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On a Wicked Wind
By Linda Jones
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Linda Winstead Jones
All rights reserved.
Patrick's voice followed her along the boardwalk from the restaurant to the fishing pier, exasperation breaking through his normally cool facade. She didn't turn to watch him, didn't have to. She knew he was following. His determined footsteps echoed on the long pier, a weathered wooden structure that was deserted but for Sabrina, her irate fiancé, and a single fisherman.
The white-haired fisherman leaned over the railing and ignored Sabrina as she passed, his gaze following the fishing line into a moonlit ocean.
Why hadn't she turned right instead of left as she'd left Annalina's? A simple change of direction and she'd be fleeing from Patrick on the sturdy concrete of the parking lot.
Beneath her feet, far below the weathered boards, the Atlantic danced, gentle waves swirled and crashed. Sabrina kept her eyes on the waves in the distance, far beyond the end of the pier. A full moon touched the water, made it sparkle as if the waves were sprinkled with diamonds and silver. It was so enchanting she could almost forget that she hated the water. All water. Lakes, rivers, and especially oceans.
"Dammit, Sabrina!" Patrick yelled.
At the end of the pier, Sabrina stopped and turned to face the man who had asked her — a hundred times or more, it seemed — to marry him. Tonight, after an unpleasant late dinner in the newest of her chain of seafood restaurants, he had demanded that she set the date.
"I'm too busy to think about a wedding right now. You know that." She lifted her chin, decided too late that it was a childish move, and as Patrick reached her she lowered her gaze to his chest. "With the new restaurants and all the changes...."
"Your father's been gone nearly eight months." Patrick whispered, his voice taking on a tested patience. "This opening went fairly well, and we've got four months before the Wilmington opening."
Sabrina smoothed her sensible navy skirt. It was a transparently apprehensive gesture, and unlike her. She didn't allow anyone to make her nervous.
"There's so much to do."
"And Sabrina Steele has to do it all herself," Patrick snapped. "The chef almost quit tonight, you know. It took me nearly an hour to calm the man down. You don't tell a chef of Paolo's caliber that there's too much red pepper in his signature dish." His patience was fading quickly. "Are you ever going to learn that you can't do everything alone?"
Patrick put light pressure on Sabrina's chin, forcing her eyes to meet his. It had been coming to this for months, but she'd tried to convince herself that her growing doubts about Patrick were the result of the stress of her father's death and the sudden responsibilities that came with her new position as head of his company. Steele Corporation owned and operated twenty-eight Annalina's restaurants, and there were four more slated to be opened in the next eight months. Stress.
But it was more than that. Or less. In her heart, Sabrina knew the answer was much less complicated.
She didn't love Patrick. There had been a time when she'd felt something more than this ... not true love, not passion, but a kinship. Their unofficial engagement was three years old, and in that time they'd settled into their relationship like a pair of old shoes. Broken in, comfortable.
This wasn't the way she wanted to spend the rest of her life, and she knew there had to be more than this to a relationship. It wasn't as if she asked for the moon. Sabrina Steele was nothing if not reasonable. She didn't expect her life to be exciting. It never had been, and she didn't expect that to change. She wasn't the kind of woman anyone would call wild. Or beautiful. Or irresistible.
Sabrina Steele was competent and unfailingly practical. In a crisis she could keep her head when everyone else was frantic.
And Paolo's dish had been entirely too spicy for this Florida crowd.
Her fingers twittered at her side. Even if she wasn't the most exciting woman in the world, there had to be more to life than this.
She and Patrick hadn't made love in months. First, there had been her father's sudden death to deal with, and after that there was always something ... a business trip for her or for Patrick, an out-of-town emergency, a headache. Sometimes hers and sometimes his. They didn't live together, and when they were traveling out of town, as now, they didn't even share a hotel room.
Appearances were important, they agreed. She was his boss, after all, and had been long before her father's passing.
Something had to happen.
"I don't want to get married," she whispered.
Patrick's eyes softened in the moonlight, and the pressure at Sabrina's chin lessened. "Bree," he cooed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pressure you." He smiled, a patented Patrick Windham grin, charming and disarming. "We'll wait, as long as you need."
It would be easiest to nod her head in assent and go on, but Sabrina knew she couldn't put this off any longer. Unpleasant as it was bound to be, there would never be a more appropriate opportunity. There was no one around to overhear, or to interrupt.
She was only vaguely aware of the smell and sounds of the ocean beneath her feet and behind her.
"Time won't make a difference. I can't marry you."
Patrick's smile died, and he let his hand fall as he stepped away from her. "You mean not now."
Sabrina shook her head. "I mean not ever. I ... I'm not happy, Patrick."
Spoken aloud, it sounded childish, petty.
"Not happy," he repeated.
"I've devoted my life to this business, to the exclusion of everything else." She delivered this truth calmly, without flinching or looking away like a coward. "You can't tell me that what we have is anything special, or ever was. It was just ... convenient."
How could she explain to him the doubts that had plagued her lately? She didn't think it was as simple as the passing of her thirtieth birthday, but that, combined with her father's death, might have been the trigger. Life was passing her by.
Sabrina had a growing feeling that somewhere along the way she'd missed something. Something important. It wasn't money, wasn't anything money could buy. Lately that certainty had been keeping her up at night, long after she'd turned off the light and crawled into bed.
Her first job had been at sixteen, as hostess at her father's original Annalina's. She'd never worked anywhere else. Her degree was in business, her job just out of college that of vice-president. And Patrick? Patrick had always been there. Indispensable to her father ... willing to make himself indispensable to her as well.
"You can't just change your mind after three years." She saw the disbelief on Patrick's face, the anger.
"Sorry? Dammit, I put up with your moods, your demands, your insatiable need to control everything and everyone around you ... and now that the old man's gone, you want me to walk away?"
"It's best for both of us."
"No," Patrick shook his head, reached out and grabbed her wrist. "You're not going to stand there and tell me that I've just wasted the last six years of my life, courting you, finally getting you to agree to marry me, putting up with your spoiled-brat attitude. Now that it's all yours you want me to back off?"
Patrick pushed her against the railing, pressed himself close ... too close for comfort. He towered over her, and she could see the anger in his eyes. Naive ... she thought, afraid to speak. All these years, and it had never occurred to her that Patrick was using their relationship to secure and advance his place in the company.
"Let me go," she demanded, her voice a hoarse whisper.
She heard the crack of dry and splintering wood, felt the railing at her spine give way just slightly. It was the only warning she had before the support at her back disappeared and Sabrina dropped, falling back and away from the pier and pulling Patrick with her.
Her descent stopped with a jerk, and she looked up into Patrick's face. His anger was gone, and she could see that he was scared. Truly scared. He gripped her wrist tightly, his hold alone keeping her from plunging into the ocean below.
Beneath her feet the waves crashed, as if they'd suddenly become angrier, fiercer, and one shoe slipped off her foot and fell into the water. For a moment she was unreasonably disturbed at the loss of one half of her most comfortable pair of pumps.
"Hang on." Patrick was chest down on the pier, his head hanging over the edge. One arm was wrapped around a post that didn't appear to be any more substantial than the railing that had given way beneath her weight, and the arm that held her was obviously straining. "Everything will be all right, Bree."
She wished she could believe him, but she didn't. Her irrational fear of water had prohibited her from learning to swim. Even her father, a man who detested weakness in anyone — and most particularly in his only child — had relented after several disastrous attempts at swimming lessons.
He had finally decided to give in to her one fear, and when he quit demanding that she learn to swim — Sabrina had been nearly fourteen at the time — the nightmares had stopped. Vivid nightmares of drowning, of being unable to breathe, of being pulled deeper and deeper into the darkness.
"Hey!" Patrick turned his head, calling to the lone fisherman she had forgotten about. "Help us!"
She heard running footsteps on the pier, and everything shook lightly. The wooden slats, Patrick's arm, her entire body. The remaining shoe fell into the water.
Patrick's grip on her wrist was slipping. His hand had begun to sweat, and damp fingers slid over Sabrina's thin wrist.
When the fisherman took hold of Patrick's feet, Patrick released his hold on the bracing post and lowered that hand to her. Sabrina reached for it, but she was shaking, and her hand brushed past his.
And that was when the wind shifted, whipping as it changed direction. It was a cold gust, much too cold for July in Florida. It grabbed her, literally seized her and tried to wrench her from Patrick's grasp.
"Bree!" Patrick closed his eyes tight. "There's something in my eye! God, I can't see!" His hand slipped, until only his fingers held hers. There was nothing more to keep her from falling.
Sabrina hung on, knowing she wouldn't last much longer, seeing with bittersweet clarity the mistakes she'd made. She'd missed so much, trading it all for the chance to be head of her father's company, to have the power he'd had. But there wasn't a single friend who wasn't somehow related to business, and she knew now that Patrick didn't love her, had never loved her. It was a poor trade.
The wind lifted her hair, buffeted her all around and attacked Patrick, as well, and when Patrick's fingers slipped away from hers and she fell, it seemed the wind cradled her, carrying her into the black waves.
The moon lit Rafael's path along the sand, a path that carried him away from the blazing fire and his raucous crew. They were jubilant tonight, so soon after the division of a rich treasure wrested from English buccaneers.
Their pockets were filled with gold, and when they returned to Tortuga for a well deserved rest, there would be women and rum and feasting long into the night.
For now, they waited as Franco and Esteban saw to minor repairs to the ship. They were safe here, some leagues south of St. Augustine. Safe for the night, at least. By tomorrow morning the repairs would be completed, and they would sail for home. In truth, it would have been safe to continue on, to make the repairs in Tortuga, but some instinct had cautioned Rafael to beach here and see the repairs done.
Perhaps he was not as anxious to return home as was his crew.
The home that awaited him on a smaller island not far from the refuge of Tortuga was a thousand times finer than the captain's cabin in his fast and lucky ship. Elena was there to see to the running of his household, and close by, on Tortuga, there were women ... women available at a single word. There were men from around the world who called themselves his friends, who drank and sang and gambled long into the night.
In truth, he completely trusted none of them. There was not a single person on Tortuga, the island that was home to pirates from around the world, upon whom Rafael would turn his back. Man or woman. Child or curved-back ancient. They were greedy, and he knew that any one of them would gladly kill him for the gold and gems he harbored.
If that were to happen, if he were killed by an enemy or a friend, the world would go on. His crew would mourn him for the length of time it took to elect another captain. The women of Tortuga would cry for him until another man entranced them with sweet words and shining coin.
The sand was giving beneath his feet, and the water lapped just a few feet away.
Rafael had everything a man could possibly want. His own ship. A fierce reputation as a merciless cutthroat. The women, of course. His comfortable home, the only place he felt safe. Treasures hidden near and far, on his island, on other islands, even close by their primitive camp for this night.
He had everything, and yet he was more and more discontent as the days flew by. He had lost his zest for life.... Impossible. He was questioning his chosen profession.... Ridiculous.
He was restless. Perhaps it was time to once again visit Falconer.
The wind that rose was cold, too cold for this time of year. Rafael turned his eyes to the sea, searching for signs of a storm, but there was only soft and brilliant moonlight on the waves that rolled in the distance and crashed near his feet.
And it did not die, but swirled swiftly, touching him with chilled fingers, forcing him to turn his head from the blast that stung his eyes.
With that simple turn of his head, he saw the pile of pale flesh along a curve in the beach. Moonlight shone bright on what Rafael was certain was a body. Some poor soul, washed overboard and then onto the white sand.
The surf crashed over the body, trying to drag it back into the sea. Water rolled over flesh, trying to reclaim its victim, but an arm moved, grasped at the insubstantial sand, and clawed away from the relentless waves.
As Rafael drew near he saw the tempting curve of a well-shaped hip, a nicely rounded bottom, a magnificently contoured back wet and glistening in the moonlight.
The woman was face down in the sand, conscious, but barely so, and she wore not a stitch of clothing. Her hair was cut rather short, barely covering her ears, and it was plastered to her skull and the bit of cheek he saw nestled in the sand.
As the sea tried to claim the woman again, Rafael lifted her, moving her to safety so that the waves crashed only at her feet. He knelt beside her and rolled her onto her back so that he could see her face.
She breathed, but did not open her eyes, and Rafael studied the vision before him. Grains of sand were pressed into her flesh, and he tried to brush some of them away, his hands gentle on her delicate skin.
What a shame, that she probably would not live. It was hard to tell, with the sand and the oddly cut hair, but she appeared to be quite lovely. Her shape was certainly enticing. It distressed him that he would never know her name. Where she came from. How she had come to be tossing about in the ocean completely and wondrously naked.
Perhaps she would not die. Perhaps she was a gift from the god of the sea, a gift for him. In spite of the uncertainty of the situation, Rafael smiled. He had done nothing in his life to warrant a prize such as this.
She opened her eyes, his gift, to lock a brilliant gaze on his face. After a moment's hesitation she tried feebly to push away his hands, hands that continued to brush sand from her skin.
He spoke to her, first in his native Spanish. A greeting, an introduction of sorts. She merely closed her eyes as if she were very tired and shook her head. He tried French. There were still French settlers along the coast, though they were few, and fewer every day.
He hesitated. She was probably English. Too bad. He positively hated the English.
"Beautiful lady," he began. "You have been delivered to me." She tensed, tried to draw away from him. "And I want only to assist you. Are you injured? What can I do to take away the fear in your eyes?"
She took a deep breath. Beneath his fingers her chest expanded and fell. "For starters, you can take your hands off my tits."
He did as she asked and she sat up, looking around, looking down. "Where am I? What have you done with my clothes?" The fear was back, in her eyes and in her voice.
"I cannot answer your questions," Rafael answered calmly, "but to tell you that you are as I found you."
Excerpted from On a Wicked Wind by Linda Jones. Copyright © 1998 Linda Winstead Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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