Fate rarely obeys the will of men¦or women.
Learning she is bound on the next tide to marry a Caribbean commissioner, Lorena St. John is devastated. Yet she must obey her iron-handed stepfather, or her beloved sisters will suffer the consequences.
She arrives in Bermuda with hope, but finds her betrothed is a slave master who views her as chattel. Defiance gets her locked out of his house, vulnerable to the harsh tropical sunand a band of desperate men.
Captain Warren Rawlins isn't above using Lorena as a shield to rescue his brothers from the British fortress. Once aboard his ship, though, he finds Lorena is no fragile English bloom. She's a delectable handful with a sharp sense of honorand an even sharper tongue.
Despite her initial outrage, Lorena finds herself softening toward the rough crew of the Huntress who have more nobility than a thousand proper gentlemen. And its captain finds himself fighting a losing battle against the need to take her in his arms, propriety be damned.
All too soon Boston Harbor looms, but the danger isn't past. Warren once again takes to the sea to fight for the woman he loves. Winner takes all¦
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December 28, 2010
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Excerpt from Prisoner of Desire by Mary Wine
Northfleet, Great Britain 1831
Emily St. John Godford was dead.
Swollen black clouds filled the sky. There were so many of them, they pressed down on the city and everyone in it. Lorena St. John didn't shiver. Her heart was frozen, she was sure of it. Grief held her in its grip. Three years after her mother's second marriage, fate was taking another parent from her.
Lorena cast a look at her sisters and stared at the same misery on their faces. Words failed her. After three years of scraping together positive thoughts to salve the lashing words of her stepfather, her will was worn thin.
A stepfather who had been necessary to keep them all off the street. Her own father had taken too many risks on his beloved shipbuilding yard. Risks which might have made him rich, if he had seen one more year. But fate had struck him down while notes were yet unpaid. Their mother remarried to keep the St. John shipyard off the auction block.
It was an action that had placed a roof over her three daughters' heads, but at the expense of living under the iron fist of Geoffrey Godford. Her stepfather ran his house in the same way he commanded the workmen building ships. There was no leniency, no mercy, only discipline and expectation.
"Come along then. It is time to finish this business."
Geoffrey Godford was wrapped in a thick wool coat to protect him from the weather. Finely tailored gloves covered his hands as he gripped the top of a riding crop. He tapped the tip against one polished boot and the sound was piercing.
Lorena flinched because her back and forearms itched with firsthand knowledge of what that leather felt like. The butler handed his master a beaver-skin top hat and the first-floor maid opened the front doors wide.
The riding crop cut across the first blast of chilly winter air to land with a smack on a small tabletop. Her sisters jumped, their eyes widening. Lorena glared at the crop, her gaze moving up to the hand of the man wielding it. She kept going until she was staring into the eyes of her stepfather. His gaze was so cold, she was sure she'd discovered the source of the frigid weather.
"You shall conduct yourselves with dignity. Emotions are for the nursery."
Her sisters both muttered the expected reply quickly. Lorena hesitated, her pride refusing to let her grovel without at least a silent protest. Yet, she understood the price of her rebellion would not be paid by her own suffering. Godford was a master of getting what he wanted. The past few years were full of times she'd witnessed her sisters being whipped for an offense she had made. Feeling the bite of that leather herself was far more endurable than watching the crop smack against her sisters' flesh.
The sound haunted her dreams, fueling her determination to stand up to the man's cruelty.
"As you say."
Geoffrey frowned, clearly displeased with her. He swept her from head to toe with a cold gaze.
"On the morrow you shall visit the tailor. Your dress is too revealing. I will not stand for the three of you looking like dockside strumpets."
Her dress was buttoned to her collarbones, but she understood her stepfather's meaning well enough. Stiffly boned corsets were becoming the fashion once more. The tailor had had his assistant lace her into one the last time she saw him. The contraption must have been designed by men, for surely no woman alive would be so cruel as to invent such a horrible piece of clothing. Yes, the queen wore one but she did not have to scrub pots in the kitchen.
The riding crop appeared under her chin. Her stepfather was never satisfied until she bent.
"As you say."
He grunted before turning with a flare of his wool coat. Snow was drifting down, the flakes melting where they landed inside the open doors. Lorena and her sisters followed their stepfather into the storm and the bitter necessity of seeing their mother laid to rest.
The few carriages and wagons in the street were driven by men who hunched low to keep their necks free of the falling snow. Even the horses moved quickly without the touch of the whip, eager to find shelter. The snowfall grew thicker, and by the time they reached the small cemetery, it was difficult to see past the end of one city block.
In spite of the weather, her mother's friends stood huddling beneath their umbrellas. Sad faces, which glistened with tears. Hands reached out to pat her on the shoulder, but Lorena hardly felt them. Weight seemed to press down on her. The weight of taking care of her sisters, now that she was all they had. Godford was a bastard, and they were completely dependant on him. The law favored him in every way. He controlled every pound left to them by their father's will.
Her stepfather wielded that power ruthlessly.
Just as ruthlessly as fate had dealt with Emily St. John. Her new husband wanted sons and she had produced two in her short marriage. But the tiny baby sleeping in the nursery on the second floor had cost Emily her life. The doctors had warned her after the first birth that her body wasn't as sound as it had been in her youth. However Godford's demands had to be met. Lorena had begged her mother not to return to her husband's bed, but to deny him would have brought his wrath down on her daughters. So she had gone.
Her coffin was bare except for a pile of fresh snow, no flowers to ease the starkness. The parson lifted his hands into the air while speaking the last few prayers much faster than she'd ever heard him do inside church. Too quickly, her stepfather tossed a handful of dirt on top of his wife's final resting place. The wind blew the falling snow into her face, but Lorena stood beside her mother's grave as the laborers began shoveling dirt. Their wool caps were pulled down over their ears to protect them from the elements, and they worked to finish the task quickly. The sound of earth hitting the coffin was like nails being pushed into her flesh. She wanted to tell them to stop because it felt like they were rushing her through the last moments she would ever have with her mother. Of course such emotions were foolish and she had to rise above childhood.
"What shall we do now?" Bethany spoke softly, pushing close to share the umbrella Lorena held.
The fear lacing her sister's voice kindled a fire deep inside Lorena. Its flames burned away the chill threatening to freeze her solid. They still had each other and a roof over their heads. Her stepfather's words echoed in her mind. They would obey Godford or suffer the fate of many an orphan. Because by law, he was their guardian and everything left to them by their parents his to direct.
"We shall endure as best we may." Casting a last look at the grave, Lorena turned to join her stepfather. She was not strong enough to watch her siblings suffering on some frozen street corner because of her actions. She would put on a good show, allow Godford to believe her a timid creature impressed by his controlling nature.
She was anything but that. Deep inside she felt something burning that reminded her of who she was. Her mother had called it spirit and told her to nurture it, because it was hers alone. Her father had labeled it courage and whispered to her that girls needed more courage than men because the world offered them fewer opportunities.
Whatever it was, it made her who she was deep down inside where her stepfather would never see.
Her mother had taught her to be strong. Women had to be far more clever, far more enduring than any man. To survive in a world where money left to you must be administered by a male relative, a woman had to have the patience of Job coupled with the might of David.
Giving each of her sister's hands a squeeze, she lifted her chin and kept it steady. "We have each other and we shall be thankful for that. Mother and father would want us to count our blessings."
As few as those might be.
Boston, United States of America 1835
"They take after you, Sebastian." Brigitte Rawlins spoke quietly. Her husband was too far away to hear her, but he was as proud of their boys as she was. In the bright morning sunlight, their sons stood tall. When had they grown into men? It seemed too soon for them to be heading to sea in officer jackets like their father. She certainly felt no older. Yet her children were men.
Warren caught her watching him. Her eldest son had always known when she was spying on him. His lips curled up in a smile that made her frown. He was too handsome for his own good. He had her fair hair and blue eyes which had amused her when he was a baby because he'd had none of his father dark coloring. That fact had annoyed her marauder of a husband back when she still refused to surrender to him.
Warren stood tall in the morning light, showing the same towering height that had first drawn her eye to his father. Yes, his father. No greater rogue had ever tested a woman's patience such as her husband Sebastian had. Warren was following in his sire's footsteps. Off to her right, two young ladies stood trying to gain her son's attention. They modeled the latest fashion and their hair was dressed to perfection, but her son gave them only the briefest of glances.
She frowned. Oh yes, she understood. Warren was setting sail and there was nothing more important to him. He was his father's son through and through.
Warren winked at her, restoring her good humor. Lifting one hand, she waved. Her son caught a line and swung down to the dock with nothing more than his grip. He landed with a scuff of boot leather to the delight of his crew. They whistled appreciation for his strength. There was no lankiness to him now. His shoulders had widened and muscle had grown thick on his back from laboring aboard his ship. The Huntress was his only love for the moment and he lavished attention on her. The ladies trying to bid farewell to him were wasting their time. Warren would never be snared by any predictable girl.
"Good morning, Mother." His voice was deep and brassy.
His over jacket was missing, and the sleeves of his shirt fluttered in the wind coming off the ocean. Only a cream-colored vest was buttoned over his chest but Brigitte knew her son, he'd discard it the moment he could. It had ever been a challenge to get him into a coat even when there was snow in the air.
"You are such a boy, Warren. I'll wear out my knees praying for you."
He tilted his head and looked down from his towering height. "Save your prayers for Harrison. This is hardly my first voyage."
"It isn't your brother's either."
Warren lifted one finger. "Ah, but he's still got such a baby face, I forget how old he really is."
Harrison Rawlins appeared from behind a stack of wooden crates which were waiting to be counted and stored on board his vessel. "I hear age addles the wits. Which would explain why you can't recall how old I am."
A few chuckles came from the men laboring around them. The dock was crowded with wagons and supplies. Men hurried to lift sacks of vegetables onto their shoulders and carry them up gangplanks. Heavier and larger items such as barrels of fresh water were lifted with ropes and pulleys and lowered into the holds of the ships. It was noisy, yet an air of excitement permeated every square inch.
"As I've told you plenty of times, little brother, thinking is a pure waste of time for you."
Brigitte waved her hands in the air. "Enough out of the pair of you." Her voice was firm but sweet, just as her mother had so often employed to get her way. "Look at you, shaming your mother right here in the open, as if I've never taught either of you a single grace."
"Oh you tried, Mother." Garrick Rawlins strode up with a green parrot perched on his shoulder. "But I'm the only one of your sons who truly understands you."
He leaned down to kiss his mother and the bird hopped onto her shoulder. Garrick frowned. He pointed at the bird. "Traitor."
Brigitte reached up to scratch the parrot with a confident hand. "Such a sweet baby bird," she insisted.
Warren groaned. The parrot was only sweet when perched on their mother's shoulder. Garrick had a knack for the animal too, but Warren watched it with a careful eye. Lady Holly, as it was named, liked to chew on his ear anytime the parrot got the chance.
"One good thing about you two shipping out on another vessel is Lady Holly is not going to be on my ship," Warren declared.
The parrot let out a squawk, flapping its clipped wings. Garrick reached out a hand for it and it climbed onto his wrist.
"You hear that, Holly? Do you see what I've been putting up? Now don't you worry, we're sailing in a different direction."
"Good riddance." Warren sent a scowl toward his brothers but he couldn't hold the expression. They had sailed together for years, but it was time for his brother Garrick to take command of his own ship. A bell rang announcing the beginning of high tide. The energy level increased around them with a flurry of motion as the remaining supplies were hustled on board. Sweethearts and wives were kissed and children hugged before the crew made their way up the gangway for the final time. The two ladies competing for his attention waved frantically at him.
"I love you, Mother."
Brigitte laughed softly. "I will save you, my son."
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it gently. "Thank you."
She shook her head, taking a moment to bid each of her sons goodbye before turning in a graceful sweep of her skirts to deal with the girls. They didn't have a prayer. His mother could charm a pirate out of his share of the treasure.
Warren shook Garrick's hand. "Captain."
His brother Harrison offered his hand too, but Warren slapped him on the shoulder instead.
"Watch out for that beak. It cuts deep."
Harrison laughed. "I will, brother."
With a final look toward his mother, he boarded his ship. The Huntress was the finest ship in Boston's harbor today. Her decks shining and her canvas sails bright in the morning sunlight. Warren gained the wheel deck, watching his men with a critical eye. His first mate called out the order to let loose the sails.
The deck rolled as the Huntress was released from her mooring bounds. Warren braced his feet wide without thinking. His father had taken him to sea the moment he was weaned. He'd learned to walk on a rolling deck and it felt like home to him. The sea breeze filled his lungs as he gripped the wheel with firm hands. The stretch of blue ocean in front of him was an old friend, but today he was bound for unfriendly waters. Britain was still a threat to any American vessel or port in the Caribbean. The fort at San Juan need the black powder stored beneath his feet to maintain her strength against the British vessels that would gladly take her.
The tropical islands dotting the azure seas of the Caribbean echoed with centuries of battles. The ocean floor littered with the wrecks of ships sunk by nations intent on controlling the vital supply ports in the islands. America relied on men, such as him, to make up her navy.
It was a duty he took pride in. His country was young, but it was the best place in the world to live. A democracy and a haven from oppression. The canvas crackled as the sails billowed out. The Huntress gained speed, heading toward the open water. Behind him, Garrick captained the Golden Dawn. Following in their father's footsteps, they headed out to sea.