Possessed of the devil’s own luck, and a dangerous beauty to match, Captain Zach Hazard might have rivalled the angels themselves, were it not for the pleasure he took in more earthly matters.
Namely women. Dice. And rum.
Amelia watched him from the rigging of the Sunlight, letting her bare feet swing as she perched on the topsail yard. Hazard had docked at Ile Sainte Anne that morning, ghosting in with the dawn, unheralded and arriving, it seemed, out of nowhere. His ship, his beloved Gypsy Hawk, had not been seen on the island for six years and her appearance had set every tongue wagging. The Hawk sat high in the water – clearly empty of plunder to trade – and Zach stood on the docks in deep conversation with Jean-Pierre, her father’s first mate.
Amelia couldn’t see Zach’s eyes – his face was lost beneath the stark shadow of his hat –but the wind caught at his hair and the silver ring that glinted in his ear. That same morning breeze also carried a snatch of conversation to her ears.
“…has matters of business to attend, but he will see you at noon.” That was Jean-Pierre, arms folded and stubborn; he’d never liked Zach Hazard.
“I’m not here for the good of my bloody health! Tell him it’s urgent.”
Amelia smiled, his voice stirring a memory. Last time he’d sailed in their waters she’d been little more than a girl. He’d pulled coins from her ears and made her laugh with his outrageous stories, but that deep, smoke-scarred voice had touched on something new and blossoming. At the time she’d not known it for what it was; now, at one-and-twenty, she understood why his name alone made the women of Ile Sainte Anne giggle.
Not that she would giggle. She was Amelia Dauphin, daughter of James Dauphin and captain of the Sunlight. She was the youngest captain in her father’s fleet and anyone who said she’d not earned it was welcome to test her mettle with cutlass or pistol. She would not giggle over a man.
Down on the dock, Zach Hazard was getting more heated and aboard the Gypsy Hawk his crew were lining the rail, old Brookes peering down from his work in the rigging. She saw no drawn blades, but in the slow morning heat the air began to crackle.
Time, she decided, to intervene.
Slipping off the yard, she scrambled down the mast and landed with a soft thud on the deck. Her first mate lifted a sleepy eyelid from where he’d been dozing by the helm and started to rise, but she waved a pacifying hand. “No trouble,” she said. “I’m heading up to my father’s house.”
With that she trotted down the gangplank and onto the rickety quay. Her pistol was tucked into her belt, her powder dry, and the boards were smooth under her bare feet – it was a good morning to be alive. “Zach Hazard,” she called as she drew close. Down at his level the shadow beneath his hat was not so dark and she could see his face more clearly.
Had she not been Amelia Dauphin, youngest captain in the pirate fleet of Ile Sainte Anne, she might have been startled by that face, beautiful despite sin-black eyes and a sardonic mouth. But she was made of sterner stuff and met his frank appraisal with a bow. “Amelia Dauphin.” Then, as an aside to Jean-Pierre, she said, “My father has asked you to attend him; I can handle Captain Hazard.”
The two men exchanged a glance and Amelia found herself blushing without entirely knowing why.
“As you wish, Mademoiselle,” Jean-Pierre said. Then, under his breath, “C’est vraiment des conneries.”
“Casse-toi! ” she shot back. “And it’s Captain Dauphin, to you.”
Jean-Pierre glared and didn’t deign to reply, muttering into his grizzled beard. She watched his back as he left, just in case. When she eventually returned her attention to Hazard, he was regarding her with undisguised surprise.
She laughed. “Do you not remember me, Captain? You used to pull coins from my ears.”
For a moment he said nothing, then surprise changed to humour and something silver flashed in the sunlight. “You keep them there still,” he said, taking a coin as if from behind her ear and spinning it in the air.
She snatched it with a grin and tucked it inside her shirt, watching the way his eyes widened. “You’ll need better tricks than that, Captain Hazard, to impress me now.”
“And what sort of tricks impress you these days, Miss Dauphin?”
“It’s Captain Dauphin.” She pushed past him a little closer than necessary then turned around, watching him as she walked backward along the dock. “Would you like to see my ship? She’s called the Sunlight. Or do you think me too much of a child to captain a ship?”
His bold gaze drifted down her body and his mouth curled at one corner. “There’s nothing of the child about you now, Amelia. How long’s it been since we last crossed swords? Six years, by my reckoning.”
“We never crossed swords,” she said, puzzled.
His smile was liquid gold and not even remotely innocent. “We may yet, however. I’ve a mind to think you’re as wily as your old dad, and with those pretty lips a world more perilous to an honest pirate like myself.”
“Honest!” she snorted, turning away from his gaze. A girl might lose herself there and Amelia had no desire to be lost, especially not to a man with a string of broken hearts in every port and his own untouched by any softer feeling. She knew Zachary Hazard far too well to succumb to his charms.
He followed her along the dock, his loose-limbed stride reined in to keep pace with her. “Much as I’d love to see your ship,” he said, “I’ve an urgent need to speak with your father, no matter what Jean-Paul—”
“Pierre. It’s Jean-Pierre.”
“No matter his name, Amy!” He was impatient. She’d never known him impatient before. Zach always carried with him the laconic heat of the Spanish Main, a far-off place she’d never seen with her own eyes but, through him, had come to know as a land of rum-filled nights and easy profit. That he would be impatient now – and come to them with the Hawk empty and lean – spoke of trouble.
“Do you bring ill-tidings?” She looked at him askance; saw the narrowing of his eyes and the tightening of his lips.
“What I bring is for your father’s ears only.”
“I’m a captain in his fleet! I’m—”
“It’s between him and me, Amelia. Leave it now.”
Frustrated, she kept her mouth shut and they walked in silence along the dock until they reached the narrow path leading up to her father’s house upon the cliffs. No doubt Jean-Pierre had gone ahead to betray her interference, but she knew her father well and doubted she’d be scolded. He loved Zach like a son, an errant son perhaps, but a son nonetheless, and she knew he’d be delighted to see him despite Jean-Pierre’s dark mutterings.
Away from the salt-tang of the docks the air was rich with the scent of vanilla flowers and she breathed deeply. Tall trees shaded them from the climbing sun and she smiled to herself as Zach swept the hat from his head, wiping his brow against the arm of his coat.
“Too hot for you, Captain?” Casting him a sideways glance she wondered that he didn’t rid himself of some clothing; his long coat and boots looked out of place in the heat of Sainte Anne. For herself, she wore only her britches and a shirt, going barefoot even in the forest. Some of the visiting sailors – those unfamiliar with the citizens of the island – thought her wild, but she saw no reason to bind herself in corsets and stockings for their convenience. She doubted they’d never seen a girl’s ankle before, and if they hoped for more and were disappointed then so be it. They could take their pleasure among the lightskirts at the docks and leave her well alone. She wanted nothing of men, only the wind in her hair and the Sunlight beneath her feet.
“Why your father insists on camping out in this stifling bloody heat is beyond me,” Zach muttered, swatting at something on his neck. He peeled away his hand and grimaced, wiping it on his coat. “Calls himself a bloody pirate, yet he never puts to sea.”
“My father is far more than a pirate!” Bridling at the insult, she turned on him. “He’s a leader, a leader of free men.”
Zach stopped, regarding her from behind a fall of black hair. His face glistened with sweat, eyes laughing. “And what do you know of freedom, girl? You who’s known nothing but luxury and indulgence your whole life.”
“If this isn’t freedom, then I don’t know what is!”
He swept the hair back from his face and his lips curled into a smile, sharp as a blade. “No,” he said. “I imagine you don’t.” He kept on walking, leaving her behind in a stew of outrage.
After a moment, she gathered herself enough to stomp after him. “What does that mean?”
“It means,” he said, not stopping or turning around, “that the world’s a lot bloody bigger, and a lot bloody nastier, than you – or your dear old dad – know anything about.”
“My father has—”
“Your father—” He turned abruptly, so fast she almost ran into him, and she was forced to brace her hand against his chest to keep her balance. His skin was warm through the linen of his shirt, his heartbeat strong beneath her fingers, and she felt a flash of a different kind of heat. Hurriedly she withdrew her hand, stepping back.
Luckily, Zach didn’t seem to notice her awkwardness. “Your father has hidden away in this little utopian fantasy for a score of years, Amelia. He plays at being king of the pirates and ignores the rest of the world.”
“But the rest of the world does not concern us, Zach.” She smiled, confused by the heat in his voice. “Their troubles are not ours. We are safe here.”
He shook his head, a flash of frustration quickly hidden behind a twist of a smile. “We’ll just see about that, won’t we? I’d hate to have come so bloody far for nothing.”
Captain James Dauphin, the self-proclaimed Pirate King, kept his court in a fortress atop the cliff of Ile Sainte Anne. To the eyes of Zach Hazard it was a preposterous ostentation, but his own opinions, he knew, were coloured by those of his father who had called this place home for twenty years. Zach wanted nothing to do with pirate kings or their castles. All he wanted – all he needed – was a ship beneath his feet and the wind in his sails. That was his idea of freedom, and it had nothing to do with the lofty ideals his father guarded closer than his own life.
Had he been truly free, of course, he wouldn’t be here now in the sweating heat of Africa’s west coast. Had he been truly free he’d have washed his hands of the wretched place years ago. But his father was his only kin and, though he knew he’d regret coming back, he’d not been able to ignore the gathering clouds of war. A warning had to be given. Whether it would be heeded was another matter entirely.
Eventually they reached the fortress, its grey stone walls rising above the trees. It might have sat well atop some stark, English hill but amid the lushness of Ile Sainte Anne it looked absurd. To Zach, the fortress had always seemed as big a folly as the ideals it had been built to defend. Nevertheless, he sighed in relief as Amelia led him into the blessed cool of the stone hallway, a sea breeze floating in through its narrow windows and stirring the air. He breathed deep, relishing the sharp sea-tang on his tongue.
Amelia smiled, looking at him sideways, as they stood together for a moment and gazed out past heavy stone toward the bright azure of sea and sky. “You’ve been ashore no more than an hour,” she said. “Do you miss the sea already, Captain?”
The breeze riffled her shirt, pushing soft linen against the slender contours of her body. Zach looked quickly away, licking his lips and tasting salt. “Like I’d miss the air if it weren’t here to breathe.”
She closed her eyes, lifting her arms as if she were a bird. “Do you ever sit astride the bowsprit and pretend that you’re flying?”
He laughed, couldn’t help himself. “Not a fitting place for a captain,” he said, “but, aye, when I was a lad I did. Or in the crow’s nest.”
Amelia smiled, eyes still shut, the breeze stirring her hair. “There’s no feeling better, is there?”
“Almost none,” he agreed, thinking of her taut body beneath the man’s shirt and britches she wore. He wondered if she knew the effect all those tantalising glimpses of flesh had on a man who’d been too long at sea. He suspected that she knew all too well.
Amelia opened her eyes and smiled. “Come, my father will be impatient to see you.”
She walked on and he followed. When last they’d met she’d been but a girl, close to flowering but still a child. Now, however… Golden curls hung loose down her back, swaying like temptation in time with her hips. Her skin was sun-darkened to olive, unfashionable no doubt in the courts of true kings, but to his eyes her tanned limbs looked as smooth and touchable as silk.
But it was the fire in her eyes that sparked his interest. It spoke of adventure, of a wild spirit. He could imagine her astride the bowsprit, arms held wide and her hair running out behind her in the wind. She was no blushing maid and he stirred at the very thought of her firm, unbound body beneath his hands, and those adventurer’s eyes fixed on him, bright as the play of sunshine over water. He’d have taken her to bed with great delight had she not been the daughter of James Dauphin.
Amelia looked back over her shoulder and arched a curious eyebrow.
“Admiring the view,” he said with a smile.
Her expression grew impish. “Captain Hazard, there are at least twenty women I know who spit and curse whenever they hear your name mentioned. Do not imagine I want to be one of them. I won’t succumb to your seductions.”
“Seductions?” He gestured to the windows in feigned innocence. “I meant the sea view.”
“Oh.” She turned back around with a toss of her hair. “Well… Good.”
He smiled again, devilish despite the news he bore. “Don’t blame you, of course. Most women find me irresistible.”
“Do they?” She spun around, eyes laughing. “Then it’s fortunate for me, Captain, that I’m not ‘most women’.”
“And it’s fortunate for me, Miss Dauphin, that I’ve no interest in skinny little girls with less shape than a stick.”
She looked as if she would retort, but after a silent moment all she said was, “It’s Captain Dauphin to you, sir,” before spinning around and stalking deeper into the fortress.
Blowing out a long breath, he followed. The crossing from Florida had been over long, he’d not realised the level of his own frustration. That was all. That was enough to explain this sudden flare of desire. This girl held no special power over him, any girl would do and there were plenty who’d be eager to oblige. More than eager.
He would deliver his warning and be gone, steering well clear of Amelia Dauphin and her adventurer’s eyes.
James Dauphin’s court was just as Zach remembered it: high windows cut into thick stone walls admitting shafts of sunlight that striped the flagstone floor. First built to protect the colony from other pirate raiders, the fortress now served to defend Dauphin’s precious Articles of Agreement. Set down in the time of his father’s father, the Articles asserted the right of every man, whether highborn or baseborn, to live and die free beneath the open skies. Driven from England during the turmoil of war, they had found a home among the freemen of the sea and eventually, under James Dauphin, they had become the law that guaranteed equality of wealth and power to the free people of Ile Sainte Anne.
Though the fortress had defended the Articles from those less enlightened raiders who converted the island’s wealth, Zach feared it would offer little defence against a new and greater threat: the firepower of a well-armed Eastindiaman and her naval escort. For the world was turning its eyes toward Ile Sainte Anne and the freedoms she proclaimed, a fact Zach had to make plain to James Dauphin – and to his own stubborn father.
Pausing in the hall’s great arched doorway, he let Amelia precede him into Dauphin’s so-called court, giving his eyes time to adjust to the gloom. Dominated by a huge fireplace that was lit despite the oppressive heat, the court was full of shadowy corners and the rattle of dice as men played at hazard and talked in low, easy voices. There were no women here, save Amelia, and Zach wondered that she was tolerated, though supposed that few men would argue with Dauphin or dare to touch his daughter.
He followed her with his eyes as she walked barefoot across the stone, hips and hair swaying, to the fireplace at the far end of the room where sat the captain’s chair. Pilfered, no doubt, from some ancient galleon, the carved wooden chair gleamed in the firelight and upon it sat the man he had come to see. Behind him, a shadow at Dauphin’s shoulder, stood the man he had most certainly not come to see – his own father, Zechariah Overton.
“Look,” Amelia said. “Captain Hazard has come!”
Dauphin rose, hearty despite his years. “Zach, my boy! What are you doing lurking in the doorway? Come in, come in!”
Aware of eyes peering out of the court’s dark corners, Zach doffed his hat and strode into the room. “Captain Dauphin,” he said, sweeping a bow. Then, with a scant nod to his father, he added, “Captain Overton.”
His father watched him with bright eyes but said nothing, merely returned Zach’s nod.
There was an awkward moment before Amelia said, “Zach has come with tidings, Father. Ill news, by all accounts.”
“No, no,” Dauphin said. “We’ll have no ill news yet.” He held out his arms and embraced Zach, thumping him hard on the back. “We need rum! And food. A feast! Tonight we’ll feast in your honour. How long has it been, Zach, since last we saw you?”
Zach stole a glance at Amelia. “Long enough.” She lifted her chin, bold beneath his scrutiny, and somehow it made him smile.
If Dauphin caught the look, he said nothing, just thumped Zach on the back again. “Too long,” he said, turning to Overton. “Is it not so, Zechariah? Too long since we’ve seen the boy.”
His father made no move from behind the captain’s chair, only growled, “Makes a man wonder what manner of news would cause him to sail so far.”
“Later,” Dauphin said, smiling again. “Time enough for news later. First we—”
“James?” Zach clasped his shoulder, interrupting. “Loath as I am to say as much, my father is right: the news I bring is dark, it’s no reason to feast.”
“But your return is,” Dauphin said warmly. “It’s been six years, Zach, without a word.”
Guilt flared briefly but he had no reply to give. He had turned his back on Ile Sainte Anne and all for which it stood, and his father could not forgive him for it. The day he’d sailed, six years ago, Overton had disowned him and Zach had sworn never to return. Yet here he was...
Dauphin’s hand tightened on his arm. “Come then, give us your news. Perhaps it is best to hear it in the morning, while the sun is bright and the air full of birdsong. Tonight, when it is dark, we shall feast and chase away the gloom, shall we not?”
“Aye, if you wish.”
“I do.” He looked over at his daughter. “Amelia, order a goat slaughtered and roasted, we shall—”
“Am I not to hear Captain Hazard’s news?” she said. “Have Jean-Pierre arrange the feast, I should hear what Zach has come to say.”
“Father...?” The challenge in her voice rang clear as a bell, defiance in every line of her body as she stood braced for a fight.
There followed a silent contest of wills, and after a moment Zach was amused to see Dauphin’s eyes narrow in defeat. “Very well,” he sighed, “we shall meet in my quarters.” He smiled at Zach, feigned exasperation clearly mingling with pride. “She is her mother’s daughter.”
“Aye,” Zach agreed, “and her father’s.”
Dauphin laughed. “So she is.” He slapped Zach on the arm. “It does my heart good to see you, Zach. It does it good indeed.”
Over Dauphin’s shoulder Zach saw his father watching them. There was no warmth in his expression, never had been, only a keen intelligence that sliced like a knife. Zach suspected his father knew exactly what he had come to say, and hated him for it as much as he ever had. Truth, when it differed from his own view of the world, was never something Zechariah Overton wanted to hear, especially not from his son’s lips. Dauphin’s sentimental attachment to Ile Sainte Anne might be hard to overcome, but Zach feared that his father’s stubborn adherence to the colony’s ideals could prove impossible to shift.
If he was right, then his father might doom them all in the end…
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