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It was the third ransom note in as many days, the fifth in a week, but only the second that rang true.
The exchange will be made tonight. Eleven p.m. Ten miles due south of Dartmouth—in the open waters of the English Channel. Take a small, unarmed boat. Come alone, accompanied only by the diamond. Heed these instructions or your sister will die.
Shoving the terse message back into his coat pocket, Slayde Huntley, the ninth Earl of Pembourne, gripped the wheel of his fishing vessel with one hand, simultaneously tilting his timepiece toward the dim light of the lantern. By his calculations, he'd traveled more than nine of those ten miles. He steeled himself for the confrontation ahead, maneuvering the boat deeper into the fog-shrouded waters of the channel, waters far too choppy for a boat this size.
He should have brought the brig. Every instinct in his body cried out that not only was this craft unsuited for rough seas, its very construction left him utterly vulnerable to the enemy. But the kidnapper's message had been precise. And, instincts or not, Slayde dared not disobey for fear of jeopardizing his sister's life.
The thought of her being held by some filthy pirate made Slayde's skin crawl. For the umpteenth time, he berated himself for falling short in his responsibilities, for allowing this unprecedented atrocity to occur. In the decade since he'd become Aurora's guardian, he'd successfully isolated her from the world and, despite his own frequent and prolonged absences, ensured her safety by hiring an army of servants whose fundamental roles were to keep Aurora occupied and Pembourne safeguarded against intruders. Events had proven the latter easier to accomplish than the former. Still—as the accountings he received each time he returned bore out—seldom did Aurora manage to venture beyond her revered lighthouse without being spotted and restored to Pembourne. So how in the hell had this happened?
Vehemently, Slayde shoved aside his frustration and his guilt. In a crisis such as this, there was room for neither. Interrogation and self-censure would come later. Now, they would only serve to dilute his mental reserves, thus lessening his chances of accomplishing what he'd sailed out here to do: deliver the ransom and recover his sister.
Ransom—the detestable black diamond whose legend had dug its talons into his past and refused to let go, whose curse haunted the Huntleys like some lethal specter, a specter whose presence did nothing to dissuade hundreds of privateers from stalking the coveted gem.
Pondering the glittering black stone now wedged inside his Hessian boot, Slayde's knuckles whitened on the wheel. What made him think the claims in this ransom note were not mere fabrications invented strictly to procure the jewel? What if, like most of its predecessors, this message were a hoax? What if this pirate didn't have Aurora at all?
Again, Slayde abandoned his line of thinking, refusing to contemplate the idea of returning home without his sister. There had been three generations of blood spilled already. Aurora would not fall victim to the greed and hatred spawned by that loathsome jewel. He wouldn't allow it. Come hell or high water, he would find her.
The sound of an approaching vessel breaking the waves made Slayde's muscles go taut. Eyes narrowed, he searched the murky waters, seeking the outline of a ship.
At last it came.
Steadying his craft, Slayde waited while the ship drew closer.
As anticipated, it was a brigantine, moderate sized, but well manned and, doubtless, well armed. The whole situation was almost comical, he thought, his mouth twisting bitterly. Here he was, miles from shore, alone and unprotected in a meager fishing craft, being challenged by a hostile vessel ten times his boat's size that was now closing in, primed and ready to blast him out of the water in a heartbeat.
And there wasn't a bloody thing he could do to save himself.
Except surrender the gem and pray Aurora was on that ship, unharmed.
"Pembourne—I see you followed instructions. Hopefully, all of them." The kidnapper's raspy voice cut the fog as his ship drew directly alongside Slayde's. "Did you bring the black diamond?"
Slayde tilted back his head, wishing the mist would lift so he could make out the bastard's features. "I have it."
"Good. If that's true, you'll remain alive. I'll send my first mate down to fetch it."
There was a whooshing noise, followed by the slap of a rope ladder as its bottom rungs struck the deck of Slayde's boat.
"Where's Aurora?" Slayde demanded, his fingers inching toward his waistcoat pocket—and the pistol he'd concealed there.
"Halt!" the kidnapper's order rang out. "Touch that weapon and you'll die where you stand."
An electrified silence. Slowly, Slayde's hand retraced its path to his side.
The harsh voice commended: "A wise decision, Pembourne. As for your sister, she's being brought topside. Ah, here she is now."
As he spoke, two men dragged a struggling woman onto the main deck. She was of slight build. Her arms were tied behind her, and a strip of cloth covered her eyes.
It could be Aurora—but was it?
Slayde squinted, intent on discerning the woman's identity. He had little time to do so, for she was shoved unceremoniously into a sack, bound within its confines, and tossed over the shoulder of the first mate.
"Wait," Slayde said as the man began his descent down the ladder's rungs.
The first mate paused.
Addressing the shadowy form on the deck above, Slayde inquired icily, "What proof do I have that the person in that sack is my sister?"
"None," the captain retorted, a taunt in his tone. "It appears you'll have to take me at my word."
Slayde's jaw set. He was on the verge of revoking his earlier claim that he'd brought the diamond with him, ready to swear that it was, in truth, ensconced at Pembourne Manor, when his gaze fell on the squirming sack on the first mate's arm. From the partially open end at the top, several long tresses tumbled free, hair whose color not even the fog could disguise.
A shimmering golden red.
Reassured that his efforts were about to be rewarded, Slayde nodded his compliance, now eager to complete the transaction and be gone. Aware he was being scrutinized, he allowed none of his impatience to show, instead remaining impassive while the first mate completed his descent and paused three rungs above Slayde's deck.
"The diamond, m'lord," the sailor requested, extending his hand.
Wordlessly, Slayde studied him, noting—with some degree of surprise—the twinge of regret on the first mate's face; it was almost as if the rogue were being forced to act against his will.
"Please, Lord Pembourne," the sailor reiterated, balking beneath Slayde's probing stare, "the stone."
"Very well." Deliberately, Slayde leaned forward, slipping his hand inside his boot. "I'm fetching the diamond, not a weapon," he clarified, taking pity on the cowering fellow. "My Hessian is unarmed." So saying, he extracted the gemstone, holding it out so the first mate could see the truth to his words.
Relief flashed on the weathered features.
"Take it, Lexley," the captain bit out.
With a start, Lexley jerked forward, snatching the diamond from Slayde's palm.
Simultaneously, the woman in the sack began struggling furiously, catching Lexley off guard and toppling from his arms.
With a sickening crack, the sack smashed against the boom of the fishing boat, the impact hurling it outward, where it plummeted down to the railing below.
It hit with a hollow thud.
Slayde lunged forward, grasping nothing but air as the small craft pitched, upsetting his balance and butting the sack yet again, this time overboard.
A glint of silver struck his deck.
Then, an ominous splash as the sack plunged headlong into the rolling waves and vanished.
"Dear God." Lexley made an instinctive move toward the water.
"Get back on board," the captain bellowed. "Now."
The first mate froze. "M'lord—" He turned terrified eyes to Slayde. "You must ..."
Slayde never heard the rest of the sentence. Having regained his balance, he charged forward, pausing only to gauge the distance to the enveloping swells that divulged the sack's location.
Then he dove.
He sliced the surface in one clean stroke and was swallowed up by darkness.
"Please, God," Lexley prayed, staring at the foam in Slayde's wake, "let him save her. And God—please forgive me."
With that, he scooted up the ladder and onto his ship, dragging the ladder in his wake.
Slayde propelled himself downward, groping blindly in the pitch-black seas. The eclipsing combination of fog and night made it impossible to distinguish anything. He could only pray his calibrations had been right.
Perhaps his prayers were heard.
With a surge of triumph, Slayde felt the coarse edge of the sack brush his fingertips. He latched on to it, hauling the cumbersome bag against him, locking it securely to his body. Kicking furiously, he battled both the weight of his own water-logged clothing and the additional constraint of his unwieldy bundle.
After what seemed like an eternity, he broke the surface. Gasping in air, he heaved the sack over the edge of the deck, then hoisted himself up after it.
The sack thudded softly, then lay motionless.
Kneeling, Slayde was only minimally aware of the rapidly retreating brig, far too worried about Aurora to concern himself with the fate of his gem. His fingers shook as he gripped the loosely tied cord atop the sack, cursing as the wet fibers resisted, ripped at his flesh.
He whipped out his blade, slashing the material from top to bottom, shoving it aside to give him access to the woman within.
She lay face down, her breeches and shirt clinging to her body, masses of wet red-gold hair draped about her.
He rested his palm on her back.
She wasn't breathing.
Shifting until he was crouched at her head, Slayde cut the bonds at her wrists, folded her arms, and pillowed them beneath her cheek. Then he pressed down between her shoulder blades—hard—finishing the motion by lifting her elbows in a desperate attempt to force water from her lungs.
He repeated the action five times before he was rewarded with a harsh bout of coughing.
"Shhh, it's all right." Relieved as hell, Slayde shifted again, trying to soothe the wracking shudders that accompanied her coughs, determinedly helping her body expel all the water she'd swallowed and replace it with air.
At last, she lay still, unconscious but breathing, battered but alive.
Gently, he eased her onto her back, now taking the time to assess her injuries, simultaneously releasing her from the confines of imprisonment. Broken ribs were a certainty, he thought with a grim scowl, given the force with which she struck the boat. A concussion was a distinct probability as well. Not to mention cuts, bruises—and Lord knew what else. His mind racing, Slayde tucked aside her hair and pulled the obscuring cloth from her eyes.
Blinding realization was followed by a savage curse.
The young woman was not Aurora.CHAPTER 2
Courtney felt as if she'd been struck by a boulder.
Excruciating blows hammered at her head, throbbed in her skull.
"Papa ..." The very utterance of her hushed word triggered a violent bout of coughing—and a vague awareness that something terrible had happened, something too devastating to endure.
"Don't try to talk."
Whose voice is that? She wondered between coughs. She was acquainted with every member of her father's crew, and the deep baritone belonged to none of them.
"Papa?" she rasped again.
"Just rest. We'll be on shore in a matter of hours."
Shore? They were miles and days away from delivering their cargo to the Colonies. So why in the name of heaven were they headed for shore?
Valiantly, she brought her choking under control, fought the pain that separated her from reality. "My head ... and chest ... ache so ..."
"You swallowed a great deal of water. As for your head and chest, you struck them both—violently. That's why I want you to lie still; I believe you have a concussion and several broken ribs. Not to mention some impressive bruises, any of which could be harboring broken bones. Unfortunately, I haven't the necessary supplies to tend to such extensive injuries. But we'll rectify that as soon as we reach land." A pause. "Can you tell me your name?"
"Name ..." She wished she knew who this man was. Cracking open her eyelids, she could make out only his powerful frame, which seemed to fill the entire length of the vessel on which she lay. Then again, that wasn't so impressive a state of affairs, considering how small a vessel it was. Small and unfamiliar—with an equally unfamiliar, though anything but small, captain. "Who are you?" she managed.
"A victim. Just as you are."
Victim. That one word opened the portals of Courtney's memory, spawned a deluge of unbearable images. Her father ... being attacked by that filthy pirate, torn from the quarter-deck, bound and gagged ... wrested from his rightful place at the helm. And Lexley ... complying at pistolpoint, tying a huge sack of grain to her father's leg, looking anguished as he ordered Greene and Waverly to take Courtney below. Oh, how she'd kicked and fought as they dragged her off. Then ...her father's scream, followed by that sickening splash.
He was gone.
"No!" With an agonized shout, Courtney sat upright, then fell back with a strangled cry. Blinding pain merged with waves of nausea, and she felt the oncoming sickness an instant before her stomach emptied its meager contents.
Evidently, the signs of nausea were visible, for the man standing at the wheel pivoted and snatched her up, carrying her to the side of the boat and holding her while wracking spasms seized her, her eyes blinded by tears.
"Papa." She fought the dizziness, the memories, the unalterable reality. "He's dead," she choked out as the roaring in her head intensified. "That monster—he killed him."
With that, the world tilted askew and everything went black.
Where the hell was Aurora?
Slayde slammed down the pile of ransom notes, having reread them a dozen times and learned nothing in the process.
Bitterly frustrated, he prowled the length of his study, trying to fit the pieces together. It made no sense. Every one of the notes made reference to the black diamond. Yet, if all the kidnapper wanted was the stone, why hadn't he contacted Slayde and made the exchange, stated his bloody demands? What was he waiting for? Why was he playing with Slayde like a child with a toy?
Unless it wasn't just the gem.
The prospect crept into Slayde's mind like an odious insect.
Could all those notes be fake? Could whoever had Aurora want something more than just the diamond—something more menacing, like vengeance?
There was only one man who hated Slayde's family enough to exact such cruel revenge, a man whose thirst to uncover the black diamond and to seek retribution was twisted enough to spawn an action as ugly as this.
Rage surged through Slayde's veins. The elderly duke was drunk more often than he was sober. Still, that wouldn't preclude him from ...
Slayde snapped about, facing the slight, graying man in the doorway. "Gilbert—how is she?"
The physician removed his spectacles, wiped them with his handkerchief. "Lucky to be alive," he replied. "Had you reached her any later, she might not have been so fortunate."
Slayde scowled. "Her injuries are that severe?"
"It's not her injuries alone, or even the amount of time she spent under water. Her condition prior to the"—Dr. Gilbert cleared his throat discreetly—"accident was deteriorated, to say the least."
"Stop talking in riddles. Tell me what you found when you examined her."
"A severe concussion, numerous damaged ribs, several deep lacerations, and a wealth of cuts and bruises. She's also terribly weak and severely lacking in both food and, most particularly, in water—ironic as that might seem, given the circumstances. In short, she is one very ill young lady."
"But she'll recover?" Slayde demanded.
"With the proper food, attention, and—most of all—rest, yes, I believe she'll recover." A frown. "Although I'm troubled by the fact that she reverted back to such a deeply unconscious state, despite the fact that I gave her only enough laudanum to dull the pain. It's almost as if she doesn't want to awaken."
Excerpted from Legacy of the Diamond by Andrea Kane. Copyright © 1997 Andrea Kane. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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