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There is a serpent in thy smile, my dear,
And bitter poison within thy tear.
—Shelley, The Cenci
Silvia Bradstreet stirred only slightly when the wooden door of her cabin creaked as it slowly opened.
She slept the heavy sleep born of exhaustion, and neither the pitching of the ship nor the shouts of deckhands, though loud enough to rattle the masts of the Eastwind, roused her. A hazy light split the darkness of the tiny compartment and disappeared beneath the shadows of two men who quietly entered.
Roman Toller roughly caught his brother by the arm and halted him in mid-step. A lump like a burning chunk of coal lodged in his throat as his eyes roamed over the figure of a young woman sleeping soundly in the bunk.
Her dark hair spilled over the contrasting whiteness of the pillow like tassels of black silk he had seen displayed in stalls in an Eastern market. Beneath the blanket her slender form rose softly with each slow breath. She lay curled like a kitten spent from its play.
“Bloody hell, Morgan,” he muttered. “What is this?”
“God’s pity, man, if you have to ask.” Morgan Toller’s lips curved into a teasing grin. “It’s a woman, plain and simple.”
“That I can see,” he growled. “But why is the wench sleeping in this cabin?” Roman’s lids half-closed and his nostrils flared as his eyes, cold as blue ice, met his brother’s.
Morgan stared at the pleasing curves of the lithe form beneath the blanket. His chest swelled with the fullness of a deep breath he exhaled softly. “The captain said we’d find a surprise below.”
“Aye. That he did,” Roman agreed. The beginnings of a smile quivered on the corners of his lips. “And I’ll admit I thought he meant a bottle of vintage wine.”
“We must be certain to thank Wilhelm for improving the stock on his ships,” Morgan said, looking wryly at Roman. “This trip may prove to be less bleak than I expected,” he added, followed by an easy chuckle.
“The old scoundrel is up to something, I’ll wager. Summoning us to the colonies with no explanation of the urgency.” Roman’s brows raised sardonically. “And this.”
“Let’s consider that he is seeing to our comfort,” Morgan chided lightly. “And this is a flower in the desert. Or on the ocean, as it seems.” He rubbed his hands together and his mouth curved into a half-grin. “The only problem as I see it is there is one woman and two of us.”
“I begin to see your point.” Roman landed a hard but playful blow to Morgan’s jaw. “Pull out a coin. We’ll toss for the first night with her.”
Morgan scowled and rubbed his jaw. “Find another outlet for your bad temper, man,” he railed. Still he reached into his pocket and withdrew a coin. “Call it,” he said jauntily, tossing the goldpiece into the air.
“Heads!” Roman snatched the spinning coin before it landed in Morgan’s waiting hand. “Heads. And you sleep alone,” he jeered, slapping the coin to his forearm and uncovering it for Morgan to see.
“Alone,” Morgan scoffed derisively, opening a silver flask of brandy and raising it to his lips. “Well, I’ll be off to my solitary cabin and misery.” He took a second swig from the flask and ceremoniously replaced the cap. A tight-lipped smile rested uncomfortably on his crestfallen face. “And you with a preference for redheads,” he remarked dryly.
“Aye. But with every moment I begin to like raven-haired beauties.” Roman’s chin jutted out stubbornly as he flashed a triumphant grin.
Morgan smiled. “I’ll leave you to your pleasure, Roman,” he chortled, and there was a taunting gleam in his eyes. “We’ll talk at dinner. If you have the strength.”
The fading ring of the Tollers’ voices, though certainly strong enough to break a normal sleep, were hollow echoes to Silvia, lost in the musing deepness of her dreams. The unwelcome sounds intruded as murky shadows in her slumbering thoughts. Stretched out beneath the verdant leafy awning of a tree, she watched milky white clouds float like fleecy ewes crossing an indigo field, while songbirds chirped a melodious note that lulled her even deeper in sleep.
Roman closed the door quietly behind Morgan and secured it with the bolt.
Silvia stirred faintly at the rasp of the lock catching. A dark intruder entered her dreams, a menacing shadow floating in a peaceful sky. She sighed aloud and curled up tighter.
Pausing when she turned her face toward him, Roman stood quietly, hardly daring to breathe, but her eyes remained shut. The innocence in her face surprised him and for a moment a pang of conscience bit at him. He whispered a curse. What reason did he have for remorse? Wilhelm Schlange solidly calculated every move he made. If the man had placed this woman at his disposal, why should he question that she did not look the part?
His eyes dwelt on the smoothness of her skin, fair and creamy white and with the soft luster of fine satin. Her rosy lips were parted a bit, as if set for a kiss, and the pouty fullness showed to a tempting advantage.
He exhaled slowly, letting the air whistle soundlessly through his teeth. She was beautiful. Her black lashes curled softly and were longer than any he had ever seen.
“A flower at sea,” he whispered, and lowered his frame to the chair near the bed. With growing urgency he removed his boots and stockings and rose to drape his coat and cloak over the back of the chair.
He caught his breath, feeling the thrill of arousal as he anticipated the touch of her tantalizing curves. Recklessly stripping away his silk shirt, he stood beside the bed wearing only his breeches. Feeling a surge of warmth in his flesh as passion flared within him, Roman carefully raised the blanket and silently eased into bed.
She wore only a simple chemise adorned on the bodice by tiny lavender bows. He groaned, and his fingers gently touched the streaming ribbons pressed like violets in the snow against the paleness of her breasts. Her body was warm to his touch and the delicate smoothness of her skin brought a lusting flame to his eyes.
Deep in sleep, Silvia responded with a sigh to the gentle stroking. While lost in her dreams, butterflies fluttered delicate wings about her face and neck. The caress of his lips at her throat and the nimble movements of his fingers in her hair were soft kisses of sunshine. She turned to him, her parted lips trembling beneath the rustle of his warm breath.
As she became aware of a shadowy image through closed eyes, her heavy lids reluctantly flickered open to reveal a face pressed close to her own. Just for a moment, as another lilting sigh sounded in her throat, did she know a trace of alarm. But sleep held her prisoner and his eyes were the blue of the sky in her dreams.
“Wake up, little flower,” he murmured, rolling closer so that the hardness of his chest pressed sensuously against the softness of her breast.
His voice was soothing, rich and deep and sweet to her ears. The face was dreamlike, fetchingly handsome, the nose straight and nostrils flared in passion, the cheekbones high, and the chin squared and strong. His flaxen hair was long and tied at the back of his neck with black cord. He had a provocative twist to his mouth and perhaps it was the small vestige of arrogance she detected there which disturbed her.
A subtle movement wrapped his arm about her shoulders and lifted her to him. With a gentleness that transcended his passion, he softly kissed her eyelids and watched them quiver fully open. Rimmed with the lushness of dark lashes, her eyes were golden like honey before they darkened with a pall of fear.
Her scream rent the stillness of the cabin. Perplexed, Roman cursed and silenced her by clamping his hand across her mouth. He frowned and shook his head as if to assure her his intentions were pleasurable and not painful. Possibly he should have awakened the girl before getting in bed. He had not counted on her shocked reaction.
“Quiet now?” he asked softly.
She shook her head in agreement beneath the pressure of his hands. Her pupils widened and her eyes became almost catlike, glowing yellow and angry.
Thinking her calmed, Roman withdrew his hand, but before he could affect one of the devastating smiles he used so well, she screamed again. He moved his hand as swiftly as a striking snake to cover her mouth, but this time she caught the side of it in her teeth. With all her might, she bit down.
“Bloody hell, woman,” he shouted, rolling roughly across her and jerking his hand away to examine it for signs of broken skin.
“Get off!” Silvia groaned as his weight crushed the breath from her lungs. She squirmed beneath him but his body held her tight. Frantically she pummeled his face and chest with the strongest punches she could inflict. All the same, her rampaging blows were useless in dislodging him. With a gasp, she swung her arm beside the bed and caught the top of her boot, flinging it furiously at his head. The wooden heel struck him in the temple, stunning him enough for her to shove him aside and jump from the bed.
“Swine!” she screamed, racing the few feet to the door. She would have fled the cabin in her chemise, but in such a panicky state, the workings of the bolt proved too much for her.
Dazed, Roman struggled to his feet, rubbing the swell of a knot on his brow.
“Keep your hands away!” she shouted, snatching up her other boot and holding it menacingly in front of her.
“Easy now.” Roman raised a hand defensively in front of him. “You’ve damn near taken my head off already,” he stammered incredulously.
The woman was a demon and he had suffered enough of her fury. A drop of blood trickled from the wound above his eye and ran a crooked path to his cheek. But as he wiped at it with his hand a quick smile ruffled his mouth and a look of consummate disbelief paled his blue eyes.
“Get out of my cabin,” she ordered, her eyes igniting in a wildfire of golden lights. Cautiously backing around the room to allow him passage through the door, she steadied her trembling legs against the wall. “Out,” she sobbed.
Roman backed toward the door, wanting no part of the other boot.
“You’re no flower, but a spiny thistle.” His tone cracked sharply. He had assumed he would be welcome in her bed, so his exasperation was painfully vexing. Roman found himself in the hall barefoot and shirtless and dared not knock for the return of his garments.
His pride gave him no protection from the cold and he faced the option of exposing himself to Morgan’s ridiculing gibes or chancing that Captain Langham’s cabin would be empty.
He stepped two paces away and paused to make a sidelong glance at the door. Irritably he made a small mocking bow toward the portal. As his head dipped in pretentious deferment, the hinges creaked rudely open and his garments flew like rubbish through the air to land in a grudging heap at his feet.
“And a good evening to you,” he called out in his mellow voice. His own ire had succumbed to humor, and with a conciliatory shrug to his broad shoulders, he gathered up his garb and stepped lightly to the captain’s quarters, where he clothed himself. A bottle of wine sat at liberty on the table, and when Langham came below a short time later, Roman had partaken of a good portion of it.
Shivering with a chill of fear, Silvia pushed the chair against the door. As soon as she was calmed and could dress, she would seek Captain Langham’s protection. Surely he would take measures to ensure her safety on the voyage.
Dark Prelude, a prequel to Dark Splendor, is available free at Amazon and other ebook retailers.