Jake Harris saves people from the sea. But Englishwoman Olivia Madison's no damsel in distress. A woman on a mission, she intrigues Jake with her feistiness and determination—even as her stubbornness causes rifts between his tight-knit brotherhood of seamen. But just what is in her precious cargo?
“God is our refuge and strength.”—Psalms 46:1
Olivia must sell her shipload of antiques to free her brother from an English debtor's prison. But when her long journey ends in tragedy on North Carolina's Outer Banks, she has nowhere to turn—except to the rugged man who fished her from the cold Atlantic. Can she prove that her purposes are honorable…and find true love with her rescuer?
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About the Author
Lauralee Bliss has published over twenty romance novels. She spent many happy summers on North Carolina’s Outer Banks where this series is set. It is an honor to bring to life the heroic deeds of the lifesaving stations' surfmen, who saved many from the dangerous seas. Lauralee makes her home in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, Steve, and dogs Katie and Eve. Website: http://www.lauraleebliss.com
Read an Excerpt
Hatteras Island, North Carolina
It shouldn't be long now, lass. We tack down the coast for another day or so. By late tomorrow we ought to be in Wilmington for sure."
"But that will put us to port at night, will it not?" Olivia Madison looked up at the burly sailor, her heart filled with dismay. She disliked arriving in the dead of night when darkness appeared ready to swallow ships and their unsuspecting crews. She also hated it for other reasons. Darkness had come when her parents succumbed to diseaseher mother when she was a little girl and her father to a strange fever just a year ago. Then darkness had taken her only living family member, her twin brother, Nathan, arrested in the dead of night with no one there to help him. Darkness and light were not alike to her, despite what Scripture said.
Olivia refused to let her fellow sailors know her fear of darkness. Instead she stood tall like the main mast and tightened the belt that held up pants far too large for her slight frame. Olivia gripped a mast with one hand while shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun with the other. It had been a long journey, but she felt the end was near. The other crew members on board the schooner had performed their duties admirably, safeguarding passage across the vast ocean. Father had chosen his men well.
Tears sprang in her eyes when she thought of him. Broad-shouldered, able-bodied, but with a twinkle in his blue eyes, strength permeated his very being both as a ship's captain and as her father. Sadly he'd lacked the strength to overcome the fever that had claimed his life.
What had followed both amazed Olivia and helped ease her grief. The sailors who had worked for her father all left their ports of call to attend the funeral. Each of them pledged their devotion if ever she needed it. Now was that time, with Nathan's life at stake. Her brother had been imprisoned wrongly. And Olivia was taking this journey to help set him free.
"You're certainly quiet," commented a sailor named O'Malley. An Irish sailor on an English vessel seemed a great irony, but it was all Father's doing. He was no respecter of persons. He had always treated the Irish, the Scots and the English as if they were brothers. Father had united the men. No wonder the sailors loved him so.
More tears glazed her eyes, and she deftly wiped them away. "I only pray we will accomplish what we set out to do," she answered the man.
"We will, never fear. You have your father in you. You won't rest until this mission is done, and soon it will be." He patted her on the shoulder as a father would his daughter.
Several of her father's loyal sailors, including O'Malley, had answered her call for help in this venture. And so had others. In the crates concealed in the ship's bowels were family jewels and heirlooms, along with possessions given by wealthy friends, ready to pay off the rogue who'd imprisoned her dear brother. She tensed at the mere thought of the man who'd betrayed Nathan in a poor business deal. He had taken all the money, leaving Nathan with debts he could not pay. Now the dreadful debtor's prison was his lot, but not for much longer. Not if Olivia had anything to do with it.
She shook herself from her thoughts and considered the man before her, one of her father's favorites. "Are you still eager to see America, O'Malley?" she asked.
He grinned. "Of course! Not a sailor among us doesn't wish they could live there. The weeks we'll spend in Wilmington while you are visiting your uncle in Raleigh will be like a holiday to us."
Olivia wished she could share in the excitement. Instead a certain anxiety prevailed. America was a land she knew so little about. She'd heard many speak about it. It didn't seem so very different from England, though ports on this side of the Atlantic were few and far between. Now they sailed south along the Carolina coast of an endless sandy shore, nearing their goal and the completion of a long journey. They'd had but one storm to contend with, and even that wasn't so terrible.
Soon she would meet for the first time her only living relative besides her brotherher uncle, Dwight Browning. Dwight Browning was a prominent figure in the city of Raleigh, with many powerful people in his circle of friends. Informing him of Nathan's pitiful and increasingly sickly state, he'd urged her to come to America with the possessions she was able to gain through close friends and the wealth left in the estate. He would personally see to their sale and quickly raise the money needed to pay Nathan's debt.
I will do what needs to be done. Father would be proud if he were alive.
Olivia turned and headed below deck to the small cabin normally reserved for the captain. Inside the tiny room she knelt beside a large trunk and fumbled for the buckles. Resting atop the many belongings she carried from her native England lay her leather-bound journal, safely stored in oilskin in a box made of maple. She slowly slid back the top to the box and drew out the journal, eager to add another entry. Her heart fluttered. This time tomorrow her journal would boast of a triumphant landing at Wilmington, followed by her arrival in her uncle's company a week later. In a few months, God willing and with the work of her industrious uncle, she would revel in Nathan's freedom.
A knock came on the cabin door. Her maid, Alicia, opened it to find O'Malley with a grim look on his face. "The wind's changin', lass, and storm clouds are on the horizon. We may yet be delayed. So it 'tis with Providence in these things. We can only trust to His goodwill. Stay below deck."
Olivia quickly shut the trunk, even as Alicia stared with large eyes. The ship began to lurch. "Oh, miss, it's a storm!"
"It will be all right," she said as calmly as she could muster as the room swayed to and fro. Even now she doubted her own words. Please, God, we are but a breath away. Please let us arrive in safety!
Jacob Harris looked out over the ocean that churned with white-capped waves, the relentless salt water hungrily lapping the sandy beach. A misty fog rolled in with the waves. "I hope there's no ships out tonight, Jake. It looks like it could get rough," said Bodie, his fellow surfman in training.
Behind them, the glimmer of light from the lifesaving station's watchtower faded in the fog. Large raindrops splattered on them from thick clouds that hid the night stars. "We are definitely going to see a good storm," he agreed with his companion. "Come on. It's three miles to the substation. I'll show you what you need to do."
He felt in his pocket for the medal he would give to the surfmen of the next station, letting them know he and Bodie had done their part in the nightly beach patrol. But the brewing storm mirrored the personal storm within him. Earlier that day, he'd received the worst news possible. The lovely and fair Rose Leigh-ton, his lifelong friend and love, returned to him the silver thimble he'd given to her as a promise of marriage many months ago. Jake still winced when he remembered her words. "I will not be your wife, Jacob," she had declared.
Even now Jake could feel the small lump of the precious object in his breast pocket, beneath the heavy, oiled canvas coat he wore while on patrol. "Why?" he had pleaded with her. "I do not understand." He felt like a sailor in one of the shipwrecks, watching a rope slipping quickly out of his sweaty palms, sending him into the frothing ocean below.
"I can't bear the thought of you going out into the storm to save others," she had said. "You believe you are braving the seas, but you don't care that you could be hurtor even drown." Her voice faded away. "I won't live with that kind of fear, thinking I could lose you."
He took some measure of comfort knowing that she cared whether he lived or died. Being the surf-man of a lifesaving station was dangerous, to be sure. But he had saved countless lives and cargoes without incident. Wasn't that worth some sacrifice? "Rose, please understand. My calling is to save others from drowning. I may sometimes need to risk my life, but others will die if I don't."
Rose had trembled at his words. "If the wind and storms can sink boats and kill people, think what it could do to you! And me. I could be a widow." She shook her head and turned away. "I'm sorry."
Jake shook himself out of his reverie, shuddering from the memory of Rose's words. Bodie cast him a curious glance as they swung their lanterns. They turned their gazes outward to the ocean, looking for any ships in distress.
"What's wrong?" Bodie finally asked. "You don't seem yourself."
Jake did not want to tell him what had happened with Rose and the embarrassment he felt. Yet he could not quell his friend's curiosity. He quickly explained the broken proposal.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I liked Rose."
"It doesn't matter," he said, searching for the words to lift his confidence. "I'm married to the sea anyway. It's the life I have chosen."
"Not me," Bodie said. "I'm not marrying no sea. I mean, I like this work so far, but I love Sally too much."
"Does she like that you're a surfman?"
"Of course. She thinks it's grand. She calls me her hero. She even likes the fact that I share the same name with the lighthouse up the coast there."
Jake winced. How he wished Rose had felt the same way. He paused to scan the distant horizon, and suddenly he saw something. A blink of a white light through the rolling fog. His fingers tensed around the handle of the lantern, which he raised higher in the darkness. All thoughts of Rose vanished at this telltale sign.
Bodie stood beside him, also scanning the ocean. "What's the matter? Do you see something?"
"I thought I saw a light flash. Can you make out anything?"
"Not really. It's too foggy."
Jake continued to stare. "There it is again! See that? It could be a passing ship or it could be one in distress. Take my lantern and hold them both high. The brightness will let them know where the shoreline is. I hope they saw your lighthouse up north warning them of the coastline."
Bodie's hands trembled as he held the lanterns high. "There it is again!" Jake exclaimed. "It's not far from the coast. I'll shoot off a signal, then we need to get back to the station and alert the others." He lit the Coston signal or flare he carried in a pouch while excitement and nervousness bubbled up inside him. "We need to inform the keeper." He began running back toward the station with Bodie right behind him. "I'm sure they saw it from the watchtower."
Bodie said nothing as he followed. When Jake saw the other surfmen readying the equipment, his fear was confirmed. He inhaled a sharp breath to calm his rapidly beating heart.
"We saw the signal, and the keeper gave the order," shouted Grayson Long, surfman number one. "The ship is lodged on the sand bar. It's close enough to use the beach apparatus. As it is, the seas are growing rough."
When another signal, white in color, pierced the bank of clouds hovering over the ocean, Jake knew that tonight they were called upon to save lives. Raindrops pelted him in the face, sending water dripping into his eyes. He brushed it away, thinking of the verse from a well-known hymn while the men worked to ready the equipment that would aid the ship:
Trim your feeble lamp, my brother Some poor sailor tempest tos't Trying now to make the harbor, In the darkness may be lost. Let the lower lights be burning, Send a gleam across the wave, Some poor fainting, struggling seaman, You may rescue, you may save.
A chill of anxiety coursed through him for an instant before being replaced by determination. Lord, I know now I could never ignore a life that might be saved in exchange for a hand in marriage. Even if it's the woman I love. His fingers slipped on the wet ropes as men yelled at each other, ready to shoot the line from the cannon out to the imperiled ship. This is what I'm called to do. This is all that matters. Lord, You saved others from death when You gave Your life. Can I do any less? The thoughts strengthened his resolve to do what mattered most. The troubled ship and its crew had made the decision for him.
Jake jumped when the Lyle gun fired, hurling shot and a line toward the distressed ship. He prayed the sailors there would know how to rig it so they could then feed the breeches buoy out to them. When the line turned taut, he sighed in relief.
Grayson slapped Jake on the shoulder. "They are ready for us to save them," he said.
The keeper signaled for him. "Jake, I want you to go out first," he said, pointing to the breeches buoy made of heavy fabric with strong lines that would feed him to the ship. Jake wasted no time doing as the leader asked. He wiped rainwater from his face as the storm beat down even harder and climbed into the breeches assembly. He soon felt himself being pulled out into the raging ocean waters. His feet caught in the waves. Water poured into his boots, pulling him downward against the fabric of the apparatus. He held on and squinted as he slowly approached the disabled schooner, caught on a rough sandbar that had likely torn a hole in the hull. Debris floated in the ocean as the ship listed to one side. His heart began to race. Little time remained before the vessel sank.