A particularly loud clap of thunder sent Mercy jumping to her feet. She quickly put her book away and left the room, hoping to find Michaels or Augusta still awake. Maybe she could talk to them until the storm passed.
The empty hallways seemed eerier than usual. When she reached the parlor, she heard something even more frightening than thunder—a long howl that mingled with the wind. Perhaps it was the wind…
Another clap of thunder was followed by a crash from upstairs.
Goodness, lightning might have struck the house.
She hurried to the foot of the stairs and called, “Michaels? Augusta? Mr. Barnes?”
Her stomach tight and her heart pounding, she ascended. The storm was directly overhead now. Wind beat against the house and roared through the trees.
Recalling how it felt to be lost outside, she hoped Max and Faith weren’t caught in the storm.
Reaching the top of the stairs, she glanced around. Lightning flashed through the tall, rectangular windows, illuminating the hallway.
She walked toward the dark, windowless corridor leading to the attic.
“Mr. Barnes?” she called again.
She glanced over her shoulder, back toward the stairs. When she turned around, she cried out, startled to find herself facing Jonah who now stood outside the attic door, holding a lamp.
“Miss Brown, what are you doing up here?” he demanded, wearing his usual scowl.
“I heard noise from up here. A crash. I thought perhaps lightning had struck the house and someone might be hurt.” She couldn’t keep the tremors from her voice. “I’m also worried about your siblings. You don’t suppose they’re caught in the storm?”
Jonah’s brow furrowed and he stepped closer to her. He held up the lamp and studied her face.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” he said in a gentler tone. “Max is quite capable and I doubt they’d venture out until after this passes. Are you all right, Miss Brown?”
Another clap of thunder made her jump.
“You don’t look fine,” he said. “Are you afraid of the storm?”
She chuckled nervously. “Silly isn’t it? A grown person afraid of a thunderstorm.”
“Why don’t we wait it out in the library?”
“There’s no need for you to keep me company.”
Again she jumped at the thunder and lightning.
“Keeping you company is far more pleasant than the paperwork I’ve been looking over.” He offered her his arm in a gallant gesture that took her aback. She rested her hand on it lightly. Goodness, she shouldn’t enjoy how solid and warm he felt, yet she was unable to ignore it. His arms were rock hard from years at sea and working in the shipyard.
On their way downstairs, she asked, “What were you doing in the attic? I thought I heard howling up there a short time ago and then a crash.”
“The wind, I’m sure. No doubt the crash you heard was Michaels. He tripped over an old trunk. He’s up there now, making repairs on a window that was blown open by the storm. He’s also trying to get rid of more unwanted guests of the flying rodent variety, so I remind you to stay away from the attic.”
“Why do you suppose the pests keep coming back?”
“I’m not sure. My expertise is the sea. Ask me about whales and sharks and I could probably answer. Bats are another story.”
“Do you still go to sea?” she asked, eager to keep her mind off the storm.
“Not as much as I used to.”
“Do you miss it?”
“At times. I miss the straightforwardness of being at sea. The simplicity. Aboard ship, a man is valued more for what he knows than for his bloodlines.”
“You don’t have much use for polite society, do you?”
“As long as rich men keep buying my ships, I like it well enough.”
“Is that why you partnered with Max?”
“Partly. Max is intelligent and good at business. He knows how to mingle with those kinds of people and put them at ease so they’ll make the best deal.”
“I see. The business world is all about using people.”
“It sounds very cutthroat and lonely to me.”
“Maybe, but playing the game is better than being poor, isn’t it? I know. I’ve been on that side of it too. Faith and Max don’t remember like I do. They were young when we could barely make ends meet.”
They had reached the library and he gestured for her to sit on the couch. He joined her, but kept a respectable distance.
“So you went to sea to take care of them. Do you ever regret it?”
“Not for an instant. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them. My only regret is what happened to Robert.” Pain glistened in his dark eyes, taking her aback. He always seemed so strong, even cold at times. He rarely displayed any vulnerability.
Strangely, she wished to comfort him.
“I’m sure what happened to him was quite beyond your control.”
“That’s not the only thing, it seems.” He stared deeply into her eyes and edged closer—so near that they almost touched.
“Mr. Barnes, please.” She had intended the words to sound like a warning. Instead they came out like a plea.
At the next clap of thunder, she instinctively jumped and flung her arms around him. He held her snugly and while she knew she should pull away, she didn’t want to. She felt safe and secure in his embrace, but it was more than that. The feel of his body, his heart beating against her cheek and his divinely masculine scent aroused her in a way she couldn’t deny.
“Mercy,” he murmured. When he covered her mouth in a possessive kiss, she didn’t even try to stop him, but surrendered, just like Macie to Captain Bristle.