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Masters of Desire
By Myla Jackson Layla Chase Shayla Kersten
Copyright © 2009
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Wait!" Lord Rafe Herrington yanked his cutlass from the pirate's chest and leaped to the quarterdeck. All around, his men waged a fierce battle with the crew of the pirate ship Nomad. The fight was all but over, the pirates dying or surrendering one by one.
With blood dripping from his sword's edge, Rafe strode across to where an older man with steely gray hair and a scruffy beard held the end of a hangman's rope. Seumus Mackintosh, the boatswain of his own pirate ship the Serpent's Curse, loved a good hanging.
"He's the capt'n. Soon as he's dancin' the hempen jig, the rest'll lay down their weapons."
"I have use of him alive." Rafe wiped the blade of his cutlass across the doomed man's trousers, leaving a long streak of blood on his dirty rags.
"He's a bloody pirate. I t'ought ye wanted to rid the seas of sech vermin." Seumus leaned into the rope enough to make the man on the business end of the noose stand on his toes to keep from choking.
"I want answers." Rafe took control of the rope from Seumus and loosened it. Then he stood in front of the filthy pirate who'd plagued the waters surrounding Mystique Island for the past month. "For whom are you working?"
"I work for meself." The man's gruff voice rattled like bones in a tin cup.
"Then why do you only target some of the ships leaving Port Newton and not all?"
"Why should I tell you? Yer nothin' but a pirate yerself."
Rage burned in his chest. The man spoke truth. Rafe was no better than a pirate, no thanks to the witch Busara. Yet he felt a misguided sense of obligation to protect his island from marauders such as this. "I shall make it simple to the point even a filthy, bilge slime pirate like you can understand. If you don't tell me, you die." Rafe handed the rope back to Seumus.
The burly Scot leaned hard on the rope, jerking the pirate off his feet.
With his hands tied behind his back, the pirate kicked at the air, wheezing unintelligible words out of his constricted throat.
"What's that? Now you wish to talk?" Rafe blinked and Seumus let go of the rope.
The captain of the Nomad dropped to his feet, his knees buckled and he crumpled to the hard wooden deck. "The governor," he gasped.
Rafe lifted the man by the collar until they were eye to eye. He held his breath in order to avoid gagging on the stench of the man's unwashed body. "The governor, what?"
"I pay him a cut of me booty, he gives me certain information." The man shrugged a ragged shoulder. "Works to both our benefits."
Heat rose beneath Rafe's blood-splattered white shirt. "Governor Lord Sheldon Braithwaite?" The bastard who'd driven him off the island was responsible for this cutthroat's reign of terror on the hapless ships entering and leaving Mystique Island's only port.
"So you murder innocents and steal from them to pay your debt to the good governor?"
The man's face split into a gap-tooth grin. "Right ye are. I'll give ye a cut as well, if ye set me free."
Rafe stared hard into the man's black eyes, and then in a deadly calm voice said, "Hang 'em high, Seumus."
"Gladly, Capt'n." Seumus leaned on the rope slowly hefting the man up the mast. The Scot was soon joined by Murphy Reid, the first mate. Shirtless and sweating, they applied all their weight into raising the captain of the Nomad high above the melee.
Shouts of challenge turned to dying screams as the crew of the Nomad dropped from their wounds or threw their cutlasses and pistols to the ground when confronted by their captain dangling from the mast.
Rafe retired to his quarters aboard the Serpent's Curse where he stripped off his torn and bloody shirt.
Seumus barged through the door, carrying a jug of ale and laughing at Murphy, who entered behind him.
Naked but for the strap holding back his hair, Rafe stood with his feet spread wide, his hands resting on his hips. "Have you forgotten common courtesy?"
Seumus stared at Murphy and Murphy back at him. "Me pardon, Capt'n." He shoved the jug out in front of him. "After you."
Manners were lost on his boatswain and first mate, but they were true and loyal men. Rafe shook his head.
"The prisoners are secured in the hold and the Nomad set afire. 'Tis time to celebrate with the men," Murphy insisted.
Rafe waved aside the jug and stepped to the trunk containing clean clothing. He opened it and shut it without retrieving a single item. "I'll not be celebrating this eve."
"Why ever not?" Murphy slapped Rafe's back. "The inhabitants of Mystique Island will be forever in your debt for ridding them of that plundering cur."
"Yes, but you heard the man-Braithwaite is responsible for allowing the pirating to continue."
"What do ye care, Capt'n?" Seumus tipped the jug and downed a lusty swallow before continuing. "Yer not the gov'nor anymore. The people of the island shunned ye fer the curse."
"Damn and blast the curse!" Rafe lifted his cutlass and jabbed it into the wood flooring. "I'm going ashore tonight to break the bloody curse, once and for all."
"And how would ye be doin' that, sir?" Seumus set the jug on the table that served to hold the maps of the Caribbean Islands. "The Obeah woman refused to cure ye. Do ye propose to force her?"
"If I have to ..." Rafe pulled the cutlass from the wood planking and stared at the razor sharp blade. "I'll kill her, if I must."
Seumus's eyes widened. "Ye know the penalty fer killing a witch, don't ye?"
Murphy shook his head. "The locals say you'll be cursed forever to a life worse than death if you kill an Obeah."
He dropped the cutlass onto the table, lifted a dagger from the table and slung it as hard as he could. The blade thwacked against the cabinet next to Seumus, embedding two inches into the wood. "My life is worse than death. While I'm out cleansing the waters of pirates, Braithwaite is breeding more. If the people of Mystique dare to speak out against their new governor, they're murdered. How can I stand back and let it happen? These are my people."
"Not anymore, Capt'n," Murphy said quietly. "Not anymore."
Barefoot, Rafe paced the length of the cabin and back. "I can't stand by and do nothing."
"You're doing everything you can." Murphy tugged at the dagger on the wall beside Seumus. The weapon didn't loosen from its mooring.
"It's not enough. I can't rest until Braithwaite is replaced by someone of morals and integrity."
"That rules me out." Seumus grabbed the jug and tipped it again, swallowing a huge gulp of ale. He swiped his arm over his mouth. "Ach! I can no' see ye blastin' away at an old woman, Obeah or no. Ye don't have it in ye to kill a female."
"I'll do what I have to do in order to save the island from the devil himself."
"How do you propose to get to the witch?" Murphy asked. "She's nigh on impossible to find by land. The only way in to her is by sea, if you can find the entrance to Siren's Cove."
"I'll find it." He strode across the floor and yanked the dagger from the wall. "I'm thinking that if I kill the Obeah woman, her curse will be broken."
Murphy shook his head, a sorrowful slant to his brows. "And if your curse worsens, then what?"
"What's a little more hardship when I don't have much of a life as I am?"
"What's so bad about your life?" Murphy waved an arm at the interior of the captain's cabin. "You have everything you need. Food, clothing, a ship, a profession, and friends." He patted his chest, a smile spreading across his face.
Rafe snorted. "I'm no better than the man we hanged today. I steal from other pirates to make a living, and I spend half my time in the ocean, like a bloody fish."
"But yer not a fish. Yer a magnificent monster." Seumus cringed at his own words. "Well now, I'd give me balls to be as fearsome."
"You can keep your balls. It's no life for a man who once was the governor of this island."
"Even if you break the curse and remain human, what makes you think you'll regain your governorship?" Murphy asked. "As you said, you've been nothing but a pirate since you were run off the island by Braithwaite and the superstitious natives."
Rafe had thought of that, but he still didn't have an answer. All he knew was that he was powerless as long as he was only human half the time. He turned to Murphy and placed a hand on his shoulder. "If I don't return, the ship's yours. Take care of my crew."
Murphy nodded. "Aye, Captain."
Melodie stared at the scattered bones, trying, to no avail, to see what the old woman saw. For the past week, she'd lurked around the Obeah woman's living quarters on the slim chance of receiving a spell that would make her whole. "How soon until you finish the spell?"
"Takes much time. Much t'ought to make a spell dat strong." She gathered the bones of cats and other small animals into her hands and shook them gently, the sound like reeds rattling in the wind. "Why you want always to be part of the sea?"
"It's the only place I don't feel like such an oddity." Melodie shrugged. "Humans wouldn't understand my life and they fear what they don't understand."
The old woman nodded, her bone earrings bobbing with the movement. "You can no find love. Love is what keeps us young."
"It's more than that." Melodie pushed to her feet and paced in front of the thatched hut where the witch lived. She'd been inside only once before. Movement was difficult among the myriad of items she had in stock. The Obeah had everything from rags, feathers, balls of clay and glass beads, to cat skulls and earthen jars with mysterious contents of which Melodie could only guess. The place reeked of dried vegetation and decaying animal parts and it gave Melodie the chills. For all she knew, the woman could have human body parts in there.
Melodie shuddered at the possibility. Still, she endured the long wait for a spell to cure what Melodie considered her affliction. After twenty long years of dealing with her birthright, she was ready to trade her feet for fins permanently. "In the sea, I'm free. No one judges me based on my family lineage or the color of my skin." She glanced down at the light mocha shade that had been her bane in the human world. Neither Carib, nor English, she was a freak and didn't fit in either society.
"What makes you tink the merfolk won't have de same prejudices?"
"I spent time with them when my father was still alive. They didn't make fun of me or shun me because I was different."
"And how long did you spend wit' dem?"
"A few days at a time. When Mother would let me go with Father."
The old woman nodded, her gray brows dipping low. "Are you sure you not be tradin' one difficulty for another?"
"I don't know." Melodie flung out her arms. "I just don't want to live two lives. I want to be normal in whatever world I live in."
A young version of Busara rounded the corner of the hut with an earthenware jar perched on her hip, water sloshing over the top. "If you leave de island, who will I talk wit'?"
Melodie took the jar from Kanoni, Busara's beautiful daughter. "I'll always come back to visit, as all the merfolk do. We can't stay away for long. You know that."
Kanoni's gaze swept the cove where the water shimmered like sparkling jewels. "No, you will not stay away long." She dragged her gaze back to Melodie, her eyebrows furrowing. "I will miss you, girl."
"You know how I feel. I want more from life. As it is, I'm on the edge of two worlds. I just want to belong in one."
"She be needin' a man, Mamma." Kanoni laughed. "Can't you give her a love spell to catch one?"
"I don't need a man. I need to be either all mermaid or all human and my preference is to remain in the sea." She felt less constrained by custom and man-made obstacles when she floated among the coral and sea creatures.
The old woman ignored their chatter. Squatting on her haunches, Busara cast the bones in the dirt in front of her shack and sat back, her dark forehead wrinkled in a frown. "I will make de spell."
Melodie turned to the woman and dropped to her knees in the sandy soil. "You will? When? How soon?" She clasped the old woman's gnarled hands in her own, tears springing to her eyes. "Oh, thank you."
"First you must do something for me." Her old fingers clasped Melodie's in a surprisingly strong grip.
"Anything, just name it," Melodie promised.
"A man comes to Siren's Cove. You must stop him."
The intense look in Busara's eyes struck sudden fear in Melodie's soul. "Who is he? What does he want?"
"He's de pirate of de Serpent's Curse. His name is Lord Rafe Herrington, de former governor of Mystique Island. He is come to kill Busara."
Melodie perched on a flat rock, near the entrance to Siren's Cove. Like a shroud, darkness settled over the sea and the shore. One by one, the stars blinked to life in the sky, their reflection shimmering across the placid ocean's surface, like so many jewels on a black, velvet carpet.
How would she know when he came ashore? Would he be in a boat? Would he choose to swim ashore to avoid detection? From where she sat, Melodie could see the beach on either side of the cove's entrance. If anything stirred, she'd know.
Busara had told her he would be there within the hour. It was up to Melodie to stop him from killing Busara. If the old witch died, Melodie would never fully belong to the sea and the inhabitants of the cove would be in danger.
A light breeze stirred Melodie's hair about her face. Soon, he would be upon her. If she wanted to distract him, she had to start now.
Melodie closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sky. When she opened her mouth, she sang the songs of her ancestors. The sirens for whom the cove was named. The sound was of the sea, the sky, the island. Hers was a melancholy song of love, loss, and rebirth.
Her voice swelled and retreated with the tide, flowing over the shore like a breeze. As she sang, she opened her eyes and scanned the shoreline. So far nothing moved. If he was out there, he'd fall under her musical spell and come directly to her. If he were in a ship, he'd run aground and maybe save her the trouble of killing him. But she figured he'd come ashore in a much smaller craft and survive despite her siren's song.
A jeweled dagger lay beside her on the rock. Once she had him close enough, she'd stab him through the heart. A chill slithered down her spine. Melodie had never killed another living soul. But she had to accomplish her goal or risk the death of a great Obeah witch, her friend, the protector of innocents and the only person capable of freeing her from her human form.
Her own freedom wasn't worth killing another person for, but saving the lives of countless others was. But still ... to kill someone? Guilt warred inside, her troubled spirit reflected in her song.
Maybe she didn't have to kill him. If she wounded him, perhaps he'd go away and leave the witch alone. Unskilled in the art of war, Melodie feared she wouldn't have the heart to stab a blade into living breathing flesh. If she didn't, Busara would surely die. One life for another.
Her song died down to a whisper, her confusion robbing her of her voice. Why couldn't she disappear into the sea and let fate decide whether she was to be a mermaid or a human?
Because fate and her parents had predetermined her life as part human and part mermaid to spend half her time on land and half in the water. She stared out at the indigo sea bathed in sparkling diamonds of starlight.
Something moved in the corner of her vision. Far out from the shore, a figure slid along the surface, gliding through the water with the steady flowing movement of an eel or a serpent. From the direction it was headed, it wouldn't be long before it entered the mouth of Siren's Cove.
Melodie sat up. What was this? If the creature was the man destined to kill Busara, her time of reckoning was upon her. Not only was the great Obeah woman in danger, but many hundreds of small lives were at stake as well.
The voice that had faded out a moment before, grew strong and sure. She couldn't only think of herself, she had the cove, Busara, and Kanoni to consider.
As her song filled the air, the figure in the water neared the shore and drifted to a halt in the shallows below her rock. Then it disappeared altogether.
Melodie stood and peered over the edge of her rock into the inky darkness of the still water, but she couldn't see anything but ripples where the being had gone under.
Excerpted from Masters of Desire by Myla Jackson Layla Chase Shayla Kersten Copyright © 2009 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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