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There were few on the tiny island of Santamaria who did not raise their heads to the dull boom of the signal gun announcing the arrival of a vessel approaching its shores. The ship came out of the clouds, her sun-bleached sails gleaming white in the brightness of the day. The sound of the gun stirred the sailors and islanders out of their lethargy in the smoky whitewashed taverns and brothels of the small town to come to the quayside and watch as the immense merchant brig, studded with thirty-two cannon, was guided into the arms of the verdant cove to her goal.
The number of curious onlookers increased as the ship sailed closer and waited as the sails were dropped and the vessel coasted to an easy berth at the pier in the deep harbour. Above the noise of the gulls cavorting overhead, the quartermaster could be heard barking orders to the men on deck as they played out ropes as thick as a sailor's biceps and the gangplank thudded into place between ship and shore. The crowd of onlookers were quiet, and all focused on the captain, who was the first man to step ashore.
'Dear Lord!' John Singleton, the trusty first mate, remarked, squinting his eyes against the sun as they swept the crowd. 'The reception committee is impressive, I'll say that for Santamaria. After weeks of ship's biscuit and salt meat, my stomach craves roast beef and obliging young beauties.' He doffed his hat and grinned at a delicious creature at the forefront of the crowd, with caramel skin and a veil of smooth black hair that hung to her waist.
The captain sent his first mate, who had the reputation of an incorrigible seducer of women, a wry, assessing glance. 'In that order, I trust, John.'
'In that order,' John affirmed, the wench's provocative smile having turned his blood to honey.
The third man was dressed in black frock coat, grey wig and black shoes, which were quite old, and his grey stockings sagged. His black breeches were wrinkled and shiny with age, as was the frock coat. The man, known as the Reverend Cornelius Clay, looked like a huge, disgruntled bear that had just come out of hibernation. He noted where Singleton's eyes lingered and scowled. 'Have a care, Singleton. That one has a married look about her.'
'Aye, that she does. Ah well, it'll make the chase all the merrier.'
'We'll take a look around,' the captain said. 'Santamaria belongs to a man named McKenzie. He's a man of some education and the son of Colin McKenzie-the man who made Santamaria what it is today. Apparently there's a cruel streak to young McKenzie and his harsh treatment to anyone who dares threaten his authority has made him a man to be feared. His word is law on the island, but he has the reputation of being refined and accommodating. It will be interesting finding out just how accommodating he can be for the time we have to spend on the island.'
The reverend looked with interest at the ale houses. 'Thanks to that damned hurricane we have repairs to make-and stores to replenish. How long before we can be under way, Captain?'
'Not too long. At a stretch we can afford two weeks, no more. We're already delayed. We've got a schedule to keep.'
Just past the hour of siesta, Shona McKenzie rode her horse over the hills and through the cane fields, happy to be away from the house and Carmelita, her sharp-tongued sister-in-law, and she intended to stay away until it was time to prepare for the evening meal. Several sailing ships swayed at anchor in the cove and closer to shore small boats skimmed the water. Antony, her brother, often invited officers from the visiting ships to dine at the house, giving Shona and Carmelita the opportunity to gown themselves appropriately and entertain them.
Looking ahead of her, from that vantage she had a good view of the shimmering island. All around her was a luminous expanse of jewel-blue sea, shading to lighter green as it met the reefs on the Atlantic side. Wave after wave of rich green vegetation mounted to tree-covered heights, which stood out against a sky of cloudless blue. The land ran down over two promontories that, like embracing arms, almost encircled the island's one deep beach of almost-white sand stretching for about half a mile.
Leaving the cool of the high ground behind, she headed towards the large cluster of buildings that hugged the cove. Having seen the brig sail into the harbour, she was as curious as everyone else to know who it belonged to.
Ships plying the islands of the Caribbean, trading fancy silks, baubles and other produce of Europe for the raw material of the islands, put in at Santamaria on a regular basis, but a merchant vessel of this size had not been seen in months, so its appearance was a remarkable event indeed. Not until she was close enough to read its name emblazoned on its prow-Ocean Pearl- did she realise who it belonged to.
It was the shipping magnate, Captain Zachariah Fitzgerald, the merchant-adventurer worth thousands, one of the most powerful men in the Caribbean. It was said he owned large tracts of land in Virginia and had a fleet of ships, with warehouses in every port. There were rumours that he had shadowed dealings with pirates and others, that he had been a pirate himself, but, fact or legend, Shona had no way of knowing.
Caribbean society had been abuzz with stories of the enigmatic adventurer ever since he first docked in the colonies some years ago, but despite his reputation as a hard-headed businessman, the local society complained that he rarely made appearances at their genteel gatherings. The second son of an earl, on the eventual demise of his father, his elder brother, Viscount Fitzgerald, would inherit the vast estate in Kent, so Zachariah Fitzgerald had left England to wrest his fortune from the untamed sea.
The quayside was an animated scene, alive in a chaos of sight and smell and the laughter of ragged children. Idle sailors loafed about and drab strumpets quite boldly hawked their wares for a shilling or two. Shona shuddered at the squalid scene. At least she had an existence above this. What did it matter that she was neither loved nor wanted as a member of her own family.
As was always the case when Shona McKenzie rode into town-or entered any company-she became the focus of everyone's scrutiny, male or female. Accustomed to it, she ignored it, and after a moment everyone turned away. Shona was able to observe the activity on board the ship above the heads of the crowd. A man appeared, followed by two others, and by his manner Shona assumed him to be the captain of the vessel.
Tall and full of flare, from his large hat with a quivering white plume in its brim, long scarlet frock coat and roll-top boots, with the easy, sprightly stride of a seasoned seaman and his companions in his wake, Captain Zachariah Fitzgerald strode along the pier to the shore, his long coat flaring about his legs.
The crowd melted a pathway before him as he marched through them. From her place in his path, Shona had a clear, uninterrupted view of him. Her heart fluttered and an indescribable awe-or fascination- came over her as she stared at him. His face under the wide brim of his hat was strong, striking, disciplined and exceptionally attractive. In fact, he was the most handsome man she had ever seen. His expression was cool and guarded. Perhaps thirty years old, he was tall and powerfully built, exuding virility and a casual, lazy confidence. The dusty white trousers he wore that disappeared into his boots seemed to emphasise the muscular length of his legs.
Shona knew full well that a lady ought not to be seen in the town alone, knowing also what was expected of her as the sister of the most prominent man on Santamaria, but today she disregarded the conventions of society and the rules laid down by her brother and her father before him in favour of her own wishes. She hardly noticed anyone else. Her attention was entirely focused on the man walking in her direction.
As he walked he surveyed the onlookers with a lazy interest, his attention suddenly arrested by the stunning young woman astride a white horse. His gaze settled heavily on hers. Shona forgot her manners and stared back. Something communicated from their eye contact and the chaos about them seemed to recede in the strangeness of that first moment of meeting.
The message conveyed from one to the other had a warmth, a recognition, and Shona was conscious of a feeling of disorientation, which surely was not usual in the circumstances.
A slow smile of lazy interest curved Zack's lips. She was a vision he struggled to grasp as reality and it was all too much for his first mate, who was smitten. Behind Zack, Singleton flushed with pleasure and stumbled in a parody of a bow. Amused by Singleton's weakness and telling him to pull himself together, then coming to a halt directly in front of her, Zack surveyed the young woman's fine figure, lovely heart-shaped face and big green eyes. Her long golden mane tumbled down her back, exotic, full of life, and Zack noted how the fair tendrils twined over her delicate shoulders. She wore a light blue dress, which covered her horse's flanks and revealed more of her shapely sun-kissed shins than was considered decent-not that Zack was complaining. He never had been able to resist a beautiful woman.
For her part, Shona was beginning to feel a little foolish, knowing full well that riding astride, dishevelled and showing a fair amount of bare leg, was hardly how young ladies in England behaved. But then, the four years she had spent in one of the best schools in that country, which had dealt with tedious niceties and courtly manners, had bored her to distraction.
And here she was being stared at by a thoroughly magnetic and compelling man, a man whose direct and confident gaze made her heart beat faster-though that, in small part, might have been due to the hot tropical sun having addled her wits.
As she held his stare, unable to look away, she marvelled at what fascinating eyes he had. They were lively and a piercing silver-grey-eyes that seemed to trap and hold the light. She detected a sparkle of amusement in their depths as he perused her, not quite successful in masking his roguish astonishment.
'My dear young lady.' Stepping back, he swept her a negligent bow-which Shona thought a tad mocking. 'Zachariah Fitzgerald at your service.' One brow arched, his eyes remained on hers. 'May I say you are a sight for sore eyes.'
Shona stared at him. His voice was deep and throaty, like thick honey, a seductive voice that made her think of bodies and those erotic engravings in the French books she and her friends had loved to pore over at school, and all kinds of highly improper things. It seemed to caress each word as it came out, she thought, and there couldn't be many women who could resist a voice like that. If it met her mood, she could enchant and charm any man, but instinct told her this man was not one of the insincere young roués seeking to extend their reputation at her expense.
'I am?' she said warily, tilting her head. 'And how is that, pray?'
Zack frowned. Her self-possessed response surprised him. Her face was perfect, so stirringly beautiful and young. Her eyes were clear green, brilliant against the thick fringe of jet-black lashes. They stared back at him, open, yet as unfathomable as any sea he had ever gazed into. To find herself confronted by a group of ogling sailors who hadn't laid eyes on a woman in weeks- and certainly not one who looked like she did, which brought home to him the starvation of his own long and forced celibacy-he'd expected her to blush and lower her gaze at the very least. She did neither.
'By the Holy Blood, young lady,' he murmured, moving close to her horse and giving it a friendly stroke, his hand suggestively brushing the bare flesh of her leg, 'you're a handsome enough piece to tempt any man. I'm mighty flattered to have made your acquaintance. Had I known Santamaria was inhabited by such beauty, I would have made a point of sailing into its harbour sooner. I would like to invite you on board my ship so that we might become better acquainted.'
Amused in spite of herself by his high spirits, yet disliking his attempt at flirtation, Shona raised a full, arching brow at him. 'That would be highly improper, I'm afraid, Captain. I also think that you should remove your hand from my leg before I find yet another use for my whip.'
The roguish glint that must surely be what had charmed half the females in the Caribbean made his eyes dance with silver lights. 'I am disappointed that you are so unaccommodating. What can I do to make myself more agreeable to you?'
'I told you. Take your hand off my leg.'
Reluctantly he slid his hand away, but he continued to stand there, appraising her.
Shona's flesh burned from his hand's caress. Suddenly, his direct masculine assurance disconcerted her. She was vividly conscious that all eyes were upon her and of his close proximity to her. She felt the mad, unfamiliar rush of blood singing through her veins, which she had never experienced before, not even with Henry Bellamy, the handsome son of a duke back in England whom the whole school had been in love with. Instantly she felt resentful towards this captain. He had made too much of an impact on her and she was afraid that, if he looked at her much longer, he would read her thoughts with those brilliant, clever eyes of his.
'You have a smooth tongue, Captain, but save your breath. I am not so easily won over. Santamaria belongs to my brother, Antony McKenzie,' she said, giving him a haughty look. 'I am Shona McKenzie, his sister.'
'Then I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss McKenzie.' Zack was familiar with the name and this young lady's fabled beauty. Her father had been known in most circles. In that of young men, Shona McKenzie was often the topic of heated debate. She was the ice maiden, unattainable, the heartbreak of many a youth and the professed goal of many more.
He was unfazed by her identity and his smile widened across his beautifully chiselled lips, his white teeth flashing against the bronze skin. His dark eyes gleamed with devilish amusement as he contemplated her as if seeing her anew. Shona could only mark the resemblance he bore to a swarthy pirate.
'Your island is most beautiful and extremely fertile, I hear. Your brother seems to have made the most of it.'
'The credit is down to my father-Colin McKenzie. He made it what it is today. When he died my brother carried on his work.'