Robinson Crusoe never faced anything like this.
Forced by vile accusations to flee England for her family's sugar plantation in Jamaica, Lady Catherine Wolfson expects a smooth trip until her life is threatened by an Atlantic gale. Saved from drowning in the storm tossed seas by Zibgniew Krushenski, a man from the future, her eyes are opened to the world of basic survival and the deep, driving riptide of intimacy.
Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save.
Hold onto your knickers, this is going to be a wild ride.
The Caribbean Ocean, September 1825
Lady Catherine Wolfson glared at her maid cowering in the corner. “Cease your nonsense, Maude. We've no need to worry over a bit of wind.” No sooner had the words left her mouth than she was pitched off the bed and nearly went head first into the cabin door. Catching herself on the edge of the writing desk, grateful all the furniture was secured to the floor, she struggled to hoist herself into the companion chair.
Desperate to keep her cool façade in place, Catherine tilted her head to the side while her hands fisted around the leather upholstered arms in a death grip.
“Oh, milady, we're going to die.” The tiny woman burst into hysterics. “We're going to die and no one will ever find our bodies.”
“Hush,” Catherine shouted. Immediately contrite for snapping, she didn't have the words to soothe the young woman. Spit, she couldn't manage to get control of her own teeming emotions. “Just be still, Maude. I promise we'll be fine.”
Her promise sounded pathetic to her own ears. All either of them could do was pray the ship survived the gale rocking them to and fro. Pray, and hope for clear weather the rest of their journey.
What had her father said when she'd departed? Something about keeping a weather eye to the horizon. She'd taken his words to heart at first. Soon she realized his good advice was for naught. Her insidious mood made her difficult most of the time, and turned her into an absolute shrew the rest.
Granted, her attitude wasn't the best when she'd boarded the Lancastershire. She turned even more testy when Maude started with her incessant squawking.
Ever since they'd left London five weeks ago, all she had heard was Maude's fears. The poor woman fervently expected pirates to appear at any moment, swore that half the crew held ill-intentions toward them and the rest worried they were harbingers of death. Catherine's answer was simple—the crew was worse than old hens gossiping while they took tea.
Superstitious nitwits, the lot of them.
“A bit of wind, milady? 'Tis God punishing us for speaking poorly of your betrothed. I vow when we reach Jamaica, I will never leave dry land again.”
Catherine shook her head in dismay. Praying for the wind to die down so she didn't have to shout every word, she took a moment to collect herself when the storm continued to brew. Patience is a virtue and a lost cause, she decided when the ship again pitched hard to port. Wishing she had a glass of wine to steady her nerves, her stomach heaved at the thought of downing anything. “Mister Crawford is not my betrothed.” Though the scandal he'd brought down on her had placed her in a compromising position. 'Twasn't as if she'd planned for him to trap her in the alcove at the Whittington's Ball.
His kiss was disgusting. How he touched her crude, nauseating.
Catherine felt her cheeks flame with a renewed blush of embarrassment. Thinking the incident would seal him a fat prize – her, he was dumbfounded when she turned up her nose and strolled off as if 'twas an everyday occurrence in her sheltered world. Little did he know she was quaking inside with fear and repulsion.
Once she'd joined her tiny clutch of friends, she'd hoped he'd leave her alone. Only in her dreams would such a miracle happen. He'd requested dance after dance. With no option but to accept, she accommodated him. By the time she exited the floor for a drop of punch, her feet ached from his clumsy attempt at the waltz. Finally, she pleaded a headache just to get him to let off.
He'd appeared the next morning at her home, demanding to see her father and producing what he called 'damning' evidence of their non-existent affair. With a flair she didn't appreciate, he'd produced a handkerchief much like the one she'd carried the night before with a small smear of red liquid on it. The memory of her father's anger left a foul taste in her mouth.
Catherine heaved a sigh as the memory fell away. “I would sooner spit on Mr. Crawford's grave than be his bride.”
Her father, Jacob Christopher Wolfson, would be damned to the veritable pits of hell before he'd allow his daughter to marry a man such as Crawford. He considered the shipping magnate on the same level as a pirate. The former master and commander ought to have known one on sight too, having served in His Majesty's Navy for a great many years.
Worse than her father's reaction was her mother's. Notorious for her forthrightness, Shiloh Wolfson didn't apply herself to the common attitude of the haute ton which was 'women should be seen but not heard'. Nor did she appreciate vacuous orations from men who thought they knew more about life simply because they had researched said topic in a book or two.
Nay, her mama loathed Mr. Crawford and, to use one of her favorite phrases, made no bones about it. Crawford's demand for Catherine's hand in marriage was met with Shiloh's laughter first and her full broiling rage second.
Then again, her mother also thought it criminal that most of Catherine's friends were either married or planning lavish wedding ceremonies. Shiloh believed with all her heart Catherine should continue her education and plan for a career.
Her mother thought she should have a career!
Where her mother had come up with such an outlandish idea was beyond Catherine, but she also knew Shiloh only wanted what was best for her.
A sad, disparaged sigh escaped her lips and echoed in her ears. The teasing she'd taken for her mother's attitude was a whole other issue. Ostracized on the side of the matrons, snickered at by most of her peers, the only members of the ton who showed her any great interest were the young lords. Her title and the family's wealth enticed the fops to the point they fell over themselves to charm her.
Well, that was afore Mr. Crawford's pathetic attempt to secure her hand in marriage by besmirching her reputation. Catherine couldn't imagine, and was hard-pressed to come up with a likely scenario, where she'd ever be welcomed back into polite society this season or the next. For pity's sake, this stain was as indelible as India Ink and as lasting too. The thought of being on the shelf raised goosebumps on her arms.
'Struth, she'd been lucky on one hand, her parents didn't believe a word of Mr. Crawford's accusation. They weren't about to let their daughter become even more of a pariah either. Thus, to get her away from the scandal and give the elite time to calm, her parents decided to send her to her family plantation in Port Royal.
“Whoa,” Catherine cried as the ship rocked on a drastic dip to port. Fearing they'd be swamped, she started to pray as if her life depended on divine intervention, because it did.
“My goodness,” Mrs. Chisolm said. On unsteady legs, she tumbled into Catherine's cabin. “The captain was of no use. He wouldn't even come into the corridor to speak with me.” She finished her chastisement on a scream when the ship tilted on its side.
Above the roar of the ocean, Catherine felt the wave push the ship lower in the water. The Lancastershire's hull gave out a massive groan, the wood ribs moaning in what could only be called her final breath. By God. Please, please, please send us a savior.
Catherine bit her lip to keep herself from shrieking with terror. Holding on with all her might, the chair giving way from the bolts, she knew the ship wouldn't survive another wave. Heart beating out of her chest, she cringed as the bookcase doors broke open and the contents dumped down on them. Think, Catherine. What would Papa tell you to do? Simple, he'd say the last place you want to be on sinking ship is anywhere other than the deck. “We need to get out of this cabin.”
“My dear, wherever will we go?” Mrs. Chisolm squawked from her place, sprawled on the floor. Turning over, she adjusted her skirts around her. She appeared ready to faint.
Catherine breathed a sigh of relief when the ship slowly righted itself. “Any place is better than here. Maude, give me your hand. Mrs. Chisolm, take the other and no matter what, don't let go.” She drank in a deep, steeling breath. “We're going above boards.”
“Captain Marshall told us specifically to stay in our rooms.”
With every instinct on high, Catherine didn't bother to argue. Instead, she made her point with determination ringing in her tone. “Mrs. Chisolm, this ship is going down. You have your choice; we either take our chances with the sea or we drown by complying with the captain's orders.”
The ringing of the bell only punctuated their dire situation.
“What's that mean?” Maude wailed.
Catherine's eyes met Maude's and locked. Her heart surged up into her throat. “'Tis the call to abandon ship.”
Forcing her way into the throng of sailors making for the doors, Catherine pulled Maude and Mrs. Chisolm along by sheer force of will. She jumped over a fallen man, unable to stop as the crew pushed from behind. The men who worked in the bowels of the Ship of the Line were caught in the same struggle, only those poor souls had a longer journey to travel. “When we get out there, the coxswain and boatswain will be preparing to lower the captain's boat and the auxiliaries. I'm going to try to get us a spot on one of them.”
“Won't Captain Marshall hold a place for us?” Maude asked.
“I'm not certain. If the boats are not released from their tethers they will act as a sea anchor.”
“Catherine, I don't understand,” Mrs. Chisolm sounded far away. Unable to focus on anything except getting them out of there, she kept pulling on Maude's hand.
They neared the hatch, slogging through a good six inches of water. “The undertow of the ship will sink them as well.” Now, it was about a precious commodity called time. Panicked men shoved their way around the ladies until Catherine felt nearly crushed. “If we are flung into the sea, swim with the current. Don't try to make the boats. Do you understand me? Under no circumstance should you try to swim into the storm.”
“Milady, I'm afraid.”
Catherine wanted to take Maude into her arms but couldn't. Right now, she needed to get them out of the corridor. She elbowed a lout to get him away from her. The boat was rocking like a cradle and she understood the stark reality that this had become an instance of when it was every man for himself. “We'll be fine as long as we stay together.”
Finally she reached the short flight of stairs that would lead her into the raging storm. “Alright, here we go.”
“I've lost Mrs. Chisolm.”
'Twas too late to go back for the woman. Catherine jerked Maude in front of her, then shoved her up the stairs. She dared a peek behind her in time to see the water rising in the corridor. “Come along, Maude, we're leaving.”
“Milady, I can't swim.”
“No better time to learn,” Catherine stated. If she'd had the wherewithal, she would have tied them together back in the cabin. Now it was a race just to get out of the ship that was fast becoming a coffin.
Her feet hit the deck in the same instant the Lancastershire rolled. Pummeled by torrents of rain, she slid them across the deck until her feet hit the rail. Fear-stricken, she watched the next wave build over them. Hurriedly, she stood them on the rail and prepared to jump. The tower of water collapsed upon the deck with a mighty crash. Tossed into the wind-ripped water, Catherine wrapped her right arm around Maude's waist, planted her left hand over her terrified maid's mouth and kicked for the surface.
I refuse to die.
The silent chant became her battle cry against the raging sea.
* * * * *
The Bering Sea, present day.
Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer, Lieutenant Zbigniew Krushenski, gave a thumbs up to the crewman squatting near the open door to the Jayhawk helicopter. Sitting on the floor, he braced himself for the initial strike of the icy water. Out of habit, he took in the scene below, planning his strategy in a quick slash of his gaze.
What the hell? The entire scene was out of focus. It was almost as if someone had pulled a shroud of mist across the surface of the Bering Sea. In all his four years since graduating from A School, then taking his place with the Squad out of Kodiak he'd seen just about everything including freighters on fire, ships broken in two and smoke on the water but nothing like this.
If anything, the green hue and swirling fog reminded him of the sky before a twister came down. The old wives' tale was—the greener the sky the bigger the twister.
He waited for the pilot to call the mission to a halt, and wondered when he didn't. Something isn't right. He opened his mouth to shout a warning when a massive rogue wave crashed below the hovering helo.
“Biggie, are you okay?”
Through the dashing rain, Zbigniew could just make out chunks of debris, but the remnants didn't make sense. He vowed he saw a mast and sheeting floating on the frothing surf. In the midst of the destruction, a pair of survivors were torn apart. He'd have bet his last dollar they were women. Then his heart stopped when he didn't jump but was thrust off the floor. Correcting his fall so he didn't land flat, he felt his training kick in.
//Semper Paratus.// He heard someone—or something—call out the Coast Guard motto. //Always ready.//
Next thing he knew, he was plunged into the sea. The sploosh caused from displacing water coursed up and around him. Instincts on high, his legs moved his body toward the surface. Breaking the crest, he started to tread water. He stared up, his arm rising to give his thumbs up to the helo only to find it missing.
He sensed a shift in the sea and in himself. Tropical warmth sloshed around him and even the current barraged him, sending him in a different, and new, direction.
Get to the job. Willing the person to scream again, he turned in a half circle.
“Maude, where are you?”
Zbigniew trained his attention on the voice. In the back of his mind, he pondered the solemn question – had he died and this was his version of heaven? Forcing the pesky question away, he affixed the mouthpiece of his snorkel and swam toward the call.
A little less than fifty meters away, he found her. He spit his mouthpiece out to address her. “Are you hurt?” A stroke of lightning tore across the dark sky. It was followed by another and another. The strobe-like lighting gave him a view of the scene. Less than a few hundred meters away from his position lay the stern of a tall ship, flames licking up deck.
Holding onto hope the scene was a trick of the lightning, he repeated his question to the storm's victim. “Are you okay?”
“Ah,” she screamed. She jerked out of his arms.
He grabbed her hands when they came up to slap him. “I asked, are you hurt?” Keeping them up by swishing his legs, he enfolded her in his arms when the next wave swept the burning wreckage in the opposite direction. “Answer me.”
“I know not what form of sea monster you are, but know this, I will not die willingly.”
Even through his drenched face mask he could see she was playing a good game but was terrified. “Honey, I'm not going to hurt you unless you keep fighting me.”
Either she realized he meant what he said or exhaustion caught up with her. She calmed. “Are you human?”
“What else would I be?”
“I've never seen a man such as you.”
He noticed how her gaze searched for something in the water. A foreign emotion chugged hard in his chest when she faced him, tears in her eyes. “We better hunker down and find someplace safe to ride out the storm. The helo probably got recalled to Kodiak, but they'll be back once the weather clears,” he lied with conviction.
“Hunker down? My mother says that on occasion.”
An inkling of worry seeped through him. Her defined British accent gave him pause. The warmth of the water stunned him. I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.
Sure, he'd heard all the strange tales of the Bermuda Triangle and other places where planes, ships and people disappeared, but, to his knowledge, none of those anomalous regions were in the Bering Sea. “What boat were you on?” he demanded. “What was its call letters?”
“If you must know, I was aboard the Lancastershire.” She fell below the surface for a brief second to bob up in the next. “We set sail from London five weeks ago.” She stopped for a moment, then continued. Her lip trembled when she answered his last question. “I've never heard of call letters.”
Zbigniew watched her struggle for control. He also picked out details in her response. Set sail from London five weeks ago. Her statement rang in his head like the tolling of a church bell. The hell she had circumnavigated three quarters of the earth on a sailing ship in that short time.
She was obviously in shock. Empathetic, he watched the waves overturn a large, empty rowboat. Shaking his head, he found himself wondering if this was his heaven or his hell.
Taking stock in his fairly clean record with the Coast Guard and the fact that the last time he'd taken an inventory of his life he hadn't committed any grave sins before joining the military, he felt pretty sure he was planted in the safe category of going to heaven. On the other hand, who the hell wouldn't think of this as hell?
He cut off his thoughts within the flash of lightning. “We're going for that boat.” He pointed his finger to the white bottom bobbing on the torrential current. “After I find us someplace safe to ride out this hurricane, we'll talk more.”
“There was a small island off the port of the Lancastershire this morning. I do believe the storm will push us in its direction.” She bowed her head for a moment to screen her face from the rain slamming down on them only to have a wave sweep across her features.
Holding her up, giving her time to recover her breath, Zbigniew watched the storm brew. The swirling clouds had all the earmarks of an Atlantic hurricane.
“That is, if God and luck are on our side,” she responded a few minutes later.
Watching her teeth chatter with fear, he started swimming her toward their proverbial safe port. All he could do was hope the boat was whole and could survive the storm. With every stroke he took, he understood this was no different from any other rescue he'd been on. Hurricane, Atlantic or otherwise, they were pretty much screwed. It came down to keeping her centered and her mind on living.
Hoisting her up on the spine, he held her in place as he climbed up behind her. He covered her with his gortex-clad frame to keep her from turning hypothermic. “Honey, I'll take all the luck and prayers I can get right now,” he whispered in her ear.