September 30, 1776
"We are leaving Savannah and returning to England," Amelia declared with a happiness she had not felt since arriving in North America. As she strolled in the garden with Grandmother Nell, the future had become clear to her. "We are going home, Grandmother. I shall explain to Sir Basil that until the hostilities are settled in this uncivilized country we feel it safer to be home among friends."
She had barely spoken the words when a rough, calloused hand clamped over Amelia Anne Farnthorpe's mouth. The move muzzled a scream that surely would have been carried twenty miles or more on the Georgia autumn breeze.
Her body stiffened with fear; her basket of flowers flew through the air, tossing flaming hibiscus everywhere.
"Easy now," A husky male voice growled in her ear. "Easy."
Just when she thought she would certainly swoon, an arm of steel caught her around the waist and drew her back against her captor. She blinked. The sensation was much like being pressed against a rock. She was being held prisoner by a man made like a mountain.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Amelia prepared to die. The American Colonies truly formed a cold, cruel country.
The bandit's breath warmed her cheek as he spoke. "Relax, sweet thing, you're mine now."
His mocking tone angered Amelia. Summoning her strength, she attempted to free herself by lunging from the rogue's firm grip.
He chuckled--and tightened it.
She'd gotten nowhere. White-hot spots of fury danced before her eyes.
"Do not fight me," he warned. "I'm not going to hurt you. I'll remove my hand from your mouth, if you promise not to scream. Do I have your word?"
Amelia vigorously bobbed her head up and down.
"If you were to be untruthful with me, I cannot promise what would happen to your grandmother. I am not alone."
Her grandmother! The scoundrel dared to threaten a harmless old lady.
In her terrorized state Amelia had completely forgotten her grandmother. She glanced to where Nell stood. Unharmed, but closely guarded by yet another villain, her grandmother looked on in confusion.
"You will be reasonable and quiet now, won't you? Screaming will serve no purpose. And you understand what a fuss might force me to do?"
Unthinkable things. Amelia nodded her head. The hand fell away from her mouth.
She stood motionless. "Wh--what are you going to do with us?" To her horror, Amelia's voice squeaked like a meek meadow mouse.
"I'm going to release you and then we'll walk back to the house." He slowly withdrew his arm from her waist.
"And then?" she asked warily.
"And then I'm going to marry you."
"What?" Aghast, she whirled to face her captor.
And sucked in her breath. He was magnificent. Tall, dark, handsome- and dangerous.
He towered over her like a warrior king blatantly inspecting his booty. The top of her head reached only his shoulder. A rush of dizziness claimed her from head to toe.
His eyes, a bright, light green, gleamed like the devil's own as they skimmed down her frozen form. The demon had bound his long black hair, with the sheen of a raven's wing, at the nape of his neck with a leather strip. A faint shadow of stubble fell across the lower portion of his dark and leathered face.
The strong, square jaw and aquiline nose; features she might have regarded as noble under different circumstances, appeared fierce and forbidding.
But it was the sardonic twist of his mouth and the arrogant manner in which he held himself that made her react as she did.
Amelia kicked him in the shin.
As she spun to run for her life, the giant grabbed her arm with lightning-like speed and jerked her back with such force that she tripped on the hem of her dress and lost her balance. She wobbled precariously as he helped to steady her.
But as soon as both of her feet were firmly on the ground, Amelia attempted to bolt again. With strength that surprised even her, she managed to throw off the bandit's arm. Taking one quick step backward as she prepared to turn and run, Amelia fell over her flower basket.
She dropped lo the ground like a sack of meal, smack on her tender derriere. Scrambling to right herself and restore some semblance of dignity, Amelia lost her footing, sending one of her slippers flying through the air as she fell back. Sprawled spread-eagle on the ground in a most unladylike position, she panted for breath.
In the instant she paused to collect herself, the rogue came down on her, straddling his knees on either side of her body and pinning her arms above her head. She flailed and kicked to no avail, screaming insults she would have blushed to hear from another's tongue. "Remove yourself, you heathen scoundrel! Die a black death, scum!"
Appearing mildly amused, the villain tsked. "Whoever reported you as sweet and biddable was sadly mistaken." Even as he shook his head in mock dismay, his eyes darkened in a menacing fashion and he tightened his clasp on her wrists.
"I don't want to hurt you but I will do what I must. Do you understand me?"
Amelia swung her head away from his evil green glare. It was no use. She could not overcome the green-eyed giant's considerable physical power. She would have to bide her time and depend upon her wits.
"Do you understand me?" he repeated. The heathen's impatient tone suggested she was either deaf or slow. Perhaps both.
"Yes," she hissed.
His eyes bore through her. She could feel the tension and heat curling from his body like summer smoke. At last he released her wrists and stood. Silent seconds passed as she waited for him to help her.
He glowered down at her.
She stared up at him.
The moments ticked away quietly until finally he held out a large, calloused hand and hauled her to her feet.
Her black silk dress was torn and splotched with red dirt. Her hair tumbled to her shoulders in a wild, dusty tangle.
Amelia shot the magnificent scoundrel a glance of undisguised contempt as she brushed off her dress. "Who are you and why do you attack defenseless women?"
"Attack is too strong a word. Defenseless is not quite accurate either."
"What do you want?"
"Did you think I spoke in jest?" He arched an eyebrow, and when she did not respond, he tersely explained. "I require an English bride."
"What makes you think I would ever marry the likes of you?" she snapped.
He chuckled. "The musket my partner holds is very persuasive. Let's go. The preacher is wailing."
Seemingly oblivious to their dilemma, Amelia's grandmother had resumed picking flowers. The young boy guarding Nell politely held her flower basket as well as his weapon. Her grandmother's sanguine smile filled Amelia with fresh irritation, but she recognized it as Nell's laudanum smile. It was probably just as well the older woman was not aware of their dire situation.
"Come, Grandmother." Amelia placed a protective arm around the old woman's shoulder.
Juniper trees and deep green hedges of azalea bushes lined the wide brick path that led from the stylish gardens to the main house. In the distance a circle of gray smoke drifted lazily up toward the pale blue sky. A squirrel scampered across their path and two small blackbirds flew in chase above them. It was an ordinary, unremarkable day to any eye but Amelia's.
Her gaze darted anxiously about, seeking a means of escape or someone to aid them. But Sir Basil had traveled to his own plantation earlier, and the workers and the foreman were out in the rice fields. Only the house servants could help and she doubted if they were capable.
Directly ahead, the tranquil beauty of the grand Georgia plantation home promised hospitality. Six graceful columns rose along the sweeping back veranda of the white two-story dwelling. To Amelia's consternation each pillar now served as a leaning post for bandit sentries holding long-rifles and muskets.
The young boy walked beside her grandmother. The hulking bandit stayed close to Amelia's side as they approached her North American home. She studied the rogue from the corner of her eye.
Powerful shoulders strained under a plain homespun shirt. His cotton breeches were molded to muscular thighs and his leggings stretched tight along long, hard muscular legs. She could almost touch the swell of strength which emanated from his body, overwhelming and ominous. He could only be a revolutionary - a dangerous rebel Patriot.
Amelia felt like a lamb being led to the slaughter. She could not give in to this madness without a fight. "I cannot marry you. I am already engaged to be wed," she ventured calmly.
"An engagement about to be broken."
"I cannot marry while I am in mourning for my father. It is against all rules of polite society."
"New rules are being made every day in North America."
He had no heart. She offered her final argument. "Not only am I engaged, my grandmother and I have plans to return to England in a fortnight. We are not suited to this country."
"I will see you on a ship sailing for England at the first possible moment."
Amelia stopped short at the steps leading to the veranda. "Why me? Why must you marry me?"
"'Tis your sweet disposition that attracted me at once."
"You are despicable."
"I have my orders. You were chosen to be my bride. I had nothing to say in the decision."
"I will not marry you." She stomped her foot, causing a swirl of red dust to rise and choke her.
In one smooth move the rough-hewn monster swooped her into his arms and carried her up the steps to the veranda.
"Put me down!"
"I have no taste for marriage myself," he told her in a commiserating tone as he set her down. "But I will do what I must."
Desperately determined to stop this insanity, she dug her fists into her hips to confront him yet again. "Who will marry us against my will?"
"This man." He pointed to one of the sentries who now stood at attention on the veranda. "Are you ready, preacher?"
A tall, gaunt man with a large, hooked nose and a ruddy, pinched expression nodded. The preacher carried a musket.
He handed his weapon to the boy, who in turn gave him a small prayer book. As the preacher thumbed through its pages, the boy removed his hat.
Amelia watched with wonderment as a mass of black curls, hidden beneath the hat, fell to the boy's shoulders. The slender boy who guarded her grandmother became a pretty young girl very close to Amelia's age.
"Dearly beloved ..."
"No!" she cried in panic. "Stop!"
"Amelia, I cannot tolerate any further delays," her would-be groom warned.
"Is it money you want?"
His lips curled into a wry smile. "How crass a thought. You're priceless, sweet thing. I would not trade the world for you."
He gave a slight nod to the preacher who began to read haltingly once again from his little black book.
In mounting despair, Amelia looked to her grandmother. Nell dabbed at the tears on her cheeks, her smile directed at the ragtag preacher. The old woman adored weddings, and in her drugged state the propriety of this particular ceremony did not concern her.
This was worse than a nightmare. Amelia had been cast as a player, an actress on a stage with improbable characters. Worse, she had no lines. She was numb with shock, caught in an odious charade - just when she was about to make her dream of returning to England come true.
Amelia couldn't let it happen, would not allow it to happen. Clamping down on her lip, she made a move to bolt, but the giant's arm shot out to restrain her. His fingers curled around her wrist like the stinging lash of a whip. Frantically, she scanned the faces surrounding her, but saw no compassion for her plight. She was doomed.
"If anyone might know of a reason why this couple should not be joined in holy mat--mat... ma-tree-mo-nee, let him speak now or forever hold his peace."
The dark stranger beside her stood rigidly, like a man listening to his death sentence. She could feel his tension, his heat.
"I...I ...I don't even know his name!" Amelia protested. Since no one else seemed willing to save her, she spoke up for herself, blinking through the tears welling in her eyes.
"Quinn Hallet," the black-haired beast obliged Amelia under his breath.
Amelia choked on a sob.
"I now pronounce you, man and wife."
"But - but I did not say 'I do.'" Amelia's stammered objection dissolved into silence.
An awkward silence.
It was broken by the bandit beside her. "May I kiss the bride?"
"No!" Amelia shrieked, but her objection was drowned out by the rowdy cheers from Quinn's contingent.
Before she could move, Quinn swept her into his arms and crushed her against him. His lips covered her mouth in a hard bruising kiss meant to leave no doubt who was master. But then the cold pressure softened to a warm, hungry quest, a quest her body warmed to, and her will found difficult to resist.
It was as if he had transferred a powerful, consuming heat to her with his kiss. Amelia's heart thudded heavily against her chest. Her knees wobbled. And then through a hazy mist, she heard his men laughing.
Furious with herself and the insensitive rebel, Amelia pushed against Quinn's chest until, with a laugh, he set her free. She rocked unsteadily, contemptuously wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. With a quirk of his lips, he turned from her and began issuing orders with the authority of a general.
Less than an hour later Amelia stared at the antiquated wagon that would take them on a journey into the unknown. She clutched the one valise she'd been allowed to take. One of the rag-tag Patriots had stood guard while she and her maid hurriedly packed. Amelia was stunned to learn Josie would not be accompanying her. She'd never traveled without her trusted sweet servant.
The drama grew worse. She found it difficult to catch a full deep breath. Her pulse thrummed with fear, fear she was determined not to show.
"Sweet thing," Quinn drawled, "your carriage awaits."
Ignoring the hand the towering traitor held out to help her, Amelia climbed up into the crude covered wagon that awaited them. She would never have deigned to ride in such a conveyance if she'd had any choice. She knew little about horses, but the two large animals tied to the back of the wagon were more to her liking than the thick, unattractive mules pulling the dilapidated conveyance.
Grandmother Nell was bedded in the back of the wagon with their valises. Amelia was wedged between Quinn and the girl he called Mary on the open bench seat in front. Sitting uncomfortably erect between her two captors, Amelia consoled herself with the belief that her ingenuity would create an opportunity for escape before nightfall.
"Where are you taking us?" she asked.
"You will see in due time," the rebel replied curtly.
With a farewell wave to his men, Quinn Hallet took the reins and drove the wagon east from the plantation. After a few hours of tense silent travel, Amelia took note when he turned south.
On either side of the road, huge live oaks dripping with Spanish moss spread their magnificent branches like a massive, gray-green umbrella. The underbrush became a thick, tangled riot of great billowing bushes which gave off mixed scents of decay and fresh growth.
With each bounce of the wagon, Quinn became more uncomfortably aware of the lovely warm body that brushed against his. He would have preferred a homely bride who smelled of bread rather than roses.
He'd been stunned when Amelia first wheeled on him in the garden where he'd taken her captive. He'd been surprised by her beauty and transfixed by wide, crystal-blue eyes iced with alarm. Spiral curls, the color of sand streaked with gold, had tumbled in disarray about her shoulders. Even now his fingers begged to twine through the strands of her fine, silky curls, to explore the enticing hollow between her breasts.
Quinn wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his arm, but could do nothing about his particular body heat. It had been months since he'd known the pleasures of a woman, but Amelia Farnthorpe, of all women, would not do. If he did not keep his mind on business, she might literally prove to be the death of him. He was at war. And she was the enemy.
The intelligence information Quinn had been given regarding the girl had fallen short of the mark. Now he worried what other surprises might be in store during his mission.
"Mary, what else was said about Amelia Farnthorpe other than the mistaken notion that she is sweet and biddable?"
Amelia shifted in her seat and raised her chin.
"She lived with her grandmother in England while her father recouped the family fortune here in North America. She was educated by tutors," Mary recited from memory. "She is fond of music, dance, and gardening. Amelia has lived a privileged life and is sorely spoiled--"
"I beg your pardon!" the hostage cried indignantly. "And may I remind you that I'm sitting right here?"
"She is a slave to fashion--"
"I am not a slave to anything!"
"... And will read anything in print."
"I do no such thing. I am a discriminating reader."
"She is nineteen years of age--"
"Incorrect. I will shortly be celebrating my twentieth year."
"Almost a spinster," Quinn drawled.
Amelia flashed him a lethal scowl.
"Though possessing a sweet and biddable disposition, the subject has been known to act impetuously and display an unseemly spark of temper on occasion."
"Sweet thing, you had us fooled," Quinn intoned dryly.
Mary continued as if there had been no interruption. "She is new to North America. Her father, Charles Farnthorpe, brought her to Georgia two months ago expressly to marry Sir Basil Roberts. The terms of the marriage agreement stated Roberts would eventually inherit the Farnthorpe plantation and Amelia would gain a title. Shortly after her arrival, however, Mr. Farnthorpe's heart stopped. Her father is dead and she has not yet made acquaintances in the area. There are few to notice her absence from the plantation."
"I will be sorely missed by several dear friends," she insisted. "And my grandmother and I are still in mourning. If you had any heart, you would release us immediately."
Quinn glanced at Amelia. Her blue eyes blazed with anger and heart-wrenching pain. "I am sorry for your loss," he murmured.
"Miss Farnthorpe is politically ignorant, knowing no more about the struggle for independence than what her father has told her," Mary continued.
"Ignorant! I understand that all Patriots are traitors to the crown and there is nothing else to know."
"Do you care to hear more?" Mary asked, ignoring Amelia's outburst.
"No, that will do. There are some things a groom likes to discover for himself." He chuckled softly, paying no mind to the small, frustrated whimper that came from Amelia.
For an unsettling moment, he'd felt a pang of sympathy for his spirited bride. But feelings of any kind for the impetuous and beautiful Miss Farnthorpe could jeopardize the mission.
When at last they came to a fork in the road, Mary's face brightened. "We're almost there, Quinn."
"Where? Where are you taking us?" Amelia demanded again.
"To a safe house where we will rest for the night."
In fact, they were headed on a twofold mission for Saint Augustine, in the Florida territory. A stronghold of the British, the city was completely occupied by persons loyal to the crown. Quinn's task was to infiltrate and discover if mercenaries were being trained in Saint Augustine to fight the revolutionaries. He had volunteered for the dangerous mission with one thought in mind - the chance to free his brother. Jon was being held in the city's notoriously impregnable Fort Saint Mark's prison.
Quinn slapped the reins and drove the mules east once again. The sun was setting behind them and a curtain of darkness lay before them.
It was over an hour before they reached a clearing on the north side of the road. A rustic cabin, which looked much like one of the servants quarters on the Farnthorpes' rice plantation, sat squarely in the middle of a patch of red clay. Certainly they weren't stopping here, Amelia thought. But they were, indeed.
With a cry to the mules and a tug on the reins, Quinn pulled the wagon to a halt before the hovel and jumped down. He helped Mary to alight and then held his arms out to Amelia.
She raised her head defiantly. "I am not leaving the wagon."
A hint of amusement played upon his face, but he simply shrugged and said as if it were no matter to him, "Suit yourself."
Soon candlelight flickered from the cabin and smoke poured from the chimney. Amelia considered the opportunity to escape but since she had no idea where they were, nor any experience driving mules, such a scheme seemed doomed. And rescue seemed remote now that darkness had fallen. As she worried over her limited choices, she heard her grandmother stirring.
"Amelia? Are we there?" Nell poked her head from the back of the wagon.
"I ... don't know. Wherever it is we are, we do not want to be here," she muttered. Amelia helped her grandmother climb into to the seat beside her. How could they run off into this wilderness?
"How quaint!" Nell remarked when she spotted the cabin.
"How can you say so?" Amelia gasped in astonishment. "It is most primitive. I am amazed at you, Grandmother. And I am extremely curious as to how you were able to sleep back there."
"Oh, laudanum does wonders, dear. I've told you so. Here you are all in high nerves. If you take some laudanum, you will feel much better."
"No thank you, Grandmother. I need my wits about me. We must flee at the first opportunity." But Amelia knew the chances of a successful flight at night were dim. Quinn Hallet knew it, too, she thought. He was willing to let her sit on the wagon all night if she wished. "If you have any ideas on how we can escape, please voice them, Grandmother."
For a moment the two women sat in silence.
"Escape from your new husband? Amelia, I would not do that. He is far better looking than Sir Basil. Did you note the breadth of his shoulders? He is a fine, fine young man."
"Grandmother, Quinn Hallet is a Patriot, which means he is a traitor to our king."
"King who? I never can keep track. Who is the king now?"
"It doesn't matter." Her grandmother had been in a constant daze ever since they'd left England. Amelia sighed. The laudanum was to blame, she was sure, but she didn't dare withhold it from Nell, fearing it might be all that kept her grandmother going. The old woman had not been happy since leaving her home and friends in London.
"Will you stay on the wagon all night, or would you like to eat?" Quinn shouted from the cabin.
"I will dine," Nell declared before Amelia could stop her.
Amelia dared not allow her grandmother to be alone with Mary and Quinn. This time when the dark giant held his arms out to her, she allowed his hands to go around her waist. With a wide grin, Quinn lifted Amelia from the wagon as easily as if she weighed no more than mischief.
"Why did you not just kidnap me? Why did you have to marry me?"
"Believe me, if it was not necessary, I wouldn't have done it." He turned his back on Amelia to lift one of the heavy hampers from the wagon. The thick muscles of his back rippled and strained against his shirt.
Amelia averted her gaze as Quinn swung the hamper to the ground and faced her. "You are the key to our safety. You are my cover."
His lips turned upward in a twisted grin. "Since you are my wife, no one will question my devotion to the king. We're just another family of colonial refugees fleeing from the rebels to Saint Augustine. It is a common occurrence these days. And it is a simple story, one that I expect you can remember."
"You are not simply a rebel rabble-rouser, are you? You are a Patriot spy, Quinn Hallet!"
"And what will you do about it, Mrs. Hallet?"