Moonlight on the Caribbean
Lady Chloe Wesley descended the grand staircase at her family's country estate, her best friend Isabella Black at her side. They made a regal pair, fit to make any man take a second—or even a third—look. Chloe was dressed entirely in a rich indigo color, accentuated by the glimmering sapphires around her neck. Her thick, dark hair was pulled back and up into a woven regal crown. Her figure was vital and lively, and her eyes sparkled more than the sapphires.
Young Lady Black made a fitting counterpoint to her tall, dark companion. Her unbelievably tiny waist was pulled even tighter by the whalebone corset beneath her pink satin dress. Her blonde hair was styled in coquettish little ringlets. She looked nothing short of angelic, and she had an expression to match. Those who knew her knew she had the heart of an angel as well.
Chloe and Belle had met at finishing school at the age of thirteen. From then on, they had been inseparable. They had passed every milestone together. At sixteen, the two friends had taken London society by storm. And now, two years later, they had one more mission left in life, one last bridge to cross; and they had every intention of crossing it together. Tonight was the night they would run the final gauntlet and, hopefully, emerge with hands and hearts promised.
Belle took a deep breath as she reached the bottom of the stairs. She was practically bursting with excitement, but a lady didn't show such things. A lady remained calm and poised at all times, even when the man of her dreams was waiting in just the next room. She turned to look at her best friend. Chloe's face didn't betray a hint of the excitement Belle knew must be going on inside of her. "Can you believe this is finally happening?" She couldn't stop the somewhat squealing tone of her voice.
Chloe forced a weak smile for the sake of her friend. She too was having trouble retaining her cool, but for the opposite reasons as Belle. Belle was lucky. She had fallen head over heels for the man her parents had picked out for her. It had never occurred to her to realize she would have to marry him whether she wanted to or not. Chloe knew she didn't have a choice, and she also knew she didn't have the support of her parents. But she had to do this for their sake anyway. The family was floundering under the influence of too many generations of extravagant spending. They needed money—lots of it and quickly—or her whole family would be disgraced.
But there wasn't time to think of that now. In no more than seconds, the gentlemen had come to the side of their ladies. Belle blushed as Commander Shawn Douglas Brady of His Royal Navy took her hand and brushed his lips against it. She couldn't help but notice how attractive he looked in his dress uniform. With his dark hair and warm brown eyes, he was her every fantasy come true. She curtsied beautifully, relying on her years of training to get her through the awkwardness and butterflies of this night. It was now or never. He was going to be shipping out for his station in Jamaica in the morning.
"You look enchanting this evening, Lady Isabella," he murmured, her hand still locked in his, as he looked into the eyes that had bewitched him the moment he first saw her. She was perfect, everything he had ever dreamed of or hoped for in a wife. If only he could overcome his nervousness enough to say the words that had been on his heart for days.
"Thank you," she returned, blushing furiously. It gave her pale cheeks color and only added extra allure to the quaint, doll-like picture she made. Both of them were so occupied with each other that they failed to notice their parents' grins in the distance as they watched the scene. They had truly chosen a good match. Added to the old friendship between the families was Shawn and Belle's obvious love for each other.
Chloe would have liked to observe her friend's romance with the rest of them, but she was prevented by the approach of her suitor. Philip Kiriakis represented everything Chloe longed to achieve. A wealthy plantation owner, the son of wealthy plantation owners. He lived in Jamaica, unrestrained by the pressures of appearing wealthier than he really was. Everything he represented, he was. She envied that. And she wanted that freedom.
Even if she had to lie to herself to get it. She could pretend she loved him. It shouldn't be too hard. He was handsome, in a boyish kind of way, with his dirty blonde hair and blue-gray eyes. And he did seem quite taken with her. There wasn't any reason at all why she should feel this inward revulsion from him. His behavior was in all ways proper and circumspect. But there was a look in his eyes she didn't like. He looked at her like he had found a new suit of clothes he liked, like she would be a good prize to add to his collection. He had no regard for who she really was inside.
Why should that matter? she scolded herself. People married for reasons other than love everyday. And those that did marry for love over more material considerations were generally regarded as fools by the majority of society. She herself had been known to scoff at such stupidity. But that had been before she'd seen her best friend fall in love, before she'd seen the way Shawn held her in his eyes, before she'd known what love was really like.
She pushed those thoughts away. They could get her into trouble. Too much trouble. Her family needed money. She needed an escape from English society. Philip offered the solution to both those problems. She had to choke down whatever regrets she was feeling and accept the inevitable. She had chosen this path for herself months ago when she had first met him at a ball. She had known then that she would be Philip's wife. Now, tonight, was her last chance to make that mission a reality.
And judging by the look in Philip's eyes, it shouldn't be too hard. He pressed her hand to his lips longer than was customary. Chloe pushed down her momentary gag reflex. She was used to ignoring her emotions. She'd been doing it all her life. "Lady Chloe, you are a vision," he complimented her in a sultry whisper. His eyes when he looked at her were hot with desire. He looked ready to devour her.
Her father cleared his throat behind them, trying to interrupt this scene. Something about Philip left him vaguely uncomfortable. He wished that Chloe would reconsider this decision, but she had always been stubborn. There was no use trying to change her mind when it was made up. "Let's go into dinner, shall we?" There was an unmistakable warning in his tone as he glared at Philip.
Philip looked momentarily nonplussed, but quickly recovered. He smiled at Chloe, flashing his dimples, and extended his arm to her. "Shall we?" he asked smoothly, completely ignoring Lord Wesley.
Chloe glanced pleadingly at her father to keep the peace, before nodding and smiling at Philip and letting him escort her into the dining room. It was to be a small intimate dinner. Only Shawn's parents, Lord and Lady Black, and her own family, besides the four young people. It was the way Belle and Chloe had wanted it. Each for their different reasons, as each was determining their different destinies.
Miriam Lockhart watched from the shadows with the other servants as dinner was served. As Lady Isabella's personal maid, she wasn't responsible for the meals. She didn't even necessarily have to be there, but Belle had ordered her to stay. She wanted to take a walk with Shawn after dinner and needed a chaperone. Mimi smiled slightly. Trust Belle to have everything worked out in advance. She didn't want her parents ruining her special moment with Shawn, and she knew that Mimi would keep her distance.
The relationship between Belle and Mimi was so much more than mistress and maid. Mimi was her confidante, her sister, her best friend when Lady Chloe wasn't around. Mimi loved her young mistress and envied her the optimism and innocence that she was partly born with and partly granted through her sheltered upbringing. And Mimi liked Commander Brady as well. She had made it a point to study him carefully in all the time he had spent with Belle, and she had reached the decision that if anyone in the world was worthy of her mistress it was Shawn Douglas Brady.
Her eyes moved to the other young couple. Lady Chloe was difficult to figure out. A girl of quickly changing moods. She could be as sweet as an angel one moment, and then turn on a dime, and put the demons to shame with her fury. But mostly, she kept herself to herself. Mimi had known her for as long as Chloe had known Belle, and she still didn't feel that she understood her. But she knew that Chloe loved Belle as a sister and would give her life for any she loved, and that was enough for her.
Her eyes narrowed as she took in Philip Kiriakis. She didn't trust him any farther than she could throw him. He was too smooth, too eager to please. There was something about him that didn't sit right. Perhaps Chloe and Belle couldn't see this, with the structured, careful way they had been brought up. But Mimi had no such illusions. She knew an evil man when she saw him, and he was one.
She couldn't understand why Chloe would even consider marrying him. Mimi wouldn't have for all the money in the world. Money didn't buy happiness. Nothing would buy happiness married to a man like that. She could foresee only pain for Lady Chloe if she went through with it. She only wished that she could advise her against it, but she knew how pointless that would be. Chloe would just laugh at her. She was only a servant girl, after all. What could she know?
The night air was alive with the noises of crickets chirping and the gentle rustling of the wind through the trees. Belle barely felt the chill of the early spring evening. She was lost in the warmth of Shawn's gaze, her feet barely touching the ground. She was only dimly aware of Mimi following at a discreet but respectable distance. Everything was perfect, just the way she had always dreamed it would be.
Shawn walked beside her, close enough to hear her rapid breathing, yet still not touching. His hands were folded behind his back in proper military fashion. The navy was a family tradition of sorts. He was the newest in a long line of Bradys to enter the service. The Brady men knew how to be strong and unafraid in battle. What should be so terrifying about telling a girl he loved her and asking her to marry him? And yet it was.
"Er, beautiful night," he began awkwardly, inwardly cursing himself. He wished for a moment that he had Philip's gift with words. No doubt his proposal was coming along so much better. Shawn cleared his throat uncomfortably.
Belle refrained from giggling, even though she found his nervousness so adorable. It was good to know that she wasn't the only one scared out of her mind tonight. "Yes, the stars are lovely," she returned quietly, ducking her head.
They returned to their uncomfortable silence as they walked along one of the garden paths. Strange, over the past few months they had been able to talk about everything with each other. They knew each other as well as if they'd been friends their entire lives. But now, they couldn't think of one intelligent thing to say to each other. Shawn spotted a stone bench up ahead. Perhaps it would be easier to speak without the constant motion. "Would you like to sit down, Lady Isabella?"
"Yes, thank you," she said formally, before allowing him to help her down to the stone bench. Her dress formed a lovely pink satin lake around her, and she discreetly picked and played with it as he paced—marched, she decided—before her. Every once in a while, she glanced up just to take in once again what a handsome, strong figure he was.
Okay. This was it. He was just going to do this. "Isabella Black, will you marry me?" he blurted out, with all the tact he would have used dispensing orders to his men. He bit down the flame of embarrassment and stood still before her, awaiting her answer.
Belle couldn't hold back her laughter this time, partly from relief, partly from the ridiculous way he had asked her. But she saw the hurt, mortified look on his face and instantly calmed down. "Yes, Commander Brady," she said, her voice still shaking with mirth. "I would be honored to marry you."
Shawn felt momentary relief, before his doubts once again surfaced. She looked too…happy. "Why?" he asked bluntly.
Belle stared at him for a moment in shock. "Why would I want to marry you?" she asked incredulously. At his curt nod, her cheeks flamed. This was most definitely not how she had envisioned his proposal. "Well…I…um…Because I love you, Commander Brady. Is that reason enough?" After her outburst, she immediately returned her attention to her dress, as if she had found something of great interest in the folds of her skirt.
Shawn grinned, all military bearing forgotten, as he hauled her bodily off the bench and kissed her soundly, breaking all bounds of common decorum. She didn't object however. In fact, she leaned into him and encouraged his kiss. Her arms found their way around his neck and fastened themselves there. Although surprised, Shawn was in no mood to object. Her actions spurred him on to greater boldness, as his tongue sought out her lips and parted them gently. A gentle clearing of the throat behind them restored them to sanity. They broke apart and saw Mimi watching them with a wry smile.
Belle pushed away from him and smoothed out her dress self-consciously. She was glad it was only Mimi that had seen her temporary loss of dignity. But she didn't regret it. She was going to be the wife of the man of her dreams. Nothing else really seemed to matter. She smiled shyly up at him. Shawn grinned stupidly back at her, lost in a haze of euphoric joy. Suddenly, he realized what he had forgotten. He cupped her face in his hands and stared deeply into her eyes. "I love you, Lady Isabella."
Belle smiled beatifically, feeling her whole soul come alive for the man in front of her. "I love you too, Commander Brady. And don't you think it's time we start calling each other by our first names?" she hinted gently, suddenly realizing that he was as new to this as she was.
"All right…Belle," Shawn gulped out awkwardly. He'd never in the whole course of his life called a girl by her first name. This was going to take some getting used to. "Oh, I almost forgot." Once again, he felt like a dunce as he dug in his pocket for the ring. This proposal hadn't gone at all the way he had rehearsed it, but the girl had said yes and that was all that mattered.
Belle gasped, as he pulled out a gold ring with a large ruby set in it. "Oh, Shawn," she breathed as he slipped it onto her finger. "It's so beautiful." She didn't need to have it appraised to realize the priceless quality of such a ring.
One corner of Shawn's mouth tipped up. "It was my grandmother's. You would have loved her. And she would have loved you. She was the sweetest, gentlest soul I've ever known. Except for you, my love." The words fell easily from his tongue. He was surprised. He brought her newly adorned hand to his lips and kissed it fervently. "No one compares to you."
Chloe sat before the fire, her eyes steadfastly glued to her needlework. Or rather Belle's needlework. She didn't have the patience for such things, but Philip didn't need to know that yet. There would be time enough for him to find out after the wedding. Philip sat in the chair opposite her in front of the fire and gazed rapturously at her face. The glow of the flames flickered and danced over her stunning features, catching the light in her eyes and making them seem even more alive than usual.
There was no nervous stuttering on his part, no anxiety in his manner. He knew what he wanted to ask her, and he knew she knew and was waiting for it. "Lady Chloe, you can be in no doubt as to my intentions towards you," he said, moving and taking the seat next to her. Chloe dropped her needlework in her lap and watched him expectantly, no emotion showing on her beautiful face.
"I've spoken with your father, and he has given his blessing as long as you give me your personal acceptance. You're everything I desire in a wife, Chloe. You're beautiful, enchanting, well-educated, polite, with superb family pedigree. I don't expect you to love me right away, though of course I wouldn't object if you did." He flashed her a dimpled smile, as if questioning how anyone could not love him. "Lady Chloe, would you do me the honor of being my wife?" He produced a gold inlaid box with an impossibly large diamond ring nestled in it.
Chloe waited to feel any emotion at all. None came. Not even regret that it had come to this. She took it as a good sign. Maybe in time she would grow to love him. Given time and distance from everything else familiar, apathy might turn into love. "The honor is mine, Mr. Kiriakis," she replied formally, glad to have it done and out of the way.
"Good," he said, as though it was a matter of course. He slipped the audacious jewel onto her left hand, ring finger and perfunctorily kissed her hand. "Now, I am to return to Jamaica with Shawn tomorrow. I'll make arrangements for you to follow in a few months, as soon as everything can be set in order."
Chloe barely held in her surprise and annoyance. "But I thought we would marry here in a year or two. I'm in no rush, sir." She relied on a lifetime of suppressed emotions to keep her voice even and untroubled.
Philip just laughed. "But I am, my dear. I want you to be by side before the end of the year. Don't worry, darling. You'll have plenty of time to make any wedding arrangements you want to. And to help with it, I'm sending you a maid first thing in the morning."
Chloe barely managed to shove down the angry retort that sprung to her lips. "Thank you for the offer, but I don't need another maid. The household servants are perfectly adequate. And I've known them all my life."
"But they're your parents' servants," Philip argued. "They won't be able to accompany you to Jamaica. And there aren't trained lady's maids in the Caribbean. I want my wife to have better than a native slave. Besides, I've already filled the position. I'm sure you'll get along just fine. Her name is Jan Spears, and she'll be here tomorrow morning. No objections." There was a note of finality in Philip's tone.
Chloe choked back her rising resentment. Not only was she being given no choice in the matter of her own wedding and her own maid, but Philip had begun making plans before she had even said yes. Like it was a given. She would just have to accustom herself to it, she supposed. Anything required adjustments, and she was determined to make this work. It had to work. "As you wish, Mr. Kiriakis," she replied tonelessly.
"Call me Philip," he ordered, as his eyes focused on her lips. "Might I have permission to kiss you?"
Chloe continued to fight down her ever-growing nausea. Who ever heard of a man asking permission to kiss a girl? Why couldn't she be swept off her feet like she was sure was happening with Belle? "Of course." Her mouth formed the words, even as her heart rebelled.
The next thing she knew his lips were covering hers. It was her first kiss ever, yet it left her feeling queasy—and not in a good way. His lips were harsh and cold against hers, and when he tried to press closer, tried to push the kiss farther, she yanked her mouth free on a gasp. She covered her lips, more to wipe off the taste of him than to hide her embarrassment. "I'm sorry," she murmured when she had recovered. "I've just never been kissed before."
Philip smiled, the gleam in his eyes almost predatory. So she was a complete innocent, was she? Even better. Oh, he was going to enjoy this. He was going to enjoy this immensely. By the time he was through with Lady Chloe Wesley, not one drop of blood in her would be left innocent.
The Caribbean Sea, near the Spanish Main
Spanish blood dripped off the tip of his cutlass and stained the deck of the El Diablo. The air was thick with the reek of gunpowder, sweat, and death. And Brady relished it. Every Spanish dog dead on the deck was one less torturing innocent victims of the unholy Inquisition. One more Spaniard dead meant one less beating the slaves in the silver mines. He took his vengeance for every friend he'd seen cut down, every cry of a starving, beaten child as they hauled the silver out of the dark mines of Peru. And he felt no regret.
There was no mercy offered when The Vengeance took a Spanish galleon. Captain Blackheart made no attempts to deny what he was. He was a pirate to the core, with a soul as black as night. He would make no claim to be a buccaneer under commission from King Charles. He didn't even covet the Spanish treasure. The only prize he needed was the rivers of blood running along the deck of the ship. And he had formed a crew of cutthroats as ruthless as he was.
Some were in it for the treasure. And there was plenty of it to go around. But any buccaneering ship in the Caribbean offered treasure, and most didn't demand such a grueling, stomach-churning duty. When The Vengeance attacked, there was only one rule. No man was left alive. Whether military, civilian, or priest, they were to meet their end at the point of a cutlass or the shot of a cannon. Some Spaniards had been known to jump into the ocean once they realized what ship was attacking them. Better death by drowning or shark attack than at the hands of the Capitán Corazónnegro and his band of crazy pirates.
For most of the pirates who made up the crew of The Vengeance weren't there for the treasure. They were there for one cause, and one cause only. The hatred of Spain and all things Spanish. A group of ragtag troublemakers with nothing else in common. But though the faces were different, one fact remained the same. They had all been victims of the heinous atrocities Spain committed in the name of God and the Church. These were men with nothing left to lose, and so they took their vengeance anyway they could.
Brady surveyed the Spanish corpses rotting on the deck with satisfaction. His eyes swept over one last time, looking for survivors. Twenty yards off, he saw a foot twitch. He smiled heartlessly and approached until he stood directly over him, cutlass pointed at his heart. "Who will give you last rites now?" he bit out viciously.
The man looked up at him, his eyes dark and terrified. It was the capitan himself who stood over him. "Del el dios por favor, me ayuda! Ahórreme, yo le piden!"
Brady's smile froze in place at the man's pleas to God to save him. As William had pleaded. As Thomas had pleaded. As Charles had pleaded. But they hadn't listened then, and Brady wouldn't listen now. "Puede usted quemarse en infierno!" he cursed in perfect Castilian, as he brought his hand down to kill the Spanish filth that cringed and cowered in terror at his feet.
Another strong, bloodied fist grabbed his before he could deliver the cut that would send the bastard to the hell where he belonged. Brady whirled around, cutlass ready to kill whoever had stopped his revenge. His blue eyes, even more brilliant in their rage, widened in surprise as he came face to face with his first mate. "Bloody hell, Masters!" he exclaimed. "What the hell's the matter?"
Jason Masters was undoubtedly the only person who could look into that blood-splattered, fury-distorted face without flinching or showing fear in any way. They had been through too much together for him to fear Brady. They were friends. Perhaps the only friends each other had. Jason wiped the blood and sweat off his face with his torn sleeve. "Let him be," he instructed forcefully. "Chances are he'll be dead before anyone finds this boat anyway. And if he isn't, it will just add to the growing fear of The Vengeance."
He grinned with ruthless, twisted pleasure as he spoke. He didn't want Brady to know that the man's plea had touched someplace inside him that he thought was dead forever. He had been by Brady's side at every battle for the last five years. He had killed as many men, if not more. And he had never felt the slightest compunction about it. The Spaniards deserved it after what they had done. Throughout even this last battle, he had killed at least another dozen more with only his hands and his sword. But he couldn't ignore the feeling of responsibility towards this cowering wretch of a man before them.
Brady tried to read behind his friend's words but couldn't. Finally, he shrugged. What did it matter to him? The man would die anyway, and this way it would be all the more drawn-out and painful. He turned back to the crying, sniveling dog at his feet, giving him a kick for emphasis. "Don't think he did you a favor. At least my way would have been quicker."
Jason breathed a secret sigh of relief. He wasn't sure quite why. "The crew is ransacking the boat, captain," he said respectfully, once again aware who was in charge. "It looks like quite a load this time. They were taking a load of silver from the mines back to Madrid."
Brady nodded, feeling the familiar surge of anger. Silver dug out of the mountains on the backs of the people who truly owned the land, combined with unfairly confined prisoners, and for what? To be sent back to Spain to fill the king's coffers and finance his damned Inquisition. "Let the crew take the silver. I want no part of it. For my share, I will take the jewels of these Spanish pigs, intended for their mistresses, no doubt," he sneered, with no thought for the widows and orphans he had made today.
"Aye, Captain," Jason agreed. It was one of the things he most respected about Brady. He never violated his principles for extra riches. He didn't do this for the treasure at all, making him the rarest of pirates. He had his own reasons for doing this, and all had learned it was better not to ask what they were. Hell, Jason wouldn't take too kindly to someone asking him his either. "The crew will be wanting to go ashore to spend it."
"No," Brady growled. "A few more months, a few more raids. Then we'll go ashore. By then, Shawn will have returned. He might have some useful information for me." He grinned. His double life had so many advantages, including a friendship that allowed him to know the movements of the Spanish before any other pirate on the Main.
Jason nodded, silently affirming the wisdom of his captain's decision. If The Vengeance went back to Tortuga or Port Royal, then more likely than not, the crew would get into nothing but trouble and be of no use when it came time to set sail again. Then came all the trouble of rounding up a new crew. No, it was better to remain at sea for as long as possible.
Besides, the sea was the only place Brady and Jason found a measure of peace. On the sea, no one could touch them. The Caribbean carried away fear with the Trade Winds. It carried away sweet memories as well and left them with nothing but the bitter taste of revenge in their mouths.