Chapter One

The year 1883...Boston, Massachusetts

"A damnable shame about the Duchess Anne."

Despite the old salt's shout, Captain Preston Redding kept his head down and continued to navigate the crowds at the Boston Fruit Company.

"A hell of a grand dame, she was, too," the elderly sea dog persisted. "The likes of which ain't seen much anymore on the high seas. I tell ye, Cap'n, that vessel's capsize should never have happened. Had ye been at the helm, the schooner would not have gone down in the storm that blew up over Jamaica. Without ye in command, the Duchess was doomed before she ever pulled anchor here in the harbor."

Preston frowned. Should he take the grizzled seaman's comment as a vote of confidence in his ship mastering abilities or a sly rebuke for discharging his captain's responsibilities too readily?

Whatever the old salt's intent, Preston Redding nodded and moved on.

Small talk came none too easily for him. Even the best of circumstances left Preston tongue-tied. And this was one of the worst days of his life. The news of his ship's sinking hit him hard. The disaster was too raw to discuss with anyone yet and maybe it always would be.

My schooner. My beautiful lady of the sea...

Abuse and neglect broke the former whaling boat, left her no longer been fit for the open sea. A shell of her once glorious self, she was retired to dry dock when Preston purchased her in New Bedford Massachusetts. Paid practically nothing for her, too. Of course, practically nothing to most folks equaled just about everything to him.

At least, it had at the time.

Now was different. But, back then, the old girl had taken every last cent of what Preston had earned unloading cargo, a decade of backbreaking labor on the wharves that had started when he was a strapping young buck. As a reminder of those early days on the docks, he still wore heavy wrist straps, the blood-stained leather bands that had braced his grip and made lifting heavy crates a whole sight easier on his hands.

He had no regrets, not about any of it. Not the work. Not the raised scars that toiling from dawn to dusk had left behind on his palms and fingers. Every droplet of sweat squeezed from his body, every coin drained from his purse, both had been well spent.

Beneath the disrepair and water rot, she was a beauty, with delicate bones and graceful riggings. Two years of hammering her frame also made her sea worthy again. Not as good as new, but safe for a voyage. And that had been good enough for the likes of Preston.

Turned out, delivering tropical fruit to market in Boston from his home port in Jamaica was a lucrative business. Commissions from the Duchess had earned Preston a fortune. Not right away. Not overnight. But slowly and surely, the greenbacks came rolling in, enough for others to call him a wealthy man. And what with his recent acquisition of high-speed steamships making him more competitive, he would prosper more than ever...

But mastering those swifter vessels was just not the same as commanding his schooner. Where sailing the Duchess was the stuff of adventure, the banana route was strictly a commercial enterprise, bringing in plenty of cash, but lacking in drama and romance.

And, aye, vigilance. He'd had to keep his eye on the Duchess.

Right from the start, his beautiful lady had been strong-minded. No matter what he did to correct her, she had a will to go her own way - usually against favorable wind currents. Keeping her in line and en route took determination.

She got that from him. Aye, he was hard on her when necessary. In times of peril at sea, he was on deck around the clock. Never did he forsake her. He stayed the course, with his hand on her, encouraging her...dominating her...letting her know who owned her, who mastered her...who loved her above all else.

Christ. Now, who would he love?

No other. Unmoored, cast adrift, he would not now play the Duchess false. Truth to tell, he never had been unfaithful to her. Though she had not come to him a virgin, the Duchess Anne had belonged solely to him in Preston's heart.

And he had let another man sail her to Jamaica.

Had he captained her on that trip, no hurricane would have sunk her. He would have moored her in a protective harbor, not out in open waters. His beloved schooner would still be afloat had he taken charge.

His fault. All his fault. And for what? For what blasted reason had he remained ashore?

To attend society parties and debutante balls hosted by the idle rich of Newport, Rhode Island.

Preston snorted. Drinking champagne on the oceanfront lawns of mansions was a hell of a silly way for a grown man to spend his summer days. Instead of peering wistfully at the pounding surf from some swanky seaside veranda, he should rightly have been sailing those crashing waves.

Still and all, he was grateful. His crew and stand-in captain had survived. Not even the cargo went down, as it had yet to be uploaded. What stuck in Preston's craw was the futility of it all.

The purpose behind his extended stay on dry land was to find himself a bride, and he had not. The pretty pieces of fluff with whom he had dined and waltzed, and who had looked mighty fine hanging on his arm, would more than likely serve him well enough in bed. But what about all those empty hours that remained?

That was a hell of a lot of empty time to fill, and all had left him cold. Bored him to tears, in all honesty. Society mamas corseted the backbone out of their daughters until only good manners remained. Where was the spunk of those pretty virgins?

Dropped like so many wilted ribbons on dressmaker floors, he suspected.

Society misses were all the same, all as uniform as a banana and just as docilely sweet. Save, he felt no urgency to peel any of them.

Better to remain single, he reckoned, than be alone with one of them.

In the end, only his want of a family kept him searching the society marriage markets. Someone had to inherit his wealth someday, a son he would teach to sail as his seafarer father had taught Preston. They had enjoyed only a few years before the mast together and then...and then...

Preston shuddered. And then, a horrible set of factors had taken both his parents from him.

His broad shoulders a-slump, Preston crossed to the middle of the warehouse, where business agents showed tropical fruit fresh off the boat to prospective buyers.

To be fair, Preston had most likely caused all those young misses in Newport the same reaction as they caused in him. Boredom usually resulted when two people had little in common. No one's fault. Just the way it was.

Marriage was more than romance, more than hot loins and impassioned cries, especially sea captain marriages. Extended ocean voyages meant weeks, if not months, spent apart. Only a special female could stand up under the strain of those lengthy separations.

A sea captain's wife was an equal partner in marriage, handling all domestic matters during her husband's absences, including emergencies. And there were always emergencies. Those pretty chits he danced with in Newport would never be able to cope. Those misses would cry over a broken nail...

"Do not think to intimidate me, Mr. Timmons."

Preston startled. What the devil? Who was that speaking?

The voice originated from somewhere behind him and belonged to a female. Not to just any female, either - a female with a slight Jamaican cadence to her manner of talking. Few would notice the rhythm of her words, but Preston knew island patois when he heard it.

Homesick as never before, he whipped around in the direction of that beautiful, lyrical...mad as all hell...voice.

And spied a beautiful and angry face to match it. Her unusual features brought with them a reminder of where he had passed the last fifteen years of his life.

Mulatto, quadroon, octoroon - however the hell the law defined her ancestry - she was of mixed race. African and white, more than likely, and definitely all-woman as only a Jamaican female out to kill a man who done her wrong can be.

Preston pitied this Mr. Timmons, bewhiskered jowls and all. Honest to Christ, the fella resembled a grizzly sporting a haphazard shave. Maybe the Jamaican woman had picked up a few fleas - those tricky critters could jump - and she was giving the bear all what for because of it.

In sympathy, Preston scratched his own clean shaven jaw.

The woman did some finger pointing, some finger shaking, some poking of the air, and then she lit into the furry fella in her Jamaican twang:

"You will rue the day you attempt to pull the wool over my eyes, Mr. Timmons."

Preston winced. The female was really going to town, really chewing out the furry fella's rump.

This was about more than any damn jumping fleas.

Not that she raised her voice. Her tone was every bit as prissy and well-modulated and lyrical as before. No, she had done something more terrifying than yell.

She rephrased.

Thinking a man might have misunderstood them the first time, females always turned a sentence around the second time through. And, generally speaking, the fella had misunderstood them because men were too busy thinking those kind of thoughts to listen to a woman.

Murderous intent burned bright in her eyes. If Preston was a betting man, he would lay odds the bear was about to get his furry ass whooped.

As any innocent bystander would under the circumstances, Preston took a backward step. A good thing too. The next moment, and out of nowhere, a banana peel closer to brown in color than to yellow flew past his nose.

Seeing as how the overripe banana had narrowly missed its target, the female rolled up her jacket's tight sleeves, thus exposing a pair of shapely forearms, and reached into a wooden crate standing open before her.

Preston knew where this was going. And sure enough, she took into her no-nonsense cotton gloves, the fingertips cut away for practicality, another mushy banana and pitched the rotten fruit.

At the grizzly.

This time, the furry fella had the good sense to seek cover. His hindquarters in motion, he skedaddled behind a tall stack of wooden crates.

Preston had some familiarity with those slatted containers. Not only because he too had hidden behind a few in his time, but also because his schooner had carried plenty in her hold through the years. Plantation owners regularly shipped their crops inside straw-lined boxes to keep them bruise-free during market-bound sea voyages.

Those boxes had not served their purpose here. Fact was - starving hogs at feed-time would turn up their snouts at the slop she was tossing.

Could be the female was taking exception to the state of those bananas. Hence her pitching fit.

Just supposition, naturally.

Irrespective of the whys and wherefores of her banana-throwing mood, this woman belonged at his side during Preston's next bar brawl, and that was for damn sure.

Alternatively, going up against her - say during a mutiny, for instance - would scare the piss right out of Preston.

Before she turned the furry fella into a bear coat, Preston took action.

No, he did not recklessly place himself between the grizzly and the angry Jamaican. True, the sinking of his schooner had saddened Preston, but he could think of less messy ways of ending it all than by flying rotten bananas.

Neither rash nor suicidal, Preston would mount no rescue mission for the set-upon Mr. Timmons.

But he sure as fuck would watch the entertainment from a safe distance.

In search of an empty crate on which to sit his haunches down before the real bloodbath began, Preston raced across the floor.

The peels. Christ. In his hurry to get a front row seat for the show, he forgot all about the discarded skins. Like an unseasoned sailor without sea legs...like a goddamned landlubber...he slid on the splatter.

Preston was going down for the third time, about to break open his fool head on the hard warehouse floor, when the beautiful Jamaican looked over at him.

And grinned.

Could be, she found cracked skulls comical. Could be, she was flirting. Could be, it was a little of both. But no could be about it, he was not wasting this opportunity.

Regaining his even keel, Preston smiled right back at her.

But who the hell was he smiling at?

A mystery. The waterfront was a place of business. From nautical equipment to mercantile goods to tropical fruit, everything was sold down here, all out of the four-story granite and brick warehouses that lined the wharf.

Not to his recollection was there a big call for bonnets, the merchandise women generally sold. Well, either that or themselves.

Drinking establishments abounded along Atlantic Avenue, rough and rowdy places filled with sailors looking to pass a few hours before shipping back out to sea. This clientele was none too fussy about how they spent the time. So long as it involved a whore.

This beautiful, heart-stopping, banana-throwing, Jamaican female was no waterfront whore, of this Preston was confident.

So was she. Confident, that is.

To Preston's way of thinking, nothing was more arousing than self-assurance in a woman. The hurting bulge in Preston's trousers testified to this.

Her knowing smile told him something else: Here was a woman who knew how to handle a painful situation such as his. Literally handle it. The merry twinkle in her eyes - hazel-green - hinted at the same.

Making her acquaintance seemed a sensible thing to do.

Beneath the veil of her hat, a wavy stand of rich brown hair loosened from its mooring and drifted across her sculpted cheek. With a flick of her wrist, she swept it away.

Preston sensed she would sweep him away too, the very distraction he needed today of all days.

Goddamn it! He was a hard-working sea captain, not some gentleman of leisure. What the devil was he supposed to do now that his schooner had sunk - sit around with a thumb up his ass?

A sea captain without a vessel...a man without a woman ...Preston could use an activity to forget both those sad conditions.

And just like his cock, he came up with only one.