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Authors: Marsha Canham

Across a Moonlit Sea

BOOK: Across a Moonlit Sea
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A STOLEN KISS

“Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you show yourself right away?”

“I … don’t know. I just … I don’t know. By the time I realized you were there, you were already half naked and—and …” She swallowed hard and raised her hand in an unconsciously sensual gesture, pushing aside the edges of her shirt to press cooling fingers against the rapid pulse beating at the base of her throat.

“If—if you would step aside now, Captain, and let me pass, I would be more than happy to give you back your privacy.” But instead of stepping aside, he moved forward, keeping her trapped against the gallery windows, cloaking her in the immense shadow of his own frame. “Not just yet, mam’selle.”

“Wh-what do you mean?”

“I mean”—his hands came up and he brushed his fingers over the rich abundance of her hair—“not just yet.”

She tensed as he caressed the back of her neck. She was more aware than ever of the heavily muscled shoulders, the dark swarm of hair that covered his chest, the molded bands of hard flesh that flexed along his arms every time he asked the slightest motion of them.

Her eyes rose, not enough to have met his, but enough to focus on the half smile that played on his lips.

“I hope you are not thinking of kissing me,” she whispered, her throat almost too constricted to squeeze out the words.

High praise for
MARSHA CANHAM
,
winner of the
Romantic Times
Lifetime Achievement Award,
and her previous novels

STRAIGHT FOR THE HEART

“STRAIGHT FOR THE HEART
GOES STRAIGHT TO THE
READER’S HEART with its winning combination of an absorbing romance and fascinating characters. Marsha Canham has another winner with this dazzling novel that readers will savor.” —
Romantic Times

“Canham deals out plenty of surprising twists.” —
Booklist

IN THE SHADOW OF MIDNIGHT

“DEFINITELY ONE OF THE BEST NOVELS OF THE YEAR … Marsha Canham has written a fast-paced, action-packed medieval romance.” —
Affaire de Coeur

“Ms. Canham skillfully blends a great deal of historical detail into this scintillating tale of brave men fighting for justice and the women who share their dreams.” —
Romantic Times

“DRAMATIC AND SENSUOUS … MARVELOUS … OUTSTANDING … A tale of grand proportions … Top-notch from start to finish!” —
Rendezvous

UNDER A DESERT MOON

“This has everything a good western should: adventure, murder, mystery, and love. What an unbeatable combination!”

—Heartland Critiques

“EXCITING … A fast-paced, action-packed story that kept me hanging on every word. Great work, Marsha!” —
Affaire de Coeur

“EXTRAORDINARY … Vivid prose, vibrant descriptions, a delightful cast of characters, fast-paced action and a strong story … readers will be spellbound!” —
Romantic Times

THROUGH A DARK MIST

“All the adventure, rollicking good humor, wildly exciting escapades, cliff-hangers, and, most of all, smoldering sensuality…. Once you begin this mesmerizing tale there is no way you will put it down until the very last page.” —
Romantic Times

“Ms. Canham has set quill to bow and struck directly into the heart of every swashbuckling adventure lover’s soul…. The action doesn’t stop until the last paragraph with no questions left unanswered.” —
Heartland Critiques

Dell Books by Marsha Canham

SWEPT AWAY
PALE MOON RIDER
THE BLOOD OF ROSES
THE PRIDE OF LIONS
ACROSS A MOONLIT SEA
IN THE SHADOW OF MIDNIGHT
STRAIGHT FOR THE HEART
THROUGH A DARK MIST
UNDER THE DESERT MOON
THE LAST ARROW

I suppose it is time to acknowledge the irreverent group of iconoclasts who comprise the Noake Crescent Revelry Committee: the Griswalds, the Big Souvlaki and Peggy Bundy, the Warden, Ward and June Cleaver, the Rosedale Princess and Tom Terrific, the Commodores, the residents of Fort Noakes, and those unflagging honorary members, Fred and Ethel, Bunky and Rick, Tweety and Sylvester. With a group of neighbors like this, how could I ever run out of material for secondary characters?

Prologue

 T
here were six of them strung out along the horizon. Six India guards in full suits of sail, riding easy on a south-southwest wind that was at least twenty knots in strength—a square-rigger’s wind and one that would push them straight past the small crust of an island that was, at the moment, shielding the two English sea hawks from sight.

“Damn our luck,” said Victor Bloodstone, gripping the galleon’s toprail with his powerful hands. “First the bloody storm out of bloody nowhere, ripping us to bloody shreds. Now this.”

Bloodstone was a tall, elegantly lean man with sharp, handsome features that attested to his noble English ancestry. He was captain of the Talon, an eighteen-gun privateering vessel that currently sat at anchor a hundred yards to larboard. He had just been rowed across to the
Virago
, responding to the alert sounded from the lookout posted high on the mainmast. The
Virago
was similar in size and general silhouette to the
Talon
, though she carried
four extra guns in her main battery and flattered them with half a dozen smaller-caliber chasers in her bow and stern.

The captain of the
Virago
was Simon Dante, Comte de Tourville. He stood half a head taller than the Englishman and although there were fourteen generations of French aristocracy flowing through his veins, he had the massive shoulders and dark determination of a man who cared less for titles and estates than he did the sound of heavy cannon and booming sail.

Both were a thousand miles from home, at the helm of ships that had suffered potentially crippling damage from the storm that had wreaked havoc upon them for the past seven days and seven nights. The
Virago
had borne the worst of it with damage to her rudder and a cracked mizzenmast that had cost her the use of her topgallants. More pressing was the gurgle of water that flowed through the wide gash in her hull, the result of being rudderless and wind-driven across jagged reefs.

The two crews had spent the last four hours transferring the
Virago’s
cargo onto the beach of a small island. Everything not bolted down or deemed necessary for making repairs had been off-loaded, including excess barrels of food and water. There were already cables attached to her hull in preparation for heeling her on her side to raise her wound above the waterline. On the island, huge black cauldrons of pitch bubbled in readiness. Fresh timber and a patching compound of oakum and tar was waiting to repair and caulk the gash as soon as she was careened.

It was a job requiring at least half a day, more if the caulking was expected to set properly. But with a strong twenty-knot wind warping their sails, the six squat Spanish mercenaries would be on them long before then.

“Those bastards are at least a hundred miles off course themselves, if they are who you think they are.”

Simon Dante narrowed his silvery blue eyes in an attempt to separate the distant galleons from the dancing points of sunlight that reflected off the surface of the water. He saw nothing to make him change his earlier guess. The India guards were small, stubby vessels carrying three masts and a deck bristling with armaments, designed for only one purpose: to discourage raiders and privateers of any nationality from attacking the rich plate fleets that sailed regularly between Spain and the New World. They were usually part of an escort of fifty zabras or more, protecting as few as twenty treasure ships at a time. The fact there were only six surging along at full sail suggested they had become separated from the main body of the fleet they were protecting, probably during the same storm that had battered the
Talon
and
Virago.

“Three masted,” Dante reiterated grimly. “Most likely ten guns apiece, demi-culverins at best, sakers at least. We should have no trouble with them.”

“No trouble?” Victor Bloodstone arched a sand-colored eyebrow. “It will be like sailing into a nest of enraged hornets. And in case you haven’t noticed, my dear Comte, we are somewhat at a disadvantage-the result, I might also add, of another of your rash decisions, made without any consultation or discussion.”

Dante’s gaze remained fixed on the horizon for a moment before turning coldly to Bloodstone. It was the kind of stare he normally reserved for scullions and fools, or for very large bugs that made a very sticky mess under his boot, and it did not take but a heartbeat for Bloodstone to interpret the look and flush warmly under the deep bronze of his tan.

Over the past three months it had become blatantly obvious the two men could barely abide each other. Both were brilliant seamen, and equal only to each other as far
as nerve and boldness in battle. Both struck terror as well as awe in their crews for having dared to go where none had ventured before, and for coming away with their holds bulging with bars of Spanish gold and silver.

But where Bloodstone was eager to return to England, to bask in the praise and reap the rewards for his success— fully anticipating a knighthood would be in the offing— Dante had no such aspirations. He had already earned more accolades than he could reasonably tolerate. Moreover, the Comte de Tourville was not yet finished with the Spanish. He and the
Virago
would, in fact, have parted ways with Bloodstone a full week earlier had the storm not intervened and forced them to remain together. Now there were six enemy warships bearing down on them—odds neither captain would have hesitated to defy alone had his ship been in prime condition—but they needed each other again if they were to emerge with their ships and their prize intact.

“Very well,” Dante said, the huge muscles in his shoulders rippling as he folded his arms across his chest. “My ship is rudderless and leaking like a sieve; yours is storm damaged with a crack in the mainmast and no spare canvas. What do you propose we do?”

Bloodstone pressed his thin lips thinner in an imitation of a smile. “I expect we have little choice but to fight our way past them.”

“We have no choice,” Dante said flatly. “And we will have to destroy them in order to keep our presence here quiet, at least until we can finish our mission.”

“Your mission,” Bloodstone corrected him succinctly. “Mine is finished. We did what we set out to do, and we did it well enough to set Philip of Spain spinning around on his royal papist heels. Whatever business you now deem
to have unfinished is yours alone. I agreed to one raid and one raid only.”

Dante’s opinion of the Englishman sat on the back of his tongue, souring it like the taste of stale beer. Bloodstone was nephew to Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s first counsel and chief advisor. He had sailed with Sir Francis Drake—another arrogant strut of a man—and was reputed to be one of Elizabeth’s favorite supper companions. Fawning over popinjays and seducing aging queens did not rank high in Dante’s estimation of character qualities, and the sooner he was clear of Bloodstone, the sweeter the air he would breathe.

His cold eyes flicked back to the growing pyramids of sail. “If they have any eyes at all on board, they will have seen the
Virago
by now. The
Talon
, luckily, is still out of view and should remain so until they are almost on us. The wind is behind them and they will keep it to their advantage as long as possible. I propose, therefore”—he looked back at Bloodstone—“to sail the
Virago
across their bows and draw their attention away from this islet. We will engage and hold them long enough for you to bring the
Talon
around and come at them from upwind. We won’t have to try very hard to appear to be mortally wounded, and should present a prize too tempting for the bastards to resist.”

Bloodstone nodded consideringly. It was an audacious and risky plan, and Dante would undoubtedly draw heavy fire from all six zabras. There were few Spaniards on the Main who did not know the
Virago
by sight, and seeing her wounded and apparently running away in distress would, indeed, attract them like leeches to blood. It would be up to the
Talon
to come to his rescue and blast the Spaniards in a crossfire.

Bloodstone reached up and tugged on a gleaming gold forelock. He wore rings on all four fingers of both hands, and the jewels glittered as brightly as the sudden avarice in the liquid brown eyes. “My compliments, Captain Dante. It should be like picking ducks off a pond.”

Four hours later, with the sun glaring in the westerly sky at eye level, Captain Dante ordered his men into the shrouds. With a temporary patch sealing the gash in the
Virago’s
hull, they had left the shelter of the island and started a run south by southeast and, as Dante had predicted, the India guards had turned, almost as one, and set after him with their noses high and the water sheeting off their hulls in scrolls of blue-white spume. Dante had set his own suit carefully, leaving slack in the square mainsails so they appeared full and straining to catch every ounce of strength and speed from the wind. He had fore and aft maneuverability in the remainder of his sails, but those, too, he kept on an angle not favorable to the
Virago’s
reputation as a flying sea witch.

Standing on the foredeck, his hair whipping in the breeze like black silk, he passed quiet, steady orders to his helmsman, who knew better than to question why he should make the
Virago
seem erratic and unsteady, when he also knew, even with a jury-rigged rudder, they could have sailed circles around all six of the charging Spaniards and left them reeling in their wake.

Dante’s second-in-command—Geoffrey Pitt—stood amidships, his feet braced wide apart to counter the increasing roll of the deck. His tawny hair was lashed in a tail at his nape and his face, beneath the weathering effects of the sun, was nearly as green as his eyes. He was not a sailor by profession, nor even by choice, and was still battling the galling effects of the week-long storm. But he knew guns and was in charge of the
Virago’s
teeth: ten
bronze demi-cannon capable of firing thirty-two-pound lead balls a distance of three hundred yards and more, supplemented by fourteen cast-iron culverins that fed on seventeen-pound shot. There were also the falconets at the bow and stern, long elegant guns of a smaller caliber reserved for special surprises at close range.

Pitt’s chief gunner was almost as awesome as the guns he fired. Nearly seven feet tall, black as ebony, the former slave was possibly the only man on board the Virago more feared than the captain himself. The Cimaroon’s first greeting to the enemy had become traditional. Wearing only a loincloth and a leer of impending pleasure, he climbed barefoot into the shrouds and sent a hot yellow stream of contempt in the direction of the approaching vessels. The men on deck and in the yards cheered, waving their fists and hurling insults even as an answering puff of smoke erupted from the guns of the forerunning galleon.

Although smaller than the
Virago
and not as heavily armed, the galleons had the wind to their advantage, and bearing down like vultures, they formed a fighting crescent and trimmed sail. The ship that had fired the opening salvo commanded the starboard point of the crescent. Seeing that the
Virago
seemed willing—and foolhardy enough— to turn and put up a fight, he pulled arrogantly ahead of the others and opened the attack.

“He thinks we are so bad off, he can take us single handed!” Dante shouted. “Shall we correct his impression, Mister Pitt?”

“Ready on your command, Captain!”

“On my command.” Dante nodded and turned to the helmsman. “Bring her hard to larboard and keep her as tight as you can.”

“Aye, sir!” The helmsman positioned himself at the makeshift tiller and swore. “I can’t say how long this
bloody oar will hold, but she has spirit in her yards and she’ll take it up with the wind, sure enough.”

“Just give me one long, smooth pass, Mister Brighton. She’ll take it up with her guns.”

“Aye, sir! That she will, sir!”

Dante felt the blood surging through his veins. The Spaniard was closing fast, full sailed and hull up, carving through the iron-gray swells like a cleaver. The
Virago
was still feigning unsteady knees and with only a third of her gunports open, she lured the Spaniard into a show of bravado. The zabra fired another salvo from her two bow guns, one ball spouting harmlessly in the privateer’s wake, the other bouncing insolently off her three-foot-thick hull. At less than a quarter mile, Dante could see men on the Spaniard’s deck, clustered on the stubby forecastle, fingers pointing at the
Virago
as if they were already arguing over the division of spoils.

His wide, sensuous mouth spread in a slow grin.

“Mister Brighton—”

The helmsman’s lips parted, his fist clenched on the tiller.

“—Now! Bring her hard about!”

Tackle clattered and rigging lines sang as cables were loosened and reset to turn the sails. Canvas boomed overhead and the towering masts heeled far out over the rising sea as the
Virago
slewed into the wind, throwing up long plumes of spray in her wake.

“Mister Pitt! Guns away! Open us up and show all of our fine teeth. Fire when ready!”

BOOK: Across a Moonlit Sea
8.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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