Leave it to Fen, Patricia Merton thought, to lead them into the most dramatic, intrigue-filled ocean voyage Pat had ever heard of.
Before the RMS Ophir had even finished its passage through the Suez Canal, the ship had already seen a rash of thefts, a narrowly-averted duel, and the near loss of one poor sod who went overboard in damnably rough seas and had to be rescued by the crew.
Fen was, of course, at the heart of it all. She always was.
"Darling Pat," she liked to say, her eyes sparkling, "isn't life more exciting since taking up with the likes of me?"
And, Pat had to admit, it was.
Between the two of them, they had quickly ferreted out the identity of the jewel thief targeting the ship's first-class staterooms. Unexpectedly, however, in recovering Fen's ring, they cultivated a friendship with a petty thief.
"Mr Kolesov is many things, but I wouldn't call him petty," Fen objected when Pat made the observation aloud. They'd sent away the lady's maid, after she helped unlace them from their evening gowns, corsets, and assorted lingeries, and now Fen perched at the boudoir table in front of the mirror while Pat brushed her hair.
If Pat were a proper lady's companion, this would be demeaning work best suited for a maid, but Pat was not entertaining particularly proper thoughts as she sat behind Fen, who was wearing one of her favourite filmy robes and not much else. The ship rocked ever-so-slightly beneath them, giving the distant creaks and clanks that Pat had grown accustomed to since steaming out of London. Poor Fen had been flat on her back for the first week of the voyage as she struggled to find her legs, but she'd bounced back with that typical Fen verve and now she was an old hand at sea.
"He's not a common thief at all," Fen continued. Her chestnut hair was soft like warm silk in Pat's hands, the brush gliding through with hardly any effort. In the mirror, her lovely face was crinkled up with pleasure — Fen was rarely so delighted as when she took down her pompadour at the end of the day. "He's a rather cultured one, I should think."
"That Russian aristocracy bit wasn't half bad," Pat admitted. She leaned over Fen's shoulder to place the brush on the table, and in its place, she ran her fingers through Fen's hair, shaking it out over her shoulders and her prodigious décolletage. "He had me fooled."
Fen had, as was her wont, made friends with a number of fellow passengers. Pat didn't have much use for most of them, especially the silly fools tripping over themselves to try to woo Fen, who had grown something of a reputation of an eccentric after breaking three engagements and spending her 20s unmarried, but was still beautiful, wealthy, and charming enough to tempt any young buck. Kolesov, however, was a canny character, and Pat had a grudging respect for him. He'd spent a pleasant evening with the two of them, playing several games of Reunion in the lounge and acting as a welcome deterrent to several of Fen's more irritating and ardent admirers. He was surprisingly erudite and rather entertaining, for a man who — it turned out — had thieved his way up from the Russian peasant class.
Pat had been talked around to Fen's position that Kolesov's word was good, when he'd promised Fen that he would not steal for the rest of the voyage. More vitally, Pat felt secure in the knowledge that he wouldn't dare take any sort of action against them so long as they continued to hold the incontrovertible proof that he was the ship's prolific thief.
Fen chirped loyally, "Fooling you? No mean feat!"
Warmed, Pat pressed close to Fen's back and slid her arms around her, resting her mouth against the soft back of her shoulder. Her wildly impractical robe had slipped, baring smooth, creamy skin for Pat to kiss.
"Ooh!" Fen shivered in her arms, raising a hand to grasp Pat's wrist. "You'll spoil me, you know."
"I know; wretched woman," said Pat against her skin, making eye contact in the mirror. Fen laughed, colour high in her cheeks and her hair in loose disarray. She was still as beautiful as the day Pat had first seen her, nearly fifteen years ago now. She turned around on their shared ottoman stool, and she slipped her arms around Pat's neck.
"Whatever," said Fen, "will you do to punish me for my spoiled ways?"
Pat lifted her hand and gently tucked a long wing of chestnut hair behind Fen's ear, letting her fingers trail along the delicate shell of her ear. "I can think of a thing or two."
"Well, I suppose I ought to commit whole-heartedly to my roguery." Fen's voice was that husky murmur that never failed to send a jolt through Pat. She ran the pads of her fingers down Pat's throat with the lightest scrape of a soft fingernail, then traced her collarbone and cupped Pat's breast in her hand. Pat sighed and went liquid in Fen's touch, heat starting to throb between her legs.
"This doesn't seem like a punishment for you, Fenella Carruth."
"Doesn't it?" Fen asked innocently, and she stroked a clever thumb across Pat's nipple. Even through the fabric of her sensible robe, it was a shock, and Pat gasped. "Because I think that taking you apart with my fingers, aching for you as I wait my own turn, is a rather good one." As she spoke, she rubbed her thumb in a steady, firm circle.
"Fen, hell! Christ!" Pat hissed, never so glad for the buffer of her own stateroom on one side and an unoccupied one on the other, and she yanked Fen into a proper crushing kiss.
Fen enthusiastically climbed into her lap. "I do so love your turn of phrase," she managed to giggle, around kisses. She was such an irrepressible, sharp creature — Pat nearly laughed herself.
Pat caught Fen's face in her hands and nipped softly at her full lower lip. Fen made a low, lovely sound in her throat and began to push her hips against Pat's stomach, sliding her hand down between their bodies. Pat drew her closer, nerves singing with anticipation, as Fen brushed her inner thigh.
The sound was incongruous with the general background noise of the ship; that was why Pat noticed it. It was a soft hiss, as if something slid over the carpet.
When she looked toward the stateroom door, she saw that there was a folded piece of paper lying on the floor, which had not been there before. Just barely visible in the gap between the bottom of the door and the lintel, a shadow moved away from Fen's door.
Pat said, "Bloody hell" against Fen's mouth.
Fen asked breathlessly, "What? What's the matter?" She had frozen with one hand beneath Pat's robe, and her other cupping Pat's breast.
"Someone dropped you a note," Pat said sharply, jerking her head at the door. Her heart thundered in her ears.
Fen looked over and her brown eyes went wide. Pat couldn't help but think of the near-miss of that nasty business with the Armstrongs at Peakholme, nearly a decade removed as it was — they had been far more cautious in the time that followed. Perhaps they hadn't been cautious enough.
Fen scrambled to her feet and wrapped her robe around herself, somehow queenly even in her hurry. She hurried over to the door and snatched up the note. She read it in a heartbeat. "Mr Kolesov wishes to speak to me," she said. "It seems it's a matter of some urgency."
"The hell it is," said Pat grimly, already casting about for the sensible tea gown she had worn earlier, which wouldn't be proper for this time of night but at least didn't have many buttons. They had clearly underestimated Kolesov, and they would have to rectify that mistake. "Where does he propose to meet?"
"On-deck, as soon as possible."
Pat was dressing with ruthless efficiency, tossing Fen articles of clothing as she found them. "I don't suppose he did the courtesy of specifying which deck?"
"Well — no," said Fen. "Isn't that just like a man?" She was still standing in the middle of the stateroom, clutching the note in one hand and her drawers and shirtwaist in the other, her robe hanging askew.
"Fen," said Pat. "Get dressed."
"It doesn't seem proper, does it, to go out to meet him?"
"It'll be more improper if he heard something he shouldn't have," Pat pointed out. "We'd best deal with him, now."
Fen nodded, then, steely conviction falling across her face, and she picked up her handbag.
Outside Fen's stateroom, the great ship was dark but for the bright, silvery moonlight. Fen had hurriedly stepped into a shirtwaist and gored skirt, and thrown a woolen wrapper around her shoulders to guard against the brisk sea breeze. She held Pat's elbow now as they picked their way past their fellow passengers' closed doors. Neither of them said a word until they had reached the starboard deck, where some group of passengers had abandoned deck chairs and a half-completed shuffleboard game.
"Where is he?" Fen asked impatiently.
"He could be waiting on the portside deck," Pat pointed out.
"Oh, blast," said Fen with feeling. "Look, why don't I go and check? You can stay and make certain we don't miss him here."
"That's a terrible idea." Even as Pat was saying it, Fen was already slipping out of her grasp. "Fen — damn it, Fen!" She didn't dare raise her voice above a hoarse whisper. While their fellow passengers were almost certainly asleep, the ship's night crew was not.
"I'll be back in a jiff!" Fen called softly, and then she was gone, moving past the covered pool like a ghost.
Pat sighed heavily, shaking her head, and she leaned over the rail. Waves slapped against the hull, the ocean black and unending in every direction. Pat had made the transatlantic voyage to New York City several times, but she still found it deeply unsettling to be faced with the dull shine of a black sea at night. One never knew what was beneath those waves, Pat felt, particularly in this part of the world. It had taken some doing on Fen's part to convince her that they ought to take the trip to Melbourne, upon the wistful recommendation of the entirely improper boheme whom Fen had befriended on her last trip to Paris. At this very moment, on the sea somewhere between the Sultanate of Lahej and Ceylon, Pat felt tremendous regret. That Australian urchin girl was wild. No recommendation from her could come to good.
The minutes ticked past with no sign of that rat Kolesov. The wind blew stiff salt and the occasional ocean spray into her face. There was no sign of Fen, either, and it had been significantly longer than a jiff when Pat straightened up and finally hurried to the other side of the ship, her heart in her throat.
She heard voices before she stepped around the umbrellas shading the edge of the pool. There was a man speaking in clipped tones, just on the edge of too-loud, and a womanly response that had to be Fen. Pat put on a burst of speed to round the umbrellas, and she found Fen and a man standing by the ship's rail.
The figure looming over Fen was not the slight, blond Mr Kolesov. Instead, Pat recognised him as the dark-haired, hulking Mr Hannigan, one of the crowd of well-established young men who had attached themselves to Fen over the course of the journey. He had a furious look on his face and a hand on Fen's shoulder, and as Pat stepped toward them, he shook her.
Pat was a sensible woman, through and through. That was, after all, why Fen's father had agreed with their plot to hire Pat on as his daughter's companion all those years ago. She thought through situations. She prided herself on her reasonable actions.
But as Fen shoved Hannigan off, Pat had one thought and one thought only. She couldn't imagine how neither Fen nor Hannigan heard her approach, between the thundering of her footsteps and the way that her breath had turned ragged, but Hannigan was rearing back and Fen was reaching for her handbag, and neither turned toward Pat.
Pat lunged between them and threw a vicious uppercut. The pain burst through her knuckles in a hot bloom, but it was worth it to see Hannigan's head snap back with a visible spray of blood.
He stumbled backward, hands clapped to his face. "You broke my nose!" he howled through his hands.
Pat half-wanted to do it again, but she settled for grabbing Fen and pulling her back, outside the man's long reach.
"Oh, Pat— It's all right; I'm all right," Fen assured Pat, rearranging her wrapper to cover her shoulders again. Her eyes were flinty with anger, but she didn't look hurt.
"You broke my fucking nose, you chit!" This close, Hannigan reeked of brandy. He took a lurching step forward, and Fen drew her Colt revolver from her handbag. Apparently was not drunk enough to mistake the meaning of being held at gunpoint, Hannigan stopped in his tracks.
"Well, Mr Hannigan, as I see it, you have two options," said Fen, her hand steady. "We can all be friends and tell the story of how you bumped your head saving silly old me from going over the rail, and then you can disembark at Colombo to wait for the next scheduled ship to come along. Alternately, you can be disagreeable, and we can inform all and sundry that Miss Merton here broke your nose following a deplorable breach of propriety."
"There's a third option," said Pat, glowering. "We could throw him over the rail."
Hannigan had lowered his bloody hands from his bloody face, and he was gaping at the pair of them.
"Right!" Fen pointed at her. "Thank you, Pat; I'd nearly forgotten." She turned back to Hannigan, and she turned her brightest smile on him. "So, Mr Hannigan — what say you?"
Hannigan's mouth opened and closed like a fish. "This is outrageous!" he finally managed.
"What's outrageous is your conduct," snapped Pat. "Absolutely beyond the bounds! Acquiesce to Miss Carruth's uncommonly reasonable terms, or we shall raise the alarm and see you thrown you off this ship."
Hannigan stared at her balefully, with pure blotto hatred curling his lip, and then a distant voice called, "Hannigan? Where the hell has he gone?"
Fen hurriedly tucked her Colt away again, just in time for Hannigan's two idiot friends to come upon them. Even with the gun safely hidden, it was a bad scene — Fen standing there, icy and queenly, and Hannigan bleeding profusely from the face.
"Good God," said Mr Ainsley, stopping short. "What's happened?"
"Well, Mr Hannigan?" prompted Fen.
Pat was able to track the exact moment when the blighter gave up and made the smart decision. He exhaled sharply and said, "Miss Carruth slipped on the deck, and I wasn't as careful as I ought to be in catching her." He raised a hand to gingerly touch his nose.
"Miss Merton and I were taking an evening constitutional, and Mr Hannigan hailed us at precisely the right moment," said Fen, her hands clasped sweetly over her heart. "I'm ever so grateful!"
"It gave us all a scare," Pat said. "Enough so that it sounds as though Mr. Hannigan may change his plans."
"Yes," Hannigan said woodenly. "I'll stay in Colombo to conclude some business, until the Ariadne arrives next month."
"Hannigan, what's this?" exclaimed Mr Tennison, in the middle of handing Hannigan his handkerchief to staunch the blood still dripping from his nose. "The Antipodes await, man!"
Ainsley had always struck Pat as the sharpest of the bunch, and he stared between Fen and Hannigan with a look of growing dismay. "I say," he said, "it's a lucky thing all ended well, here." He clamped his hand down on Hannigan's arm. "Hannigan, we ought to bid the ladies adieu and retire."
"Retire?" Tennison demanded, bewildered. "Hannigan, what the devil are you on about, staying in Colombo?"
"Good night, Miss Merton, Miss Carruth," said Ainsley. If it were possible for a bow to look mortified, Ainsley accomplished it. Pat's estimation of the man rose. He may have had appalling taste in company, but he knew what he was about. With Ainsley on the case, she suspected they'd not suffer Hannigan again.
Hannigan himself, meanwhile, said nothing as he was shoved away. He didn't even make eye contact — he only held the handkerchief to his bleeding nose, and looked like he was being forced on a funeral march.
The moment they left the deck, Fen turned to Pat. From the merry twitch of her mouth, she was struggling not to laugh, which went a long way toward assuaging Pat's worry.
"Are you all right?" Pat asked her.
"Am I all right? Look at your poor hand!"
"It was worth it," said Pat, studying her split knuckles with satisfaction.
"I had the situation quite well in hand, you know." Fen patted her handbag.
"I know," said Pat. "But I've been wanting to sock it to that shitlouse for a month."
Fen burst into gales of laughter.
Once they had settled back into Fen's stateroom with a towel full of ice that had been charmed out of a night-shift porter, Fen insisted on fussing over Pat.
"I'm not hurt, you fussbudget," she said, exasperated, but Fen only smiled.
"Will you really take my favourite part of the day away from me?" she asked. "I get to undress you and fuss so rarely."
"You undress me all the time," Pat pointed out, but she let Fen pull her gown over her head in layers of georgette fabric and then chivvy her into bed wearing only her chemise.
"Hush," said Fen. "I want to properly thank my hero."
Pat snorted, and watched with keen interest as Fen loosened her own shirtwaist and gored skirt. "What was Hannigan about, anyhow?"
Fen laughed. "He thought I had expressed a preference for Mr Kolesov, and his masculine pride was much damaged."
"Oh Lord," said Pat.
"He forged the note from Mr Kolesov and was demanding to know what I see in — what was his charming turn of phrase? — 'that Russki blaggard,' when you came to my defence."
That was, to be fair, rather less dire than the scenario Pat had first suspected when she came across Hannigan clutching Fen's arm with that black look on his face, but she still couldn't bring herself to regret bloodying his nose.
Fen stepped out of her long dark skirt and her drawers. Pat watched the graceful sway of her hips, now veiled by only the thin cotton of her chemise, as she walked to the bed. "He had no earthly idea where my affections truly lie," she said, her eyes sparkling.
Pat rolled her eyes fondly and reached out to her. Fen jumped and gave a tiny shriek when Pat's chilled fingers touched her arm. Revolvers and nasty drunks were one thing; cold hands apparently another.
Fen daintily swatted Pat's cold hand away. "Keep those to yourself, if you please!"
"You've never complained before," Pat said, purely to see her laugh again.
Fen crawled over her and lowered herself into Pat's arms, and Pat set her towel full of ice on the bedside table and let her hands hover above Fen's back. Fen kissed her deeply, with a wicked tongue. "I told you. I'm going to take care," she said, and she slipped her warm thigh between Pat's legs, "of you."
"Well, I suppose, when you put it like that," Pat gasped, and then Fen's clever fingers robbed her of words for some time.
"Wait until my next letter to Phryne," Fen said sleepily, after. She was curled into Pat's arms, lazy and thoroughly sated. "She always writes the best stories from good old Paris, but this one is such a marvellous scream; it may just give her a run for her money."
"You won't need to tell Miss Fisher all of the story, surely," said Pat stiffly, feeling the same sense of foreboding she did every time Fen mentioned the artist's model whom she'd met on the street during her last trip to Paris. That girl was trouble.
"Most," Fen insisted, laughing.
It was going to be an interesting voyage.
Pat wouldn't have had it any other way.