, she was trapped in a cave with smugglers—maybe even pirates!—and they were chattering away like two old ladies.

“What else do we need?” came the lower of the two voices.

“Captain says he won’t leave without a crate of the brandy.”

Poppy felt the blood leave her body. A crate?

The other man laughed. “To sell or to drink?”

“Both, I expect.”

Another chuckle. “He’d best be sharing, then.”

Poppy looked around frantically. Enough of the lantern’s light had filtered in her direction that she could see her immediate surroundings. Where the hell was she going to hide? There was a little indentation in the cave wall that she could press herself into, but the men would have to be blind to miss her.

Still, it was better than her current spot. Poppy scrambled back, curling herself into the tiniest ball she could manage, thanking her maker that she’d not worn her bright yellow frock that morning, simultaneously sending up her first true prayer in months.

Please please please.

I’ll be a better person.

I’ll listen to my mother.

I’ll even listen in church.

Please please . . .

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”

Poppy slowly tipped her face toward the man looming above her. “Forsaken,” she muttered.

“Who are you?” the man demanded, shoving the lantern closer to her face.

“Who are you?” Poppy shot back, before the relative lack of wisdom of such a retort sank in.

“Green!” the man hollered.

Poppy blinked.

“Green!”

“What?” grumbled the other man—apparently named Green.

“There’s a girl!”

“What? ”

“Here. There’s a girl.”

Green came running over. “Who the hell is this?” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” the other man said impatiently. “She didn’t say.”

Green bent down, jamming his weathered face close to Poppy’s. “Who’re you?”

Poppy said nothing. She didn’t often hold her tongue, but now seemed an intelligent time to start.

“Who are you?” he repeated, this time groaning with the words.

“No one,” Poppy answered, finding a little courage in the fact that he seemed more tired than angry. “I was just out for a walk. I won’t bother you. I’ll just go. No one will ever know—”

“I’ll know,” Green said.

“And so will I, for that matter,” the other one said, scratching his head.

“I won’t say a word,” Poppy assured them. “I don’t even know what—”

“Damn!” Green cursed. “Damn damn damn damn damn.”

Poppy glanced frantically between the two men, trying to decide whether it was in her best interests to add to the conversation. It was difficult to guess their ages; both had that weather-beaten look one got after spending too much time in the sun and wind. They were dressed simply, in rough work shirts and trousers, tucked into those tall boots men liked to wear when they knew they’d be getting their feet wet.

“Damn!” Green bit off again. “The day only needed this.”

“What should we do with her?” the other man said.

“I don’t know. We can’t leave her here.”

The two men fell silent, staring at her as if she were the world’s largest burden, just waiting to launch itself onto their shoulders.

“The captain’ll kill us,” Green finally sighed.

“It’s not our fault.”

“I suppose we should ask him what to do with her,” Green said.

“I don’t know where he is,” the other one replied. “Do you?”

Green shook his head. “He’s not on the ship?”

“No. He said he’d meet us on deck an hour before we sail. Had some sort of businesslike thing to take care of.”

“Damn.”

It was more damn s than Poppy had ever heard in one sitting, but there seemed little to be gained in pointing that out.

   
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