Paradise Island

It is Dartmouth Cove, Nova Scotia, 1853 and Captain Estelle Stonebridge is consumed with revenge against the man that killed her father. Captain Gregory Marshall is lulled to sleep by the fiery-haired valkrie’s magical song when she kidnaps him. Upon waking he finds himself in chains staring at the beautiful Estelle. Estelle is taking him to her Island of Paradise to face trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Attacked by the notorious pirate, Jack Cutlass, and magically appearing in a land they know nothing about, Estelle soon realizes there is more at stake than fighting her arch enemy. With the unsettling notion that there is something otherworldly manipulating them all, Estelle is torn between taking Gregory with her to Paradise, battling her powerful attraction to him, and fighting the magical curse —Amor Fati—that Cutlass has unleashed on the world.

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1. Chapter One

 

Paradise Island

Charmaine Ross

[Crimson Romance logo]

Avon, Massachusetts

This edition published by

Crimson Romance

an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.

10151 Carver Road, Suite 200

 Blue Ash, Ohio 45242

www.crimsonromance.com

 

Copyright © 2013 by 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author's imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.

 


 

 

Chapter One

Dartmouth Cove, Nova Scotia. 1853.

 

“He is coming.”

The hollow clunk of footsteps echoed down the pier. 

Estelle edged further back behind the crate some dock hands had been unloading from a merchant’s ship earlier that afternoon. Ignoring her straining muscles and the discomfort of the mask that covered her face, she hastily made sure her flaming, long hair was neatly tucked beneath the black scarf she’d used to contain it. Even the fog floating from the sea and the moonless night wouldn’t be enough to hide its vivid color. She made sure that Claire was hidden neatly in the darkest of shadows behind her. If the worst happened and this didn’t work out, there was no way she’d sacrifice Claire.

She held a steadying breath. There was no way this was not going to work. They had come this far, gone to such lengths and she had waited far longer than she had ever anticipated she would need to. Now, Captain Gregory Marshall was nearly in her hands. She would need to kidnap him before his ship left port on a Navy mission in the morning. The opportunity to catch him alone, without his crew members, would not come along again for quite some time and she wasn’t going to wait any more. She’d done enough of that. 

He’d come back to his ship early. She’d guessed correctly that he would. She’d been closely studying him over the past week as his ship had docked and taken on supplies. He’d left his men in the comfort of the town’s inn. They were going to sea for a long time, and he wanted his men in the best frame of mind—the kind that that could only be found in the arms of a woman.

Estelle nearly snorted at the thought. Men were simple. All they wanted was a toss and a tumble. Rarely did they think of the proceeds nine months after their little fling. Some of the women she’d rescued had babies by fathers they didn’t know. That wasn’t their fault, those were the women who had been used and abused so much that their array of children looked more like a school than a family. 

This was one time when a man would face justice.

Claire stepped up close behind Estelle and peered over the other woman’s shoulder. “He’s a mountain, not a man,” Claire hissed, her aristocratic accent clipped.

“Don’t be fooled by the width of his shoulders. He’s still just a man,” Estelle replied.

The footsteps stopped close by and Estelle froze. 

“You there! Come out!” Gregory Marshal’s deep toned voice sliced through the fog.

Estelle swore beneath her breath. How did he know they were here? They’d lost their only advantage. She’d wanted to keep Claire safe and now their cover had been compromised. Estelle whipped the scarf from her head—it would be less of a surprise for him to see her as a woman than as a kidnapper. Gregory took another step towards them. Keeping Claire behind her back, Estelle emerged from behind the crates. 

Gregory blinked wordlessly at her for a moment then seemed to remember how to use his tongue. “This is no place for a woman.”

A flare of quick anger exploded in her mind, taking control of her mouth, “Women can go wherever they would concern themselves to go.”

His lips pressed into a flat line. “This is not the safest of places. I am only worried for your wellbeing.”

“You have no cause to be,” Estelle replied. “I can take care of myself.”

Gregory stepped towards her, coming closer than she wanted him to. Still, she held her ground. She might need him as close as this anyway, so that she would not be heard when she

used her song. His gaze darted to the shadows behind her and his eyes opened wide as he saw Claire hiding behind her. “Two ladies!” he exclaimed

Estelle motioned for Claire to stand next to her, “And what did you think we were?” She readied her stance, prepared for him to try and bundle them up and take them to ‘safety,’ wherever he deemed that may be.

Gregory paused then held his gloved hand out to her. He clicked his heels, slightly angling his head in a formal invitation, “May I assist you and take you to a… more suitable place for a lady.”

She blinked. She’d expected some manhandling, for him to use his greater strength. She hadn’t expected an observation of society politeness. Moments passed before she remembered what she’d come for. 

Retribution. Revenge. Him.

She concentrated on his face, filling her lungs to their limit and then letting the air release gently, singing so quietly her melody was no more than a sigh. She didn’t know where the tune came from, only that it drew from somewhere deep inside. All her wants and needs combined with the song. She could almost see them swirling through the air and into the ears of the man she wished to lull to sleep.

His brows knitted as the first few notes took hold. He held a hand to his forehead and his knees sagged. He stepped sideways, trying to correct his failing balance. Struggling, his gaze rose to hers, straining against the power of her song. “You... need to come with me. Too dangerous for… you here.”

Estelle almost stopped her song. These were not the words she expected at all—at this stage, men she’d used her gift on usually swore. Although he was being rendered unconscious, he seemed to be concerned for them. Claire placed a hand on Estelle’s shoulder, went to step around her towards Gregory, but Estelle blocked her with a hand out to the side. She mentally pulled herself together. Gregory was intelligent. She would have to be on her guard around him. Gregory Marshall was a cunning murderer, knowing what to say and when to say it. He was one of the youngest men ever to become a Navy Captain. That didn’t happen without being a certain type of man. She pressed on, increasing the strength of her song.

Gregory crumpled to the ground, unconscious. She ran towards him, Claire at her side. Now she had the opportunity to study him up close instead of through a spyglass. She’d not expected him to be so handsome. A sleek black curl fell across his forehead, the color of sin. Smooth twin slashes of brows were set above long lashes that fanned over the rugged planes of his face. Asleep, his lips were firm, full. A wholly masculine line.

His skin was a deep olive, a tanned golden hue, a testament to his time in the sun. A silvery scar trailed along his hairline, from his forehead to the lobe of his ear and Estelle wondered how he had managed to come by it.

But beneath that darkly handsome veneer lay the heart of a murderer. Estelle’s sympathy crumbled and her resolution firmed. No matter how outwardly attractive he was, his heart was twice as immoral. He was going to stand trial and pay for his crimes against her and her father.

“Let’s get him into the shadows and into the dingy,” Estelle said.

Claire wrapped delicate, black-clad wrists around Gregory’s ankles and hoisted them either side of her slender waist. Estelle waited as Claire grappled to keep a hold of each heavy, muscular appendage, more tree trunk than leg.

 “We have to be quick. We don’t know when the crew will be back and Dalia won’t be able to hide the Wanderlust for much longer,” Estelle whispered.

She hooked her black-gloved hands under his arms and hoisted Gregory onto her chest. The man might have been made from solid granite. Beneath his clothes, Estelle felt mounds of unyielding, hard muscle. 

His shoulders alone were double her width and three times as thick. She was not a small woman, being the height of most average-sized men, and years at sea had honed her body into a lithe machine. She was much stronger than she had ever been in her twenty-five years, and could match most men in a fight. But this man dwarfed her. He was going to be one to watch out for. Although he was unconscious and his body pliant, she sensed a lethal power pulsing beneath the surface. 

Estelle inclined her head towards the crates they had hidden behind. “Over there.”

Together they shuffled along the pier as quietly as they could. Claire’s heel caught between two rough boards and she toppled backwards, taking Gregory’s legs with her. They landed with a thump.

“Captain?” A voice sounded from the decks of the ship above. Estelle’s heart hammered a staccato beat in her chest. They could not be found halfway through the kidnapping of a Navy Captain. Her terrified gaze locked with Claire’s. Claire’s sky blue eyes were round and shining. Estelle knew she was feeling it; The Terror, she called it. 

The force of Claire’s gift surged through her when she was in danger, tearing through her insides, striking hard and fast. It was a strange gift, one she had received at the mistreatment of a man’s hands; her own father. But it was very useful and had put them in good stead over the years. She was always able to alert them to possible danger and they had always respected and acted on it. However useful it was though, Estelle was grateful that she wasn’t the one who owned it. 

 “Stand firm, Claire. If we are silent he will think it is a noise of the night and will go away.”

 “Captain?” It was the voice of a boy, the ship’s mate. Estelle knew that if he chanced upon them, she wouldn’t have a problem disarming him. 

Gregory stirred and mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep. He tipped his head back and Estelle felt his shoulders strain. She willed him back to rest, her mind a whirr of swirling panic. His body relaxed and she ground out her thanks to whatever deity could hear her. The boy must have finally doubted his ears and his footsteps disappeared into silence.

Estelle slipped a vial and handkerchief from her satchel. It was embroidered with delicate lace around the outside and had her initials stitched into one corner. She ran her thumb over the tiny pink stitching, each thread a work of art, remembering a time when it was important for her to have a clean handkerchief.

Not so now. She discarded the useless thought, unplugged the bottle and emptied the fluid onto the handkerchief.

“What are you doing?” Claire’s blue eyes were round with worry.

“I don’t know how long my song will keep him unconscious. Besides, he’ll be able to sleep off the effects when he’s safely onboard the Wanderlust.” Estelle placed the soaked handkerchief over his mouth. He shook his head, fighting even in his state of unconsciousness, but she followed the turns of his head and soon he slumped into a deeper sleep. She threw the handkerchief into the water below.

“Let’s go.”

Together they maneuvered him behind the crates to where their dingy was moored, hidden beneath the planks of the pier. As they moved him, Estelle saw a satchel at his waist. She flipped it open, and several items fell out.

There was a flash of gold in the dark. A ring. The band was thick and large enough for a man’s finger. It was scratched and well worn; the gold that had once been shiny was now

dull. For such a small object, it was weighty. Estelle picked it up, turned the ring over and saw a raised image of a handcrafted skull.

The skull was vulgar. Its mouth hung lose, hinged open in an eternal silent scream. The eye sockets were elongated, as though the skull were squeezed. The grotesque eyes seemed to bore into her as though there was an unearthly force contained inside. She stared into the eyes as though hypnotically drawn to them. The metal started to buzz with a living energy that permeated her skin and made her palm tingle. It heated within moments, sinking into her bones as though fusing body to metal.

“What is it, Estelle?” Claire asked.

Estelle shook her head, hurriedly slipping the ring into her satchel at her hip. ‘It is nothing.’ Now was not the time to become drawn into an enchanted object, or whatever it was.

A carefully folded map was amongst the objects from Gregory’s satchel. She opened it, seeing what she could in the darkness. A part of it had been marked with red ink. This was something she’d question him about when he was safely aboard her ship. She folded the map and put it in the satchel.

The last item was a man’s pocket watch. Something half familiar tugged at a loose memory. She slowly picked up the watch, her breath catching in her throat as the vague, familiar feeling transformed into awareness. The outside of the watch was tarnished much more than she remembered.

“What is it, Estelle?”

“I knew he was responsible. What other reason could he have for keeping this?”

“It’s a gentleman’s pocket watch. Why wouldn’t he have one? He is a man, after all,” Claire exclaimed.

“It’s not his. This time piece belonged to my father.” Estelle opened it. The glass that covered the hands of the clock had been smashed. 

There was a photo of a woman and a child, cut to fit into the inside of the cover. It was, browned and water marked. She ran the pad of her thumb over the image of the woman. “My mother,” she said by way of explanation. “I was only two in this likeness.”

“She is very beautiful,” Claire said.

Estelle snapped the lip closed. “I really can’t remember her. She died soon after that photograph was taken. My father hired the best nannies after her death. I was too young to know any better so it really doesn’t matter.”

It was no use dwelling on the mistakes of the past. It was useless and wouldn’t bring her any closer to her goal of jailing the man who’d killed her father. “Let’s get him into the boat.”

“Look at the size of him. What if the boat tips with all our weight?” Claire asked.

“Hmmph. You’re right. Can’t kidnap a drowned man. I’ll get the rope from the dingy and we’ll lower him down gently.” Estelle sprang down the ladder from the pier and quickly gathered the rope in the hull of the dingy. 

When she was back on the pier she secured one end around his torso. Her fingers moved automatically as she tied the knots in the rope, used to the complicated twists and turns she used aboard her ship. His warm, masculine smell drifted from the folds of his shirt, infusing the air around her with the spicy aroma of the sea. It reminded her of the clean, crisp air of Paradise.  Warily, she shook the sensations off—as unusual as they were, this was no place to explore them.

She wound the other end of the rope around a wooden pole and quickly tested it with a few strong tugs. The knots held. She sat back on her haunches when she was satisfied, and was surprised to find she was a little out of breath.  She wiped the hot prickle of perspiration from her forehead. 

“Right. We’ll get his feet over the edge and lower him down.”

Together they inched him over the edge using the makeshift pulley system she’d made. His shirt caught on the rough end of a plank and there was a rip of material as the fabric gave way, baring his chest. Estelle caught a glimpse of toned, lean muscular planes before he disappeared over the edge.

“Lower him slowly, until he is just above the water,” Estelle said.

Estelle wound an extra length of rope around the pole when they had positioned him above the dingy. “I’m going to get in first to guide him down.”

“How are we all going to fit?” Claire asked.

“I’m going to swim. There will be room enough for you both that way.”

“But the water is freezing.”

Estelle reached out and squeezed Claire’s hand. “I’ll be fine. A bit of cold is nothing, and besides, our ship isn’t very far away. We’ll be there in no time.”

Estelle quickly climbed down the ladder until she stood in the hull of the dingy. She maneuvered the craft until it was directly beneath Gregory. She reached into her belt and retrieved the hunting knife she wore in a leather sheath. 

“Lower him a little more,” she called, as loudly as she dared.

Slowly, Claire lowered him. Estelle steadied herself, reached around his back and cut the rope. Gregory’s boneless body toppled onto her. She fell backwards. Her rear end hit the hull and she was covered by cumbersome limp limbs and an unforgivingly solid body.

She spat out a mouthful of his hair, gasping as his dead weight pressed down on her chest. Although he was heavy, he wasn’t oppressively so and Estelle wondered at how good the solid pressure of him felt against her own body, how well they fit together, like two halves of a whole. Neither too small nor too large. It was as if his body was made solely for her tall frame.

“Estelle, are you all right?” Claire’s voice was strained as she climbed down the ladder.

Estelle saw her through a blurry red veil. “He’s as bulky as a bullock.”

She managed to squeeze her arm between them and shuffled as best she could in the small craft that threatened to capsize with every movement. She slipped out from under Gregory and maneuvered him so that he was secure in the hull. She sat on the small, rough cut bench seat, breathing heavily and waiting for her heart to resume a normal pace.

Gregory filled the hull almost to capacity. Through the whole episode he hadn’t so much as uttered a sound. A slight frown creased her forehead. She hoped that she hadn’t given him too much of the drug. There was no time to worry about that now, though. With the threat of being found by his crew at any moment, she would need to get to the safety of the Wanderlust, her own ship. She had a fierce crew of fifty women, rescued from the mistreatment of men and all ferociously loyal. Between Claire, Dalia, herself and twenty other women, they’d wrested the Wanderlust from her enemy—the cruel Jack Cutlass. 

Estelle slipped into the water and beckoned to Claire to move into the dingy. The freezing sea soaked into her clothes, weighting them down and quickly numbing her skin, but there was no time to waste. They needed to get away. Claire picked up the oars. The craft slid smoothly through the gently swelling water, and soon the pier and Gregory’s ship disappeared into the dark night. 

She barely believed that they had actually done the impossible and kidnapped Captain Gregory Marshall. A slow smile spread over Estelle’s face. He was going to repay the debt he owed her family, and she was going to make sure he paid back every last penny with blood. It was going to be entertaining to watch the star of the Royal Navy pay for the heinous crime he had committed and for which he had thus far managed to avoid retribution. But first, she needed to find out exactly what had happened, because there was only one person who really knew what had gone on that night long ago. And that need was the only thing that stood between his life and his dispatch into the afterlife.

 

Chapter Two

They had to be getting close to the Wanderlust. The waves had become increasingly choppy, the white peaks often breaking over the top of their little rowboat. They had taken a direct line out from the shore and had been steadily rowing for an hour. Estelle strained to see the telltale signs of Dalia’s gift using her hiding talent, eager to find the safety of the Wanderlust beneath her feet and the warmth of fresh, dry clothes.

Years ago, she’d rescued Dalia from the bowels of an Arabian slave ship, severely beaten, stolen from her family and destined for slavery. Estelle had offered to take her back home, but the traders had slaughtered her entire village save for the few women that would fetch them a good price on the slave market. Dalia would have fetched the best price. Olive skinned and long limbed, with cat-like, slanted eyes that were long-lashed and of the darkest brown, the crew had been careful to miss her face, but the bruises on her body could not be hidden.

Estelle had left the fate of the crew up to Dalia when she had rescued her. Dalia asked her gods and Estelle had found the smallest island, without water or food sources, and had left the pirates there to ponder their remaining days before a long, miserable death. 

Dalia had always had her gift. As far as Estelle could determine, Dalia was able to hide the things that people looked for, like a hairbrush left on a dressing table, or a cup of wine on a dinner table. More than once they’d doubled over with laughter as Dalia hid a crew member’s dinner while her head was turned. Whether it was a mind trick, Estelle didn’t know, but she had become so used to it that she was getting very good at finding things, much to Dalia’s recent amusement.

It was more than a simple reflection. If that was so then the viewer would see themselves when they were upon the object and be able to find it. It was more a shimmering of light that covered the object. If she was still enough, Estelle would see light flickering, like fleeting dashes of sunlight from the surface of water. In cases of large ships like the Wanderlust, she would see an outline, where the light may be darker or brighter than its surroundings. 

Her own gift had started differently. It still reminded her of that terrible night that launched her into adulthood at the tender age of fourteen. She’d first used it when a sailor wanted his way with her.

It was soon after the disappearance of her father and she’d no family or money to turn to so she had taken work as a tankard girl. One night a man paid her more than a passing interest. She had screamed, loudly—a sound from the depths of her soul. He’d instantly keeled over unconscious. She’d run then, fearful of what she’d done, but not before she landed a hard kick to his ribs and heard one snap satisfyingly under her foot.

She had learnt, through years of trial and error, the subtleties of her voice. Knew how to control it a little more than she did ten years ago, although she still didn’t know where it came from. She didn’t need to scream to knock a man senseless now. She could sing and render him unconscious for a much longer time. She had made her own melody, a lullaby she’d half remembered from her mother.  It had come in handy, enough for her to escape from trouble on numerous occasions. 

Estelle double checked the star she followed, and recognized the disjointed flickering line below it—the Wanderlust. Relief poured through her as she realized they were almost at the ship. If she looked carefully she might even see her black-clad crew wandering the decks, shadowed and near invisible against the night sky. Dalia would hide the ship, but would not hide the crew. She never used her gift on people, shrank away from doing it, but didn’t ever say the reason for it. She would just solemnly shake her head and say that it is never to be done. She would fail her gods somehow if she did.

Estelle kicked her legs, now barely feeling the propulsion through the water. Although she was fit, the row out to the harbor and the swim back in freezing water had sapped her body of its usual strength. 

“We’re here, Claire. Can you whistle for them?” Estelle whispered through chattering teeth. She gripped the side of the rowboat with both hands and let her body relax, grateful to float weightlessly in the water.

Claire pulled out a whistle tied to a string around her neck and let out two sharp shrills. An immediate answering whistle drifted over the water.

Estelle watched where she expected the Wanderlust to be. Watching something hidden reappear was something she always found utterly amazing. Parallel horizontal lines sparked lightning fast in opposite directions, like taut expandable ropes snapping back and forth. 

The lines sparked in shorter distances, growing in thickness, pulsating with bright flashes of light. Estelle glimpsed her beloved ship and she swelled with pride. She would never tire of seeing it. It was her hard won freedom, her home.

The shimmering lines flashed slower and then stopped, revealing her ship. One second there was endless waves and a dark horizon, and the next the Wanderlust was dancing on top of the ocean, sleek, black and proudly majestic.

Figures appeared over the railing and a rope was dropped over the side. Black-clad figures climbed over the side of the ship and down the rope. Soon her crew helped her frozen limbs up the ladder. A blanket was thrown around her, which helped to ward off the chill of her wet clothes and the bite of the night breeze.

“Come into your cabin, Captain,” Jade, her first mate, said.

Estelle shook her head, straining to look through the shadows at the gun rail. “I’ll wait for Claire.”

Claire climbed over the edge of the boat, clearly fatigued. Her white blonde hair shimmered in a silken curtain, and she flicked it behind her back with a quick twist of her slim wrist. She turned, and with the aid of Estelle and other crew members, brought Gregory’s unconscious, heavy body up and over the side of the ship. It took several hands to maneuver his large frame onto the deck.

“Your mission was successful,” Jade said. There was triumph in her voice.

Estelle nodded, seeing clearly in the sublime light of the moon. Jade’s face was in shadow, but Estelle still saw the flat dent in the bridge of her nose where it had been broken by a man’s fist.

“We have him, but we are not out of danger’s path just yet. He will be missed soon, if not already and we had best make sail immediately. The Royal Navy can move fast when it wants to,” Estelle said. She knew without a doubt in her mind the Navy would miss its best and brightest Captain and would do anything it could to get him back.

“What do you want us to do with him?” Jade asked.

Estelle knelt next to the still, prone form of Gregory. His face was pale beneath his tan and his breathing was alarmingly shallow. He was younger than she originally thought. When she’d seen him on the pier, his face had been arranged into taut lines, creating a derisive tension that aged him a decade more than his years. Then his brows had flicked upwards in surprise. She’d been captured in an onyx-black, sharp gaze. It was as if he could see into her heart and read her innermost thoughts. 

Her hand moved on its own and tucked a wayward curl of raven hair back into the thick waves. Her fingertips grazed his forehead. A zing of energy zapped through her fingers and jolted up her arm. She withdrew her hand, frowning, still feeling her fingertips prickle like she’d got too close to a flame.

His hand was out flung, palm side up. It was large and powerful looking, but his fingers were tapered, long and thin. She touched the skin and found it to be soft. Maybe captaincy

had made him soft as well. She unconsciously rubbed the calluses on her own hands, roughened with months of hauling water soaked rope. When Dalia was recovered from hiding the Wanderlust, Estelle would ask her to read his palm and see what information it would reveal.

“Get the doctor to look at him, check to see he’s not damaged. Then lock him in the brig. Oh, and make sure he’s chained. He’s going to be angry when he wakes up,” Estelle said. She turned into the door beneath the poop deck that would take her to her cabin and her bed, and let her crew look after the unconscious, darkly handsome Gregory Marshall.

*

His head ached with a dry throb that had him wincing. He could see flashes of burning light behind his closed eyelids with every beat of his heart. He kept his eyes closed, letting the nausea wash through him. 

Gregory remained motionless, fighting the urge to release the contents of his stomach. He calmed as he heard the distant hollow slap of waves breaking against the hull. His cabin was warm, lulling him to the verge of sleep. He relaxed back into his bed, probing through his body with his mind. His muscles ached, his joints felt stiff and his skin burned on various parts of his body where it had been grazed. A hangover laced his mind, but he’d no recollection of rum having touched his lips, or why his body should feel so abused.

He recalled his last memory before everything blacked out. There was an apparition with translucent skin and flaming red hair. She had taken him by surprise and it was all he could do to stare, immersing himself in her ethereal beauty. His body had reacted instantly, his heart pushing heated blood into extremities of his body that made him want to scoop her into his arms and feel her lush curves flowing over his own body. Then she had parted rose petal lips and begun singing in a voice that was straight from heaven. The song had misted his mind, snapping his thoughts from his body, beating him down beneath waves of unconsciousness. But she must have been a dream, a vision, an aching wish brought on by months of overwork. 

He raised a hand to massage his eyelids with his fingertips and heard the loud clank of a chain. A heavy manacle wrapped around his wrist, his arm weighted by the length of iron attached to it. He cracked open his eyes and reeled when the sharp sting of sunlight seared them. He moved his other arm a fraction and found that it, too, was bound. 

Gregory tried to sit up, but the world tipped vertically and he crashed down with a brain-rolling thump. He waited until his head stopped spinning before he slowly cracked open one eye and focused on a plank of wood that was somewhere above his head.

His vision became less watery. The wood was well cut, smooth and covered with a layer of shining wax. He let his gaze slowly slide around the room. Wooden planking boxed him in on three walls and on the roof. The wall to his left held an O ring to which the ends of his chains were attached. He was on a bench which served as his bed, attached to the walls. There was a chair at his feet and a small cabinet topped sparsely with some amenities. A small round portal set high into the wall on his right had been opened to let the fragrance of a warm fresh ocean breeze filter into the tiny space.

His arm swung down and his knuckles grazed the floor. He turned his head to his left and was met with a line of heavy bars from floor to ceiling. It took him only a moment to realize he was in a brig. 

A brig he didn’t recognize.

A female voice, soft and inaudible floated through the window and acted like a tonic. There were no females in the Royal Navy, no females on his ship. His crew was a superstitious bunch and they would never let a woman set a single pretty foot up the gang plank. 

He was not aboard his ship. Where in hell was he?

Gregory swung his feet off the bench bed and onto the floor, sitting and waiting for his head to stop its wild spin. He couldn’t help the groan that tumbled from his parched lips. There were light footsteps hurrying towards him, the tinkering of keys in a lock and the squeak of the door opening.

“You poor man! You look like you’re suffering,” a soft female voice filled with deep sympathy floated around him. Something so gentle had no place in a prison. Confusion rattled his brain.

“Here, drink this.” A glass cup was held under his nose. He squinted into in and saw that it was filled with crystal clear water.

A wave of anger surged through him. He had woken to a world where nothing made sense. Why was he chained to a wall in the cleanest prison he had clapped eyes on, and being waited on by a concerned female?

He swiped the glass cup with the back of his hand and was momentarily satisfied to hear it break when it hit the floor. He quickly grabbed the female’s slender wrist and held it in his larger fist. There was a soft gasp and she started to tremble.

“Where am I?” he ground out. His voice was ragged and rough and didn’t sound like his own. Gregory cracked his eyes open and looked into a pair of doe brown eyes that were clouded with fear. “Tell me.”

Her lips trembled, face tight with fear. She tried to pull back but he held onto her. He knew he was hurting her, something that didn’t sit well with him, but desperation simmered and made him keep a hold of her wrist. He gave a small tug. Her eyes filled with bleak distress.

His desperate anger wavered into confusion. There was an element of fragility about this woman, so concerned about his comfort a moment before, now trembling like a leaf and all he had done was take hold of her wrist.

Her tongue darted from her mouth and licked her lower lip. “Please, let me go,” her voice was a brittle whisper.

“Not before you tell me where I am and why I am here,” he said.

She whimpered and a frisson of self-disgust made him let go of her wrist. She held her wrist to her chest. Her terror was, although incomprehensible, now palpable and he didn’t have it in him to torture powerless women. 

“I’m sorry if I frightened you…” he said. How he could ever hurt a woman? He sunk his aching head into the open palms of his hands.

“So you should be.” A clipped female voice, far different from those of the timid doe-eyed woman, made him lift his head. This voice used well rounded syllables, was lower in tone, sultry, held authority and was plainly used to orders it gave being observed.

An auburn haired beauty, whose eyes spat heat to match the color of the locks cascading down her back, stood before him. Her hair was clasped behind her neck. Lose tendrils escaped, framing her face in swirls of autumn flame. He blinked, shock muting him. 

Her opalescent skin was perfumed by the faintest of scents, something between rose and lavender. Slim brows arched delicately over chestnut eyes that could stare a man down and make him forget who he was. Her nose was straight, slightly pointed, set resolutely over firm pouty lips that currently were thinned into a straight line. 

She was breathtakingly exquisite. 

Her narrow hips moved in a delicate swing as she stood in the open doorway and placed her hands on the doe eyed woman’s shoulders. She was a full head taller than the woman, with a frame that was totally, wholly feminine with lean, long legs that went from the floor all the way to heaven.

To his delighted surprise she wore tight men’s breeches that fit every snug curve of her legs like a second skin. Her breeches were tucked into fitted black boots, laced from toe to knee. Above the breeches, a white cotton shirt billowed above her slender waist. It was open at the cuffs as well as her neck, showcasing the gentle swell of her décolletage, although she seemed unaware of, or didn’t care about, the scandalous amount of skin she showed.

“Did he hurt you, Sara?” she asked. Her tone was low, hushed and soothing.

Sara shook her head. Her eyes glimmered and she looked at the red head with a mixture of comfort and awe. “No. I was tending to him and he grabbed my wrist. He just asked where he was.” Her gaze turned introspective and she shook her head again, as if making sure in her own mind of what had happened. “He didn’t hurt me.”

“Thank you for your time, Sara. I’ll let you know when you’re needed again.”

Sara nodded her head fractionally and slipped through the doorway without looking at him. She stepped lightly across the hallway and scampered up the steep wooden steps that led into bright sunshine. The red head turned a frosty glare at him and slowly reclined against the door frame. Her eyes roamed casually over him. 

“You shouldn’t have spoken to her that way. I asked her to help you,” she said, eventually.

Gregory narrowed his eyes and assessed her. “You’re the woman from the pier!”

His head ached and he was in no mood for games. “Maybe you can answer my questions. Why are you here? And what am I doing here?” His voice was rough.

Her gaze flicked back to his eyes. The frost was now ice. Although she slouched indolently against the frame, the line of her shoulders was squared and her jaw tensed. “I’ll answer what I want to answer. Sara is a healer, a doctor. She only has your best interests at heart.”

His face must have registered his shock as she continued. “Are you surprised that a woman has that kind of knowledge? Her husband was a so-called doctor, but she knew more than him even if he’d studied until the end of his life. People went to see her, not him, for treatment. He was jealous and used to beat her. One day he beat her so badly she couldn’t get out of bed. A pregnant woman she was treating had her baby and Sara was too unwell to tend to her. The woman and the baby died in childbirth. That’s something she has never forgotten. Her husband was a drunk and a coward and was never subtle in his loathing for her talent. He died one day in a horse and carriage accident. Because she didn’t have a husband, she also didn’t have a livelihood. I found her, alone and discarded. Now she uses her talents and gets paid well for it. If you’re very nice, maybe she will come back and see you again.”

She hooked her gaze back to his. Her eyes were the color of burnt chestnuts. It reminded him of oak trees in autumn when they turned such a flaming red he wondered if the earth was charred underneath. There was a subtle shifting, the click of two pieces of a puzzle locking together. “I’ve seen you before last night,” he murmured, “You’re Major Elias Stonebridge’s daughter.”

She pushed away from the doorframe and stood with her feet a hip width apart. Her fresh scent followed her and filled his nostrils. Tension rode in waves from her body, quickly filling the tiny brig.

She’d changed. His faded memory was that of a plain, quiet girl who sat on the fringe of the various meetings and dinners Major Elias Stonebridge had often had at his house. Her mother had passed when she was a toddler and her father had never remarried, as the demands of his job gave him neither time nor the desire to do so. She often stayed home alone when her father traveled the world, gained an education with the grace of a good and gentle governess, and as far as he recalled had lived an often lonely and unadventurous life. It was difficult to reconcile the bland girl of his memories with the spitting fiery beauty before him. It was no wonder it had taken him a while to remember who she was. Standing before

him was a woman, no longer the little girl he had once associated with timidity and the quiet life. 

“Estelle Stonebridge,” he murmured, not keeping the note of astonishment from his voice.

What he couldn’t work out was why she wasn’t surprised he was chained in a brig working off the results of some malicious drug and was looking at him like she’d like to slice him open and feed the contents to the fish. “Why?” he asked.

“You of all people should know the answer to that question,” she spat. Her eyes shone with a palpable rage.

His head throbbed with an otherworldly vengeance. “As I’ve been trying to tell you, I have no idea.”

“Maybe the memory of my father will help you put two and two together,” Estelle said.

“What has your father got to do with this?”

“He has everything to do with this,” Estelle hissed. “The navy might not know what you did and the government might not know what you did but I do, and now you’re going to pay for the life you took.”

The pieces of the puzzle snapped into place.  “You think I killed him,” he said. 

“I don’t think. I know.”

“You’re wrong!”

Estelle took a small step towards him and the fragrance of musky roses embraced him. Her arms were straight poles at her sides. Her breasts pushed heavily against the billowing white shirt as she spoke, accentuating her shapely form. He watched her as carefully as he would a tiger stalking prey. 

“You might be able to fool the entire Royal Navy, but I knew my father. He wouldn’t have put himself that the position everyone said he did. He said that he had made arrangements for his last special assignment. An assignment I knew he took you on. Everyone else had a perfect alibi, except you. I don’t know what you did to keep yourself out of jail, but it won’t work with me. He trusted you and he never came back from that mission.”

“I was coming back to find you!” Gregory cried, “At your father’s request! But you were gone before I could get to you.”

“My father was not only murdered, he was defamed. He was a man who gave his life for the good of the people, the good of the government! Not just accused, but somehow proven guilty of treason. He was innocent of all charges! Being a single, penniless Major’s daughter does not pay the rent, and when my father died and his list of so-called crimes was made public, my security died also. I could not own property as I am a female. The house went to the state. I was left without money, a home or any prospects. I had no friends. I was not there when you came because the buzzards had already come for me and picked me apart.”

“There must have been someone ready to help you. You were no more than a child.”

“The only person that treated me with any kindness was the General,” Estelle said.

“General Marcus Worthington?”

“Even he could not stop the claws of society. Men didn’t want to know me and women clung to their sides, fearful of being tarred with the same brush. To know me was to be like me. And one simply could not be like me or my father.”

Gregory held up his manacled wrists. “So this is how you treat men now?”

“This is how I treat murderers and liars.” Her eyes were filled with sparks of molten rage. 

He let his hands drop back into his lap, recalling those days so long ago. The girl Estelle had disappeared before he had had a chance to find her and help her to safety. She couldn’t know what had really happened on that bleak night and it was too dangerous to tell her the truth, even now. 

The Navy would be on her heels and would surely catch up soon. She would be caught, found guilty of kidnapping him and ‘questioned’. The information he had gathered over the

years was too dangerous for her or anyone else to know. He had to keep it to himself. He wasn’t going to waste years of building the evidence he had for it all to be wasted on her misguided idea of vengeance.

He would offer her part of the truth, and he hoped it was enough for her to let him go free. For her own sake, and ultimately her fathers. He licked cracked lips. She needed to trust him; she needed to believe his next words. He locked gazes with hers and stared into the contemptuous depths. 

“Estelle, I didn’t kill your father.”

“I cannot trust a word you say.” Her eyes flared with indignation and heated abhorrence. She was poised, ready to strike him, her hands bunching into tight fists, her body wired. He withstood the onslaught, keeping his eyes locked with hers was the only way he could show her he told the truth. He hoped she would at least try and trust his words, knowing that they sounded a desperate excuse to be unchained and set free, but also knowing they were true.

“Estelle. He… is not dead.”

 

 

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