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By Trish Albright
Dorchester Publishing Copyright © 2008 Trish Albright
All right reserved.
Chapter One 1787, Morocco
Moments like this made her life legendary.
Being a practical sort, she preferred being a living legend.
An Arabian guard yanked her thick, long braid, demanding attention she refused to give. Undeterred, he hooked her bound arms, currently tied from behind, and dragged her sideways toward the auction block. It was uncomfortable, not to mention the height of rudeness.
Stumbling, but stubborn to the end, Alexandra Stafford levered bare feet against the hardwood steps and pressed backward against the guard with all her strength, her body nearly horizontal, stretched open to the crowd of attentive buyers.
Another figure sauntered into her peripheral vision and the face of her kidnapper appeared as he bent down nonchalantly to observe her distress. His hand lifted to halt the guard. Tilting his sun-darkened face parallel to hers, he frowned with a disingenuous expression of worry, shaking his head over her situation. The sour smell of tobacco emanated from his breath and skin, and Alex grimaced in disgust, before unleashing her fury.
"I swear if you do this, my family will hunt you down, cut you limb from limb, gut you like a pig, and feed you to the sharks, you miserable, son of a-"
She cut off, choking, as Reginald Paxton blew smoke in her face. Her body convulsed with hacking coughs, and the guard took advantage to yank her back into standing position. Alex kicked out at Paxton with rage, her bare feet doing little damage to the parts she could reach. He laughed. It infuriated her further to think he was laughing at her puny efforts. Once freed, she would kill him. With any luck, a few different ways.
"Tell me where the map is, and I can make this all go away, Miss Stafford."
"I told you." The guard painfully tightened his grip on her. "I don't know anything"-she slammed her heel down on the guard's foot-"about some stupid map."
The guard whacked her in the side of the head, causing her brain to rattle.
Alex faked a recovery she didn't feel, raised her head and smiled.
Incensed, Paxton waved for the man to proceed.
"No! You bastard! I'm an American. I'm a free woman," Alex screamed, fighting violently as she was forced toward the platform. Her efforts were so fierce another guard came to assist.
"Someone help me!" she begged, searching desperately for a sympathetic face or word from the crowd. There were none. Only the foreign sounds of Arabic. She understood enough to heighten her fear, as she was dragged onto the small stage and held in place.
In her short life she'd had many roles-daughter, heiress, sea captain, and now she thought bleakly, slave. Boston was a lifetime away and she was at the wrong end of a sale gone bad. Very bad. Fear no longer prickled the hairs at the back of her neck, but suffocated the life from her with dizzying force. She swore to kill Paxton for this-if her father didn't get to him first.
Forcing self-pity aside, she took stock of escape options.
They appeared dismal at best.
To her left, the door she entered was protected by a long hallway of armed guards. Paxton stood aside waiting to collect his earnings for the night. She had not been his only sale, but the other woman had appeared blessedly incoherent. Forward, she faced the eyes of a hundred dark predators, staring, eager for conquest. She couldn't breathe without tasting their steamy, musky sweat. Finally, to her right, stairs to a place she didn't want to know about. The place they took the slaves. Her stomach wrenched with dread.
Panic hit hard and fast.
She woke up from her temporary daze and leapt. Unfortunately, the arm encircling her neck caught and tightened. Turning her head sideways inside his grip, Alex bit hard into the salty, hairy flesh. Disgusting, but effective.
A remarkably high-pitched yelp rewarded her efforts before the air at her throat was cut off. Her vision blurred, and her body trembled. The guard gave an inch. She hissed in a sharp breath. The second she regained her focus and footing she spat, "Obviously, your mother didn't teach you any manners, you stinking, filthy, brainless bastard."
She croaked more than cursed, but the slurs felt good nonetheless.
Alex regretted the outburst immediately when a murmur of curiosity, expectation, then appreciation, spread across the room. As if her struggle excited them. Her eyes burned with terror. God help her. They were all animals.
Joshua Leigh looked up at the commotion. He'd been having an exceptional night out with his friends-until now. Right now, he felt sick. His cohorts thought to impress him with admittance to one of the special markets-a Moroccan slave auction. To the buyers, a very civil affair. To the slaves, the beginning of a nightmare.
Joshua raked a hand through his hair, yearning for escape. They had missed most of "the evening's highlights," and thankfully the experience was nearly over.
He surveyed the small square room, crammed with lustful buyers, and suffused in cigar smoke. Although he was in the back, his height gave him a clear view of the makeshift auction block and the buyers eager to make a purchase. They no doubt had experienced every known plea sure and out of boredom sought more. There was no thought of moral consequences. When you were this rich you could control the consequences.
A howl from the barrel-chested guard escorting the current captive caught his attention. The girl choked on a scream, her long braid coming undone, and spilling rich, auburn tresses over her shoulders. A buzz began in the room. Joshua tensed, watching the girl struggle in vain against the enormous creature twice her size.
Witnessing her vulnerability, he was forced to think of his own. Of everything he had worked and sweat for in the last four years. He was making a life for himself. An honest one. One that had nothing to do with his bastard father, and nothing to do with this. His current shipment would put him in the black. If he delivered it on time.
Why then, would the thought of losing it all even come into consideration?
He quickly assessed the possible exits, as was his habit in a tricky negotiation. The trading business was oftentimes dangerous and he knew from experience when to walk away before it got messy.
Every rational thought told him to walk away now.
He looked at the girl again and sighed regretfully, stepping backward to blend more into his surroundings.
Alex continued to look out, not sparing anyone her disdain. If she could remember their faces it would give her focus in the days to come. She fully intended to kill every one of them. In this lifetime. For now, she must face reality and find a way to survive. She was a Stafford after all. She would survive. Somehow, she prayed, she would survive.
Alex cursed every man in Morocco, and then herself for wanting to come here. This trip had been a chance to prove herself. Her first voyage as the youngest captain for Stafford Shipping. True, she had been accompanied by her father's and brothers' ships, but at sea she'd been in charge.
This last month had been all she ever imagined. Of course, many parts of Morocco were crowded, dirty, and dangerous. Her father didn't trust her to go anywhere alone. After the humiliation of being kidnapped, she grudgingly admitted he might be right. If she survived, this current setback could last years. That thought alone was abysmally depressing. She would be forever proving herself.
She licked her lips, parched and desperate for one drop of water. Deep weariness made every limb seem twice its weight. Even her hands ached from the guard's tight hold. Undoubtedly, he had ceased the blood flow to her fingers. Hopelessness caused a burning sensation in her eyes, and her head wilted, causing wild strands of hair to stick to her cheeks. She wanted to give up.
A man came up to her, his personal odor preceding him. She saw only feet and some flowing robes. He was a potential customer, and Alex understood clearly his command that she look up. She also considered it fair enough that she was not in the mood to cooperate.
The buyer was smug and undeterred. He grasped her chin in demand. To be relieved of his touch, she gave in and forced herself to gaze past his stout body. She recognized the words of appreciation as well as the scrutiny up and down meant to denigrate.
Defiance disappeared as she smiled tentatively, forcing herself to look him in the eyes. He froze, surprised, then grinned oafishly. Alex felt not an ounce of remorse at his disconcerted look. If he was that stupid, he deserved what he got.
He was still smiling dimwittedly when the shin of Alex's leg connected with his groin. The guard immediately pulled her back. Using the hold from behind as leverage, Alex jumped up, lifting both her legs, and pushed the man off the stage. There was a gratifying thump. A rush of satisfaction gave her new strength.
The fallen man got up with a murderous look. Joshua started instinctively, then stopped. He needn't have worried. The "goods" were well protected, and the humiliated buyer was escorted aside amid laughter and lusty admiration.
His stomach twisted again as the girl straightened her back and lifted her head. Her eyes sparkled clear and pure, and her hair was the color of rich cherrywood with a warmth and texture that lured him, even through the dirty haze of smoke. She was young, which might account for her somewhat strange clothing-a tailored shirt, that could have been designed for a man, was torn at the throat, revealing more than it was meant to. Her skirt was not a skirt, but loose gentleman's pants that must have been made to order. A large belt cinched them at her waist with a decorative buckle. They were some kind of work clothes, but for what profession he knew not. From the surprisingly strong voice that spit out at the room in Arabic, he'd mark her as a survivor. That, at least, was a good sign.
"You will all rot in bloody hell, and I promise to send each one of you foul, pathetic, immoral scum there myself."
Joshua winced. There were a few guffaws from the locals. Educated, but obviously not the daughter of a diplomat. The girl then added what curses and slurs she seemed able to summon in Spanish, French, Italian, the local dialect, and what he thought might be Chinese. No, he decided recognizing some of the words, definitely no diplomats in the family. A resounding slap echoed in his ears as she was struck across the face, her head snapping, stunning her into temporary silence.
A ferocious rage struck him just as quickly, and his friend grabbed his arm in warning. He swallowed impatience, fighting for control, and found himself urging her on. Praying she could magically absorb a little of his strength to survive her torment.
The next seconds seemed like hours as he waited to see if she would recover from the blow, uncertain she was not already unconscious. Then, very slowly, with painstaking control, she lifted her chin. A clenched jaw made the angles of her face even sharper, and he sensed her strength to move came only from blood-sizzling fury and sheer determination. He stepped back unconsciously at the fire in her eyes and watched with admiration as she returned the strike with one of her own.
The Moroccan slowly wiped a hand across his chin and mouth. He raised his arm again threateningly, but she refused to cower. She did make the concession of keeping her mouth shut. For that, Joshua was relieved. Most of the men likely didn't understand her threats and slurs against their manhood, but the way her lips curled with disgust conveyed the meaning just as well. She was haughty as a queen, yet he knew she was frightened. Hell, if she wasn't, then she was downright stupid.
The guard wrenched her arms from behind and earned a sharp flinch from his captive. It was an act of brutality merely for the plea sure of it. Joshua had experienced it often as a boy, and empathy twisted his guts at the memory. He acknowledged then what he had known the instant he'd seen her-she was doomed, and somehow, God help him, he had to save her.
What a damned mess.
There was an intimate description of the goods before the bidding took off feverishly. It stopped when a bid from the side won silence. Joshua recognized the round, middle- aged sultan who had just doubled the last offer. The man was richer than any king in Europe and known to keep harems in each of his many palaces. He was also known for a cruel streak in ruling his people. He would no doubt take great plea sure in breaking this girl of her spirit.
Throwing caution to the wind, Joshua stepped forward and raised the bid. He had no idea how he would get his hands on that kind of money, but he didn't care.
There was a collective murmur of shock in the room. Not because of the costly price he realized, but because he dared to bid against the sultan.
The sultan bid again, but Joshua voiced a higher price, heedless of his own increasing peril. The sultan then offered a small fortune, and the bidding ended.
Joshua watched the girl curse and fight as they dragged her off the stage to the other side of the platform. His blood burned. All the injustices he had ever experienced came to a head. He couldn't bear to see another innocent creature ruined by the egos and will of greedy men.
"It is over, my friend. Let's go." His companion, the sultan's nephew, pulled his arm urgently.
"Where are they taking her?"
"There are quarters upstairs," Prince Raja explained. "Al-Aziz gets her only for to night. She is not allowed to leave the rooms here. He paid well to be the first. Soon there will be another auction. A rare piece like that will bring them much money." The prince read his friend's expression. "Please, my friend, do not do anything foolish."
Joshua's lips curved slightly. "Me?"
Raja sighed. "I cannot be involved. I am easily recognized, and my cousin is my responsibility."
Joshua recalled his cousin was currently laid out drunk in Raja's carriage.
"But ... if you live long enough ..." Raja hesitated, then whispered some directions indicating a meeting place on the edge of the city. "They will expect you to go where it is busy. Do not. I will find you." He paused with warning. "If that is still an option."
Joshua gripped Raja's hand gratefully.
The prince rebuked, "Do not thank me. I should have never brought you here."
Joshua watched as the auctioneer paid the slave trader, then turned back to Raja, grinning. "It was fate, my friend. Fear not."
Alex cursed as Paxton collected an obscene amount of gold. It was entirely unjust. He lifted it toward her in a salute, then handed it to a companion while a new guard undid her bonds. Paxton wasn't more than fourteen feet away. She could kill him. With a knife. Perhaps the one being used to free her. It had cut through the ropes efficiently enough. But then she had to reach him. Too many people moving about.
Not a direct throw.
Not to worry.
Saying words of thanks in Arabic to the guard who freed her, she turned around and added a respectful nod. The guard looked into her eyes. She smiled for good mea sure, distracting him. Two seconds later she had the knife. Four seconds later she was in striking distance of Paxton.
Paxton didn't anticipate trouble coming his way. He turned at the sudden noise. Not expecting her. Not expecting the shadow of a knife to flash before him.
Alex leapt, triumph in her last breath.
Someone caught her ankle.
She stretched, determined, victory near. Her target clear.
Paxton's eyes met hers. She reached for his throat.
Paxton turned his head away defensively as she struck. Blood spurted free as the knife opened skin down the side of his left cheek. He cried in rage as Alex fell forward to the ground, several guards instantly on her, a foot crushing her knife-wielding hand. Paxton tried to get at her in the fray, seeking revenge, but was held back.
Someone gave him a rag. Held apart, he faced her as she was lifted to her feet, a look of pure evil burning in his eyes. "You will live to regret this, Stafford."
"Not," she gasped, being pulled away, "while there is a breath left in my body!"
Paxton's face contorted into something monstrous. "Then start counting your days."
Excerpted from Siren's Song by Trish Albright Copyright © 2008 by Trish Albright. Excerpted by permission.
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