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CHAPTER ONE: ISLAND OF BARBADOES, 1721
The sky over the bay of Bridgetown was close to black, dark with night and the clouds that hid the stars and moon, and a near match for the black mood that bedeviled Samson Fairbourne.
"So help me, Zach," he growled at the younger man beside him in the ship's longboat, "if you were not kin, I would hurl your sorry carcass over the side for how you've shamed me this night."
For once his cousin had sense enough not to answer, instead steadfastly staring over the shoulders of the men at the oars to avoid meeting Samson's eye. That was fine with Samson; if Zach had tried to argue with him now, when his temper was still roiling so furiously, he might very well have tossed his cousin into the waves, blood kin or not.
It was bad enough for the Morning Star's bosun to have to drag befuddled seamen from the rumshops, but for the captain himself to go brawling in the street to rescue his own first mate -- and over some silly strumpet, too -- was beyond bearing. Samson grumbled another oath to himself, tugging his cloak over the sleeve of his best superfine coat. The torn sleeve, thanks to Zach, torn and spotted with the same street filth that dabbed his back and breeches and likely even his hat as well.
"I never meant to shame you, Sam," ventured Zach with an unfortunately accurate prescience of his cousin's thoughts. "All I did was bring Ma'm'selle Lambert a cup of punch and dance one dance with her when the fiddler began. One tiny dance, Sam, I swear that was all. How could I know her brother and his friends would take such offense?"
"Her brother, hah." Samson glared at his cousin. "More likely her packonger now tempered with despair. Jesus, had he himself ever been this pathetically innocent where women were concerned? He was fond of the boy. He truly was. But though he was only seven years older than Zach, there were times when he felt as if a whole lifetime of experience stretched between them instead.
"You listen to me, Zach, and you listen well," he said sternly. "I don't care if that lass tonight was the granddaughter of the king himself. It makes no difference, mind? None at all! She'd still be a female, rich or poor, lady or otherwise. And as entertaining as females can be, in their place, there are still no more taxing, troublesome distractions on this earth to a sailing man. The sooner you learn to keep clear of them, Zach -- all of them -- the happier your life will be."
Zach stared down into the bottom of the boat, his shoulders hunched in misery. "I don't believe it, Sam," he muttered, and pulled a small rum bottle from inside his coat for solace. "Not even from you."
"Give me that!" Samson snatched the bottle away and poured its contents into the water for emphasis. "What the Devil's gotten into you tonight, anyway? Whoring and fighting and drinking -- "
"What about your sister?" demanded Zach. "She's a woman, isn't she? Are you saying that Serena's naught but trouble, too?"
"You leave off Serena, Zach," warned Samson. No man said ill of Serena in his hearing, not even Zach. "Besides, I don't mean sisters. Sisters are different."
"Well then, how do you find the different ones if you keep clear of them all?"
"You don't," said Samson decisively. "You can't. You'd sooner find a drop of fresh water in an ocean of salt than one good woman in the great sea of doxies in a port, all of them set to prey upon luckless sailors."
"But why can't I wish -- "
"Wishing means nothing with women, Zach. Less than nothing, else I'd...I'd -- " He broke off abruptly, aware of how close he'd come to telling more of himself than he'd ever want Zach or the other four men at the oars to know. His fingers tightened around the empty bottle in his hand, and impulsively he reached into his coat for the pencil he always carried for calculations. The only paper he had with him was the innkeeper's reckoning from their supper, and he drew that from his coat now, too, smoothing the strip across his knee to hold it flat against the breeze.
"I'll show you how much wishes are worth," he said, determined to make his point with his headstrong cousin as he began pressing the words into the paper. "I'll wish to Neptune himself for the perfect woman. Look here, I'm putting it all proper in writing: 'I, Samson Fairbourne, with the ocean as my witness, do wish for a young woman sweet in temper and without vanity, modest and truthful in words and manner, obedient and honorable, to take as my lawful wife.' Is that a grand enough wish for you, Zach?"
But as he waited for his cousin's reply, the young man's startled face was suddenly washed with light, and Samson turned to look for the source. The full moon had at last shown herself, the dark clouds tearing into little wisps across the brilliant silver circle that now seemed to fill the night sky. As if awed by the moon, the waves went instantly, strangely still, as even and smooth as a mirror to reflect the skies overhead.
Mere coincidence, Samson told himself fiercely, coincidence and no more. How could one foolish oath have power over the sea? Yet still he felt the uneasiness prickle beneath the collar of his shirt, an uneasiness that was perilously close to fear.
"A most grand wish, Zach," he said again, though even to his own ears the brash words now sounded hollow. "Grand enough not to have a prayer of coming true, eh?"
"Nay, Sam, stop," said Zach quickly, his eyes wide as he, too, stared up at the moon. Behind him one of the men at the oars raised a hand to cross himself. "Don't do this. 'Tis wrong to make such vows, even in jest, and you know it."
But Samson shook his head, determinedly turning his back on that glowing witch of a moon. Damnation, he was a rational Englishman, a Massachusetts-man, his own master, not some superstitious heathen who'd cower and quake before a pack of wayward clouds. With a great effort, he forced himself to laugh.
"You are right, cousin, right to stop me," he declared. "This perfect woman I wish for must be a rare beauty in the bargain. I'll mark that down here on my list, after 'honorable'."
He twisted the paper into a tight little scroll and stuffed it down the neck of the empty rum bottle, wedging the cork in tight to seal it. As he did, the tall, dark shadow of the Morning Star loomed beside them, the boat bumping gently against the brig's side. Samson seized the guide-rope that hung from the rail, braced his feet, and clambered easily up the side to the deck. In three long strides he'd crossed to the bow, ignoring the startled looks of the handful of crewmen on watch.
"Here, Zach, here," he ordered, his voice booming effortlessly over the water as his cousin hurried to join him. He was master now, master of his ship and the lives of those who sailed with him, and the knowledge r enewed his confidence. Moon, hah! This was the Caribbean, with weather as changeable as a whim. Besides, all he really wanted to do was set his cousin on a steadier course, with a dramatic gesture the boy wouldn't soon forget. Where was the sin in that?
He swept the bottle through the air, encompassing the harbor, the sleeping town, even that infernal moon. "There! Even with all this as my witness, you'll see how empty such wishes for women will be!"
Before Zach could protest again, Samson hurled the bottle as far as he could, far out over the bowsprit and into the water. It bobbed there for a moment, the neck spinning gently in the moonlight, then vanished down below the glassy surface so abruptly that it seemed almost to have been pulled from beneath by an unseen hand.
Samson frowned. A corked and empty bottle should float, not sink.
"Oh, hell," he muttered, all too aware of how every other man on the deck was holding his breath in anticipation, or dread, or fear, or maybe all three. "It's not natural for a bottle to -- "
But his words were torn away by a gust of wind so strong and so sudden that he had to grab at the foremast to keep from being swept over the side. Even with all her sails still furled tight for port, the Morning Star heeled before the wind's force, her timbers groaning in protest as she tugged hard against her anchor.
He squinted back over the water, struggling vainly one last time to spot the bottle in the wind-whipped waves. Yet the churning waves were empty, the brilliant moon still there to taunt him for his rash words.
Damnation, he would not be cowed! He would claim this wind as his, and tame it for his own purposes. None had ever dared question his courage or his wisdom before this. He'd no intention of letting them start now. He'd give orders for the Morning Star to sail at once, and with such a wind to carry them they'd be clear of Barbadoes by daybreak. He'd prove to his men once and for all that he wouldn't quiver before superstition and a wayward moon.
And that idle, fool's wish of his could just as soon go to the Devil where it belonged.
Copyright © 1999 by Miranda Jarrett
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