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“It's a little like paradise here,” Annalisa said. She stood calf deep in the warm waters of the
They'd sailed easily into it late the afternoon before. Last night, there'd been no moon. Anna had
barely slept with the realization that her quest might soon come to a satisfactory end. She'd assigned
men in shifts of four to watch the area from the mouth of the cove so they'd know when Crimson
This morning, Sterling had knocked on her door with the sun and enticed her into joining him for
some exploring. She could certainly understand why Crimson Kelly liked the island. It was so
incredibly green, the water so marvelously blue from a distance, but clear as glass up close.
And so inviting.
Without hesitation, she'd brought the back of her skirt forward, between her legs, and tucked it
into her belt. The action had raised the front and sides almost to her knees. She'd created baggy
breeches. She'd removed her shoes and stockings and now walked along the water's edge within
the cove. Around her ankles colorful fish and sea creatures darted here and there. They came in
close for inspection, then darted away. The water was so clear and pure here that she could see her
“I've always liked it,” James said.
“Does Crimson spend a lot of time here ? ”
“More and more of late. He's seen nearly thirty years. That's old for a pirate.”
“And what about you ? How many years have you seen ? ”
“One and twenty.”
“You seem older.”
He grinned his cocky grin. “The result of hard living and even harder playing.”
She couldn't help herself. She laughed joyously. James Sterling could be such fun.
Playful and teasing. “At moments like this, I could almost forget you're a pirate.”
At moments like this, James almost wished he wasn't. When she looked at him like that, with
such openness, he was almost ashamed of his past... and his future.
He'd rolled up the legs on his breeches so he could walk in the water beside her. He'd rolled up
the arms on his shirt, so he could -
“Here,” he said, scooping his hand through the water to lift out his find. “I told you the stars that
fall from the sky land here.”
He didn't think she could have given him a brighter smile if he'd dug up a treasure chest for her.
Tentatively, she moved her hand toward his, then flinched as though surprised. “It moved!”
“It's alive. Who would have thought ? ” She lifted her gaze, full of wonder and awe, to his.
“Who would have thought a pirate would notice such things as the creatures that live in the sea ? ”
He tossed the starfish back into the water so it could go scrounging for food. He was a bit
uncomfortable that he'd shared his find with her. He'd barely slept last night, knowing their time
together would soon end. He'd had an insane need to share the island with her, to pretend for a
short spell that they were like normal people, instead of what they were: a pirate in search of wealth
and a pirate hunter in search of justice.
James knew he was more likely to acquire his goal than she was hers.
“I noticed a lot of things about the island,” he felt compelled to explain. He leaned toward her
slightly and smiled wickedly. “We spent a lot of time here, and I was always searching for
Crimson's buried treasure.”
“Are you sure it's buried around here somewhere ? ”
“Absolutely. If the chest was light, Crimson carried it himself to wherever he was taking it. If it
was heavy, he blindfolded the men who carried it, tied a rope about their waists, and led them like
“Then why blind them and leave them to roam the island afterward ? ”
“An additional precaution.”
He watched as she shuddered. He didn't know why he was telling her these elaborate tales.
"I thought I could hear the mournful wail of the lost souls last night , ' she said.
“It was just the wind blowing through the cove.”
“But what if it's not ? What if it really is all the men he left here to die ? ”
James looked around. He'd never been fearful of this place, but he couldn't deny that there was
an eeriness to it. “Then mayhaps they'll help us capture him.”
“He's an awful man, isn't he ? ”
“Legend would have you think so.”
Her eyes widened slightly. “You don't think so ? ”
He shrugged. “He started out as a privateer during Queen Anne's War. At her command, he
raided French and Spanish ships. But it's hard to give up what you've risked life and limb to obtain.
And when the Crown suddenly has no use for you, what else is a man to do ? ”
“Are you justifying his piracy ? ”
“No, but I understand it. What are you going to do, Anna, if when you find the treasure you
seek, you also find others?”
He could see her pondering the ramifications of his question.
“None of it comes with a note saying to whom it belongs, you know,” he prodded.
Part of him hoped she'd take the bait, consider the life of a pirate, and part of him hoped she'd
stand by the convictions she held that he could never embrace.
She reached down, scooped up some water, and flicked it at him. “You're ruining a perfectly
He laughed. “You're tempted to keep it.”
She stuck her nose in the air. “Not at all.”
Reaching out, he grabbed her and pulled her close. “I think there's a bit of pirate in you, Anna.”
Looking into his eyes that were as green as the sea, Annalisa almost admitted that perhaps there
was. She'd come to love the feel of the ship beneath her, but even more, she'd come to love the
absence of restrictions. She could come and go as she pleased. She was captain of her own ship, in
charge of her own destiny. And who was there to object if she found herself falling in love with a
Only her own heart knew her time in this world was temporary.
She wondered if Sterling knew what she was thinking, the paths down which her thoughts
traveled. His eyes seemed to reflect the realization of dreams that would never be held.
His fingers, so warm, skimmed along her cheek. "Anna,'' he whispered, and lowered his mouth
It was wrong, so wrong, to want him to kiss her. It was wicked, so wicked, to enjoy it as much
as she did. She wanted this moment to go on forever. Here in this paradise.
Annalisa broke away and looked in the direction of the shouts. Sam Baker was racing toward
her, an urgency in his movements.
“Cap'n, we spotted a ship on the horizon. We think it's the Phantom Mist!”
At the edge of the bluff, hidden behind shrubbery, Annalisa held the spyglass to her eye. It was
a galleon. And while she couldn't make out its name, she could see the very distinctive figurehead -a
ferocious pouncing lion, its mouth wide as though it intended to gobble up its prey.
“That's him, isn't it ? ” Annalisa asked, holding the spyglass out to James who was crouched
He took the spyglass and peered through it. “Aye, that's him.”
“How long before he gets here ? ”
“Judging by the billow in his sails, he should be here by nightfall.”
“Then we've no time to lose,” Nathaniel said. He was crouched on the other side of Annalisa.
“We need to prepare to meet him head-on.”
“That's a sure way to be defeated,” James said.
“And what would you suggest ? ” Nathaniel asked.
Annalisa heard the sarcasm in his voice. She knew he wasn't truly interested in any suggestions
Sterling might offer. Nathaniel still didn't trust him.
Sterling leaned back lazily against the boulder. “We wait.”
“Until he arrives, traps us in the cove, and destroys us with a few well-aimed cannonballs ?
That's a jolly brilliant plan,” Nathaniel snapped.
"We can see him, he can't see us. And he's not going to head into the cove because he's
not shallow bottomed. He'll drop anchor a ways out. He'll use longboats to get to shore,
but not at night. He's superstitious in that way. Quite honestly, he thinks the island's
haunted by all the men he's killed here. He only makes shore in the light of day."
He said no more, as though he'd given them all the information they needed. When Nathaniel
held his tongue, Anna assumed that he was as confused as she. But since she trusted James more
than Nathaniel did, she was comfortable asking, “Then how do you suggest we handle this
“Under cover of darkness, we go out in longboats. Board the ship. Take the prize.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“Crimson attacks during the day, with cannons blasting and swords drawn, because he wants to
strike terror into the hearts of all honest men who roam the seas. Terrorized men tend to surrender,
and if you can terrorize them before ever spying them, so much the better. But we want the captain
and his ship, both unharmed. Stealth will give us the advantage.”
Annalisa looked at Nathaniel, silently asking his opinion.
“I don't like leaving the ship in the cove,” he grumbled. “Feels too much like being a sitting
“We won't remain in the cove for long,” Annalisa assured him. “As soon as we've secured the
Phantom Mist, we'll bring our ship into open waters. We'll need her brig, and we'll moor the
Phantom Mist to her. And you'll need to choose a crew to sail her back to New Providence.”
“I'll take that honor myself.” Smiling almost sadly, he reached out and touched her cheek. “I
think you're fully capable of sailing The Dangerous Lady without me.”
She glanced over at Sterling. “Give us some privacy, please.”
With nothing more than a nod, he clambered down to the shore.
She turned back to Nathaniel. “Nathaniel -- ”
“You've fallen in love with him, haven't you ?” he said before she could say more.
She felt the tears burn her eyes. “I don't know.”
"I think you do know. I think you just don't want to admit it because deep down you know
you can't trust him. He's charmed you into forgetting that he's a scoundrel."
To her mortification, she feared that she was drawn to him because he was a scoundrel.
“He'll break your heart, Anna. And when he does, maybe you'll finally see that I'm the better
Before she could answer, he was scrambling down the slope.
She knew Nathaniel was the better choice. She knew he was undoubtedly the right choice.
Unfortunately for him -- and her -- it seemed her heart disagreed.
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