June 14, 184
The Gulf of Mexico
The urgent cries of the crew ripped the black night. Rolling thunder followed crackling bolts of lightning. Hard, driving rain sounded like a shower of nails pummeling the ship. The great schooner heaved and shuddered in the raging gulf.
But Annabelle Blessing Browne did not panic immediately.
It was only when she found herself in a storm-tossed sea, clinging to a capsized dinghy, that she knew real fear.
"Help! Help me!"
Flashes of lightning eerily illuminated the wild fury of the storm that surrounded her. Annabelle's heart thudded hard and fast, as if it would fling itself from her chest. Her stomach contracted in painful spasms, while silent tears streamed steadily down her cheeks.
The SeaNymph had enjoyed ideal sailing weather until now, as it neared its destination of Key West, the southern tip of the territory known as Florida.
Shortly after nightfall the schooner had sailed directly into a squall.
Annabelle's wonderful adventure had barely started. She shivered violently as a mixed shower of cold rain and warm ocean water beat against her body. At only eighteen years of age, she was much too young to die. She'd barely begun to live.
Panicked, she screamed at the top of her lungs, "Help! Help!"
For years she had harbored an unnatural fear of the water, a fear that often brought on nightmares. Now, a strong, chilling sense of deja vu enveloped her. She squinted against the rain, scanning the darkness.
Lights in the distance! Small glimmers of hope shone through the storm.
"Someone help!" she cried. "Help me! Please!"
The lights from the shore moved closer. More than a dozen hazy lights danced in the blackness, punctuated by faint haunting cries. "Wreck! Wreck ashore!"
Annabelle swallowed large, salty gulps of ocean water. But the lights she recognized as coming from boats were closer now, the shouted orders of rescue workers louder. Struggling to keep her head above water, she sputtered and gagged.
Her knuckles gleamed white. Determined to stay alive, she kept her eyes on the bobbing lights, and did not see or hear her rescuer approach.
Suddenly, out of the fury of the storm, two powerful arms wrapped around her waist. Taken by surprise and on the verge of hysteria, Annabelle's muddled mind assumed she had been seized by a sea monster. She screamed and flailed wildly.
"Give it up!" A harsh baritone voice barked in her ear. "You are being rescued. Rest your head back against my shoulder and breathe deeply."
The monster spoke.
Her teeth chattered uncontrollably. "Wh-who are yo-you?"
"Do as I say, woman!"
Oliver Steele cursed silently. It was a hell of a night, but many of the wrecks took place on just such a night. The reefs and shallows skirting the Key West harbor challenged the most experienced captain during ideal weather conditions, let alone a summer storm.
Oliver concentrated on fighting the driving rain and pounding current. He'd swum halfway to his vessel when he became aware of the stiff stillness of the girl in his arms. He muttered a frustrated oath. Had she died or merely swooned?
"Breathe!" he bellowed into her ear.
Jolted from her state of shock, the young woman jerked against his hold. As she opened her mouth to scream, she swallowed most of a watery white cap. Seized with a fit of coughing, she once again began to struggle against his lifesaving hold.
"Breathe deeply," Oliver demanded, shouting above the noise of the storm and the wreckers.
"I ... I cannot ... let go of me ... let go! I am drowning!"
"You will drown us both--"
"Let me go!" she shrieked. In the throes of hysteria, she kicked and thrashed with the strength of a woman twice her size.
Just when he was about to take decisive action, she fainted. Now, unimpeded by her struggles, Oliver reached the side of his wrecker in moments.
"Help me up with her," he yelled, grasping the thick rope ladder thrown to him by his captain.
"Is she dead?"
"Right pretty young thing," Captain Jacob observed as he pulled the girl over the side of the shallow draft-wrecking vessel.
Hauling himself into the boat, Oliver cast a quick glance at the body lying on deck. "Must be one of Kate's new girls."
Jacob nodded. "Word has it the only female passengers aboard was strumpets from New Orleans, bound to work for Kate at the Pleasure Palace."
"Another tart for the sweet shop," Oliver replied caustically.
" 'Cept this one don't look like no ... tart."
"Things rarely are what they appear to be." Oliver turned his attention toward the grounded schooner. "The wreck's been claimed. Let's get back to shore."
Jacob responded with a grin. "Aye."
Oliver hoisted the girl over his shoulder. Soaking wet, she weighed no more than a spring breeze, he thought.
Head down, his free shoulder to the wind, he clung to the double rail of rope which led to the galley and helped him stay upright through high seas and storms. Slowly, Oliver inched his way to the hatch.
Oliver's wrecker boasted no amenities. The Shark was a sleek thirty-foot vessel especially designed for storage and speed through shallow waters. The area below deck provided a dry space to store salvage plucked from wrecks like the SeaNymph.
He lowered the girl onto the floor.
She was dressed only in a chemise, which clung to her slender body of enticing curves. His gaze locked on the swell of her breasts, exquisitely outlined by the wet fabric of her garment. The rosy tips of her nipples pressed against the delicate chemise as her breasts rose and fell in a natural, gentle rhythm.
Oliver drew a deep, ragged breath as a lusty shot of desire ripped through his body. He'd not taken a good look at the girl until now. Out there in the storm, she had been one of several human beings to be saved from the sea and the reefs. He never distinguished between saint and sinner when it came to rescue. A strumpet no more deserved to drown than a preacher's wife.
But indeed, this one was a beauty. A fairy-tale princess from the sea, with skin so pure and white she might have been carved in marble. Her full pink lips glistened with beads of salty water. Softly, so as not to wake her, Oliver brushed a fingertip over the girl's lower lip and wiped the drops away.
In contrast to her pale complexion, her dark-red hair glimmered with threads of gold. Wet and matted, tiny clusters of curls clung to her face and neck.
Desire stirred again. Evidently, he'd been without a woman for too long. An urgent force simmered deep within him. As was his custom with victims of wrecks, he would take her to his home until she recovered from her ordeal. But unlike other shipwrecked passengers, perhaps she would stay with him. He would offer the beauty an alternative to working at the Pleasure Palace, where she had no doubt been bound.
Even if she were not as pure and innocent as she appeared in sleep, Oliver meant to have this woman all to himself. On the spot, he planned to do his best to persuade Poseidon's princess to stay with him.
He covered her with a coarse blanket, and as he drew the blanket up to her chin, he stopped to admire the long dark lashes curling against her cheek. It suddenly became important to know the color of her eyes. Were they green, or brown, or blue? Gray, perhaps, like his?
His gaze flickered across the smattering of faint freckles splashed across the bridge of her narrow, upturned nose. Freckles that prevented her from being described as a classic beauty. Freckles that, for some reason, amused him and brought a faint smile to his lips.
Damn. There was work to be done. He could ill afford to hover over his passenger, gawking at her like some adolescent boy. But for a moment more Oliver did linger, looking down upon the unconscious girl. A salvage prize that, with any luck, he would soon eagerly bed.
The next time he heard the wench scream it would be with passion.
Annabelle attempted to rise from the black depths of unconsciousness, but within seconds surrendered to the warm, dry comfort cradling her.
She had no wish to explore the afterlife. Certain she had drowned, she dreaded opening her eyes. Heaven might not be waiting for her with open arms.
The greeting resonated from a deep baritone voice. The voice of the devil?
Her body stiffened. Her heart slowed.
Except for the cries of a seagull in the distance, all was quiet. Still cocooned in a lingering, fuzzy state of shock, Annabelle counted to ten in a silent effort to summon courage.
She forced one eye open. She saw that she rested on a bed of down.
She opened the other eye. Directly above her, what appeared to be a ship's hatch opened to a glimpse of blue sky and a slight breeze. But she felt no motion. She could not be aboard a ship.
"How do you feel this morning?"
The voice again. Annabelle swallowed the tight knot of apprehension lodged in her throat. Her heart had gone from barely beating at all to a rapid, shallow beat. Slowly, she pushed herself up on her elbows.
And made eye contact.
A dark-haired man with a rather large physique studied her from the shadows. He sat in a straight-back chair by a floor-to-ceiling window in a corner of the room. The wooden slat shutters were slanted to allow only thin slivers of morning sunlight to filter into the room. A wispy trail of steam rose from the mug of coffee he held.
At first glance he did not appear threatening.
"I am alive, sir," she said. A bit of wonder laced her anxiety.
There were no pearly gates in sight, and the taciturn figure who sat in the shadows bore no resemblance to Saint Peter.
"That is good to know."
In fact, now that she thought of it, her entire body felt sore from struggling against the storm and the monster who had tried to drag her beneath the stormy sea to her death.
Suddenly aware that she lay bare beneath the sheets, Annabelle gasped in shock. Trembling, she pulled the sheet up to her chin.
"Wh-where am I?" she demanded in a tone unnaturally high and piercing. She stared at the stranger. "And . . . and who are you?"
"Oliver Steele at your service." He threw her a wry smile from the shadows.
"And you are a ... shall we say, a guest, in my house."
The sardonic twist of his lips and his arrogant tone did nothing to reassure her. Annabelle's stomach did a menacing flip-flop.
"Where is your house located, sir?" She hoped he would not mention Hades.
"In Key West, of course. Is that not where you were traveling?"
Annabelle nodded her head slowly. "Yes."
She had come to fulfill a lifetime dream, to find her father. His last known port was Key West, and she had only three months to find him. Being reunited with Captain Shubel Browne was almost as important as life itself to Annabelle.
"I hope you have rested well after your ordeal." The deep timbre of Oliver Steele's voice vibrated in the room.
Squinting her eyes to see into the shadows, Annabelle nodded again. Though she could barely distinguish his features, something familiar about the man niggled in the back of her mind. The storm, the shipwreck, the events of the night before replayed themselves until finally recognition dawned.
The monster from the deep!
The man who appeared out of nowhere and tried to drown her. No, that wasn't it at all. He had been attempting to save her. Realizing the truth, Annabelle felt a flush of embarrassment burn her cheeks.
Mr. Steele had rescued her from the sea. But at the time, in her desperation and panic, she hadn't recognized that he had only been trying to save her.
Her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the room and Annabelle's gaze swept over her intimidating host.
Even though he remained sitting, it was evident that he was a tall man and well structured.
He wore informal clothing, impeccably tailored. A fine white lawn shirt enhanced the astounding breadth of his shoulders. His buckskin breeches looked as if they had never been worn before, and his boots were polished to a looking-glass sheen.
Her host appeared not the least uncomfortable with Annabelle's open scrutiny. His cold, aloof gaze never wavered.
A chill skittered down Annabelle's spine.
"Yes. I am quite rested," she replied at last. "Have I been asleep for long, sir?"
Speaking softly, almost as if to himself, he said, "I had begun to fear I would never learn the color of your eyes. They are blue . . . and green. Uncommon . . . and quite bewitching." Clasping his coffee mug, Steele leaned forward--for a better look, Annabelle supposed. He rested his elbows on his knees. The movement brought his face into a shaft of light, making his features discernible for the first time.
A cleft in his chin softened the strong, square cut of his jaw. But the striking planes of his face, clean shaven from cheekbones to chin, were sharp and angular.
Sunbaked to a ruddy, dark, shade, his skin was the rough texture of a man used to spending many hours outdoors. The crevices radiating from the corners of his eyes were etched deeply into his ageless face.
Annabelle did not let her eyes linger on his lips-- narrow, sensuous lips pressed firmly together. She met his eyes--startlingly direct, gray-as-a-rainy-day eyes.
Mr. Steele looked exactly as she imagined the Romantic poet, Lord Byron. And Annabelle's heart responded with a foolish little flutter.
"Are you satisfied?" he asked.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Do I meet with your approval?" he asked, setting his mug on a side table.
"Yes, of course," Annabelle blurted without thinking. "Forgive me. I did not mean to be rude."
"I remain at a serious disadvantage," he said with a mocking smile. "You have not told me your name."
"My name is Annabelle. Annabelle Browne."
"Browne," Oliver Steele repeated. "A common name for a woman with such extraordinary eyes."
"Did you . . . did you pluck me from the sea?"
He arched a dark brow. "You make it sound an easy task."
"And it was not?"
"You fought me vigorously."
Again she felt the heat of shame on her cheeks. She lowered her eyes. "I apologize."
"No need to apologize. I admire your spirit . . . and strength, Annabelle Browne."
"In that case, I must thank you for coming to my rescue. I shall be forever in your debt."
"Not quite forever," he offered dryly.
What did he mean? The wry turn of his lips both fascinated and puzzled Annabelle.
When she spoke, her voice was barely audible. "You risked your life to save mine."
What might have been a smile quivered at the corner of his lips. "My pleasure."
Annabelle raised her eyes to his. Could he see her naked body beneath the sheets? A hot flush of fresh embarrassment travelled up from her toes. "And now my clothes, sir. I must go. I cannot impose any longer."
"Why be in such a hurry? You do not impose."
"But I must find my aunt, you see. We were separated in the storm--" She stopped and blinked. "Would you happen to know what became of her? Fancy LeClerc is her name."
"Fancy, eh? No. But I do know all of the passengers were saved."
"I cannot rest until I see her and know she is safe."
He did not seem to understand Annabelle's need to leave, or her discomfort at being covered only by a sheet. "I will make inquiries," he said.
"Thank you, but I must be on my way. While deeply appreciative of all you have done, I have traveled to Key West on urgent personal business--"
"Personal business? What an interesting way of putting it," he interrupted. "Word of your imminent arrival preceded you and was greeted with great anticipation."
She could not hide her surprise. "It was?"
"How odd." She puffed a sigh of bewilderment. But she had no time to pursue his peculiar statement. "Sir, I would like to dress. Would you happen to know what became of my clothes?"
"You were not wearing any that I could see."
Annabelle lowered her eyes. Her cheeks grew hot yet again.
"Other than your chemise," Steele continued, "which my housekeeper declared a loss."
"When the storm struck I was in the midst of changing into a fresh dress for our arrival in Key West," Annabelle explained in hasty defense of her previous immodest state.
Again Oliver Steele's lips curved into a wry, tight imitation of a smile. "The trunks from the ship have been salvaged. Your clothes will be washed of sea salt and dried today."
"Sir, I must have something to wear now."
Her guardian Jewel would be shocked if she knew Annabelle, wearing nothing but a sheet, conversed with a stranger of the opposite sex. Jewel, so-called for the many jewels she always wore, had warned Annabelle repeatedly to always behave in a respectable manner. Propriety was everything.
Annabelle sighed. Her great adventure was not off to a propitious start.
Steele relented. "I'll have my housekeeper bring some clothes to you."
"Is your wife my size?"
"I have no wife."
Annabelle's cheeks flamed again. She had done nothing but blush like a green schoolgirl since encountering this disconcerting man. And the situation was even worse than she'd thought. She must leave quickly, before anyone discovered she'd spent the night alone in Steele's home.
Although not handsome in conventional terms, the man who had come to her rescue possessed a striking appearance. She expected Oliver Steele attracted a good many women. He did not need her. A spurt of anger warmed her blood.
"You have endangered my reputation by bringing me here, sir."
"I do not think so," he responded with a quirk of his lips.
Were the rules of respectability different in Key West? She doubted it.
"Mr. Steele, while I appreciate your hospitality--"
"How old are you?" he interrupted.
"I am eighteen." Annabelle tilted her chin defensively. He'd asked an excessively rude question, but she owed the man her life.
Although some of her friends from boarding school were already married, Annabelle was sensitive to her youth. Not only was she young in years, but her guardian had seen to it that she had led an extremely sheltered life.
A formidable businesswoman, Jewel Giroux was quite unlike the needlepointing mothers of Annabelle's school acquaintances. But the large, Rubenesque woman had been the only mother Annabelle had ever known.
It had taken months of discussion, negotiation, and pleading before Jewel had finally relented and allowed Annabelle to embark on this adventure. And not without Aunt Fancy as chaperone. A chaperone she seemed to have lost in the storm.
"Eighteen. You are very young," Steele observed in a tone that implied her youth displeased him.
"I attended the finest boarding schools," she informed him primly. "My education makes up for my youth and any lack of worldly experience."
Annabelle had spent many lonely years attending boarding schools. But even the best schools had not been able to provide what she longed for the most: her identity, her history.
She wanted to know about her mother and father. What was her mother's name? The color of her hair? Did her father have a favorite seafaring story? What dreams had her parents held?
If she only knew some of these things, Annabelle felt certain she could begin at last to know herself.
She believed by finding her father, questions she'd asked all of her life would be answered. Perhaps knowing and understanding would alleviate the sense of isolation and loneliness she had lived with since her child's mind first grasped that she was virtually alone in the world. The aching void in her heart would be filled. She would be complete at last.
Her flamboyant, bejeweled guardian had done her best to provide Annabelle with all a young girl could desire. In truth, Annabelle had never wanted for anything. But Jewel could not supply the identity the girl so desperately sought. Once Annabelle understood who and what she was, she could fulfill the dream of having her own family. Somewhere in her future a handsome, sensitive man waited to adore her and give her beautiful babies to bounce on her knee.
"You attended the finest boarding schools?" Steele lifted a skeptical eyebrow.
"Why? Do you doubt me, sir?"
"Well, be warned. Some men find an intelligent woman most unattractive. Keep your knowledge to yourself."
"My guardian has told me the same thing. Do you find an intelligent woman unattractive, Mr. Steele?"
"To be honest, I have never encountered a woman who was both beautiful and intelligent."
"Perhaps you have and did not know it. Too many women pretend to be dull-witted."
His eyebrow shot up again. "Really?"
Was he teasing? Annabelle detected no humor in his eyes.
"Yes," she answered firmly. "And now I really must go. I must find Aunt Fancy. I am very worried as to what has become of her. And then I shall begin the search for my father."
"Is your father missing, too?"
"He has been missing from my life for an exceedingly long time. I have come to Key West to find him, and I do not have much time."
"What is your father's name?"
"Perhaps you know him." The sheet clasped to her throat, Annabelle leaned forward eagerly. "Captain Shubel Browne."
Steele rocked as if struck by an unseen blow. His face folded into a deep frown.
What had she said?
He glowered at her, dark and forbidding. The look of a dangerous man. An ominous silver glint flashed from the dull, ashen depths of his eyes.
"You are Shubel's?" he asked softly,
"Yes," she breathed, hardly daring to believe fate had thrust her into the arms of a man who might be acquainted with her father.
"You are Shubel Browne's daughter?" he repeated, as if unable to believe her.
Steele's eyes narrowed to an icy, penetrating gaze.
She could not move, could not breathe.
At last, he leaned back in his chair.
"Forgive me. I find it quite astonishing that Shubel has a daughter. And a beautiful one at that"
She sucked in her breath. Her heart thumped slowly, expectantly. "Do you know my father?"
Oliver Steele knew Browne well. Five years ago the pirate destroyed Oliver's dreams and very nearly killed him. Since that day he had lived for revenge on Shubel Browne.
Gazing at the lovely innocent in his bed, Oliver speculated that revenge might be closer than he knew.
And much sweeter than he ever expected.