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Authors: Helen Dickson

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Antony’s face went white with fury. ‘Captain Fitzgerald! It is my wife you are speaking to. I do not like your tone, sir. Carmelita is not to blame for your irresponsible behaviour.’

‘Your wife cannot be absolved from blame. She knew
exactly
what you would find when she suggested I come here.’ He eyed Carmelita scathingly. ‘By God, you must be desperate to rid yourself of your sister-in-law to go to such lengths.’

‘I am concerned, Captain Fitzgerald,’ she said, glancing at her husband for his complicity. ‘There is bound to be a huge scandal over this and Shona’s marriage prospects reduced to nothing since no decent gentleman will marry her after what you have done.’

‘What my wife says is correct, Captain,’ Antony seconded. ‘You must surely realise that no decent man is going to look at my sister now.’

‘If the self-righteous citizens of the island can make a scandal out of something so paltry, they need their minds examined.’

‘That is your opinion, Captain,’ Carmelita uttered brusquely, ‘but the fact remains that from this day forward, wherever she goes, scandal will follow her. For that you must pay, and dearly. Therefore, I am sure my husband will agree there is only one solution. You shall not leave this island until you agree to do the right thing by her.’

Zack could not have been more astonished if a thunderbolt had struck him. The Spanish woman’s imperious tone appeared to be enough to daunt the most vigorous captain. Carmelita McKenzie was certainly no weak-minded woman who sheltered behind her husband, but Zack was not the man to be easily intimidated.

‘And that is?’

‘If you have any sense of honour, any sense of responsibility, to save her from disgrace you must wed her.’

With the look of pure bloody-minded rebellion on his face, a nerve jerking in his cheek, Zack was so consumed with fury over the thought of wedding that scheming, deceitful fair-haired witch that he could hardly utter a word. Everything in him rebelled. When he could finally trust himself to speak, his voice erupted like hissing steam. ‘You ask the impossible. There is nothing I
must
do, Mrs McKenzie.’ Shifting his gaze to Shona, Zack’s eyes swept over her in the most insulting manner, contemptuous of what he was certain she had done. In cold, frigid silence, for an endless moment their gazes locked as they assessed one another.

He cursed himself for having touched her, but he had been unable to resist the mad desire which she awoke in him. The first time he had set eyes on her he’d made no attempt to disguise the fact that he was violently attracted to her. And now, he had not stopped to think, but simply because she was beautiful and he wanted her, he had taken her in his arms and would have made her his without the blessing of matrimony. But from that moment when spontaneous attraction had drawn them together, fate had stepped in and taken malicious pleasure in separating them—before forcing his hand into marriage.

* * *

Shona was half-clad, but felt entirely naked. Everything about Captain Fitzgerald exuded an unbending will and that in turn made Shona more wretched and helpless as she searched the forbidding countenance for some sign of the man she had seen earlier. But there was none. His face was frozen into a hardened mask of rage and his grey eyes, having turned to an icy, metallic silver, impaled her, accusing her of complicity and treachery. She could imagine how his mind must be recoiling from it, but all she saw were the hard lines of his face, the tautness of his jaw.

Trembling beneath the blast of his gaze, at the cost of a violent effort of will, she made herself step towards him on legs that were wooden. ‘I—I know how this must look— I know what you imagine—’

Zack’s laugh was even more insolent than his words. ‘Imagine?’

‘I know what you think—but I assure you, I did not plan this...’

‘Don’t bother trying to explain. Let us not pretend. Do not play the innocent,’ he ground out, his voice quiet, with all the deadly calm of approaching peril. ‘Let me congratulate you. You are as clever as I credited you as being. You are a consummate deceiver, Miss McKenzie, and a magnificent actress. I congratulate you. With your talent you should have been on the stage with the rest of the ambitious harlots who cavort and dance for the amusement of the crowd.’

In a state of acute misery, Shona swallowed convulsively. ‘You are quite mistaken. I have done absolutely nothing wrong.’

In his current mood he was not inclined to deal kindly with her. Fed up with all the convoluted lies and his own disastrous blunder, he would not spare her. His tone was merciless and cutting. ‘Spare me your lies. It’s not difficult to see what sort of a woman you are. You planned this with all the deviousness of a born schemer.’ His eyes were bright and as sharp as the teeth of a trap. ‘When I leave the island, I never wish to set eyes on it again,’ he said, his voice hard and smooth as polished steel. ‘I never wish to think of you again, Miss McKenzie, unless it be with disgust.’ His cold eyes swept over Antony and his wife. ‘Excuse me. I have work to do. The sooner I leave this damned island the better.’

With a cold nod he turned on his heel and headed up the path, fury a hard lump in his throat, like a nut swallowed whole. He cursed ever setting eyes on Shona McKenzie. She had got under his skin the minute he’d stepped ashore and began to disrupt his life. In the heat of the creek passion had replaced all reason. Like the idiot he was, he’d watched transfixed as she’d shaken out her wealth of golden hair, slipped into the water and snaked her tantalising body back and forth, and all the time she’d been waiting for the moment when her brother and his wife would arrive to witness their actions.

McKenzie must be laughing himself into a seizure that he’d fallen into the trap. After all his experience, his alleged sophistication, he thought as his wrath continued to mount, he’d fallen like a rock for the oldest female trick in the world. Leaving Melrose Hill, he tried to decide the most expedient way to extricate himself from this mess and get the woman off his hands for good. Reaching his ship, he immediately issued orders to stock up and be ready to leave within twenty-four hours. Any outstanding repairs would be completed in Martinique.

* * *

In the creek, Shona was left still hugging her dress to her chest. Her thoughts were unpleasant and for the first time ever she doubted her own worth. She felt as if she had been physically beaten. Her mind was too dazed to absorb the shock, too numb to feel the full enormity of pain she had brought on herself.

‘Make yourself decent and come back to the house,’ Carmelita ordered sharply, turning from her. Having gained her end, she forgot the means and, in high spirits, clutched her husband’s arm and walked close to his side. ‘Captain Fitzgerald’s actions were without precedent. I see now it was unwise to welcome him so freely. I think we have set a lion loose in an arena filled with lambs. You must pay him a visit on his ship, Antony—let him see that the matter is by no means closed.’

With unsteady fingers Shona began to rearrange her garments. She followed them back to the house, relieved that the dreadful moment was over. There seemed to be an overwhelming emptiness about it all now, but her young body burned with a yearning she had never experienced before—but there was no solace in it now, for her arms were achingly empty.

But she would never forget the accusing look of treachery the captain had given her, a look that lay like a dead weight upon her mind. He had withered her with a look of crushing scorn and contempt. There were some things a man as hard and inflexible as Captain Fitzgerald would never forgive and in his mind she had set out to seduce and entrap him into marriage.

But what of her? The gossip created by their liaison would be endless and the humiliation she would suffer as a result of it would be immeasurable.

* * *

Zack drove himself relentlessly, getting the ship seaworthy, barking orders at his crew as if he could burn some of the anger out of his system. And that night he lay awake in his oversize bunk, restless and dissatisfied as he listened to the sound of revelry from the waterfront taverns and thought about Shona McKenzie.

 

Chapter Four

S
hortly after lunch the day after the unpleasantness in the grove, feeling in need of strenuous exercise and to escape her brother’s and Carmelita’s reproving looks and to tire her mind and body, Shona ordered her horse to be saddled. She rode inland towards the cane fields, riding past the sugar mill and then beyond to the high cliffs. The day was pleasant, with a light breeze that billowed out the skirt of her light blue riding habit and loosened the tendrils of hair about her face.

Drawing near the cliff edge, her horse began to prance, tossing her fine head and lifting her legs smartly as she sidled along the edge, scattering loose rocks into the sea below. Suddenly another horse appeared beside her and a large brown hand shot out and took the bridle. Her horse halted with a bounce, bringing Shona’s teeth together. Trotting away from the dangerous edge, she turned her head to see who had halted her ride. On seeing Captain Fitzgerald, Shona could have screamed her ire at him.

Anger sounded in his voice. ‘If you must ride so close to the edge, you might do so with some care for your safety.’

The rebuke did not sit well with Shona and was even more irritating because she knew he spoke the truth. Her horse was spirited and eager to gallop and needed a firm, attentive hand on the reins. Today Shona was distracted and it was all down to this man. With a very feminine gesture she threw back her head, the gold treasure of her hair rippling down her spine. The captain did not so much as blink. His silver-grey eyes remained fixed on her face without the trace of a smile to soften their steely expression.

‘Do you like Santamaria so much, Captain Fitzgerald, that you cannot bear to leave it? Go away. I should not be talking to you. It isn’t proper.’

‘Don’t you think it’s too late to worry about what’s proper?’

Sorely piqued, Shona looked away. ‘Yes, it is and it’s all thanks to you.’

‘You’ve every right to be angry. And so do I.’

So much for holding her feelings in check, she thought, then she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, struggling against a wave of anger and uncertainty and despair. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘What does it look like? I am unable to leave for Martinique until the repairs to my ship are completed. Owing to recent events, the crew have been instructed to put their backs into it. The sooner I leave your island the better.’

‘Santamaria is not my island, Captain. I just happen to live here—for the time being. I am every bit as eager as you are to leave.’

‘Then you’ll just have to wait for another ship with a captain gullible enough to fall into your trap,’ he ground out sarcastically.

‘Perhaps I shall,’ Shona replied without preamble. ‘A captain who is more amiable than you. But if you are so keen to be on your way, then shouldn’t you be assisting your crew with patching up your ship?’

‘The work is in the capable hands of my first mate, Miss McKenzie. Having heard of the beauty of this place, I hired a horse to see for myself.’

Careful to keep a distance between them, Zack kept his horse on a tight rein. With a firestorm of humiliated fury erupting from his heart, he had been watching her for some time. His pulse had pounded out a primal drumbeat as he watched her riding her fine white horse with expert grace, a ruthless, beautiful huntress in light blue skirts, the bright gold of her hair blowing in the breeze. Not only did he owe her for colluding with her sister-in-law to lure him to the creek yesterday, but looked at in a certain way, her brother’s insistence that they wed, which would result in his loss of freedom, was all down to this maddening chit. If he had not been out of his head over her, he would have stayed away from Melrose Hill. Well, this was where it had got him, he thought, and he was determined to get himself out of it.

‘Until you appeared, I was enjoying the ride,’ Shona said haughtily. ‘Had I known you were about, I would have sought a different route.’

‘Why? Do you fear me, Miss McKenzie?’ He gave her a hard look, his mouth tightening as he stared at her softly heaving bosom and the tantalising mouth that he had so enjoyed kissing yesterday.

His gaze touched a quickness within Shona and she quickly averted her eyes. No one before this man had ever set her to trembling for any reason, much less with a look or mere words. What was there about this captain that aroused her so? She could not think of those moments she had spent in his arms. She could not allow herself to revisit the memory. It would not happen again. Did she want it to? A part of her yearned for him every moment—for his arms, his lips, his warm flesh pressed to hers. Another part of her cringed in horror. What was she? A harlot? What had her proper upbringing brought her to—that she could propose marriage to a stranger and then behave most shamelessly after he rejected her? What would her father think of her now?

She could understand her physical attraction to him. What she could not understand, and what frightened her, was this strange, magnetic pull she felt towards him emotionally. There were times when he spoke to her in that deep, compelling voice of his, or looked at her with those silver-grey penetrating eyes, that she almost felt as if he were quietly reaching out to her and inexorably drawing her closer and closer to him.

Greatly disturbed by the path of her mind, she straightened her back indignantly and pushed her hair back from her face, trying to control her restive mount. Unlike yesterday when he had sought her out, today he made no effort to conceal the contempt he felt for her.

‘I do not fear you, Captain. It is only that I prefer not to be mauled and ogled as you seemed to have a penchant for doing yesterday.’

‘That’s the last thing on my mind. That’s what precipitated this mess, and I’m not fool enough to repeat it.’

‘So, your run-in with my brother yesterday has cooled your lusts.’

The corner of his mouth twisted wryly in a gesture that was not quite a smile. ‘Trust me, after yesterday the last thing you evoke in me is lust. Damn it, none of this would have happened if you’d kept your clothes on.’

‘How could I know that?’

‘Perhaps you make a habit of it. How would I know? How many more
gentlemen
have you entertained for your own pleasure in what you would have me believe is your own private little pool?’

Shona paled visibly as she listened to his flow of calculated insults with incredulity, delivered in a cordial, conversational tone. He was mocking her, showing her that the warmth of their passionate interlude, which had developed in the creek, had changed into a quiet contempt. ‘How dare you say that? No one ever goes to the pool when I am there. Carmelita knows that and she was being malicious when she sent you there.’

‘Was she? I would say your co-conspirator is an amazing actress to have pulled off the whole sham so well,’ Zack said with a fresh surge of disgust for his own gullibility. Shona McKenzie was also a stellar actress, he decided wrathfully, remembering the softness in her eyes during the time they had spent together on the side of the pool. She’d looked straight at him with her heart in her eyes, unflinching. Except she had no heart. And no conscience either, obviously. It would appear that she was so eager to go to England that she would stop at nothing to achieve that. ‘Your sister-in-law certainly had more to say than your brother, who doesn’t seem to mind being undermined by his wife.’

‘Antony is his own master, Captain. Carmelita is his only weakness.’

‘He came to the ship earlier.’ A muscle flexed in his jaw. ‘Your brother doesn’t intend to let my ship or crew leave the island unless I do the honourable thing and make you my wife. I do not underestimate your brother. He has told me the island is well fortified to stop undesirables landing. It would appear it is equally as impossible to leave with one’s ship and one’s life intact if he has a mind. He is still insisting that I marry you—soon.’ His biting tone carried anger and frustration.

‘He feels responsible for me.’

‘He made that quite clear! I won’t marry you. I have already told you that.’ His voice was hoarse with anger, his tone adamant. He wouldn’t let her or her brother or anyone else deny him the chance to still win his daughter. ‘What happened between us yesterday doesn’t change anything.’

Her eyes began to flash quietly. ‘I didn’t expect it to,’ she returned with frozen civility. ‘I don’t wish to marry you either, Captain, so at least we are in accord about something.’

Zack stared down at her. He hadn’t missed the flare of temper in her green eyes. ‘Your brother has threatened to confiscate my ship if I don’t go through with it.’

‘Yes, I thought he might,’ she said quietly. ‘He is adamant. I’ll speak to him if that will satisfy you.’

‘And tell him what?’

‘That we don’t want to wed.’

‘He won’t accept that. His wife is determined that we will.’

‘I’m sorry, but that is the best I can do. What happened yesterday is already being talked about.’

‘I can’t help that. You knew perfectly well what you were doing when you fell into my arms. You will have to weather the slurs and accusations as best you can. Any concerns I may have do not extend to actually marrying you. I am done with you. Your brother’s timely arrival yesterday brought me back to my senses—and his ultimatum is a cutting reminder of the impossibility of any further association between us. It seems we have reached an impasse, which is a problem.’ He clenched his fists, anger sweeping through him as he remembered her brother’s ultimatum. Devil take it, he would not be forced into marriage, not even to a woman as lovely and bewitching as Shona McKenzie.

‘For you, maybe, but not for me,’ Shona said tightly, pulling on the reins to turn her horse about.

His hand shot out and he took her wrist and gripped it hard. ‘I am not a stupid youth, Miss McKenzie. I am not a man you flirt with. I will not allow you and your family to enjoy yourselves at my expense.’

‘Enjoy?’ she scoffed, her eyes flashing irately. ‘I am not enjoying this. Far from it.’

‘So, what then?’

‘Antony
does
mean for you to marry me.’

‘Your brother be damned. I’m not some trained underling to do as he is told. I am not afraid of him.’

‘Perhaps you should be. Antony is a powerful man, Captain. He will never forgive you for compromising me.’

‘I don’t think I shall miss his affections.’

‘You should have a care. He’s a man of much influence.’

‘He’s a man of much arrogance.’

‘He means what he says.’

Zack’s eyes narrowed dangerously. ‘Are you threatening me?’

She nodded. ‘I suppose I am. I suppose I must be.’

He thrust her arm away and his eyes glittered down at her from a face that was full of rage. ‘You are nothing but an eager body and an empty heart,’ he said viciously. ‘Did you think I would be so desperate for your body I would be glad to marry you? Good God, lady, you do not know me! Good day, Miss McKenzie. I have nothing further to say to you.’ He urged his mount away, as if he couldn’t bear to be near her.

Shona watched him go. On reflection, as she realised how the situation must look to him, she gradually became more sympathetic and found herself coming up with excuses for him. After all, why should he trust her? She was a woman he did not know and yet she had asked him to marry her. Then, following his refusal, Carmelita had sent him to the creek where he had found her half-naked. She had made no attempt to run away or cover herself and had raised no objection when he’d kissed her. He knew of her desperation to leave the island and must have thought they had colluded to entrap him.

* * *

Riding away from Shona, Zack’s thoughts turned to his daughter, the small child he loved fiercely. He had never expected to feel that way about anybody. He revered his parents and he held his brother and sisters in great affection, yet the bond between a father and his child was stronger—deeper...

He shook his head in frustration. He could not marry Shona McKenzie, not at the risk of losing his daughter, but he was determined not to let what had happened between them ruin his peace or spoil his last seafaring days. Riding his horse in the direction of the cove, he urged it into a gallop before bringing it to a halt and looking back.

‘Damn it all!’ he muttered, wondering how she had managed to make him feel like an utter cad for refusing her. Riding back to his ship, he felt every eye turn to him and the fact that they were all equated with what had transpired between him and Shona McKenzie made his blood boil, for he was a man of honour, but he knew there was little he could do to counter the thoughts of those around him. He’d heard the talk around the town, the rumours and speculation, and he’d learned long ago to let most of what was said in ignorance roll off his broad back.

* * *

Boarding his ship, Zack saw Singleton give him a questioning glance and knew his first mate was curious about what he would decide, for it was becoming increasingly evident that leaving Santamaria was becoming more difficult by the hour. He did not underestimate Antony McKenzie. He had told him the island was well protected against undesirables. Two ships patrolled the entrance to the cove and an increasing number of armed men were watching the ship. In fact, the whole island was bristling with weapons.

* * *

It wasn’t long before Antony McKenzie paid him another visit. Zack received him cordially. Radiating command, he dominated the spacious cabin. If he could talk his way out of this mess he would, so if it meant having to be polite to McKenzie then so be it.

‘You have presented me with a grave dilemma, Captain Fitzgerald,’ Antony remarked, his hands behind his back as he slowly paced Zack’s private cabin. He did not bother to hide his irritation. As he and Fitzgerald faced each other, anger was brittle in the air between them.

‘I did not mean to,’ Zack answered, his face holding a bland, cordial expression by ingrained politeness alone. ‘Circumstances...’ he omitted to say
and McKenzie’s own wife
‘...conspired to keep me alone with your sister.’

‘And circumstances conspired to have her within your embrace?’ Antony said dourly, his eyes hard and steady.

BOOK: Mishap Marriage
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