THE ACQUISITION

Outside the bedchamber, in the brothel's dark hallway, Joshua paced the floor. Mid-step in his circling, he heard Harry moan. Was she emptying her belly again?

Best check.

He cracked the door.

And froze.

When a man lived in close quarters for months at a time with thirty horny seamen, that man soon learned not to barge in on someone during a private moment.

Best remain outside 'til Harry finished up, he decided.

Only, the doorknob froze in his hand. Unable to drag himself away, Josh watched the interesting events unfold from the threshold.

He had some acquaintance with the perspective. Occasionally, he paid to observe a female or two at play, an uncomplicated voyeuristic pleasure in which he openly indulged. Never, though, did he watch a woman from a secret vantage point, as he did now.

Spying on Harry was perverse. Damn erotic, as well. The curiosity of her stroke, the rapt attention on her face, the tightening of her pretty features as satisfaction approached...

Christ. With a scream, Harry went off like a cannon volley and then toppled backwards on the bed. If her cry of ecstasy was any indication, his porcelain doll had the makings of a sensual woman.

Someday. Still at the getting acquainted stage with her body, Harry was far too inexperienced to control the pleasure, to draw out the climax.

He could teach her. Show her how to extend the orgasm, how to increase one contraction to several. Who better to educate a novice than a man born and raised in a whorehouse, a man all too familiar with the sins of the flesh, a man who knew what the pleasures of naked skin were and what they were not...a man who well understood that sex was no substitute for genuine love. He knew how to give enough pleasure to diminish pain and, conversely, how to give enough pain to enhance pleasure. There were different methods of stirring a woman, of guiding a partner to passion.

When it came to carnality, he had no need for a sextant. With a seasoned navigator's familiarity, he sailed in chartered depths.

Save when sailing virgin waters. Then, he was hopelessly lost at sea. Harry's port was unaccustomed to docking. The first few voyages into her tight inlet were bound to cause her pain.

Shuddering at the thought of paining Harry, Josh still knew he was the best man for the job. Because he loved her, he would be patient. Because he loved her, he would introduce her to passion the right way.

Joshua smacked his forehead. What was he thinking?

Harry would never look upon him as a potential lover. She saw him only as an older adult. A caring father. A big brother. A doting uncle. Someone she respected.

Josh snorted. Respected? Her admiration for him came uncomfortably close to hero worship. No mortal man of flesh and blood...and ejaculate...could possibly meet her high expectations.

And yet, how could he complain? Looking like somebody in Harry's eyes had driven him to make his fortune.

And yet, making his fortune kept him away from New Bedford. And from Harry.

Vicious circle. He hated leaving her, had always hated leaving her behind.

He hated the thought of disappointing her even more.

When he was home, he tried to make his absence up to her. Since Harry had launched, puny and weak, from her dying mama's belly, Josh had stuck close. As a two-year-old, she had toddled after him and Ben wherever they went. At eight, Harry had lost her father, leaving her orphaned, but not alone. When Ben shirked his obligations, Joshua had stepped in and taken over the young Harry's care.

Hell of a lousy job he had done of it too, by the looks of things.

Passed out cold in a drunken stupor, a lopsided grin plastered on her face, naked in a whorehouse, Harry could have been mistaken for a trollop. What would Harry's Quaker parents say if they could see their daughter now?

That Harry needed a firm hand. And that the mixed lad, the bastard son of a whore to whom they had given their good faith and trust, had let her -- and them -- down.

He had not done right by Harry. To do right, he would need to take charge of the little spitfire. Protect her, financially and otherwise.

How?

Here, on the waterfront, folks called a woman a man protected either a whore or a wife. No one would call Harry a whore, not by Joshua's making. A ring on the hoyden's finger would keep her respectable.

But would his marrying up with Harry lend her that respectability?

Though he was born free and lived white, marrying up with Harry would open up a lot more talk about his mixed skin pigments, speculation that would get in the way of the very respectability he sought for her.

What to do?

Fast asleep, a naked Harry flung both arms over her head and rolled her knee to the side.

Sweat popped on his forehead. Christ! Why did she have to go and do that now?

In all the years he had seen to Harry's care, he had never once stepped over the line, never once touched her in a carnal way. He should poke out his eyeballs rather than look where he was looking now.

Of course, the sight of a naked woman was hardly new. Only looking at Harry like this was something new.

Josh raked both hands through his tied-back hair, his fingers disturbing the neat queue. Despite the wrongness of it, the immorality of it, and, not to forget, the illegality of it due to his mixed race, he still wanted to be Harry's first. He wanted to be her last. And he was fully prepared to kill any man who tried getting some of Harry in between.

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