The Price Of Innocence
(from Avon Historical Romance, in April 1999)
He pivoted and ducked at the girl's shout. The swift move was barely fast enough to dodge the downward arc of the cutlass that had been meant to take off his head.
"Damn!" he cursed as he jumped away from another wild swing.
Hell of a bad day to lead a boarding party onto the deck of a Malay war junk, he thought as he had to deal with both the swordsman in front of him and the pitching deck under his bare feet. There weren't many of the Malay crew left, but the ones still alive were fanatical fighters. With a typhoon blowing in, he didn't have time for fanatics. He wanted to finish the raid and get out.
"The prize had damn well better be worth the trouble!" he shouted. He backed across the pitching deck as the man continued to slash at him with the biggest blade he'd ever seen. If his pistol hadn't been knocked out of his hand a few moments before he could have easily dispatched this primitive attacker.
When he reached the stack of three iron cages lashed to the deck on the junk's prow he scrambled on top of them. All but one was empty. "Slave trade must be slow," he commented. He balanced like an acrobat as he ran along the length of the cages. He barely had time for a passing glance down at the girl whose shout had saved his life. It was only when he caught a glimpse of fair hair and pale skin that he remembered that her words had been in English. He grinned, realizing just what cargo the Malay fighters were protecting. He was laughing as he jumped, feet slamming into the swordsman's chest. The Malay dropped the oversized blade as he fell.
He snatched it off the deck and brought it down across the Malay's thick neck. Then he swiveled and brought the sword down as hard as he could on the cage's lock. The blade shattered, but so did the rusty old lock.
His men gathered around as he pulled the girl out for a closer look.
"Thank you!" she said.
Their gazes met, locked, then she looked away, her cheeks bright red. He knew what she'd seen in his eyes. After a long moment she laughed, the tone musical, as clear and sharp as the salt wind that caught the sound and blew it out to sea. It was a brave laugh, slightly mad, defiant, yet reflecting the fear he'd seen in her blue eyes. Beautiful eyes set in a perfect oval face. It had been a long time since he'd seen a blue-eyed woman. Longer still since he'd had one.
He moved closer as he touched her cheek. He breathed in the scent of her as he ran his thumb across the ugly blue-green bruise that marked where someone had hit her. Her skin was warm, soft, only a fool would mar it. He wanted to touch it, taste it everywhere, possess it.
"You're not here to rescue me, are you?"
She laughed again. The bright, bitter sound enchanted him. This was not a weak, hysterical spirit. There was nothing fragile to her beauty despite the exquisite perfection of form and face. She laughed in hell, and that made her priceless to him.
He ran his fingers through her hair. "The price of innocence," he said, "is what someone is willing to pay to destroy it."
In and of itself, the woman's bright laughter was an almost ordinary sound. Its timbre was neither shrill nor forced; a genuine, unaffected expression of amusement at some clever bit of conversation. It was pleasant, rather infectious.
Malaria was infectious as well, Jack remembered, and it could send the same chill heat quivering through one.
He saw exactly who he expected to see when she turned their way, a tall, slender girl - no, not a girl - a woman. Her golden hair did not tumble wantonly around her lovely face. Her hair was arranged in a fashionable coif, but it was the same wheat honey amber color he remembered. She was not wearing a clinging silk robe with absolutely nothing on underneath, but an elaborate evening gown of stiff, shimmering black. The dark material served to outline every lush curve just the same, and to accent the flawless paleness of her skin. She was still perfect. She was still - Scheherazade.
Jack just barely managed not to say the name aloud. He just barely managed to catch hold of the facts that he was in a London ballroom, that the year was 1887, that if she saw him she'd scream, possibly faint, certainly denounce him as the fraud and villain he truly was. He wanted nothing more than to back away, to run for the door.
Instead, Lady Anne's arm tightened around his as she sensed his hesitation. He was totally helpless, totally detached from his body as she drew him to the woman. He felt as though he were floating toward his executioner and there was nothing he could do to stop it. When he saw the necklace, he stopped breathing.
He was damned, he knew it, but there was nothing he could do but watch and listen as Lady Anne spoke.
"Sherrie, my dear, this is Lord St. John PenMartyn, Earl of PenMartyn. We call him Jack."
Sherrie said, "Hello," before she actually looked at Jack PenMartyn.
When she looked at him her attention was instantly riveted on the masculine figure who stood so still and intensely silent before her. She did not actually notice the details of his appearance, it was the dark aura that radiated from him that riveted her attention. Her first impression was that a tiger had walked into the room and she was the only one who recognized the danger. She had an unfortunate habit of being drawn to danger.
"I shot a tiger once, in India," she heard herself say. "It was a mankiller. There was no other choice."
It was an odd and inane way of introducing herself to this stranger. She reminded herself to curb her too-active imagination. She didn't blame him when he took an abrupt step back. Only when he moved, swift and graceful, did she actually see the man. Tall, solidly made, with a strong throat and broad shoulders. His hair was blue black, his face as handsome as sin, his mouth wide and full and sensuous. She almost took a step toward him, her body obediently following his without any conscious volition. A response she hadn't felt in years kindled in her at the sight of him, until she saw the ice cold blueness of his eyes.
It would never do to scream in the middle of Lady Anne's ball.
She'd given up screaming years ago, anyway. If there was one thing she could manage, it was her aversion to blue-eyed men. Fortunately, though the world was full of blue-eyed men, there were very few with the exact glacial shade of the man -- the unknown man -- before her.
She was able to stop the heart-jolting response to the stranger's familiar eyes before it had a chance to disturb her hard-won poise. This wasn't the first time this foolish response had tried to overwhelm her. She merely had to get past surface similarities, be briefly polite to the newcomer, then make her escape with the excuse that Lord Summers had asked her to dance.
Sherrie pretended she hadn't already spoken, and held out her hand. It wouldn't have dared to do anything so cowardly as shake. "Always happy to meet any friend of yours, Annie."
She was able, with more trouble than she wanted to admit, to force her initial image of the earl to the back of her mind. There were no tigers in the room, unless her imagination had conjured one out of memory and whole cloth. This earl was really just another mild-mannered aristocrat. He was probably one of the single gentlemen Lady Anne had promised Aunt Dora she'd trot out for inspection, even if she had to invade the gentlemen's smoking room. The poor fellow probably wanted to get the mandatory introduction to the rich American over with and get back to his brandy and masculine conversation as quickly as possible. She didn't blame him.
And for all the supposition she made up about the thoughts and history of the Earl of PenMartyn, she was desperately glad that they weren't alone. She was delighted that her hands were covered with white silk gloves, for if he touched her in any way, even if only to perfunctorily brush his lips across the back of her bare hand, she would know. And she did not want to know.
Though, of course, there was nothing to know.
At least he doesn't smell of cigars, she thought, dragging her mind down a sane and sensible path. Aunt Dora would never approve of a man who smoked for one of her girls. Judging his attributes with thoughts of matrimony for her cousins in mind, rather than the overactive prejudice of her imagination, she decided that she liked his height, the cut of his clothing and the width of his shoulders. She especially liked the width of his shoulders, because they definitely had more breadth to them than those of the man she knew he could not be.
Faith and Daisy are tall girls, she thought. It won't do to introduce them to the runts of any English litter, titled or not.
There was a fleck or two of gray in his thick black hair, making it not quite so blue-black as she'd initially thought. She didn't suppose the girls would like that, but she found it distinguished.
His eyes, however, she continued to find disturbing. She didn't risk looking into them for more than an instant. This foolish reaction was entirely her own fault. If she had thought about it, she would have recalled that Britain was full of men with the Celtic ancestry that bred pale skins, light blue eyes and silky black hair. The knowledge wouldn't have stopped her from coming to England, but she would have been more prepared than to have such a shocked reaction to the Earl of-
"PenMartyn," she said as she recalled the title. She still held her hand out, waiting for the requisite chaste brush of lips across her gloved knuckles. He didn't seem to notice. "Is that Welsh?" Please, God, don't let him be Irish. Not that her Irishman had been an Earl. So, of course, it didn't matter where this Earl of PenMartyn was from.
"Cornish," Lady Anne said, after the silence drew out to an uncomfortable length.
Sherrie didn't know where to go from here. The man was clearly not interested in talking to her. In fact, he was barely looking at her. He stood there, large, imposing, expressionless, and statue still. His gaze was fixed somewhere below her chin, though she didn't think he was ogling her bosom despite there being quite a bit of it exposed by the cut of her gown.
When she finally realized what he was looking at, she touched the necklace clasped around her throat. "The six strands of white pearls are perfectly matched. The baroque black pearl in the center is quite rare," she said as she ran a fingertip over the smooth undulations of the irregularly shaped gem. She had given this description a few times before. "The setting of the black pearl is carved from white jade. It depicts a tiger and a dragon. They are traditionally shown battling each other for the pearl of wisdom - which is not generally depicted as a black lump of oyster spit," she added as the Earl continued to stare.
She saw her rude comment and tart tone finally bring Jack PenMartyn out of his daze. A daze she'd probably caused with her initial odd comment about tiger killing. He must think her a very odd American duck. He laughed. Actually it was more of a faint, rasping chuckle. It gave her the impression that he wasn't used to laughing. Which was a shame, since amusement served to make his already handsome features even better looking.
She didn't often take much interest in men's looks, but with Jack PenMartyn it was hard not to make an exception. When he took her hand and turned it so that his lips brushed not across her knuckles, but kissed softly in the exact center of her gloved palm, her knees went weak. That flesh did not actually touch flesh didn't prevent the searing reaction that shot through her. She could do nothing but stare, transfixed as he stepped very close to her. Despite their color, there was nothing cold about the look in his eyes. She wasn't sure whether she was ready to flee, or rush into Cullum's embrace.
No. No. No.
They'd never met. She'd had this hallucination before. She was having the dreams too often, and they were invading her waking hours.
Fortunately, Lady Anne was there to remind them that they were hardly alone. The hostess's voice was full of forced cheerfulness as she filled in the charged silence around them. "As I mentioned earlier, Jack, dear, Mrs. Hamilton is a widow, but I don't think I told you about her adventures. She travels all over the world. She's been to India, and journeyed as far as Tibet."
He was glad she was a widow. It saved him the trouble of having to kill any man who dared touch her.
The thought brought him up short, and back to sanity.
His reaction, after all these years to Scheherazade VanHarlen -- Hamilton -- was a humbling experience for a man who took pride in his self-restraint. That she didn't recognize him should have been a relief. Instead, he was infuriated to the point that he was barely able to keep from stirring her memory in the most direct, carnal way possible.
He'd walked into a trap.
The demon that lived inside him laughed. Jack was just barely able to keep the civilized mask in place, to take one step away from Scheherazade, then another. He won the battle to keep his voice polite and calm when he spoke. He knew the polished, precise tone was nothing like the rough Irish-accented growl Scheherazade would remember. "My apologies, and deepest regrets, ladies, but you will have to excuse me. I can't stay. I'm not feeling at all myself at the moment."
The truth was, he was feeling more like himself than he had in
years. No one here but Scheherazade knew just how dangerous his
real self could be. He couldn't say another word, make another
polite gesture. All he could do was manage not to flee in heedless,
headlong panic when he walked from the room.
Copyright © 1999 by Susan Sizemore