eBook Details

Act of Pardon

By: Sandra Sookoo | Other books by Sandra Sookoo
Published By: New Independence Books
Published: Aug 06, 2012
ISBN # 9781476298191
Word Count: 73,000
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Eligible Price: $3.99

Available in: Adobe Acrobat, Epub, Mobipocket (.mobi)

Categories: Romance>Pirates Romance>Historical Regency Historical Fiction

Description
Retribution and sorrow can bring redemption and salvation if you look hard enough.

The year is 1814 and piracy is drawing to an end in the Caribbean yet Sarah Covington, a disenchanted missionary's daughter, has a plan to kill the pirate who murdered her father and fiancé. When the assassination attempt goes horribly wrong, she’s taken aboard the Lady Catherine as prisoner. Though she’s forced to embrace a life of degradation and subservience by the very pirate she tried to kill, he stirs passions she never knew she harbored.

Adrian Westerbrooke captains the Lady Catherine but not by choice. Officially a privateer under England's protection, he has his own agenda and will take down targets for the highest bidder. The only problem is the beautifully flawed Sarah. He'll try everything in his power to break her spirit and make her bow before his. At sea, his word is law, no matter how much she intrigues his mind and inflames his body.

Yet Sarah possesses a stubbornness that matches his own, on deck and in the bedroom, and a battle of wills begins. As trust grows, so does their desire--whether they can survive the threats at sea while working through their differences is up to faith… and perhaps love.

 
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Excerpt:
Chapter One

St. Augustine, Florida, Castillo de San Marcos, December 25th, 1814

Sarah Covington pulled the hood of her cloak more securely over her forehead, as much to shade her eyes from the rising sun as to conceal her identity for as long as possible. For her errand this morning, it was best if she remained a stranger. It wasn’t often she ventured into the fort, but when she did, there were too many soldiers of both British and Spanish origin who knew her thanks to her penchant for spending hours with the city’s poor and less than privileged in the Mission.

She wrinkled her nose against a sneeze tickling deep inside, willing the urge away. Silence was her biggest advantage. The sneeze passed in short order and she let a tiny sigh escape. She darted a glance along the walls, ever watchful, ever suspicious the men would notice her and her limp. Above everything, she must not draw their attention, especially since she was armed.

At regular intervals, Spanish soldiers stood in their olive-colored uniforms with the white stripe across the breast and their funny-shaped helmets. Privately, and only to herself, she referred to the headgear as penis imitations. Everyone in her social circle, as well as the servants at home, would die of scandal if they knew her thoughts. What would they think if they found out what sort of knowledge she’d picked up at boarding school all those years ago? Unbidden, a memory of one such time came to mind.

She and a few other girls had ventured outside after dark, which was strictly forbidden, but the night was hot and humid, and swimming in the lake nearby held more sway than the threat of being punished if they were caught. Halfway to the oasis, they’d intruded upon the male music instructor and one of the older students locked in an intimate embrace, sans clothing. Instead of retreating, she and her friends had hidden behind nearby bushes and watched as the kiss deepened into a raw, uninhibited sexual encounter. The man’s penis, clearly on display as he took the young student from behind, would always remain imprinted on Sarah’s memory. From that time onward, she’d kept her fascination and curiosity of the male body to herself, unable to figure out how to relieve the feelings such a thing recalled.

Sarah had never talked about what she’d seen and most certainly had never told her father. Instead, she’d tucked the knowledge away, along with her hopes and prayers that maybe God would be gracious enough to give her a man who’d do such things to her. She quickly glanced again at the soldiers to make sure she hadn’t been noticed while lost in her musings. None of them looked her way and she relaxed, but a bitter laugh escaped before she could recall it. The daughter of a missionary should never waste her time thinking about a man’s nether bits. She could almost hear the admonition in her father’s stern voice.

You are no longer here, Father. My life is finally my own now. A tiny wash of sadness threatened to undermine her attention. Too bad her independence had come only when her parent died. Why could they not have come to an understanding while he’d been alive?

The early morning sunlight winked off the hardware on a military uniform and scattered Sarah’s musings. Best to get on with it and secure her position. With a shrug, she limped past one of the men—a Spanish soldier she’d spoken to a handful of times. Would he notice her, her particular quirk, and question why she was in attendance for such a gruesome event? She held her breath. He barely nodded and she sighed with relief. Perhaps men were too self-involved, or maybe women like her would always fail to make an impression.

Along the far wall, a cluster of British regulars waited, their scarlet coats in stark contrast with the grayish-white coquina walls. The small shells that formed the masonry glittered in the unrelenting sun.

A small smile tilted her lips then vanished under the onslaught of hatred she’d carried in her heart for the last six months. Now was not the time to be reminded of the good, the beauty of life. Besides, she’d long ago learned it didn’t come often and when it did, there were always entailments and clauses.

How ironic that this one event could bring together not only the Spanish and British military but the common folk of both nationalities who normally held each other in such animosity. Of course, that was exactly why she had come as well. The decline of everything she’d held dear at one time had shattered at the hand of this man—this pirate.

Thinking of such a man sent warmth over her skin and into her body to vie with the rising temperatures around her. Already, the tropical heat had left the air moist and heavy, so that her dove gray muslin skirts clung to her legs. The uncomfortable weather couldn’t be helped. Revenge didn’t chose its time; vengeance made no reservations. Opportunity had presented itself and she intended to take full advantage.

Though there was always some level of fascination regarding the men who showed no fear of death or the law, she fought her curiosity. This pirate may be full of mystery, but he deserved to feel her blade for his crimes.

Sarah moved with slow steps through the assembled mob, their excited, whispered voices echoing off the walls of the open courtyard. Their conversation didn’t center on the holiday but rather the execution.
Grim entertainment at any time, but on Christmas morning especially. Human nature craved the macabre, even if it was death.

In the center of the courtyard a hangman’s gallows had been erected. Straw lay strewn beneath the swinging trapdoor, presumably to catch any blood or other bodily excrement that might occur if the authorities left the pirate hanging. Bile choked her. She swallowed the burn and winced at the bitter taste.

Death was his fate, violent though it may be. He deserved it. Piracy had been all but wiped out in the Caribbean Sea by the British and Americans. After having lived in St. Augustine for some months, she’d picked up a couple of rumors along the way. The tide against piracy was finally turning in favor of the British navy, with the American fleet not far behind, especially after their prowess from the war not two years past. If the trend continued, the ruffians of the sea would all hang before too long. A twinge rode her spine. It was sad, in a way. Pirates were a part of life. What gave any government the right to put an end to their existence merely based on the monies in their coffers? Even in the midst of her current situation, she uttered a quick prayer that the craftier of them would elude capture and live to fight another day.

Sarah shook her head to clear her thoughts. Too bad this one hadn’t been as lucky. Even if he had, she would have tracked him down herself. Revenge was a powerful motivator.

Eight steps led to the wooden platform where he would stand. A noose of thick rope dangled from the frame’s beams, gleaming with age in the morning sunlight. Three men—the prison administrator, the general in charge of the fort and his British counterpart—occupied posts on the contraption itself. All stood with their hands clasped behind their backs, their legs splayed a shoulder’s-width apart, and identical expressions of anticipation on their clean-shaven faces.

Navigating through the growing crowd with her unfortunate limp had made her late; now she had to fight for prime position in the smelly gathering. Body odor mingled with the scents of cooking clinging to the masses as they packed tighter. Biting her bottom lip to stave off nausea, she angled deeper until ten feet separated her from the edge of the platform.

She saw the bristly fibers on the rope that would go around the blackguard’s neck. Yes, her plan would work. She fingered the carved hilt of the dagger she held in her right hand. If she’d been blind she would have known the scrolls and eddies in the metal hilt depicted a gryphon with ruby eyes and the words carved in Spanish on the blade itself read, For the glory and honor of God.

That was how long she’d plotted this event. That was how many times her fingertips had traced her father’s dagger as she’d planned though how God’s glory and the slaughter of any man went together eluded her. She refused to spare an extra thought to the debate. It was for another time—once she’d completed her mission.

Sarah wet her lips, tasted dust, and pushed closer to the gallows. Softly, she cursed the limp that slowed her progress. There was little she could do about it. Fate had dealt her that blow at birth, but the pirate had dealt the more atrocious hand when he’d put her father and fiancé to death. She’d had no control over what fate had done to her, but in revenge, she had nothing but control.

She’d make certain the pirate perished today. For the deaths he’d brought her, there was no other recourse. The military officials might have the honor of hanging the man, but she held the guarantee he would be well and truly dead by the time she left. While the noose pulled tight around his straining neck, her blade would ensure his black heart would cease beating—her skill in throwing knives was unsurpassed in her set.

Amazing what odds and ends a girl picked up at boarding school. Oh if her father had known how she’d spent her time. Hardly pious or the model of a good Christian woman. Wouldn’t the instructors rush early to their morning prayers if they knew her intentions or her present situation?

Whether or not God would look favorably upon this action was not her worry. She’d given up caring about her path to heaven a long time ago. She’d had no choice when faced with what she was about to do. This morning, she would avenge the fallen. It was all she had left to live for. Afterward, she’d walk away. At the back of her mind, she knew if she were caught, she’d face the consequences without complaint.

Why should she care? She’d have completed her mission and she hadn’t thought about her life after killing the pirate. What was there for her to look forward to and what sort of life could she possibly adopt following such a violent deed?

As the sun sailed into an eight o’clock position, one of the doors in a side wall opened. A hush swept the crowd that now filled the courtyard to capacity. Sarah took a deep breath and let it softly out again. Thank God she wouldn’t need to wait long. She fixed her gaze on the platform. The men on top watched the door, as did everyone else assembled. Her heartbeat accelerated. Her palms began to sweat. She wiped them, one by one, on her skirt as she took deep breaths to regulate her pulse. Steady. This is what you want—what you deserve—for everything that man has done to you. Nodding, she focused on the men emerging.

Two Spanish officers led the pirate into the courtyard. From the tips of his scuffed black boots to the snug black trousers streaked with dust and straw to the dirty, plain muslin shirt he wore, this man—this pirate—exuded power. With a stiff, proud posture, he swaggered beside his escort. Even facing death the man’s smug attitude hadn’t been quelled.

A rush of hot anger welled in her chest. How dare this man deport himself with such confidence and unconcern! He was a murderer. He should at least fear meeting his maker and judgment.

Yells of dislike mixed with support emanated from the assembled crowd.

“Let him swing!” yelled a man off to her left.

“Murderer!” called a woman to her right.

“Best the bastard English, pirate!” came from a male far behind her.

“You can come warm my bed, sweetie,” a woman purred nearby. “I’ll hide you.”

Sarah’s cheeks warmed. Certainly, all men were the same in bed, so why choose a criminal to cavort with?

Having no answers, she focused on the grim scene. Since this was a Spanish-controlled hanging, there were no drumbeats or the usual pageantry that accompanied a British death march. St. Augustine was no stranger to both sorts of ceremony.

Hands and elbows jostled Sarah as trash and garbage were thrown in the pirate’s direction, but she stood firm, craning her neck for a better view. The three men led a procession. She counted seven in all, one being the hangman dressed all in black with a silk hood hiding his face and another being a priest in black robes with a Bible in hand. First, one officer mounted the stairs, followed by the pirate whose hands were bound behind his back, then the other officer, the hangman, and finally, the priest. Two regulars blocked the foot of the stairs. There would be no escape.

The crowd surged forward, buffeting Sarah further toward the front edge. Two burly, men pressed into her back. As they planted their large selves at her sides, she remained in place even as she imagined the brush of their arms at her back and sides. A shiver of disgust racked her shoulders, but curiosity ran rampant. She pulled back the edge of the cloak’s hood in order to peek at them. The men resembled the pirate and were just as dirty. Were they part of his crew, or were they part of a rival crew sent to witness his demise? She didn’t want to know.

The sooner the deed was done, the sooner she would be free to leave. She now stood in the second row, so close the smell of cigars rolled off the honor guard, so close she caught the flash of defiance in the pirate’s eyes.

The pirate looked across the crowd then down at her position. Their gazes locked. For the space of a few heartbeats she remained frozen in place, lost in his intensity. Stormy as an angry Atlantic, his eyes seemed to see into her soul, recognize her intentions and her hatred, and then just as surely, he dismissed her, a cold smile curling his lips. Cruelty flowed from him. Coupled with an anger embodied by the stiff set of his broad shoulders as well as the hard set to his jaw and narrowed his eyes, he resembled the image of a god of rage. Lines of worry contradicted his expression of indifference.
What did he think being presented at such a crossroads? Did he wonder about his soul? Did he care? Given the chance, would he commit the heinous acts all over again?

He tugged at his bonds and flexed his shoulders. One of the guards growled an order for him to remain still.

Sarah kept her gaze on the pirate’s face while the Spanish man in charge asked the criminal basic questions.

“Name?”

“Captain Westerbrooke.” A sardonic curl to his upper lip accompanied the answer.

The Spanish officer narrowed his eyes. “Place of residence?”

“Wherever the wind and sea takes me.”

Snickers danced through the onlookers, but the official held up a hand for silence. “Home port?”

“You’re planning to kill me. Why does it matter where I hail from?” This time the pirate cocked an eyebrow, the very picture of arrogant rebellion.

“Dirty sea scum.” The Spanish man jerked his head in the direction of the noose. “String him up.”

The pirate inclined his head. “Ah, straight to the point. Lovely.” His messy, shoulder-length, dirty blond hair tossed about his head in the light breeze. He shook his head and the strands moved out of his eyes.

Sarah frowned. Why did he seem so flippant when his death was imminent? What drove a man to kill strangers and rob them blind? Ruthlessness she understood. Hadn’t it brought her to this pass, but was there something more that motivated him? His livid gaze again connected with hers, and she trembled as cold fear plunged down her spine. This was a man not to be trifled with. This was a man as guilty as sin and not ashamed of it.

Without remorse, she hated this man. Yet at the same time, undeniable heat swirled low through her belly when he had the audacity to wink at her. The reaction confused her. She shouldn’t feel anything except disgust for such a person, but she couldn’t deny a certain attraction. In a different world, in other circumstances, would she have encouraged an introduction?

The man on her left bumped her elbow. “Look yer fill, miss. Ye ain’t never seen a more wily pirate. That gent has more lives than a cat, ‘e does, and enough magic to escape wit’ nary a scratch, ye’ll see.”
Sarah snorted, but refused to glance at the man. “If Providence or fate has a say, his neck will break swiftly before the church bells ring.”

And if I have mine, this blade will find his heart. She caressed the hilt’s butt with her thumb. The intricate design brought her comfort.
The man tugged at her hood and looked into her face. “I can see it in yer eyes, miss. Ye fancy ‘im.”

She stared straight ahead, refusing to respond to the bait, but her gaze crashed into that of the pirate’s again. What would it be like to experience an embrace from such a powerful, intense man? Would he be a ruthless lover, taking his pleasure, or did he, deep down in his black soul, harbor tender feelings that would translate to sharing in a carnal bed? A shiver hastened down her back as her thoughts swung the other way. Once a pirate, always a pirate. Men such as him don’t change no matter how exciting they may seem. “I don’t. I’d rather die than wish for a pirate’s touch, least of all his.”

One of the pirate’s eyebrows quirked, yet there was little chance he overheard her conversation with the other man.

“Sometimes, there ain’t sech a choice and fate has other plans.”

The cryptic comment brought a frown to her mouth. What did that mean?
Instead of attempting to puzzle it out, she watched the hangman, a big, hulking man, rough and uncouth compared to the pirate’s inherent charisma, moved into position and gestured to the men holding the criminal. They jockeyed him until he stood over the trapdoor.

The pirate broke the connection with her and glanced first at his booted feet then up at the noose as the hangman lowered it over his head before fitting the loop around his neck. The shirt he wore stretched over his broad shoulders and hung open at the throat to reveal a sprinkling of wiry blond hair and tanned skin that gleamed with sweat. The rope slid beneath the loose collar to scrape his skin. A defiant smile spread over the pirate’s face.

The larger-than-life presence of him coupled with his unexplainable allure and physical form and her tight stays had her breathing coming in shallow gasps. A rush of heat infused her cheeks. In her mind’s eye, she caught a glimpse of the music teacher in the nude. Her gaze homed in on the front of the pirate’s trousers. What would his unmentionable area look like? Would his penis rival the pale one of the effeminate music master, or would it be bigger, manlier?

She shook her head and swallowed to alleviate her dry throat. He didn’t deserve her lustful curiosity or approval. He was evil and a murderer. She wanted him dead.

Again, her elbow was jostled.

“‘e’s a looker, ain’t ‘e miss? Cap’n knows ‘is way around a woman’s body, true.”

“Ain’t that a fact?” Another deeper, and no less smarmy, voice said from her other side.

The first man gave a bark of laughter. “Not’n gets a lady more filled with desire than seein’ a real pirate. Seems they all fantasize about the masters of the seas and bein’ takin’ by ‘em jest the same.”

“What I feel for him is not desire.” And why am I talking to either of these men? Yet warmth ebbed over her skin. Her gaze slid down his torso, past the ragged red sash around his waist, to his tight-fitting breeches tucked into dusty boots. She frowned, as much from the flutters filling her stomach at seeing the faint outline of his manly parts as from the recognition of the excellence of his clothes. What quality fit and expensive Hessian boots for a pirate to own. Of course, he’d likely stolen them.

She tamped her response, angry that her body betrayed her so badly. He deserved to have the clothes and boots stripped from his dead body for all the crimes he’d committed. She closed her fingers around the dagger’s hilt. Almost time.

On the platform, the Spanish general read out what she assumed was a list of charges in his heavy, lyrical language. He paused as the British counterpart translated the charges: treachery, thievery, murder, treason, and a host of others.

John Westerbrooke—pirate—and a captain no less. Sarah bit her lip. An alias no doubt. She narrowed her eyes. Titled or not, he’d swing the same as any man. Once he was finally dead, she could begin to put the pieces of her life back together, such as they were. Perhaps she’d sail to a far-flung country. That thought garnered another snort. And do what? I’ve never been anywhere outside America, never had an adventure of my own. She shook her head. It did not matter. Even if she did manage to travel, she had no survival skills. Hadn’t her father told her time and again she needed someone to look after her? Her stomach pitched. While her future would be bleak, there’d be small comfort in the fact the pirate wouldn’t have one.

As the list of charges concluded, the British general asked, “Do you agree with these accusations?”

One of the pirate’s full eyebrows inched toward his hairline. “I disagree inasmuch as I had no choice with the bulk of them, but on a gentleman’s grounds, I would say yes, I am guilty.”

A collective gasp rose from the crowd.

A strained smile lifted the pirate’s lip. “However, these crimes do not fall squarely on my shoulders as a pirate never acts alone.”

Several nods and verbal affirmations circulated through the gathering.

The hangman touched the pirate’s shoulder. “Captain Westerbrooke, would you like the courtesy of a hood?”

The pirate glared at each man on the platform. “I refuse to assuage your consciences. If you wish to put me to death by hanging, then you can watch the proceedings in all their gruesome color and detail. May God have mercy on your souls.”

Sarah gasped at his daring. Put in the same position, wouldn’t she feel the same way? There was always a chance—however slim—the man wasn’t guilty. A snort escaped. If that were true, then why was he here, since he’d all but admitted to some of them? There must be too much truth that balanced the lies, yet she hated the tiny niggle of compassion she felt. I cannot forget he murdered my father.
Ruthlessly ignoring everything except the bite of the metal in her palm, she concentrated on the activity around the pirate.

The hangman took a position near the lever that would release the trapdoor. The crowd strained forward, once again hushed. The other men on the gallows resumed their previous military posture; their gazes focused on the pirate. The olive-skinned priest opened his Bible and began to recite the Twenty-third Psalm in accented English. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

Now!

Her heart lodged in her throat, Sarah raised her hand, and with a quick flick of her wrist, she let the dagger fly. The morning sun glinted off the blade as it arced sure and steady toward the platform. Any second now I’ll have my vengeance fulfilled. The priest chose that moment to move in front of Captain Westerbrooke. While he made the mark of the cross over the pirate, her blade embedded deep into the priest’s back. He staggered. The Bible tumbled to the wood as he fell to his knees.

Dear heavens, this wasn’t supposed to happen.

Pandemonium erupted, robbing her of the ability to think. Their sabers drawn, the men on the platform plunged down the wooden stairs. With nowhere to hide and no open path to flee through, she attempted to shrink within the confines of her cloak. Her heart slammed against her ribcage. I killed the wrong man.

“Well, if that don’t beat all.” The man on her right clamped a thick hand around her upper arm. “Yer as guilty as us now, and jest the bird to match the cap’n in spirit.”

“I’m not…” Horror filled Sarah’s chest. She’d mortally wounded—most likely killed—a man of the cloth with the blade meant for the pirate’s black heart. Wouldn’t God know the truth of her intentions, or did it matter? “I’m nothing like you.”

While Sarah struggled in the man’s grip, a lightning flash and a pop reminiscent of a cork pulled from a bottle echoed from the platform. A heavy cloud of gray smoke surrounded the pirate. The cloud stunk of sulphur and expanded to completely cover the gallows and obscure the pirate as well as the hangman from view. Her eyes watered. The second man grabbed her other arm, and though she attempted to wrench from his grasp, his fingers tightened like an iron ring. Her burly escorts rushed her through the crowd toward the main entry.

This cannot be happening. It wasn’t supposed to go this way!

Finally, she looked directly at her captors and her heart sank. They wore the same type of style clothing as Captain Westerbrooke though his were much better quality, the garments all but proclaimed them as much pirate as he, though they’d already said as much. Why hadn’t she been more aware when they’d first arrived? Why had she let her thirst for revenge consume so much of her attention? “Unhand me this instant or I will summon the guards.”

“I wager you won’t, miss, seein’ as how you jest murdered a priest in cold blood.”

Fear shot into her stomach. His statement was true and only confirmed her worst assumption. Her plan had gone horribly awry. Shouts from the soldiers roared through the courtyard. A ragged cheer went up from the crowd then people moved in different directions, fleeing for the exits. Sarah twisted her head and glanced at the platform. The hangman lay on the wood near the fallen priest’s body. Had the pirate felled the hangman? For that matter, where was the criminal. No matter how long she gazed at the gallows, she saw no signs of him. The captain had vanished.

Sarah stumbled. Where had he gone, and how had he escaped? “Wait. I cannot maintain such a fast clip.” She wrenched her arm from one of the men’s grasps.

The burly one she’d first encountered grunted and turned toward her while still in motion. “I’ve handled worse ‘n you.” He wrapped a steel-like arm around her waist and lifted her off her feet, carrying her tucked close to his side as if she were a bag of grain.

“How dare you! Put me down this instant. I refuse to be handled like this!”

The man merely chuckled. “This be the least of the indignities ye’ll suffer this day, I’m thinkin’.”

Her body trembled when it became evident she couldn’t free herself. As her options for escape dwindled, the big man jogged through the front gate, unmolested by soldiers or bystanders. Immediately, the loudest of the din diminished. The sweet scents from lemon trees and the sharper more pungent aroma of horse manure assailed her abused nose.

She tried to pry his fingers from her person. “Let me down. I can make my way home from here.” What she’d do from that point forward, she had no idea. I am a criminal now…

“Sorry, miss. That’s not for us to decide. ‘Sides, Cap’n will reward us good fer ye. Ye’ll make the voyage interestin’ for ‘im.”

“Interesting?” What exactly did he hint at? Sarah’s mind raced. Of all the tales she’d heard of pirates, the ones she thought often of were the stories of women succumbing to the sexual dictates of such men. Would the pirate expect her to offer her body to him, or would he take what he wanted if she didn’t? Despite the situation, a shiver raced down her spine. I refuse to consider it.

She renewed her quest for freedom by clawing at her captor’s arm. “I’m not leaving. Do you understand me?” She lifted her head as best she could. Her hair tumbled from its pins to hang in brown tangles over her shoulders. The hood of her cloak bunched at her neck. There, on the street, waited a carriage complete with a two-horse team and a driver on the box wearing the livery of the Spanish mayor. Hope rose in her chest. Perhaps if she explained to the authorities, they would grant her leniency. She’d done her best to help the poor in the community. Surely the military would grant her pardon. I tried to ensure the pirate’s death, after all. Wouldn’t that common goal gain her sympathy?

The men, for now there were several as more had sprung from the alleyways, headed directly to the carriage. Her mind screamed a warning. Why would the pirates run toward the authorities? Someone within threw open the door and she trembled with foreboding. Were they in league together?

Since the rising sun backlit the carriage, she couldn’t determine who sat inside. A knot formed in her stomach as her hope died. It didn’t matter. She’d plead with whoever it was. Her captor, without a word, shoved her into the conveyance in a flurry of skirts and cloak. She lay at an awkward angle over what felt like a pair of knees with her head nearly touching the floorboards. The door slammed shut. Seconds went by, marked by the frantic beating of her heart while she attempted to get her bearing. When the carriage lurched into motion, her nose banged against a dusty boot and completely destroyed her concentration.

“I had expected they’d ply me with food or drink, but a bit of muslin is a much more preferable offering. It’s been an age since I made merry with a warm pussy.”

The knot in the pit of her stomach grew. She recognized that voice. Surely it couldn’t be… Sarah struggled to right herself but slid to the carriage floor, firmly ensconced between a pair of strong, male knees. Her pulse tripped through her veins in record time, and as she lifted her gaze, panic spread into her limbs. The cultured, British voice did belong to the pirate. Her eyes confirmed what her mind had suspected while the tremor in her lower belly reacted to his titillating baritone. “You stole this carriage.”

“Not quite, but thank you for thinking so highly of my skills.”

She didn’t want to be trapped in the carriage with him, not when his proximity threatened her peace of mind. “Where is the mayor?” The drawn curtains at the window prohibited her from seeing out.

“How should I know? I am not his public secretary.”

“You’ll let me go this instant.” She pushed at his legs.

“I think not.” A trace of humor threaded through his response. “There are questions to be asked and all sort of ethics involved, you see.”

His speech shocked her enough that she forgot to hunt for escape. “Ethics and piracy don’t belong in the same sentence.” She rejected the urge to spit in his face. After all, she did have manners.

“Such spirit. I appreciate that.” He planted one hand on her shoulder, applying pressure that kept her on the floor while he gripped her chin with his other hand, forcing her to stare into his face.

As an act of defiance, she screwed her eyes shut. I won’t give him the satisfaction.

The pirate chuckled. “Oh, you’ll be trouble.” He tightened his hold on her chin. “Look at me, damn it, or I’ll ravish you right here. I swear it.”

She gasped and opened her eyes. “You wouldn’t.” Despite the horror of that threat, tiny streams of excitement infiltrated her being. What would it feel like to inflame a man’s interest for nothing more than being a woman?

“I might.” His leer was barely discernible in the dim light. “Besides, what sort of man would I be if I did not kiss my rescuer in gratitude?”

Sarah had no time to think or react before his lips met hers. She’d only been kissed by her late fiancé. Even then it had been chaste and modest, regardless of what she’d wanted, no matter how often she’d hinted she’d like to emulate that long ago kiss she’d witnessed at the boarding school. This embrace held no similarity to either. This kiss demanded her immediate surrender and compliance, and she had the feeling that if she didn’t give it, he’d take what he wanted regardless.

Though curiosity ran rampant through her blood, she screwed her anger and fear to the sticking point and clamped her lips tightly together. At all costs, she would not allow the pirate access. He probed the seam of her mouth with his warm tongue and her resolve shook, ready to buckle from sheer need. She’d been alone for so long. What harm could it do to indulge in an embrace? Despite the mad quake of her stomach and the wonderful tingling in her breasts, she denied him. He was a murderous pirate. She wrenched away, breathless from her endeavors. When he didn’t move, she dragged her shaking body onto the crushed velvet-cushioned bench across from him.

“I would caution you not to do that again, sir.” She scrubbed at her mouth with the back of one hand in a desperate attempt to rid herself of his taste. Faint traces of rum and sweat lingered on her tongue and fascinated more than they repulsed.

This was the man who’d killer her father and her fiancé. Yet…in a morbid way, she craved another chance, another kiss for the simple reason that she wanted to experience his mastery again. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. What sort of woman was she wishing to taste him again?

Dear Lord, please help me be strong—to resist temptation.

To her mortification, the pirate leaned against the carriage wall, threw back his head and laughed. It was a hearty sound that boomed through the interior of the vehicle and played havoc with her insides. “Or what, you’ll try and stab me? If I recall correctly, you left your dagger in the unfortunate priest’s back.” His mirth dissolved into a chuckle. “How honored I am to share this carriage with a murderess.”

“No.” Embarrassed heat suffused her face. “That was an accident. Had he not wanted to bless your rotten hide, that blade would have found its mark in your heart.” Under no circumstances would she let him manipulate her.

A shadow of surprise flitted over his features. “Why would you want to kill me, especially when I already had the hangman’s noose about my neck? I have never seen you before in all my life, for if I had, I’d definitely remember one such as you.”

She clasped her hands together in her lap even as flutters brushed her lower belly. Pirates should not be charming. With her face turned to the heavily-curtained window, she said, “My father died at your order. I can neither forgive that nor forget it.” Soon they would near the Mission of Nombre de Dios—should they follow the main road—the place where she’d passed so many hours reading to the children and quietly counseling the downtrodden. If she could somehow manage to open the carriage door and fling herself out, she could run to the Mission, perhaps hide in the Our Lady of La Leche shrine. Of course, hiding wouldn’t solve the problem that she was now as wanted as he.

The pirate snorted. “Give me your name, so that I might have an idea of who your father was.”

Sarah focused on him once more, this time giving him her best glare. “Sarah Covington, of the New York Covingtons. I am here in St. Augustine, the last port where my father was seen alive—in the company of a pirate—you.” She scoffed. Let him puzzle it out in his memory—if he could even recall one murder out of hundreds.

“I beg pardon, but I have no recollection. Are you quite sure you have the correct pirate? There are a fair number of us.” With slow, easy movements, he laid an ankle on a knee and stared at her with a mixture of curiosity and low-grade annoyance, as if she wasted his time.

More of her anger and hatred bubbled to the surface, overpowering anything else she might have felt for him. “Of course I’m certain.” She cocked her head to study him. A strong, almost Roman nose commanded attention in his lean face. Blond stubble clung to a sharp jaw, while his hair waved in a haphazard fashion to his shoulders. The lips she’d spied earlier curled in a cross between a smile and a sneer. “Witnesses assured me it was you.” Her gaze caressed the curve of his lips. She remembered the firm, masculine texture of them as he’d pressed his mouth to hers, the heat of his tongue as he’d probed her lips.

She forced a swallow. Her pulse increased. Had they identified him wrong? She refused to see him any differently, regardless of his skill in kissing.

“There are many pirates, Miss Covington. Some will give up any man’s name to throw off suspicion.”

Her heart fell into her churning stomach. If that were true…well, she couldn’t think beyond this moment. “But you are the one here, and kill you I will.”

“Ah.” He rubbed a hand along his jaw. “And we’re back to me which, from that admission, means you do not care overly much for the correct culprit.”

“You are he.” Then why the small streak of doubt? She shook her head. He had to be the criminal, for if he wasn’t, she’d killed an innocent man for nothing. Sarah stifled the urge to sob in frustration and fear. “I’m certain.”

Please let it be him. Somehow, she suspected God wouldn’t answer this prayer.

The pirate held her gaze, his blue-gray eyes simmering with contempt. “For argument’s sake, let’s say I am the pirate you want. Do you have proof I killed your father?”

Did she? In light of his questions, she wasn’t sure she did. The details were a bit hazy. “I…” Damn his eyes. Why did her circumstances seem so murky?

“Ah, now the doubts creep in. Little buggers, aren’t they?” He rubbed a hand along his jaw. “Surely this has more to do with than just your father’s untimely death?”

“His death must be avenged.” She continued her glare, her chest heaving from her tumultuous emotions. She hated this man with his dirty, greasy hair and his icy eyes, hated that his sweat and slight citrus scent filled the close quarters of the carriage to tease her nose. Every whisker on his chin mocked her. “Do you care about the truth, or do you merely make conversation to pass the time?”

He shrugged. “Perhaps both, but more so the truth, as my life and its ills are based in it.”

“I rather doubt a pirate is concerned about such things.” Yet a spark of interest lodged in her mind to further drive home the fact he might be innocent.

The captain sketched her an abbreviated bow from his seat. “Time is money, my dear Miss Covington, and the docks are nearing. Share your story or don’t, it makes no difference to my plans.”

Tremors of panic skated over her skin. They’d passed the Mission without her realizing it. Her hope for escape now lay at the port and the transient kindness of the workers there. She shrank as far away from him as she could go, even went as far as to pull her skirts aside so his boots couldn’t touch her. He represented everything she’d never been allowed—freedom, adventure, and a sense of self—and he’d dance away without recourse for his crimes. It was unconscionable. “You took my one chance at happiness—at living—when you killed my father.”

One of his eyebrows rose. “Please explain.”

“My intended was on the ship you gutted then sank. He was murdered with my father for the mere fact he was a witness to your tyranny.”

His renewed chuckle grated on her sensibilities. “Oh how fun. You’ve added tyranny to my list of crimes.” He shoved a hand through his ratty hair. “Did you lose your ability to be courted by another, or did your dear, departed fiancé, as they say in the storybooks, take your heart with him?”

Indignation choked her. She sputtered but said nothing.

“Quite frankly, I still fail to see how any of these unfortunate events are my fault.”

She clenched her hands into fists. “I am destitute and my reputation is in tatters.” And a murderess to boot. He could well be blamed for the last.

“Ah, then you gave up your most valuable gift to him?”

Warmth seeped into her cheeks. “Absolutely not. It is…complicated.”

“Most stories involving family are. And of course your loved ones are dead.” Again the eyebrow inched upward. “How very…literary.”

Annoyance burned in her throat. “I want one thing only from you—your death.”

The pirate captain laughed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Good luck with that. Many people want me dead, many of them more powerful than you. None have succeeded.”

“It only takes one, pirate.”

“Perhaps, but not today.” He snaked out a hand and stroked her knee. She couldn’t move further away as she was already crammed against the wall of the carriage. When tremors of a different sort shot up her leg, she stopped trying. How long had it been since anyone had touched her with a modicum of compassion? Despite the fact he was a pirate, she found the gesture… nice. “What was the name of the ship that I allegedly captained when I took these men’s lives?”

“The Independence. I will never forget it.”

Again, his deep, velvety laughter echoed around her. It was a pleasant sound and one she could easily become used to hearing.
“Sorry to disappoint you, Miss Covington. The name of my ship is the Lady Catherine. For seven years at sea, I have never captained another.” The carriage jerked to a rocking halt. The pirate pulled the curtains aside and glanced out the window. A smile graced his lips. “You do indeed have the wrong pirate.”

“No.” She shook her head. It cannot be true.

“Yes, and on a side note, the man who killed your loved ones did die—by my hand actually. So, really, I would say, you owe me an apology as well as your fidelity.”

A myriad of emotions welled inside her. She bounced from relief that the perpetrator was dead to anger that she’d been cheated of avenging her father and fiancé herself to denial that the man she currently conversed with wasn’t quite innocent in this crime. She hadn’t expected this turn of events. In the end, she settled for anger. It was familiar and quick to respond. “How convenient. Let me out. Now.”
She refused to allow him to treat her as her father and her fiancé had done. Never again would she allow a man to order her about or expect her immediate obedience. It was worse than the people who treated her like an infant, and she’d had enough of those to last a lifetime.

“Leaving so soon, kitten?”

She ignored the tremors running through her body at his endearment. Perhaps in difference circumstances she could be persuaded to stay.
“I would rather die than thank you.”

“Oh, you will thank me eventually, and no, I won’t set you free.” His smile died and in its place fell a mask of ice. “From this point forward, you belong to me, a prize of sorts for escaping the noose once again.”

“No.” Cold fear blanketed the hot anger. Succumbing to the pirate would mean the loss of the tiny amount of freedom she’d gained when her father died. She’d already fought too hard for personal independence to lose it to a man with no morals.

“In fact, you can blame your circumstances on your own actions. Had you not interfered with today’s events, you would most likely not have garnered the attention of my men. Plus, your side show detracted attention from my escape from the gallows. So thank you for that. Such an action will go a long way into gaining acceptance on my crew.”

“I—” Her heartbeat raced as if trying to escape her chest. “I didn’t want their attention, or yours.”

“That may be so, but you received it just as well. And you’ve killed, the same as I. It would seem you and I are well-matched and possess the same sort of black hearts.” With efficient movements, he hauled her into his lap. “Welcome to your new life, my dear Miss Covington. I do hope you’ll find it a pleasant endeavor.”

“Nothing about you is pleasant.” Yet curiosity blazed strong within her. In a way being tied to a pirate would be a means to an escape—if she could survive. Sarah whimpered as he tangled a hand in her hair. But at what cost would freedom be won?

He forced her head forward.

“Please do not—”

A hard, punishing kiss drowned the rest of her plea.

Act of Pardon

By: Sandra Sookoo
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