“You will marry Miss Lansing, and that is all there is to it.”
I stared at my father, the Earl of Northridge, in utter dismay. For as long as I could remember, my entire life, I had been adamant that when I grew up, I would marry a lord, not a lady. It wasn’t as if such marriages were unheard of. After all, it was the year 1714, and Queen Anne herself had acknowledged that alphas and omegas not only existed but were an integral part of British society.
When she had proclaimed marriage between two men both lawful and honorable, my heart had soared. Now, I thought, my dreams of a loving marriage with another lord could come true.
But that didn’t mean that my father agreed with her pronouncement.
For that matter, most of the British aristocracy didn’t agree. They still believed that being an omega marked one as inherently part of the lower classes. Never mind that any number of British lords kept omega misters on the side, and that those omegas bore bastard upon bastard, many of whom were quietly adopted into the aristocracy, claimed as if they had been born by the aristocrats’ legitimate wives.
It was an immoral system, one that the Queen—and I, as well—would like to see changed. If only omegas could be openly accepted by the nobility.
But the Earl of Northridge was not likely to be one of those who voted ‘Yes’ the next time The Act for Omegas’ Inclusion came up for a vote in Parliament.
I was pretty sure he actually believed it when he said omegas were less than human. It was part of why I’d never been able to tell him I wanted, more than anything, to be able to have babies.
“I do not want you spending time with men who have babies,” Father said now, his lip curling up in disgust. “They are an abomination and are not be tolerated.”
“Father, it’s not as if I am planning to have anyone’s children. All the latest scientific research suggests that the ability to bear children is biological, not a matter of will—so it’s not as if I would be able to have an alpha’s baby, even if I wanted to.”
I would never, of course, tell him about all the time I had spent daydreaming of exactly that event, all throughout my youth.
No, right now all my energy needed to be focused on not being forced to marry a woman for whom I had no love whatsoever.
“Miss Lansing is expecting your proposal tomorrow afternoon,” Father continued, as if I hadn’t spoken at all. “We shall make a visit to her family, you will propose, we will arrange to skip having the banns read, and you will be married next week by special dispensation.”
My heart sank to the bottom of my boots. I knew that tone. If I were at home tomorrow afternoon, I would be engaged to Miss Lansing. And if I were anywhere to be found in London, or even all Great Britain, the next week, I would be married to the poor girl.
Father had all the pull in Parliament he needed to arrange for the special dispensation. We wouldn’t have to wait to be married. The thought made me feel green.
“It’s not as if I don’t have sympathy for you, my son,” Father interrupted my thoughts. His voice dropped lower. “But you’re a member of the nobility. The son of an earl—albeit the third son, and therefore less important than your brothers. Nonetheless, certain things are simply expected of you.” He glanced around our family’s beautifully appointed parlor, checking to make sure mother had not returned from her afternoon visits. “It’s not as if marriage must be the end of one’s intimate life,” he almost whispered. “I’m sure Miss Lansing’s mother has made her well aware of the needs of a gentleman. I am certain you’ll be able to come to some arrangement with her. And if not,” he turned one hand out in something like a shrug, “there are always other alternatives.”
My stomach flipped. Oh, I suppose on some level I had known for years that my father was not faithful to my mother. But that wasn’t the kind of marriage I wanted. I wanted love, and honor, and faithfulness.
And a husband, not a wife.
It was far too late to try to explain this to father. I had spent my entire life explaining to him. He had always refused to listen. This had been my last-ditch effort.
No. I was going to have to go somewhere new. Someplace where I could marry another man with impunity, even if I wasn’t an omega.
Maybe Australia. Or the West Indies.
In any case, I was going to have to leave London today.
But all I said to Father was, “Very well, sir.” With a bow, I withdrew from the parlor, leaving him thinking that I would be joining him at the Lansings’ the next day.
In reality, I would be gone entirely.
* * *
I SPENT ALL AFTERNOON at the taverns near the wharf, searching for someone who could provide what I needed. But Father wasn’t the only member of our family with connections. By dinnertime, I had made my arrangements.
My willingness to spend my father’s money with reckless abandon to get what I wanted helped. After all, it wasn’t like I was going to be around to suffer his wrath.
I cashed in several of my own accounts, as well, secreting my wealth in stashes hidden around my body and in the single bag I packed to take with me.
After dark that night, I made my way down to the Port of London. Giant sailing ships crowded the Thames, and it took me longer than I’d anticipated to find The Felicity, moored as she was away from the docks.
Finally, I found a dockhand willing to row me out for a few shillings, and we waited in the shadow of the ship. From high above me, I heard a rustling, and then the thump, thump, thump of a rope ladder slapping down beside me. I glanced up to see the face of the sailor I’d met that afternoon peering down over the railing, just long enough to wave a hand at me to hurry up.
The ladder swayed underneath my feet, reminding me of them of the games I had played in treehouses on my father’s estate when I was a child. I made my way up as quickly as I could, though by the time I reached the top, I wished I had thought to bring gloves. Even my worst riding gloves would have been useful.
The sailor helped me scramble over the railing and onto the deck, then shushed me as I started to thank him. Tugging me along behind him, he led me to a hatch leading belowdecks.
At least this hatch had a ladder made of wood leading down. The hold he led me down to was close and dark and dank. It smelled of old seawater and the damp wood of barrels tightly packed, full of grain and alcohol and other goods.
He led me down to a back corner where the cargo had been arranged to form a hollow space behind and under crates and barrels. It wasn’t obvious unless you knew it was there. And it wasn’t very big, either—there was just enough space one person to hide in if he curled up to sleep. One end of the hidey-hole stretched tall enough for me to stand straight, but only barely.
“You’ll need to spend the bulk of your time here,” the sailor instructed me. The makeshift cabin held a tin plate, a metal cup, and a single lantern with only the tiniest bit of oil. The sailor gestured at it. “I’ll replenish that as I can, too, but shipboard stores are carefully accounted for—I can’t promise much. You’ll probably want to save the light for later in the journey. I’ll open up the hatch during the day when I can, but sunlight will be even rarer than lamp oil.”
He pulled a few candle stubs out of his pocket. “I nabbed these, too, but the last stowaway we had near went mad, trapped down here all hours of the day and night in the dark with nothing to do but think.”
I nodded, thankful I’d thought to pack a book in my pack—at least I’d have something to while away the few hours of light I managed to get.
“I can bring you food every couple of days,” the sailor continued, “but you’ll need to be careful not to draw attention to yourself. If you do get caught and you’re lucky, the captain won’t toss you overboard immediately.” He shrugged. “Then again, he will put you to work, and you may wish you’d ended up walking the plank. Especially once we get to Australia and he sells you off as an indentured servant—or worse, reports you as a transported criminal just to punish you for stowing away. Much better to make it all the way there and let me sneak you off the ship as a free man, even if you’re an insane one by then.”
I nodded, though my heart was pounding. Was it worth the risk just to avoid marrying a woman I didn’t love?
Yes, I decided. I cannot live a lie.
I pulled a coin out of my purse and handed it to him. I didn’t let them see how much more I had—better, I thought, to pay him in increments than to risk having my throat cut in my sleep if he thought he’d soaked me for all I had. Not that he couldn’t do that and rifle through my lifeless body and belongings, anyway. I had to hope he was more trustworthy than he looked. Or at least greedy enough to hope for more every day.
He gave me a scratchy, rough-smelling blanket, and left me to come to terms with my new quarters.
I settled in for the longest, loneliest journey of my life.