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At first glimpse he seemed infinitely dangerous, even barbaric. And yet something in his eyes called to me . . .
British West Indies, February 1813
The scene was Pagan--the half-nude man bound in chains, his sinewed torso bronzed by the Caribbean sun. Silhouetted against the ships tall masts, he stood defiant, unbowed.
For a brief instant Lady Aurora Demming felt her heart falter as she stared up at the frigate's railing.
He might have been a statue carved by a master sculptor, all rippling muscle and lithe strength . . . except that he was flesh-and-blood male, and very much alive. Sunlight warmed the hard contours of his body, gilded the dark gold of his hair.
That tawny shade of gold was heart familiar. At first glance Aurora had flinched with the memory of another face forever lost to her. But this brazen, nearly naked man was a stranger, possessing a raw masculinity quite unlike her late betrothed.
He was stripped down to breeches, but though he wore the chains of a prisoner, he remained unbroken, his gaze fierce and remote as he stared out over the quay. Even from a distance, his eyes seemed to glitter dangerously, giving the impression of simmering anger tenuously controlled.
As if he felt her gaze, his focus slowly shifted and locked on her, riveting her in place. The bustle and noise of the waterfront faded away. For a fleeting moment, time ceased and only the two of them existed.
The intensity of his stare held her motionless, yet Aurora felt herself tremble, her heart suddenly drumming in a painful, almost wild rhythm.
She gave a start as her cousin Percy recalled her to her surroundings. She stood on the harbor quayside of Basseterre, St. Kitts, before the shipping office, the warm Caribbean sun beating down upon her. The pungent smells of fish and tar permeated the salt air along with the raucous cries of seagulls. Beyond the busy quay stretched brilliant blue-green waters, while in the distance rose the lush, mountainous island of Nevis.
Her cousin followed the direction of her gaze to the prisoner of the naval frigate. "What has you so fascinated?"
"That man . . ." she murmured. "For a moment he reminded me of Geoffrey."
Percy squinted across the quay. "How can you possibly tell at this distance?" He frowned. The hair color is similar, perhaps, but any other resemblance must be superficial. I couldn't imagine the late Earl of March as a convict, could you?"
"I don't suppose so."
Yet she couldn't tear her eyes away from the fair-haired prisoner. Nor could he from her, it seemed. He still watched her as he stood at the head of the gangway, prepared to disembark. His hands manacled, he was guarded by two armed, burly seamen of the British navy, but he gave no notice of his captors until one jerked viciously on the chain that bound his wrists.
Pain or fury made his fists clench, but he offered no other sign of struggle as he was herded at musketpoint down the gangway.
Once more Aurora heard her name called, this time more firmly.
Her cousin touched her arm, his look full of sympathy.
"Geoffrey is gone, Aurora. It will do you no good to dwell on your loss. And your grief can only prove detrimental to your upcoming marriage. I'm certain your future husband will not appreciate your mourning another man. For your own sake, you must learn to quell your feelings."
She had not been thinking of her loss, she was ashamed to admit, or the unwanted marriage her father was forcing upon her, but she nodded for her cousin's benefit. She had no business showing an interest in a barely dressed stranger. A criminal, no less. One who evidently had committed some heinous crime to warrant such savage punishment.
With a small shudder, Aurora forced her attention away. The primitive display was no sight of a lady, much less a duke's daughter. She had rarely seen so much naked male flesh at one time. Certainly she'd never been shaken by a man, as she had been moments ago when he caught her eye.
Chastising herself, she turned to allow her cousin to hand her into the open carriage. She'd come to the docks with Percy to confirm her passage to England. Because of the conflict with America and the danger of piracy, there were few ships leaving the West Indies. The next passenger vessel was scheduled to depart the island of St. Kitts three days hence and was only waiting for a military escort.
She dreaded returning home and had delayed as long as she dares, months longer that originally planned, using the excuse that travel was dangerous while a war raged. But her father was adamant that she present herself at once to prepare for her wedding to the nobleman he'd chosen for her. In his last letter he'd threatened to come and fetch her himself if she failed to honor the agreement he had made on her behalf.
Aurora had one foot on the carriage step when a disturbance across the quay made her pause. The prisoner had reached the end of the gangway and was being harangued to climb into a waiting wagon, obviously a difficult task because of his chains.
When he moved too slowly, he was given a savage shove that sent him stumbling almost to his knees. Saving himself by clutching the wagon's rear gate, he drew himself up and turned to eye his guard with a contemptuous stare.
His cool insolence seemed to infuriate his tormentors for he received a musket butt to the ribs, which doubled him over in pain.
Aurora's cry of protest at the vicious attack lodged in her throat when the prisoner swung his chains at the guard. It was a futile gesture of defiance, for he was bound too tightly to effect any real damage, but apparently his rebellion was the excuse his guards wanted.
Both seamen set upon him with the stocks of their muskets, driving him to the cobblestones with cries of "Scurvy dog!" and "Bastard sea scum!"
Aurora recoiled in horror at seeing someone treated so viciously, without mercy. "For pity's sake--" she murmured hoarsely. "Make them stop, Percy!"
"It is a naval matter," her cousin replied in a grim tone, speaking in his role as lieutenant governor of St. Kitts. "I have no justification for interfering."
"Dear God, they'll beat him to death--" Without waiting for a reply, she picked up her skirts and ran toward the commotion.