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First Comes Desire
By Tina Donahue
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Tina Donahue
All rights reserved.
Madagascar — 1717
Harsh breathing pulled Tristan Kent from sleep.
Snores rose from his crew, his men having collapsed earlier from rumfustian, a potent mixture of sherry, gin, and beer. If their past imbibing served as evidence, they'd remain unconscious until dawn, sprawled on the isolated beach.
He inhaled deeply and relaxed.
Whispers intruded. Heated murmurs followed, drifted close, and stopped abruptly.
"On your feet, Kent. Do it now, coward." A young woman had spoken, her British accent refined, tone decidedly heated.
His pulse jumped. Eyes closed, he lay motionless against his bed of felled mangroves. At any other time, he would have murdered the person who dared insult him. Not now. What he'd heard made no sense. He hadn't been in an Englishwoman's company in more than four years. Those females had never used cultured speech or their mouths for anything other than delivering the most wanton pleasure.
Pretending sleep, he stretched his legs lazily over the sand and hit an obstacle.
The thing kicked back. "Do as I've ordered or die where you are."
Sweat prickled his neck. He inched his hand from beneath his book to the brace of pistols across his chest. Like other pirates, he was never without his weapons. Unlike most, he never overindulged in drink, as his occupation hardly ensured a long and pleasant rest or life. Even so, he never believed an educated Englishwoman would challenge him.
He couldn't fathom who she might be, what she wanted, or how she'd come to this particular spot. The hidden beach offered protection against attack or capture while his crew careened the Quest, the sloop he commanded. Brimstone and tallow antifouling reeked on the balmy night breeze.
She kicked his foot harder.
He touched his pistol and opened his eyes. Firelight danced in the muggy breeze casting the exposed hull and mast in a hellish orange glow.
Her rapier point nearly rested on his throat. "If you're incapable of moving, my blade shall."
It already had. Any closer and she'd shed his blood. Before he died or they both did, Tristan looked up.
She was young, surely no more than twenty or so, skin fair and flawless, eyes lushly lashed, though he couldn't determine the color. They seemed too dark to be blue, too fair to be brown. Her features were elegant, lips full and rich, overall surprisingly exquisite.
His mouth went dry.
Only her clothing disappointed. A cap covered her hair, though a few dark tresses had escaped. She'd hidden her womanly form in canvas trousers, a patterned shirt, and short blue jacket. The mild breeze ruffled her clothes, pressing them into the alluring swell of her unbound breasts.
Despite his disquiet and confusion, he smiled.
Bewilderment swept her face, and then she frowned. "On your feet now or I'll run you through where you lie."
He settled his fingers carefully against the flat part of her blade. Only his thumb rested directly on the cutting edge. He pressed. Steel sliced into him. Blood ran down.
She made a face.
"Go on, run me through." He pressed harder. "I'll assist you in keeping your blade steady."
She remained perfectly still, not even breathing.
He guessed she wasn't prepared to murder him after all, though what she would do remained a mystery. He eased the point from his throat, held the flat part, and reeled her in. Her wrist was tantalizingly close. A quick move, along with a firm grip and he'd have her beneath him.
Panic swept her features. She tugged.
He put on a show and gasped loudly.
Mewling like a wounded kitten, she looked at his hand.
His fingers were intact, rather than severed. He'd released the blade in plenty of time, proving she was an innocent at this and foolhardy for having challenged him.
Three men hurried from behind and raised their blades to his chest. A fourth man strode into view. He removed Tristan's pistols, cutlass, and dagger.
The men said nothing and made no move on their own, appearing to serve rather than using her as a decoy. Each looked to be in his late twenties, dressed like mariners or pirates. In the Indian Ocean, there was little distinction.
To Tristan's knowledge, there had never been a genteel Englishwoman on the account and surely not one functioning as ship's captain. However, he'd been absent from his homeland since seventeen-twelve. Perhaps in the last five years, beautiful young women had taken to bolder goals than being a pleasure source to men. "Pity."
"Pity?" She looked down her nose at him. "Because you've yet to lose your fingers to my blade?"
He closed his book. His men weren't in a position to help him. None ordered to keep watch. He'd left the task to his friend and quartermaster, James Sullivan. Most likely, James was still alive, since the young woman wasn't brutal. However, he wasn't here nor had he sent out an alert as to these intruders.
Tristan lifted his face to her men. "Who is she?"
Before they could answer, she directed her blade to his throat. "I said, on your feet."
"State your purpose and I may consider your sweet request."
The man next to her snickered.
She gave him a withering look. "Quiet."
He fell silent but didn't lose his smile.
Poor girl handled this badly. A man would have killed the fool to warn the others. In this part of the world, it often took violence to secure obedience and respect.
She withdrew her blade. Her glare, however, didn't soften. She wanted Tristan quite dead, even if she wasn't the one who would spill his blood. Odd.
"My ship has no valuable cargo." He gestured to the vessel. "It's not yet fit for sea, so what could you possibly want other than to have me on my feet?"
"I'll see you back in England and hanged."
"You want to send me to the gallows?" He couldn't hide his shock. "Why?"
"Tell me what you've done with Peter."
Ah, she searched for a man. Her long throat and satiny flesh showed no signs of Peter's mark in the recent past. Despite her loose clothing, Peter's seed wasn't growing inside her, unless she had yet to swell with the man's child.
Her eyes filled. "Where is he?"
Her distress surprised Tristan. There were six men named Peter in his crew, none worthy of her. She was young, lovely, and apparently educated. Too good for those beasts.
"Montgomery." She gestured to the man who'd previously snickered.
He was her largest crewmember, his weight in jiggling fat.
She stepped aside. "Make him talk or you'll answer to your master."
"Yes, miss." Montgomery clamped Tristan's shoulder.
Miss? Master? This was odd. Once Montgomery felt comfortable in his superior role, Tristan offered a swift punch to the man's jaw.
He staggered back on the sand.
The other men pressed close.
Before they ran Tristan through, he spoke to her. "If you want to know what happened to Peter, order your men to back off. Do it now."
She gestured for them to withdraw.
"What's Peter's last name?"
Another surprise. "Peter Fletcher, my cabin boy?" The lad was fourteen and innocent when it came to women. "How do you know him?"
Tristan bristled, but tempered his anger. Youth and inexperience had caused her careless words. When he'd been her age, he'd also despised pirates. Going on the account hadn't been his choice or James's, but a man did what he had to in order to survive. "There's no need to fear for the lad's safety. He's quite well."
"Where is he? What have you sent my brother to do?"
Everything fell into place, her outrage and sorrow making sense. Peter had spoken of a mother who'd died from the pox when he was quite young and a clergyman father who'd succumbed to the fever three years ago. The boy might have also mentioned a sister.
She must have come to take Peter back to England after finding him here, of all places. The ship and crew she used certainly weren't hers. Presumably, the vessel belonged to the man she referred to as master.
Tristan longed to ask for particulars but guessed she wouldn't answer a pirate she wanted hanged. With her, he wanted to comfort. A woman's distress was never a small matter. "No need to worry. Peter's task won't put him at risk."
"To whose way of thinking, yours or those in the civilized world?"
"Everyone's. I'm fully aware he's not yet a man and requires protection."
She opened her mouth and closed it, cheeks flushing.
Good. He'd won their first battle. Threats moved men. Women needed civilized behavior and a kind word to bring them to a man's side. He wanted her at his, so he could teach her what pleased him. There would be much she'd learn and enjoy.
Heat pooled in his groin.
She stepped back and gestured to the man who stood next to the still-moaning Montgomery. "Reeves, restrain the captain."
Tristan stood. Her men lifted their blades to his chest. "What's the meaning of this? I've done you no harm. Stay where you are." He pointed at Reeves, who'd edged closer, then turned back to her. "Hear this, Miss Fletcher. No matter what transpires, I'll never do you harm."
Firelight danced over her milky complexion. Her eyes reflected the flames.
Enticed further, he held up his hands. "Call off your men. You're safe here. So is Peter. No one's hurt him."
She stiffened. "No one? Not even you, especially you? How can you say such a thing? You abducted him."
She advanced a step. "You'll hang. I'll see you hang."
Not likely. He had other plans for them and kept his peace.
* * *
Tristan's composure rattled Diana, his demeanor at odds with what she'd heard about him being a ruthless pirate. For nearly a year, she'd pursued him. Upon capture, she'd expected him to curse her and struggle fruitlessly against her men while she watched with great satisfaction. Instead, he'd smiled. He also seemed to care about Peter.
Impossible. No matter Tristan's dignified manner or him claiming innocence, he was still a pirate, Welsh in the bargain, and strangely enough, liked to read. His book lay forgotten on the sand, its title embossed in gold on the cover. Homer's Iliad, a classic far above what common folks would enjoy.
Her confusion grew. He was more than he should be, as tall and athletic as a young noble, clean too, hair and face washed, his crimson waistcoat, dark breeches, and white shirt well cared for. Moist wind separated the linen to bare his muscular chest. Perspiration glistened within those crisp curls. They begged for a woman's touch, and later him pleasuring and protecting her in his strong embrace.
Something stirred within Diana. She pushed her foolish reaction away and met him eye-to-eye, wanting to see the devil.
He waited patiently for her next move, searching her gaze, puzzling her further.
He was an undeniably handsome man. Blond hair fell in thick waves over his forehead, and curled around his ears and on his neck. Firelight turned his bronze skin a deeper gold. Only his eyebrows were dark, same as the stubble on his upper lip, chin, and cheeks.
He smiled softly.
Her belly clenched. She needed him to be afraid, not playful or aroused, to know the suffering he'd caused. When he'd taken the merchant ship Peter served on, he'd nearly ruined her brother's life and surely destroyed hers. It was heartache enough to have Peter foolishly run away to sea as if it were a game. Tristan's actions had forced Peter into piracy and put the child at even greater risk. Boys younger than him had gone to the gallows for crimes that were serious or not.
Helpless with outrage, she lifted her hand to strike Tristan.
He didn't curse or try to defend himself from her coming blow.
Unsettled, she lowered her hand. "Go on. I know you want to strike me, so why haven't you? Are you afraid what my men will do?"
"As they're armed and I'm not, taking caution merely shows good sense. But might I also remind you, Miss Fletcher, I wasn't the one with the raised hand."
Her cheeks burned. "A necessary defense against the likes of you."
He sighed loudly. "Yes, the likes of me. I'm nothing in your eyes. You've made yourself quite clear. However, before you take to insulting other men in this part of the world, ones who are far less understanding than I, and those who wouldn't hesitate to treat you quite brutally, it's best you remember words have power. They should be used with great care."
She opened her mouth but found no acceptable retort, the same as when her father had been alive. To him, she'd always been wrong and expected to apologize, beg his forgiveness. There wasn't a chance in hell she'd do so with Tristan. She hardly forgot what he'd done to Peter and who waited for her at her journey's end.
Benedict Bishop made her physically ill. He was twice her age, her father's friend. In return for Bishop's ship and crew, she'd pledged her flesh to him. Once she arrived in Mozambique, she'd share his bed without marriage or the decency any woman deserved. A living hell she'd endure when they arrived in England. One made possible by Tristan.
Her outrage flared. "What's the real problem, Captain? Not man enough to stand the truth?"
He bowed his head slightly. "Your truth is flawed, which compels me to prefer your hand. Go on. Do your worst."
Her skin stung, but she wouldn't back down. "Very well." She brought her hand to his cheek to strike him, but couldn't, and delivered a gentle caress instead.
Her men mumbled to each other.
Tristan looked at her questioningly.
He above all should have known seduction was a woman's greatest weapon, forcing men to their knees, even one as alluring and confident as him. His skin was warmer than she'd expected, his stubble oddly exciting in how it bit her palm. She enjoyed touching him, until she recalled he was no more than a murderous pirate.
Tristan parted his lips.
Before he could speak and surely lie, she stroked his bottom lip, heated and achingly soft, the same as how he treated her. For now. And only because her men offered protection. If she and Tristan had been alone, Diana sensed he would have demanded her mouth and used her as he pleased. Just as he'd abducted Peter without giving the boy a voice in the matter. No more.
She raked Tristan's cheek, wanting him to feel the pain he'd caused her, relishing his coming shout and oaths.
He kept his tongue.
Furious, she dug deeper.
He didn't even blink.
"Damn you." She ached to pummel him, to make him bellow. "I want you to hurt."
"As you do." Blood trickled down his cheek.
She lowered her face, frustrated tears welling in her eyes. "I hate you."
"You've yet to know me."
"I've no desire to know you."
"In time you will." Longing radiated from him, rather than insolence.
She should have backed away. His presence held Diana, baffling and intriguing her.
"I did not abduct Peter." He glanced past. "If you refuse to believe me, ask him."
She turned so quickly her cap slipped off, releasing her braid. The fire silhouetted a man. "Peter?"
He stepped into the light. The boy she recalled was no more, a stranger facing her.
Sun had lightened Peter's dark hair and baked his once pale skin as bronze as Tristan's. He was nearly as tall too.
Her chest cramped at changes she hadn't expected. The last time she'd seen Peter he was twelve years old, smaller than she, and far too thin.
Even with his new height, he was still more boy than man, all arms and legs, no fat. Only marks from work he'd done or beatings he'd endured.
She winced at the cruel bruises, the horrible cuts on her brother's bare chest and arms. "Turn around."
Peter looked at Tristan.
He nodded. "Go on. Show her your back."
She pressed her hand to her throat. Scar after scar crisscrossed Peter's skin. She whirled on Tristan. "Liar. You claimed no one had harmed him. You did that."
"I never touched the boy."
Then his foul crew had, and he hadn't stopped the assault. "You'll pay for this." She sheathed her rapier and spoke to her men. "Restrain Kent and his crew."
Peter gaped. "What?"
Diana struggled over the sand to reach him, ready to hug.
He sidestepped her and marched toward Tristan.
Her other men arrived to help their mates fetter the prisoners.
Peter stopped and growled. "What do you think you're doing?"
He shoved Reeves away from a pirate. To the man, they were drunk and swearing at having their slumber interrupted, but offered little fight.
"Stop it." Peter grabbed another man, who easily pushed him aside.
"Peter." She gripped his wrist to keep him from drawing his pistol, snatched it instead, and flung it into the sea.
Excerpted from First Comes Desire by Tina Donahue. Copyright © 2016 Tina Donahue. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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