About the book
To yearn for the forbidden is to give in to the dark side…
An outcast in her own home by her terrible step-mother, Lady Samantha Crawford has resolved that she will never bind herself to a man. But as her arranged betrothal delivers the final blow, she has no choice but to flee.
What Nox, Captain of The Rosa Mystica, never expected was that plundering a merchant ship would provide him with the most valuable treasure he has ever laid eyes on. Or that she would be the key to unlocking a past he has no recollection of.
Caught in the midst of their tempestuous attraction, Samantha’s heart threatens to sink when her father leads Nox to the gallows. For, only a miracle could help him regain his memory and escape the hangman’s noose once and for all.
“I will not be your servant, Regina, get it yourself!” Samantha Crawford cried, slamming the door behind her as she rushed out into the hallway.
“You are behaving like a spoiled little wretch. I am with child. The least you can do is go out to Bond Street and pick up my list,” her stepmother shouted back.
The two women had been arguing for the past half an hour, while Samantha’s friend, Catherine Ferguson, looked helplessly on. They always argued, for they had never seen eye to eye. As far as Samantha was concerned, her stepmother, Regina, was an interloper who had stolen her father’s affections and left Samantha out in the cold. That they were both the same age and possessed of similar pretty looks and fiery temperament only added to the divisiveness of their positions.
“I am the spoiled little wretch? And who was it that threw a tantrum when her dress was not trimmed with the precise lace she had demanded? Or who kicked the poor maid who combed her hair with too much vigor? You think that because you are with child, you can have anything you want, Regina. Well, you cannot have me. I will not play your servant all day, nor be toyed with by your swings of mood,” Samantha declared.
She was the only daughter of the Duke of Hampton, a slender woman of twenty-five years old, with long curly black hair and deep blue eyes. But in her sex, she was already at a disadvantage, for her father had always made it clear he wanted a son and not a daughter. Samantha had grown up with this knowledge, and when her mother had died of a terrible fever, he had been swift to move his mistress into the house, claiming that now the time would come for a son and heir to be produced.
“I am your stepmother,” Regina snarled, though in truth she possessed no proper authority.
Samantha thought that Regina, with her silly, girlish ways and coquettish nature, her long blonde hair and fluttering eyelids, was the most ridiculous creature in all the ton. Now, she stood in the hallway with her hands upon her hips, her stomach bulging with the weight of the child, red faced and angry.
“And I do not require a stepmother, for I have a mother, albeit one in memory alone. You are not my stepmother, you are nothing to me,” Samantha retorted, and had it not been for Regina’s current condition, she would gladly have showed her anger with the back of her palm.
“Perhaps a walk, Samantha,” Catherine suggested, standing nervously between them.
She and Samantha had been the closest of friends since finishing school. Catherine was a pretty woman, with long red hair and hazel-brown eyes, always impeccably dressed, and with the slenderest of figures. If it were not for Catherine’s company, Samantha would have gone quite mad cooped up at Hampton Manor with her father and his china-doll wife who only loved him for his money and her title of Duchess.
“Why should I be driven out of the house, because she is in one of her moods?” Samantha demanded, and Catherine faltered.
“Well… can there be any agreement between you?” Catherine replied, though she too held Regina in thinly veiled contempt.
“There can when she does as she is told and shows me the proper respect I am due,” Regina shouted, stamping her foot angrily.
“You are nothing to me, and certainly you have never displayed one shred of maternal instinct, not that I would welcome it if you did,” Samantha retorted
She had had enough of Regina ordering her around, playing the long-suffering matriarch, bossing her as though she possessed the same authority as Samantha’s father. Regina was nothing to Samantha, and had it not been for Regina’s liking for the pleasures which her status afforded her, she may well have driven her from the house without a second thought. But Regina was there to stay, and Samantha knew that in all things her father would take her stepmother’s side against her. She hated Regina’s perceived authority, for she would never refer to her as mother, nor even as an acquaintance. Regina was an inconvenience, and Samantha had no qualms in telling her so.
“Then perhaps you should leave, Samantha. Your father and I are having a child, and there is nothing you can do about it. It will be the son he has always wanted, and you will find yourself even more unwanted than you already are,” Regina replied, drawing herself up and looking down her nose at Samantha, who scoffed and shook her head.
“And how do you know it will be a boy? Perhaps it will be a girl, and you will become just as much of a disappointment as I am, Regina. Be careful, for if my father can choose you as his mistress, then he can just as easily choose another poor creature, too,” Samantha replied, and Regina’s lip trembled at this inconvenient truth.
The Duke had always been a womanizer, consumed by his desire for a son. Regina was nothing special, though in certain circles they considered her pretty. What mattered was her fertility, and having come from a large family, the Duke had thought her ripe to bear the son he had always longed for.
“It will be a boy, I know it,” she declared, but Samantha only smirked.
“I hope for your sake that it is, otherwise we shall soon bid one another farewell,” she said.
Regina pursed her lips, her fists clenched, just as the door of the Duke’s study flew open and the man himself appeared before them. Randolf Crawford was an angry man, possessed of a temper which was not helped by his penchant for the brandy bottle. He was usually drunk, and if he was not drunk, then he was on the way to becoming so. Now, he looked around the hallway, his face red and puffed, his beady eyes fixing Samantha with an angry stare.
“How is a man supposed to concentrate on his work with this noise going on out here? Samantha, be quiet. All I can hear is your voice,” he cried.
“Oh, Randolf, thank goodness,” Regina said, adopting a faux meekness, ever playing the wounded party.
Samantha rolled her eyes.
“Here come the theatrics,” she whispered to Catherine.
“What is it, my darling? Has something upset you? Or someone?” the Duke asked, as Regina fell into his arms, in a pitiful mocking faint.
“I try to be a friend to her. I try my very best. It is all so wearing, Randolf, she will not listen to me, she constantly berates me. I feel as though I am living on the edge of a precipice, about to fall into the abyss. Why will she not accept me? I have done nothing wrong,” she said, her voice exaggeratingly faint.
“Oh, my dear Regina, you poor thing,” the Duke exclaimed, helping her to a chair next to a table in the hallway, before turning angrily to Samantha.
“I feel quite faint,” Regina said, bringing the back of her hand pathetically to her forehead.
“Samantha, if I have told you once, I have told you a thousand times, do not upset Regina. I will not have it!” the Duke snarled.
“What nonsense, Father. Surely you can see she is lying. She always lies. It is she who causes the trouble in this house, with her lies and deceits. She is forever making up stories and treating me like a lapdog. I am not her servant,” Samantha declared, staring defiantly back at her father.
Samantha was used to standing up to her father, for she had been doing it her whole life. But father and daughter were too alike to ever back down one or the other. The more they argued, the greater the stalemate became. The Duke always took the side of Regina, and today would be no different.
“She is carrying the heir to this family. I will not have you upsetting her. Apologize immediately, Samantha. I do not know why I put up with you,” he said, but Samantha only laughed.
“I will apologize when she apologizes. She would have me driven out of my home and sent away. Would you allow that?” she demanded, and her father scowled.
Samantha could always manipulate her father like this. Despite his gruffness and his womanizing ways, he still possessed the love of a father for his daughter. But the tragedy of his own life had hardened his heart and made him bitter, for he had been forced to marry her mother under circumstances of politics, a fact which had caused him great misery.
“I am sure the two of you can get along without resorting to that,” he replied, but Regina now let out a pitiful wail.
“Are we to endure these taunts, Randolf? How am I to bring a child into the world under such a strain?” she said, and the Duke took her hand and patted it sympathetically.
“You must not worry, my darling, I have made arrangements which will satisfy us all,” he replied, glancing at Samantha who looked back at him in surprise.
“What arrangements?” she demanded, and her father cleared his throat.
“You are to be married, Samantha. It is high time, and there is a willing gentleman, a suitor of some importance. I was going to make the announcement on Friday, but since the matter has arisen now… well, that is that,” he replied, failing to meet her eye.
He made it sound as though he had just announced the hiring of a new servant, or the purchase of a piece of furniture. Samantha looked wide eyed at him, before turning to Catherine, who appeared equally shocked.
“But… who is this man? I am not ready to marry, I have no wish to, I will not–” she began, but her father shook his head.
“A man named Reginald Spencer, a Marquess with a good estate in his inherit. You are twenty-five years old, Samantha, and I will not have you languishing without a husband at my expense any longer,” he said, helping Regina to her feet and putting his arms around her.
Regina smirked at Samantha from behind the Duke’s back, her triumphal stare causing Samantha’s anger to rise even further. How dare her father make such arrangements? No doubt it was Regina’s doing, and Samantha could only clench her fists, seething with anger at the injustice of it all.
“I will not,” she replied, determined to show her stubbornness.
“The arrangements have been made, Samantha, the Marquess is most eager to meet you,” the Duke said, helping Regina back toward the drawing room. “We shall have you married very soon, and then there shall be no more upsetting Regina.”
“I think it will be good for her. After all, I am the happiest of women in my marriage,” Regina said, casting a final smirking glance back toward Samantha, before the door closed behind them.
“The audacity… I am marrying no one,” Samantha declared, taking Catherine by the hand, and hurrying her upstairs.
It was the sheer unreasonableness of it all that shocked her the most. There had been no mention of a marriage, no intimation that her father intended to see her betrothed. The two of them had always had a tempestuous relationship, but the arrival of Regina had brought a poisonous atmosphere to the house, and Samantha knew it was her stepmother who had planted this wicked idea into her father’s mind.
“You cannot marry a man you have never met,” Catherine said, as the two of them hurried along the landing.
“I shall lock myself into my chambers, I shall refuse to come out, I will never entertain the idea,” Samantha replied, her heart racing, determined to take her revenge upon Regina, whether or not she was with child.
“But they will force you. If you are promised to this gentleman, Reginald Spencer – whoever he is – then they will find a way to enact the marriage,” Catherine replied.
“Oh, Catherine, what am I to do?” Samantha lamented.
She paused on the landing, turning to Catherine, as a tear ran down her cheek. Samantha had never considered marriage. She was happy as a spinster, unwilling to live her life at the whim of a man – any man. There had been suitors in the past, men who had come and gone like ships in the night. But none had captured her heart, and with her independent spirit and determined heart, Samantha was certain that no man could ever live up to her expectations.
“We must think for a moment, come and sit down. Perhaps some tea would help,” Catherine replied, ushering Samantha toward her chambers.
Hampton Manor was a large, sprawling house, which had been in the Duke’s family for many years. It was composed of two wings, north and south, one side of which was occupied by the Duke and Regina, the other by Samantha.
She had a bedroom and a sitting room, her private domain, each lined with books, for she loved to read and escape from the harsh realities of her life. This was her sanctuary, and if it had not been for such a place, she would soon have gone quite mad in the stifling atmosphere of the house below.
But as she opened the door, Samantha gave a cry of horror, looking around her in disbelief at the scene which now greeted them. Someone had flung the books from the shelves, as though in some terrible rage. Not only had they been thrown, but torn and trampled, too. The sight brought fresh tears to her eyes, and she collapsed into a chair, unable to bear the devastation before her.
“Oh, Catherine, who could have done this?” she exclaimed, as Catherine stooped to pick up one of the books.
“I am sure we can tidy it up, they are not all damaged, oh my,” she said, shaking her head sadly.
But it was all too much for Samantha, and she wept, sobbing into her handkerchief, as Catherine attempted to comfort her.
“There, there, you are not at fault, you are treated abominably by that woman, for it is surely she who has done this,” Catherine said, and Samantha nodded.
There could be no one else save Regina, who possessed such vitriol toward her. Samantha hated her, but what power did she have over her? Regina had her father in her pocket, and the Duke would never side with Samantha against the woman carrying his son and heir – or so they presumed. In that moment, Samantha wondered if marriage was the best way out of her miserable situation, for, in submitting to another man, she would at least be escaping the clutches of the woman who had stolen her father’s heart.
“Who else could it be? Regina is nothing but a harlot, I hate her,” Samantha replied, looking around the room at her precious books, shaking her head sadly.
“Then you have no choice but to leave,” Catherine replied, and Samantha looked up at her curiously.
“But where can I go?” she asked, and Catherine smiled.
“I think I might have an idea, one which will show your father just how serious you are. What do you know of your father’s shipping business?” she asked, and closing the door, she proceeded to explain her plan–
The merchant ship was floundering, its hull torn through by canon ball, taking on water fast. A fire had broken out at one end, engulfing the sails, and Captain Norman Black, known to his friends as “Nox,” had just ordered his own ship The Rosa Mystica to draw alongside.
“Planks down, Men, and we’ll board her,” he called out, as the stricken merchant ship came close.
Nox could see her captain on the deck, surrounded by nervous-looking crewmen. These vessels were easy pickings, coming from London laden with goods for trade. He and his men had boarded a hundred similar ships, lying in wait for them in a secluded cove off the island, before sighting them and sailing at full wind to intercept.
There was rarely ever any resistance from those on board, and Nox and his men would take them prisoners, impound their cargo, and put them off on one of the outlying islands of the archipelago. It was a simple business, but a profitable one, for the reach of the Royal Navy had not yet found its authority in these remote islands.
“We are unarmed,” the captain called out, as Nox’s men lowered their boarding planks across to the deck.
“Then you will not put up a fight and no one shall be hurt,” Nox replied, laughing, as he drew his sword and crossed the plank to the merchant ship.
A dozen of his men followed him, all with their swords drawn, and the crew of the merchant ship was soon subdued. A few of them lashed out, demanding their rights as citizens of the British Empire. But such pleas fell on deaf ears, for Norman Black held no allegiance to any empire. He was a child of the sea, raised by pirates, at least that was as far back as his memory went.
He had spent more time at sea than on dry land, and The Rosa Mystica had been his home since he was a boy, the crew the only family he knew. She was a fine ship, once a Spanish galleon, captured off the north coast of South America. Her sails were tall and proud, a black flag with clenched fist and cutlass stitched in white fluttering from her crow’s nest. She was painted black and red, her deck well-scrubbed, and her canon always mounted. Nox was proud of his ship, and now she had served him well once more, the merchant ship laden with treasure.
“This is theft, you are pirates. The Regent himself will hear of this,” the captain declared, squaring up to Nox, who pushed him aside and laughed.
“And will his majesty personally come to hunt us down? By the time you get back to London, we shall be long gone,” Nox said, pointing his men to the crates which lined the deck.
“I suppose you will kill us,” the captain said, and Nox shook his head.
“What kind of man do you take me for? You already told me you were unarmed. I would not strike a man dead when he cannot defend himself. No, Sir, you shall be put off on this island here. It contains all you need to live by, and I am sure a passing ship will pick you up… one day,” he said, slapping the captain heartily on the back, as his men roared with laughter.
“These crates are heavy, Captain Nox, what is in them?” one of the men called out, as the pirates heaved the crates across the deck.
“Open one and see, gold doubloons, perhaps, trading for sugar in the plantations,” Nox replied, and a crate was forced open, revealing just what Nox had expected.
The gold coins gushed out of it, spilling across the deck, and catching the sunlight in a burst of reflective light. Shouts of delight came from the pirates, and the remaining crates were hauled across the planks and onto the deck of The Rosa Mystica.
“Common pirates, you shall pay for your crimes with the gibbet. I hope I am there on the day you hang,” the captain said, but Nox only laughed.
“Would you deprive these men of their livelihoods? It is a mere matter of business. You possess a commodity, and we take that commodity. Simple business, Sir, for we have not harmed you or your men, have we?” he asked, and the captain scowled.
“You interfere with the business of the British Empire,” he began, but Nox spun round and grabbed the man by the lapels, pulling him angrily toward him.
“And that would be the same British Empire that keeps the poor people of these islands enslaved upon their plantations, would it now? What say we hand over this gold to them and set them free?” he said, tossing the man aside and shaking his head.
“Are we to set them in a longboat, Captain Nox?” one of his men asked, and Nox nodded.
“Yes, put them overboard, let them row to the island over there. Sink their ship and we shall be gone,” he said, scowling at the captain who was still muttering his threats.
There were a dozen crates on the deck of the merchant ship, and below, the stores contained rich pickings of food and drink, so that the pirates enjoyed a merry feast that day and soon became drunk. With the merchant ship sank, they set sail out of the cove, making for an island some three leagues away, a journey which, with a fair wind, took them much of the day.
Nox sat up on deck, watching for ships out to sea and sharing a keg of rum with his friend and mentor Strap. It had been Strap – an ancient pirate with a long black beard and weather-beaten face – who had raised him, rescuing him, or so he told him, from a stricken ship off the coast of one of the islands when Nox had been only thirteen years old. He could remember nothing of the time before, knowing only that if it were not for Strap and his men, he would have perished all those years ago.
“A fine haul today,” Strap said, as the sounds of the men carousing echoed over the deck.
“It will see us through the winter,” Nox replied, taking a swig of rum.
The ship was sailing through calm waters, the sun setting upon the horizon, casting its rays across the shimmering ocean. To their right, lay islands, clusters of dense jungle, with white sandy beaches stretching along their shores, where waves crashed like white horses charging into the battle. To their right, the vast ocean, deep and mysterious, stretching, it seemed, endlessly into the distance, beyond which lay Europe and Africa.
“And there will be others,” Strap said, raising his glass.
“That is the way of it,” he replied.
They were sitting above where several of the men were drinking, though hidden by the overhang of the deck. Nox had his own cabin, as befitted the captain of such a vessel, and he liked to sit by the open door in the evening, drinking rum and sharing stories with Strap, who was as much a father to him as any other man had ever been. He knew nothing of his own parents, nor of his lineage, only that it was Strap to whom he owed his life.
“Why does the captain never allow us to have any fun?” he overheard one man saying.
“You mean slice them through?” another replied.
“Yes, he always shows them mercy, but what mercy do they deserve? We are pirates, we should finish the job,” came the answer.
Nox glanced at Strap, shaking his head, as the old pirate sighed.
“Be careful, Nox, that sounds like mutinous talk to me,” he whispered.
Nox stood up, his hand upon his sword hilt. He was no coward, but he saw no need in killing for the mere sake of killing. The captain of the merchant ship that day had offered no resistance. If he had, then Nox would have run him through, but to kill an unarmed man in cold blood was dishonorable, and Nox had always prided himself upon his honor.
“So,” he said, leaping down from the overhang, and startling the men, “we have ourselves some mutineers, do we?”
The group of pirates leaped to their feet, protesting vehemently against Nox’s accusations, and accusing one another of being culprits in their words.
“We were only saying how we would like a fight, sometimes, Captain,” one of them said, and Nox drew his sword.
“Perhaps you would like to feel the end of this, would you?” he demanded, and the man shook his head.
“No, Captain, not at all, Captain,” he replied faltering, as Nox edged him backwards against one of the crates, the tip of his sword pointing into the man’s chest.
“Good, and we shall have no more of this mutinous talk, not when the ship is full of doubloons, gold, which all of you have a rightful share to,” he said, smiling, as the men hurriedly dispersed.
Strap jumped down next to him, the two of them leaning upon the crates and looking out to sea.
“You find it hard,” Strap said, and Nox looked at him curiously.
He was uncertain what his old mentor could mean by these words. Certainly, life at sea was tough, but Nox had been used to it all his life. The blood which flowed in his veins was salty as the water, and he was happiest with a swift wind at his back and the stars to guide him.
“Find what hard?” he asked, and Strap smiled.
“Being captain. I can see it in you. You have the respect of the men, you have their loyalty, but your passion is not in it any longer. You wonder if there is something more,” he said, and Nox sighed.
He loved the sea, but as the years had gone by, he wondered more about his past. The memories before his rescue by Strap were dim and distant. Try as he might, he could not recall the faces of his mother and father, nor of his life before he came aboard Strap’s ship. It was a blur, lost in the mists of time. Nox wanted desperately to remember, but the harder he tried, the fainter those thoughts became.
“I just… I want to know where I came from,” he replied, gazing out to sea, wondering what the truth about him really was.
Samantha was terrified. She had listened to this conversation from inside the crate where she had hidden ever since they had sighted the pirate ship charging toward her father’s merchant ship. How she had gotten there was a tale in itself. Though having escaped one predicament, she now found herself embroiled in a fresh one.
Catherine’s plan had seemed a simple one at first. To spite the Duke and to avoid the marriage, Samantha would run away. She was to hide in the warehouses of her father’s shipping company down by the docks, remaining there long enough to cause an uproar and ensure that her father would take seriously her refusal to marry.
The two women had prepared their plan that very day and having dined in silence with the Duke and Regina, Samantha had made an excuse and gone early to her chambers, her stepmother scowling at her as she had left the dining room, each of them knowing who was responsible for the damaged books.
Later that night, when the house was quiet, Samantha had slipped out of the kitchen door, crossed the garden, and made her way through the shrubbery to meet Catherine, the two of them hurrying to the docks and into one of the warehouses. Between them they had gathered enough food and drink to last Samantha for several days of hiding in one of the large crates which were used to bring sugar back from the West Indies.
It had seemed a marvelous ruse, and Samantha had settled herself down, as Catherine closed the lid, promising to return in several days and update her upon the ruckus she had caused. It had grown late by then, and Samantha had settled down to sleep, curled up beneath a blanket and thinking herself quite marvelous for the trick she had played.
In her dreams, she pictured the anguished look upon her father’s face, his regret at having driven her away, and his pleading desire to have her back. Regina would seethe that her lapdog had disappeared, and that she no longer had anyone to taunt or flaunt her ridiculous nature to. In a few days, Samantha would return, her father would chastise her, and the matter would be pushed aside. Samantha would not have to marry the gentleman – whoever he was – and talk of matrimony would cease.
But some hours later, Samantha had been awoken by a loud thud, and the shouts of men’s voices as the crate had moved. Startled by this, she sat up, attempting to lift open the lid of the crate, but finding it locked from the outside. Catherine had closed her in, and now, despite her cries, nobody knew she was there. She could hear men’s voices, cries from the dockside, and to her horror she realized she was being lifted aboard ship.
The Duke had made his fortune in New World, running sugar supplies back and forth from his plantations, and dealing in other dubious trades better left unsaid. He owned a fleet of merchant ships, traversing back and forth across the Atlantic, carrying goods to trade and returning laden with sugar. It was thanks to this trade that he had amassed his fortune, and now his daughter was to become part of the cargo.
Samantha was horrified, terrified of her plight, but she could do nothing but feebly call out for help, a cry that was entirely ignored. The crate had been loaded onto one of the ships, and the rhythmic bobbing up and down suggested that now they had put to sea, bound for the Caribbean and returning weeks, perhaps months, later. What would Catherine say when she returned to the warehouse? And what would her father say when the ruse was discovered? Suddenly, Samantha’s plan seemed only foolish, and she cursed herself for her stupidity.
That had been several weeks ago, and Samantha now lay hidden in that same crate, awaiting her fate. The captain of the merchant ship had discovered her three days after setting sail, when the confines of the crate had become too much to bear, and she had shouted so loudly that help had come. He had been angry at first, later bemused, and when he had discovered her true identity – not a stowaway but the daughter of his employer – he had taken pity upon her, treating her as an honored guest and promising to return her to England at the first opportunity.
With the sighting of the pirate ship, she had been bundled back into the crate, the captain ordering that they make all haste for the harbor of St Kitts, and the protection of HMS Honoria which was moored there with her compliment of British troops. Alas, they had not made it, and Samantha had listened in terror to the sounds of the boarding, and the arrogant words of the pirate captain who had commandeered the ship.
Now, she held her breath. Listening to the sounds of a conversation above, the pirate captain, whom she had learned was named Nox, and another man he kept calling Strap, which seemed a perfectly ridiculous name to Samantha, who had never met a pirate, much less found herself onboard one of their ships. This was the first time she had ever been to sea, and she had vowed that it would be the last.
“Maybe my heart is no longer in it, Strap. Can a man be at sea for too long?” came the voice of Nox from above.
The crate creaked, and it seemed as though he was leaning upon it. Samantha held her breath.
“Too long? How far does the ocean stretch, Nox? No, a man cannot be at sea too long, but the sea can grow weary of him. They say that about some men, their fortune has run out, the sea no longer loves them,” came the reply.
“I would gladly sail these seas for the rest of my life, but for the mystery which surrounds me,” Nox replied.
The crate was large, and wide enough for Samantha to stretch herself out in fully, and tall enough so that she could comfortably sit up. The captain of the merchant ship had packed food into the crate for her, telling her to remain there whatever should happen. By her reckoning, Samantha had enough food for three days, the dim light which came through several holes in the sides of the crate enough to see this by, though it seemed to be getting dark outside, the interior of the crate growing gloomy.
The other crates contained doubloons, the money which was to be used for the expenses of the sugar plantations, money which would be easily recuperated with the export back – what her father would refer to as “sweet gold,” owing to its exorbitant price in London and the provinces. But this crate had, it seemed, contained a cargo of spices at some point, the remnants of which still dusted its wooden bottom.
The scent was pungent, an aroma of pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and other exotic scents, such that the atmosphere was close and heady. Samantha was holding her breath, trying not to make any movement until Nox and his friend were gone. But as she tried to inhale a scant breath, the scent of the pepper caught her nose, and without warning, she sneezed. There was quiet from above, and she sneezed again, cursing herself for her foolishness, and praying that she would not be discovered.
“What was that?” Nox asked, and Samantha listened, praying they would suspect no one to be inside the crate.
“Someone listening in on us,” Strap replied, and Samantha sneezed again.
“Inside the crate,” Nox exclaimed, and Samantha could do nothing but wait, listening to the sound of a crowbar levying open the lid.
She shrank back into the corner, as though huddling herself into a tight ball could save her from the inevitability of being discovered. With a splintering crack, the lid was forced open, the crate flooded with the last of the evening light. Samantha was shaking, and she turned her face slowly upward, to find two men looking down at her in astonishment.
One was old, with a long black beard, a weather-beaten face, and missing teeth, an old tricorne hat pulled down over his head, but the other was young, tall, strong, and athletic looking, with black hair and bright green eyes. He had a scar running down his left cheek and was dressed in a long waistcoat, buckled with gold buttons, patterned in exotic silk. A look of astonishment was upon his face, as Strap leaned down into the crate and grabbed Samantha by her arm, hauling to her feet with a cry.
“A stowaway, have we? Well, now, what a pretty thing,” he exclaimed, as Samantha struggled in his grip.
Her limbs were stiff and ached from being confined to the crate, and despite the terror of her discovery, she was pleased to breathe in the fresh salty air of the sea, after the spiced atmosphere of the crate. Now, she faced them defiantly, her eyes fixed upon Nox, who stared at her in fascination.
“Have you never seen a woman before?” she demanded, determined not to show her fear to him.
“Not one hidden inside a crate. No, I have not,” he said.
His accent was strange, not gruff like that of Strap, but well mannered, like one of her father’s aristocratic friends, and she looked at him curiously.
“And you are Nox, the pirate who boarded my… the merchant’s ship,” she asked, and he nodded.
“That is right, and what were you doing hiding in that crate? Did you stowaway on board there, too?” he asked.
“No, I was… a guest,” she said, not wishing to explain who she was or why she had found herself aboard the merchant’s ship.
“The mistress of the captain, well, she shall make a fine prize for us, too,” Strap said, leering at Samantha, who pushed him away.
“Enough, Strap. What is your name? And why do I find you hiding on board my ship?” Nox asked.
Samantha pursed her lips, unsure of how much to tell him. He did not seem angry with her, more bemused, as though he could only admire a woman who had been so courageous as to stow away aboard a pirate ship.
“My name is Samantha… Ferguson,” she said, using Catherine’s surname, for she knew that if it was discovered she was the Duke of Hampton’s daughter then she would certainly be used for ransom.
Nox looked at her, pondering her for a moment, as a smile spread across his face.
“Well, what a find, and they hid you here? Thinking you would be safe from us pirates, did they?” he asked, as Strap laughed.
“And am I?” she asked, summoning her womanly charms, and fixing him with a searching gaze.
There was something odd about him, as though he did not entirely fit the mold of a pirate. He seemed more like a gentleman than a swashbuckling outlaw, and she recalled his words of mercy to the captain of the merchant ship and his crew.
“Many are afraid of me,” he replied, still looking her up and down with a smile.
“I suppose you will tell me you have overrun many ships, that you are the scourge of these seas, and that I have been lucky not to feel your wrath already,” she said, deciding to play to his vanity.
Nox laughed, shaking his head, and holding out his hand to her.
“Let her go, Strap, I will see to her in my cabin,” he said, and Strap smiled a broad and gaping smile.
“You have your way with her, Nox. It is a long time since we have put into port. The worker deserves his wages,” Strap said, and Nox smiled.
Samantha backed away, but Nox only shook his head, taking her by the hand and leading her up a flight of steps toward the cabins. The rest of the crew were below deck, and the ship was anchored off some rocks below a small island, the sun sitting like a half ball of flame on the horizon, sinking slowly into the ocean.
“Come along, let me get a good look at you,” Nox said, ushering her inside.
Samantha was shaking with fear, convinced that any moment he would seek to take advantage of her, or throw her from the side of the ship. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she struggled in his arms, but to no avail, for he was strong and held her in an iron grip.
The cabin was small, but comfortably furnished. Lamps burned at the windows, and large table at the center was covered in maps and charts. A bed was built into an alcove in the wall, and along the other wall three large chests sat, each locked with a gold chain. The remnants of a meal lay on one edge of the table, and Nox took out two glasses, pouring what looked like wine into one and handing it to Samantha.
“Sit there,” he said, pushing her down into a chair by the window.
“If I am to be your prisoner, then I would prefer to be locked up. I am not afraid of you,” she said, though she felt terribly afraid, but Nox only laughed.
“If you were a man, and I had found you there, do you know what I would have done?” he asked, slumping down into a chair by the window, as Samantha stood meekly with the glass in hand, still not trusting him.
“Killed me?” she asked, and he nodded.
“One way or the other. I do not take kindly to stowaways, Miss Ferguson,” he said, and Samantha looked at him defiantly.
“I am not a stowaway on board this ship, for if you had not attacked an innocent cargo then I would not be here. I am part of the theft you have gained, and I owe you no further explanations,” she said, folding her arms and turning away from him.
She eyed the food on the table hungrily, though did not want to give him the satisfaction of showing her desire. Samantha was a plucky woman, but this was almost too much, and it was all she could do to stop herself from screaming. But with nowhere to run, she felt helpless and entirely at his mercy.
“You speak the truth, but that does not change the question of what I am to do with you. If you were a man, then it would be infinitely easier,” he said, reaching behind him and taking up a bottle of brown liquid – rum she presumed – which he poured into his own glass, raising it in a toast.
“Then I would already be dead. Kill me,” she replied, and he laughed.
“I am not in the habit of killing people, not when they interest me, and you have certainly aroused my interests,” he said, a searching smile spreading across his face.
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