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by Denyse M. Bridger
Description: Three stories, one kind of hero, pirates anyone? Includes the short stories Angel-Fire, Storm-Singer, and The Phantom's Lair? Historical adventure, and the darker mystery of an ageless vampire who keeps a witch at his side, his protector and his lover through eternity Angel-Fire: A short intro to the world of Captain Jack Stanton, an honourable man with a tarnished reputation. Stranded in Nassau, caught up in a pleasant interlude with a barmaid, Jack has a vision that will lead him to his past and his future, if he can survive to get back Tortuga to discover what it all means? Storm-Singer: The Isle of Nyx has become the dread of all sailors who must dare the waters surrounding the mythical island. Local legends say a vampire prince resides in the ancient castle that can be seen from the harbor of the island. At his side is a powerful sorceress whose song can control and summon storms. In a desperate attempt to end the eternal threat looming over them, the people of the Aurora Islands sacrifice their greatest treasure, the princess Sarita, entrusting her with the task of seducing and destroying the dark prince who has been plundering their wealth and their people for centuries? The Phantom's Lair: Upon her arrival in the pirate port of Tortuga where her father is acting as Governor, Katheryn Hollinsworth is determined to choose her own path, and follow her heart wherever it may take her. On the streets of Puerta de la Plata, she encounters the mythical buccaneer known as The Phantom, and very quickly loses her heart to the handsome rogue. Jack Stanton is a man who has never fully come to terms with his past, and in the Governor's pretty daughter he finds a most unlikely champion. But when his past threatens her life, and any chance of a respectable future, The Phantom must face the demons of his past, and accept the dictates of his own reawakened heart...
eBook Publisher: Solstice Publishing/solsticepublishing,
eBookwise Release Date: August 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [109 KB]
Reading time: 66-93 min.
* * * *
Nassau was a wild and raucous place, home to many of the most feared men in the Caribbean. Jack Stanton had arrived in the port city only a week ago. Since then, he'd made a bustling tavern called The Lonely Mermaid his latest home. A bewitching barmaid called Angelique, a gypsy from the look of her, had caught his eye the moment he'd entered the smoky tavern, and it hadn't taken at all long to convince her that he was the pirate she'd been waiting for all her life. They'd been meeting every night, when the tavern was filled to capacity and no one would notice her absence in the crowd. Tonight something unusual was happening though, something that made Captain Stanton decidedly uneasy.
The room swam with a vast array of colors and sensations, all enhanced and more vivid than Jack would have thought possible only an hour earlier. The smoky air was thick with scent and the haziness was repeated in Jack's brain. His head was spinning with the influx of awareness that was somehow much sharper than it should have been, yet distant at the same time, something apart from him. The lady with him was a dancing blur of shades; raven-black hair, bronzed skin, and laughing ebony eyes. His hands obeyed instinct, fondling and caressing well-known, voluptuous curves and his mind fought for a way through the fog that was stealing his pleasure.
"Relax, Jacques," she purred softly as she rained kisses over his angular features. "Let your mind accept the gift I have given you," she added as she moved her attention to his chest.
Stanton's body was being swept along on a tidal wave of sensuous excitement, but his mind continued to struggle despite her words. He made a half-hearted grab for her when her soft lips trekked further downward, and she effortlessly slapped aside his attempt at restraint.
Jack's hips rose from the bed, the reaction totally beyond his ability to control, if indeed he had truly wanted to stop the barrage of sexual delight that was pounding through his veins. He twisted, tried to pin her under his weight, but laughter met the awkward movement of his sluggish limbs. Angelique's hands pressed against the expanse of his naked chest and she pushed him onto his back as she straddled his hips and grinned down into his bright eyes.
Stanton's mouth opened, but he knew no coherent words passed his lips. She lowered herself onto his straining erection and his body convulsed with new euphoria. When the surge of sensory pleasure threatened to suffocate him, his mind finally rose and found freedom...
...the images began slowly... through a haze of smoke and mist, Jack saw his beloved ship, The Scarlet Thorn, sailing away from him as he shouted obscenities and anything else his fertile imagination offered him... on the Thorn's quarterdeck the newly appointed Captain DeBeaupre's laughter rang out and taunted him... then came the glitter of gold, spinning wildly, glittering wickedly, always staying out of reach of his grasping fingers... blood tinged the brilliance of the shining metal suddenly and Jack drew back from it, watching, but distant... a skull grinned from the golden surface... engulfed in crimson...
Was this part of the notorious curse that he'd been hearing about for years?
As quickly as the thought crystallized in his mind, it was lost to swirling mist again...
...Slowly, the fog cleared and he again saw the Thorn... under attack and badly damaged... shrieking rage tore into his brain and echoed again and again as he peered into a darkness that now obscured everything from his vision...
"Breathe deeply, my love," Angelique whispered, riding his bucking hips wildly as she stared down and held his wavering gaze. "Let my angel-fire bring forth your destiny," she moaned, losing her hold on his gaze as her desire peaked and exploded.
Jack's body reacted to the writhing woman above him and as his own release poured out of his tortured body, the inner vision he'd been viewing cleared for a final glimpse into the confused blend of memory and foreknowledge...
...the shining, full, low-hanging moon blinded him momentarily; pale, silvery, icy in its pure light, and its equally pure truth... skeletons who walked and fought, and jeered at him... and, finally, a flickering glimpse of a place he hadn't seen in years... Tortuga... and a lovely young girl... shadowed by a man Jack had once called friend and knew to be dead, Commodore Edward Barkley...
When the chimera released him, Jack pushed her away with no pretense of gentleness, his very real fear making him angrier than he'd been in many years. He glared at her once his breathing had leveled to a normal cadence again.
"What did you see?" she asked, stretching contentedly amid the rumpled bed linens.
Exotic creature that she was, Jack no longer saw anything appealing in her.
Jack flinched, his head moving back in reactive response to the shout. His eyes widened suspiciously. Then he looked at her again and his expression shifted as the force of a second bellow from the tavern common room fairly shook the rafters of the place.
"And who might that be, darling?" he asked, wincing at the rasp of his voice.
"My husband," she smiled, unconcerned.
"Husband?" Jack repeated, sounding stupid to his own ears. He rose quickly, surprised at the tremor in his legs. Ignoring the weakness he went to the door and opened it a crack, looking into the noisy room below. There was a huge man making his way through the crowd, intent on reaching the stairs.
"Is your husband a big fellow, Angel?" he asked lightly, some of his natural cockiness reasserting itself.
"Very," she nodded.
"Then I think it would be best if I left before he arrives, don't you?" Jack continued as he hauled on his clothes and hunted for his weapons. The cutlass came to hand first, but he lost precious seconds locating his flintlock pistol from under the bed. He grabbed his compass and coat, then made for the window, stopping just long enough to kiss the tip of Angelique's pert nose.
Jack reached the window and glanced back. "Would you be so kind as to give me my hat, love?" he asked, indicating the item in question sitting atop a chest of drawers. The soft slur of his words, a natural part of his speech, was doubly pronounced now that he was thoroughly drunk.
Angelique picked up the hat and tossed it toward him. Jack caught it deftly, perched it on his head, and smiled. "Thank you!" She then threw him one of the large hooped earrings she worn. He grinned and dropped it in a pocket.
The bedchamber door burst inward as he slipped through the window with a grin and a jaunty salute to his lover. Outside, Stanton looked around in near desperation. The wind had come up and his hair was being whipped about his head, the heavy beads that were threaded through the strands of leather he used to tie back his nearly waist-length black mane almost took his eyes out before he turned into the sea-tanged gust and spotted a makeshift clothesline running from the tavern to a nearby tree. Using his sash, he swung it over the rough line and leaped, just as a shot flew past his head. The downward arc of the line carried him close enough to the ground that he was able to jump, tumble headlong into a line of trees, then throw himself into a stumbling run before Angelique's husband could get a second chance to shoot him.
The docks. Without conscious thought he headed in that direction, his mind preoccupied with the experience he'd just survived in The Lonely Mermaid's upper rooms. She'd drugged him, he was certain of that much. The why completely eluded him, however. He continued his journey to the docks in thoughtful contemplation, and decided more rum would make the whole thing clear, in time...
* * * *
Morning light poured over the prone figure of Jack Stanton as he sprawled across the bed he'd fallen into sometime during the previous night. Jack's eyelids twitched erratically as he tried to avoid the encroaching daylight that was worming its way into his brain. He wasn't ready to face the day, not when his insides felt like they'd been wrenched out of him then stuffed back in.
A low moan filled his ears and it took a second for him to recognize the misery-tainted voice as his own. Momentarily suspicious, Jack propped himself up on his elbows and looked around, his eyes darting about without the necessity of actually moving his aching head. He was alone, he was relieved to discover. Most the night had become a blur, after his flight from The Lonely Mermaid and Angelique.
Stanton flopped back on the straw mattress and pondered in a more sober state of mind what she'd done to him. The rum had been laced with something, and the air in her bedroom had been heavily scented with something sweet and almost sickly. He'd been far too interested in bedding the enchanting wench, he chided himself, and far too lax in considering his surroundings.
But, if what he'd seen under the influence of her 'angel-fire' had been real, what did it mean? He hadn't seen Edward Barkley in many years. They'd been friends, until a convenient scandal had made them enemies. The woman in his vision was a complete stranger, but he suspected she was real, and the day would come when he'd be face to face with her. Was she someone connected to Barkley? Or someone who would make the strained situation between them somehow worse? Not a pleasant prospect, to be sure.
He fell asleep contemplating the questions, and woke hours later at mid-morning with no deeper understanding.
* * * *
After counting his dwindling coins and consuming a modest meal, Jack left the tavern he'd stayed in and headed for the docks. He approached the busy piers in fair obscurity and watched, weighing his options. He wanted to leave Nassau, for various reasons, not the least of which was the big brute of a husband who'd probably be hunting him today.
He strolled along, lifted a ripe mango from a passing cart, and moved further down the waterfront docks as he chewed on the sweet fruit. For several minutes, he watched the variety of ships moored slightly off shore in the crowded harbor. A few more feet along and he spotted a familiar figure striding up the pier, and he slipped back to observe unseen.
She was lovely, Lianya, and as competent a pirate as any man Jack had ever met. They'd spent some enjoyable time together, a few years back. Tall, dark-skinned, shrewd, and sharp-eyed, she was equal to the task of controlling her crew and earning their respect and loyalty. She continued past him and once she'd disappeared in the teaming crowds that lined the waterfront, Jack stepped back into the noon-day sunshine and scanned the harbour. He spotted The Siren almost immediately, and headed in that direction. The small sloop was tied up at the pier, so getting aboard was as simple as walking up the gangplank with one of the hands who was loading food stores. He glanced at Jack, nodded in greeting, and went on to lower the crate of limes into the hold.
Stanton recognized the man's face, but the name eluded him. He swaggered boldly up the maindeck and surveyed the men who were readying the ship for departure.
"Loose the lines, gentlemen," he called out, "we're leaving now."
Several pairs of eyes fastened on Jack and he braced for objections. He knew most of the crewmen from his days of sailing with Lianya, and they knew he could, conceivably, be acting on her orders, so it might not be a real battle to get them to obey his directive to leave.
"Captain's not back yet, Stanton," someone pointed out blandly.
Jack peered down at the man and drew his pistol.
"That's Captain Stanton, Mr. Rhodes," Jack corrected mildly, then grinned before adding, "Savvy?" He turned away from Rhodes and concluded, "Anyone who doesn't want to sail is free to get off the ship," he stated.
Rhodes, and several others, muttered angrily and made for the plank. Jack's gaze followed them, then returned to those who had chosen to stay with him.
"Tell Lianya," he shouted to the men on the pier, "that she can join us in Tortuga." He grinned and took off his hat in a mocking salute, bowing elegantly as he added, "And thank her for the loan of her ship."
He turned, and began issuing the orders that would have them underway within minutes. The sloop was a sleek, fast little ship, and it didn't require a large crew to man her. Jack wanted to get away quickly, and he set course for the pirate port of Tortuga, intent on discovering whatever had called him back to the lawless island.
* * * *
The tropical squall caught them on their third day out, as they were nearing the Windward Passage and Tortuga. The winds had the force of a hurricane, and Jack wondered if the light-weight, single-masted sloop would survive the storm. The torrential rains battered them with relentless force. One man had already lost a grip on the clew he'd been clinging to and had been flung screaming into the roiling sea that was trying to tear the ship apart.
"Secure the foresail, and steady the mainsail," Jack shouted above the howling winds, hanging onto the wheel with every ounce of strength he possessed. The men on deck began to organize, and Stanton cast a quick look at others who were emerging from below deck on the orders of the mate. Water was breaking over the gunwales, and flooding the decks faster than the scuppers could drain the onslaught.
The acting first mate, Jonas Slocomb, crawled and fought his way to the ship's wheel and shouted at Jack, "We have to drop anchor, Captain," he yelled above the din of the wind and rain. "If we don't, we're going to break apart!"
"Not yet," Jack called back, his voice all but lost in the storm as his hair whipped wildly around his head. "We can outrun her, once we get on course."
"Yer mad, man," Slocomb growled in fury.
"Do it!" Jack roared, anger surfacing for the first time. "Keep the sails in place, we're almost through." Stanton's arms were almost wrenched from their sockets a moment later when another wave all but capsized the listing sloop. He was soaked to the skin and half blind with the torrents of rain, but he hung on and managed to turn the stricken vessel in the direction he wanted.
"Just a little more," he muttered to himself, sparing a glance for the men below him. They were tying clews and moving in the rigging, doing their best to keep sails from being shredded by the gale-force winds. "We're almost there," Jack continued his litany as he held fast to the wheel and peered at Lianya's compass.
His fleeting instant of confidence vanished before he could consciously hold the thread of triumph. The Siren shook to the holds as a series of tidal-strength waves began to pummel the ship in earnest. Water washed over the decks, flooding them and tossing men overboard with the indiscriminant carelessness only the fury of nature could produce.
It was Slocomb, and Jack finally accepted the truth of the situation. He nodded, secured the wheel, then made his way to the deck. Long boats were being lowered. Jack took charge of the largest, and tried to ignore the creak and grind of timbers giving way beneath his feet as he waited for the men to jump, many of them never coming close to the hands that groped to pull them to the dubious safety of the bobbing longboats.
Jack cut the lines and the boats disappeared almost immediately. He grabbed the cables that held the last craft and pushed, letting the wind help him clear the sides of the sinking sloop. He flung himself off the gunwale and landed roughly in the bottom of the small boat. He held on and wondered where he'd wash up, and if he'd still be alive to care?
* * * *
Once again, the dazzling, bright light of morning poured over the prone figure of Jack Stanton. Today, he was sprawled across the bottom of a leaking boat in the middle of an ocean. As memory began to play out the events of the night, he groaned soundlessly. He really wasn't ready to face the day this time. There wasn't a muscle in his body that didn't feel beaten, bruised and abused in the most horrendous manner.
He'd survived after all.
In spite of the pain it created, Jack sat up and looked around, his hands automatically searching out and miraculously finding a small bucket to bail water. He tossed bilge over the side as he scanned the horizon and spotted a harbour.
Uneasiness churned in his stomach minutes later when he climbed the mast and was able to identify the place--Port Royal, Jamaica. He'd been blown far west of Tortuga and through the narrow strip called the Windward Passage. As he considered his options, he decided to make the stop a quick one. He needed to find a ship, steal it, no, commandeer it, then get away again, as fast as possible. It wasn't much of a plan, but for the moment it was all Captain Jack Stanton had.
That, and the visions stirred up in angel-fire.
Visions he did not want to think about, but something he knew he could never avoid. He was a superstitious man, life as a pirate had taught him there were more things unknown than known in a man's mind. He had left many things unfinished with Barkley, perhaps it was time for a truce, and truth?
* * * *
THE PHANTOM'S LAIR
* * * *
"Jack, ye can't be seriously thinkin' about goin' back to Tortuga, lad?" Geraint O'Hara asked, his gaze searching the inscrutable mask that was Jack Stanton's face. The captain's pale, silver eyes glittered with humor and O'Hara knew the answer before Jack chose to reply.
"We're rather in need of a full crew." Stanton smiled, his dark hair whipping about his head. The intricately engraved gold beads that hung from the leather thong holding most of the lengthy mane of hair tinkled in the brisk wind. "And considerable repairs," he added, gazing upward.
The tattered black sails had been replaced by the remaining crew, but there hadn't been time to repair the damages that had been inflicted on Stanton's reclaimed ship. He'd almost lost the vessel forever to a mutinous mate, and the crew who'd followed Marcos had very nearly killed Jack during the battle that had ensued when he did finally catch up to them again. Getting the ship back had cost Jack's hastily gathered motley band of pirates a number of good men. He'd made it known that he fully intended to reward those who remained with a sizable portion of the plunder they'd retrieved from the Carte Blanche, the second of the ships in Marcos's fleet of two.
"What if your old friend Commodore Barkley is waiting for us?" O'Hara questioned, still concerned about the lack of wisdom in Jack's planned course.
"He won't be, mate," Jack said with a grin. "The commodore has much more important things to concern himself with. Like explaining why the HMS Tracker is now at the bottom of the ocean."
"Aye." O'Hara sighed. "That was a hard bit of luck for him."
Jack's white teeth gleamed in the morning light and his laughter rang out. "Don't tell me you're feeling sorry for Barkley?"
O'Hara shared his laughter, then sobered. "You was once part of his world, Jack," he reminded the younger man. "You know this won't go easy on him. And he was your friend."
Stanton nodded, some of the amusement chased from his angular, handsome features.
He'd had a tentative truce with Barkley for some time now. Edward "officially" hunted him, but never quite caught him. Jack, for his part, seldom did anything that was wholly loathsome enough to warrant a change in their understanding. And, as O'Hara had just pointed out, there was a time when they had been as close as brothers. The respect between them was genuine, despite the drastic difference in their chosen paths. Barkley had been one of his few allies when he'd been summarily dismissed from the ranks of the Royal Navy years earlier.
Looking closely at the captain of the Scarlet Thorn, O'Hara wondered if he'd ever really know the enigma that was Jack Stanton. It had been well over ten years since their first meeting, and O'Hara felt he knew Jack less now than the night they'd met again in Tortuga's rowdiest pub, The Siren's Reach. Stanton had been a young captain in the Royal Navy then, intent on arresting as many pirates as he could find. That goal had been altered radically when Stanton was forced into a duel with a drunk who turned out to be the son of a visiting nobleman from England. What had been self-defense was called murder, and Stanton had gone into the sweet trade shortly after. Still, the tall, imposing pirate had instincts that were infallible, and a sharp, quick mind that kept them ahead of their pursuers at every turn. It had earned him the nickname of the "The Phantom," due to his propensity for disappearing from under his enemy's nose. Stanton had remarked upon hearing the name that it was the Thorn who'd earned the moniker, not himself.
When Jack's curious eyes bored into him, O'Hara left him at the wheel of the Thorn and went back to issue orders to the rest of the crew and tell them the charted course. If Jack was right, and there was no reason to assume he wasn't, the time in Tortuga would be welcomed by everyone aboard.
* * * *
The turtle-shaped island of Tortuga was a place unlike any other Katheryn Hollinsworth had ever seen. It was wild and untamed, a place that seethed with life and adventure. She felt the thrill of excitement light a fire deep within her, stretching outward to course along the suddenly sizzling network of her nerve-endings until she trembled with the mere pleasure of looking at her new home. The savage beauty of Tortuga instantly burned into her soul, and she knew the eternal months and years of dissatisfaction that defined her life were soon to fade into unhappy memory. The late afternoon sun was magnificent as it poured golden radiance over the teaming city of Puerta de la Plata. The scattered houses gleamed white, and the colorful array of people working the docks seemed to glow in the glorious, encroaching sunset.
The ship that rolled beneath Katheryn's feet was a small vessel, but fast and sleek. The recent destruction of the HMS Tracker while in pursuit of the infamous pirate ship the Scarlet Thorn had made the construction of this new vessel, the HMS Navigator, an urgent necessity. This was the Navigator's first assignment, and Commodore Edward Barkley had agreed to command the escort ship himself, a personal favor to Governor Godfrey Harper, Katheryn's uncle. Her father, Joseph Hollinsworth III, newly appointed Deputy Governor of Tortuga, was in serious conversation with the attractive commodore a short distance from where she leaned against the gunwale of the gently rocking ship. The docks were in sight, and their unheralded approach was drawing much curious attention. The arrival of a Royal Navy ship would have been note-worthy on any day in Tortuga, but the Navigator's obvious newness added speculation of a greater nature to the event.
She turned slightly and smiled with warmth and affection at her father. She'd lost her mother years earlier, to dark circumstances about which they seldom spoke. Katheryn's lovely mother, Charity, had committed suicide mere months after arriving in North America. Joseph and his young daughter had been closer than many fathers and daughters often were, and the relationship was fierce and loyal. Still, Joseph had grown less and less understanding of his daughter's willful behavior during the past two years. He wanted her married and settled. She wanted freedom and adventures before she settled into the comfort of a routine life.
"What do you think of it, my dear?" he asked as they gazed at the nearby town.
"It looks like a wonderful place," she breathed, eyes alight with anticipation.
From the corner of her eye, Katheryn saw his expression reveal his conflicting emotions; he was suspicious of her enthusiasm, as well as troubled by it. Before she could offer a reassurance that would have been more platitude than sincerity, he turned to examine the busy harbor.
"Why did the governor give you this post, Father?" Katheryn asked, continuing to watch him with speculative curiosity. "Juliet was quite surprised when he made the decision to place an acting governor on Tortuga."
"Juliet Harper is hardly an authority in these matters, Katheryn," he admonished.
"Pirates," Commodore Barkley stated as he joined them. "That's the reason, Katheryn," he assured her with a smile. "This is probably one of the last true pirate ports, and we plan to insure that it doesn't remain active for much longer."
"You're after the Scarlet Thorn," she surmised. "The Phantom," she added with a grin that was filled with impish delight.
Barkley looked at her, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. She had grown into a truly lovely woman, he mused in silent contemplation. Not as tall as Juliet Harper, nor as reed slender; but a beautiful woman nonetheless. Katheryn Charity Hollinsworth had a glorious mane of shimmering auburn hair, and eyes as dark and dangerous as the waters of the Caribbean at night. She was curvaceous and graceful, moving with a casual arrogance that was both appealing and disconcerting in a woman. But it was the intelligence and keen shrewdness of thought that made her truly intriguing. Like Juliet, she would never be told what her path in life would be. She would choose it herself and pursue happiness on her own terms. Under different circumstances, he would have immensely enjoyed her company. Their families had known each other for decades, but it had been a number of years since he'd last seen her. She'd been barely thirteen, and he'd been accepting his first commission.
"Jack Stanton, like all of his breed, has a standing appointment with the gallows, Miss Hollinsworth," he noted when her eyebrows rose at his prolonged scrutiny.
"Captain Jack Stanton, I believe, Commodore," she corrected with a mischievous smile. "I know the history between you, as well. And, I think I'm beginning to understand your acceptance of this rather tedious assignment, sir. Tell me, Edward," her smile deepened, "how long have you been hunting Captain Stanton?"
He smiled at the impertinence of the query, and her father's obvious annoyance at hearing it. He bowed and returned to the bridge of the ship, issuing routine commands while also watching the new deputy governor. He couldn't help but wonder if the man would be able to bring any kind of order to the unruly island, especially in view of his complete inability to control his daughter's restlessness with any real success.
Once the longboats had deposited them at the docks, Katheryn and her father were to be escorted to the waiting house that would be their home now. Construction had only recently finished, and the white-washed exterior was set aglow with fiery color by the sinking sun, now blazing its final fury of the day across the western sky.
"You will join us for supper, Edward?" Katheryn asked with a smile that very nearly rivaled the brilliance of the sunset. When he made ready to decline her invitation, she shook her head and took his arm, pointing him toward the waiting carriage. "I refuse to take no for an answer, sir," she explained as they reached the conveyance and he helped her settle into a seat next to her father.
* * * *
Several days later the Scarlet Thorn approached the island of Tortuga. Jack had spotted the Royal Navy ship moored in the harbor and they changed course enough to glide into a cove, out of sight of any unwanted interest. O'Hara dispatched the first mate, Munroe Walters, and crewman James Cotton to find the men they needed to strengthen the Thorn's crew. Now, he and the captain walked the streets of the only real town, and O'Hara was acutely aware of Jack's outwardly casual manner as they greeted familiar faces. The young pirate's reputation had grown to mythical proportions since he'd reclaimed the Scarlet Thorn and continually escaped the wrath of the Royal Navy in general--Commodore Edward Barkley in particular. More than once they'd narrowly dodged the range of the firing cannons of the HMS Intrepid and her determined commander. Yet, in spite of his spreading fame and the riches they'd plundered, O'Hara sensed a growing disquiet in Stanton. Whatever was driving Jack, he clearly hadn't found it.
Before long they were nearing an old, familiar haunt. The Siren's Reach was in full roar when they reached the doors and were all but thrown inside by suddenly brawling rogues outside the rollicking establishment. Stumbling to a halt at the rough-hewn bar, O'Hara ordered ale and they made their way to the back of the tavern.
"You noticed the ship that's in port?" O'Hara commented, watching his captain.
Jack grinned, the expression taking more years off his already deceptively young features.
"The HMS Navigator." He nodded after taking a healthy swig from his tankard of ale. "The newest and 'fastest' ship in the Caribbean," he recited with mock seriousness. "If she isn't any faster than the Tracker, we've nothing to worry about," he concluded, silver-gray eyes glittering with mischief.
"What's on yer mind, Jack?" O'Hara asked, peering at Stanton.
Jack considered the words, his eyes thoughtful now as he leaned back a little and held Geraint's level gaze.
"I think it's time we found the Thorn a safe berth," Stanton said, pale eyes gleaming in the golden lamplight of the tavern.
"Aye." O'Hara nodded. "Have you got a place in mind, Captain?"
Jack's grin flashed. "Have you seen the other side of Tortuga, Mr. O'Hara?" he asked with apparent nonchalance.
O'Hara eyed Jack a little more intently. "Right under their noses? You don't think that be a might risky, Captain?" he asked, voice tainted with humor.
"Only if we're discovered," Jack replied. "What say you to a tour of Tortuga's other side, Mr. O'Hara?" Stanton asked, raising his tankard.
"I say that sounds like as fine a plan as any I've heard of late, Jack." He touched his tankard to Stanton's before they downed their ale and left the table.
* * * *
Skirting through the network of alleys and makeshift roads, Jack and O'Hara were making quick time when loud, angry voices made them pause. O'Hara would have moved on, but the sound of a muffled feminine scream assured him that Stanton would investigate the commotion. Despite his pirate lifestyle, O'Hara had often observed the spirit of a nobleman in Jack Stanton, and that sense of honor was never so obvious than when a woman was in distress.
They cleared the corner that had concealed them and stood in the torchlight at the mouth of an alley, watching the scene that was unfolding a short distance away. The woman who'd screamed had regained her composure and was now shoving at a drunken sailor who was equally determined not to be pushed aside. He made a grab for her and she let herself be forced against a wall, then used his momentum to pull him closer as her knee rose and connected with his groin.
Jack's mocking wince made O'Hara grin, and Jack winked at him, his real attention still with the woman and her would-be assailant.
"She don't appear to be needin' our help, Captain," O'Hara said. He knew immediately that it didn't matter; something about the girl had captured Stanton's interest.
Jack folded his arms across his chest and leaned casually against the wall, cloaked in shadow, still able to observe what was happening.
"Meet me back at The Siren in two hours, Mr. O'Hara," Stanton directed, his silver eyes never leaving the woman, who had just drawn a sword from beneath her cloak.
"Jack...." O'Hara began, then gave it up for a lost effort when Stanton strolled toward the battling couple. With a final annoyed glare at the young pirate's retreating back, O'Hara slipped back into the alley and backtracked to The Siren's Reach to await Jack's return.
Stanton stopped a few feet from the two people who were squared off against each other. The girl's sword moved like a shimmering sliver of moonlight as she parried and feinted with careless grace, easily deflecting the less disciplined thrusts of her opponent's blade. She was dressed like a buccaneer, but he sensed she was anything but what she appeared to be at that moment. It wasn't until she slipped on wet ground that the drunkard gained an advantage and quickly made to deliver a fatal strike.
Without thinking Jack stepped forward, cutlass drawn, and intercepted the other man's sword on its downward arc. Sparks flew as the blades clashed loudly, and Stanton circled until he stood between the woman and her unhappy attacker.
"Taking advantage of a lady when she's down." Jack shook his head in mock despair, while his mouth curved into a roguish smile. "That's hardly fair play," he quipped.
"Stay outta this," the sailor snarled in reckless fury. "It's between me and the lady," he concluded and tried to shove Stanton aside.
Jack pushed back and waited for the stumbling man to recover. When he did, he had a new target, as Jack had anticipated. He raised his weapon and edged closer to Stanton.
"Do you really think this wise, mate?" Jack asked with a smile, truly beginning to enjoy himself now.
His opponent apparently felt he was up to Jack's challenge, and he lunged. Jack smoothly stepped aside and tapped the other man's shoulder with his sword when he hit the building and staggered, stunned for a second by the unexpected impact. The man whirled, growling his fury, and attacked like a madman. Jack hadn't calculated the ferocity of the other man's anger, and he barely escaped being run through.
The sword play began in earnest, and Stanton had no time to consider if he should have left this situation to the people involved. A few well chosen steps gave him the advantage and he parried awkward thrusts with more ease as he drove the fellow backward. When he struck the man across the face with the hilt of his cutlass, he thought the contest over. Until a slash of fire tore up his arm and he had scant seconds to realize he'd been struck. Stanton's annoyance went up another notch and he spun around, intent on ending the impromptu confrontation. He was spared further effort when the woman slammed the back of the sailor's head with the butt of a pistol and he went down with a groan.
Jack looked at her, a quizzical tilt to his head.
"I didn't think it necessary to kill a man simply for being stupid," she explained with a flash of pearly-white teeth. "But I thank you for your assistance, sir." She stepped closer and peered at her rescuer. He stepped back, sheathing his cutlass and watching her with the beginnings of suspicion in his pale eyes.
"Do I know you?"
"I think not, m'lady," Jack answered with a smile.
Now that he could see her clearly in the torch-light, Jack knew they had never met. He wouldn't have forgotten a woman as lovely as this one. The flicker of the torch flames seemed to be finding responding tongues of color in the falling waves of her hair, a long, tumbling mane that was presently slipping from the loose confinement of a leather thong she'd tied at her nape. The cloak she wore was open, and his sharp gaze took rapid stock of her clothes. His earlier opinion was confirmed in that sweeping appraisal as he inventoried silk shirt, close-fitting pants of heavy cotton, polished leather boots that reached her knees, and a wide belt from which hung the scabbard for her hand-crafted sword. She carefully placed the pistol at her hip, and watched his overt scrutiny.
"Jack Stanton," she said, her voice holding a hint of wonder. "You're Captain Jack Stanton, aren't you? The one they call The Phantom."
Jack's head tilted slightly to the side again as he met her bold brown stare. What he saw there amused him. She was curious, and faintly excited by her discovery of his identity.
"And you are?" he prompted, not bothering to answer her question.
She hesitated for only a moment, then smiled.
"Charity," she said with a small bow that was little more than a nod of her head.
"Well..." He paused. "Charity." The name didn't feel right, but he used it anyway as he took her arm and began steering her away from the sailor who was slowly regaining consciousness. "Where are you headed, love?"
Katheryn Hollinsworth tried to look at him as they walked, and her heart pounded a wild staccato in her chest, so loudly she was surprised he couldn't hear it for himself.
At her persistent prodding, her cousin Juliet had described Jack Stanton in considerable detail, having met him months earlier when he'd been captured, briefly, in Port Royal. But, she had failed to mention how strikingly handsome he was, Katheryn realized. Tall, broad-shouldered, with a wild tangle of thick blue-black hair, and incredible, exotic eyes that stole the moonlight from the night and shone it back at her when he glanced in her direction. Katheryn thought him the most intriguing man she'd met in her brief lifetime. His hair was almost as long as her own, and the braided tie that held it back from his face was adorned by exquisite golden beads, with a jewel worked into each of the many strands of leather in the intricate tie. His angular features were emphasized by a rich, deep tan, and his far too appealing mouth. He wore a finely tailored, lightweight cotton shirt of deep red, dark trousers, boots, and overcoat. On his head was a jaunty tricorne hat. Another man might have looked ridiculous; Jack Stanton looked romantic and alluring.
The cutlass at his side was well worn, as was the pistol. He walked with a natural swagger, and she sensed a sharp and nimble intelligence behind his mesmerizing eyes. Her nose twitched minutely as she caught the subtle scents that both surrounded and radiated from him. And again her awareness rose in response to an intoxicating blend of the sea, smoky taverns, a hint of rum, and the complex undercurrent that was uniquely Jack himself. When his grin flashed and he turned suddenly to catch her staring at him, she looked away quickly, blushing.
"I'd like to buy you a meal, Captain Stanton," she said, daring a sidelong glance at him. "To thank you for your help."
Jack's smile flashed again and he stopped their stroll with a hand on her shoulder, turning her to face him. Despite her height, she was almost a head shorter than Jack, and it took a finger under her chin to bring her eyes up to meet his.
"I can think of a much more interesting way for you to thank me, love," he challenged, voice pitched to a seductive low as he watched her closely for a reaction.
Something wild and powerful woke with a blaze in Katheryn's veins and she jerked back from his touch. Anger whispered past the furious roar of conflict that was creating a tempest within her, and she glared at him because it was easier to snap at the cause of her discomfort than it was to examine it.
"If you're feeling randy, Captain Stanton, I suggest you visit a brothel," she grated from between clenched teeth.
"Ahhh." Jack nodded, still smiling. "You're not quite what you appear to be, are you, my lady?"
Like everything else about him, the lazy drawl of his speech was a caress to her heightened senses. Ignoring the screaming in her head, Katheryn leaned upward to place a soft kiss to his cheek. Jack's hand moved before she could back away and his long fingers slid into her hair and drew her head forward to meet his. She swayed into his embrace, obeying instinct over reason, and Stanton's mouth covered hers in a kiss that was unlike anything she'd ever experienced. His lips were soft but sure, and her arms wound around him as she pressed her body against the solid, muscular length of his. When the tip of his tongue traced her lips, seeking entrance, she opened her mouth and accepted his probing exploration, attempting to mimic his actions.
Jack knew the instant their lips met that she had no experience with sex, or with something as simple as properly kissing a man. Her lithe curves, while sorely tempting him, were also warning him that he wasn't indulging himself with a whore. Her lush breasts pressed tightly to his chest, and he could feel the small, hard points of her nipples through the thin layers of her clothing. There were no corsets or stays under the silk shirt, only a light camisole.
He loosened their embrace just enough to give his hands the freedom to glide over her. She stopped him just as he would have tested the enticing weight of her breasts with his palms. Pulling back with a gasp, she stared at him in shocked surprise; which of them she was more taken aback with, Jack couldn't readily determine.
"Calm down, love," he murmured, tone pitched to a smooth, erotic purr. His grin appeared again, and he could almost hear the erratic flutter of her heartbeat.
"Good-night, Captain," she said in a weak whisper, then spun on her heel and fled, cape billowing behind her before she drew it tight to her body and ran.
Jack had glimpsed the fear in her eyes and it slowly stole the smile from his mood. Thoughtful now, he retraced his steps to The Siren's Reach, all the while wondering who the mysterious and lovely woman truly was.
* * * *
Katheryn slipped into her father's house through the servants' door and searched the entry hall for his tall form. She was safe. The large chamber was empty and the entire house quiet and still. She raced through the near-darkness and took the stairs two at a time as she sought the sanctuary of her bedroom.
Once inside, she shed her "pirate" clothes, snatched a nightgown from her chest of drawers, and pulled it over her head. A light footfall made her glance up, guilt and fright in her throat for an instant until she recognized her maid's sleepy smile. She lifted her hand to push back her wind-tousled hair and saw the stain of blood on her palm. Jack had been hurt, she realized as a sick feeling lodged in her stomach with the force of a kick. She turned and walked to the wash basin, fear twisting inside her at the crimson taint that quickly filled the white porcelain bowl. She tossed the bloodied water out a window and placed the bowl back on the washstand before she met the steady gaze of her maid.
"I see you're back home, Miss Katheryn," Patricia Tewson said with a remarkable amount of scolding in her soft tone. She'd been Katheryn's maid for most of her life, and tended to mother her despite Katheryn's objections.
"Did Father ask for me this evening, Patty?" Katheryn asked, and winced slightly at the quiver that lingered in her voice. How badly had Jack been hurt? Fear twisted within her as she tried to concentrate on her maid's words.
Patty nodded. "He did, Miss. Commodore Barkley's returned." She helped Katheryn into bed and tucked the blankets around her. "Why, Miss Katheryn," she exclaimed a moment later, "you're shaking like a leaf in a gale."
"I'm fine, really, Patty," Katheryn objected. "Please don't fuss."
The older woman tutted and fussed anyway, but eventually returned to her own room when Katheryn refused to answer her overt questioning about where she'd been. Once she was alone, Katheryn sank into her bed to contemplate the night's events, and to try to quiet the tremors that continued to pour over her in waves.
Captain Jack Stanton! She had secretly hoped to meet the infamous pirate; it had been the reason for her interrogation of her cousin Juliet. She hadn't dreamed he would affect her in such a manner, though. Her fingers shook when she touched her lips and remembered the exciting pressure of his mouth on hers. Her tongue darted out and she smiled when she tasted the lingering traces of Jack's kiss. No man had ever touched her the way he had; she'd been kissed before, but not like that.
"He's a pirate for heaven's sake," she muttered, disturbed by the watery sensation that settled in her limbs when she permitted herself to recall the overwhelming rush of feelings Jack had awakened with his casual caress.
And that's precisely why you want to see him again, the voice of her conscience taunted.
* * * *
"I suppose that's a souvenir of last night," O'Hara noted diffidently as he joined Stanton on the bridge of the Thorn. Crossing his arms over his broad chest, he watched Jack wind a length of clean cotton around his arm, a few inches above the distinctive tattoo of a withered rose with a large thorn from which fell a single drop of blood.
Jack ignored the query and rolled down the sleeve of his shirt when he stood, then looked over the secluded cove they'd located on the sea-facing side of Tortuga. On the opposite side of the small island was the much larger island of Hispaniola, and that was generally where most ships came into port.
"You've found a most suitable spot, Mr. O'Hara," Jack allowed with a smile. "How long before we can safely careen the Thorn and begin proper repairs?" The idea of beaching his beloved ship wasn't something that sat well with him, but he was also well aware of how necessary it had become. The hulls needed to be scraped and rid of barnacles, teredo worms, weeds and all other manner of debris that had collected there. Plus there were a number of holes that required serious repairs--tar and resin would only carry them so far. He wanted the Thorn in top form, especially when put to the test of out-running the HMS Navigator.
Several hours after work had begun, O'Hara approached a sweating Stanton and indicated the rise half a mile from the beach.
"Seems we have company, captain."
A lone rider sat silhouetted against the mid-morning sun. The sudden twitch in the region of his stomach warned Jack of the stranger's identity. A frown furrowing his forehead, he gave O'Hara a curt nod.
"Keep the men working," he said, "and I'll see to our guest."
O'Hara was startled, but he didn't have time to comment further when Jack grabbed his shirt from atop a nearby barrel and strode up the beach.
* * * *
"We meet again."
Katheryn yelped in surprise when the voice of Jack Stanton emerged from the trees moments before the man himself came into view.
"How did you reach me so quickly?" She sputtered the question before she could think about it, and stared when he laughed and came closer to her, his height forcing her to look up at him.
"A man needs to know the land he's on," Jack replied with careless disinterest. "If he intends to stay alive."
His expression darkened as he measured her presence, and her changed appearance. Today she was dressed as the deputy governor's daughter would be expected to, like a lady, not a pirate.
"Why are you here, love?"
He interrupted her study of him, and she started in response to the question before she recovered her composure and, to a lesser extent, her wits.
"I was out riding and I heard men singing," she answered. "What are they doing, Jack?" She was curious, but it was also a way to force her mind to concentrate on anything other than the overwhelming desire to touch him. He was even more magnificent in daylight than he'd been the night before. His skin shone with sweat from his exertions of minutes earlier, and his shirt was thrown casually over his shoulders, open and giving her a breath-stealing view of sculpted muscles and deeply tanned skin. Around his waist he wore a silvery sash, a color almost the same shade as his eyes. His long, flowing mane of dark hair was shining blue-black in the glow of the sunlight, and she thought it like the fall of a raven's wing.
"Who do you plan to tell about this meeting, Charity?" In spite of himself, Jack was disappointed when the dreamy-eyed wonder left her pretty brown eyes and they sparked with anger at his overt accusation. The flicker of startled confusion in her eyes confirmed another of his suspicions about her--as he'd suspected, Charity wasn't the name she was accustomed to hearing as a form of address. He touched her chin and smiled down at her. "Who are you, love?"
She frowned and chewed her bottom lip for a moment. "I don't understand the question, Captain," she ventured, deliberate in her evasion. "What, exactly, are you asking me?"
"It's a simple enough thing to give a man your name, darling," he taunted, his smile sliding easily into a roguish grin.
He shook his head. "Have it your way." He shrugged. "I still need to know who you'll speak to if I let you leave here."
"If you let me leave!" She took a step back and glared at him. "I will leave here as freely as I came, sir," she assured him, her voice gone soft and edged with steel.
"Then you'll answer some questions before you deprive me of your charming company." Jack scooped her into his arms as she began to shout and squirm. "Carry on like that, miss, and you'll force me to keep you quiet," he taunted with a mocking grin. He headed back into the wooded growth that concealed the trail he'd used to approach her unnoticed.
Katheryn continued to twist and curse in equal fury, until she finally managed to escape his arms. She fell unceremoniously at his feet and he laughed at her outrage. His amusement was quelled a moment later when she regained her footing and darted off into the heavy forest. This time it was Jack who muttered colorful curses as he sprinted after her. His strides, so much longer than hers, and unhindered by skirts, allowed him to quickly overtake her, and as he made a grab for her arm, she tripped and tumbled headlong down a small slope, her squeals a combination of fright and annoyance. Jack tried to keep his footing, but he was too close to the edge and moss made the ground slippery. He skidded awkwardly, then fell into the same sliding tumble that had taken her down.
When he crashed to a halt his landing was surprisingly soft. Before that could more than register, a twinge of pain jolted him and he grabbed her fist before she could hit him a second time.
"Get off me!"
Jack made a blind reach and captured her second wrist, then he twisted and regained his advantage as he pressed her flat on her back and leaned over her. His lazy grin grew when he looked down at her and relaxed into the yielding softness of her body beneath him. Her chest heaved with effort, and her breasts threatened to escape the straining front of her gown. Jack bent his head to place a soft kiss to her forehead. She quieted, but her eyes were wary as she stared up at him.
"Get off me."
This time it lacked the ferocity of anger, and Jack smiled at her. He touched her lips with the tip of his tongue and felt the tiny flutter of air that rushed from her at the light caress. The second time he licked at her quivering bottom lip, then covered her mouth with his, deepening the kiss as she stilled her efforts to dislodge him. When he released her wrists, she wrapped her arms around him and Jack permitted himself the pleasure of pressing more intimately to her lush curves.
The world spun crazily, even behind her closed lids, and Katheryn had a fleeting moment of sanity that warned her she had to stop Jack's kisses from robbing her of all sense of propriety. But when his tongue coaxed hers into a slow, tantalizing, stroking dance, she shuddered with a simple rapture that she wanted to drown in. Her hands drifted over the broad expanse of his back, exploring, drawing in the sensation of muscle moving smoothly under the thin layer of his shirt. His hands were as persuasive as his mouth, and she was aching in places she'd never been aware of before as he began to trace the curve of her waist, then his fingers were moving upward and she wondered if she'd faint in his arms if he touched her bare skin.
Jack's mouth moved to her neck, his bewitching tongue gliding over her skin until he stopped and began to stroke the sensitive hollow near her collarbone. Katheryn's fingers slid into the thick length of his hair and she hardly recognized the tiny, strangled whimper that came from her when one of his hands began to caress her breast, kneading firm flesh with gentle pressure. When his nimble fingers started to work the laces at the front of her gown, she didn't object. A few moments later, the warm whisper of the Caribbean breeze touched her as Jack eased back and opened the front panels of her dress. He tugged at the light camisole and drew it down to expose the thrusting peaks of her breasts.
Slowly, his eyes never losing their hold on her, Jack's fingers traced the shape and fullness of her ample bosom, his thumbs gradually moving closer to the pebble-hard points that crested the silken mounds of flesh. He flicked lightly at the hard buds and she arched into the touch, her spine curling with pleasure. He finally looked from her eyes to the naked beauty beneath him, and bent to take one rosy nipple into his mouth. His tongue licked repeatedly before he began to suckle.
His body ached with lust now, and he knew he was treading a dangerous path if he continued to indulge himself with this particular woman. Something in her trusting, awakening responses to him was piercing the armor he'd put on his heart a lifetime in the past. She was no whore, yet on the two occasions they'd met, she'd had him reduced to rutting need with no effort at all.
He rolled onto his back, dragging her across him as he moved, and his hips thrust upward into her, his body obeying its own want. She tried to sit up and ended up braced on her elbows with her breasts dangling before him, held in his hands as he moved from one to the other, kissing, licking, and sucking on their ripe bounty.
He drew away from her reluctantly and settled on his back, allowing her to stare down at him. "Yes, love?"
When she hesitated and lowered her eyes, her cheeks flushed darker, he cupped her cheek and made her look at him again.
"You've never done this before, have you, darling?"
She chewed on her bottom lip for a second, then sighed. "No."
He nodded, and eased her off his body, stifling a groan when his erection pulsed an objection to the sudden lack of her warmth. She was on her knees, watching him closely, and as he stared at her disheveled hair and dress, and the naked beauty of her exposed breasts, he was sorely tempted to ignore the sense of honor that was making him stop what he knew would have been a splendidly passionate romp with her. It didn't help his resolve any when he noticed her gaze locked on the front of his breeches, and the very obvious thrust of his potent arousal.
The harsh, subdued voice belonged to his quartermaster, O'Hara, and the instant it reached them, the spell shattered. Katheryn rose awkwardly and turned her back to Jack, pulling at her clothing in a desperate attempt to cover herself as quickly as possible. A moment later, O'Hara's smiling face looked down on them.
"Well, I see you've managed to take a tumble, Cap'n," he said with a laugh. "And make a soft landing as well, it would seem."
Jack scowled at him. He drew Katheryn to his side and led her back up the bank they'd slid down. As they neared the top, O'Hara took her hands and practically lifted her out of the shallow.
"Katheryn?" Jack repeated when he joined them.
"This is the deputy governor's daughter, Jack," O'Hara informed him. "Katheryn Hollinsworth."
Before Stanton could anticipate her action, Katheryn turned and ran. When he would have followed her, O'Hara grabbed his arm. "She's the least of your problems at the moment. We've just had word that The Fury is in the area."
Jack's eyes blazed with emotion at the mention of the other ship, and he nodded, forcing Katheryn Hollinsworth out of his mind for the moment. It wasn't easy when every step he took reminded him of the frustrated lust that surged through him.
* * * *
For nearly a month, Stanton's ship pursued their elusive prey, and each time they came into range and lost Lucian's ship again, Jack's mood grew darker and more dangerous. On a fine, clear morning, the first day of their fifth week out, the lookout high up in the crow's nest shouted that once again the Fury was within their range. Jack had been summoned to the main deck, and had immediately issued orders for all guns to be manned and ready. The chase was on...
"We're closing on her, Captain!" O'Hara shouted as the other ship grew steadily larger in front of the Scarlet Thorn. All hands scurried to carry out the orders Captain Jack Stanton was issuing as he calmly manned the ship's wheel. A gleam of determination shone in the captain's eyes, one his quartermaster had seen many times before, but there was a very real anger burning in their silvery depths, as well. They'd been chasing this particular ship for a very long time, not merely the past weeks, and somehow, they had always been a few hours behind her. Jack's rage grew each time he returned from ports the vessel had visited, but he had, thus far, been reluctant to say why. O'Hara knew it wouldn't be much longer before they all knew what was driving their captain this time.
The restless sea pounded the sides of the Thorn, and foam-flecked waves broke against her and sprayed the decks, as well as the men rushing around.
"As soon as we're in range, fire all guns!" Stanton shouted above the surf.
O'Hara nodded and headed for the deck. The mainsail was stretched taut, and the smaller topsail was unfurling quickly under the expert guidance of the riggers. The powder monkeys were ready, as were the youngest seamen, buckets of damp sand ready to dump onto the decks in the event that blood was spilled aboard the Thorn.
"Finally..." Stanton murmured, grim satisfaction in his tone and his smile. He made a slight course adjustment with an easy swing of the wheel, instinct guiding his hand as he focused all his attention on the ship-rigged vessel attempting to outrun them.
"Ready the guns, Mr. O'Hara!" Jack called when he knew they were closing.
Less than a minute later, the boom of the Thorn's cannons rocked the sea and the air around him. The smell of gunpowder filled his nostrils and he knew a second round would be fired within minutes. Screams, shouts, and general mayhem could already be heard from the damaged ship ahead of them and Jack spun the wheel of the Thorn again, positioning her alongside the other ship so they could board.
"Let them know who we are, Mr. Walters," he ordered, spotting the mate a few yards away. Walters nodded, and seconds later the black flag was being hoisted, its skull grinning wickedly above a pair of crossed cutlasses, their hilts each adorned with a thorny rose.
The guns boomed a second time, and Jack spotted several large holes in the hull of Lucian's ship. He was just enjoying the taste of sweet victory when it all turned to ash in the space of a few minutes.
"Cap'n," the lookout shouted frantically, trying to be heard above the general din on deck. "There's a British man-o-war coming up on us!"
Stanton glanced upward to the crow's nest, then turned his spyglass in the direction indicated. He cursed when he spotted the vessel that was rapidly closing the distance. The bloody HMS Navigator! Which meant Edward Barkley would be at her helm. Stanton had no quarrel with his one-time friend, but if Barkley forced his hand, he'd fire on the navy ship.
"Take the Fury," he ordered, voice harsh with anger when O'Hara rushed up to his side. "Give the crew a chance to make a peaceful surrender, O'Hara, but keep deBeaupre in chains until I get there."
"What about that, Jack?" O'Hara gestured to the nearing Royal Navy ship.
"I'll deal with Barkley myself," he informed his quartermaster. "The bridge is yours, Geraint."
* * * *
"What brings you on board my ship, Jack?"
He met Barkley's level stare with no outward emotion. "The Fury is mine, Edward," he said with quiet steel in his tone. "I have an old score to settle with her captain."
"I have a new one, I'm afraid," the commodore answered.
Curious, Jack fell into step next to his former comrade as they headed for the ship's bridge.
"Aside from the obvious fact that Lucian deBeaupre is a pirate of the worst order, what could you want with him?"
"He's taken the deputy governor's daughter hostage." Barkley informed him when they were away from the interested ears of the rest of the crew. "Almost two weeks ago. He's demanding a full pardon from the King."
Jack's heart began to pound with a rage that filmed the bright day in shades of blood when he looked at the captured ship his men were plundering. So far, there was no sign of deBeaupre, or his captive.
"We've been tracking this ship for over a month, Commodore." Stanton forced calm into the words, and met Barkley's shrewd blue eyes. "There's been no sign of a hostage."
"How many times did you lose her over the past month, Jack?" Barkley asked in a curious, reasonable tone.
Stanton didn't bother with an answer, they both knew the Fury hadn't been in his sights the entire month. The Thorn would have had her at the bottom of the Caribbean weeks sooner if that had been the case.
"Jack," Barkley began, his eyes alert, "how fast can your men get off that wreck?"
Jack spun and snarled in anger when he saw what Barkley had spotted first--the Fury was sinking, quickly. O'Hara was already abandoning the ship, and men swung back aboard the Thorn, loosening the grappling hooks with experienced ease. When Jack finally spotted Lucian deBeaupre, and struggling to escape him, the familiar beauty of Katheryn Hollinsworth, he pulled his pistol and took aim.
"You'll never make that shot, Jack," Barkley snapped. "Not without killing Katheryn, too."
"I don't have to," Jack breathed, relief making him weak. O'Hara hadn't left the Fury yet, and he was a crack shot. A shout made Lucian turn, and Katheryn kicked him viciously. When he threw her aside, O'Hara's shot took Lucian full in the face. By the time the quartermaster reached Katheryn's side, she was leaning over the gunwale, retching violently.
"Get him to bring her here, Jack," Barkley suggested, his voice low and heavy with meaning. "Given the circumstances, and the fact that the governor is so anxious to have his daughter returned safely, once she's aboard, the Thorn is free to go."
Jack measured the truth in Barkley eyes, knew he was not being tricked, and nodded. Their battle would come, but it would not be fought today.
* * * *
Katheryn had been back in Puerta de la Plata for several days before she was able to escape her father's home and make her way down to the village. She'd caught only a glimpse of Jack Stanton on board the Navigator when she'd been rescued, but she hadn't been able to speak to him. They had things to talk about. And she was determined to make him listen. The two weeks she'd been held by Lucian deBeaupre had taught her things about herself she might never have understood, among them the depth of her feelings for Jack. Lucian had accused Jack of evil things, but when he was drunk, he was more honest, and she had learned that the feud with Stanton had begun over five years earlier--when deBeaupre had stolen Jack's wife, Elaine, as the result of a disagreement over treasure taken from a Spanish galleon. By the time Stanton had caught up with The Fury, Elaine had been near death. She had never recovered, and had died less than a month later.
Banishing the past, and the pain it created in her heart, Katheryn hesitated when she reached the doors to the Siren's Reach tavern. She knew some of the Thorn's crew would be found here, but wasn't as certain Jack would be among them. She drew up the hood of her cape and dragged in a deep breath, her hand resting on the grip of her pistol under the concealing length of dark, heavy linen that was her cloak. Then, before she lost her nerve, she went inside.
The shock of sound and smells assailed her the instant she passed through the doors, and it took several seconds for her vision to adjust to the change in light. Lamps shone brightly, and the tavern was packed tight with drunken sailors and the ladies who entertained them. She made her way to the bar and almost drew her pistol when a rough hand on her shoulder turned her away.
"Miss Katheryn, what in God's name are you doin' here, lass?"
"I've come in search of your captain," she replied, and let herself be led by Geraint O'Hara into a less noisy corner of the tavern. He glared the table's two occupants into moving, then pushed her onto a chair.
"Don't move," he ordered sharply. "I'll be right back."
Less than five minutes later, O'Hara returned with two tankards in hand, and put one of them on the table in front of her. "I told the barkeep to water it down a little," he explained when she looked up at him in surprise.
Katheryn shrugged and lifted the heavy cup, then experimentally sipped. She almost choked the instant some of the liquor slid down her throat. O'Hara laughed, and she didn't have the strength to glower at him for the effrontery.
"What, in God's name, do you call that concoction, Mr. O'Hara?" She finally gasped, her eyes still stinging from the shock.
"Punch, Miss Katheryn," he chuckled. "Spirits, wine, tea, lime juice, sugar, and whatever spices come to hand. I did tell him to go heavy on the water, lass."
"Punch," she muttered. "A most appropriate choice of name, sir."
"Why are you in a place like this?"
"I want to see Jack," she replied with complete candor. "Is he here?"
O'Hara shook his head. "Probably back at the Thorn. He's been... difficult," he chose his wording carefully, "since we left the Fury at the bottom of the sea."
She mulled over his reluctant admissions, then nodded. "Where can I find your ship, Mr. O'Hara?"
"That is not a good idea, Miss Katheryn." He shook his head, and locked eyes with her, an easy match for her stubborn determination.
"Then give him a message for me?" She withdrew a small envelope from the folds of her cloak and put it on the table, sliding it across to him.
Warily, O'Hara picked it up and put it inside his shirt. When she rose, he stopped her with a light hold on her wrist.
"It ain't safe for you to be out alone, miss," he warned.
She smiled. "Then perhaps you should see me home, Mr. O'Hara?"
For a moment, she wondered if he'd refuse, then he sighed and nodded his acceptance of the suggestion.
When they were walking through the town, she led him away from the governor's mansion, and he grabbed her arm and made her face him.
"I'll take your message to the captain, Miss Katheryn," he stated. "I won't take you to him."
"My house is this way, Mr. O'Hara," she informed him. "While Jack had you chasing all over the Caribbean for The Fury and before I was abducted, I persuaded my father that I needed a private place of my own. I found the house the day Jack had The Thorn careened on the beach."
O'Hara was skeptical and made no effort to pretend otherwise. "He never did know how to control you, did he?"
She laughed. "He learned a long time ago that it was easier for us both if he didn't try." They continued to walk. "How did you come to be a pirate, Mr. O'Hara? When I last saw you in England you were a lieutenant in the Royal Navy."
"Aye." He nodded. "And Jack Stanton was a captain. When Lord Chesney had him court-martialed for killing that ridiculous dandy of a son, I helped him escape, and went on the account with him when he headed for the Indies and I met up with him again. I can't say I've regretted it much, Miss Katheryn."
"Nor would Jack, I'd venture to guess." She smiled. She stopped him and pointed. "That's my home, Mr. O'Hara," she told him, then grinned. "It's called The Phantom's Lair."
O'Hara stared for just a moment, then he burst into hearty laughter.
"Aye, miss, and a fine name it is. I'll tell the captain."
"Tonight, Mr. O'Hara," she pleaded softly.
He nodded, and watched her slip into the heavily wooded growth that virtually surrounded her small house but for a tiny clearing in front of the doors. A closer look showed him the narrow path that had been hewn into the underbrush, and a second look told him that she'd chosen it for its visibility from the upper balcony. She'd be able to see anyone nearing the place if she was watching, and only a chosen few would be able to find the second path that would lead to the rear entrance. She'd shown him so that he might tell Jack how to safely approach the place.
* * * *
Three nights after her foray into town, Katheryn heard a knock on the rear door of her home. She was alone here, only permitting her maid Patty to work during the day. At night, she insisted on being on her own, much to the outraged maid's displeasure. But, like so many others, Patty had long ago learned that Katheryn could be more contrary than the average mule when it suited her. And, when it came to this house, it suited Katheryn to be the mistress and not to have her actions questioned by anyone.
Climbing from her bath and pulling on a nightgown and robe, Katheryn when to answer the quiet knock the second time she heard it. Heart pounding wildly in her ears, she reached the door and tore it open in her eagerness. Before her, more breathtakingly handsome than she remembered, stood Jack Stanton. He looked curious, and wary.
"Come in, Jack."
She stepped aside and he hesitated for only a moment before walking into the house and closing the door behind him.
"Your note was most intriguing," he said, looking into her eyes.
"Is that why it took you several days to come to me?"
"Katheryn," he began sternly. "This is a very bad idea, love."
"Is it?" she challenged, and stepped toward him, amused when he backed up a step. If she'd drawn a saber he wouldn't have been more edgy. "I think it a very fine idea, my dear Jack." She again closed the distance between them and stood mere inches from touching him.
His gaze drifted over the smooth, delicate features, admiring with new perceptiveness the striking beauty in her face. There was no doubt in her eyes, only a determination he couldn't deny. His look dropped to the slightly parted lips that had haunted him so frequently during the past few days, and he leaned closer to cover her mouth with his own.
The contact was electric and Jack melted into the caress, his tongue slipping between her lips to taste again the tantalizing warmth of her mouth. She met the thrust of his tongue with her own and drew him deeper into the kiss as she shifted closer to him and molded her body to the tall pirate's. Long minutes later, they broke the kiss with a gasp and he looked into her dazed brown eyes and smiled.
"Are you sure about this, Katheryn?" Every part of him longed to ignore the query, but he truly needed to know that the woman he held understood what she was asking him for, and how it would affect her future life. Jack was extremely conscious of how badly he wanted to be with her, but he wasn't willing to risk regrets on her part. He knew in his heart that he was already bound to her, however unwanted the connection was, and also that he wanted nothing more at that moment than to make this a real beginning for them.
Katheryn couldn't trust her voice, her head was spinning with the combination of confusion and excitement. The intense kiss had reawakened the hungry passion she'd felt the day she'd discovered the Thorn careened on the beach a few miles away--the day Jack had very nearly made love to her on a bed of moss, in a shallow hollow. Now, like then, she was left shaking with the desire she felt for more of the intoxicating contact. She drew in a quivering breath and very slowly nodded, her eyes locked with his.
"Why?" Why are you pushing this? a tiny voice in Jack's head whispered. He heard the answer, as well, but shied away from it just then.
"Because I think I love you." Katheryn closed her eyes once the words were out, as surprised at having said them as he appeared to be at hearing them. "I think I've loved you for a long time, Jack. From the moment I first heard your name, so many years ago. They tell stories about you back in England. I just never knew my dreams might one day become reality." She felt the pirate's hand under her chin and she opened her eyes again to meet Jack's pale, silver gaze.
"I think I may love you, as well, my pretty Kate," he whispered. He was almost surprised by how sincerely he felt and meant the words, then it disappeared in the glow of happiness he read in her radiant smile.
"Would you like to see the master bedroom of this house, Captain?" she whispered.
The blush that stained her cheeks charmed the jaded buccaneer more than she could ever have known.
"The Phantom's Lair, indeed." He smiled. "Please. I am yours to command, Lady." He inclined his head in a small bow, and she took him by the hand and headed for the stairs.
The bedroom was deceptive in its size, and was dominated by a massive, four-poster bed. Floor to ceiling glass doors were open, the warm scent of the Caribbean drifting in to add a distinctive tang to the night air. The bedding was worth a small fortune, he noted, the finest silk and linens, trimmed with lace that had no doubt been made by Katheryn herself.
The colors in the room were soft and cool, and the hardwood floor beneath his booted feet gleamed so that he was certain he would see himself reflected in the shine once morning came.
Katheryn released her hold on his hand and went to light several lamps, which cast golden warmth into the room and dancing shadows onto the walls.
He leaned on the doorframe for a moment, drinking in the loving thought that had gone into every detail of the splendid bedroom. Then his attention was once again captured by the lovely woman who had created a sanctuary fit for a king, let alone a hunted pirate.
"What do you think of it, Jack?"
He laughed quietly. "'Tis a fine refuge, my love," he replied with a nod. "Better than any I've been offered in my lifetime, Kate."
"I want this to be a safe place for you, Jack. It's one of the reasons I asked my father to allow me to find a house of my own."
"And does he know what you have christened this sanctuary?"
"No," she conceded. "Though I would proudly have an engraved plaque put on the gate if it would suit you."
"That won't be necessary, darling," he assured her and came fully into the room. He didn't stop until he was directly in front of her, and she had to lean back to meet his gaze.
She saw the shift in his expression and her nerves responded vividly to his very presence. Her look moved over the pirate's features and she smiled when she realized how different Jack looked to her now. She was noticing things that she'd never taken the time to see before, things that made her want to be as close to him as it was possible to be. Her hand seemed to rise of its own volition, and she let her fingers whisper across the high, curving cheekbones that dominated his features. Her sensitive touch lingered at the deep laugh lines near the corners of his remarkable silver-gray eyes, then moved lower to brush a feather-like caress over his slightly smiling mouth.
Jack felt the light touch stir a tremor that ran the full length of his body and he stepped closer to her, their bodies not quite touching, yet. He was surprised by how intensely he was reacting to everything, as well as how much he wanted to draw out the sensations he was feeling. Katheryn's eyes were shy when she met his again, and Jack's conscience pushed him for what he knew would be the final time.
"Are you sure this is what you want, love?" He asked again, the words little more than a breathy whisper between them.
"I haven't been able to stop thinking about this," she acknowledged in a quiet murmur. She looked rather embarrassed by the revelation, and her color rose again, but her eyes never left him. "I want to be your lover, Jack."
"Katheryn, you have to be certain," he pressed. "There are men who'll brand you a whore, or worse, especially any you might later choose to marry."
Katheryn thought about the words for a long minute, weighing the honesty of them against the undeniable fear they stirred within her heart.
"I don't care, Jack." She finally forced her voice to work, and discovered as she made the statement that it was a more simple and honest truth than many others she'd uttered throughout her life. She belonged to Jack Stanton, it was in her soul, and no other would ever touch her.
Jack hesitated for another moment, until her hips moved into his, then he caught her mouth in a kiss that conveyed exactly how much he wanted her. The surge of desire that swept through him left him trembling against the curvaceous body pressed so tightly to his and he had to pull back enough to gasp air into his lungs. Her breathing was easily as strained as his, and Jack smiled into the silken hair beneath his chin as he held her to him. The second time he claimed her tempting lips, his caress was gentle and exploring. His hands dropped to her slender waist, then began to glide upward over the lithe muscles of her back, as his tongue entwined with hers, tasting again the warmth that had taunted him so often in his daydreaming. She was clinging to him and he answered the restless thrust of her hips with his own movement, pleased at the shudder of response that rippled through her.
He finally stepped back and smiled at her flushed features.
"We don't have to do anything you're not ready for, Kate, I promise," he said, his tone one of reassuring warmth. "We've got all the time in the world."
Katheryn shook her head and tried to smile. "It's not that, Jack.. I just..." She trailed off as her gaze dropped to the floor. "I don't want to disappoint you," she finally managed, feeling both foolish and relieved now that she'd made the confession.
Jack's eyes closed and he had to force the roar in his ears to dim. If that was the only thing worrying her, he was well and truly blessed, to say the least. He had an extensive list of possible problems that he was currently ignoring. He moved closer again and drew her into a gentle embrace.
"Nothing you will ever do could disappoint me in any way, Katheryn," he murmured next to her ear. He smiled when her arms tightened around him and she relaxed against him with a soft sigh.
Jack felt the stirring of responsive desire awakening inside him. He brushed aside the heavy tangle of copper-tinted auburn hair at her neck, and lowered his lips to the enticing curve. Katheryn's hands glided over his back as he began to trail kisses up the side of her neck, then continued the exploring trek across the smooth contour of her jaw until he caught her mouth with his. Their tongues met and Jack silenced everything in his mind as he answered the demand of their shared passion.
When the kiss finally ended long minutes later, Jack led her over to the bed and sat her down. She slid to the center and opened her arms to him, then arched upward into the embrace as he settled over her and covered her mouth with another breath-stealing kiss. His hands worked the buttons on her nightdress and pushed it aside to give him access to the smooth, flawless expanse of her ivory skin. Sensitive fingers moved over the finely molded contours of her shoulders and upper chest, then drifted downward to the gentle, sloping swell of her breasts. He felt the tiny gasp of pleasure when his thumbs brushed a whispery caress across her taut nipples. He released his hold on her lips and his mouth moved to the soft hollow at the base of her throat, his tongue stroking gently, then with increased pressure when her head fell back and her breathing grew strained.
Her low moan vibrated against his tongue when, seconds later, his hand shifted and he pulled one of her legs over his hip. He bent his head to one of her nipples, his teeth tugging on the hard tip while his fingers probed between her thighs. A moment later, he was surprised when she pushed his hand away. He eased back and stared into the glittering dark eyes, only then noticing the hoarseness of his own breathing.
Jack watched through hooded eyes as she slid off the huge bed and turned to look at him. His fascination increased as Katheryn began to undress, discarding first the simple robe that hung from her shoulders, then tugging at the nightgown until it pooled around her feet. Each movement was made with calculated, evocative grace. His eyes wandered openly over the glorious beauty of the woman before him, her luscious curves and pale skin glowing in the shifting gold of the lamplight. His entire body responded to the sight of her. His gaze dropped to the dark auburn triangle that dipped enticingly between her thighs, and he felt his shaft hardening in anticipation and excitement.
Jack tossed her a grin and stood up, but she evaded his reach. She crawled back onto the bed and knelt there, facing him.
"I want to see you, Jack," she requested.
He nodded and began to remove his clothes, his eyes watching her expressive features for every subtle nuance of reaction. The last thing he discarded was the heavily beaded leather thong that held his hair out of his face. He dropped it on the bedside table and turned to face her. He wasn't fully expecting the open appreciation he read in her pretty face when he was totally naked and her eyes wandered over him. In the back of his mind he acknowledged the fact that this was the first time in a very long time that he'd taken the time to truly look at a woman he intended to make love with, and probably longer again since he'd permitted the luxury of having his lover drink her fill of him without a single touch exchanged.
Katheryn stared in open interest at Jack, feeling the ache in her body growing as her eyes caressed the tall, muscular form in front of her. His shoulders were broad, and the smooth, curving chest flowed into a flat, solid stomach, then tapered into narrow hips. Long legs were well-muscled and strong, and her stomach did a wild lurch when she recalled the feeling of this magnificent body pressed tightly against hers. Her look drifted back up to Jack's straining erection and she felt a moment of uneasiness when she allowed her mind to contemplate what it would feel like to have him inside her. She dismissed the momentary twinge and turned trusting eyes back to her handsome pirate.
Jack had said he loved her; that knowledge took away any traces of fear which remained. She grasped his hand and pulled him down to the bed as she settled back. Her fingers entwined in his thick, lush hair and she opened her mouth to the probe of his tongue as Jack's body covered hers. She arched against him, wanting the feel of his smooth skin touching her completely, enjoying a perception of him that she would never have thought possible.
Jack released her mouth and shifted lower in the bed as his lips continued to trail soft caresses over her silky skin. His hand moved lower to part her thighs and he felt the reactive rise of her hips when he brushed a light caress over the thatch of auburn hair, then moved his fingers farther down and parted her already slick folds.
Her gasp of pleasure a moment later brought an indulgent smile to Jack's lips. He stared into her drowsy eyes for reaction to the steady stroking of his fingers over her hypersensitive skin. As her breathing evened out, his probe became more intimate, and he slipped one finger into her tight, wet heat. When he lowered his head to taste the sweet core of her passion, her hands tangled in his hair, though he didn't know if she was asking or denying. He avoided the contact she clearly expected, and let his tongue play in the curving hollow of her hipbones.
Katheryn felt a surging wave of sensation begin to build to an inferno inside her, turning the blood in her veins to something wild and hot. She was burning from the inside out, and she wanted it never to end. Jack's teasing fingers between her legs kept her gasping for breath. She shuddered again when she felt the satiny touch of long strands of midnight hair tickling her thighs. A second later she cried out and her entire body convulsed when he lifted her hips and his mouth trailed open, wet kisses along the length of her thighs before his tongue slid into her and began to lick in leisurely strokes.
Jack felt the spasms of pleasure running through her body as well as the betraying tension that grew with each careful thrust of her hips. Katheryn's hands in his hair tangled almost painfully and he had to grip her hips as her sudden release rocked through her with a force that left her choking for air. She fell back against the pillows and Jack let his head rest in the curve of her hip for a few seconds as he fought for air himself.
He shifted to stretch out next to her and his fingers brushed feathery caresses over the dampness between her breasts. She turned dazed eyes to him and the smile that lit her features was dreamy and so filled with love that Jack felt it flood over him and bypass a veritable lifetime of acquired defenses. The innocence and honesty he read in her expression warmed his heart, and filled him with a security he hadn't known in far too many years. He would never have to guard any part of himself from this gentle woman, he realized with a sense of near awe.
Katheryn saw the change in his face, and she reached out to touch his cheek, concerned by the subtle change she felt in him. "What's wrong, Jack?"
"Nothing, love," Jack reassured quickly. "I was just thinking how special you are."
"You're pretty special, too." Katheryn smiled, her fingers moving from the high cheekbone to whisper over the fullness of his bottom lip. She parted the pirate's lips and leaned over to cover his mouth with a deep, seeking kiss. She moved as the pressure of the caress became a demand and when Jack rolled onto his back and lifted her off the bed, she settled over his hips, then sat up. She grinned down at him as her hands traced light patterns of touch over his broad chest. She could feel the hardness of his erection nestled against her warmth, and she shivered.
Jack's hands at her waist pulled her down again and Katheryn's hips answered the restless, thrusting movement of his body rocking beneath her. Her hand slipped between them as she shifted and her fingers curled around the smooth, hot velvet of his shaft. Jack's hand covered hers and began to stroke, his hips moving into the rhythm instantly. She quickened the firm strokes for several moments, enjoying the strain in his breathing, then she stilled the action and leaned over to cover his lips again.
Jack's tongue slipped between her parted lips, probing deeply, and she answered the hunger she felt in the caress, her own excitement creating a heady dizziness inside her. She finally broke away from the searing kiss and her lips moved to his throat, sucking gently on the skin as her tongue pressed into the smooth hollow. She could feel every shaky breath of air he dragged in and her mouth moved to his chest, where she teased the hard, sensitive tips of his nipples, her tongue tracing tiny circles around each of them before she closed her teeth around one and teased at the other with bold, exploring fingers. Jack's gasp of pleasure became a soft murmur of encouragement when she began to suck on the nipple in her mouth.
Jack's hands glided over the curving expanse of her back as his entire body responded to the gentle, seeking touches. His body ached with the denial he was imposing on himself, and he was torn between the longing to satisfy that need and the equally strong desire to prolong and savor every second of their lovemaking.
Katheryn's tongue leaving a wet trail across his chest and down his stomach transcended everything except the intoxicating swell of passion that washed over him, and he arched into the sudden bliss of her warm mouth as it slid over his swollen shaft. His hands dropped to her shoulders and he thrust carefully into the exquisite, engulfing wetness. He moaned softly when her mouth began to move over him, and his hips answered the motion with growing urgency. He felt the betraying tension in his body and he stilled the movement of his hips, determined to control his release until he was ready.
Katheryn was momentarily startled by the sudden stillness in Jack, and she pulled back to look at him.
The erratic rise and fall of his chest as he fought for air brought a smile to her face and the knowledge of her sexual power made her wickedly brazen. Her fingers slipped between his thighs as the pirate willingly spread his legs. Katheryn's mouth moved back to his rigid cock and her tongue licked the smooth length of the glistening shaft, her touch soft and teasing. Jack groaned in an agony of arousal when her tongue played over the tiny slit in the head of his penis and licked at the moisture there. Her head ducked lower to follow the path of her exploring fingers, but Jack pulled her back into his arms and caught her in a kiss that left them both struggling for breath several minutes later.
When he reversed their positions again, and was lying over her, nestled between the silk of her thighs, Jack kissed her forehead and made her meet his eyes. "Kate," he whispered, voice hoarse. "Do you trust me, love?"
Katheryn didn't trust her voice. She nodded, and caught Jack into another kiss that removed any doubts that may have lingered in her handsome pirate's heart. He withdrew from the caress and through heavy eyes, she watched him, fascinated at the ripples of passion she could feel running through his magnificent body. He hesitated for only another moment, then guided his eager cock to her slick entrance. "There will be pain, love," he warned her. "But, after that, I promise you nothing but pleasure."
She nodded, and her eyes locked with his as he began to push deep into her. Jack saw the quick widening of her eyes as surprise flickered there, then she moved slightly under him, her hips rising to meet him. Gritting his teeth, he thrust hard and was buried completely in her tight heat. She gasped as the pain froze her for a few eternal heartbeats of time and he held himself motionless as she adjusted to him inside her.
"Love me, Jack," she breathed next to his ear, and he groaned, swept into the tidal wave of passion that had been waiting for this moment. He closed his eyes again and let himself bask in the incredible sensation of their bodies joined together, the passion that filled him fueled by the depth of love that bound them. Katheryn's tiny whimper of need was accompanied by a restless thrust upward and Jack allowed his hips to answer the demand. He moved slowly at first, his strokes shallow, mindful of her inexperience. As she began to match his rhythm, he reached down to lift her legs and place them around his waist. She wrapped her arms around him and her soft, "Oh, Jack..." blurred in his mind as he lost himself to the near desperate need for release.
His name mutated into a sobbing scream of ecstasy long minutes later, and Katheryn shuddered in his arms. As her muscles clenched and quivered around him, his orgasm swelled within him and his hips moved with greater urgency. Seconds later, his release rushed through him and tumbled him into the same euphoria that was staring at him from her dark, ebony eyes. He moaned as his orgasm spilled into her and left him shuddering against her still shaking body.
Almost ten minutes passed before Jack stirred from the sated stupor that held him, and he very gently slipped free of her. He heard the tiny murmur of sound that escaped Katheryn and he tilted her head up to his and covered her mouth with a tender kiss, the probe of his tongue caressing. She stared up at him a minute later and Jack's heart smiled at the look of unabashed love he saw in her drowsy brown eyes.
"Your father is going to kill me," he murmured, and kissed her forehead.
"He'll have to catch you first," she whispered, voice tainted with laughter. "And a phantom is an elusive prey, my love."
"Mmmmm..." He settled on his back and closed his eyes, fighting off the desire to sleep soundly for at least a week.
He opened one eye and saw her staring at the rose tattoo on his arm.
"Why a wilted rose and the bloody thorn?"
He sighed, then turned on his side and faced her. "The first woman I loved was a pretty parlor maid named Rose. When she chose to marry someone else, I discovered that roses have thorns, and they rip into a heart until it's bloody and wounded. This always reminded me not to fall in love again. I failed, of course, and did marry. I met her in Jamaica. Elaine was a beauty, and I was captivated. I was also quite foolish, and it renewed my determination never to fall in love again." He grinned at her, and kissed her until the concern left her pretty features. "The second time, I managed nicely--until you came to Tortuga and set your sights on a poor, ignorant pirate unable to resist your charms."
"You are many things, Jack Stanton," she teased, then pushed him onto his back again before she climbed across his hips and sat back, "I would hardly count ignorant or poor among them," she concluded. "You, my darling, are wicked, and by far too handsome for anyone's good."
He chose not to answer, but merely grinned in his roguish way. She traced a circle over the smooth expanse of his chest, stopping when her palm rested over his heart.
"Lucian told me about Elaine," she said cautiously.
"You loved her."
It wasn't quite a question. He decided to answer anyway.
"I did, once. Sometimes, now, I wonder if it was Elaine I loved, or the idea of her. I've heard more than once over the years that she wasn't unwilling to go with deBeaupre, though in truth, I will never know for certain." He reached out and picked up the hair thong he'd tossed on the table earlier, his fingers toying idly with the golden beads. "This..." He pointed out one particularly ornate bead, more carefully fashioned that the others. "...was made from the wedding ring I gave her. There is one trinket or jewel for every treasure I've taken. Though I am not certain I will be able to add one for the treasure I've taken this night," he added with a mildly wicked grin.
"I want to go with you," she announced.
He shook his head. "No, love, not aboard the Thorn. T'would be far too dangerous, for both of us."
He pulled her down to him and kissed her with leisurely thoroughness. When he did draw back to look into her glittering dark eyes, she was soft and pliant with reawakened desire.
"Stay here, Katheryn," he whispered. "In this home you've created for us."
She considered the request for a few minutes, then nodded. "On one condition."
He was about to kiss her again, but drew back, his silver eyes sharp with suspicion.
"Your terms, lady?"
"I want to see if my father can have your name cleared, Jack," she replied seriously. When he started to shake his head, she touched his cheek and smiled. "I will do it anyway, my love. I remember Lord Chesney. His son was a fool, and he is a bigger one."
"Do as you will, Katheryn," Jack relented. "But do not be surprised if your father is less than helpful."
"Leave my father to me, dearest." She grinned, an echo of his wry humor.
"Suddenly," Jack said, "I feel distinctly sorry for the Governor."
* * * *
* * * *
The cloak of night fell swiftly, draping the small string of islands in velvet darkness. A deceptive peace enfolded the peoples of the Rim Rocques. In the Royal House of Aldenrood, a conference was underway, a secret meeting to discuss the destruction of their greatest enemy.
For centuries the Rim nations had been plagued by pirates, some heroic figures, most common raiders and thieves of the worst order. For nearly a hundred years in the newest time-cycle all the scattered isles had come to realize their shared adversary was much more than a mere pirate to be imprisoned, hanged, or even caught. The Forbidden Isle had come to life before their eyes, and eventually her dark prince had made his presence known to all.
"Is the ship ready to depart?" The eldest of the Council masked her revulsion and disapproval as she looked from one worried countenance to another until she had met the eyes of every leader present.
"Within the day," a quiet, determined voice interjected. "I won't fail your trust."
"Princess of the Aurora Isle," the elder murmured softly. "You have chosen a dark fate indeed."
"Fate has chosen me." The young girl smiled as she made her soft declaration, but fear threaded into the brave words and dimmed their courage slightly.
Against her better judgment, the Queen of the Jeweled Rocque nodded.
"Then we must accede to the dictates of the fate which rules us all."
The uneasy rumblings of uncertainty fell on deaf ears as she walked to the open window and looked into the star-strewn night sky.
* * * *
Magic thrummed in the icy pitch of the night air. Sorcery and song combined to create a powerful and potent spell, one that promised to be all Jaden had demanded.
Arrah contained her wrath, pushed it into the darkest corner of her soul, as she concentrated on the binding harmony she was weaving with the winds. Power surged within her, and she breathed in the sweet, pure essence of earth-force, captivated now by the mystical rapture that the music stirred and sent spiraling into the night.
Waves rose and battered the ebony shores of the Isle of Nyx, their crashing voice another rhythm of power in the enchantment. The winds coalesced, added their resonant wail to the euphony of sounds that filled the air, and she shuddered, savage spirit attuned to the maelstrom of forces that engulfed her. She shifted the tone of her song, weaving greater torrents of madness into the music, and the night darkened further.
With the blackness came vision.
She caught his unique scent, heard the whisper of silk moving rhythmically with each step he took toward her. She felt the power of his very presence long before his graceful hand came to rest at her shoulder.
"The Spectre is ready for launch."
Jaden's smooth, sensual voice caressed her, as silken and alluring as the power that vibrated within her body. She smiled, felt his arms glide around her waist, and the soft, evocative stroke of his tongue at the side of her neck made her tremble. His hands roamed freely over her, everywhere at once, lighting fire and hunger in her veins as he touched and explored familiar curves. She arched away from him, and he pulled her back against the solid steel of his body. Her voice reached a new crescendo of furious power when his mouth covered the throbbing pulse at her neck. She felt the sharp piercing of her skin, then their thoughts merged and reached outward as he sought beyond the storm she'd conjured for him.
Long minutes later, he released his hold on her and turned her to face him, dark eyes glittering in the darkness. He smiled, tenderness in the shift of his perfect features. She leaned up to kiss his cheek, then bent her forehead to his chest, faintly aware of the stolen heartbeat that was hers, hearing the even cadence that was a flawless echo of each thump of life within her.
"How long will you need?" she asked, her earlier anger faded for the moment.
"We will return before dawn," he replied with faint laughter in his rich tone.
"Is this treasure worth the risk you take, Jaden?" She wasn't as certain as he appeared to be. Something, an indefinable and worrisome element that remained out of her reach, nagged at her.
"This treasure is far more than gold and jewels, Arrah," he purred gently.
Startled, she met his gaze. "What did you see?"
Her eyes grew huge; she felt it happen as he smiled down at her.
"Have faith," he murmured as he bent to kiss her lips, a slow, erotic caress that tasted faintly of blood and magic. "Wait for me," he added with a wink, then he vanished in an inky swirl of mist and silken cloak.
* * * *
The harbor of Nyx was alive with activity when The Spectre's master arrived. Fog swirled around the ground, wisps of ghostly smoke that tumbled together briefly, writhed and twisted, then shredded apart to dance alone again. Through the insubstantial vapor, Jaden's footsteps closed the distance without sound, yet all knew he had arrived on the pier. He strode to the end of the aged wharf and was met by Kaylor. Kaylor had known Jaden for many decades, and he was a hard, and sometimes cruel, overseer to the men of Jaden's crew.
"We're ready to sail, Captain."
Kaylor's rough voice spoke from the darkness to Jaden's left, and he turned. The blackness of the night was no impediment to Jaden's preternatural vision. He merely nodded, then stepped into the small launch that waited to bring him to his vessel.
He touched the boatman's shoulder, and smiled wryly when the muscle tensed beneath his fingers. No word was spoken as the craft began to glide smoothly amid the turbulent waters of the storm-tossed harbor. Jaden was pleased when he could clearly see the sleek beauty of the galleon moored a quarter mile off the coast. This ship had served him well for many, many years. Her crew changed continuously, out of necessity, but none had ever dared to falter in his duty to the wraith-like Captain of the timeless galleon.
Once he was aboard and at the wheel, Jaden indicated Kaylor could get them underway. He rarely spoke to any of the crew, Kaylor included, unless it was unavoidable. He preferred his own company, or that of the were-witch, Arrah. The Spectre slid into the roaring fury of the ocean, cutting a graceful, even line into the surging surf that battered the ship's sides.
It took less than an hour to locate the reason for this night's excursion. Pitching wildly in the rough waters, a tall, three-masted ship came into view. Jaden was pleased. She was a pirate's dream, and would be a fine addition to his steadily expanding fleet. And her gold would add to his growing vault of treasure. Kaylor gave the order to drop anchor, then all was quiet on the galleon.
* * * *
On board the West Wind, the crew clung to any available part of the boat that would enable them to stay on the ship instead of being tossed into the spraying, heaving ocean. Over a dozen men had died in the first surges of the sudden storm, sent tumbling over the sides, screaming in frenzied fear. There were some among the crew who thought those already dead to be the fortunate ones, though none dared to speak the words aloud. Desperation had driven them to accept the commission to sail the West Wind close to the fabled, and much dreaded, Isle of Nyx. Faced now with the reality of the journey's fate, many knew their last voyage to be true folly.
The enemy vessel appeared from nowhere, a silent, stable ghost, deserving of its mythical designation. All in the region knew of The Spectre, and her mysterious commander, Jaden. Little was known about the pirate captain, except that he had been part of their legends for as far back as any history that had been recorded. He vanished for long years, faded into myth, then returned to haunt a new generation. He was the master of the Forbidden Isle, and all others who set foot on her shores were never seen again. Before long, and with no fight offered, grappling hooks snared the sides of the struggling West Wind.
Jaden boarded alone, as was his custom. The distant howl of a wolf rumbled on the currents of the diminishing wind, and he felt a familiar tingle of warmth. The darkness enveloped him, hid him even as he walked among the terrified mortals who awaited a strike that would never come. He went to the captain's wheel and stood before the man, permitting himself to be seen. Slowly, pale eyes went wide with horror, and Jaden laughed.
It was a simple matter to walk among the sailors; a single, glancing touch brought them unnatural peace. Made them malleable and willing to follow Jaden's softly spoken directives. Kaylor boarded the captured ship a short while later, and Jaden prepared to return to The Spectre. He was stepping down into the launch when the presence of another mortal was felt within his mind. Amused, and curious, he crossed the West Wind's deck and scanned the vessel with ancient, carefully tuned mental energy. He found the hidden presence almost immediately.
Smiling, he allowed his captives to watch as he dissipated into smoky mist, then sank through the wooden deck to the lower level of the ship. He shimmered into a semi-tangible form in a cramped corridor outside the captain's cabin, then, satisfied that he had the right place, poured himself into solid shape inside the small room. He was startled for seconds as he stared into the wide, turquoise eyes of the most exotically beautiful woman he had seen in over a century.
"So, you are my treasure this time," he murmured with distinct pleasure. "And a fair prize, indeed."
She swallowed hard, and he saw the effort she made to remain composed.
"Your name, my lady?" he requested with purely theatrical gallantry.
"Sarita," she whispered, her voice little more than a shudder of air forced from her lungs as she began to breathe again.
"Well, Sarita, your vessel has just been taken prisoner. Is there any special reason why I should not enslave you as I have the rest of the crew?" He made the query lightly, amused by her chaotic thoughts of escape and blind panic. He could hear her terror as clearly as if she spoke each thought aloud to him.
"Th-there is a vast sum of gold in the cargo hold," she stammered. "And the jewels that were to be my trousseau, all my family owns. Take it all," she offered weakly.
Jaden's head tilted to one side as he considered her proposition.
"This ship is already mine," he countered. "So, in essence, the goods you so generously wish to give me are my own." He bowed, an elegant flourish of motion that would have created genuine amusement in Arrah had she been witness to it. "We will discuss this further once we reach my home."
Before she could utter a sound, he vanished again, an exotic flow of sparkling haze that danced in the air for several moments before winking into nothingness.
* * * *
"She intrigues you, doesn't she?"
They were standing in the lowest level of the castle, surrounded by wealth that would have made men weep for the sheer beauty of it, yet neither of the chamber's occupants gave it more than cursory notice. Precious stones glittered like a thousand eyes in the flickering torch light, and gold glinted endless rays of spurious sunshine into the shadows that haunted the room as ancient ghosts.
Jaden laughed lightly, but his eyes never left the anxious woman who walked at his side. "Arrah, what do you sense about her?"
"Something hidden," she replied after several minutes reflection. "Something that may be a danger to you, Jade."
His grin flashed roguishly and filled with the devilment he knew never failed to amuse and excite her. "And what will you do to this little creature should she harm me in any way?"
An inferno of blood-tainted fire flashed in Arrah's amber eyes briefly, then she snuggled into his neck. "I will offer what remains of her to the pack," she whispered, a faint growl of anger in her low voice.
His arms tightened around her and he kissed the top of her head where it rested under his chin. Her warning, though, did not go unnoted in his vast memory.
* * * *
"You refuse to tell me who your family is, beautiful Sarita," Jaden stated as he entered the garden soundlessly and came to a halt behind her.
She whirled, fear swirling through her for the briefest moment before she contained it and smiled wanly.
"I never hear you, Lord Jaden."
"Jaden," he chided. "I am no lord, Sarita."
"On my island you are called Prince of Nyx," she informed him with calculated wariness.
"Prince?" he repeated, mocking her with his eyes and his tone. "You honor me."
"My family cannot pay a ransom, Lor...Jaden," she corrected when his eyebrow rose with greater derision than he'd previously shown. "You have our wealth."
"I do, indeed, have the greatest jewel in your family's vaults. Perhaps you wish me to tell your betrothed where you can be found?" he taunted softly, his ebony eyes gleaming with dark mirth.
Again, fear flooded through Sarita. Again, she shut it away.
"Why are you keeping me here?" she asked in desperation. "Where are the men of the West Wind?"
"You are my guest. Enjoy yourself, Sarita." He smiled and spun away.
She stared at the space he'd occupied a heartbeat earlier. Ice coursed through her veins and she dropped to her knees to pray, and weep.
* * * *
Deep within the castle's lower levels, hewn from magic and sheer force of will, was the private place that was Arrah's refuge. It consisted of several chambers, a place of rest, a place of magic, and the waterfall that frequently acted as a restorative to her soul and power. Sometimes this was the place she went to escape Jaden. Other times, it was the place she went to call him to her. At this moment, she wasn't certain which need drove her, but the need for serenity was something she couldn't deny.
The soft rain of warm water cascading over the rock ledge and onto her supple limbs was a caress of welcome tenderness. Arrah sighed and closed her eyes as she braced her hands on the wall in front of her and let the waterfall envelop her body. Waist-length hair clung to her back, and she reluctantly stepped away from the support of the wall and raised her arms to gather the long tresses and push them aside.
Her spine tingled in warning.
The scream that started to rise in her throat lodged there as she was pressed back against the steam-warmed stones. The steady stream of water blinded her and terror choked her. As she shook her head and reached out to push away the figure that towered over her, she was lifted off her feet. An intense spasm of shock and awakened lust shook her body as he entered her with a quick, hard thrust.
Arrah closed her eyes and arched toward him, her legs wrapped tightly around his waist. She shuddered into the passion that swept through her as his body moved rhythmically against her. Her heart felt like it was bursting with happiness. She refused to allow any other emotion to take away the perfection of this moment. The back of her head hit the wall as she exposed her throat, the invitation and surrender unspoken, expected. She clung to him when his fangs sank into yielding flesh.
When Jaden finally released her and stepped away, Arrah stared at him, her eyes dazed and filled with wonder. The fall of water continued to pour over them, and she watched in mute fascination as the smear of blood at the corner of his mouth dissolved beneath the watery spray and sent a fading pink rivulet of color down the pale length of his body. Her hand shook when she reached out to place her open palm against his chest. He didn't fade into air. He was real.
The ties that bound them were complex and often intangible. It was rare that Jaden entered into physical contact with her, their natures were too much alike at times, and they had, on occasion, actually hurt each other in their hungry passion. Yet, each time he did come to her in his corporeal form, her heart felt like it grew wings.
Dark, ebony eyes filled her vision, the expression in the shadowy depths one of expectancy and mild amusement. One perfect eyebrow rose, emphasizing the wordless anticipation of her reaction.
He caught her, held her pressed firmly to him. His hands tangled in the long, wet stands of red and black hair that streamed over her shoulders in disarray. He ached for her in a way he hadn't known possible before her, and the brief taste of her blood, and her love, had only teased his hunger, not sated it. He picked her up and carried her into the nearby bedchamber.
Arrah stared up at him when he placed her in the center of the bed and stepped back to look at her. He watched, and felt, anger stir within her. He knew she could sense that he'd been toying with the girl he'd discovered on the ship, and now he'd come to her to quench his passion.
"I sometimes hate you, Jaden," she eventually whispered, words shaken and weak with futile understanding.
Arrah's hate had never concerned him in any real fashion. "She's not you, my pet," he murmured. "None of them could be."
He watched his voice affect her like a touch, saw the tensing of curving muscles as she repressed the shiver of longing his tone created and nurtured. He sat on the edge of the bed and let his fingers trace the smooth contour of her hip before his hand slipped between her thighs and gently parted them. She shook her head and tried to move away from him. Jaden's fingers dug into sensitive flesh and held her firmly in place.
"Don't make me hurt you, Arrah. We've played this game far too many times. I always win. You want me to."
After a heartbeat's pause, she laughed at him. The sound was an echo of rage and pain, and so much bitterness that his eyes narrowed when he looked down at her. He read her anger an instant too late to avoid it.
She sprang forward. As the momentum of her lunge tumbled them off the bed, Arrah's own fangs tore into Jaden's neck. The sweet tang of his blood, so exquisitely intoxicating, spurted into her mouth and she swallowed the taste and texture of her lover's essence. His surprise brushed her mind, his pleasure woke other desires. He'd fed before seeking her out, and she felt the hint of fear that lingered from his victim.
She eased back, slightly, and continued to lick at the trickle of scarlet wine that escaped the raw wounds she'd inflicted. Without interruption, her tongue moved lower, streaked a blood-wet caress across his chest. Her fangs scraped across the points of his nipples, and she smiled inwardly at the growl of aroused passion she heard rumble deep in his chest. Long fingers danced over her skin, then fastened on her hips as he tried to pull her down on him. Her hands curled around his wrists and yanked; she slammed his arms onto the floor as she leaned over him.
Jaden watched her, drank in the wild-eyed beauty of her lust-induced madness as she bent to run her tongue over his arousal. His back arched seconds later when she closed her mouth over him. The heat of his own lust grew with each answering thrust of his hips as she continued her erotic torture. Laughter spilled from his lips, the sound low with carnal satisfaction. He'd always loved the way Arrah hated him.
Arrah's heart contracted within her at the soft echo of his amusement, his total arrogance. Anger rose again. She let it flow through her and override the hunger he roused in her. The sharp points of her fangs deliberately tormented him, created tiny shudders of pain within him. He snarled in fury an instant later when she pulled back and crossed the room in a blur of unexpected motion.
Jaden's enraged growl warned her that she'd miscalculated her chances of escaping him. He caught her too quickly, and flung her onto the bed. She was scrambling off the soft piles of furs when the grip on her ankle threatened to tear the trapped limb from her body. He hauled her back to him. The ripping of the bed linens was unnaturally loud as she fought him, nails clinging uselessly to the fragile material.
He forced her onto her back with a casual twist of his wrist. Her shriek of agony filled the chamber when his powerful mind amplified the assault he had just begun in earnest. Limp and weak with pain, Arrah was unresisting when Jaden joined her on the bed. His hand caught and knotted in her hair, then dragged back her head so that the curving line of her throat was exposed to his ravenous hunger. He pulled her up onto her knees, and as she was forced to stare at the shadowed ceiling above them, her body trembling with terror.
Another spasm shook her when he laughed. Her fingers clutched his forearms as he bent to suck one rigid nipple into his mouth. Her choked gasp of surprised pleasure made his body throb with renewed hunger. He bit soft flesh, careful not to hurt her. She shivered, arched into the sensation, and he felt her own passion betray her. He moved to tease her other breast, then his free hand slipped between her thighs and expert fingers slid into hot, slick flesh.
"Jaden...my beloved prince..." Her hips pushed into his touch, demanded that he assuage the need he'd aroused. She knew this teasing possession wouldn't be enough; she needed him, desperately wanted his dominance, his power. It was the thing that made her whole, and fueled her own very dangerous power. A low hiss of anguished hunger escaped her. "I want you inside me, Jade."
Jaden's head rose, and glowing eyes snared her equally passion-bright stare. He read the blatant want in her mind and felt a responding surge of hunger and energy flood into his veins. He smiled to reveal extended fangs that ached for her blood. He settled back on the mattress of furs and silken linens drenched with their mingled scents, and drew her with him so she sat astride his hips.
Arrah bit into her bottom lip as she tried to control the instinctive need to surrender to him. He yanked her closer, and wet tendrils of long, copper-tinted hair fell like a curtain around them. Jaden's face, beautiful as no other's could ever be, filled her vision. She closed her eyes and groaned in exquisite rapture as his hands fondled her breasts. Her hips shifted. She lowered herself over him, moaning loudly as their joining became the only tangible thing in her world.
Her body straining against his, Arrah fell forward and drew his mouth to her throat. Her body convulsed and she choked back a howling scream when Jaden's fangs found their place in her neck. His mind caressed her, soothed her frenzy as she spasmed in ecstasy. Her love poured into his awareness, sweetened the blood that he drew from her in hungry swallows. He wanted to drink until she withered in his arms, until he'd consumed her completely. Arrah had long ago become his addiction, as consuming as his need for blood, and his control was being sorely tested.
Weakness threatened from her master's continued feeding. The shadows in the room grew thicker. She whimpered softly. His name was a breath of air, and a tiny tremor of fear shivered through her. He finally drew back and she collapsed on him, clinging, barely conscious.
Moments later, his wrist touched her lips. She opened her mouth, drank the gift of his blood, and felt his obsessive desire swirling within the life-giving wine.
The knowledge came swiftly, unexpectedly, revealed in his chaotic thoughts and the intensity of his lust--Jaden did truly love no one but her. Despite his frequent dalliances with the women and men he took captive during his raids, it was only Arrah he loved and needed at his side throughout his eternal existence.
* * * *
Jaden walked among the imprisoned men, measuring each in turn, weighing the potential life force contained within each starving body. He'd already drained several men of their spirit and will; all that remained was to drain them of mortal life. He would enjoy that, too, in time. For now, he was still searching for the reason they were so easily discovered by Arrah's magic. The people of the nearby islands feared him, with good reason. It was not logical to assume they would send a ship so close to Nyx. Not without profound purpose.
He came to the last cell in the long corridor, and smiled.
"Sarita tells me you are called Dorchael." He pitched his powerful voice to hypnotic gentleness, lulling the other man into trust. This man was obviously Sarita's personal bodyguard. He was tall and powerfully built, with sharp grey eyes, silver-grey hair, and olive skin. He was not an old man, despite the deceptiveness of his appearance. In fact, Jaden could already feel the vigor of his life-force rippling the air like an invisible thread that joined them together. "I believe she cares for you," he continued as Dorchael shivered. Smiling, Jaden entered the cell without opening the iron-barred door. He walked toward the horrified man, who was unable to do more than shriek silently with his eyes. Jaden knelt and kissed the open mouth, inhaling deeply.
For eternal moments he drew in the temporal life-essence, then he shuddered in ecstasy. He fell back as the mortal sighed and crumpled, barely breathing.
"Is that the fate your new pet will meet once her people have sated your hungers?"
Jaden smiled and beckoned her forward. Arrah shook her head, her smile sardonic.
"If you wish to speak to me, Jade, please find me once you've stopped feeling glutted on that poor creature's spirit."
Jaden rose, swayed ever so slightly in drunken stupor, then he drew in a ragged, if unnecessary, breath and imposed his ancient will upon his still quaking body.
He found Arrah in her cavern-like chambers a short while later.
"Have you discovered why she was given to me?" he asked without preamble.
"She's not like others you've taken, Jade," Arrah told him, luminous eyes glowing in the shadowy atmosphere of the chamber. "They wanted you. She fears you. Nothing more."
Her eyes swept over him, the appraisal unconscious. He was a breathtaking male. Tall, with thick, inky dark hair that flowed over his shoulders and halfway down his back. His eyes were the deepest earthy brown, his face smoothly contoured, features in perfect symmetry. His chest was broad, waist and hips narrow, long legs lean and muscular. All in all, a stunning man. And Arrah had not known any woman to resist him when he wanted to be at his charming best. Only Sarita had proven immune to the mesmerizing beauty that dazzled so many others.
When Arrah looked into his eyes she saw what she had feared. The challenge this woman Sarita presented was Jade's real source of fascination, and he was determined to break her resistance.
"Don't be a fool, Jaden," Arrah warned. "Until we know the origin of her fear, she may still be a danger to you."
Jaden considered the words, his own eyes preoccupied with looking at his most precious prize. Arrah's heavy mane of hair was a constantly changing combination of copper and raven black tresses, the waist length glory as untamed as the woman herself. Her eyes shone like beacons in the semi-darkness, and her lithe curves never ceased to fascinate and arouse him. He shrugged, smiling into her flickering gaze as he began to shed his clothes. When the last article dropped onto the floor, he went to sprawl across the fur-laden bed. Her scent lingered on the linens and silky pelts, and his body reacted violently, his hunger sudden and intense.
"Come to me, Arrah," he breathed, seduction and need turning his voice into a rasp of lusting desire.
She laughed and stripped off her own clothing before slithering onto the bed with him. He caught her hips and rolled, pinning her under him without the teasing foreplay in which they often engaged. When he thrust into her seconds later, she howled her pleasure into the night, a surging song of fulfilled passion that reverberated to the depths of Jaden's primeval soul.
* * * *
The silvery moon shone over the tower floor, and Arrah stood at the window, gazing outward. Below in the garden, Jaden was once again toying with Sarita.
Kaylor had come for the gold that Jaden always paid him, and had gone without speaking. Arrah could still see the small line of men trudging down the hillside to the tiny village hidden near the coast. Jaden had chosen only a handful from this crew, his hungers had been greater of late, and most were already dead, drained of life and blood. The husks that were left had been fed to the pack of wild wolves that roamed the other side of the isle.
The back of her neck tingled, and she sighed. Jaden would soon be making love to his captive. Sarita was falling under his spell, however unwillingly. Lasting jealousy had long ceased to be an emotion Arrah felt when Jade amused himself with those he captured aboard the vessels he plundered. Once they succumbed to his fatal charm, he was like a child who'd won a game. Then he would be looking once more to Arrah's power and ageless allure.
She went inside again, to the small pool of blood and glittering water that rested atop a pedestal in the center of this chamber. Jaden rarely came here; the distinct tang of blood in the air made him restless, and hungry.
Arrah dipped a finger into the cauldron and began to sing softly. The swirl of the tainted waters sped up, and her voice rose with the tiny tempest and reached outward. The sky was growing light, dawn coming much quicker than she'd realized. But there was time. This was a night when her magic would be strong and certain. The moon shone down upon her, bathed her in its spectral light and cool power. She changed the resonance of her song, plunged deeper into the shadows that veiled the answer she needed.
It took much longer than she wanted. Whomever had cast the spell of deception had done it well.
The pitch of her tone altered again, and demanded revelation.
Slowly, as though leafing through pages in a book, the layers of magic began to peel away.
* * * *
Jaden's triumph filled him with a joy that was both contempt and amusement. He closed his eyes and drank in the sensations of his body responding to Sarita's ardent caresses. She was ravenous with her own lust now, and begging him to take her. He enjoyed her surrender, but wasn't ready yet to savor the complete pleasure of his victory. He wanted her to plead, and to tell him what he wanted to know before he would end her torment, and his own.
Arrah's voice was distant, and he listened closely to the tapestry of sounds and sighs that blanketed the night. He recognized the vision-song, and knew she was using the moon to enhance her power to search beyond the immediate boundaries of the Isle of Nyx.
Sarita's cry drew him back and he looked down at her where she knelt before him, her eyes beseeching, her hands spread in entreaty.
He knelt in the soft, dew-damp grass, and drew her close. She wrapped her arms around him and began to trek kisses along his neck.
* * * *
Arrah knew she had been tricked when the cold night air grew warmer. Rage threatened to obliterate sanity for timeless seconds as she found what she had so fervently sought. The song she threaded into the air changed abruptly, and with it came the cries of her wolves, and the screams of those her magic destroyed as she wrenched free of the trap of sorcery.
* * * *
Jaden's skin crawled as he held Sarita tightly to his body, thrusting savagely into her willing flesh. She urged him to near brutality and smiled when she looked into his straining features. He saw jubilation shining in her eyes, then Arrah's voice caught his full attention again.
Anger began to pulse through him, easily smothering the ravaging desire that had driven him to distraction minutes earlier. He smiled down at Sarita, and basked in the sudden waking of terror that glistened in her eyes when realization awakened within her.
Sunlight singed his hair, the smell of it smoldering enraged him further. He tore himself free of the woman and stumbled, crawling in desperation toward the much too distant safety of his castle home. Sarita's hands clawed at him, holding him back as his strength deserted him further with each passing second.
The song in the distance grew loud and seethed with anger. Hope sparked within Jaden. Arrah's power was vast, and he had never before heard the searing fury that resonated in her voice now. He dared to look upward, and laughed weakly when he saw the gathering storm clouds. Blacker than coal, they swirled and danced in the morning sky, turning day to night with shocking swiftness. As the shroud of darkness settled over him, he grasped Sarita and hauled her to him again.
"Who are you?" he hissed with hatred.
"Sarita, daughter of Dorchael, princess of the Aurora Island."
Her proud defiance might have been entertaining--if she had not come close to killing him.
Jaden struck with invidious force, his fangs driving deep into her throat. He drank her life in great gulping swallows. She tried, once, to push him away, and he snapped her neck with effortless ease. When he'd taken his fill, he dropped her lifeless body and fled into the sanctuary of his home.
Arrah's song gradually drifted into soft, lilting harmony, then silence.
* * * *
"She was a willing sacrifice, meant to destroy the dark Prince of the Isle of Nyx," Arrah told him near dawn of the true night that followed. "Her mother was a powerful sorceress. She cast the premature sun into the sky, knowing that Sarita had finally lured you into a place where you would be less than cautious."
"How did she know?"
Arrah shrugged. "It was probably the old one who made love to you, Jade. She must have placed her own spirit within her child's body in order to know the precise moment her power was needed."
"Then she is dead, too?" he asked, angered much more than he wanted to be.
"She is," Arrah reassured, and peered intently at him.
She frowned. "You doubt me?"
He held her gaze for several minutes, then his smile returned, though he knew it lacked its usual charm and humor.
"Give her to the pack," he ordered coldly.
"There is nothing left to give them," Arrah commented.
Jaden looked at her for a moment, then he nodded. "I hope you enjoyed yourself, my love. Tell Kaylor we will sail tonight."
"I'll be back at nightfall," Arrah promised.
Jaden watched her go, then went to his bed-chamber in the deepest recesses of the ancient keep.
* * * *
He woke quickly, sensing he was no longer alone in the vault.
Lying still, he waited for a few restless seconds, then he laughed and turned to watch as Arrah's sleek, gleaming black form began to glitter and mutate. The vision was still a marvel of magic to him, despite his having witnessed it countless times. The majestic wolf slowly vanished, to be replaced by the equally striking form of his lover and companion.
"Is The Spectre ready to depart?"
She nodded and sank to her knees beside his bed. She smiled and kissed him, running a hand through the thick tangle of his hair.
"How many souls will my pirate plunder to satisfy his thirst for vengeance?" she mused in a whimsical tone.
Jaden smiled, the expression devoid of warmth. "We will sail tonight, Storm-singer, and we shall see... we shall see..."
* * * *
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As Fate Decrees
Simply The Best
The Devane Files
Hidden In The Mist
Blood Wine and Pale Roses
Descent Into Darkness
The Gates of Infinity
Whom Gods Have Favored
Heart Of Stone
Another Man's Wife
The Domino Effect
A World In Darkness
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Also from Solstice Publishing
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