“Are you sure that this is a good idea?” Lady Caroline Steele sat in the front parlor, embroidering a cushion. Sir Raymond glanced about the room and wondered where on earth they would put yet another embellished frippery from his wife’s hands. The chairs and window seats piled up with cushions would not have bothered him except that needlework was not exactly her strong suit and he often found himself stabbed by stray needles or covered in loose threads upon rising from his reading chair.
Folding his paper and placing it on his lap, Sir Raymond stared at his wife over the reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. “Am I sure ‘what’ is a good idea, my dear?” He knew exactly what she was going to say. After all, it was all she had talked about for the past three weeks, hell, since before the wedding. He focused his gaze on her with the understanding that if he gave the conversation his full attention, Caroline would lose interest quicker and he would be free to get back to his papers.
“This wedding. I’m just not sure that Anastasia is ready for marriage. And to Lord Grey, of all people.” Caroline teased out her thread and began a fruitless attempt to feed it through the eye of her needle.
“Not Lord Grey, my dear, but his brother, Captain Grey. And it is too late to worry about the rightness. The wedding has already taken place. Do you recall the ceremony at the Bellevue Manse? We had strawberries and cream on the lawn.” Sir Raymond leaned forward and captured Caroline’s eyes. His next statement was genuine and heart felt. “You looked lovely, my dear, as did Anastasia. She was a credit to you.”
Tears glistened in Caroline’s large blue eyes. “Oh, yes. She did look lovely, didn’t she?” Sir Raymond nodded, took the needle from her and thread the cotton through the eye. It took him a few attempts, with his distinctly dodgy eyesight, but it was markedly faster than Caroline would have done it. She accepted the needle back and began to embroider a bright red leaf. Raymond sighed, shaking his head.
“Do you think she will be happy?” Caroline asked wistfully. Raymond frowned. He certainly hoped so.
Christian watched as his crew hauled the last of the new sails onto the ship. He was barking orders, frustrated and anxious about Anastasia and what she might or might not choose to do next. He was feeling considerable anger at Sir Raymond Steele for his dubious advice on how best to ‘handle’ his new wife.
Somehow, nothing had gone quite to plan. Sir Raymond, had waxed lyrical on Anastasia’s compliance and subservience as he all but sold her potential as a wife. Luckily, Christian had already seen first hand how little those words fit Anastasia and if she had exhibited either of those qualities, he might have overlooked her more obvious charms. Sir Raymond had also explained Ana’s resistance to marriage based on her fears that she would acquire her mother’s, what did he call it? Dementia. For his part, Christian thought Lady Caroline was merely a tad eccentric but Sir Raymond had consulted a Harley St specialist who had confirmed that Lady Caroline was suffering from a mania.
Sir Raymond’s advice to his new son-in-law had many elements and one single non-negotiable caveat. Christian recalled the conversation that had ensued after Elliot had outlined the plan for securing Ana’s ‘cooperation’ in a marriage arrangement.
“I take it with all of this plotting and planning, that you won’t be backing away from this plan of yours.” Sir Raymond’s shrewd eyes narrowed on Christian.
“I can assure you, Sir Raymond, my intentions are honorable and solid. Anastasia has quite captured my…” Christian had baulked at revealing his true feelings, but after a slight moment of hesitation decided it was best to reassure the man who would soon become his father-in-law. “…heart. I would not be investing any time in this conversation if I felt otherwise.”
Sir Raymond allowed his inspection of Christian’s face to continue unabated and saw the moment when he felt satisfied that the lad was genuine. “Aye, I believe you. However, I have one condition on which I would seek your agreement before I will commit to assisting you.”
Christian had waited, not shifting his gaze. It was a stand off of course, and Sir Raymond would not be forthcoming on the condition until he had Christian’s assent. Turning over all of the possibilities in his mind, money, sponsorship, naming of their first born, he decided that whatever Sir Raymond had to ask was worth it to have Anastasia as his bride. He nodded at the older man.
Sir Raymond’s eyes widened a fraction and then he continued, “Of the utmost importance, you must abstain from consummating the marriage for at least 3 months.”
Elliot had coughed at that point. “Steady on, old boy, I mean a fellow can’t possibly…” Christian raised his hand to silence his brother.
“I am a man of honour and I have already agreed to Sir Raymond’s terms.” Elliot’s eyes looked ready to jump out of his skull, about the same time as his tongue would hit the floor. Christian reached over and tupped his brother’s chin with a wry smile, hoping that Elliot hadn’t lost some badly needed brain function in the process. Turning back to Sir Raymond, he became more serious. “While I accept your terms, unreservedly, I would ask for some explanation of why.”
“Anastasia has some ‘interesting’ ideas about her mother’s illness. One of the many disadvantages of an inquisitive and educated female, I suppose. When her mother’s eccentricities caused some social issues, we had to retire to the country indefinitely. It was for the best, is still for the best. However, she took it upon herself to start studying medical papers. I don’t hold much with the medical profession, quacks and charlatans the lot of them, however, I didn’t discourage Anastasia as it seemed to give her some comfort. It was about then that she started to develop her ideas about marriage. I have to admit, I was so dismayed at Caroline’s condition that I wasn’t quite as attentive to Anastasia as I perhaps could have been, but that being said, Anastasia was adamant that she would remain unmarried and she largely managed to convince me. It was only after she took up employment with Lady Katherine that I took up studying where Ana had left off. I’m afraid there are some very odd ideas in those papers that unfortunately I cannot discuss with my daughter. It wouldn’t be appropriate. However, if she is anything like her mother, then her husband, an understanding and patient husband, might be of more influence.”
Christian was flummoxed. He had no idea what the man was talking about and a quick glance at Elliot indicated that his brother, too, was at a loss. “I see, so you think that abstinence will be helpful?” Christian and Elliot simultaneously frowned.
“It is not about the abstinence per se, but about building up a trust. And knowledge. I will happily give you these papers so that you can understand what I am talking about. I think once you see what they contain, you might be able to disseminate the fears and reservations that my daughter has about ‘marriage’. This role should have fallen to her mother, but unfortunately, Lady Caroline…” His voice tapered off, wistfully.
“I understand.” Christian felt that he didn’t quite understand the half of it, but he could see that whatever ‘it’ was, Sir Raymond was convinced that it needed to be said. Convinced enough that he felt it necessary to have a conversation regarding a topic that perhaps no father-in-law would ever want to have with his son-in-law. Especially as it related to his little girl. Christian would obviously have to sort through the muddle as best he could. He had thought to ask his step-mother for some guidance and then thought better of it. Instinctively he knew this wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have with the Duchess either.
So Christian had tried to honour their agreement, as much as it pained him, both physically and emotionally. He found the best approach was to absent himself from her presence as much as possible. He found that difficult, too. He had collected the papers from his father-in-law and resolved to study them, shocked and a little angered by what he found there. Sir Raymond had been correct in asking for his cooperation in this one thing. He needed to give her time so that Anastasia would not feel threatened as she settled into married life. Only the more time he spent with Anastasia the harder it was becoming for both of them, until finally she had broken him with her pleas. After last night, as his young wife had blossomed under his touch,Christian had doubted the wisdom of his father-in-law’s edict. He also doubted the possibility of retaining his manhood if Sir Raymond found out that he had broken his promise less than three weeks into the marriage but that was a risk he was now only too willing to take. Repeatedly, if Ana would permit.
When Ana had collapsed in the library, his heart had been in his throat. He couldn’t get to her fast enough and he had been tormented by the thought that perhaps he had caused her to fail. When young Nicholas had started to cry in the library he had been torn. Luckily, Taylor has been right behind him and ushered the boy away, quickly. Christian had taken some time while the doctor visited and administered feverfew to go to the lad and reassure him that none of this had been his fault. At least he could promise the boy that his mother would visit while he was away. Nicholas had brightened considerably after their discussion, even as he clung to Christian in an effort to prevent him from leaving. The tickling fight that had ensued had left them both breathless and Mrs Jones grumbling at Christian’s timing in riling the lad up before bed time.
When he had returned to Ana he had become instantly sombre, so concerned that she would not make a recovery. The doctor had been very reassuring and had left him with instructions that at least made him feel vaguely useful as she rode out the storm of her headache. His relief when she woke had been palpable but it was what ensued that had him by turns grinning like a fool and ranting like a madman. His sexual experience, though varied and long, did not extend to a woman who was so generous with her pleas to be touched, to be pleasured. His wife had delighted him with her need and responsiveness. Just the thought of her pulsing around his fingers while simultaneously begging for more had him in a state of physical torment, aching to see her beneath him, above him, however she wanted to find her release. The sooner she got here the better. Once he had her on the ship, he would encourage her to let go of all of her inhibitions. He simply wanted to see her fly apart again.
However, the wait now for her to arrive had him raging like a chained bear, barking orders at everyone around him and genuinely making a nuisance of himself. In the end, Taylor had taken it upon himself to send Christian back up the tunnels to check the oil in the sconces leading up to the house. He arrived in the anteroom just in time to spy Ana examining the maps in the library. After she had departed, he placed the note that he had prepared on the table, leaving nothing to chance. Of course, there was every possibility that she would not try to find Blackheart or his ship but he had seen the light in her eye when she talked about finding him and recalled her determination on board the Ruby Queen. She would seek Blackheart out because she needed to know that she had made every attempt to find Ethan. He also knew that Ana needed to arrive at this decision and plan her next moves herself. To that end, he had carefully laid out as much information as he dared to ensure that she succeeded. If nothing else, it might prove to her that she was a long way off submitting to her mother’s disease.
With a shaking hand, Ana lifted the parchment and broke the seal. If someone from the house was leaving a message for the pirate then Ana felt it was better to be forewarned.
I heard you were looking for me. Take the north tunnel. B
She let out a gasp and dropped the paper to the table. Was the message for her or for Christian? He obviously knew that they were looking for him, which proved that Christian had been true to his word and tried to contact, was still trying, to contact him on her behalf. Quickly looking around, she saw that locks were indeed open on the door to the anteroom. Her blood ran cold. Someone, perhaps Blackheart himself, had been here since she had left this afternoon and opened that door.
Once more, Ana found herself tempted to run from the room and back to the safety of her bed. What business did she have engaging the services of a criminal? Two days ago, she might have done exactly that. Now she needed Blackheart’s assistance in a way that she simply hadn’t before. When she had first asked Christian to contact Blackheart on Kate’s behalf it had been about rescuing Ethan. A straightforward request that he might take the information that Kate had been given and use it to the advantage of a successful extraction. Now, it was possible that her request might actually save her husband’s life. For that reason alone, she had to try.
When she had awoken to Christian nursing her in her illness, she had been both surprised and deeply touched at the tender care he administered. However, her intense headaches often resulted in an even more intense and uncontrollable aftermath that left her restless and ashamed. As that familiar burning sensation had settled between her legs, she had expected it even as she feared it but Christian had had no idea what was happening. The memory of his response to her need, a response that manifested in the light of desire, had brought the one thing to her condition that she never thought to know. Emotional connection. Ever since the first onset of the symptoms as a young girl, she had been ashamed of her own bodily urges, afraid of what they made her do. Christian’s presence, the sweet temptation of his touch, had driven her to request the one thing for which she held true dread, and instead of shunning her or taking advantage, he had been so very gentle. Deep to her core, Ana knew that he would never have taken her if she hadn’t begged him. Her fear had seen her attempt to push him aside. Wiping the tear that sneaked into the corner of her eye she vowed not to make that mistake again.
Pushing terror aside, Ana tried not to think about the risks inherent in talking with pirates on dark, moonlit nights without the benefit of either escort or guard. After all, if someone had come up from the tunnels and opened the doors to the anteroom, then she was hardly safe in her own home. As much as she knew her feelings were growing, she cursed Christian. He must know how insecure the property was against the smugglers and pirates who might use the tunnels. She vowed to have words with him if she, and he, ever got back in one piece. She would have to alert the other property owners in the district too. That map had shown at least three other major estates where the tunnels met. Their houses were probably not safe either. Of course, the thought of having those nasty shrews from Faversham challenged by a pirate in their beds appealed to her sense of the absurd.
Ana placed the paper back under the paperweight and moved to the door. Sucking a deep breath she looked at the stairs, it was now or never. She quickly descended the staircase into the catacombs and tried to tamp down her panic as she deduced which tunnel ran to the north. Running through her memory the north tunnel on the map she had studied, she recalled that it wound some distance around the property before heading out to a point slightly south of the one she had originally chosen. She had eliminated it as a choice, not because she thought it would go to the wrong place, but because it would take her longer to navigate. However, if that was her instruction, she would take it. She really had no other choice. It had the advantage that no other tunnels crossed it in the process, which she supposed, should make it safer. That didn’t prevent an ominous shiver from running down her spine. She took another deep breath and proceeded forward.
Half an hour of winding her way in the darkness, Ana was wondering if she would ever find a way out. Several times she had to keep herself from turning back out of fear. Keeping one hand on the wall as she went, she guarded her hurricane candle close to her body against the breezes that threatened to eliminate what little light she had. She only hoped that there would be enough light left on it to get her back home after she had spoken to Captain Blackheart. Her hand went to the locket under her cloak and Ana sent out a silent prayer that she would find him. If something happened to Christian because of her silence, she would never be able to forgive herself.
The smell of the sea air became stronger as she got closer to the coast, giving her hope that she was on the right track. As she arrived at the mouth of a cave, she noted that it was quite sheltered and well lit by the moon, making it easy to make her way down the few rocks to the sand. When she emerged onto the sand, she almost turned the wrong way in the dark before she recalled where the tunnel opening appeared on the map. She had only gone a few paces before she noticed a group of shadows moving further down the beach. Surmising that they must be Blackheart’s crew, she furtively crept toward the group, trying not to make any sudden moves or noises. The last thing she wanted to do was alert them to her presence if they were not who she was looking for. Not for the first time tonight, she berated herself for not simply handing her information to Christian and letting him do with it what he would. For a start, she would never have found the maps nor the secret tunnels that allowed strangers to wander willy nilly under her house. She shuddered, telling herself to push on.
Before she could get close enough to call out, a pair of arms came out of the darkness, wrapping around her and dragging her back up the beach. A giant hand was firmly placed over her mouth, effectively stopping her screams. She could taste the terror on her tongue as she fought down her panic. What had she been thinking? And what made her think she could trust a pirate more than her own husband? The thought of Christian brought tears to her eyes. She wondered if she would ever see him again.
“Be quiet. Those are excise men. We don’t need them to find us.” The voice, low and menacing, sent chills down her spine. They had stilled enough for her to nod her head in agreement. “Now, I’m going to release you, and you’re not going to make a sound. Do you understand?” With tears threatening, she nodded.
He slowly removed his hand from her mouth, even though he kept a firm grip on her person. Immediately, she sucked in a lungful of air. His breath was still on her neck as his strong arm kept her pressed back against his body. “Good girl. Now, what is a fine young thing like you doing walking the coast at night? Don’t you know these parts are full of smugglers and pirates?”
He allowed her just enough movement to see his face over her shoulder. The glint of teeth as he smiled at her didn’t calm her nerves. “I-I-I’m looking for Captain Blackheart. I heard he might be nearby and I would have business with him.”
Expecting this bandit to help her, suddenly seemed like the most stupid decision she had ever made. He let go of her and began circling her in the dark, with the stealth of a large animal stalking its prey. Ana tried to calm her shaking body and quietly crossed herself as he continued to walk around her in the dark. The moon had chosen this moment to be uncooperative and Ana was completely out of her depth, struggling to see him in the dark, even though he appeared to be able to see her quite clearly. His hand snaked out and grasped her chin, his touch gentle but firm. He may have been looking into her eyes but she couldn’t tell.
“Business, is it? What business would a pretty little thing like you have with pirates?” She noted the barest trace of a French accent. Her trembling began in earnest. She had to leave.
“That is for me to know. Can you help me or not? If not, I shall be on my way.” Gathering up her skirt she pushed past him and started to walk away. His hand shot and grasped her elbow, stopping her.
“Hold your horses, little one. What will you give me if I help you?” Ana could kick herself for not bringing more money. She had some coins but those were for the Captain. She hadn’t anticipated being waylaid by a bandit. Dear Lord, why hadn’t she taken more care?
“You would take coin from Blackheart’s pocket? You are either brave or stupid, Sir.” So it would seem, was she. Standing as straight as possible, there was a moment where she thought she had overplayed her bravado, then the man laughed.
“Come, I can take you out to his ship.” He grabbed her hand but she didn’t move for a moment. He didn’t tug, he merely leaned toward her with a low whisper. “I promise. You have my word as a… pirate.”
The bandit started to move but Ana leaned back a few steps, resisting him. He pulled her hand up to his mouth and kissed it. She wanted to pull away in disgust but the warmth of his hand gave her some strange sense of security. Then she heard the men behind them approaching. They ran up the beach away from the excise men until they reached a small boat. Strong hands lifted her in before he pushed the boat out on the tide and clambered in after her. Within a few minutes he had rowed them around the bend of a rocky outcrop. Ana panicked. They appeared to be traveling back inland instead of out to the ocean as she expected. The night became darker around them, a shroud that stopped her from seeing anything that might mark where they were. Her hands gripped the sides of the boat as she considered throwing herself over the side and swimming to shore. Meanwhile, her captor was concentrating all his energy on keeping them moving further into the dark inlet. Just as she was summoning her energy to jump, the clouds parted above them, uncovering a purple moon and there hidden, in a secret cove was a ship. Ana had no idea how it could not be seen from the beach but it was obviously the perfect hiding place. She grinned at him in relief.
Her guide rowed alongside the ship, that sat low and steady in the water and tied off the rowboat before whistling up to the deck. Without ceremony a rope was dropped down. She had no idea how she was supposed to climb it but she moved toward his hand outstretched hand. Reaching down, he placed her foot in a loop, his own boot next to it and then pulled the rope firmly around both their feet. Wrapping his strong arm around her, he pulled her close and gripped the rope with one hand then gave another signal to the unseen bodies above.
“Keep your arms firmly wrapped around me and let your foot stand on mine,” he whispered in the dark. They began to rise steadily and the momentum caused her to wrap her arms around his thick neck. She inhaled sandalwood and salt. Hope and longing mixed in her heart.
“Are you alright?” She nodded into his shoulder, too afraid to look. He chuckled and it reminded her of Christian. She missed him terribly and wished now that she had just trusted him with the note.
Landing on the deck with a flourish, a bustle of activity happened around her as she was released from the rope and his arms. Once she was steady on her feet, he took her hand again and all but dragged her toward the the bridge. Suffering from a sense of deja vu, this time she went willingly for there was no real choice, after all. She determined that she had come this far and she needed to follow through with her plan. She just hoped that she hadn’t cost Ethan or Christian their lives, or her own.
The pirate took her through doors below the bridge and down the stairs. As they moved through the gangway she felt that same sensation of having been somewhere like this before. Her nerves on that day seemed so unfounded now. Christian was intimidating and forceful but he didn’t frighten her. Unfortunately, she now understood that she had gained her confidence regarding Blackheart based on a performance by her husband. A pretense shrouded in desire. What a fool she had been then and what an even bigger fool she felt now.
The doors shut behind them as they entered what was obviously the Captain’s cabin. This was nothing like Christian’s cabin though. Light softly filtered from sconces fixed about the walls. Ana spun around as she took in the exotic fabrics on the bed and the detailed paintings of people on the walls. All manner of ephemera was secured in a large glass case, items that were obviously the spoils of ships taken and lands visited. Some of which looked exotic and sinister. There was a desk with large cast iron rings in each corner. It was ornately carved with figures similar to those on the walls on its sides. A giant cross was attached to one wall, giving Ana hope that the Captain was a religious man, however, on closer inspection it had cast iron attachments that looked like prison manacles attached to it. Ana walked to the walls to inspect the paintings closer, her eyes widening in shock when she realised that the figures were, in fact, naked men and women in all manner of sensual positions. Her body began to shake and she spun back to the door wanting to run. Her escort was standing in front of it blocking the way with a smirk on his face. Now that they were in candlelight she could take him in. He stood with his arms folded swathed head to toe in black. He wore a mask that covered his hair and his face was unshaven. His eyes had been outlined in kohl giving him a sinister air. Ana was fighting not to fall on the floor. She sucked in breaths when she noticed a rack to his right, with whips and canes. She started to back away from him.
The man came toward her, slowly forcing Ana to stumble backward onto the bed behind her. His smile broadened and she scrambled backward on the bed pulling the covers up over her for protection. It didn’t stop him from crawling on the bed after her.
“Y-y-you’re Captain Blackheart?” Heart hammering in her throat, Ana could only stammer her question out in a faint and breathless voice.
“Blackheart by name, and nature. Now.” He tipped her chin up toward him as he bent his head to touch his lips to hers. Ana pushed his body hard, causing him to roll to the side and she scampered off the bed and into the corner of the room. He was on his feet in an instant, prowling around the bed. Her eyes darted to the door, judging if she could make a run for it. He crouched over, widening his stance, his arms outstretched to the sides. Ana ran forward but he grabbed her around the waist and swung her around, kicking and screaming. She scratched at his fingers but they were a vice around her. Eventually he pinned her against the cross with his body, holding her hands up against the wall.
She expected him to restrain her with the cuffs but he stayed where he was, his body hard against hers. Her body liked the sensation while her mind railed against him. She was, however, going nowhere. She struggled in his grip, trying desperately to pull her hands free of the vice-like grip he had on her wrists. His legs were firmly between hers, effectively pinning her hips back against the wall. She bucked but could not move him in any way and her fear began in earnest. A whimpering sound filtered into her ears and it took her a moment a to realize that this was the sound of her own terror.
“Stop fighting, petit chat,” he growled. Lifting one hand he found the edge of the hood of her cloak and pushed it back off her head, stroking her hair as he did so. She closed her eyes and forced herself to be still under his perusal, not wanting to anger him. To her surprise, he stepped back from her without releasing her hands, and bowed, “I hear you’ve been looking for me, Mrs Grey.”