Authors: Candice Proctor
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Erotica
"Is Mr. Ryder at home?" India asked, hesitating at the base of the steps.
The woman was lighter-skinned than most
of the Melanesians of the island, perhaps part Polynesian, or even part European. A bare-bottomed boy of two or three gazed up at India from his mother's side, his eyes big and blue in a pale, even-featured face. A terrible suspicion forming in her mind, India stared at the child, then back at the nubile, half-naked woman.
India was no innocent. She had heard of such things: white men keeping dark women as their mistresses. But that didn't mean she found the thought of having to deal with such a man any less disquieting.
"Ryder inside," said the woman, her attention once more concentrated on the deft movement of her fingers. "You go in."
India mounted the steps, then paused again before the open, darkened doorway. The woman had told her to enter, but she couldn't quite bring herself to do so unannounced. Raising one fist, she rapped her knuckles sharply against the frame. "Mr. Ryder?" she called, then stood listening as her voice faded away into a silence broken by the gentle swish of palm fronds and the boom of the distant surf.
"Mr. Ryder," she called again, louder. Somewhere, a cockatoo screeched, but the stillness of the house's interior remained undisturbed. With a last glance at the bare-breasted woman on the porch, India stepped inside.
Although primitive, the house's interior was surprisingly pleasant, with tall, open rafters and a deliciously airy atmosphere a more proper plank-and-iron colonial structure could never have achieved. The pale, diffused light filtering in through the bamboo blinds showed her a scattering of island-made furniture: sturdy mahogany and teak tables and settees, and numerous tall bamboo bookcases filled, to India's amazement, with shelf after shelf of well-worn books. Overcome with curiosity, she was halfway across the floor toward them, intending to study their titles, when a faint stirring followed by a strangled snore froze her in her tracks.
Turning her head to search the shadowy recesses of the room, India found herself staring at a huge, elaborately carved Malaysian bedstead draped in filmy white falls of mosquito netting. From the crumpled depths of the bedding, a dark masculine arm emerged to flop over the mattress's edge and dangle there limply.
"Mr. Ryder," said India.
The arm didn't move.
Remembering the man's state of undress the previous day, India approached the bedstead with some caution. A tousled dark head came into view, then a naked back, well strapped with muscle and darkened by the sun. Letting her gaze travel slowly down that taut, curving spine, India found herself both relieved and oddly disappointed to discover a twisted sheet obscuring any further details of the man's anatomy.
"Mr. Ryder," she said again, louder, but received in response only another half snore that filled the air with incriminating fumes of brandy.
She thought about shaking the bedpost, but it seemed too intimate a thing, to actually touch his bed. Instead, she grasped the edge of a nearby chest for balance and, lifting one foot, used the toe of her sensible lace-up boot to jostle the mattress.
A soft, melodic laugh from the doorway behind her brought India around.
"You could dump him out of bed and it probably still wouldn't wake him," said the slim Polynesian boy who stood just inside the hut's entrance.
India threw a disdainful glance back at the man in the bed. "I hired him to take me to Takaku. He was to have picked me up at the Limerick in Neu Brenenberg at dawn."
"I know. I've had the
ready to go." He came forward as he spoke, and India saw that, like the Melanesian baby on the porch, this boy must be of mixed parentage, for his skin was surprisingly fair, his hair more auburn than black. His English was good, too, with only a vague trace of an accent. And unlike Mr. Ryder, the boy was decently clothed in a sturdy shirt and canvas trousers. "I am Patu."
"How do you do?" she said, extending him her hand, and wondering if this boy, like the one on the porch, counted the dissolute, naked Australian in the bed as his father. "It doesn't look as if we shall be making the trip to Takaku today."
"I'm afraid it's today or not at all," said Patu. "The
scheduled to start its run through the islands tomorrow, to pick up copra from the other stations, and we're late as it is. The weather's not likely to hold for much longer."
India knew a bitter combination of disappointment and rising indignation. To have come so close to reaching her objective, only to have the chance snatched away!
The man in the bed let out another brandy-tinged snore, then lay still.
"Stand back, Mr. Patu," said India, coming to an instant decision.
The smile on the boy's face faded. "Why?"
"Because I wouldn't want to get you wet." Spinning back around, she seized the water jug from Mr. Ryder's bedside chest and flung its contents in a well-aimed arc that landed with a sodden splash on the dark, disheveled head of the bed's occupant.
He was drowning.
Choking and sputtering, Jack pushed himself up onto his forearms, his head bowed, his open mouth sucking in air, his brain confused and befuddled. Water ran into his ear and dripped off his nose. He must have gone outside and passed out. That was it. He'd gone outside to take a leak and passed out, and now it was raining.
Opening his eyes, Jack had a brief, confusing vision of mosquito netting and a carved bedpost. Then the room spun around in a familiar, sickening way. Groaning, he closed his eyes and sank down onto the sheets again. Wet sheets. Why were his sheets wet? He was in his bed, but he was wet. It didn't make any sense.
"We had an appointment today, Mr. Ryder," said a faintly familiar and smugly self-satisfied female voice. "Have you forgotten?"
Swiveling his head, Jack opened one eye and found himself staring at Miss India Bloody McKnight. She had a malevolent smile on her face and his water jug in her hands. His empty water jug.
"Sonofafuckingbitch." It came out hoarse and waterlogged, but ferociously clear.
"An appointment to sail
she continued, as if she hadn't heard him, although he knew bloody well she had by the angry color in her cheeks and the unnecessary click with which she set the empty jug down on the chest. "The sun is now well up in the sky. You must bestir yourself."
She sounded like a bloody Sunday school teacher. She should have been a Sunday school teacher, he decided, rather than tromping determinedly around the world, writing her bloody books and trying to drown men in their beds.
Jack rolled onto his back, his hands coming up to rake the wet hair out of his face and rub his bleary eyes. Bestir himself. He brought his gaze into focus on her prim, self-righteous face. So she wanted him to bestir himself, did she? He'd teach her to come barging into a sleeping man's house and throw water on him.
His gaze still fixed on her face, Jack swung first one leg over the side of the bed, then the other, and pushed the dripping mosquito netting aside. She must have expected him to bring the sheet up with him, wrapped laplap style about his hips for modesty, because she didn't turn away. It wasn't until he thrust the covers aside and stood up in all his naked glory that she went skittering backward, her eyes opening wide, her tented hands flying up to press against her lips.
"All right," he said, spreading his arms wide. It being first thing in the morning, and Jack being the kind of man he was, he didn't even need to check to know that a certain portion of his anatomy was already wide awake and ready for action. "I'm up. Satisfied?"
He expected her to scream and run away. She didn't. Clasping her hands together, she let them fall to the front of her skirt—
her split tartan skirt,
Jack noticed, opening his eyes wider at the sight of it. He also noticed, for the first time, that Patu was standing behind her. Patu was not smiling.
"Mr. Patu informs me that the
is ready to sail." She drew in a deep breath that lifted her full breasts, but she managed to keep her voice steady, even businesslike. And she didn't look away. "We will await your arrival at the dock." Then she turned slowly, her shoulders back, her head held high, her dignity and self-possession unshaken, and walked out the house.
"Well, I'll be damned," said Jack.
"Go ahead, say it." Jack turned his head to study the tight, serious profile of the boy beside him. They were some three miles out of Neu Brenen, running easily with a freshening wind, and Patu had yet to say a word to him that didn't deal with the rigging of the
sails or some other detail involved in setting out to sea.
Patu kept his gaze on the gentle swell of the foam-flecked, vivid blue waves that stretched back to the dark and jagged outline of Neu Brenen's high peaks, still visible in the hazy distance. "I have nothing to say."
"Like hell you don't. The way it's all churning around inside you, you're liable to spew if you don't spit it out soon."
Patu turned his head, his nostrils flaring. "All right, I'll say it. She's a lady. A European lady. And you... you did
Jack threw a quick glance toward the prow of the yacht, where Miss India McKnight sat cross-legged on a chest, her head bowed as she scribbled furiously in a little black cloth notebook. He lowered his voice. "She upended a jug of water on me."
"And you were supposed to pick her up from the Limerick. At dawn."
A hot urge to defend the indefensible swelled within him. Jack swallowed it. "Here, take the tiller," he said, and sauntered toward the prow, swaying easily with the pitch and swell of the deck.
He drew up some two feet from his pith-hat- and tartan-clad passenger. She continued writing, not even bothering to glance up, although his shadow fell across her page and she must have known he was there. Jack cleared his throat. "I was thinking maybe you might like a guide. On Takaku."
She kept her head bowed over her notebook. "Are you offering your services, Mr. Ryder?"
"Patu. I was offering Patu."
The pencil paused, then resumed its journey across the page. "Thank you, but I always travel alone, and I prefer to explore the various sites I visit alone, as well."
"Seems a lonely way of life," he said, surprising even himself with the words.
She did look up then, but only enough so that, with the pith helmet hiding the upper part of her face, he still couldn't see her eyes. "For a woman, you mean?"
He blinked down at her. "For anyone."
"I have never been troubled by loneliness," she said, and went back to her writing. "It is only in solitude that one finds the peace necessary for reflection and composition. I find that women companions have a regrettable tendency to chatter incessantly, while men..."
She paused, so that he had to prompt her. "Yes?"
"Men invariably fall into the habit of attempting to boss any female in their company—even if the female in question is paying their wages."
Jack stared down at the rounded top of that pith helmet, and knew an unexpected and totally inexplicable rush of rage so pure and sweet that it stole his breath. He started to turn away, but took only two steps before he spun back around to point his finger at her and say, "The way I figure it, we're even."
Her head fell back, slowly, as she stared up at him, her eyes narrowing against the glare off the water. "And precisely how do you
that, Mr. Ryder?"
"I might have missed picking you up at dawn, but you threw a bloody pitcher of water on me."
Her entire body seemed to stiffen. "I see no correlation between the two events at all. If you recall, I was simply endeavoring to awaken you."
"Huh. I recognize revenge when I see it."
"Indeed. I didn't expect to hear you admit that I'd been wronged."
"I didn't say that."
She swung her head away to stare out over the surging waves, but not before he caught a glimpse of the intriguing smile that played about her lips. "Very well, Mr. Ryder. I accept your apology."
Jack almost jumped. "Bloody hell. I wasn't apologizing."
She brought her gaze back to his face. The smile was gone. "Then we're not even."
They could smell the island of Takaku before they saw it, a spicy sweet tropical aroma that came to them on the stiffening breeze. Then the island itself materialized from out of the haze, a wild, impossibly beautiful place of calm turquoise lagoons and sweeping, palm-fringed beaches backed by steep, wild crags clad in a luxurious riot of tangled greenery.
Far to the north, the island tapered off into leafy dales and marshy flats where the French had established a trading village they called La Rochelle. But here, at its southern tip, Takaku was a land of near-vertical gorges and high volcanic peaks that rose twisted and menacing toward the tropical blue sky. Steam still drifted from the various cracks and craters of the smaller and southernmost of these, Mount Futapu, thrusting up from the shores of a deep round bay that was itself the flooded caldron of an old volcano. Like most of the islands in this area, Takaku was surrounded by a lagoon formed by a largely submerged fringing coral reef against which the surf crashed in an endless, spray-dashing cannonade. Which meant that the only way into the bay at the base of Mount Futapu was through a narrow break in the reef made all the more dangerous by crosscurrents and an unpredictable wind.
Idling in the rolling breakers outside the reef, Jack hauled down the staysail. Then he took the tiller again, the yacht dipping and swaying with the swell as Patu scrambled up the mast.
"Is that necessary?" asked Miss McKnight, her head tipping back as she watched the boy's ascent.
"What'd you think?" said Jack, shouting to be heard over the roar of the surf. "That people told you the pass into the bay of Futapu was dangerous just so they could up the price of 'conveying' you here?"
"As a matter of fact, yes."
Jack grunted and brought the yacht's prow around until they were pointed at the passage. "And the cannibals?"
"Oh, those I believe in."
"And they still don't worry you?"
"They're a necessary risk."
Jack threw her a quick, assessing glance. The sun was shining warm and golden on the smooth skin of her even-featured face. She looked young and excited and far more attractive than he would have liked. He gave a low grunt that came out sounding like a growl. "You're either very brave, or very foolish."
"And which are you, Mr. Ryder?"
Jack laughed. "Me? I'm just crazy."
After that, his attention was all for the dark blue ribbon of deep water that curled its way between the sharp, submerged shelves of rainbow-hued coral. Gulls wheeled, screeching, overhead, as Patu called down warnings and directions from his high perch. But although Jack was careful, he wasn't particularly worried, and it wasn't long before they reached the calm, flat safety of the inner lagoon.
"There's sails out there," said Patu, climbing down the rigging as Jack eased the
into the deep, round bay. "A frigate or corvette, by the looks of her."
Jack found his spyglass and raised it to his eye. A sleek three-masted ship hovered in the haze just off the southern tip of the island. After a long pause, he said, "If she's flying any colors, I can't see them."
Miss McKnight came to stand at the rail beside him, her narrowed gaze on the distant ship. "Surely you don't think it's pirates, do you?"
"Pirates?" Jack lowered his glass. "No, I don't think it's pirates." She gave him a puzzled look, but he saw no reason to explain. "You've got three hours," he said, and turned away abruptly to set to work at lowering the
She gasped. "Three hours! But that's outrageous. I—" The rest of her protest was lost in the rattle of the dinghy's chains. He was aware of her, gray eyes flashing, nostrils flaring as she fumed silently beside him until the rattling stopped. She began again, "If we had made an earlier start—"
"We didn't." The dinghy launched, Jack dangled the rope ladder over the side, and turned to face her. "The climb up to the crater's rim shouldn't take you more than forty-five minutes, and it'll be quicker coming down. That gives you a good hour and a half to look around the summit, and make sketches of the Faces of Futapu or whatever it is you plan to do up there, and still be back on the beach in three hours."
She obviously wasn't used to being dictated to. She glared at him, her chest rising and falling with indignation, her grip on the strap of her knapsack tightening until her knuckles showed white. If she'd had his neck in her hands, he'd be dead. "And if I'm not?"
Jack gave her his meanest smile. "Then I'll assume someone's made you his dinner, and the
sails." He let the smile fade. "Understood?"
Her lips pressed together into a thin, hard line. "Quite."