Read A Lady at Last Online

Authors: Brenda Joyce

A Lady at Last

B
RENDA
JOYCE
A
Lady
AT LAST

To my sister, Jamie, without whom this story would not have been possible. Her life inspired the life of Amanda. If only she'd had a hero to rescue her! But I know she's laughing at me now, incredulous that her older sister is such a foolish romantic still. I guess it is silly…. Jamie, this one belongs to you.

CHAPTER ONE

King's House; June 20, 1820

H
E WAS
renowned as the greatest gentleman privateer of his era, an accolade that amused him no end.
Gentleman
and
privateer
were two words that should never be uttered in the same sentence, even if he was an exception to that rule. Cliff de Warenne, third and youngest son of the earl of Adare, stared at the newly constructed hanging block, unsmiling. While it was true that he had yet to lose a battle or his quarry, he did not take death lightly. He estimated that he had already used up at least six lives, and hoped he had at least three left.

A hanging always brought out the biggest crowd. Every rogue and planter, every lady and whore, were flocking into the city to watch the pirate hang. Tomorrow they would be breathless with anticipation and excitement. There would be applause when the pirate's neck was broken with a loud, jarring snap. There would be cheers.

A tall, towering man with tawny, too-long, sun-streaked hair and a bronze complexion, Cliff had the brilliant blue eyes the de Warenne men were famous for. He was clad casually in high boots, pale white doeskin breeches and a fine linen shirt, but he was heavily armed. Even in polite society he kept a dagger in his belt, a stiletto in his boot, for he had gained his fortune the hard way, and he had made his share of enemies. Besides, in the islands, he had no time for fashion.

Cliff realized that he was late for his appointment with the colonial governor. But several fashionably dressed ladies were just entering the square, one a gorgeous beauty. They glanced his way, whispering excitedly. He saw that they were on their way to the scaffolding to inspect the site of tomorrow's hanging. Under usual circumstances, he would mark one for his bed, but he could scent their bloodlust and he was frankly disgusted by it.

The imposing entrance of King's House was directly behind him as he watched the three women stroll to the hanging block. The incessant fascination of the elegant ladies of the ton and island society was convenient; like all the de Warenne men, he was very virile. He recognized the blond, the wife of a gentleman planter he knew well, but the dark beauty was undoubtedly new to the island. She smiled at him, clearly aware of who and what he was, and as clearly offering him her services, should he wish to accept them.

He did not. He nodded politely at her and she held his gaze before turning away. He was a nobleman and a legitimate merchantman, when he was not accepting letters of marque, but, the whispers of “rogue” and “rover” wafted after him anyway. He had even been called a pirate by one particularly passionate lover. The truth was, even having been raised a gentleman, he was more at home in Spanishtown than Dublin, in Kingston than London, and he made no secret of it. When he was on the deck of his ship in the midst of the hunt, no man could possibly be a gentleman. Gentility meant death.

But he had never cared about the whispers. He had made his life into exactly what he wished, without his father's helping hand, and he had earned his reputation as one of the greatest masters of the sea. Although he always yearned for Ireland, the loveliest place in the world, it was on the main that he was free. Even at the earl's estate, surrounded by the family he cherished, he was aware that he was not at all like his two brothers—the heir and the spare. Compared to his land-and-duty-bound brothers, he was very much a buccaneer. Society accused him of being different, an eccentric and an outsider, and they were right.

Just before Cliff turned to enter King's House, two more ladies met with the trio, the crowd in the square growing. A gentleman whom he recognized as a successful Kingston merchant had joined the ladies, as had a few sailors.

“Hope he's enjoyin' his last meal,” one of the sailors laughed.

“Is it true he slit the throat of an English naval officer?” one of the women gasped. “And painted his cabin with the blood?”

“It's an old pirate tradition,” the sailor replied, grinning.

Cliff rolled his eyes at the absurd accusation.

“Do they hang many pirates here?” the beauty asked breathlessly.

Cliff turned away. The hanging was going to be a circus, he thought grimly.

And the irony of it all was that Rodney Carre was one of the least menacing and most unsuccessful rovers at sea; he would hang because Governor Woods was determined to set an example any way that he could. Carre's crimes were pitiful in comparison to those of the ruthless Cuban rovers now raging in the Caribbean, but Carre was the one inept enough to have been caught.

He knew the man, but not well. Carre was frequently in Kingston Harbor to careen his ship or unload his goods, and Cliff's island home, Windsong, was on the northwest end of Harbor Street. They'd exchanged only a few dozen words in the past dozen years, and usually merely nodded at one another in passing. He had no real reason to be dismayed over Carre's fate.

“And the pirate's daughter?” one of the women asked excitedly. “Will they hang her, too?”

“La Sauvage?” The gentleman spoke. “She hasn't been captured. And beside, I don't think anyone on this island would accuse her of a crime.”

Cliff realized why he was so disturbed. Carre was leaving behind a daughter. She was too young to be charged with piracy, even if she had sailed with her father.

It was not really his affair, he thought grimly as he turned back to King's House. Yet he recalled her vividly now, for he had glimpsed her from time to time, riding the waves like a porpoise in nothing but a chemise or standing boldly in the bow of her canoe, recklessly defying the wind and the sea. They had never met, but like everyone else on the island, he knew her instantly upon a single glimpse. She seemed to run wild about the island beaches and on the city streets and was impossible to miss with her long, tangled moon-colored hair. She was wild and free and he had admired her from a distance for years.

Uneasy, he shifted his thoughts. He would not even be in Spanishtown tomorrow when Carre was hanged. Instead, he wondered at Woods's summons. They were friends—they had frequently worked together on island policy and even on legislation, and in Woods's term of office, Cliff had accepted two commissions from him, successfully capturing the foreign brigands. Woods was a resolute politician and governor and Cliff respected him. On one or two occasions, they had caroused together, as well—Woods was fond of the ladies, too, when his wife was not in residence.

Two British soldiers sprang forward as he strode past the six Ionic columns that supported a pediment displaying the British coat of arms to the huge doors of the governor's residence, the gold and ruby spurs he wore jangling. “Captain de Warenne, sir,” one said, relaxing. “Governor Woods said you are to go in immediately.”

Cliff nodded at him and entered a vast foyer with a crystal chandelier. Standing on the waxed parquet floors of the circular entry, he could glimpse a formal salon done up in red velvets and brocades.

Thomas Woods rose from behind a desk, smiling as he saw him. “Cliff! Come in, my good man, come in!”

Cliff strode into the salon, shaking Woods's hand. The governor was a lean, handsome man in his thirties, with a dark moustache. “Good day, Thomas. I see the hanging will happen as scheduled.” The words slipped out, unbidden.

Woods nodded, pleased. “You have been gone for almost three months—you have no idea what this means.”

“Of course I do,” Cliff said, that odd tension filling him again as he wondered at the pirate's daughter's future. It crossed his mind that maybe he would visit Carre at the garrison in Port Royal. “Does Carre remain at Fort Charles?”

“He has been moved to the courthouse jail,” Woods responded. The newly constructed courthouse, completed the previous year, was directly across the square from King's House. Woods went to the bar built into the huge Dutch sideboard on one wall and poured two glasses of wine. He handed Cliff a glass. “To the morrow's hanging, Cliff.”

Cliff did not join him in the toast. “Maybe you should attempt to capture the pirates flying the flag of José Artigas,” he said, referring to the gaucho general who was at war with both Portugal and Spain. “Rodney Carre has nothing in common with those murdering villains, my friend.”

Woods smiled firmly. “Ah, I was hoping you could tackle Artigas's men.”

Cliff was interested, as the hunt was in his blood. Woods was offering him a dangerous commission, one he would not usually think twice about accepting. However, he remained on another tack. “Carre has never been foolish enough to attack British interests,” he commented, taking a sip of claret.

Woods started. “So he is a decent pirate? A
good
pirate? And what is the point of your defense? He has been tried and found guilty, he hangs tomorrow at noon.”

An image came to mind, one he could not chase away. Her hair as pale as a bright star, her shirt and breeches soaking wet, La Sauvage lifted her slim arms overhead and dived off the bow of her father's sloop into the sea below. He had been coming home last year and standing on the quarterdeck of his favorite frigate, the
Fair Lady,
when he had spotted her through his spyglass. He had paused to watch her surface, laughing, and had almost wished he could dive into the calm turquoise sea with her.

“What about the child?” he heard himself say. He had no idea of her age, but she was small and slender and he guessed she was somewhere between twelve and fourteen.

Woods seemed startled. “Carre's daughter—La Sauvage?”

“I heard their farm was forfeit to the Crown. What will become of her?”

“Good God, Cliff, I do not know. Rumor has it she has family in England. Maybe she will go there. Or I suppose she could go to the Sisters of St. Anne's in Seville—they have an asylum for the orphaned.”

Cliff was shocked. He just could not imagine a spirit like that imprisoned in such a manner. And this was the first he had heard of the child having family in Britain. But then, Carre had once been a British naval officer, so it was certainly possible.

Woods stared. “You are behaving oddly, my friend. I asked you to come here today because I was hoping you would accept a commission from me.”

Cliff shoved his thoughts of Carre's daughter aside. He felt himself smile. “May I hope that you seek El Toreador?” he asked, referring to the most vicious of the rovers plaguing the area.

Woods grinned. “You may.”

“I am more than pleased to accept the commission,” Cliff said, meaning it. The hunt would surely erase his irascible mood and the restlessness gnawing at him. He had been at Windsong for precisely three weeks—usually he stayed a month or two—and his only regret would be leaving his children. He had both a son and a daughter at his island home, and when he was at sea or abroad, he missed them terribly.

“Shall we go in to dine? I have asked my chef to make your favorite dishes,” Woods said happily, clasping Cliff's arm. “We can discuss the details of the commission. I am also eager to ask for your opinions on the new venture in the East Indies. Surely you have heard of the Phelps company?”

Cliff was about to affirm that he had, when he heard the soldiers at the governor's front door shouting in alarm. Instantly he drew his saber. “Get back,” he ordered Woods.

The governor paled, a small pistol appearing in his hand, but he obeyed, hurrying to the far end of the salon while Cliff strode into the foyer. He heard a soldier gasping in pain, and another fellow shout, “You cannot go inside!”

The front door burst open and a small, slender woman with a mass of pale hair ran through it, waving a pistol.

“Where is the governor?” she demanded wildly, pointing the gun at him.

The most vivid green eyes he had ever beheld locked with his and he forgot that a pistol was pointed at his forehead. He stared, shocked. La Sauvage was not a child: she was a young woman and a very beautiful young woman, at that. Her face was triangular, her cheekbones high, her nose small and straight, her mouth lush and full. But it was her eyes that stunned him—he had never seen such intriguing eyes, as exotic as a jungle cat's.

His gaze swept down her figure. Her moon-colored hair was exactly as he had thought—a wild curly mane that reached her waist. She wore a huge man's shirt, hanging to midthigh, but there was no mistaking the suggestion of a bosom beneath it. Her legs were encased in breeches and a lad's boots, and were unmistakably long and feminine.

How could he have assumed, even from a distance, that she was a child, he wondered inanely.

“Are you a dimwit?” she shouted at him. “Where is Woods?”

He drew a breath and somehow smiled, his composure returned. “Miss Carre, please do not point the pistol at me. Is it loaded?” he asked very calmly.

She paled as if just recognizing him. “
De Warenne
.” She swallowed. The pistol wavered. “Woods. I must see Woods.”

So she knew him, somewhat. Then she knew he was not to be toyed with. Did she know that anyone else would die for brandishing a weapon at him in such a manner? Was she that brave, or that foolish—and desperate? His smile intensified, but he was not feeling amused. He had to swiftly end the crisis, before she was hurt or arrested. “Give me the pistol, Miss Carre.”

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