A journey halfway across the world. Two people determined to remain on their chosen paths. But life doesn't always go to plan...
Captain Robert Crawford is proud to have achieved his first command. Despite his taciturn manner, he loves his ship, and those who serve under him are loyal and steadfast. Passengers, however, are another matter – troublesome, unpredictable and the bane of his life. The shipping company's other edict is no better; he must marry, and the sooner the better. Even his best friend cannot understand why this troubles him so much. How could he when Robert has never confided in anyone about his past?
Miss Agnes Dinwiddie is still grieving one year on from her father's death. Seeing no future for herself in her old home, she accepts her brother's invitation to be his housekeeper in America. Accepting a position as companion for the duration of the journey, she expects the trip to be the perfect balm to take her away from her heartache and help her to heal. What she wasn't expecting was to meet an infuriating, complicated captain.
Confined on board with demanding passengers and a young woman who seems to challenge him at every turn, and who he can't stop thinking about, Captain Crawford wonders what the devil he has done to deserve such a trial. One thing's for certain, he's never experienced a journey like it before.
The Spinster's Captain is a Victorian Romance, topped with a generous amount of humour, action and tears. If you like simmering chemistry, compelling but complex characters and fast-paced action, then this is the perfect book for you. For lovers of Regency or Victorian romance.
Release date: May 31, 2021
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The Spinster's Captain
Penpont, Dumfriesshire, Scotland.
“Why so far?” Jane asked for the hundredth time. “You might as well be travelling to the moon!”
Agnes smiled as she worked in her bedchamber, which had always been the girls’ room in the family home. Six of them had shared the space when they were children, but now there were only three left at home. Agnes, Janet and Jane were all unmarried. Janet, the eldest of the three, was nearly forty years old and a dressmaker. She worked at a shop in Thornhill village a couple of miles away from Penpont and very often stayed over during the week, only coming home after the business had shut on a Saturday evening.
Agnes considered each of her possessions, assessing whether she could be parted from it or not. One portmanteau was all she could take with her on her journey, and it had to contain many items that would be practical for the weeks she would be travelling. There was little room for sentimentality within the tight space of the wooden box.
“It’s not quite that far,” Agnes responded patiently. Jane was eight and twenty, three years older than herself and was feeling keenly the loss of yet another sibling from their family circle.
“We haven’t seen Rabbie since he left almost five years ago, and now you’re joining him in a place so far off, it makes my heart pound to think of the distance there will be between us,” Jane responded.
“Jane, you shouldn’t bemoan Rabbie’s absence, he’s making a fine life for himself. Far better than if he had stayed in Penpont. I love our village but it’s not exactly the place to make one’s fortune, is it?” Agnes asked gently.
“But why did he have to go to New York of all places?” Jane asked. She had folded her arms, her words being uttered in a huff. “There are cities aplenty in this country.”
“Because we are barely on the genteel side of society, and he wouldn’t have amounted to much if he’d stayed,” Agnes reminded her sister patiently, folding a thick woollen dress. Their eldest brother, Rabbie, had written to say the winters in the new country were harsh, even worse than the cold Scottish winters she was used to.
In reality there was no need for Agnes to point out their position in society, they all were fully aware of their family’s status; neither genteel nor purely working stock – aiming for one, but just as likely to be classed as the other. They lived in the largest farm in the small village of Penpont, in Dumfriesshire. Apart from the family who occupied the manor house that bordered the farm and owned most of the farms and houses in Penpont, the Dinwiddies were considered the top family in the area. Unfortunately, that did not reflect in wider society. Outside their immediate sphere, the Dinwiddie family were deemed lower in class than the gentry, not quite the gentleman farmer their father had aimed for in his career choices. It was a fact the family had struggled with, their parents trying to better the lives of the children while being restricted because of opportunities and money.
“If Rabbie had stayed here, he could establish himself in Glasgow, or Ardrossan,” Jane insisted, naming two of the busy ports within a day or two’s travelling distance.
“He is renting a fine house in New York now, far grander than he could have afforded here, even with hard work. He has created his own connections over there and can socialise with everyone in society. There are no restrictions in the new world,” Agnes persisted. Rabbie’s letters had been full of the opportunities that existed for a young man with a reasonable amount of blunt in his pockets and who was willing to invest, work hard and believe in the new country. “He’s hoping to buy a farm soon, which will be more than five times as big as our land. Imagine that, Jane! Land that you actually own and so much bigger than we have here!”
“But miles away from your family,” Jane pointed out.
Agnes paused in her packing and gripped her sister’s hands. “Rethink, your decision, Jane. Come with me. We could arrange your passage. I’m sure we could.”
“No. I have to stay here,” Jane said quietly, looking away from Agnes’s intense gaze with a flush.
“Will you ever be able to forget him?” Agnes asked gently. Her sister had been unofficially promised to a man from a nearby village. It had seemed a perfect match, but then Charles had wanted to make something of himself before they wed. He had left with promises of his early return once he was settled, coming back to claim his beloved. Unfortunately, there had been no word nor a visit since that final goodbye. The family had felt Jane’s pain, for it had been a good match for a woman whose position in life was that of a spinster. Jane still clung to her belief that he would make good on his commitment to her, but no one else believed there would be a happy ending to her story.
“No. I have to believe that he’ll return one day. He made me promises that I know he’ll keep.”
Sighing, Agnes bit her tongue, swallowing the words she wanted to say. She could not leave her sister with bad feeling between them. Jane knew the family’s opinion. Going over it would only antagonise her unnecessarily. “I hope for your sake he does, but in the meantime, you’re wasting a perfect chance to start again.”
“Even if I wasn’t in love with Charles, I’ve never wanted to move far from home. Travel to the other side of the world is not for me. I am more than happy here,” Jane admitted.
“Not even the hustle and bustle of Manchester could tempt you away, could it?” Agnes asked. Jane had spent some time with another sister, Ann, who was living with her husband in Manchester. “I half expected you to remain down there when you visited. It seems to be our family’s favourite place to migrate to.” Several of their brothers and sisters had followed each other to the thriving city for work.
“No, I found that it’s too busy and overcrowded for me, although I have promised to return and spend more time with Alex and Elizabeth,” she said of another brother and his wife. “But I would much rather remain here,” Jane said. “I suppose I will feel more useful helping with the children, for Elizabeth has her hands full with Alex travelling all the time, and Janet is fond of saying I’m of no use to her.”
“She’s a very particular needlewoman.” Agnes smiled at the way her elder sister would curse at their lack of finesse in anything to do with needlework. “It will be strange not hearing her news every weekend. I hope she takes the time to write to me often. I hope you all do.”
“Of course, but it won’t be the same as seeing you.”
Agnes turned away from her sister, moving to the small window overlooking the fields which were so familiar to her. They had not always lived in the farm, but the new position had brought a little more status to the growing family. When her parents had moved here, there was a real sense of achievement, of being secure, and that this was the final move for them.
She loved this part of the world, the undulating hills not as harsh as one could find in the highlands, but green and lush, perfect for farming. She had never had the urge to travel, not until recently, but then life had changed, and she felt that she had to get away, something she had not experienced previously. She turned slightly to see Jane watching her and smiled sadly at her sister. “It isn’t really our home anymore though, is it?”
“John is our brother and a good tenant. He has said we can stay as long as we wish. He wouldn’t fail us,” Jane said in defence of the youngest member of their large family.
“Since Da died, nothing has been the same.”
“It’s been a year now, Nessie,” Jane said, using the pet name for her sister.
“And I still miss him every day,” Agnes admitted. She had adored her father, following him around as a small child, much to his amusement and her mother’s chagrin. They were a close family, but Agnes had been her da’s pet and had been almost overwhelmed by his sudden death.
Jane joined her sister at the window and wrapped her arms around her. “Don’t leave all this because Da passed before his time. The memories will continue to haunt you. Running away won’t solve the ache in your heart, I know that only too well. At least here, we are still close to him; we can visit the churchyard anytime we wish.”
“No. I can’t stay.” Agnes’s tone was firm and her chin set. “It’s all changed, Jane, surely you must agree with that at least? With brother David in the military in India, Rabbie in the Americas, and the others moving to Manchester, it’s completely different. I ache for the noisy days when everyone was under the same roof, all arguing to be heard and cluttering the place up. The farm has lost its soul, even though Ma is still here.”
Eleven children and two parents in a working farmhouse meant that there had been little opportunity for quiet in a boisterous household. All had worked hard in supporting the family, but in an age of industrialisation and opportunities in the larger cities, it was inevitable some of the family would move away from following in their ancestor’s footsteps of living in the lowlands of Scotland. The parents had encouraged their children to be educated as much as possible, broadening their horizons and instilling a longing in some of them to explore far outside the small village they had grown up in.
“Ma isn’t going anywhere, and John loves this place as much as Da did,” Jane pointed out. “You could stay, there is work enough to go around.”
“I’m a spinster,” Agnes said, resuming her packing. “I’ve not married in my five and twenty years, so if I stay here that will be my fate, never leaving this village above half a dozen times. I don’t want that, Jane. I wish to see more of the world. I love Penpont, but when we receive Rabbie’s letters, I long to see some of the things he has. Once John marries, which he will, he will fill this house with his own children. There will be no room for me, and I don’t wish to feel a burden.” She had to admit to herself that the feelings of disquiet had only started since her father had died, but they were there now, and she had the opportunity to act on them. “I had presumed I would have a different life, but that wasn’t to be, it’s time to make my own choices and decide my future. Rabbie needing a housekeeper is perfect for my needs for now.”
“As I am three years older than you, I must be tarred with the same brush. Shall I consider myself an encumbrance?” Jane asked. She had separated herself from Agnes, her posture defensive at Agnes’s words.
Agnes smiled at her sister, reaching out to her and gently rubbing her arm in reassurance. “You aren’t like me, Jane. I’m more likely to fall out with any wife John chooses within a sennight of her moving in. I’ve never been the most placid of us. Da used to say I should have fiery red hair rather than the brown I have. It’s probably the reason I am still unwed; too much of a harridan for the locals.”
“You never did learn to be docile,” Jane admitted. She grinned at her sister at the memories of some of the arguments which had occurred between all the siblings over the years. They loved each other dearly, but that didn’t prevent the heated discussions which had taken place as they grew.
Agnes chuckled. “No. Much to Ma’s annoyance. She’ll have less angst about my unladylike behaviour when I’m out of sight, and perhaps being with strangers will make me learn to hold my tongue.”
“Do you really believe that?” Jane asked.
Agnes laughed. “No, you ninnyhammer! Of course I don’t! It’s just Mother won’t hear about it so won’t repine over my incorrigible behaviour.”
“I’m going to miss you so much,” Jane said sadly.
“Never fear. Once I’ve established Rabbie’s household and found him a wife, I’ll make it my priority to find myself a wealthy husband and then send for you!”
“By that time, I might well be ready to join you,” Jane responded, finally able to shake off the maudlin mood.
Robert, the eldest of the Dinwiddie children, known to his family as Rabbie, had arranged for his sister to travel as a companion for an older widow who was joining her son in Canada. It was a perfect solution, Agnes had an escort and her passage paid for, whilst the widow had company in addition to her lady’s maid.
Agnes travelled with her youngest brother, John, and sister Jane to the seaside town of Ardrossan. They had taken the stage, which was always crammed full of people visiting the thriving harbour. The busy port linked to the coalfields of Scotland via a canal and was one of the preferred harbours for ships travelling over to Newfoundland for fishing. Ships sailed from Ardrossan to the golden shores of Canada, which, so far, was providing a better livelihood for those willing to start afresh and work hard.
The ship Agnes was boarding would sail to Liverpool and Belfast before setting out for New York and then Quebec in Canada. She would alight in New York, whilst her employer for the journey would be continuing to Canada. It wasn’t ideal that Agnes was alighting first, but the older woman had taken a liking to Agnes and decided she could abide the last leg of the journey with only her maid for company, presuming there would be others whom she had befriended along the way.
Agnes peered out of the carriage; thankful she was seated nearest the window as they trundled slowly over the town roads. It appeared as if the whole of Scotland had descended on the small harbour, with ships seeming to vie with each other for limited space. People made headway like a swarm of starlings, moving together within an ever-changing formation. It was exhilarating and terrifying for the young woman embarking on the biggest adventure of her life.
Agnes’s mouth went dry, and she swallowed, her heart racing a little faster. This was to be an expedition indeed. It had seemed an easy experience to agree to when being planned, but now, arriving in the midst of all the noise and movement, it felt somewhat more daunting.
The stage set everyone down at the entrance to the harbour. It was in the heart of the activity, and Agnes was thankful her brother took control of ensuring her portmanteau was unloaded satisfactorily. She was a little overwhelmed at the hustle and bustle. It was not the first time she had seen it, but this time she would be one of the many boarding a ship that would leave when the wind and tide were in harmony together. Now the time had come, it was more frightening than she had imagined it would be.
John, the youngest of the Dinwiddie children, returned to his sisters with two young men who lifted the portmanteau between them and forged a path through the throng. The Dinwiddie group followed in their wake, Agnes and Jane holding on to each other for support as their final moments in the same country approached.
“This is her! The clipper Broom and a fine ship she is!” one of the young men said cheerfully as they came to a halt before a large three-mast ship. All the sails were furled as she rested in the port, but there was still a huge amount of activity on board.
“Check if Mrs Topping is already on board,” John instructed the young men as they moved to the nearest gangway.
“It’s so big,” Jane said quietly.
Agnes smiled; relieved Jane’s words had the impact of redirecting her own suddenly quite panicky thoughts. “I’m sure I’ll be glad of that when we’re in the middle of the open sea!”
“We shall wait here awhile until the men return,” John said. “I expect your employer is on board, but it would be presumptuous to settle into your cabin before checking if she has arrived first. You want to make a good impression.”
“Frightened I shall do something wrong, and she will withdraw her offer, John?” Agnes asked.
“Aye. Terrified.” John grinned at his sister.
Agnes had only met Mrs Topping once before and hoped they would continue to like each other when confined for such a long time. Their journey would take around sixty days depending on weather and the wind, which was a fair while to be in close proximity to a stranger.
The men returned down the gangway and approached the grouping. “Mrs Topping is aboard. Her maid is settling her in, and she awaits the young lady. The first mate says they’ll be leaving within the next three hours or they will miss the tide.”
“Thank you,” John said, handing over a few coins for the service rendered.
With a touch of their hats, the men moved away, looking for the next passengers to help on the busy quayside.
“Come, Nessie, we’ll accompany you on board,” John said, moving towards the ship. “Best get a move on, we don’t want to be stranded when the anchor is raised, or we shall all be visiting Rabbie.”
The two women followed their brother, walking gingerly up the slightly swaying gangway. Holding onto the rope that acted as a handrail offered little support as it moved at each touch. It brought home quite forcefully the fact they were leaving firm ground behind.
Agnes stepped onto the wooden deck with a sense of relief. It felt far more stable than the gangway had. She looked around at the activity on the open deck. Sailors and passengers were intermingling, each intent on their own business. There was a sense of ordered hurriedness. The sailors were disciplined, each knew what his duties were, and only halted when a passenger interrupted them. It looked a strange but fascinating scene.
“Nessie! Move!” Jane said with anguish, clinging hold of the rope at the top of the gangway.
She turned to smile at her sister. “Sorry. I was distracted by all that’s going on.”
“You can still change your mind,” Jane whispered as she grasped onto Agnes’s arm and stepped on the more solid deck.
“Why would I do that?” Agnes asked. “It might terrify me but at the same time, it’s so exciting! Look at it all!”
“But there are guns on board! Why would they need guns? It can’t be safe!” Jane cried.
“There is still the occasional skirmish with the odd privateer,” John explained. “No ship wants to be unprotected.”
“See, Jane, I could be whisked off by some dastardly pirate.” Agnes laughed. “Who wouldn’t want that to happen?”
“Now you’re just funning with me,” Jane grumbled.
“I’m making sure you’ll be glad to see the back of me,” Agnes said.
“Stop being a tease,” John said, but he smiled at Agnes.
John had asked which cabin Mrs Topping was staying in and led the way. They got to the main staircase which took passengers below deck, and once more Jane complained at feeling unsteady on the narrow stairs. A steward guided them to the correct cabin, and Agnes tried to ignore the looks Jane was sending her as they walked down the narrow corridor. It was wide enough for two people to pass, but skirts would brush against each other. It felt very confined.
The steward knocked on the cabin door, which was answered by a maid, who stepped back to allow the group access into the room.
About to step inside, John paused and looked through the doorway rather than moving into the cabin. It was one of the roomier cabins on the deck, but still a small space, with two beds, one above the other and a truckle bed taking up most of the room. A small wardrobe and chest of drawers filled the wall the door was on, and a shelf was screwed into place over the chest. A screen was in the corner near the beds, hiding the washing facilities, with two hard wooden chairs in front of it. That was the sum of the room and its contents. It was cramped but far more comfortable and spacious than the accommodation on the next level down in the hold of the ship for the steerage passengers.
A speaking glance John sent his sister at their surprise on the size of the room was ignored by Agnes as she stepped past him and walked in. “Mrs Topping, how do you do? It is so good to see you again.”
“And you, my child,” Mrs Topping said. She was seated on one of the chairs, a woman of more than fifty years, slender but not fragile looking. Her cotton cap hid her locks, which had once been a dark brown but were now heavily streaked with grey. Her expression was welcoming and astute. The maid crouched on the truckle bed, trying to take up as little space as possible. “We shall be very cosy in here. I suggest you take out what clothing you need for your voyage and then your portmanteau can be stored in the hold. Don’t leave anything of value in it. You’ll likely not see it until we arrive at our destination.”
“We’ll say our goodbye and leave you to it,” John said to Agnes. “Have a safe trip, and make sure you write a letter as soon as you reach New York. Send our best wishes to Rabbie.”
“I will,” Agnes said, embracing her brother. “Take care of Mother.”
“Don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine,” John said before moving out of the way to allow Jane access to her sister.
Jane flung herself at Agnes with a sob. “I’m going to miss you.”
“And I you,” Agnes said, holding her sister close. “I’ll write often.”
“Please come back one day.”
“I will. I promise. Just not quite yet. There’s a whole new country to explore.” Agnes smiled; her eyes were brighter than normal, but she was able to stop her tears from falling, unlike her sister.
“Jane, we must go,” John said.
“Yes, be gone before you turn me into a watering pot!” Agnes said with a sniff.
They said their final farewells and Agnes was left alone with Mrs Topping.
“Your sister will probably cry all the way home,” Mrs Topping said at Jane’s retreating form.
“More than likely. She feels my removal more than she would normally. A lot of my brothers and sisters have left Scotland over recent times, and she seems to take it more to heart than the rest of us do. Family is important to us all, but especially so to Jane.”
“It’s right to carve your own path in the world. It’s what my son James has done and I’m happy to join him.”
“And I’m grateful that I’m able to accompany you. Now I must unpack, and you can set me to work,” Agnes said, all businesslike now her farewells had taken place.
She quickly put her clothes in the space indicated by the maid. Putting the few sentimental items she had decided she couldn’t be parted from in one of the drawers, she locked her portmanteau, and the maid arranged for it to be removed from the cabin. A frisson of excitement pulsed through Agnes as she closed the drawer and looked around the well-organised space. She would be sleeping as the boat ploughed its way through the waves of the sea. They would be weeks without seeing land, and the idea thrilled and terrified her in equal measure.
“I hope you aren’t afraid of heights, my dear,” Mrs Topping said. “My days of scrambling to climb onto the top bed are well and truly over.”
Agnes smiled. “It’ll be part of the adventure and I’ll be closer to the porthole, so able to watch the sea from my bed,” she said, hoping that when the seas were rough, she wouldn’t come crashing onto the wooden floor below. Too late now – the adventure was starting, so she’d better get used to everything about life on board ship.
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