The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
My Heart’s Treasure
Copyright © 2014 by Marie Higgins
Cover Design by Sheri McGathy
Edition License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.
For more information:
“Stealing the Duchess” – Regency Romance Suspense
“Secrets and Lies” – Victorian Romance Suspense
“Her Own Fairy Godmother” – Modern Day Fairy-tale Romance
“Haunting Secrets” – Victorian Paranormal Romance
“Amazon Sunset” – Victorian Romance Action / Suspense
“Love Lost in Time” – Victorian Time-Travel / Suspense
“Waiting for You” – Paranormal / Time-travel Romance
“Becoming a Lady” – Regency Romance
“In the Arms of Danger” – Romantic Suspense
“Crazy For You” – Romantic Comedy
Christian Historical Series
“A Walk in Heaven” – book 1
“Touching Heaven” – book 2
“Reach for Heaven” – book 3
Regency Romance Series
“The Sweetest Kiss” – book 1
“The Sweetest Touch” – book 2
“The Sweetest Love” – book 3
“The Sweetest Secret” – book 4
Victorian Romance Series
“Love Me Always” – book 1
“Charmed by Knight” – book 2
“True Love’s Deception” – book 3
“Belong To Me” – book 4
“Love Comes Blindly” – book 5
Colonial Romance Series
“Take My Heart” – book 1
“Falling in Love Again” – book 2
“Wonderland by Night” – book 3
I want to thank my readers who continue to support me. Thanks to Veronica Mesia and Mary Martinez for helping me edit this story. And another huge thanks to my newest wattpad.com reader friend, Sharon Simmons!
I would also love to dedicate my story to a great entertainer. If not for him, I would have not created a story about a man with Spanish eyes. Engelbert Humperdinck is an awesome singer and has been my inspiration for many more books to come.
Ladies’ man Anton Romero is smitten with Vivian Wentworth from the very beginning. He wants nothing more than to get to know the stiff Miss Wentworth—and perhaps make her relax so she’s not so uptight—until he learns she’s investigating him for a crime he didn’t commit.
Innocent and naïve, Vivian is convinced that Anton is the outlaw her superiors have painted him. But her over-zealous determination puts both of them in danger and he is forced to play the honorable rogue.
Sweeping her away to Padre Island off the coast of Spain seemed like a clever idea at the time. But how can he protect them both from his uncle’s murderous games when Anton’s heart falls victim to a woman as full of independence as she is desire.
New York City, 1879
A furry brown rat crept toward Vivian Wentworth as she stood in the alleyway. Afraid to make a noise, she held her breath and flattened against the wall of the building. Her main purpose was to keep herself hidden right now, but if that blasted creature came any closer, she feared she’d scream and bring attention to herself.
Her heart pounded faster, loud enough to alert the deaf, she was certain. Pushing herself against the wall, she waited for the rat’s next move. Her mission tonight was not about the threatening animal in front of her, but a different kind of rat. A robust and handsome Spanish rat. The one at the soirée across the street.
She glared at the vermin on the ground as it took another step her way. Beady eyes fixed upon her with menacing intent. With one quick motion, it jumped and landed on her silk gown. Hissing, she shook her petticoats. The beast flew through the air and landed yards away, then turned and scurried away.
Beside Vivian, her companion erupted into a fit of soft giggles. Elbowing her partner, Vivian scowled and jutted her chin. Margaret Brown would have acted the same way if the rodent had attacked her instead.
Vivian peered around the corner from her hiding place to the two-story Victorian mansion across the street to see if they had been exposed. Shadows played in the corridor as laughter floated from the opened windows. She waited for the right moment she and Margaret could sneak inside.
A tall man strolled from the mansion to the front step and looked across the yard. In lithe movements, he walked away from the building and stopped beneath a hanging Chinese lantern. The light sharpened his black hair and olive tinted skin into chiseled perfection. Vivian’s heart raced even faster than before.
It’s him! The other rat she’d been waiting for.
She pressed herself against the rough side of the building. When she thought about catching the thief, a grin tugged at her mouth and determination surged through her. She couldn’t think of any other way to talk with the accused on a personal level without drawing undue attention to her profession.
She dared another peek around the corner. Her object of interest scanned the streets, his hands linked behind him as he gently rocked back and forth on his black boots. After a few moments, he turned and strode back through the opened doors with the smoothness of fine silk. He resembled the miniature she had in her possession, although he appeared much more handsome in person.
At that moment, a masked couple raucously stumbled over the first two steps of the mansion before meeting the doorman. The masked man, wearing an ostentatious red and orange costume with too many feathers, handed the servant a card. Once the doorman scanned the missive, he motioned his hand for the couple to enter.
Vivian growled and turned to her partner. “The front door is no longer an option,” Vivian whispered. “We’ll need an invitation. Quick, let’s try the back way into the soirée, instead.”
Margaret sighed and shook her head, pointing over her shoulder. “We cannot go that way, either. Those tall hedges will be impossible to climb, especially in our expensive gowns. And the bushes are so thick. I don’t see a way through at all.”
Vivian patted the waist of her silver gown trimmed with black lace, to make certain her mask was still latched to her middle. Fancier than anything she owned, it wouldn’t break her heart to soil the gown, even if it was for a good cause. She’d do anything in the line of duty, and Margaret would do well to follow her lead if she wanted to become a good agent.
Squaring her shoulders, Vivian met Margaret’s heated stare. “Make haste, Margaret. Idleness is something we can ill afford right now.”
Margaret gasped. “You’re not suggesting—”
“Indeed, I am. We may have to squeeze through the hedges.”
Vivian scowled and pushed past her companion. If the middle-aged woman wasn’t serious about proving to their employer women would make impeccable agents, Vivian would do this thing herself just to prove her worth. As an active suffragist, she wouldn’t be happy until she showed ignorant men what she was capable of accomplishing.
Although her employer, Mr. Pinkerton, wasn’t ignorant, she needed to prove him wrong. He thought the only talent women had was for office filing. As much as she enjoyed working in the office, her dream was to become a full-fledged agent. But in order to do that, she had to break a few rules.
It was worth it.
“This is underhanded and you well know it,” Margaret muttered.
“All I know is that we are close to catching our Spanish thief, and I’m not going to allow anything to stop me.” Vivian lifted her gown to her ankles in order to take quicker steps.
“We are going to get caught and tossed out of the party,” Margaret grumbled.
Vivian shook her head. “We will be wearing masks, or have you forgotten? Nobody will know who we are.”
By the time they reached the hedges, Margaret’s breaths came out ragged. Perhaps Vivian should slow the pace. But time slipped by too quickly, and shadows grew thicker the deeper the night progressed.
She bent low and studied the hedges as she crept, hoping to find a break to enter through. Although…maybe Margaret wouldn’t fit. Vivian glanced over her shoulder and eyed her friend’s full figure. They had to try. This might be their only chance.
Vivian’s heart quickened with each step she took. Tonight would be the ideal time to get to know the Spaniard. She even had the perfect topic of conversation. The opera. For two weeks, she’d attended the same performance. How could she not? His singing amazed her and left her breathless. She’d tried numerous times to introduce herself to him, but apparently, he wasn’t receiving visitors.
A light flashed between the hedges and caught her attention. There was a hole, where the branches appeared to have been snapped. Her hopes lifted and she smiled. Perfect. It might be a tight fit, but they could squeeze through.
She came to a sudden stop. Margaret bumped into her from behind and let out a small squeal.
“Shh…” Vivian turned and placed her hand over the other woman’s mouth. “I found a way to get inside.”
Margaret’s eyes widened. When Vivian pointed to the spot in the greenery, her partner scowled and shook her head. “My large body cannot wedge through that tiny opening,” she mumbled against Vivian’s palm.
“Yes, you can. We shall both fit.” She dropped her hand from Margaret’s mouth and stepped closer to the hedge. “I’ll go first.”
Bunching up her skirt and holding it close to her body, Vivian maneuvered sideways through the bushes. Branches yanked hair from her tight bun and swept dangerously close to her eyes. When she reached the other side, relief gushed through her.
Quickly, she brushed her gown and smoothed her hair. Deep shadows guarded her entry. Close to the house, a few couples strolled in the moonlight, their throaty giggles rising in the night. Thankfully, they were evidently more interested in each other than searching the yard for intruders.
Grunts and groans from Margaret brought Vivian’s attention back to her companion. “For heaven’s sake. Be quiet.” Vivian held some of the branches back to allow her partner through.
The poor woman had scratches on her face and more of her hair hung loose than remained in the knot she’d styled that morning. Just as Margaret stepped onto the grass, she tripped on a fallen branch and stumbled to her knees.
When she looked up at Vivian from the undignified position, Vivian held in a groan of her own. No doubt she’d hear a mouthful soon, but the first order of business was to fix Margaret’s hair before someone noticed. Hopefully, the mask would hide the scratches on her face.
“Have you completely lost your senses?” Margaret muttered as she scooted out the rest of the way. “Good grief, woman. Will you stop at nothing to prove your worth?”
Vivian crouched to her companion’s level and frowned. “No. I’m here for a purpose, and I will do everything I can to accomplish what I came to do.”
Margaret folded her arms in front of her and huffed. Ignoring the icy stare, Vivian pulled out her mask from the thick band circling her waist. “Quickly, get in disguise, Margaret. We don’t want to appear out of place.”
As Margaret searched for her mask, a large, very masculine hand appeared in front of Vivian, reaching out to help.
“May I offer assistance?”
“Yes, thank y—”
She sucked in a quick breath and fell back on her buttocks, staring up at the dark-haired man with the charming smile. Even though shadows played across his face, she would know him anywhere since she’d dreamily stared at his profile and gazed upon his magnificence for the past two weeks at the opera.
The very man she snuck into the party to find. The thief, Señor Antonio Romero stood in front of her…offering his hand, no less!
With her heart beating frantically in her ears, she scrambled for something intelligent to say. Now she must slip into character.
She cleared her throat, preparing her British accent that took her weeks to practice. “Thank you, kind sir, but I fear my friend and I have lost our—” She scanned the area around her partner who still sat on the ground, staring with wide eyes at the man. Margaret’s mask lay on the ground.
“Oh, there it is, Margaret.” Vivian cheered as she picked up the mask and handed it to her friend.
“Um…yes.” Margaret took the mask and settled it over her eyes.
It tilted haphazardly on her face, and Vivian bit her lower lip to hold back an embarrassed groan.
The man chuckled, his deep voice sending ripples of warmth over Vivian. She scooted to stand, and he took her hand, helping her up. Since she had not put on her mask, she decided to introduce herself…to the character she’d be playing, anyway. “My name is Miss Vivian Harring, and this is Miss Margaret Smithers.”
The Spanish God bowed. “Buenas noches, Señoritas. Have you been at this party long?”
Vivian shrugged. “Long enough to lose a mask.”
He laughed and shook his head. “I admire your quick humor.”
“We have introduced ourselves, but you, sir, have not told us to whom we are speaking.”
“Forgive me. I am Anton.”
She arched a brow. Could Anton be a nickname for Antonio? “Anton? Just Anton?”
He nodded. “That is my stage name, and we are at a soirée for the opera, are we not?”
He held out his hand to Margaret, but kept his gaze on Vivian. “Will you permit me to escort you and your companion inside for a drink? I am certain you both are in need of refreshment after such a grueling search.”
Margaret took his hand, stood, and brushed her other hand over her attire to remove the broken twigs and leaves. Vivian swept her hand over her own gown and hair. Hopefully, she looked better than she felt.
So far, things had not gone her way. She needed to right the wrong, or else how could she prove herself a professional?
Anton proffered his arm to Vivian. “Shall we?”
“Yes.” She slipped her hand around his elbow, and immediately his body heat radiated and melded into her palm. Delightful shivers danced over her, and she silently cursed her reaction to the attractive man.
Entering the side door leading into a parlor, a man dressed in servant’s clothing greeted them. Like Anton, the man’s skin color attested to his Spanish heritage. With only a nod from Anton, the manservant moved to the liquor tray and poured drinks. Sounds of the party drifted through a set of double doors on the far wall, but they were the only occupants in the room.
What were the odds that Anton had already consumed his share of alcohol? With the easy-going atmosphere, he would undoubtedly tell Vivian what she needed to know.
Like a gentleman, he escorted her to the sofa. As she and Margaret sat, he moved to his manservant and whispered something in his ear. She wished she could hear what he said, and especially why Anton had a gleam in his eyes as he looked her way.
In the light, Anton was more handsome than she ever imagined. Hair slightly longer than it had been in the miniature she’d taken from Mr. Pinkerton without his knowledge, Anton still radiated masculinity. His broad shoulders and chest fit comfortably into his pearl white silk shirt, gold cravat, and vest. Deep blue trousers molded very nicely to his long legs, and his black boots elegantly shined to perfection.
From the information she’d previously gathered on him, Anton had left a trail of broken hearts in his wake. He was definitely a notorious scoundrel who could make any woman swoon.
Vivian sighed. Tonight would be difficult because of her silly infatuation. Try as she might, she could not deny the sudden attraction, but it had been a while since she found any man this intense and handsome.
As he spoke Spanish to his manservant, Anton gazed across the room and met her eyes once again. A humorous smile touched his scrumptiously shaped lips while he ran his finger over his well-groomed mustache, black as midnight. He whispered something else to the servant, and then crossed the room toward her.
She held herself still, trying to stay in control. His towering frame stopped next to where she sat on the sofa. Deep chocolate Spanish eyes held hers prisoner.
So far, Anton had proved to be a gentleman, very placid and charming. Still, she was leery. Yet a glint sparkled in his soft eyes, promising Vivian his company would be a pure delight.
He handed Vivian’s drink to her, one to Margaret, and took one for himself. When the manservant left the room, Anton sat on the two-seater chair across from her. He ran his fingers over the stem of the glass, his eyes twinkling as he looked at her, almost as if he held some kind of secret.
She sipped her wine, hoping he didn’t suspect she had secrets of her own.
“I must confess,” Anton began after a few awkward moments of silence. “I recognize you from the opera.”
Vivian choked on her drink. “You do?”
“Sí. It surprised me to see the same face night after night in the balcony box. Usually one performance is enough for most people.”
Vivian laughed, remembering to uphold her British accent. “I am not like most people, Mr. Anton. If there is something I enjoy, I strive to maintain the pleasure for as long as I can.”
“As do I.” He smiled. “But please, just call me Anton. As long as I may call you Vivian?”
He sipped his wine before lowering the glass. “May I ask you a question?”
“In all the times I saw you sitting in the balcony, not once did a man escort you. Do you not have a beau or husband?”
“No, I am unattached.” Her heart skipped.
His dark brows rose. “But how can that be? Because of your beauty, men should be lined up at your door.”
Her face heated as she silently cursed her innocence. Good agents shouldn’t be this inexperienced, and if she wanted to become one, she should learn not to blush so easily. Yet, this was her first time at being an agent. She had nobody to teach her, so she must make rules up as she went along.
Thankfully, she was able to convince Margaret they could change Mr. Pinkerton’s mind about having women agents. Vivian knew female agents would be more effective for finding their mysterious Spanish thief than male agents. Mr. Antonio Romero might not trust a man as well as he would a woman.
Anton was clever, but Vivian viewed herself as a perfect adversary. Nobody disappeared without leaving some clue behind, and he had taken more than just jewels this time. This ladies’ man stole women’s hearts, which made it easier to find his trail.
She smiled. “Men are not lined up at my door, especially when I refuse to encourage them. If a man does not interest me, I let him know immediately.” She sipped her drink. “I would rather not waste his time if I can help it.”
He relaxed in his chair, crossing one leg over the other. The material stretched in an indecent manner across his muscles. It was highly unprofessional to be this attracted to him. It didn’t matter if he looked like Greek Gods had sculpted him. She must get over this infatuation for him fast.
Beside her, she glanced at her companion whose eyelids drooped. Vivian dared not elbow Margaret in the arm and make a scene, but it disappointed Vivian to think her friend could not be more conscientious.
Vivian tried to show Anton a relaxed smile. “What made you decide to perform in an operetta group?”
“My love of singing leads my heart right now.”
“I think you have the most fascinating voice. I also enjoy watching you perform. Your acting abilities are better than I have ever seen. You delve into your character, and your deep emotion captures the audience.”
“Gracias. I led a boring life before I joined, so when the opportunity presented itself, I climbed aboard and rode off into the sunset.”
“Was your family not upset with your decision?”
“No. My parents died before this happened. ”
“How old were you?”
“I had not yet reached my eighteenth year.”
Her heartbeat quickened. So far his life fit well with the Spanish thief the agency looked for. “Then who raised you?” Now, if she could just get him to confess his real name.
He hesitated, and she thought a line of anger crossed his brow, but his expression softened again. “My father’s brother, but not for long. I joined the military when I turned eighteen.” He shrugged. “It seemed the thing to do at the time.”
She frowned. “I am truly sorry to hear about your parents.”
The deep timbre of his voice relaxed her while he talked. So far, their conversation had gone smoothly, and she hadn’t experienced that uncomfortable giddy feeling since she’d first looked at him. As long as he kept his distance, she’d be able to keep from falling apart like a love-struck girl experiencing improper feelings for the first time.
Keep things nice and simple and everything will go splendidly.
A slight noise caused her to glance at her associate. Slumped in the corner of the sofa, Margaret’s head lolled back and gentle snores fluttered from her open mouth.
Embarrassment burned Vivian’s face. She reached to shake her friend awake, but Anton sprang from his chair, knelt by Vivian’s side and grasped her hands.
“No,” he commanded in soft tones. “Let her rest.”
Vivian forced down the lump of panic in her throat. What could possibly be wrong with Margaret? “But she fell asleep. I must wake her.”
He grinned. “I would not count on your companion waking any time soon.” He patted Vivian’s hand. “You see, my servant put a small amount of sleeping powder in your companion’s drink. She will be out for a few hours yet.”
A gasp tore from Vivian as her heartbeat took on a fierce rhythm. She swallowed the knot of fear lodged in her throat. “Why…why would he do something like that?”
“My manservant is very suspicious of overprotective companions.” Anton rose and pulled Vivian with him.
She held her breath. Did he suspect her treachery already? She thought she’d covered her tracks. If so, then why did he drug Margaret? His manservant wouldn’t have done it without Anton’s approval.
Anger poured through her, and she fisted her hands. It was important to remain strong and stay in control. She could not lose her temper now. Think Vivian! What would a good agent do? She needed to gain his trust…and his confession.
He stepped forward, closed the space between them, and wrapped her in his arms. The room seemed smaller, and her wobbly legs unsure of their strength.
His improper intentions frightened her to death. If they drugged Margaret’s drink, what did they have in store for her?
No matter what, Vivian must do something to gain control over her innocence. She must make him believe she knows what she’s doing.
Anton had only one thing on his mind, and it didn’t include waking Vivian’s companion. Vivian was more beautiful and more charming than he’d imagined, and he didn’t want to waste a minute of his time, nor hers. She’d told him earlier she informed men when their attentions were not wanted, and so far she’d yet to convey a negative response to him.
That was a good sign.
He stroked her cheek, still warm from embarrassment over her companion’s untimely slumber, and trailed his thumb over her bottom lip. Fascinated, he admired its gentle curve, loving the luscious raspberry color that contrasted with her creamy smooth skin. High cheekbones, straight nose, and a delicate, curved chin made her face nearly perfect. Her hair was a lovely, blondish-brown color, almost like wheat. But it was her eyes that held him prisoner. Bluish gray flecks of sunshine.
Her beauty couldn’t hide her charade. She had a secret, and determination pushed him to find out why she asked so many questions, and in an accent that seemed far too strained at times.
He wondered why she took such intense interest in him. His manservant had told him about this woman who had come to the opera every night and sneaked around back stage while asking questions about Anton. When he saw her and her companion crawling through the hedges, Anton became more curious by the second.
“Vivian, would you accompany me outside for a walk in the gardens?”
She moistened her lips with her tongue. The urge to kiss her tempting mouth became strong, but he refrained for now. There would be time for that later…he’d see to it personally.
She hooked her arm around his elbow, and he escorted her through the side door onto a small patio that overlooked a flower garden. A thick patch of trees bordered the secluded area, keeping their walk very intimate. As they strolled, her body shivered against him, her breath escaping in uneven spurts. He smiled, loving the power he had over women. He’d always thought himself experienced in the art. Rarely did a woman refuse him. This one would fall as easily, he was certain.
“So, Anton, where will your operetta group be traveling next?”
Her voice shook, and he tried not to grin. Certainly, he made her nervous. He loved that kind of power he had over women. “Since it is the end of the season, we will take a short break for a few months. I plan to stay in New York during that time.” He looked down into her upturned face. “Does that please you?”
“Why would you wonder if it pleases me?” One of her perfectly shaped eyebrows rose.
He gave a low chuckle. “Well, I am hoping it does, because we will have more time to get to know one another. Is that not why you are here with me now?”
Her lips twitched as if she tried to keep herself from smiling. “I think you are jumping to conclusions.”
“Señorita? Are you not interested in me?”
The moon gave enough illumination to show him her amazing blue eyes. He moved in front of her, circling his arms around her slender waist, pulling her body against his. A gasp sprang from her throat, but she obeyed his gentle prompt and rested her hands on his chest.
“You mentioned earlier that life is too short. If I find something I enjoy, I, like you, want to savor the moment. You, my dear Vivian, are one of the pleasures I seek.”
“You have only known me for a short time.”
“But I have sung to you for two weeks. I have memorized every line of your face.” He traced his fingertip along the side of her jaw. “And every curve of your delicate figure.” He dropped his hand to her shoulder and caressed it. “How can you say I do not know you, when in my mind, I have already touched you? In my dreams, I have kissed your sweet lips, held you tightly as your uncontrolled breath brushed the skin on my neck.”
Her breathing grew faster, yet oddly, she seemed more relaxed in his arms. Seduction was within his grasp.
He lowered his head and swept his lips across her cheek. “And I know you have been thinking of me. Why else would you come every night to see the opera? Why would you look at me the way you do with your fascinating, angelic eyes?”
Her eyelids closed, and he almost cheered aloud. Almost there. Brushing his lips across hers, he hesitated, teased, and prolonged the sweet pleasure—if only for a moment. But he couldn’t wait any longer. He had to kiss her.
Anton stifled a victorious groan as he settled his mouth over hers. Yet his victory was short-lived when she turned her face, and his lips grazed her cheek.
“Oh, you are good.” She chuckled low in her throat.
He looked into her glowing red face and arched eyebrows. “Pardon me?”
Her smile widened. “Oh, yes, you are very good, indeed.”’
“Gracias, but I have not given you enough by which to judge me.”
“No, I refer to your attempt at seduction, not your kiss.” She withdrew from his embrace and walked to a potted plant near the edge of the patio, glancing over her shoulder. “Your words are perfect, your timing precise, and your teasing kiss could not have been better. But, I decide when I will let a man take liberties, and now is not that time.”
This beautiful creature amazed him. No other woman had been able to see through his charade. He inhaled deeply. What other things did she see? Perhaps he should be careful around her. Yet, his suspicions only made him want her that much more.
Perhaps she was a temptress, only here to put a spell over him. That could be the only reason he felt this way.
In an attempt to set her at ease and lower her guard, he gave her his best charming smile. “I assume, then, you are an expert at being seduced?”
“No, but I saw through your performance, which is somewhat surprising given how impressed I have been with your acting ability.”
Leaning against the waist-high rock wall separating the patios, he relaxed and folded his arms. “You think I jest?”
“You are not being honest.”
Her silver evening gown, made of shimmering silk, fitted tightly, enhancing her generous curves. Rows of glittering beads adorned the bodice and long sleeves. The sophisticated ensemble made her eyes sparkle greater than before.
“Vivian, you have put a spell over me, and I find myself waiting…no, anticipating the very moment I have you in my arms, passionately kissing you.”
After the words left his mouth, it surprised him to find they were not lies. This woman affected him differently than most, and it intrigued him. Could it be because he suspected her charade? He’d never met a more adventurous and secretive woman.
In the sensually charged silence, her gaze traced his face and traveled down his body before the corners of her lips lifted in a mocking grin.
“Why don’t I believe you?” she asked.
Fascinated, he kept his smile steady. This woman was brilliant, almost too brilliant. How did she read him so well? “What is it that you desire, then?”
“I want to know what you want.”
“But I have already declared my intentions.”
“Yes, and I refuse to believe you.”
He pulled away from the rock wall and stepped to her side. “Then how, my sweet Señorita, am I supposed to make you accept the truth? What can I do to convince you of my loyalty?” He caressed the side of her face, letting his thumb trace her lips again. “Because I cannot go much longer without wanting to hold you, touch you, and kiss your sensuous mouth.”
“Tell me, Anton.” She touched the golden lapel of his vest. “When, during all of your performances, did you get the chance to look at me?” Her eyebrows lifted. “In those fourteen days, the only time I saw you even glance my way was tonight and not until the very end.”
He lifted her slender fingers to his mouth and brushed light kisses along their tips. “Oh, but I noticed you. How could I not when you made the balcony booth light up like heaven?”
She chuckled. “I believe you have memorized these words and used them numerous times on other women you pursued.”
“You insult me.” Kissing her palm, he let his mouth linger perhaps a moment longer than he should have.
“And you insult me if you think I am going to fall into your arms and be swept off my feet.” She snatched her hand away. “I am not some simpering female waiting to swoon at any moment.”
He studied her with greater interest. No other woman had ever presented such a challenge. Vivian was more intelligent than most women he’d tried to charm, and his pride stung over her refusal. He wasn’t certain he appreciated that.
“You are an amazing woman, Vivian, and you have captured my interest.” Before pulling back, he sighed heavily. “But tell me what I can do. Since you have no desire to be seduced tonight, there will be no flowery words or tender caresses, but I do want you to stay a little while longer.”
With a smile, he realized he wanted this. Had he ever sat and talked to a woman? What could he say to a female who actually used her mind? “Promise you will stay?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Of course. I will not keep you if you wish to leave.”
She hesitated as she glanced inside the opened doors toward Margaret. Vivian’s expression held a flicker of distrust for a brief moment, but when she met his eyes and nodded, the lines in her forehead softened.
“I would really like to get to know the real Anton—not the performer, singer, or the seducer, but the man inside this body.” She tapped lightly on his chest.
“As you wish. I will watch my suggestive words, and for the remainder of the evening, I will speak only about the most boring subject ever…my life.”
Her smile brightened her face and put a twinkle in her blue-gray eyes. If he didn’t watch it, he could get trapped in her gaze.
“Thank you,” she replied. “You have made my night.”
Anton knew it would be harder to break this incredible woman, but soon she would make his night very memorable.
Vivian took a deep breath to calm the hammering of her heart. She had the upper hand. At least for now. But it worried her, because Anton was good. Almost too good. The sensations her body experienced from his touch were nearly impossible to control. This man knew how to get his way.
Her wild cousin, Anna, had educated Vivian with stories of her escapades with men. Anna showed her how to flirt, and explained how a woman feels when a man touches them. Vivian didn’t really want to know—didn’t want to be reminded of her mother’s past mistakes—but Vivian listened anyway since it would help her charade with Anton. How else could she pretend to be a woman of experience any other way?
With a practiced smile, she followed him through the wide double doors into the parlor, then to the fireplace. Margaret still slumped on the couch and looked as though she purposely tried to catch flies with her opened mouth. Vivian frowned. What would possess Anton’s manservant to drug her?
Shrugging away the concern, she reminded herself to be watchful. If she wanted to prove to her employer she could make a great agent, she dared not act like a worrisome female.
Anton’s sensuous smile took her breath away. Resistance to his charm was almost futile. Already a few times, she’d wanted to lose herself in his arms and allow his mouth possession of hers, but she was barely able to control her emotions as it was. Kissing him would only complicate matters. It was essential to stay focused on her objective. She couldn’t let passion rule her feelings.
Not like it had ruled her mother’s life.
Vivian vowed she would never become the woman her mother had. Temptation and yearning for a man’s touch would not weaken Vivian.
She said a silent prayer, thankful Anton had decided to play things her way for now. Perhaps she’d get some answers now.
“Would you like another drink?” he offered.
“Surely you jest. After what your servant did to my companion, I’m skeptical about accepting any more refreshments from you.”
When he took the poker and bent to stir the fire, his supple movements stretched beneath the fabric of his clothes, straining across his muscular frame. He was very well put together, and she couldn’t stop improper thoughts from flooding her mind. Silently she cursed and bunched her hands into fists.
He stood and faced her. “So, mí dulce, what do you want to know about me?”
“What does mí dulce mean?”
“I am telling you that you are sweet.”
Her burning cheeks betrayed her stoic act, and she willed herself to gain control. If only she could find a way to control her blush. “I find it fascinating you were born and raised in Spain, a country I know little about. Tell me about your family and Spain.”
He led her back to the opposite end of the sofa from where Margaret slept. Anton patted the cushion next to him. Reluctantly, she sat.
Anton relaxed and crossed one leg over the other knee. “I am the only child, the male heir passing on my father’s name. In Spain, most large families are very close, but not so with my father’s. My uncle’s callous and greedy nature made it impossible to form any bond, and because of him, my father hired an army of men to protect our family and our inheritance. The small island we call home was given to my grandfather, Nicholas.”
She arched a brow. This, she hadn’t heard. So perhaps he wasn’t the thief she was after. “An island you say?”
“Are you wealthy?”
He shrugged. “It depends on what you consider wealthy. Where we live, we are like kings, but here in America, I am considered a pauper.”
“Indeed? Why, so?”
“Because Spain’s way of life is so different. There we have ancient family treasures that only mean a lot to us. You would not understand their worth.”
Her heartbeat picked up rhythm, and she sucked in a breath. Then again, maybe he was the thief after all. The conversation might well turn to talk about the jewels Anton had stolen from his uncle…the very man paying the Pinkerton Agency to find his nephew. “Do you have those treasures with you now?”
“No. When I left home, I took only my clothes and a few personal belongings. Here in America, and wherever I travel, I carry with me no wealth other than my talent. To me, that is worth far more than any treasure.”
A groan of defeat hung in her throat that she dared not release. She would not admit failure yet. No matter what it took, she’d get him to confess. “I agree. I have never heard a man with such a beautiful voice.”
He folded his arms and stared at her. “Now we will talk about you.”
Vivian straightened. “There is not much to tell. My life does not compare to yours. Besides, you haven’t answered all my questions.”
By the narrowing of his eyes, he didn’t want to continue the conversation. Once again, her heartbeat quickened. She had to do something in order to discover if he was the man she was searching for.
There was no way around it. She had to use her womanly wiles on him, even as unskilled as she was at doing this. She must remember what her cousin had taught her about charming men. Could she charm him without being affected herself? Her mother had been a wanton woman, so maybe the daughter had this talent, also.
After much hesitation, she touched his knee and leaned closer. “Please, Anton, tell me more about your home, and about your estate.”
His chest shook with silent laughter. “But I am not a story teller, Vivian.”
“Just for a few minutes longer? Please?” She lowered her eyelashes. “Besides, I cannot return home until my companion awakens.” She displayed a pout, hoping it would work. This gesture always seemed to help other women get the upper hand with a man, so her cousin had told her.
He laughed out loud this time. “Now who is putting on a performance?”
“I’m just trying to get my way.”
He ran his finger and thumb across his well-groomed mustache, drawing her attention to the gentle curves of his lips. A mouth that might be heaven to kiss.
She silently scolded herself. Stop it! You must stay strong.
“I assume you always get your way.” The tone of his voice lowered.
“Has anyone ever refused you?”
She shrugged. “On rare occasions.”
As Anton continued to rub his mustache, his gaze moved over her face, and swept down her neck. His close inspection made her squirm. As he ceased toying with his facial hair, he peered into her eyes and smiled.
“I, too, rarely lose, but it seems after meeting you tonight that is all I have done.” Closing the gap between them, he leaned closer and stroked her cheek. “I have a deal to make with you which will proclaim us both winners this evening.”
“And what is that?” Her voice shook and she prayed she could gain back the control she had just lost.
“You give me what I want, and in exchange, I will give you what you want.”
Did he mean what her wayward mind thought? Her face burned, and her throat turned dry. Anticipation rushed through her. Her chance had finally come to charm him into submission. She had to, but she had to remain professional about it and not let the emotions get the best of her.
“What do you have in mind?” she asked in a voice she almost didn’t recognize as her own.
Her heart hammered out of control as she tried her best to appear calm.
Despite her bold attempt, Anton detected an underlying innocence about her. She couldn’t hide her timid nature. He’d been with plenty of experienced women…and Vivian was certainly not in that category. What game did she play with him?
He teetered between doubt and amusement, knowing he shouldn’t laugh aloud at her expression. He cupped her face, enjoying the way she snuggled against his hand.
“You are very beautiful.” He inched her face closer to his, his mouth descending. “And it makes me wonder if you use your beauty to get what you want.”
“I fear I don’t know what you mean.”
“I will explain myself.” His lips hovered closer to hers. “But first, I want a quick sample.”
When his mouth touched hers, a small sigh breezed through her lips, but she didn’t pull away. Her shoulders stiffened, yet her lips moved with his. He took his time, savoring her tender flesh, nibbling on her top lip then the bottom.
This woman tested his ironclad control and drove him to the limits of his endurance. The newfound feeling exhilarated him—and confused him.
Her fingers caressed his neck, and he slanted his head to deepen the kiss. Vivian moaned, and his heart soared with triumph. Finally, she was under his spell.
Her kiss seemed quite inexperienced, which told him his suspicions were correct. She wasn’t the type of woman he was used to consorting with. Was it her bold personality that made her so courageous? He’d love to find out and perhaps be the one to teach her about passion, but at a different time. He couldn’t cross that bridge until he received some answers.
Ending the kiss, he placed a few smaller pecks on her lips before pulling away.
Her eyes opened half-mast as she looked at him. “Is that what you wanted?” she asked with passion still laced in her voice.
He detected a hopeful note and grinned. “Not exactly.” He paused only for a moment before scowling. “I want to know why you have been following me. Why did you sneak into this party without an invitation? And why is it so important to know personal things about my past?”
Her eyes flew open, and she jumped back as if he was on fire and she couldn’t stand to be so near.
“Are you accusing me of something, Sir?”
“You are not whom you pretend to be, Señorita. I may not know your secret, but what I do know makes me suspicious.”
“And what is it that you think you know about me?”
“You are not Vivian Harring, a noblewoman as you have proclaimed, but Miss Vivian Wentworth.”
Her face lost color. Just as he’d suspected. He wasn’t the only one in charade tonight. Disappointment washed over him. He’d hoped he’d been wrong about her.
She shook her head, and in an apparent attempt to regain her composure, smoothed her skirt and took a breath. “Once again, I think you are talking nonsense. What have I done to make you doubt me?”
He lifted himself off the sofa, strode to the liquor tray, and poured a drink. “Gossip spreads quickly through the operetta.” He faced her with a drink in his hand. “What I have heard from my informant, it seems a pretty little señorita has been asking questions about me, seeking answers even my closest friends from the opera do not know. A few days ago, one of my friends, Pedro, discovered something interesting about you, and since then I have been suspicious of your persistent actions.”
After taking a sip of his drink and setting it on the counter, he walked to the sofa and stood in front of her. Bending, he took a lock of her blondish-brown hair and twisted the loose ringlet around his finger with tender care.
Her body stiffened, and her lips narrowed into a thin, taut line. Anton puffed his chest in victory and straightened to full height.
“Now,” he said, staring down at her, “are you going to tell me the truth before I embarrass you further by releasing more information about your falsehood?”
Despite her square shoulders, she wore a strained smile. “Anton, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Very well. I shall proceed.” Anton cleared his throat and lifted his chin. “You were born and raised in Chicago, not in England as your accent indicates.” Her eyes widened, and he chuckled. “I have to admit, you are a good performer, better in fact, than most of the women I work with.”
She sat still, keeping her mouth pursed.
“Pedro followed you one day and blindly, you led him into the office of Allan Pinkerton, the owner of Pinkerton Detective Agency. Pedro watched for hours before leaving, but you never came out. I can only assume that you work for Pinkerton.”
He knelt beside her, taking her stiff hand in his. “Now, the question running through my head is, why would a detective agency want to send their most seductive agent to talk to me?”
Trailing his finger down her arm, he kept his attention on her face, waiting for a verbal response, but still, she remained quiet. A quiver danced across her skin, but other than that, she was certainly out of character.
“Have I slept with Mr. Pinkerton’s daughter?” he asked. “His esposa? If not his wife, then his sister, perhaps?” Her lips tipped at the corners from his humor. “Or maybe my singing is legendary in New York and a jealous opera singer is after me for stealing his part?”
Her smile stretched, but she didn’t speak.
“Tell me, Vivian. Why are you so curious about me?”
She took him by surprise and pushed him so hard he teetered on his heels and fell on his bottom.
She stood, and through narrowed eyes, challenged his stare. “Anton, your imagination has run away, and I fear it has left you addled.” She maintained her British accent. “I assure you, I am who I say.”
Legs splayed across the floor, he looked up at her from his humiliating position, trying his best to remain in control of the conversation. “And I assure you that you are not.”
“You would believe a servant over a noblewoman?”
He chuckled and scrambled to stand. “I have known my manservant for many years. I befriended him during the war, and he saved my life on several occasions.” He paused, reflecting briefly on the past. “I trust Pedro with my life, and when he tells me something about a woman who is hunting me, then sí, I believe.”
“He must have been misinformed, because what possible reason would I have to pursue you?”
He caressed her shoulders, letting his hands travel down the length of her arms. When he imprisoned her wrists in a vise-like grip, her eyes widened. She let out a soft cry.
Enough of her stories! It was time for the truth. Sweet-talking her obviously wasn’t working, so he must change tactics.
He pulled her resistant body up against his. “I grow weary of dancing around the subject, Vivian. You have five minutes to confess to me, or by Dios, I promise you will not like the consequences.”
Tears welled in her eyes, but she kept her stubborn chin tilted. The way she remained unwavering made him proud, but he would get some answers one way or another.
“I do not appreciate threats, Sir.” Her voice trembled.
“It is not a threat. It is a promise.” He swept his gaze over her face and rested on her trembling lips. “I think I shall personally return you to your employer and show him what a failure you have been. If I can conduct better detective work than you, you are not a very good agent.”
Seeing her beautiful mouth set in a frown, he almost ceased the cruel tongue-lashing. He didn’t want to hurt her, but harsh treatment might be the very key to unleashing her temper and getting the truth.
He continued his verbal assault. “I feel certain Mr. Pinkerton will be disappointed that you have not done your job properly. I have no idea what information about me you seek, but you seem to have come up empty-handed.”
When a look of defeat crossed her features, his stomach twisted. Where was that stubborn streak in her he so admired? Within moments, anger lines appeared around her eyes and lips. She straightened and shoved her hands against him, breaking free from his grasp.
“I’m not a failure.” Her accent disappeared in a flurry of anger. “I’ve done the job I sought out to do, because I’ve found the outlaw I’m looking for. And you, Sir, are that man.”
Her words confused him, and he didn’t understand her purpose. He sauntered to the liquor tray and poured himself another drink—wishing it was something stronger. What was she talking about? Why would she accuse him of being an outlaw, unless…
“So, you are chasing someone who has something of great value?” he asked in a much calmer tone.
After taking a long swallow, he turned to meet her stare. In the past, he had enjoyed the ability to know what women thought, but Vivian Wentworth certainly proved to be different. He liked that, almost too much.
Confusion surged to his head, creating a dull throb in his skull. It’d been awhile since he’d met such a challenging woman.
“Yes,” she answered. “I’m after a thief—a man who has broken the law, not only in one country, but two.”
He arched his brows.
“The man for whom I search,” she continued, “took his uncle’s jewels and disappeared from Spain.” She wagged her finger at him. “Shame on you, Anton. You must know that you’re a wanted man now.”
A different emotion welled within his chest. Anger and revenge threatened to suffocate him, but he kept his gaze narrowed on her.
He forced himself to laugh. “You think I am this thief? A common outlaw? Why, that is ridiculous!”
“Because of the information I’ve gathered on you, I have no doubt you are the man I seek.”
He sought support from the counter behind him, and leaned against the edge. Despite his uneasiness, he feigned calmness. “Tell me of your suspicions.”
“The thief’s uncle also has others trying to find the jewels, and for the past two years they’ve been around the world. The search stopped here in New York. Through their hunt, they’ve spoken to many people, most of whom reported that the man in question has sailed to a foreign land.” She closed the space between them. “But I went a step further and talked to the not-so-proper connections.” She smiled. “Do you have any idea how many whores were willing to talk about you?”
Inexperience showed in her. Obviously, she believed him to be the culprit, so why did she trust him with her sources? Suspicion of her real intent niggled at him. Her acting rivaled his own and he wasn’t certain what to believe. Was she really as innocent as she seemed?
He chuckled. “You think you have all the answers.”
“Yes, I certainly do. Why else would my search lead me here? When I saw you at the opera two weeks ago, I knew I had my man.”
“What if you are mistaken?”
As she tilted her head, her gaze roamed across his face before trailing down his body. Conflict was an aphrodisiac. A spark of desire flared in her eyes. Heat stirred within his own chest, and he enjoyed that feeling too much.
“I don’t think I’m wrong,” she answered.
“How will you know? You insist you are right, and I say you are not. We seem to be at an impasse.”
“The truth will be determined when I contact Mr. Pinkerton, and he in turn consults with your uncle.”
Worry plucked at Anton’s heart, but he maintained his stoic expression and finished his drink. After placing the empty glass on the liquor tray, he studied her face. “What fate will grace this unfortunate outlaw?”
“I’m sorry to say your uncle wants you in prison. But I’m certain if you return his inheritance, he’ll set you free.”
Anton laughed, covering his growing unease. “Oh, Vivian.” He caressed her cheek. “If I were not so enamored with you, I would be insulted.”
Her smile softened. “And if I didn’t know what a great performer you were, I’d believe in your innocence. But I know you are Antonio Romero, and I’ll be contacting my employer first thing in the morning to report your whereabouts. He’ll then get in touch with your uncle tomorrow.”
Panic constricted in his chest as the walls of deception closed in around him.
Vivian had never been so confident in her life. Although Anton’s excellent performing skills were evident, she still sensed deep in her heart she had her notorious outlaw. Why else would he have threatened her? Guilt and fear were his only emotions.
Perhaps she shouldn’t have informed him of her plans, but when he accused her of being a poor detective, her temper made its debut. Now that she’d spouted the truth, how could she keep him from running? She must find a way. Her employer wouldn’t have faith in her abilities any other way.
Then again, what if Anton decided not to let her go because she knew too much? She could probably handle this situation, but she needed her partner’s help to stay focused. Anton’s sensual nature was too strong, and Vivian had almost succumbed several times already. She prayed Margaret would awaken soon.
Dropping his hand from her cheek, he stepped back, his shoulders as stiff as the muscles in his expression. “Mañana? You think your Mr. Pinkerton can contact this other Spaniard you refer to as my uncle that soon?”
“Yes. As I told you before, your uncle is here in New York.”
Anton’s eyes widened as genuine panic etched across his face for the first time tonight. She had been correct in assuming Anton was their outlaw. Excitement shot through her and she wanted to jump up and down, clapping her hands. Instead, she would act like a true agent and not show her feelings.
His long legs ate up the space across the carpet as he swiped fingers through his thick, black hair. Back and forth, he paced like a caged animal.
Hijo lo…” he snapped, leaving off the last bit.
His actions erased all doubt from her mind, placing victory within reach. Yet, his temper frightened her. The opera singer she’d conversed with for the past hour was nothing like the irate man he’d suddenly become. Even when he threatened her before, he’d never appeared this menacing.
As her heart hammered against her ribs, she swallowed a knot of fear and forced herself to stay strong. What other choice did she have? Glancing at her friend, she prayed Margaret would soon regain consciousness and be the supporting partner Vivian expected.
Anton abruptly stopped in front of her. Vivian quickly forgot about Margaret and focused on him.
“Does Mr. Pinkerton know of your suspicions?” he snapped.
“Of course,” she lied. She couldn’t let Anton know she was here on her own free will.
“Dios Mio!” He grasped her arms. “What did you tell him?”
She hitched a breath, but not from Anton’s closeness this time. The steely look in his deep brown eyes made her shudder. “I told him I thought our thief was the opera singer.”
“Did he believe you?”
“He doesn’t believe anything unless he sees tangible proof first.” Especially when it comes to female agents, she reminded herself bitterly.
A heavy sigh escaped between his teeth, and he loosened his hold. Lines in his face relaxed, nearly disappearing. The drastic changes of his mood confused her. What was he hiding, and could she gain his trust enough to expose his deep, dark secrets?
“Anton.” She kept her voice steady. “Although I think you’re a wonderful singer and performer, your days of glory are going to end. Taking your uncle’s jewels was wrong, and you must be punished.”
When a smile touched his tempting mouth, uncertainty overwhelmed her. Why would he appear happy so soon after his little fit of temper?
His hard chest moved noticeably with each deep breath. “Vivian, mí dulce, I am sorry to tell you, but you have been misinformed.” He shook his head. “Actually, you have been lied to.”
She lifted her chin. “Explain yourself.”
“You think you have captured the thief, but I am not that person. My name is Antonio Rico Romero Vasquez.” He stroked her chin. “But I did not steal my uncle’s jewels.”
Tingles warmed her skin from where his fingers stroked, and she pushed aside the feeling. Emotions had no place in getting to the bottom of this case.
“Then why is your uncle looking for you?” She gave Anton an accusatory stare.
“Because he wants me dead so he can inherit my father’s island.”
She arched a brow, finding his story as false as his plea of innocence. He assumed she’d believe anything he said. Not this time—and certainly not with this woman! Gullibility was not her weakness.
“I still don’t understand. You are the illegitimate son of an heir, and in that case, the inheritance is passed to the next living male carrying on the Romero name.”
He nodded. “I am aware how it is passed, but my uncle is not the rightful heir. I am. My uncle has told so many lies you have no other choice but to believe him.”
She wanted to laugh out loud. Instead, she decided to pummel him with questions until he slipped and gave himself away. “So, you say your uncle lied to my employer? What kind of proof do you have?”
He shook his head. “You are certainly a detective, Vivian. Your mind is positioned on the guilty, not the innocent.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“That means you believe everything you are told to be the truth. You believe the lies Juanito Romero Ballí has told without allowing any possibility for doubt.” Anton folded his arms across his muscular chest. “Tell me, Vivian. Did my uncle show you anything to corroborate his story?”
She scowled. “No.”
“Then why do you believe him over me?”
A dull throb knocked against the inside of her skull as doubt filled her mind again. Hoping to bring a little relief, she massaged the pain. Anton had a point. Then again, what if he came from a family of professional sweet-talkers?
He cupped her chin again, forcing her to meet his warm gaze. “Tell me what I can do to make you believe me.”
Just like before, his nearness created greater confusion, while his gentle touch clouded her mind. “If you’re not guilty, then why did your uncle go through so much trouble to find you if you were the rightful heir? He’d know the Pinkerton agents would eventually discover the truth.”
Anton turned away from her, strode to the fire and with the poker, separated the broken logs. “Juanito Ballí is very crafty. Power and money are what he kills for, and he will continue to take lives as long as it gets him what he is after. I am certain during my absence he has erased any evidence of my identity. He has been acting as king of the island for so long he does not want to relinquish the title. Besides, not many people know I survived the war.” Anton glanced over his shoulder at her. “You see, I have something my uncle needs in order to collect my inheritance.”
“What is that?”
After he returned the poker, he moved away from the hearth. In the past, whenever Anton’s gaze drifted over her, trickles of delight danced on her skin, but this time he tilted his head and studied her with a judgmental stare that made her want to squirm.
He shook his head. “I do not think I will trust you with that information.”
Anger sparked inside her. How dare he try to turn the tables on her! He was the guilty one, not she, the soon-to-be detective. Yet, she also needed to gain the trust she didn’t have. Any good agent knew that, and any smart detective would do all they could to reach their goal, which is what she must do.
“Why can you not trust me?” she asked. “I’m willing to give you a chance to prove your innocence.”
He lifted his dark brows. “Indeed?”
Through her lie, she tried to keep a serious expression. She wasn’t ready to believe him. Still, too many holes lay uncovered in his story, especially about his illegitimacy. “Yes.”
She inhaled sharply. “How?”
During Anton’s silence, Vivian’s fierce heartbeat knocked harder with every second that passed. Although she wanted to believe, there was still that matter of proving her worth to Mr. Pinkerton. With so many doubts lingering, she had no other choice but to string Anton along. For now, she’d pretend to be on his side until she held the tangible proof of his guilt, then she’d turn him over to her employer and Juanito Ballí.
Anton’s finger smoothed over his mustache, drawing her attention to his lips, the very same heavenly pair she’d kissed not too long ago. She scolded her wayward thoughts.
“Lie to your employer,” he said. “Tell him you have found me, but give a different location. Tell him to inform my uncle of my whereabouts and to meet you there.” He paused. “And I will wager my uncle’s men will arrive earlier and try to kill me.”
She chuckled. “That won’t work, because Mr. Pinkerton will be there, also.”
“Juanito Ballí and his men will be there to kill me long before your employer arrives.” He stepped closer, and his masculine scent of spice enveloped her. He circled her waist with his arms and pulled her to his solid chest.
She rested her hands on the lapels of his gold vest and stared up into his intoxicating chocolate eyes. It was going to be hard to pretend to believe him—to let him touch her and allow his affection. But she had to. How else could he start to have faith in her?
“My sweet Vivian. If you want me to prove my innocence, do this one thing for me. That is all I ask.” His expression relaxed as his gaze pleaded with her. “Please. One more day is all I need to prove to you my uncle is trying to kill me.”
Curse his irresistible, hypnotic eyes. She didn’t know how any woman could resist him, because she definitely couldn’t when he gazed at her like this. But she must. Determination flowed through her, and she vowed she’d be strong…as long as she didn’t look at him or let him touch her in a personal, passionate way.
This case proved to be harder than she’d expected.
Anton tightened his arms around Vivian, the quick rhythm of her heart pounding against his chest. When uncertainty flickered in her eyes, he held his breath and waited for her answer. A smile touched her lips, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
He couldn’t allow her to turn him in to Mr. Pinkerton. Having her take him to his uncle would mean death for both of them. It was bad enough to put himself in harm’s way, but he couldn’t do that to Vivian. She didn’t deserve such a fate.
“Anton, you’re a hard man to resist, and although I’m going against my better judgment, I’ll agree to give you one more day.”
His heart raced with relief. With her help to prove his uncle’s deceitfulness, maybe Anton could bring an end to the pain and suffering of the people on Padre Island caused by Juanito’s hand.
“Gracias, mí dulce,” he murmured, then lowered his lips to seal the bargain.
Her eyes closed, and her head fell back, allowing his lips to pay homage to hers as he kept the kiss gentle. She slid her hands up his neck and threaded her fingers through the hair at his nape, daring him to try to pull away.
Her jasmine scent enclosed around him in a flowery haven. Without being able to stop it, he released a soft moan and pulled her closer. Her passion surprised him, but he welcomed the cooperation. In the days ahead, he’d need it to prove his innocence.
He broke the kiss and buried his face in the sweet curve of her neck, trying to calm his irregular breathing. “Curse you, woman. You certainly know how to twist emotions inside of me,” he whispered against her silky throat.
She drew back from him, her forehead creased. “Why do you say that?”
“Because you are so hard to resist even as much as I try to fight it.”
A brilliant smile touched her mouth. “Then we’re evenly matched, because I have the same confusing emotions flitting through me.”
He chuckled and gathered her close, ready to kiss her again, but a thundering knock on the door startled him.
“Anton, I must speak to you,” the voice of his friend came out urgent.
He placed a quick kiss on Vivian’s lips before stepping to the door and opening it.
His servant hurried in and closed the door. “Forgive my intrusion, but several minutes ago, three Spaniards presented forged invitations and tried to enter the party.”
Fear crept into Anton’s heart, tightening his chest. “Are you certain?”
“Did they ask for anyone in particular?”
“They wanted to meet the main performers, but mentioned your name in particular. I suspect they are the men sent by your uncle.”
“Did anyone at the party recognize them?”
“The few guests remaining in the dining room denied their acquaintance.”
“Dios Mio!” Anton pushed his fingers through his hair. “Where are they now?”
“Out front by the trees.”
Anton released a heavy sigh. “I need to leave without drawing attention to myself. But how?”
“We will disguise you.”
Anton chuckled, even if humor was not his first emotion. Although he’d been in the opera for many months, he didn’t have any other clothes with him right now but the ones on his back. If they were on stage, he’d have several outfits in one of the side rooms.
“With what costume?” He motioned his hand across his body. “This is all I have.”
Pedro looked over Anton’s shoulder to the couch behind him and grinned. He jerked his thumb in that direction. “I have the perfect attire for your escape.”
Anton swung around to see what his friend had in mind. Vivian’s companion remained slumped on the couch with her head tilted back and soft snores fluttering her lips. Anton groaned and shook his head. “Surely you jest,” he mumbled as he and Pedro hurried to the couch.
Vivian rushed to stand by his side and clasped his arm. “What’s going on?”
“Remember when I told you about my dangerous uncle?”
“I do not know how, but it looks as if he has found me. Some of his men are outside the house waiting for the right moment to seize me.”
She arched a brow. “They are?”
“Sí, Señorita,” Pedro answered for Anton. “They are lurking by the front trees as we speak.”
Vivian switched her gaze from Pedro back to Anton. “What makes you think they are going to kill you?”
Anton rolled his eyes heavenward as irritation bubbled inside him. “Have you not been listening to one word I said this evening? It does not matter. I have no time to go over it again.” Anton turned to the older woman asleep on the couch and said over his shoulder, “Vivian, help me undress your companion.”
“What?” Her voice rose in panic. “If you think I’m going to—”
“Vivian,” Anton interrupted, “I do not have time to argue with you. Do not fear. I will not take advantage of the poor unconscious woman. I just need to borrow her clothing so I can leave without being noticed. Thankfully, she is tall, and I think I can fit into her dress.”
He prayed this disguise would work. He couldn’t have his uncle find him now.
“Anton, I must protest to this insanity.” Vivian leaned over and placed her hand on his fingers while they plucked the buttons of Margaret’s dress apart. “What if those men enter after you leave and see my friend lying here without her clothes? They’ll certainly realize something is amiss.”
Anton exchanged grins with Pedro. When Anton met her stare again he chuckled. “My dear, innocent beauty. Those men will not suspect a thing. Half the women at this function tonight are wearing less than this.”
Vivian blinked, and her mouth fell open. It took a few moments before she gasped and lines of anger appeared on her face. “Are you suggesting this place is…is…a brothel?”
“No, Vivian, but neither is it the social event of the season.” Anton tried not to laugh at her shocked expression. “The people who came to this party expected to end up in a room sharing a bed with a willing partner for an unforgettable night of passion.”
“Oh,” she shrieked and slapped his arm. “I can’t believe I’m in an establishment such as this.”
Anton returned his focus back to Margaret and yanked down her skirt. “Now, are you going to help or not?”
He realized the news wasn’t to Vivian’s liking, but he couldn’t dwell upon that now. He’d do anything to get out of this party alive, and the more time they wasted arguing, the quicker his uncle’s men would find Anton and kill him.
She finally moved beside him and helped undress her friend, leaving Margaret in her shift, pantaloons and stockings. Vivian grabbed the woolen throw off the back of the couch and placed it over the other woman.
Quickly, Anton pulled Margaret’s clothes over his own. Vivian watched with a blank expression. Once he draped the black scarf over his hair, he donned Margaret’s bonnet, using the black netting to cover his facial hair.
“I think you’ll have to shave,” Vivian snapped. “Those men outside will have to be blind not to notice your mustache.”
Pretending to cough, he covered his mouth. “Not if I do this.”
She scowled. “You still don’t look very feminine.”
Anton arched an eyebrow. “And you think Margaret does?” He glanced at his friend who nodded. In an attempt to hide his lack of womanly assets, Anton gathered Vivian’s black lace shawl around his shoulders. “Is this better?”
“Yes, but Anton? I have one more question. How will I return my friend to her home this way?”
Hesitating, he realized he could not leave Vivian here. If he left her alone, she’d run to Mr. Pinkerton. Anton couldn’t allow that. Not until he had the proof to deny his uncle’s accusations. “Not to worry, dear Vivian. Pedro will see that your friend is returned home.”
“How will I get home?”
He grinned. “You are coming with me.”
“What? I’m not leaving with you.”
“No, you are not. You will be leaving with someone dressed as your companion.” He grabbed her hand and held tightly. “Ven. We have no more time to waste.”
Sitting ramrod straight, Vivian folded her arms across her chest, ready to spit nails. How dare Anton force her to go with him? Why, it was practically kidnapping. And, poor Margaret. The woman would not be forgiving whether Vivian could do anything about the situation or not.
Would Mr. Pinkerton understand? Probably not, since she placed another employee in harm’s way just to prove a point. She cringed. Her employer would definitely not understand now.
Anton peeked out the back window of the darkened coach, his body jerking with every bumpy movement. She tried not to touch him. She didn’t even want their clothes to brush against each other. How could she get rid of him once they arrived at her house?
She halted her thoughts. Did she really want to get rid of him? No, he remained her suspect. Staying by his side was essential. Unfortunately, she was too upset to think about what the next little while would be like with him so close.
Anton sank back in the seat and stripped off the ridiculous bonnet. When his knee bumped Vivian’s leg, she scooted away without looking at him.
“Gracias, Vivian,” he said after much silence, “for not causing a scene when we left.”
“What else could I do?”
He scooted closer and slid his arm along the back of the seat, resting it near her shoulders. She threw him a glare.
“You could have screamed and drawn attention to yourself,” he answered. “Instead, you walked like a real lady to the coach. You made me proud to be your lady’s companion.”
She swung her head away, hoping he didn’t see the grin pulling at the corners of her mouth. Even as much as she hated him right now, his appearance made her chuckle.
His fingers captured her chin, turning her face back to him. “Although you are trying to remain upset with me, I know you are glad you helped.”
“No, I’m not,” she said in gentle tones. “I’m quite upset that you left Margaret behind.”
He smiled. “Nonetheless, you are happy you helped.” His thumb caressed her lower lip. “You want to believe in my innocence. Am I correct?”
She held her breath. He needed to trust her again, which meant she had to put aside her anger. “Yes. I want to believe you.”
“Then peek out the window behind us and you will see a rider following.”
She turned, parted the curtains on the window, and glanced out. True to his word, a man on horseback followed at a distance. She swung her head and met his stare. “Pedro said there were three men. Where are the other two?”
“They must think I am still back at the house.”
“Then why is he following us?”
“To make certain I did not escape with you. These men take no chances, Vivian. It is like I said before—my uncle is a cunning man.”
She sighed and faced forward as she relaxed against his side. “What is next?” Tilting her head, she raised her gaze to his. “What will happen when we reach my house?”
“I do not know. We will have to see how long he stays and watches your residence.”
“Hopefully he gives up easily.”
“He will not.”
Dropping her gaze to the shawl he still wore, she played with the fringe. “I hope Margaret doesn’t hate me for leaving her.”
“Is Margaret really your companion?”
“No. She’s…a friend who works with me.”
He chuckled. “Then sí, she will hate you.”
She scowled and slapped his leg. He grabbed hold of her hand, and suddenly, their closeness and the semi-darkened coach created a heady mood. A quick rhythm started in her heart as he gazed into her eyes. Dare she allow his touch? She knew how quickly her body melted. Yet, she needed to gain his trust once again.
“How long before we reach your casa?” His voice came out deep, sensual.
She swallowed the cotton dryness in her throat. “In about ten or fifteen minutes. I live just over the suspension bridge.”
“Are you tired?”
“Not really. Are you?”
“How can sleep lure me to its lair when the beautiful woman sitting beside me is more enticing?”
As always, his words stirred flutters in her chest. “Anton, you’re doing it again.”
“Trying to make me swoon.”
“And what is wrong with that? Besides,” he continued without waiting for her answer, “what else have we to do for ten minutes?”
Oh, the rotten man! Did he think of nothing else? “We can talk.”
He stroked the side of her face, his fingers trailing down her neck. “We have talked enough tonight. Now it is time for some passion.”
His mouth dropped to hers and pecked, encouraging her lips to open, but she remained uncooperative. As much as she wanted to welcome the passion budding inside her, she couldn’t. She wouldn’t! He held her face and tilted his mouth over hers, but she still did not open up for him.
She kissed him with her closed mouth, then pulled away and moved to the seat across from him. “Anton, I don’t want to be seduced.”
He let out a grated sigh, running his fingers through his wavy hair. Silence lasted in the conveyance for a few minutes while his gaze swept over her. His lips were tight, his eyes narrowed.
“Why?” he asked.
She couldn’t tell him the real reason. If he knew what kind of mother she had, he’d certainly believe she’d welcome his advances. “Because, I’m not ready.”
His gaze narrowed on her. “Vivian? Have you ever been with a man?”
She rolled her eyes. “What an imprudent thing to ask. Of course I’ve been with a man. Am I not with you now?”
Chuckling, he shook his head. “No, my dear, I mean in the Biblical sense.”
She held her breath. What an improper question! How dare he assume… How dare he even think of such a thing? She should scream at him, slap his face—or something. Women didn’t go around telling men of their exploits. That was a man’s duty. There was no way she could answer something so personally. Absolutely not!
Yet, gaining his trust remained first and foremost on her mind. Curses! Once again, she couldn’t be herself around him and needed to act like a different person. She must talk to him about this no matter how ill-mannered and appalling it was!
Anton focused on Vivian, waiting for her answer. Inwardly, he prayed she wasn’t innocent. He didn’t seduce those types of women.
Strangely, though, he wanted to make an exception in her case.
From the way her gaze dropped to her lap and her unsteady fingers twisted the material of her dress, he sensed her fright of being alone with him. Twin spots of pink highlighted her cheeks courtesy of veiled moonlight filtering through the shadows of the coach’s curtained window, indicating her attraction to him—and her innocence.
“What an improper topic of conversation. Of course I’m a…um, you know… I have never been touched.” She lifted her chin in defiance. “And I shall remain that way until I’m married.”
He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Fine. I will not touch you again.”
After he made the promise, emptiness invaded his chest and arms. He didn’t want to release her to another man so soon. Although he should never touch her, something about her kept his interest, and he yearned for more. He’d never tried this hard with any other woman. Most females fell easily for his charms, and as he had expected, they only wanted him because of his wealth and fame with the opera. However, Vivian was different, and he liked the challenge.
“Is your wedding day forthcoming?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I have yet to meet the man with whom I’d like to share the rest of my life.”
“Forgive me for inquiring on such a delicate subject, which is obviously uncomfortable for you to talk about.”
“I’m not uncomfortable. We can discuss this if you would like.”
“Maybe after this case is over, you will be free to start looking for the right man to fill your life?”
Silence lagged for another few annoying minutes, driving Anton to distraction. He glanced at her. Vivian made it evident from her creased forehead and sulky, pursed lips that conversing with her would do no good.
Obviously, she didn’t want his touch. The thought appalled him. His ego wasn’t used to rejection.
He turned and focused his attention out of the slit through the curtains. The rider was farther back than before, but keeping in time with their tracks. Anton slumped in the corner of the seat and closed his eyes. Why couldn’t he tempt the beauty sitting across from him?
Shaking his head, he tried to push her from his mind, but the harder he tried, the more he remembered her softness against his frame as he held her tight, and especially the way her mouth fit perfectly with his. Her sweet taste was like honey nectar from the Gods.
Growling softly, he adjusted himself on the seat. How could he get these images of her to leave his mind? Especially when her jasmine scent lingered in the air, teasing him, tempting his every thought.
He blew out a gush of air and opened his eyes. Her wide, luminous gaze rested upon him, but she quickly turned her head. The glimpse of interest he detected in her expression didn’t lie. Why did she fight her feelings? It was obvious that she was just as attracted to him as he was to her, so why couldn’t she admit it?
In a way, she had confessed her feelings. She’d said his singing had hypnotized her at the opera. An idea rooted in his mind, making him straighten in his seat. Maybe he’d change his charming tactics a bit.
He moistened his throat and prepared to sing one of the Italian arias he’d performed in the opera. To begin, he hummed the tune. Vivian’s head turned slowly in his direction, her expression guarded, but she remained silent. When he started singing, he kept the volume low, even though he knew their follower would not be able to hear. He detected a hint of question in her wide eyes, but she didn’t speak.
As he sang the Italian aria, he held her gaze prisoner. He put all of his feelings into the song as he tried caressing her with each word. His mind drifted to the place where men couldn’t hunt him and where he could be free…and where one special woman wanted to love the real Antonio. Once again, music soothed his soul.
Soon, her expression softened into a smile, and her body relaxed. Eyelids drooping, the lines of her forehead smoothed out. The song came to a low finish. To the corner of her eye, she touched a finger, removing a tear.
“What was that song about?” she questioned. “I’ve heard you sing it for two weeks, and although it’s very beautiful, I don’t understand Italian as much as I’d like.”
“As you know from the opera, my character is leaving for war. He is promising his true love he will return to renew their relationship. He swears he will marry her upon his return.”
“The song is very powerful. When you sing, you project deep emotion.” She dabbed a fingertip to the corner of her eyes again. “Is that all an act or did you have a childhood love to whom you can relate?”
He laughed softly. “In my youth, I had many infatuations, but they meant nothing.”
“Then how do you sing with such conviction?”
He moved from his seat and sat next to her, laying his arm across her shoulders once again. “My character is not only going to war, but he is leaving the only family, the only home he has ever known.” He stroked her cheek. “I can relate to that. Although it was my choice to leave, I still miss my home, and I have not stopped mourning my parents’ deaths.”
“Forgive me.” She placed her hand on his chest. “I should have realized.”
With tender care, he took her hand and kissed her fingertips. “Would you like me to sing you another song?”
Her smile widened. “If you don’t mind.”
Keeping her hand in his, he began singing. Immediately, moisture collected in her eyes. Because she’d seen the opera every day for two weeks, he was certain she knew this song well. Emotion gathered in his chest, causing it to ache. She remained quiet as he sang, and just as before, he put feeling into his words. Tears trickled down her cheeks, but this time she didn’t stop them.
When he finished, his heart swelled. “I take it you remember that song,” he whispered.
“That was the last song you sang to your true love before your character died. Every night when I sat in my box seat and watched you sing, I cried at that point.” She hiccupped. “In fact, I don’t think I was the only one. Everyone in the audience had been affected.”
Using his thumb, he swiped a tear from her cheek. “You must have a very passionate nature to cry so easily.”
“No, just when I go to sentimental operas.”
“I will try not to make you cry ever again.”
She smiled. “If you continue to sing to me like that, you’ll break your promise.”
His chest tightened, and he wanted her more now than before. It wasn’t very often he witnessed a woman so affected by his performance, especially one that made him want to curl up like a kitten and long to have her stroke him with a loving touch.
“I am afraid you have tempted me to break another promise given to you.” He leaned closer and brushed his lips against hers. “Because I want to kiss you so much right now, I ache.” He placed a brief kiss on her tender lips. “Seeing you like this has made me insane with wanting. Your presence has controlled my every thought and action, and I feel as if I could sing to you forever.”
He kissed her again. This time she welcomed his mouth on hers. His heart cheered with victory, yet the emotion was a different kind of triumph than before. Instead of just seducing her for the thrill of conquering, his feelings ran deeper, yet he couldn’t explain why. All he knew was that he wanted her to know the real Antonio.
The coach jerked to a stop, bringing him back to awareness. In silence, he cursed his wandering thoughts. He must be insane to feel this way about a woman who didn’t trust him, and whom he had a difficult time trusting himself.
Vivian pulled away and looked out the window. She let out a heavy sigh. “We’re home. Mí casa es su casa.”
Once Vivian stepped down from the coach, she hustled straight into her house and to her bedroom. She slammed the door, hoping Anton hadn’t noticed her burning cheeks. A wave of shame washed over her from head to toe. Why had she allowed Anton to kiss her the way he had? His romantic voice had hypnotized her. She would have allowed him to do anything—anything at all.
Good grief, something was indeed wrong with her!
She lit the lamp on her vanity and stared at her reflection in the mirror. Out of anger and frustration, she picked up her brush and pulled it through her curls in wild abandonment, cringing at each punishing stroke. Pain she well deserved.
How could she have let passion control her thoughts? She didn’t want to be like her mother! Yet it seemed after meeting Anton, longing for that feeling she had yet to experience had flowed through her faster than she’d ever imagined. The mere thought of succumbing to his advances frightened her to death.
Several brushstrokes later, she tossed the brush aside and stared at the mess she’d made. Heat still consumed her reddened cheeks, and her lips were puffy from Anton’s scorching kiss. Why had being in his arms made her feel like a real woman?
Gritting her teeth, she balled her hands. Heaven help her, but she wanted to feel his arms around her again. But that would go against everything she’d tried to accomplish these past several years. Could she become a strong, independent woman if she allowed a man to control her emotions?
The front door closed with a bang, making her jump. Then a curse rented through the air.
“Why does he not leave me alone?” Anton snapped from the next room.
Letting out a deep sigh, she pushed her fingers through her mess of tangled hair, trying to make it look halfway decent. She flattened the unruly locks away from her face, but the strands of blondish-brown hair bounced back, giving her appearance an untamed look.
In defeat, she sighed. Too late to repair the damage now. She must talk to him, even looking like she’d just awakened from a sleepless night.
When she walked out of her bedroom, Anton stood in front of the window, peering between the draperies. He hadn’t lit the lamps, aiding the ghostly moonlight as the pale streams gave the house an eerie feeling. With Margaret’s attire removed from his body, he was back to wearing the clothes from earlier. Heavens, he looked incredibly handsome.
“I’m assuming that man is still out there?” she asked.
Anton glanced her way, and by the small light coming from her room, she noticed the moment his angry look changed to desire. A quick breath released from his opened mouth, and an out of control rhythm pounded in her chest. His mesmerizing gaze made her want to run and launch straight into his arms.
That, she would never do again!
Could his response be due to her tangled mess of hair? She should have left it alone. Her father had always told her proper ladies kept their hair styled, but brazen women left it unbound. Was she brazen like her mother? Could that be the reason she’d been so difficult and unruly as a young girl? She prayed it wasn’t.
Anton moved away from the window and to her side with the grace and elegance of a panther. His gaze never left her face as if he drank in her features. He lifted a lock that had fallen over her shoulder and caressed it.
“Anton,” she whispered, thinking to stop him, but her voice trailed off as she met his smoldering gaze.
“You are beautiful. I have never seen hair so lovely.”
She forced a small laugh. “It’s just hair.”
“Why did you take it out of the coil?”
“To be honest with you, I usually don’t style it as grand as I did tonight. If you remember correctly, I was playing a role.”
His enigmatic eyes darkened. “Am I now looking at the real Vivian Wentworth?”
“No. I’m usually not adorned in such a fancy gown. My tastes are toward a more plain and modest attire.”
“Then change.” His gaze slowly moved over her. “I want to see the real you.”
Her breathing quickened. The idea tempted her, but she couldn’t do it. “No, Anton. You must leave.”
“I cannot.” His face hardened as he glanced toward the window. “My pursuer is outside watching the house.”
“Why is he here?” she repeated her earlier question.
“I know not, unless he is as infatuated with you as I.” He winked.
Her heart skipped a beat. “You must be jesting, Anton.” She walked past him and into the kitchen. “Would you like some tea?”
“Do you have coffee?”
At the stove, she prepared the drinks in the dark—only the moon shining through the curtains gave her light. Footsteps from the passionate man’s boots in her house clicked on the wooden floor, but she refused to turn. When the soft noise ceased, his masculine scent settled around her. Heated chills trickled over her skin, making her heart accelerate to twice its normal speed.
Hot breath fanned the side of her neck, and she closed her eyes to fight for control, but her soul weakened. He had a strange power over her. She was sorely tempted to stop fighting and relax against his rugged frame.
His hands touched her hips then slid around her waist, pulling her against him. Anton’s face dropped to her neck, and she allowed his lips to brush against her flesh where he blessed the area with feathery kisses. Goosebumps trickled over her, and she gritted her teeth to keep from sighing aloud.
“I know not what you have done to me, Vivian, but I cannot keep myself away from you, despite my promise.” He kissed the gentle curve of her neck. “I have tried not to touch you, but you are irresistible.”
She placed her hands over his to peel them away, but once she covered them, she found herself holding on to him instead. There was no way she could let him go now. “You must be intoxicated, Anton. I haven’t done anything.”
“Yes, I am certainly intoxicated. What other explanation could there be? You have drugged me senseless, and I am in your power.” He buried his face deeper in her neck and took another breath. “You smell heavenly. I can imagine walking on clouds with you.”
“Anton,” she sighed his name when no other words came to mind.
“I want you, Vivian. Díos help me, but I want you desperately.”
He kissed her neck again, and she relaxed against him, resting her head on his shoulder, allowing him to partake of her skin. His lips touched the place between her ear and shoulder as her chills multiplied.
Moving to her ear, his mouth whispered kisses until he suckled gently on the lobe, causing more havoc to her system. She turned her head and met his seeking mouth.
Although their position felt awkward, she wouldn’t have moved out of his arms for anything. The way he held and kissed her made her body want to remain there forever.
Just as her mind resolved to allow him to seduce her, someone banged at the door. The sound startled her back to reality. Panicked, she jumped and turned in his arms, clutching his shirt.
“Anton? Who could that be?” she whispered.
“Dios Mio! It is the devil himself!”
Vivian’s heartbeat took on a different rhythm as panic filled her. They were going to die.
A tomblike silence hung thick in the air. Anton dared not to even breathe, yet his chest still heaved from the passionate kiss. He’d forgotten about the rider who’d followed. Could it be one of Juanito’s men? Who else would venture into the late evening hour?
“That could only be one person,” he whispered.
“He wouldn’t come to the door.” She glanced up and met his stare. “Would he?”
“Sí. If he is sent by my uncle, he will not rest until he has finished the assignment.” Her body shivered against him. Poor woman was frightened out of her wits.
All because of him.
The person at the door pounded again. Vivian gasped and clutched his hands.
“What should we do?”
“You must see who is here.” Keeping her hands in his, he walked toward the door.
“Anton, don’t leave me.”
“Do not worry. I will not allow him to harm you.”
Before seeing to her visitor, Vivian lit the lamp in the hallway, smoothed her trembling hands down her dress, and walked to the door. She reached for the door handle, but before she grasped the brass knob, the rude intruder knocked again, making her jump higher than before.
Her hand flew up to her throat. “Who…is it?”
“I am looking for Señorita Wentworth.”
The stranger’s Spanish accent was strong, and Anton silently cursed. She swung her head toward him, pleading with wide eyes.
He nodded. “I am here. Do not worry,” he whispered. Strength appeared in her eyes and gave him hope that she could handle the situation.
“I’m Miss Wentworth,” she called back, her voice much stronger now.
“May I speak with you?”
“Who are you?”
“I am a friend of Señor Pinkerton.”
“Then you’ll forgive me if I don’t let you in. It’s very late, and I’m not properly chaperoned.”
“Where is your companion? I saw her come home with you.”
She glanced Anton’s way again. His breath caught in his throat. Why hadn’t he thought of that?
Vivian pulled her shoulders back straighter and lifted her chin. “She has taken to her room with a headache and is asleep, so please return tomorrow and we’ll speak in the light of day.”
Anton grinned. He had to give her credit. She thought quicker than he.
Hostile stillness lasted for only a few minutes. “Please, Señorita Wentworth,” the voice started again, a plea in the tone. “I have come a long way to talk to you. It is most important. At least open the door so I may speak with you face to face. I need not enter.”
She glanced at Anton again. He released a soft growl as he massaged his temple. He didn’t want her to allow the man inside. Yet, Anton didn’t want the stranger to become suspicious, either. There was no other way. Vivian must open the door.
He nodded. “Do as he wishes. I will go around front,” Anton whispered, “and grab him from behind.”
She shook her head, but he ignored her protest. He couldn’t stand to see her wide eyes begging in that manner. His twisting heart couldn’t take it. After giving her a wink, he turned and hurried toward the back door.
“I can only speak to you for a moment,” she called out as she slowly unlocked the door.
Quietly, Anton opened the back door and crept outside. The moon hung high in the sky, lighting his way around the house perfectly. Shadows danced everywhere as the wind rustled through the trees.
Swift and sure, he took cautious steps, trying his best not to make any noises. Voices had disappeared, and he hoped Vivian could handle the stranger without problems. If that man laid one finger on her, Anton would be tempted to snap the man’s neck with his bare hands.
Once he turned the corner of the house, the Spaniard’s voice rang through the night air. Anton stopped and flattened himself against the wall. The small, pudgy stranger doffed his hat, and his baldhead shined in the moonlight. Within a few hours, the sun would peek over the horizon and turn the man’s head a pinkish color.
“I am sorry to upset you, Señorita, but it was most important I see you now.”
“You still have not told me your name.”
“My deepest apologies. My name is Señor Eduardo Gomez. I work for Señor Ballí.”
She nodded. “He hired Mr. Pinkerton to find Antonio Romero.”
“What is of such great importance that you must disturb a lady at this late hour?”
Anton’s heart lightened. Vivian held her own with the stranger. He knew firsthand how stubborn she could be even through her fear.
“Señor Ballí informed me that Mr. Pinkerton sent you to locate Antonio Romero. Is this so?”
She cocked her brow. “It seems you have the answer, Señor Gomez, or what else would explain your visit here? Please, get to the point of the matter.”
He nodded. “As you wish. I understand you may have found the man impersonating Señor Ballí’s nephew.”
“No. Suffice to say, my search led me to the wrong man.”
“So, the opera singer is not Antonio Romero?”
“Unfortunately, no. Although the two men are similar in appearance, the opera singer’s life is far different from Antonio Romero’s.”
“Are you certain the performer is not lying? Perhaps we should let Señor Ballí know so he can look at him.”
“If you think it’s necessary, but during my visit with the performer tonight, I found no reason to suspect him of being Antonio Romero. I would hate to waste Señor Juanito Romero Ballí’s time.”
In a flash, the bulky Spaniard scowled. His body stiffened. “How did you know my employer’s full name? I did not tell you.”
Panic flowed through Anton, but he kept still and waited. If that man touched her even one time…
“No, you did not tell me, but Mr. Pinkerton did.”
“That cannot be. Señor Ballí does not ever give out his full name.”
“Then how would I know it?” she questioned.
He lunged forward and grabbed her arm. “Because I think you have been talking to his nephew, Antonio.”
The moment she cried out, Anton sprang into action. He tripped over a bush, but righted himself before lunging toward the man standing on the porch.
“Please, sir,” she begged, “you’re hurting me.”
“Tell me where I can find Antonio,” he demanded.
“I don’t know.”
The man raised his arm as though to hit her, and she flinched. Anton grabbed him by the shoulders before whipping him around. When the Spaniard’s gaze met Anton’s, he didn’t give him much time to recover from surprise before Anton plowed his fist into the stranger’s face, hitting his nose dead center. A sickening crunch echoed through the night before blood poured from the wounded man’s nose, causing him to crumple to the ground in a motionless heap.
“Is…he dead?” Vivian questioned with a quiver in her voice.
Anton knelt beside the man and touched the side of his neck to feel for a pulse. A slight beat pounded against Anton’s finger.
She sobbed and quickly covered her mouth. Anton stepped toward her and took her shaky hands in his, giving them a gentle squeeze. “Are you all right?”
“I am now,” she answered breathlessly.
She moved closer, and he wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her loosely. His shoulder braced her head as she took deep breaths.
“What are we going to do if he awakens?” she asked.
“We will contact the sheriff before then. You can say he tried to break into your house and attack you. It is not far from the truth.”
“The sheriff is not going to believe I overpowered a large man and slugged him in the face. And if we mention your name, they’re going to investigate why you were in the house with me.”
Her body quaked, and he stroked his hands over her back and arms. Several silent minutes later, she relaxed and lifted her head to look at him.
“I know what we can do. We’ll put this man in my wagon, and you can drive him to an empty field…or maybe lay him by a busy road and then someone will spot him.”
Anton arched a brow. “I suppose that is the best option right now. Not to worry, my sweet Vivian. I will take care of him, and then I will leave you alone.”
After he said the words, pain sucked the breath from his chest. Although he really didn’t want to leave, staying with her was not safe, either. The longer he remained by her side, the more danger he put her in.
She narrowed her gaze. “What do you mean you’ll leave me alone?”
“I have dragged you into my problems, and it is not right. You do not need to be on the run as I am.”
“But Anton, I’m the one who came looking for you.”
He smiled and caressed her cheek. “Sí, but this case is more dangerous than you have realized, and I am not going to imperil you any longer.” He kissed her forehead and reluctantly stepped away. “Go into the house and ready yourself for bed. I will find some place to leave him.”
She glanced into the house, then back at him as if undecided. Her forehead creased as she nibbled on her bottom lip. “Will you return and…say goodbye?”
He nodded. “I promise. Now go.”
When she stepped into the house and shut the door, the ache in his chest grew. He’d walk out of her life soon. Really, he didn’t know her that well, but the few hours they’ve spent together had been most entertaining. Would he ever see her again? Perhaps if his uncle weren’t trying to kill him, Anton and Vivian could get to know each other more intimately. That woman had so much passion, and it was hard to walk away.
Unfortunately, that’s what he must do.
He heaved a sigh and leaned his head against the door. Too many things to think about, but he’d made the correct decision, no matter how much his heart argued.
Anton had killed many men in his life, but only for his country and in the midst of battle. Never in cold blood. Yet, he would have killed tonight just to protect Vivian. If the Spaniard had been more forceful with her, Anton would have strangled him without any qualms.
After wrapping the unconscious man in one of Vivian’s horse blankets, Anton lifted him into a wagon and drove to the next town. He carefully laid the man in the tall weeds beside the road. Thankfully, guilt didn’t nag on Anton’s conscience until he thought about Vivian.
He shouldn’t have told her the truth about his uncle and the island. Leading her to believe he was someone else would have been the wisest choice. Because of his excellent acting skills, he could have convinced her, so why had he confessed? Did she mean that much to him? Or was it that he had high hopes she might be the woman who would finally get to know the real Antonio?
As he drove the wagon back to Vivian’s house, he cursed fate. This evening had been utter chaos since he’d met the very beautiful and enchanting woman, yet his life had never been more exciting and challenging. But, he’d put her in harm’s way, and for that, he’d never forgive himself if something happened to her.
Somewhere out there, his uncle still searched for him, and if Juanito discovered what Vivian knew and where she lived—and Anton was certain this would happen—Juanito wouldn’t be as patient as his henchman. Anton could not allow his uncle or his men to harm her.
Growling in frustration, he stretched the kinks out of his neck and rolled his shoulders trying to alleviate the tenseness. Although he didn’t want Vivian hurt, leaving her alone to deal with his uncle was out of the question. Vivian could not have a life on the run as he did, but she must if he had to protect her.
He must bring her with him.
The proof of Anton’s identity would cease the lies his uncle spread, but Anton would have to return to Spain to his island to obtain this verification. There was one article he knew his uncle hadn’t tampered with. Unless, of course, his uncle had the orchard dug up completely and found Anton’s hiding spot.
With the decision firmly rooted in his mind, he lodged the wagon in Vivian’s barn and stalled the horses. She might not agree with his plans, but he’d force her—if necessary—for her own good. His heart skipped with anticipation. He wouldn’t be saying good-bye to her after all.
He must convince her that this was the only way. For both of them.
Not only would he be protecting her, but once the true story about his identity came out, her employer might give her a promotion. Anton chuckled to himself. He didn’t think she would see things that way, and he almost looked forward to their confrontation.
As he approached the house, the light from the kitchen window drew his attention. Vivian sat at the table, the parted curtains doing very little to hide her from view. She stared at the coffee cup in front of her. The lamp burned high, illuminating her profile and making her more beautiful than he’d imagined. Long blondish-brown hair waved down her back and shoulders, and she wore a full-sleeve white wrapper over her nightdress.
He groaned. This was not good at all. No matter how his body tried to convince him otherwise, he had to control his attraction to her. Restraint was the key to their successful journey. He had to keep his wits about him to defeat Juanito.
Instead of tapping on the window and scaring her half to death, he moved to the front door and knocked. “Vivian? It is Anton.”
Within seconds she opened the door and let him in. “How did everything go?”
He closed the door and locked it. “Nobody spotted me. The man is resting near the road as we speak. Somebody will come across him soon.”
She frowned. “Oh, Anton. I’m so sorry I got you into this muddle.”
Unshed tears swam in her big eyes, and his heart ached. He cupped her chin. “It is not your fault.”
“How can you say that? If I hadn’t tried to find you, your uncle would still be searching without any clues, and that man would be conscious—with a whole nose instead of a broken one.”
He gathered her in his arms. “Men like that do not deserve your sympathy. Men like Señor Gomez make other lives miserable for their own sheer pleasure. If I had not harmed him now, I would have hurt him in the near future to protect myself from being the victim.”
She nodded. “I know. I just feel so terrible.”
“As do I, but Vivian, he attacked you. All that passed through my head at that moment was to stop him.” He stroked her cheek. “Do not worry about it any longer. I have come up with a way to stop my uncle.”
Her eyes widened. “How?”
“I have proof of my identity, but it is back at my home on the island.”
“Indeed? Are you certain your uncle hasn’t found it and destroyed it?”
He chuckled. “I hope not. This was something my uncle did not know about. After my parents died, I buried it in the yard.”
“How very clever.”
“When will you leave to go back?”
“As soon as I can obtain passage to Spain.”
Her body stiffened. “Why so quickly?”
“Because I want my uncle stopped immediately. All of this will be solved once I show the proper documents to higher authorities.”
Her expression wavered before her gaze rested on his chest. “Will you come back and see me when it’s over?”
His heart soared and he wanted to smother her with kisses. She did care about him!
“No, mi dulce.” He paused, waiting for her reaction, but when her mouth dropped into a frown and her lips had a slight tremble, his heart couldn’t take anymore. He kissed her forehead. “I will not come back to see you because you will be with me.”
Her head snapped up. “Pardon me? What did you just say?”
“You are coming with me to Spain.”
She forced a laugh. “Are you insane? I can’t do that. My friends are here. My work is here. Besides, I hate to sail. I—I’m afraid of the water.”
“You will have to get used to the idea, because I am not leaving you.” Facing her toward her bedroom, he gave her a slight push in that direction. “Now get dressed and pack a few things. Time is of the essence.”
She swung around to face him, her hair flying over her shoulder. By the fire flashing in her eyes, he knew he’d be fighting her all the way. He looked forward to the challenge.
“I’m doing no such thing. You have dictated to me all evening, and I won’t have any more of it. If you’re in a hurry to leave, then you better go by yourself.”
“Vivian,” he said in a warning tone.
“Will you not allow me any time to set my affairs in order? I need to speak with my employer, and I need to make certain Margaret is safely at home.”
Smiling, he walked to her and only stopped when he slipped his arms around her waist. Oh, why did this have to feel so good?
“Your companion is safe, I assure you.” He touched her stubborn chin. “You have exactly thirty minutes to ready yourself, and if you are not packed, I will take you to Spain wearing your night clothes. It is your choice what you wear.” Taking a step back, he scanned her body and grinned. “But personally, I rather like you in this.”
“Oh,” she shouted, then spun in a half-circle and marched into her room, slamming the door behind her.
He listened for a lock, and thankfully did not hear the metallic click. He chuckled. Yes, this journey would be exciting one way or another.
He walked into the kitchen and picked up Vivian’s cooling cup of coffee from the table before gulping it down. After she packed, he planned on returning to his townhouse to gather his belongings and the money he’d saved for this very day. Since leaving Spain, he had known it would only be a matter of time before he returned.
Leaning his hip against the table, he scanned the kitchen and front room. Vivian kept her little cottage tidy, but it didn’t look as if a woman had decorated it. He strode into the front room to the worn cushioned chair beside the fireplace, and on the floor was a permanently dirt-stained throw rug just inside the front door. Pictures on the walls were of mountains, not of frilly flowers as he’d expected.
He snooped through the rest of the house, which only consisted of one more room besides her bedroom. The door to the unknown room remained shut, so he turned the handle and opened it. The faint smell of tobacco hung in the air, and the scent of dust tickled his nose and he sneezed.
He assumed the other male who lived with her had been a brother or a father. By the inch-thick layer of dust on the old wooden drawers, he surmised the occupant had been absent from the home for a while.
Once he closed the door softly, Anton stepped to Vivian’s door and listened. For somebody who was supposed to be packing, she certainly wasn’t making any noise.
“Vivian? Are you almost ready?”
From the other side of the door, she growled. He smiled, loving her feisty mood.
“No, I’m not. It’s only been about five minutes.”
“You are so quiet in there, I wondered if you were done.”
“I know you’ll be disappointed to hear this, but when I’m dressing, I don’t make a lot of noise.”
He chuckled. “Do you need any help?”
“No. I’ve been doing just fine for twenty-two years, thank you.”
He ran his finger alongside the doorframe. “Vivian?”
“What is it now?”
He steadied his voice to a serious tone. “How long ago did your father die?”
Once again, silence lagged on the other side of the door, but he waited patiently for her answer, hoping that it didn’t upset her too much to talk about it.
“One year,” came the faint reply.
“I am sorry. How did he die?”
“He worked in the mines in West Virginia. He contracted a lung disease from the coal that slowly ate away at his body. We moved here before he died.”
“Are you his only child?”
“No. I have an older brother. Matthew lives in Philadelphia.”
“Where is your mother?”
Silence stretched again, but Anton waited.
“She ran out on the family and left with another man when I turned ten. I haven’t seen her since.”
Sadness encased his heart. He’d never known such a thing. But then, this wasn’t his country and things were vastly different here.
He flattened his hand on the door, mentally reaching out to her for comfort. “My apologies. I did not realize.”
“Of course you didn’t. Nobody did. I mean, mothers aren’t supposed to leave their families and seek a new life with other men, are they? She took away my childhood, and made me wait on a sickly father and lazy brother.”
“Do not pity me, Anton.” Her voice turned harsh. “The situation shaped me into who I am today.”
“Sí, you are very independent.”
“Indeed, I am.”
“I will not speak of the matter again.” He pulled away from the door and returned to the front room, and sat on the sofa.
What a strong woman Vivian was. It explained why she was so stubborn and spoke her mind. He smiled. He wouldn’t have her any other way.
On the small table next to him sat a framed mini-portrait of an older man. It must be her father. Same smile, same oval-shaped face, and identical eyes. The man’s smile warmed Anton’s heart.
Strange to think their lives were similar. She, growing up without a mother, and he being raised most of his life without his father. His mother and nanny had raised him.
Mi niňera! Excited, he bolted off the chair. He’d forgotten about her. Because he hadn’t lived with his father until he was fifteen, his old nanny could identify him and attest he was not an illegitimate son. The old woman would be an enormous help in fighting the many lies his uncle had spread. Of course, Anton would have to do some serious searching to find her because after he left for war, they’d lost touch. Trying to find her might delay things, but it was worth the chance.
A movement from out the window caught his attention. He dove to the floor and crouched, barely peeking over the bottom of the windowsill to look out. Blackness filled the yard. Not even the moon helped his vision, but he concentrated on the shadows, the trees, and wind-blown leaves drifting over the ground.
Searching the grounds surrounding Vivian’s house, he studied every inch, hoping to discover what he’d seen. After a few moments, there was another movement. Long and wavy, blondish-brown colored hair streamed in the breeze as Vivian darted behind a tree. He groaned and fisted his hand.
The little tart was running from him! He should have guessed her intentions wouldn’t be good once he told her of their travel plans.
Springing into action, he dashed out the door and chased after her. When she spotted him, she screamed and ran faster, but he outpaced her. He grabbed her arm, pulling her to a stop. She tripped and fell. He followed her down, covering her with his body.
“Blast you, Anton!” she yelled, striking his chest with her fists. “Get off of me you big brute.”
He took hold of her hands and pinned them to the ground above her head. Her chest heaved in a quick rhythm against his. Glancing down at her clothes, he noticed the man’s black shirt. He also remembered seeing the black trousers that molded to her legs only moments ago.
“You fool. What do you think to accomplish by running?” he snapped.
“I—I—I feel I need to tell my employer where I’m going. He will be worried if I disappear without a word.”
Irritable, Anton shook his head. “Have you forgotten so soon? Informing your employer, Mr. Pinkerton, is not a wise idea. He will then tell my uncle. If I am to locate the verifications necessary to produce my true identity, my uncle cannot know where we are going.”
Quick breaths came from her as she met his gaze. Confusion crossed her lovely features, and he waited for her answer.
“I—I—I never thought of that.”
“Please trust me, Vivian. I will prove my innocence. You just need to give me more time.”
He swept his gaze over the lines creasing her face, but with her wild hair framing her head, she looked very tempting. He liked seeing her this way, except without the look of hatred blazing in her eyes.
“Vivian? May I ask you a question?”
He scowled. “Do you believe me? Or do you still think my uncle is the one being truthful?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because if you believed me, you would not have run. You would want to come with me to help clear my name and free me from my uncle’s false charges.”
She blinked, her cheeks growing red. “I do want to believe you, Anton. Truly, I do.”
Her words reflected a different story than her expression, and he could read her well. Disappointment crushed his chest. She really didn’t believe him.
It hurt, and he wasn’t prepared for the stab of pain, like a knife through his heart. But for some reason, she wanted him to think she believed.
What game did she play with him now?
It shocked Vivian that Anton didn’t bind or gag her. Not only wouldn’t he let her out of his sight, she wasn’t allowed to go as much as three inches away. But, she could not admit defeat. Instead, she’d make him believe that traveling to Spain with him was an excellent idea, even though she really didn’t want to go. After all, what other way could she discover the truth if not following him across the ocean? And, since she didn’t really believe him, she needed to find the true story. He was hiding something, she just knew it.
With a groan, she realized going with him surpassed her call of duty. Then again, she really wasn’t an agent. Did the other agents go to such great lengths to close their cases?
She tried to convince herself this was a good thing. After all, if Anton was telling the truth, Mr. Pinkerton would be very impressed with her for proving Juanito Ballí false, and her employer would definitely promote her to an agent status.
Anton had taken her back into Upper Manhattan to his townhouse and pulled her inside just as the sun came up, announcing a new day. Eyes drooping and weary with fatigue, she stepped into the hallway and gasped. This man lived in luxury, but he was an opera singer. She sincerely hoped his money came from his opera career, not his uncle’s fortune.
With her heart pounding in an unknown panic, she followed him through the hallway, upstairs. A few servants stood back and watched but didn’t look at all shocked. With Anton’s fingers grasped around her wrist, he brought her into a room and shut the door. Closed curtains hung over the windows, so he lit the lamp nearest to the door, illuminating his glorious chambers.
Never in her life had she been in a man’s bedroom. Except for her father’s, of course. She sucked in a quick breath and took in everything around her. Walls covered in moss-green damask, the bedroom filled with Hepplewhite furniture, close to the same that adorned Mr. Pinkerton’s house. A small marble-topped table stood positioned beside an Empire sofa decorated with gold-painted seashells. In the corner of the room sat his bed. His very large bed. All in white with its twist posts and damask hangings.
“I suggest you relax, mi dulce. We are staying here until we obtain passage to Spain.”
Clearing her throat, she forced herself to speak. “Anton, there is no way I’m going to stay in the same room as you. It’s not proper at all, and you know it.”
He laughed and walked across the room to the window. Parting the curtains only a scant, he peered outside. The morning sun shone through. “In time you will see it differently, I promise. Do not think of it as indecent.” His gaze met hers. “Merely remember that I am protecting you.”
As he loosened his cravat, his grin stretched across his tempting mouth. Her heartbeat took on a different rhythm.
“What are you doing?” she said, breathless.
“I am making myself comfortable.”
“Not like that, you’re not.”
“Sí, I am.”
“Anton, I really must protest!”
Ignoring her, he shrugged out of his overcoat and waistcoat then loosened his shirt. With a gasp, she turned her head away so as not to see his naked chest, fearing it would be as muscular as she had imagined. Nothing could sway her, especially this sensual man who constantly tried to charm her.
A full-length mirror in the corner of the room caught her attention, and she couldn’t tear her gaze away from studying his reflection as he undressed. Oh, glory! The sight of his bare chest caused her throat to dry. Her hands itched to graze the black hair sprinkled over him, so she quickly balled her hands into fists to keep from acting out.
Her cheeks burned, so she squeezed her eyes closed, but his magnificent image remained in her mind. Suddenly, his masculine scent in the room surrounded her, quickening her breathing.
Folding her arms across her stomach, she concentrated on the anger she’d forgotten. How dare he not allow her to contact Margaret? At least her companion should know Vivian was in no immediate danger. Anton was such a demanding man, and she had to keep in mind he was a thief, the outlaw her agency had been trying to find for months.
True, she’d told him she believed his story, but deep inside her, doubt niggled at her, reminding her of the obvious holes in his explanation. Unfortunately, she must pretend to trust him. Until she could expose the truth.
The low rumble of his chuckle made her disregard her thoughts, and she glanced back into the mirror. He’d just finished pulling on another shirt. The material could be almost transparent if she concentrated hard enough. His laughter grew, and she lifted her gaze to meet his in the mirror.
“Did your innocent eyes catch something they should not have, my dear?”
Embarrassment washed over her in a heated wave and burned her cheeks. Quickly, she turned away, but there was no way he could have missed her humiliation. The soft tap at his door made her forget her mortification. Saying a silent prayer, she hoped for someone to rescue her from this handsome, sensual, brute. Yet the blunt truth was nobody could save her. She had to stay by his side until she could get him back to Mr. Pinkerton.
Anton hurried to the door. “Who is it?” he asked as he rested his hand on the knob.
“It is I, Pedro.”
Vivian’s heart dropped. He certainly wouldn’t help her.
Anton quickly let in the man, closed the door, and walked to his desk. “Did anyone follow you?”
A sigh escaped Anton. “Good.” From his money pouch, he pulled out a fistful of gold coins. “I need you to book two passages on the next ship sailing for Spain. I think the booths will be opening soon. If not, use my connections to get tickets posthaste.”
“Sí, Anton.” Pedro took the money and slipped the heavy coins inside his coat pocket. “I will do it immediately.”
“Pedro?” Vivian called to him before he reached the door. “How is Margaret? You remember, my friend at the party?”
He hesitated while his hand rested on the doorknob. “She is safe at home.”
“Do not worry. She is well.” Pedro grinned.
Vivian sighed. “Will you send her a note for me and tell her what has happened? I don’t want her to worry.”
Pedro glanced at Anton for approval, but Anton shook his head. Without another word, Pedro left.
Anger surged through her, and she marched to Anton, her arms planted on her hips. “Why did you tell him no? Margaret is going to be livid.”
“I have already taken care of that. Pedro informed your friend you are with me, but did not tell her where we are going. I do not want her running to the Pinkerton Agency and informing them of our whereabouts.”
“Sometimes, you can be a cruel and heartless man, Anton.”
He grinned. “No, but you keep believing that, and maybe it will help you with your unwholesome thoughts toward me a minute ago when I caught you peeking in the mirror.”
Her mouth dropped open. “How dare you—”
“Querida.” He stepped to her. “I am not blind. The proof is right here on your scarlet cheeks.” His fingers brushed softly on that heated spot, but she slapped them away.
“I’m not going to be attracted to you any longer. If we’re going to be in such close quarters from now until we reach Spain, we must maintain some professionalism.”
“That sounds awfully boring, and will make for one tedious excursion.”
She pursed her lips, knowing she would agree with him if she didn’t keep remembering her business manner.
“I think you should get a little sleep,” he said. “We will travel to the docks at night, which will keep us hidden better.”
She stifled a yawn. “I do feel tired. But I’m not about to undress in front of you. Would you kindly step outside?”
“No. I do not trust you by yourself, especially if there are windows that can be easily opened.”
She arched a brow. Apparently, she wasn’t trying hard enough to convince him that she trusted him. “But we are on the second floor. I’m not about to jump out of a second story window. Besides that, it won’t be proper if you stay here while I undress.”
“I am not going anywhere, and I promise not to peek as you did.” He chuckled.
Once again, her face flamed. She glanced to the full-length mirror and realized if she could stand behind it that would be her only protection. Unfortunately, the room did not have a dressing screen, so the mirror would just have to do.
She marched to the bed and yanked open her bag, grabbing the flannel nightgown on top. Stubbornly, she lifted her chin and moved behind the mirror. True to his word, Anton turned his back to give her more privacy.
This time undressing became easier because she wore men’s attire, and soon she had wiggled into her nightgown and settled it over her body. After bunching up her clothes, she took them to the bed and stuffed the garments in the satchel.
Without asking his permission, she drew down the blankets and crawled into his bed, pulling the cover high up her neck. His masculine scent of spice surrounded her, making her head light.
Anton glanced over his shoulder at her. A grin spread across his handsome face.
“Try and rest, Vivian. It is uncertain right now when we will leave for Spain.”
She nodded as he settled in the heavily cushioned chair beside the bed.
“Buenas noches, Vivian. Even if it is actually morning.” He chuckled as he turned off the lamp.
She squeezed her eyes closed, but images of his naked chest popped into her head. Silently, she groaned. Working side by side with him would be pure torture…and their adventure hadn’t even begun.
Anton bolted straight up in his chair, blinking away the sleep that crept upon him. A noise had awakened him, but as he searched the shadows in the darkened room and listened, he couldn’t tell what brought him alert. On stiff legs, he moved to the window and peered through the slits of the heavy drapes. The afternoon’s sun made him squint as he looked down at the street in front of the townhouse. Merchants peddled their wares while children played near their nannies. Horses pulled wagons and conveyances, their hooves and the wheels crunching on the ground as they passed.
Yet the noise he heard didn’t come from out there. It came from somewhere in this room.
Releasing a heavy breath, he rubbed his hand across his bare chest. The morning had been warm, and after Vivian had fallen asleep, he’d taken off his shirt. Stretching his body from the cramped position he’d been in, he walked back to his chair.
As he sank back into the cushions, he heard the noise again. His gaze snapped to the bed. A bright sliver of sunlight peeked through the curtains and shone a small amount of light on Vivian. She lay on her back, the sheets gathered around her legs as she fitfully tossed to her side, letting out small moans. Judging from the tight crease on her forehead, her dream was not pleasant. He couldn’t decide if he should wake her or let her sleep.
For a few moments, she lay still before rolling his way, flinging her arms over her head and pulling her lips into a pout. Still, she looked adorable. When she made another noise, her mouth opened, her breath coming in gushes as if she ran from someone. Warily, he moved closer and watched.
“No,” she mumbled, “please, don’t hurt him.”
Who did she dream about? The worry etched in her brow revealed she cared deeply for the person in her mind.
“No, please.” Her voice rose, and this time she lashed out at some invisible object in front of her. Her arm dropped to the bed, but her breathing became faster. “Watch out. Anton,” she screamed then bolted up.
He jumped to her side and crawled on the bed, but she closed her eyes and sank onto the mattress. His heart beat with renewed life. Apparently, he had become the object of her affections, at least while she slept.
Suddenly she tossed her head on the pillow as her hands clutched the bed sheets. “Let him go. Leave him alone.” She sobbed, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “Please, don’t hurt him.”
Anton slid underneath the blankets and gathered her in his arms. When her face rested against his bare chest, heavy breaths subsided and peacefulness settled about her. Like a kitten, she cuddled next to him. Her arms wrapped around his waist. Sparks ignited inside him, and he didn’t want to release her. Perhaps she’d be upset later, but right now, he needed this, wanted her against him. If just for a moment, he had to feel as if she truly desired him.
Lying beside her, he pulled the blankets up. Anton made himself comfortable, bringing her body fully against his as he rested his head on her pillow.
Now she slept like a babe. He smiled, kissed her forehead, and then shut his eyes. Evening would arrive very soon, and he anticipated seeing her reaction when she awoke in his arms.
After several minutes, sleep failed him. He blinked his eyes open and stared into the semi-darkness, pondering his decision to take her with him to Spain. Had he forced her? And more importantly, was it really necessary?
Before leaving for war, he remembered the way his uncle acted. The people on the island treated Juanito with deference only because he demanded it. As a young boy, Anton thought his uncle was well liked and admired, but now, he realized the man pushed people to do his bidding, or they suffered the consequences.
Those feelings of panic returned, and Anton recalled the agony of knowing his uncle wanted him dead. By then, Anton had seen enough war and senseless killing. He left it all behind, sacrificing the home he loved. If Juanito wanted the island that badly, he could have it.
Things were different now. Anton didn’t need the prestige and power that came with his inheritance, but he couldn’t let a ruthless tyrant continue with his brutal domination over the weak.
If necessary, Anton would kill his uncle himself. Of course, that wasn’t at all what Anton wanted, but if it came down to it, he’d do it.
Vivian stirred in his arms. He gazed upon her angelic morning face while fear gnawed at his gut. Juanito would certainly use Vivian, making her a hostage in order to force Anton to beg for mercy. He vowed to keep her from his uncle’s clutches.
Vivian definitely had to come to Spain with him. Anton couldn’t stand seeing her hurt in any way. Although she put up a brave front, she’d never be able to withstand Juanito Ballí’s form of torture.
A deep sigh slipped through her slightly parted lips as she rubbed a soft cheek against his chest, snuggling closer. He kissed her forehead, letting his lips linger on her creamy skin before withdrawing. Leisurely, her eyelids lifted, she looked into his face, and smiled.
Assuming she wasn’t quite awake, he remained still and waited for her true reaction once she’d established her bearings. With a small pleasurable sigh, she rested her face on his chest and rubbed her gentle lips across his skin. It was his turn to groan, but he kept quiet for fear awareness would finally come to her and she’d realize her mistake.
The covers stirred as she crossed her leg over his. Beneath the blanket, her hand swept over his abdomen, sending a heated shiver through him. Sweat beaded his forehead. Anton gritted his teeth to hold his desire in check, wishing she’d awaken and put an end to this agonizing pleasure.
He slid his hand up and down her full sleeve in a light caress, but she still remained in a dream world. Another soft sigh slipped through her parted lips, making him smile. Dare he wake her? But then again, how much excruciating enjoyment could he take without wanting more?
He kissed her head again, and she peered into his eyes. Although she seemed aware, the dazed mist in her stare revealed her semi-conscious state. Vivian’s gaze dropped and rested on his mouth, causing him to silently curse his weakness. He knew when a woman wanted to be kissed, and right now she showed all the signs.
Refusing her unspoken wish was out of the question.
In a moment of weakness, he brushed his lips across hers, but when he tried to withdraw, she forged on, leaning up to meet his mouth. She combed her fingers through his hair and pecked at his lips. There was no stopping him now.
Cupping her face, he pushed her back onto the bed and used his lips to begin his seduction. He followed her lead, just enjoying the softness of her mouth. But that was all she wanted apparently, because she sighed deeply and turned her face, snuggling against his shoulder.
“You’re safe now,” she whispered. “I’ll not let him hurt you again.”
An unexplained emotion cut through his heart, confusing him greatly. If not for feeling so troubled, her words would have elicited laughter. Although it touched him to think she cared, he really didn’t deserve it, especially since he knew he was taking her to Spain against her will. Unfortunately, it had to be done.
When sleep once again finally settled over her, he pulled away and left her side, returning to his uncomfortable chair. His mind was too scrambled to sleep. Especially when a strange emotion threatened to fill his heart. An emotion he had no name for.
Vivian blinked her eyes open and stretched her arms above her head. The descending sun’s pink light from the window caused her to squint, and suddenly the objects in the room came into focus.
With a groan, she covered her face with her hands. She was stuck. Even if she wanted to get out of this mess, she couldn’t. Not until she collected some hard evidence against him soon. If she didn’t, she’d be sailing to Spain in the near future.
Slowly, she lowered her hands and glanced around the spacious area. Although his spicy scent continued to hang in the air, she didn’t hear his deep breathing. She sat up as she surveyed the room. Anton was gone. Did that mean he had left her and sailed to Spain himself? Doubtful, knowing Anton. Then again, she really didn’t know him that well.
But, while he was away, she’d make herself useful.
She whipped off the covers and scampered out of bed. Not caring she still wore her nightgown, she hurried to the large oak dresser in the corner of the room. Resting her hands on the handle, she took a moment to listen for any noises outside the door. Luckily, the hallway remained quiet.
Careful not to make much noise, she slid open the first drawer. Piles of Anton’s underclothes took up most of the space. Her heartbeat thudded rapidly, knowing she would have to touch his most personal garments to move them aside during her search.
The first drawer didn’t have any hidden secrets, so she moved to the second, then the third. The fourth drawer wouldn’t budge, as if something was caught inside. She resisted tugging harder for fear of making too much noise.
Quickly, before Anton decided to return, she hurried to the nearest closet. His clothes hung neatly inside, and his strong masculine scent made her insides melt. Why did he have to smell so wonderful? She knelt and searched through the closet, but the blasted thing was too clean. He definitely didn’t have anything hidden here.
Letting out a frustrated breath, she moved to the trunk sitting near the window. A lock hung open on the latch. Excitement grew in her chest as she opened the lid and peered inside.
Photos and knick-knacks littered the bottom. There wasn’t enough time to study every single photo, but she skimmed through a few. Most were of a little boy and a woman. Probably Anton and his mother. So far, none were of an older man, Anton’s father.
Although the absence of a picture didn’t prove anything, it made her wonder if Anton wasn’t the heir to the family fortune, but instead, Juanito Ballí. She really needed to focus and trust her instincts.
The trinkets mixed with the photos were not expensive items, nor were they the jewels Anton was accused of stealing—which was really what she’d hoped to find.
She sat back on her heels and glanced around the room. Where else could she look?
Voices and thudding footsteps in the hallway drew her attention. Her throat clutched with panic, and she hurried into the bed, jumped on the mattress before climbing beneath the covers, and pulling them up to her chin.
She barely had time to breathe before the door opened and Anton walked in.
He met her gaze and smiled. “Good evening, Vivian. I trust you slept well?”
She shrugged. “As well as could be expected, I suppose.”
“Have you been awake long?”
“Not long at all.” It really wasn’t a lie, but still a pang of guilt stabbed at her.
He glanced around the room, his gaze resting on his trunk. When she realized she’d left the lid open, she stiffened and subdued a groan.
Meeting her gaze briefly, he shook his head. “Tsk, tsk, Vivian.” He walked to his trunk. “I suppose I should not be surprised you searched my room. After all, you are a detective.”
Heat burned her cheeks, and she wished she could control her embarrassment.
He closed the lid and turned to her. “Did you find anything of value? Stolen jewels perhaps?”
In defiance, she lifted her chin. “A good detective never gives away her secrets…or findings.”
“Ah, so I have heard.” He grinned as he moved to the bed and touched her cheek. “But mí dulce, your face cannot lie to me, and the blush in your cheeks tells me you did not find anything.” Giving her a wink, he pulled away. “Now, you must dress quickly. Adorn yourself in your best traveling gown because we will leave within the hour.”
Her heart knocked in an uneven rhythm. “Leave? For Spain?”
“Sí. I assume you want to help me discover the truth.”
Hesitantly, she nodded. What else could she do? She’d already tried to reason with him why she should not go, and he ignored her plea.
“Splendid. Because in Spain we will find what is needed to prove my identity.”
Fear slowly crept into her body. Was she making the right choice? Could she sail alone with him, knowing how attracted she was to him, without her emotions becoming involved? She had to!
“I think you have overlooked one important matter.”
With an arched brow, he cocked his head. “I do not think so, mí dulce”
“Who is going to be…um…what about my chaperone?”
A grin sneaked across his handsome face as he sat on the edge of the bed. “My dear, Vivian. Have you changed into a chameleon now? Why are you so proper when last night at the soirée you were—”
Her face burned again and she held up a hand. “Anton, must you insist on bringing that up? You know my reasons.”
“Then what are your reasons now?”
“Last night I was with Margaret. This time I’ll be alone with you in public. It’s not proper.”
He reached across her lap and his fingers circled her hand in a soft hold. “So you think we should have some kind of cover?”
“Perhaps we should travel as a married couple.”
“That’s utterly ridiculous.” She yanked her hand away as her heartbeat quickened. “We will not become that close. Besides, I’m only going to act as your partner. After all, are we not sailing to Spain so you can prove your identity?”
“Then pretending we’re married is out of the question.”
“You want us to act more like partners, then?”
He scratched his chin. “I fear that will not work, so what would you say to being my distant niece?”
She tried not to grin, but the corners of her mouth tugged upward regardless of how hard she tried not to let them. “I think people could see we are not.”
“I will say you are my American relative on my mother’s side.”
She shrugged. “That might work, I suppose.”
He slapped his knees and stood. “Very well, niece Vivian. Hurry and dress because the hour is slipping away. The sooner we climb aboard that vessel, the better for both of us.”
Her heart sank. Could she act accordingly? She didn’t understand the way her body melted every time he touched her. And heaven forbid they would share another kiss. That she would not let him do again!
Vivian stood by the ship’s railing inhaling the salt air, hoping to calm her shifting stomach. She’d warned Anton about her fear of sailing, but he had insisted she go with him, nonetheless. Another wave of nausea tackled her belly, and she gnashed her teeth. He’d just have to get used to her illness and the unruly temper that accompanied.
Beside her, Anton’s alert eyes kept watch on the semi-crowded deck for anyone who seemed suspicious, something he’d been doing since they set sail a week ago. His cautious nature kept him attentive, and because of his disguise, he mingled with the crowd and didn’t stand out. Vivian thought he looked more handsome now than when she first saw him on stage.
Since first boarding, Anton had dressed more like a farmer’s son. He let his sideburns grow and styled a goatee around his mouth. Perhaps this was his true identity? Just maybe, his uncle’s story was correct and not Anton’s? She couldn’t decide. She blamed her clouded judgment because of her interest in him.
When another bout of seasickness hit her, she leaned against the railing and breathed deeply. She prayed she didn’t humiliate herself in public again as she had during those first few days on the ship. Her head pounded from trying to restrain her stomach, but she welcomed the distraction.
His hand grazed her arm, but she refused to meet his eyes.
“Vivian? Are you all right?”
“I will be in a moment,” she mumbled between clenched teeth.
“Do you wish to return to the room?”
She shook her head. “The fresh air is helping.”
“But you have been like this all week. Have you kept any food down at all?”
“A small amount.” She breathed deeply, the turbulent roll in her stomach subsided. “It’s this wind, stirring the waves and causing the ship to rock.” She placed her cool hands on her face. “I’ll be better in a moment.”
He swept his fingers across a lock of her loosely bound hair. “I worry about you. I am not pleased with your pale coloring of late.”
Meeting his stare, she shrugged. “The sea and I do not get along well.”
“May I ask why?”
“Sailing has always scared me. I don’t like the unsettled feeling of walking on moving ground. I especially don’t like the idea of falling overboard and plunging into the icy waters and sinking to my death.”
He chuckled. “You will not fall overboard.”
“Perhaps you should have left me back in New York.”
“You know I could not. Keeping you by my side is the only way I can protect you.”
“So you keep telling me,” she mumbled.
He leaned on the rail, his gaze sweeping across the lightly rolling sea. “I am beginning to think your bout with seasickness is purely for my benefit. More and more you are proving how much you dislike my company.”
She poked her finger at his shoulder. “I told you how I felt about sailing before we ever stepped foot aboard this ship.” Folding her arms, she took a deep breath. “And I have never told you I dislike your company. Just because I don’t choose to fall for your charm doesn’t mean you won’t be a good traveling partner.”
He snapped his head toward her. “You think I am constantly trying to bed you?”
She arched a brow. “You cannot lie to me, Anton. I read you well.”
“Vivian.” He shook his head and sighed deeply. “I am taking you with me for your own protection. I am aware this trip is not solely for pleasure.”
She compelled a laugh. “I shall believe that when I see it.”
Anger marred his forehead with deep lines. “Believe me when I say, the only reason I brought you along is to keep you away from my uncle. If he ever got his hands on you…”
She turned her back to him. Keeping up this farce of believing him gnawed on her nerves. Then again, in the back of her mind, a niggling of doubt squeezed through, and she wondered if he’d been telling the truth all this time. If only he would show her some proof. All this confusion gave her a headache. With a deep breath, she realized the sooner they arrived in Spain, the better.
Anton pulled from the rail and moved in front of her. “Vivian, we need to learn to trust each other. This trip will become very long if we cannot trust each other.”
Silently, she scolded herself for not turning out a better performance. No matter what, he couldn’t see the doubt in her eyes.
She patted his hand. “Of course, I trust you, Anton. I wouldn’t have come with you otherwise.”
“Even if I practically kidnapped you?”
She forced a laugh. “I’m quite certain you didn’t. I would have been able to get away from you sooner or later if I really wanted.”
“I still worry about you.” He stroked her cheek.
“I shall be fine, as soon as I am used to the turbulent waves. Until that time, I will be extremely moody.” She pushed her hand through the air. “Please, Anton. If you don’t mind, I wish to be alone right now.”
“You have been like this a lot lately.”
“I know. It’s the seasickness.”
“Then I will seek out some real company. I hope you find something to entertain yourself for the weeks ahead.” Grumbling, he turned and left her side.
Her heart dropped with each step he took away from her. Why didn’t he understand? Her seasickness had nothing to do with him. Did all men think about themselves and no other? Apparently.
As soon as her bout with this sickness passed, she promised to be the headstrong detective in training she started out to be. Hopefully, that time would arrive shortly. Even she couldn’t stand her own sour mood.
Although anger burned in her chest for Anton’s refusal to understand, foolishness rooted her to the spot. She stood alone and was somewhat shocked at his threat of seeking other companionship. Loneliness crept over her, and she didn’t like it one bit. Perhaps she was too hasty in asking Anton to leave.
Would he want to find a woman and spend time with her? The thought twisted her heart. If he did, she didn’t know how she would be able to handle seeing him charm another woman.
Putting aside her raging emotions, she strolled across the deck to the other side of the ship. Her homeland was no longer visible, and she remained trapped in a world of churning water. A horrific thought of falling into the sea passed through her mind, making her stomach clench again. She’d never learned to swim, and drowning wasn’t her idea of the perfect way to die.
When her mother was still around, the family went on a boat ride, and Vivian fell overboard. Although her mother bravely jumped in the cold water to save her, the nightmare of not being able to breathe stayed with Vivian for quite some time. Never again did she want to feel so helpless.
A windy gust ruffled her hair and chilled her cheeks. Pulling her shawl tighter around her shoulders, she wondered which was icier, the breeze coming off the ocean or the look in Anton’s eyes when he walked away.
Several couples strolled across the deck. A few stood out among the others with the same golden tanned skin that made Anton beautiful. A sudden doubt troubled her. What if these strangers worked for his uncle? Her gaze shifted to another man. Could he be employed by Juanito Ballí, too?
Grumbling, she chastised herself for letting Anton’s paranoia consume her. He thought every olive-skinned man was after him. She straightened her stance and snickered at Anton’s wild imagination. Why then did she keep checking over her shoulder?
If Anton were guilty as she had first suspected, would he sail halfway across the world to prove his innocence? Nothing made sense anymore, and she hated doubting her own mind.
She needed Mr. Pinkerton’s advice now more than ever. Then again, he would have never approved of what she did, either.
From the corner of her eyes, a hooded, cloaked figure caught her attention. An older woman stood across the deck, her gaze fixed directly on Vivian. Most of the woman’s face remained shadowed because of her hood. Chills of the unknown rushed through Vivian, which had nothing to do with the weather. A few awkward minutes passed as they stared at the other. Vivian didn’t think she knew her, yet she was too far away to tell for certain.
Finally, the woman tightened her cloak under her chin, spun around, and hurried away.
How very strange. Definitely something Vivian should check into, but not now. It was too chilly up on deck today. The older woman didn’t have the dark skin like Anton’s heritage, so perhaps Vivian shouldn’t be concerned about her at all.
Another gust of cool air whipped off the sea, blowing her skirt around her ankles, freezing her legs. She turned to flee to her room, but bumped into another passenger. When the man’s hands steadied her shoulders, she glanced into his face. The stranger stood very tall and handsome and, like Anton, appeared to be of Spanish origin. The man’s maturity showed in the streaks of silver that lightly tinted his black hair. Wrinkles decorated his olive skin around his eyes and mouth, and the thick mustache above his upper lip was as dark as a moonless night.
“Oh, pardon me, Señorita,” he said, his Spanish accent richer than Anton’s. “Did I harm you?”
She gave a nervous laugh before stepping back. “No. Forgive me for not seeing you, but the sudden nippy air turned my thoughts to getting back to my cabin for warmth.”
Despite his good looks, when he smiled, he still didn’t hold a candle to Anton’s incredible perfection. Why did these kinds of thoughts about her thief continually forsake her vow to remain disinterested?
“Is this your first trip?” he asked.
“This is my first trip sailing this far from home. I have been on a smaller boat, but only for an hour, and not far from shore.”
“Then you had better get used to these uncontrolled gusts of wind. Out here on the sea, one minute the sun will shine like a mid-summer’s day, and the next moment, clouds will fill the sky as if it is the middle of winter.”
“Your warning is very much appreciated. I certainly feel better now.”
He chuckled. “You packed warmly, did you not?”
“I certainly hope so. I’d hate to think I’d be in my cabin for most of the voyage bundled in blankets. My stuffy room makes me more nauseous than out here in the open.”
He glanced around the deck. When he snapped his gaze back to her, he smiled. “Are you here with your husband?”
Without meaning to, she snorted a laugh, and then quickly corrected herself. The idea of she and Anton posing as a married couple was still very humorous. “Oh, no. I’m not married.”
“But you do have an escort, I presume?”
She shrugged. “Yes. He is my uncle. He will be escorting me until we reach Spain.” She glanced across the deck, but she couldn’t see Anton. Strange, because he’d talked so much of protecting her, yet where was he now? “I suppose he decided to go below.”
Like a true gentleman, the stranger stepped back, straightened, and offered his elbow. “Then permit me to guide you back to you room, Señorita.”
She wanted to distrust him. Obviously, this was something Anton would do. Gut feelings didn’t lie, and hers told her to beware. Then again, if this man knew anything about Anton’s uncle and the story Anton continued to tell her, why couldn’t she ask questions on her own? After all, she wanted to be a detective.
She grinned. This was the perfect way to pass her time.
With the firm decision in mind to dig deeper in her new amigo’s life, Vivian nodded to the stranger. “You must tell me your name first. I cannot allow you to take me to my cabin otherwise.”
“My name is Raúl Zamora.” He bowed slightly.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Señor Zamora. I’m Miss Vivian Wentworth.” She slipped her hand in the crook of his arm. They walked side by side toward the stairs, heading for her cabin.
“I would prefer it if you called me Raúl.”
She smiled. “Then you must call me Vivian.”
“Are you traveling alone?” she inquired.
“For what purpose, if you don’t mind me asking. Business or pleasure?”
“I travel back and forth from my homeland, Spain, to the United States. I am in the trading business.”
“How fascinating.” And it truly was. He would possibly know about Anton’s uncle and have information for her.
“It is, and yet it is not. Rarely do I have someone accompany me on my trips.” He patted her hand. “So, I always appreciate the opportunity to meet new people. It keeps me from going insane.”
“I would like to get to know you. I find the trade business fascinating, and I’d like to learn more.”
“Then, will you permit me to be your companion for the duration of the trip?”
She cocked her head and studied his profile with a grin. Anton would have a few words to say about that. But, what if Raúl knew something about Anton’s uncle? The only way she would know is by getting to know this man better.
“I will certainly have to think about it.”
After realizing her journey to Spain wouldn’t be as awful as she’d first thought, her spirits lifted. Hopefully, with Raúl as her new friend, he’d keep her mind off her sinfully handsome and overpowering protector.
Yet, in the late hours of the night when she lay awake in bed, memories of Anton’s kisses would disrupt her thoughts once again—just as they’ve done so far this trip.
She stretched her smile. “Shall we meet back up on deck after dinner?” Had she been too brazen? Would Raúl suspect she worked with Anton to get information?
“I thought of inviting you to have dinner with me, instead.”
Panic surged through her, and she breathed slowly to calm her fear. Strange, but she didn’t feel right being alone with him. So why hadn’t she felt this way with Anton?
“As much as the idea is enticing, it would not be proper, and I need my uncle to be my guardian.”
“Then bring him along.”
She laughed. “You don’t know him as well as I. Moving a mountain might be easier than convincing him.”
He chuckled. “So, dinner is out of the question?”
“Yes, for now. Let me speak with him tonight. Perhaps he’ll be in better spirits this evening.”
“That sounds wonderful.” He leaned near her ear. “Until the time when I can get you alone, that is.”
She pulled back. “You shock me with your forwardness, Sir.”
“You do not seem to mind it overmuch.” He grinned, almost too smugly.
Are all Spaniards arrogant or was that just their charm?
They stopped in front of her door. “Thank you, Raúl, for your escort.”
“Perhaps I will see you after dinner, up on the deck?”
“Only if the weather permits.”
He bowed slightly. “Then until later, Señorita.” He took her hand and placed a chaste kiss on her knuckles before turning and walking away.
Her smile widened. Anton would probably hate Raúl immediately, and not because he felt any kind of jealousy. No, Anton would be suspicious because Raúl was a Spaniard and wonder if the man worked for his uncle. She wouldn’t let Anton know that behind his back, she’d do a little detective work herself.
Opening her wrist purse, she withdrew her room key and unlocked the door. Before closing the hard oak, she lit the lamp on the desk and quickly searched every corner to make certain she was safe. Anton’s fears kept her worried, more so than she’d been before. But, being cautious was good. He’d taught her that.
She stepped inside and shut the door. After removing her shawl, she flung the black lace garment to the bottom of the bed and flopped on the mattress. Immediately, blankets on the floor where Anton slept drew her attention. He had insisted on sharing a room. Now she realized it was a good thing to tell Raúl that Anton was her uncle. She could only imagine what the other passengers would think if they knew the truth.
So far this trip, he acted the part of a gentleman and slept on the floor, giving her the semi-comfort of the lumpy mattress. But, it worried her that he’d try to change that arrangement.
Keeping away from him had been easy thanks to her unsettled stomach. Each day she felt a little better, and soon there could be no excuses. She’d have to face her attraction for him, yet controlling her thoughts and actions were very important.
From the nightstand, she found the mints that had been there all week, which helped slightly with her seasickness, and plopped them into her mouth. Then she picked up the book that had kept her entertained thus far on her trip. Thankfully, Anton had been alert when he thought to pack several novels while he readied for this voyage.
With a sigh, she lowered the book to her lap and frowned. Anton’s distracting image crept onto each page. She had to admit some of his actions were thoughtful, and most of the time he looked out for her welfare and comfort. His charm and sweetness could not be overlooked.
But she couldn’t let him control her mind. She hated that her body still weakened under his sultry gaze. She snapped to awareness and pounded her fist against the mattress. Curse those Spanish eyes for mesmerizing her every time she thought of him.
When heavy footsteps sounded at her door, she jumped. The door flew open and hit the wall with a resounding crash. Anton stepped inside, his muscular frame filling the area perfectly. His eyes narrowed, his forehead creased.
Her heart hammered wildly. What had she done now?
Anton’s chest heaved with quick breaths. Scanning the area, he searched for the man who’d accompanied Vivian to their room. Really, there wasn’t any place to hide in their cramped quarters, but he still checked every spot he could find to ease his worry. She sat on the bed with her feet on the blankets, a book in her hand, staring at him with wide eyes as one hand reached for the mints on the nightstand.
No longer did she appear sick. Even the color had returned to her cheeks.
“Why did you make such a grand entrance?” she snapped.
She must have suspected his insecurities. He relaxed and calmly walked into the room, closing the door behind him.
He held her stare. “Vivian? Who was that man with you?” He kept his voice steady even while unwanted emotions jumped in his chest.
She cocked her head. “You saw me with a man?”
The corner of his mouth tugged as he tried not to grin. “Do not play coy with me.” He moved to the side of the bed and sat by her legs. “I saw him escorting you down the stairs a few minutes ago.”
“His name is Raúl Zamora.” She paused, but only for a moment before she gave an irritated chuckle. “You saw me with another man, and you thought the worst, correct? Especially when we headed in the direction of the cabin.”
“Vivian, I did not think such a thing.”
“Yes, you did.” She frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. “Which is why you made such a grand entrance. You thought to catch us doing something improper.”
“No, mí dulce.” He tried to keep his expression blank, hoping not to give away his true thoughts. “I worried you had taken up with a man you hardly knew.” He caressed her shoulder. “Because of our situation, we cannot trust anyone.”
She swatted away his hand. “No, because of your situation, you cannot trust anyone. I, on the other hand, am free to trust who I may.”
“But, if by chance, someone on the ship is watching me, they will know you are with me.”
“Stop, Anton, please.” She closed her eyes as she kneaded her forehead. “Do you really think someone that evil is on the ship? You sneaked us out of my house without being spotted. We even left your townhouse in disguises.” She met his stare. “I don’t think anyone followed us, and I definitely don’t think anyone on this ship is watching you.”
An invisible knife of distrust sliced through Anton’s heart once again, and he cursed the feeling. Although her words tried to convince him otherwise, the tone of her voice led him to believe she still questioned his innocence.
Ever since meeting the very exciting Vivian Wentworth, he’d been experiencing a wounded ache in the middle of his chest, and he knew he had to control it before it engulfed his whole soul. It saddened him to think she would not believe—that he couldn’t make her understand about his dangerous uncle.
He caressed a lock of her hair that had fallen across her brow. Silky, just as he remembered.
“It hurts that you do not believe me, Vivian, but I will not stop trying to protect you. I know the truth, although you refuse to believe, so I will not relent. Only I know what despicable things my uncle will do, which is why I cannot turn my back on you, nor him.”
Scowling, she shook her head. “I don’t know why you think such things. I believe you, Anton. Why else would I be here with you now?”
She wasn’t a good performer, but for some reason she wanted him to think otherwise. He’d continue to let her believe she had the upper hand.
“Because I practically forced you to come.”
“Please, Anton, no more.” She tried to move past him off the bed, but he circled his arms around her, holding her tight against him. Pain thickened in his chest, and he wished he could make the agony of caring for her disappear.
“Oh, Vivian.” He kissed her forehead. “What can I do to make you trust me?”
She didn’t answer. He didn’t expect her to. But, experiencing her softness pressed against him after seven very long days was his undoing. Fervor ignited in him and he didn’t want the powerful, exhilarating feeling to end.
He trailed his lips from her brow down the side of her face, just content to feel her soft skin. His breathing grew heavy, and even through her stiffness, her quick breaths rose and fell against his neck.
Threading his fingers through her hair, he loosened the tie holding it together and let it drop behind her on the bed. With her head tilted back, her gaze rested on him, but no longer was it hard with anger. Heated desire filled her bluish-gray eyes now.
“Vivian,” he whispered. “You are so beautiful.” He placed a kiss on the tip of her perfectly shaped nose. “I do not know what would become of me if my uncle were to hurt you.” He pecked at her lips briefly. “If Juanito ever got hold of you, I would search the ends of the earth to tear you away from him. I would never give up until I had you in my arms, protected.”
“Anton, please.” She gazed at him with so much tenderness.
“Please what?” he asked.
He waited for her to stop him, to halt this passionate moment as she’d done before. She lowered her gaze to his mouth and sighed. As if wanting him to kiss her, she closed her eyes. He could not deny her body’s silent urging for his kisses.
When he covered her mouth, her sigh blended with his. She tasted strongly of the mints she’d been eating. Timidly, she slid her hands around his waist, running her fingers along his muscles, which drove him mad.
Urgency consumed him, and he slanted his mouth, deepening the kiss. She gasped, but responded the way he’d wanted; the way he’d been dreaming about for a week.
He pushed her back on the bed. Tingling sensations danced over him. Her fingers moved to his chest, then climbed to his neck as she held his face to hers.
He never wanted this moment to end… But a knock came on the door and jerked him to awareness.
Still holding her in his arms, he cursed, hoping the intruder would pass. Her bosom rose and fell in a fast rhythm that matched his breathing. He inhaled her sweet jasmine scent. Closing his eyes, he rested his forehead against hers, enjoying their closeness for just a little longer.
The knock came upon the door again. “Señor Contreras? Your meals are here,” said the unknown voice.
Vivian pushed Anton up until he met her eyes. “Does he have the wrong room?”
“Then why did he call you Contreras?”
“Do you not remember? While I am on this ship, my name is Anton Contreras.”
“Oh, yes,” she answered, still breathless.
Grudgingly, he pulled away and stood. She picked up her hair ribbon and began to fix her hair.
He answered the door, and then took the trays of food from the porter. “Gracias.” Turning, he kicked the door closed with his boot. He placed the trays on the small table at the far wall, before glancing at Vivian. She sat on the bed with her eyes downcast as she fixed her hair.
He sighed in frustration. It seemed impossible that once again something had thwarted his plans for holding Vivian, and enjoying her closeness to his heart’s delight.
She had given him confusing, mixed signals. Did she indeed want his touch, his kiss? Did she enjoy them? Or, was she like the women back in New York who enjoyed teasing a man to insanity?
“What smells so tasty?” Vivian asked without meeting his eyes.
He lifted the cover to one of the plates. “Looks like fish and some elegant potato dish.”
She climbed off the bed and came toward him. Her lips held the swollen proof of his ardent kisses. He’d like nothing better than to pull her back into his arms and finish what he’d started. Unfortunately, the moment had passed, and he knew Vivian would never allow it to continue.
Without looking his way, she moved to the chair and sat. Poking the fork in the tender meat of the fish, she licked her lips. She brought the fork to her mouth and slipped the food inside, her lips closing around it.
“Are you going to eat?” she muttered with her mouth full of food as she nodded toward the empty chair.
“No, querida. I have suddenly lost my appetite.” He walked to the door and rested his hand on the doorknob.
He glanced at her, his heart hammering in hopes she’d invite him back to partake of her passion once again.
“Promise me you won’t kiss me in that manner again.”
His dreams plummeted, dissolving in front of him.
“We shouldn’t have done that.” She dabbed her napkin to her mouth. “I shouldn’t have let you, and I’ll try really hard to resist you. I’m here to help you prove your innocence, and when you get too close to me, it’s very distracting. If I’m to develop my detective skills more thoroughly, I’ll need to have my wits about me. So please, Anton, promise you’ll not touch or kiss me like that again.”
He folded his arms and casually leaned against the door. “Will you believe me? If I recall, you have doubted my word a lot lately.”
She lowered her attention to her plate. “If you promise as a gentleman, I’ll trust your word.”
He squeezed his eyes closed, clenching his fists. If he made that promise, he’d stick to it. But, blast it all, he wanted to hold her again and kiss those sweet lips. She nearly admitted her fascination for him, but her stubborn streak wouldn’t let him win.
“Anton? Will you promise?”
He looked her way, but she still remained focused on her food. “No, Vivian, I will not.”
Her gaze clashed with his and she gasped. “You won’t?”
“I cannot deny my attraction for you. I hunger each day for your smile, your touch, and especially your kind words. If one day you decide to allow my caresses, I will hold you always, and enjoy doing so.” He shook his head. “And because of my weakness, I cannot make that promise. If I cannot touch you, steal a kiss from you, and feel you in my arms, I would rather someone kill me and put me out of my misery.”
He walked out the door, slamming it behind him.
With her heart beating in an uneven rhythm, Vivian strolled on stiff legs beside Anton across the deck. The evening’s cool wind teased the tendrils near her ears and nipped at her nose. She bundled the cloak tighter around her neck as she glanced across the sea. The sun had made its departure beyond the horizon, leaving shadows to dance across the water in a soothing motion.
Her bout with seasickness earlier must have disappeared, because it hadn’t disrupted her day since this morning. Then again, a lot had happened to keep her mind off her stomach.
Anton must be her cure.
Frowning, she silently scolded herself. She mustn’t think that way about him, or she’d become weaker.
Vivian kept herself from accidentally bumping into his arm, mainly because she didn’t want him to accuse her of teasing him. And he would. He knew how she felt, and she certainly would never forget his words.
Why was he so attracted to her? Could it be because he wanted to seduce her and she wouldn’t allow it? Men were fickle when it came to women, and so far, Anton proved to be just like every other man she knew.
Poor pathetic creatures!
First things first, she needed to introduce him to Raúl Zamora. Once she had time to think about her new friend, she wondered if their meeting earlier today wasn’t planned. Her detective training had her piecing his words and actions together, and something did not add up.
For now, she would continue to act friendly toward him, and in Anton’s eyes, make him think she would ask Raúl questions about the location of Juanito. But inwardly, she would study the new Spaniard and see if perhaps he told the truth or lied.
She couldn’t tell with men anymore. She’d been lied to most of her life, which resulted in her distrustful nature. Her father had not told the truth about her mother—the worst lie of all.
For several years after her mother left her husband and children behind, Vivian’s father led his children to believe their mother would return one day. Vivian waited day after day, week after week, until months turned into years. Each day, she’d get her hopes up that her mother would open the front door and announce she had come home. And as each sunset darkened the sky, Vivian’s heart shattered.
On her father’s deathbed, he finally confessed the truth. Her mother would not be returning since she married another man and had a new family. Her father had even referred to her mother as a whore.
After that point, Vivian became distrustful of men, and although they seemed sincere on the outside, on the inside they kept secrets.
Anton proved her theory. Just as she would prove his guilt.
Her name coming from Anton’s sensual voice, jerked her out of her thoughts. “Yes?”
“You have been quiet this evening. Would you share with me what is on your mind?”
Oh, if he only knew.
“Not much. I’ve been thinking about asking my new friend, Raúl, to join us for our walk this evening.”
She dared take a peek at his expression. Head cocked, he arched a dark eyebrow at her.
“May I ask why? After all, he is a stranger to both of us.”
“Indeed. He is also a man who does a lot of traveling because of his business. I thought we could ask him about your uncle.”
Anton stopped against the railing, leaned his back against the long, sturdy piece of wood as he folded his arms over a broad chest. Still, his mouth had yet to crack a smile or even a grin. Clearly, her suggestion didn’t amuse him.
“And why would we do that?”
She shrugged. “Didn’t you tell me that your uncle is very powerful?”
“If he is so powerful, wouldn’t a lot of people know him, or about him?”
Anton nodded. “You forget one thing, querida. If people knew my uncle, they would be fearful to talk about him behind his back.”
“I don’t see why.”
“No, I suppose you do not. It is hard to know what my uncle would do to a person if they betrayed him, unless you have seen it yourself.”
Vivian held her tongue. It seemed Anton didn’t want her to ask Raúl questions, and she couldn’t help but wonder if Anton again lied to her. Perhaps she was on the right track, after all. Talking to Raúl had been a clever idea.
“Anton, we don’t have to come right out and tell Raúl everything. We can just say you’re related to Juanito, and you’re looking for him.”
“Sorry, but that will not work, either.”
Silently, she growled. No, he did not want it to work, which was why he kept discouraging her. The true story lay underneath all of this—the story she would eventually uncover. The sooner the better.
“Regardless, Raúl has asked us to take supper with him tomorrow, so I think we should be hospitable and join him. Even if you don’t think it’s a good idea to ask him questions, I certainly do. After all, I’m the one learning to be a Pinkerton Agent, and I generally go with my instincts. Right now they are telling me to ask Raúl about your uncle.”
Anton’s chest rose and fell with difficulty. His jaw hard, his lips pursed, and those hypnotic eyes glared at her. She wouldn’t allow him to frighten her. Raúl would be able to help them one way or another, she felt it.
“Besides, we’re on a ship. What can happen now?” She gave a light chuckle and laid her hand on his arm still folded across his chest.
His gaze dropped to her fingers before jumping up to meet her eyes. Within seconds, a different emotion filled his eyes, making her heart beat a different rhythm. His brown stare softened considerably the longer he looked at her. Strange how quickly his moods changed.
Maybe she shouldn’t have touched him. He had told her what happens. But now, she couldn’t pull her hand away. His melting gaze left her immobile. Then he placed his hand over hers to hold it there.
A knot tightened in her chest, and her throat turned dry. Curse her reaction! Why did he always have to affect her in such a manner? Why did he make her body tingle and cry out to be held by his strong arms?
She swallowed, trying to add moisture to her cotton-filled throat. Clearing her improper thoughts, she scrambled to remember what they’d been discussing.
As she opened her mouth to speak, Anton placed his finger over her lips. Heated sparks spread through her body. The words stopped in her throat, and her mind turned blank.
“Querida, you forget one thing.”
“Wh—what?” Her voice quivered.
“I know my uncle better than you. I know what he can do. If he knew I sailed on this ship, his men would be here with us, also.”
Was he trying to frighten her again? Or perhaps he tried to steer her away from the truth.
Her fuzzy mind waged a battle with her heart over what she should feel. As soon as she broke contact with him, her brain would function again. But, as she gently tugged her hand away, his grip tightened and wouldn’t allow her to budge.
“Vivian, you must believe me.”
She nodded slowly, keeping her stare on his remarkable chocolate eyes. “Of course I believe you, Anton. I just merely suggested we get to know Raúl a little better. If the worst case scenario happened, and your uncle’s men sailed on this ship, we may need Raúl’s help.”
Anton’s hold on her loosened, and she pulled her hand away.
He shrugged. “What if Raúl is one of my uncle’s men? Then what?”
Breathing easier, she took a step back, inhaling the deep salt air, hoping it would clear her mind and cool her heated body.
“I don’t believe that, Anton.”
His long, lean fingers caressed her cheek, and she realized she hadn’t stepped back far enough. Her skin burned beneath his touch.
“This is also an instinctual feeling?” he asked.
“And you expect me to trust your feelings?”
“But of course. Just as you expect me to believe in you.” She smiled, trying her best to make it genuine. What she said wasn’t a lie. Not really. She merely told him what he wanted to hear.
The warmth from his gaze caressed her face before he offered her his arm. “Then, by all means, take me to your new amigo, and introduce us.”
Her breath caught in her throat. Was he serious? Why did he change his tune so quickly? It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t allow his doubtful nature to dissuade her from her goal, any more than she would let his touch distract her from her mission…to prove his guilt.
“Promise me one thing, Vivian.”
“What is that?”
“When you ask Raúl questions about my uncle, please do not hint of my relation to Juanito. Also, do not let Raúl know you are a Pinkerton Agent.”
She shook her head. “Why can’t I let him know where I’m employed?”
“Because he will not trust you. He will not freely give away his answers.”
“Then what shall I tell him?”
“I do not know, querida. But I am certain your clever mind will think of something.”
Biting the inside of her lip, she stewed inwardly. Her suspicions about him grew deeper by the minute. Well, she’d prove to Anton she could pull this off and that Raúl would open up and tell her what he knew.
The introduction between Anton and Raúl proceeded smoother than Vivian had expected. Anton acted as her protective uncle asking Raúl far too many personal questions about his life, finances, and intentions. Like a gentleman, Raúl gave precise answers and never indicated he wanted more than her friendship.
Supper passed easily. Not once did Vivian worry about either man. It was as if everyone had a role to play tonight.
She certainly had a part to perform, and within moments, she needed to put her detective skills to work. She wrestled with whether or not to inform Anton of her intentions. Knowing that hardheaded man, he’d try to stop her since he assumed she constantly needed protection.
Anton pushed away his empty plate and rose from the table. They ate in the lovely dining area, and thankfully well enough away from everyone so they could carry on a decent conversation.
“That was filling, do you not agree?” Anton directed his question to Vivian.
“Indeed it was.”
“Might I suggest a walk on deck to enjoy the evening?”
She switched her gaze to Raúl. “What do you say? Would you like to join us?”
He rose and offered his arm. “Only if you will allow me to be your escort.”
Vivian remained seated, her focus bouncing back to Anton as she readied herself for his reaction. Tiny lines of tension pulled at the corners of his mouth. His eyes darkened, but not in the same manner or shade she saw when he held her in his arms and peered lovingly into her eyes. Instead, it almost appeared as if jealousy became the root of his attitude.
A nerve in his cheek jumped. “As her guardian, I think you should have directed that question to me first, Raúl.”
Panic surged through her, and she lost her breath. It appeared her first order of business would be calming Anton’s anger. She needed to stand near Raúl if she planned on lifting his room key from his pocket.
She stood and walked next to Anton. Patting his arm, she gazed into his eyes. “Come now, Uncle Anton. Don’t worry so.” She winked. “All will be fine since you will be joining us.”
“I suppose.” He arched an eyebrow.
Vivian gave him a quick, platonic hug, whispering in his ear, “I’m going to sneak away in a minute. Keep him entertained so he doesn’t follow me.”
Anton’s forehead creased, his eyes narrowed. She didn’t have time to explain. Not now while they stood with Raúl.
She turned back to their new friend and slipped her hand around his arm. “Shall we proceed?”
Raúl gave Anton an assessing stare. Vivian held her breath, waiting for approval, and after a couple of silent, and very unnerving seconds, Anton nodded.
Topside, without her cloak, the cool wind played across her skin, sending a shiver through her. She’d left her wrap in her room on purpose.
Raúl frowned. “Where is your cape? You will catch your death out here if you do not keep yourself covered.”
“I shall be all right. You can keep me warm.” She snuggled against his arm, slyly maneuvering a hand into his coat pocket. When her fingers grazed the metallic key, she held her breath. Carefully, she pinched the key between two fingers as she slowly slid it out, then grasped it in her palm.
Anton’s eyes widened, and he cleared his throat. Anger darkened his face as he directed his stare on her.
“Vivian, I am still your guardian, and you must maintain proper decorum. You do not know Raúl well enough to be so open with him. And I insist you hurry back to the room and fetch your cloak this instant.”
She held herself from laughing. Although Anton gave a splendid performance as her uncle, he was still very humorous.
“Raúl, please forgive me for—”
“No need to apologize.” He threw a glare at Anton. “Unlike most men, I do understand the needs of women.” Smiling at Vivian, he caressed the hand still hooked over his arm. “But your uncle is correct. You need to have some protection from the cold.”
She stepped back and nodded. “If you will excuse me, then. I shall return momentarily.”
Anton pulled himself straighter. “Hurry, my dear. In your absence, I shall get to know Raúl a little better.”
She held in her sigh of relief until she hurried down the stairs and stood in front of Raúl’s room. As she slid the key into the slot, her hand shook. She didn’t know why nerves suddenly made their debut. She really wasn’t tense, just excited.
Inside, the room was very dim. Only small slivers of moonlight filtered through the window, but not enough to conduct a thorough search.
She found a lamp on the table, and after lighting it and turning it low, she started her search in a corner. Just as her cabin, there wasn’t much space to hide things, which meant everything was probably stored in his trunks. Which she found locked.
Growling, she fished through her hair for one of her pins, hoping it didn’t pull apart her bun in the process. Careful and steady, she positioned the pin over the bolt on the first trunk and slid it in. It had been a while since she had to pick a lock.
At a young age, her brother Matthew learned the talent and tried to teach it to her. She hadn’t quite polished the skill before her father discovered what his children had been doing, and took a willow branch to their backsides. Now when she needed the knowledge the most, she couldn’t quite remember how.
Where was Matthew Wentworth when she needed him?
Finally, the security devise clicked and opened. With shaky hands, she lifted the trunk lid. Shiny steel gleamed from within, and she blinked to adjust her vision. Several swords lay in a bed of red silk, along with knives and muskets.
Her chest clenched. Why did Raúl have so many weapons? Did this have something to do with his trade business?
The floorboards outside the bedroom creaked, and Vivian froze, straining to listen. Footsteps clicked nearby, making her heart jump to her throat.
Getting caught wasn’t part of her plan.
Quickly, she closed the lid and snapped on the lock. Then she turned off the lamp. Taking precaution to be as quiet as possible, she tiptoed to the door and pressed her ear against the wood. A rattle of coins came from nearby as the footsteps neared.
She backed against the wall, hoping it would swallow her. Even if Raúl walked inside, the door would hide her only until he closed it.
A soft rap sounded and she jumped.
“Vivian? Are you in there?”
She placed her hand on her bosom as she regulated her out of control breathing. “Yes, Anton.” She opened the door and peeked out.
“Come quickly. We have no time to waste. Raúl is on his way.”
Anton grasped her wrist and pulled her out. She didn’t have time to analyze his stern expression, or how he knew where she was in the first place.
“What should I do with the key?” She held out her hand, as the key lay flat on her palm.
Anton glanced around the area, then snatched the key and laid it beside the door. “It will have to stay there.”
From one corridor to the next, he led them until they hurried inside their room. She sank on the bed and breathed slower while he paced the floor in front of her. His angry eyes stayed on her.
“Vivian, will you kindly explain what you were doing in his room?”
Sheepishly, she grinned and shrugged. “Looking for my cloak?”
The corner of his lip tugged upward. “Try again.”
“How did you know I was there in the first place?”
“You have proven time and time again that you are a woman of adventure. You are also a Pinkerton agent. Need I say more?”
It looked as if he was getting to know her habits just as she knew most of his. Holding back a grin, she stood and faced him, planting her hands on her hips. “Exactly. But what excuse did you use to leave Raúl to come find me?”
“I told him I worried about your welfare since you had been sick of late, and I needed to find you.” Raking his fingers through his hair, he sighed deeply. “Did you discover anything of importance? Should we trust him?”
“I’m not certain. I needed more time to look. Before your interruption, I had barely opened the first trunk. He still had two more.”
“What did you find in the first trunk? Anything noteworthy?”
“Actually,” she said, stepping closer to him and laying her hand on his arm. “Many different weapons filled the trunk.”
Anton’s eyes widened.
“Right now, I don’t know if that’s good or bad. He’s in the trading business, after all.”
He clutched her shoulders and pulled her close. Soft eyes bore into hers, making her limbs melt and her heart pitter-patter.
“Vivian, be very careful. If Raúl is one of my uncle’s men, he is trained to be dangerous. He would not think twice before breaking your neck with one snap of his hands.” Anton stroked her cheek, letting his fingers trail down the column of her throat. “I do not know what I would do if that happened.”
Her heart jumped to her throat and turned her mouth dry. “Anton, you forget, I can take care of myself.”
He shook his head. “No, querida. You are not as strong as you want to believe. I also know this is your first time being a detective and you will make mistakes along the way—just as you have done so far since our first meeting.”
She grumbled and pulled away from him. How dare he! She’d show him. Thankfully, he didn’t know the truth. She’d give anything to become a real Pinkerton agent.
Chuckling, he pulled her back into his arms. “Do you know what your problem is?”
“My problem? I didn’t realize I had a problem.”
“You are so stubborn, you cannot see past the end of your cute little nose.” He touched his finger to the tip. “We are going to have many conflicts, and until you realize I am your trusted protector, I will always keep my eyes on you to make certain you do not get yourself in trouble.”
His lips swooped down and landed on hers. Gently, he kissed her, pulling her closer. Heat spread through her, just as it always did while in his arms.
Lifting her hands to link around his neck, she melted against him, but just as she relaxed, he pulled away. His eyes twinkled as a grin touched his mouth.
“Querida, you are nearly ready to accept me. If only you can learn to trust what your heart is telling you.” He turned and walked out the door.
Her shoulders sagged, and she chided herself for her weakness. The man could play her like a harp, because every time he caressed her, she sang for him.
Breathing deeply, she sat on the edge of the bed and pulled the pins from her hair. Oh no! Her hands froze. She’d left one in Raúl’s room! Now she prayed he didn’t discover it…or she would be in a lot of trouble!
Vivian stood at the helm of the ship, the smooth wood of the wheel rubbed against her palms as her gaze fixed straight ahead. Warm wind blew in her hair and a stray lock brushed her cheek. Once in a while a drop of water from the ocean splashed against the side of the ship and touched her skin, making her blink.
Her thoughts were not on the tour Captain Bushwell gave, but of last evening with Anton and Raúl. She wanted desperately to find something. To prove to Anton—and herself—she would make a good detective. She didn’t dare tell him about her hairpin, though.
The idea of creeping into Raúl’s room had surprised her. She really didn’t know if she was brave enough. Thankfully, she had started to think like an agent and take chances.
Anton was a great performer and had played the role of an older, over-protective relative perfectly. Yet sometimes, his eyes smoldered when he looked upon her, and his touch was like a whispered caress. Since she’d instructed him to stop seducing her, she should be very upset over this, but instead, she found her heart softening the longer she watched him.
She hadn’t had the opportunity to ask Raúl if he knew Juanito so far today. In fact, she couldn’t even begin her questions because Anton controlled the subject matter every time. Thankfully, Raúl hadn’t said anything about her hairpin, either.
As she rubbed her palm against the wheel, she barely registered that Raúl and Captain Bushwell stood not far off to her side. Not when Anton’s aura overpowered every other sensation on today’s tour given by the good captain.
Directly behind her, Anton explained certain navigation laws. His knowledge on the subject impressed her, and it seemed as though he had become the tour guide. Vivian waited for Captain Bushwell to intercede, but his silence indicated he, too, was amazed at the vast information Anton shared.
“Leeway is measured by the angle of the course steered and the direction through the water,” Anton said. His breath teased her ear, his deep voice stirred tingles on her skin. “If the wind hits from the left, the ship will move to the right of the course and vice versa. Understand?”
Trying to focus on the ocean, she shivered from his closeness. His baritone voice mesmerized her, and she couldn’t resist turning to look over her shoulder, lifting her face to his. “Yes.”
“You are an apt student.” He smiled.
“How do you know so much?” she asked.
He chuckled. “While at war, I made friends with some sailors. They shared many adventures with me.”
His body was so close she wanted to lean into him. But propriety stopped her. If she maintained the appearance of his niece, she couldn’t act like a love-struck girl.
While he rambled on about navigation and the sea, she listened, but the words didn’t register in her mind. His hypnotic Spanish accent had her under his spell. Training her eyes on his lips, she fought the feelings her body had experienced during those times they had kissed.
“The drift of any current is uncertain, at best,” he continued. “A navigator must take special precautions to prevent any accidents. First and foremost, he must protect his passengers.” Anton looked at Captain Bushwell. “Is that not correct, Captain?”
The portly older fellow chuckled. “You are doing just fine, Señor Contreras. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
She wanted to ignore everyone else and drift into Anton’s arms and let the current of love wash her away. Anton looked into Vivian’s eyes, and her knees wilted from his intoxicating chocolate gaze. His assured grin even made her heart skip.
After Anton’s speech, Raúl walked up beside her. “Senorita[_?_]” He held out his elbow for her to take. “May I escort you back to the main deck?” He glanced at Anton. “As long as your uncle approves, of course.”
Anton didn’t speak, just nodded.
She smiled for Raúl’s benefit, hoping he didn’t notice her distraction with Anton. “That would be wonderful, thank you.” Slipping her gloved hand along the gray material of his suit, she hooked it around his elbow.
Vivian didn’t need to look over her shoulder to see if Anton followed. She knew he did. Her traitorous body still tingled for his caress whenever he came near. Trying to keep her mind focused on other things, she glanced across the beautiful ocean and caught sight of something in the distance.
“Captain?” She pointed at the object. “What is that?”
The captain fumbled with his pocket telescope as he peered through the object. “It looks like another ship.”
“A passenger ship?”
“I assume so, since it doesn’t look like a privateer vessel.”
“Pirates?” she gasped, releasing her escort’s arm and walking to the railing.
Moving beside her, Anton rested his hand on the small of her back. “No, Vivian. Pirates are not the same as a privateer. A privateer ship is a privately owned vessel commissioned in war to capture enemy ships. A pirate captures ships for a greedier and more ruthless purpose.”
She smiled as a warm protective blanket wrapped around her from his nearness. “So, the vessel is neither a privateer nor a pirate ship?”
“No, I do not believe so.”
The captain shifted nervously as he continued to peer through the scope. “I shall keep an eye on it though, Miss Wentworth.”
“Well, if you assure me it’s not a threat, then I’ll certainly sleep more peacefully tonight.”
Captain Bushwell lowered the telescope. “No, it’s not a threat, I’m certain of it. It’s probably just a private vessel going the same place we’re going.” He cleared his throat and turned. “Shall we proceed on our tour?”
Raúl quickly stepped beside her, offering his arm again. She nodded, moving away from Anton and toward the other man.
During the remainder of the tour, Anton stayed a short distance behind. Once the tour had concluded, Captain Bushwell stopped and turned toward the small group. “Miss Wentworth, gentlemen, if you will excuse me, I have duties that need to be finished before this evening.”
She nodded. “Of course. Thank you for taking the time to give us a tour.”
“Señor Contreras?” Raúl asked after the captain had left. “Will you allow Miss Wentworth to have the evening meal with me tonight?”
A nervous twinge caught in her stomach as she studied Anton’s expression. She detected a spark of anger in his eyes. Could it be jealousy? Her heart hammered against her ribs. Would he stay in character in front of Raúl and continue to act the outlandish lie of being her uncle?
Anton tilted his head, his arms crossed over his muscular chest. “I assume you are not planning on dining with her alone.”
“Of course not. I expect you will join us.”
Raúl turned his attention to Vivian. “Will it be permissible to pick you and your uncle up at your cabin at seven o’clock?”
She smiled. “That’s fine.”
“Until then.” He bowed and placed a small kiss on her knuckles before leaving.
As she watched Raúl depart, a woman caught Vivian’s eye. She recalled seeing the cloaked figure staring at her on a previous occasion, but today the older female wore a shawl gathered around her shoulders. The gown she wore was nicer than the ones some of the other passengers had on. Once again, the woman stood alone, which made Vivian curious to her identity. Did the stranger have something to do with Anton’s uncle? Yet the woman was fair skinned, like Vivian. So then why did the other lady stare at Vivian so often? And why did the lady find Vivian so interesting?
Vivian wanted to go to the woman and say something, but once again, the mysterious person turned sharply and hurried away.
“Vivian,” Anton said, disturbing her thoughts. “Have you discovered any more hidden secrets with our new amigo?”
She tried forgetting the confusing woman as she focused on Anton. “No. I haven’t had the time.”
“I know how intelligent you are, so you must expect he is only after you for one thing.”
She scowled. “Pray, what in heaven’s name are you talking about?”
Anton’s lips tightened, his jaw hardened. “You know what I am referring to, querida. Raúl’s only purpose is to bed you.”
Vivian laughed heartily. “Oh, you’re being humorous again, Anton.”
“It is true.”
“Yes, I’m certain it is, but isn’t that the same reason you haven’t given up on me? Don’t you want to bed me, as well?”
His dark brows pulled together. “Our situation is different.”
“No, it’s not. The only difference is that you’ve known me longer than he has, but your goal is the same as Raúl’s. In fact, I think if I would have given myself to you that first night, you wouldn’t have me coming with you halfway across the world right now.”
“Vivian.” His voice lowered as he grasped her elbow. “That is not true, and you know it. I have told you the reasons for bringing you with me, and having my way with you has nothing to do with it.”
She laughed out loud. “Then why wouldn’t you make that promise to me the other night? Why did you refuse?”
“Because I am attracted to you.”
“Yes, because you want to have your wicked way with me. Admit it.”
His eyes widened, and his jaw dropped. She held her breath for his reply.
Anton growled under his breath as his gaze darted around the crowded deck. A few people stopped meandering, throwing glares his way. He inwardly groaned, knowing they had overheard the conversation.
“Vivian, please lower your voice. Either that, or let us return to our cabin to finish our debate.”
“No, Anton. I’d rather stay out here. Then I’m assured you won’t force your lusty attention on me.”
“Force?” His voice rose when he looked at her. “I did not force you. In fact, I have never forced you. If you recall, your body responds willingly to my touch.”
“Don’t remind me.” She scowled and folded her arms. “I hate that you have that kind of control over me.”
“The fact still remains our relationship is not based entirely on satisfying our desires.”
She threw him a glare. “That’s because we haven’t satisfied them at all.”
His heartbeat thudded in his chest. What made her speak of this? She knew how he felt. It sounded as if she wanted him to satisfy her. Well, there was only one way to find out.
“Then let us end the argument right now.” He took hold of her arm again, turning them toward the stairs as he led her below deck.
Her body stiffened, but she didn’t struggle. He assumed it was to keep the other passengers from watching them too closely.
“What are you doing?” she snapped.
“I am proving to you that having my wicked way with you is not the only reason I like you.”
“And how are you going to do that?”
“I am going to make love to you.”
“What? You contradict yourself, Señor Contreras.”
“No, because after I make love to you, you will see that I will remain by your side, protecting you until we prove my true identity. I will show you I do not just want you for your sweet, luscious body, whereas if Raúl would bed you, he would ignore you for the rest of the voyage.”
“Anton, please.” She squirmed, trying to release herself from his grip. But he wouldn’t let her go. He hurried below deck and to their room, closing the door behind them.
“Stop this insanity at once,” she hissed. “I will not let you do this.”
Anton stalked toward her, and she retreated. He must be insane, because all he wanted to do was take her in his arms and drug her with passionate kisses. But he also knew that if she told him no, he’d stop. He had never forced a woman to love him.
“Querida,” he whispered. “Do not think of it merely as a physical encounter, but as making love instead. We will be sharing not only our bodies, but our souls.”
The wall stopped her from retreating further, and she gasped. Her wide eyes searched for escape, but he closed in on her. He pinned her against the wall and stared into her wide eyes.
First, he stroked her cheek, then brushed his fingers over her hair, pulling out the blue ribbon holding the bulk of her blondish-brown mass together. Waves cascaded over her shoulder, and he threaded his fingers through her glorious tresses.
“Querida,” he repeated, huskier this time. A different kind of craving took over his body, and he gave it free reign. “You are so beautiful, so desirable.”
She pressed her hands against his chest. “Anton, please.” Her breaths came quickly, just as his. The fast rise and fall of her chest showed her excitement. He took one of her hands and brought it to his mouth.
“I think of nothing else during the day but taking you in my arms and loving you.”
“Anton.” Her voice softened.
She was on the verge of giving in, he could tell.
Anton turned her hand over and kissed her palm. When he looked into her eyes, those grayish-blue flecks blazed with passion’s fire. He took her hands and placed them back on his chest.
“Tell me, Vivian.” Over the erratic beat of his heart, he flattened her hand. “Do you feel that? Can you tell what your nearness does to me?”
“Antonio—” she mouthed, her lids lowered half-mast, focusing on his lips.
This woman excited him more than any other, and once again, he couldn’t resist her. He placed his mouth over hers, and kissed her long and hard. A sigh released from her throat before she relaxed against him.
Just as his heart sang with victory, she broke the kiss. Her brows drew together in seriousness as she stroked his goatee. “You’ve been very gentle and attentive since we have first met, making me feel things I’ve never experienced before. But—” She looked away.
“What is it, querida?” He cupped her face and brought her beautiful eyes back to him.
“I’m still afraid.”
“That I’ll…fall in love with you.”
He chuckled. “What is wrong with that?”
She licked her lips. “After this is all over, you’ll leave me. You will stay in Spain, and I’ll return to New York. We’ll never see one another again.” She wrapped her arms around him, burying her face in his neck. “And I don’t think I can do that.”
His heart wrenched, and he squeezed his eyes closed. “What do you want, Vivian? What are you trying to say?”
She lifted her head, and he looked into her eyes. “If I can’t have all of you, I don’t want any part of you. It’s all or nothing.”
With a groan of confused frustration, he pulled away from her, raking his fingers through his hair. He stared at the ceiling, silently cursing that she’d voiced her thoughts—those he didn’t want to know. He wasn’t ready to settle down. At least she had been honest with him. When she told him she had never been with a man, she’d said she wouldn’t be with them that way unless it was with her husband.
Could Anton give her that kind of commitment? Not now he couldn’t, but what about after this mess with his uncle was over? Could he commit to her then?
With a sinking heart, he realized he wasn’t certain. He enjoyed his freedom as a bachelor. He was pleased with doing as he wished and living the life of a performer in an operatic group, knowing he didn’t have a care in the world.
Vivian folded her arms, her stare laced with sadness as her lips quivered. “You don’t have to answer. Your expression tells me all I need to know.”
She pushed past him and rushed out the door. He cursed fate for messing up his life again, especially the bad timing it dealt. But then, she had given him a lot to think about. Unfortunately, she already knew his feelings.
Strange, but she had been right, after all. The only reason he wanted her was to bed her, but the deep ache in his heart argued. He didn’t want to think about what the crushing pain meant. With so much danger in his life, the best thing for Vivian would be to go back to New York, far away from him. But could he release her when the time came?
For Raúl’s sake, Vivian pasted on a smile and forced herself to eat that evening. She tried to ignore Anton’s presence at the table, noting that he acted as if nothing earth-shattering had transpired between them earlier that day.
The way he relaxed in his chair, sipping his wine and conversing with Raúl irked her. She tightened her fingers around the fork and seethed, fighting the growing urge to claw at Anton’s face and ruin his beautiful appearance. No use showing her temper now. It wouldn’t make him love her.
She held her breath and blinked back tears, wondering why emotion overcame her. Why was she acting this way? She didn’t love him.
Or did she?
Mindlessly, she placed a forkful of food in her mouth, annoyed that Raúl continued to pour on his sweetness, even when she neglected him to stare at the elaborate lobster dish on her plate. His charm had no effect on her tonight. Then again, it never really had.
Bits and pieces of the conversation between the two men penetrated her senses, but for the most part, they spoke in Spanish. Her mind floated elsewhere so the sound of their exotic language.
Swallowing a mouthful of food with a dry throat, she came to terms with her emotions. Despite all the time she spent trying to convince herself to avoid Anton’s advances, she’d somehow allowed herself to fall in love with him. Strange to think it happened so quickly. It was too late to turn back now. She’d made a fool of herself and had no choice but to spend her remaining days on this voyage, probably longing for a man she could never have, hoping for a man Anton could never be.
Raúl’s suggestion for a stroll on the upper deck interrupted her depressing thoughts. She blinked and met his gaze, accepting his offered arm. Anton trailed behind as the three walked out of the cabin. Vivian wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, trying hard to divert her eyes from him.
Letting her thoughts wander with her gaze, she looked across the dusk-shadowed sea. The ship she’d noticed earlier today moved closer than before. It still worried her that the other vessel had come upon them so quickly, yet if Captain Bushwell wasn’t concerned, why should she be?
“Señor Contreras, tell me what part of Spain you are from,” Raúl asked.
“I am from all over, really. My family never settled in one place in particular.” He shrugged and chuckled. “I suppose it is the gypsy blood in me from mí madre’s side.”
“I have heard gossip from some of the other passengers,” Raúl continued, “that you are an opera singer.”
“How long have you been performing?”
“Considering I was always pretending in my youth, as mí madre says, and I have been singing since I turned eight, I suppose it is correct to say I have been performing most of my life.”
Vivian held in a snicker. Anton was definitely an actor, trying to fool as many people as he could.
“I find that fascinating,” Raúl replied. “I, myself, wanted to go into mí padre’s business, because he was the greatest matador of all, but I find my love lies in the trading business.”
“Sí. You must go where your heart leads.”
Too bad she hadn’t listened to her heart. Vivian’s chest ached. If she’d kept her mind in the right direction, Anton wouldn’t have been able to crush her so deeply. Why had she let her emotions get the better of her? When had she stopped thinking about being an independent woman who wanted nothing more than to be a Pinkerton agent, and instead, started thinking about being a desirable woman?
Another gust of wind whipped around her, teasing the tendrils by her ears and cooling the skin at her neck exposed by her fancy upswept hairstyle. This would be a good opportunity to leave. She couldn’t stand to be in either man’s presence any longer. A shiver passed through her, and she gathered her shawl tighter.
Raúl turned his head toward her first. “Miss Wentworth? Are you warm enough?”
She chuckled. “Actually, no. I haven’t been feeling well all evening, and the breeze is chilling me to the point of distraction. If you don’t mind, could we continue this stroll at another time? I’d really like to retire to my cabin.”
“Why, certainly.” Raúl patted her hand, and then draped it over his elbow. “Will you permit me to escort you back?”
“Don’t be silly. That’s not necessary.” She withdrew her hand. “You and my uncle are having such a lovely conversation, and I’d hate to ruin it. So please excuse me.” She quickly backed away and nodded to Raúl, ignoring Anton. “Have a pleasant evening, and I’ll see you on the morrow.”
“Vivian?” The concern in Anton’s soft voice nearly shattered her defenses. “I think I should take you back to the cabin.”
“Nonsense,” she answered without meeting his stare. “I’m perfectly capable of making it by myself.”
Without waiting for his reply, she hurried across the deck and down the stairs, only breathing a sigh of relief when she reached her cabin and was safely behind the closed door. She shivered again, but this time, Anton’s manly scent lingering thick in the air was the cause. It stirred memories of weak moments she had hoped to forget.
After lighting the lamp, she flung her shawl on the chair and marched to her trunk to pull out her nightgown. Angrily, she removed each article of clothing, taking her frustrations out on the material instead of the man who deserved her temper.
Finally, she left her clothes in a heap and crawled into bed. Anger still surged through her, hotter now than before. Why had she allowed him to charm her so? And to think because of this confused emotion, she had pushed aside her main goal—to prove Anton’s innocence…or his guilt.
Her gaze fell on one of his trunks in the corner of the room. This one had always been locked. Hmm… If she could unlock one of Raúl’s trunks, she could certainly open Anton’s!
Without any further hesitation, she dashed out of bed and knelt in front of his trunk. Since she had yet to take out the coil from her hair, she fished through her locks to find a hairpin. Concentrating, she slipped the pin into the lock and moved it around until it clicked.
She paused, listening for any signs that Anton was returning. Thankfully, she didn’t hear the rhythm of his boots creaking on the floor outside their room in the hall.
Cautiously, she lifted the lid to the trunk and peered inside. Books and even a few newspapers lay scattered on top. Then from beneath a book, something sparkled against the lamplight.
Her heart stilled as she moved the book. A gasp caught in her throat and her eyes fixed on the item. A woman’s broach encased with rubies and diamonds winked at her. No! This can’t be right…
She moved a few more books around only to discover a pearl necklace and a man’s silver cufflinks with a ruby centered in the middle. Lying next to that was a gold pocket watch.
She slapped a hand to her mouth to keep from crying out. Were these the jewels Anton’s uncle had reported missing? With a sinking heart, she figured she knew the answer. Indeed, her first instincts were correct.
Anton was the outlaw.
Tears welled in her eyes, and she quickly closed the trunk and locked it. As the tears streamed down her face, she hurried to her bed and buried her face in her pillow, silently crying out her anguish. Pain like no other stabbed through her heart and caused it to crumble even more.
She prayed for a release from her agony. Never again would she allow Anton’s intimate kisses or his charm to woo her in any way. Her emotions just couldn’t handle it. Rather than go through this much heartache again, she should toss him overboard. Although this would be the best course of action, she still needed to get word to Mr. Pinkerton that she had found their thief.
Curling in a ball, she gave her sorrow a voice, not caring that her cries echoed in the small cabin.
Anton stood by the railing and stared across the sea. Although relieved to be free from that Spaniard Vivian thought so highly of, Anton still wished for some company to settle his thoughts. Since things had ended so badly with Vivian, his mind continued to toss on turbulent waves.
He’d made the right decision, though. He wasn’t ready for commitment and didn’t want to lead Vivian into believing something that wasn’t true. He had hurt her, but it would have been worse had he taken her virginity and then broken her heart.
The ship’s gentle sway lured him into relaxation, and he seriously considered retiring to his room for some sleep. He didn’t want to speak to Vivian about what happened earlier. If he waited a couple more hours before going downstairs, she would probably be asleep. He lurked at the railing, praying for time to pass.
The quarter moon cast spooky shadows on the water, and when he thought the ship jarred a different way, his cautious nature perked up a notch. The water even splashed in a different rhythm. Peering through the night, he tried to focus on the sea, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
Shrugging off the prickly sensations jumping over his skin, he turned away from the railing and walked toward the other side of the ship. He nodded greetings to a few female passengers with whom he’d become acquainted on the trip, and considered himself lucky that their husbands accompanied them. He didn’t need them trying to steal his attention right now.
He stopped, leaned his back against the railing, and looked at the dwindling group remaining on deck. The brisk sea air had no doubt sent the rest of the passengers scurrying to their cabins. At the far end, he spied Raúl standing with eight strange men. Anton didn’t recognize them.
Since sailing, Anton cautiously made note of each face, wary of everything and everyone. What were the odds so many men had kept to their cabins since the first day?
When Raúl’s gaze skimmed across the semi-crowded deck and rested on Anton, the heads of the other eight men whipped around to look at him, too. Anton’s doubt as to the men’s identity pulled his mouth into a thin line. Tightness consumed his chest. This was not some coincidental meeting. Somehow, some way, his uncle Juanito was behind this.
Anton would bet his life on it—which was what he might have to give up soon.
Panic gripped Anton, making it painful to breathe. He was unarmed. It had been quite a while since he used his fists to protect himself. He’d have to retrieve the revolver from his room, yet he didn’t want to lure the men to Vivian.
“Good evening, Señor Contreras.” A feminine voice pulled his attention to his left as Mr. and Mrs. Summers stopped beside him.
He bowed slightly. “And it is a good evening, is it not?” He glanced over the water. “I have not seen a more calming sight in my life.” Despite his words, his mind spun, trying to find a way to retrieve his weapon.
Mr. Summers, probably in his fiftieth year, chuckled, his double chin shaking in the same rhythm as his overlarge belly. “Yes, it’s a perfect evening for romance.” He squeezed his wife’s arm.
Mrs. Summers, who looked to be younger than her husband by at least twenty years, blushed. “Señor Contreras, why are you not sharing the evening with someone?” She glanced around the deck. “Where is Miss Wentworth?”
“She has taken to her room. The weather has made her irritable.”
She shook her head. “I hope she has overcome her bout with seasickness.”
“She has, thankfully.”
Mr. Summers turned away to leave, but Anton touched his arm. “Mr. Summers? Could I have a private word with you?” Anton looked at the man’s beautiful wife. “It will only take a moment, I assure you.”
Pink stained her cheeks again, and she nodded.
After they had taken a few steps away from the woman, Anton said in a low voice, “I need your help.”
The older man’s eyes widened. “For what?”
“I need you to go to my cabin and get my revolver from Miss Wentworth, then bring it to me as quickly as possible.”
Mr. Summer’s forehead creased. “Whatever for?”
“I think I am about to be attacked.”
The other man’s fast intake of breath made him choke slightly.
Anton continued. “Please be discreet. I do not want these men to know that I know their plans.”
“Who—” Mr. Summers started to look around, but Anton tugged on his arm again.
“Please do not look now.” He waited for Mr. Summers’ attention before continuing. “A group of nine Spaniards are gathered over on your right. I do not think they will make a scene with this many people on deck, which is why I will remain up here for as long as I can. I need you to go to my room and get my revolver. Will you do this for me?”
Mr. Summers nodded.
“Take your wife back to your cabin first. She should not be involved.”
“Do you want me to inform the captain?”
“Only if you meet him along your way. If you do not see him, wait until after you have brought me my weapon.”
He nodded. “I’ll be quick about it.”
Anton managed a smile. “Gracias. I will be in your debt, Señor Summers.”
Mr. Summers looked calm as he walked to his wife and took her arm, then rushed her to the stairs leading down to the cabins. Anton’s worry lessened, and he hoped his instincts were correct. If these men worked for his uncle, they wouldn’t cause a scene, but wait to grab him someplace private. Anton just hoped he had appropriate protection when that time came. Either that, or he prayed Díos would help him.
A loud knock boomed on Vivian’s door, bringing her out of a fitful sleep. She jumped to a sitting position. Her heart hammered, and her body shook. Taking a deep breath, she calmed herself and crawled out of bed, slipping a wrapper over her nightdress.
The loud knock came again.
“Who is it?” she called.
“It’s Mr. Summers. Señor Contreras sent me to get something from his room.”
Curiosity led her to open the door. The bright light from the hallway made her squint when she looked upon her late night visitor. “Why would he send you when he can come himself?”
He shook his head and stepped closer. The white terror laced on the man’s face let her know he was certainly not being forward with his actions.
“Señor Contreras is up on deck and sent me to get his revolver. He thinks he’s in danger.”
Although Anton had talked about this subject quite a bit, he’d now involved another person. Perhaps Anton had good reason to fear this time since he was indeed the thief his uncle searched for. Still…curiosity niggled her, and the detective in her made her want to solve tonight’s mystery.
“Why does Señor Contreras believe that?”
“There are several men up on deck, and he thinks they are waiting for the chance to attack him. He doesn’t think they will approach him while there are still people milling about, so he’s remaining there until I return with his weapon.”
Nothing made sense. In all this time aboard ship, Anton only suspected one person, and that was Raúl. Yet she knew the reason for Anton’s reaction was because of jealousy. She turned and hurried to the trunk that wasn’t locked. Underneath his top shirt, she located the pistol, which she knew he’d kept as it was readily at hand whenever he needed it.
“Here it is.” She handed it to Mr. Summers.
“Oh, thank you, Miss Wentworth. I suggest you stay here and keep your door locked until everything has settled.”
“I certainly will.”
Mr. Summers hurried out of the room, his chubby backside rolling with each movement. She shook her head and closed the door. It wasn’t like Anton to involve another person, so he must know something he hadn’t shared with her yet. Could his uncle’s men indeed be aboard ship? Wouldn’t Anton have discovered this before now?
Then again, apparently Anton hadn’t wanted to be fully honest with her since they met. So perhaps something was going on this evening.
She stepped to the bed and sat as her heart hammered against her ribs. Her brief nap left her wide-awake, but it was the panic in Mr. Summers that worried her. Perhaps she should sneak up on deck to see what act Anton was performing this time.
A grin tugged at her lips. Yes. A good detective would do that very thing.
Excitement bubbled up from her chest. She’d prove to Anton how well she could handle danger, since he didn’t think she could. Not only that, but she would show that good-for-nothing outlaw, that she was a beneficial detective, and she had caught her thief!
She rushed to her trunk and pulled out a dress, quickly changing before going up on deck. She pulled the brush through her sleep-tangled hair in a hurry. As she walked through the door, her smile widened because of what she’d hoped to accomplish.
Cautiously, she rushed up the stairs, relieved at finding none of the other passengers up and about this late in the evening. Trying to make as little noise as possible, she climbed to the top deck, and then quickly darted behind a water barrel.
Through the still night, she strained to hear any sounds. Scanning the area, she decided Anton must be on the other side of the deck, so she scrambled to another water barrel, then on to the next, and next, until she finally spotted him.
A group of several men stood around him, but Anton’s masculine frame towered over them all. Although she couldn’t hear their exact words, she knew they spoke in Spanish. The tone of Anton’s voice sounded strong, yet calm, while the tone from the other men seemed belligerent and forceful.
The men’s actions sent off an alarm in her head which kept her spying behind the barrel. What exactly where they up to? And why did none of these men look familiar? In all this time on the ship, wouldn’t she have seen one of them at least once?
One of the men grabbed Anton from behind and held him in a vise-like grip. She gasped, her eyes locked on the tableau unwinding before her. The man, who seemed to be the ringleader, stood in front of Anton, his face so close his nose was inches from Anton’s. But Anton didn’t move. He seemed to have no reaction at all. Even from where she hid, Vivian easily saw his creased forehead and tight lips.
She hitched another breath. This was indeed very real. How could she help him if she didn’t have a weapon? Perhaps she could find a board or rope or something to use to help. But she couldn’t tear herself away from the scene to go look.
Stopping her thoughts, she shook her head. Why did she even want to help an outlaw in the first place? Yet, her heart told her she must!
The harsh expressions on the other men’s faces weren’t feigned. Anton might be in serious trouble. The man in front of Anton shouted angrily, then stepped back and ran his fingers through his black hair, appearing greatly irritated. Another man walked up and slammed his fist into Anton’s jaw.
Vivian jumped and covered her mouth to keep the scream of fright from carrying through the air. She remained behind the barrel as panic raced up her spine. What could she do? She could not beat off a half dozen men even if she wanted to.
Her mind worked in agitation. Obviously, these men planned to do Anton serious harm. Anton’s stance did not waver, which seemed to make the man who had hit him angrier. Both of his hands formed into fists, and he hit Anton again, then again, striking his stomach. Anton gasped and doubled over. The man holding Anton from behind did not let him drop.
Pain gathered in Vivian’s chest, and tears filled her eyes. She couldn’t stay here and watch Anton get beaten, but what could she do?
Had his story been true after all? Was he not the thief as she’d suspected? Yet, why were there jewels in his trunk? Feeling confused, tears slid down her cheeks. Obviously, she had not used her detective instincts at all. Perhaps…she didn’t have any to begin with.
A trickle of blood spilled from Anton’s mouth. Vivian held her breath. He proudly rose to his full height again, meeting his opponent with a fierce gleam in his eyes. Fear clutched at her chest. Curse his pride. It was going to get him killed.
The man laughed over Anton’s stubbornness and punched him again in the stomach. Anton doubled over and coughed, then righted himself, slower this time.
Where was his revolver? Had Mr. Summers not been able to get here in time?
Anton spoke in bold tones to the man in Spanish, which caused the other men to chuckle. Whatever he said made the man behind him release his hold and step away. The others circled Anton, leaving him and the first man alone to fight.
Perhaps Anton had attacked their sense of honor. These Spaniards seemed to hold it high. Would it be enough? She had to do something to help.
Anton raised his fists, and Vivian’s heart raced out of control. When the fight began, it surprised her to see how well Anton defended himself. Although he’d gone to war, she didn’t figure him to be a fighter. Just a lover who broke women’s hearts.
Anton’s fists connected with his opponent’s face, while dodging the blows being thrown at him. He had skills she had not yet been privileged to see. In fact, Anton was beating the other man to a bloody pulp. She doubted the man’s friends would accept this outcome and let Anton leave unharmed. He needed help. She must go fetch the captain immediately.
She prepared to leave, but her movement halted as Anton’s opponent fell to the ground. Suddenly the other men surrounded Anton and jumped on him, stopping any further action. A cry of alarm escaped her, and she quickly covered her mouth again. Luckily nobody heard.
Again, she prepared to leave her spot and find help as the men beat upon Anton, punching and kicking him mercilessly. Would his uncle allow this? What kind of uncle wanted his nephew dead?
From behind her, a group of heavy footsteps clamored on the deck, and she glanced over her shoulder to see Mr. Summers and Captain Bushwell lead a group of men. Someone had come to Anton’s rescue! Surely the captain would stop the fight.
Captain Bushwell aimed his revolver in the air and shot. The pile of men on top of Anton quickly stood and withdrew their weapons, backing away from him. Within seconds, the two groups faced off until fighting ensued between them both. Knives flashed, adding a more dangerous element to the brawl.
Vivian wrung her hands. Fear gnawed at the pit of her stomach. Bleeding from his nose and mouth, Anton fought with the man who had held him prisoner before. The stockiness of his opponent prevented Anton from knocking the man down, yet Anton struck him over and over, not allowing the man to get in a punch. Finally, the large man wrapped his hands around Anton’s throat. Vivian let out a scream, ignored by the fighting men.
Anton struggled, trying to peel the man’s hands away. Failing that, Anton dragged the man down with him as he reached for his boot, withdrawing his revolver. Anton aimed into the man’s belly and fired.
This was no game.
Men were dying now.
Vivian screamed again and stood. She was uncertain whether to flee back to her room or stay and watch this horror unfold. Anton and the captain would settle this—at least she hoped they would. She was certain Anton would live. She could berate him later for frightening her so.
As she turned, she ran into a human form. The small light from the moon barely registered on the man’s face.
“Raúl.” She clung to his arm. “Thank the Lord you are here. You must help Anton.”
“Yes, Señorita, I am helping.” He took her arms and pinned them behind her, making her cry out in pain.
“What are you doing?”
“I am helping my men, Vivian.”
“Your men? Who are your men?”
“My main purpose is to dispose of your lover.” Raúl’s lips quirked. “Yes, I befriended you to remain close to my target and only waited for the right moment to strike.”
Her heart sank. He had been one of Juanito’s men. Why hadn’t she realized that? Although she suspected… Inwardly, she groaned. Too late to revisit the past now.
He tightened his hold as he dragged her backward with him, toward the stairs. She struggled, but his painful grip clamped her arm. Releasing a scream, she hoped to draw someone’s attention, but Raúl quickly slapped his hand over her mouth.
“I would not do that if I were you.”
She lifted her foot and brought it down hard on his instep. He howled, but did not let her go, though his hand loosened. Before she could scream Anton’s name, Raúl had covered her mouth again.
“If you are smart, you will be quiet and not cause problems.”
Not heeding his suggestion, Vivian kicked him again, which made him trip. Since he refused to release her, they both tumbled to the deck. As he tried to right himself, his arm loosened again. Vivian took the opportunity to push away from him.
Unsteady from the fall, Raúl couldn’t grab her gown, and she scrambled away from him on her hands and knees. It was a short victory as he soon had her pinned. She sincerely wished she had listened to Mr. Summer’s warning about staying in her cabin.
Angrily, Raúl yanked her long hair. She cried out, feeling as if he wanted to rip her head from her shoulders. He stood and pulled her with him. They were very close to the railing. The bottomless ocean terrified her, and she didn’t want to end up in the icy liquid by acting foolishly. Anton would save her from this madman as soon as he was free, she was certain.
“Are you going to be a good girl?” Raúl asked, his teeth clenched and his face a purple mask of fury. He yanked her hair again.
A strangled sob escaped Vivian’s throat. “Yes.”
“Good. Now, I am going to take you with me. You see, my ship has been following us, and it is time I boarded the right vessel.”
“No, please, leave me here.” Would Anton know where Raúl had taken her? She had been a fool not to totally believe Anton before. She would not make this mistake again, but first, she must escape.
“Leave you? I do not think so.” He glanced over at the group of men still fighting. “It looks as if your lover and his friends will prevail this time, so I need you as bait. Anton will come to save you, I promise. Or at least he will try.” He snickered and turned, but another man stepped up behind him unnoticed.
Anton! She sighed and her body relaxed. Raúl’s brows drew together as he frowned.
“You are wrong. I will succeed in rescuing her.” Anton punched Raúl in the face.
Raúl stumbled and shoved Vivian ahead of him. The blow sent her reeling to the edge of the deck. Unable to regain her balance, she teetered overboard, but caught hold of the railing in a vice-like grip. The slivered wood bit into her hands as she tightened her grasp, but she continued to slide. Terror choked her scream as she dropped into the deep, dark abyss.
The frigid water sucked the air from her lungs, shrouding her body in darkness. Her heavy skirts weighed down, and did nothing to shield her from the piercing cold. She waved her arms, kicked her feet, and did all she could to rise to the top. Nothing worked. Quickly, numbness grew over her body as she sank deeper and deeper into a dark grave.
Vivian’s scream pierced the chilly night air. Pain consumed Anton like his heart had been ripped open. Then came the terrifying splash that seemed to drown out all other sounds.
With unknown strength, he broke away from Raúl. Fear suffocated Anton as he gripped the railing and stared into the murky depths of the ocean.
Praying for strength and guidance, he hastily shrugged out of his coat and yanked off his boots before bounding over the rail and into the water. Surrounded by nothing but darkness, he flailed wildly, trying to find her…to feel her. He cursed the dead night that made it impossible to see anything, but he searched frantically, praying to Díos the whole time.
After what seemed like forever, his hand finally grazed her body. After securing his arm around her, he swam back toward the ship. Shouts from the deck led him to the rope they’d thrown down for him.
“Someone bring a lantern over here,” one man shouted.
“Just a little closer, Anton,” another passenger encouraged.
With their guidance, Anton grabbed hold of the rope. Finding strength he did not know he possessed, he flung an unmoving Vivian over his shoulder and pulled them both up. His arms ached, and his gut twisted from the blows he’d received already in the fight, but he forced himself to climb until several others assisted him and Vivian aboard.
The men grabbed Vivian first, but once Anton had his feet planted on the deck, he pushed past them to kneel by her side. Her face was pale, her chest unmoving.
“Díos, please do not take her away.” He rolled her to her side and tried to push the water out of her lungs. Weightlessly, she fell to her back, still not breathing.
He had to get air into her lungs somehow. She needed to breathe and couldn’t do it herself. Without another thought, he bent over her and pried her mouth open, then tried to breathe life back into her.
Finally, her body moved. Her wracking cough brought up a stream of liquid. Anton praised the Almighty. With a lump in his throat, he gathered her against his chest as tears swam in his eyes.
“You will be fine,” he whispered. “I will not leave you again.”
Captain Bushwell pushed through the men and knelt beside Anton. “We’ve apprehended the Spaniards, but a few escaped onto their ship. We couldn’t stop them because of trying to assist you and Miss Wentworth.”
“What about Raúl?”
“He is tied up and being taken below as we speak.”
“Will you please tell me what’s going on?”
Anton nodded. “Sí, but first, we need to get Vivian into some warm clothes and her bed.”
“I’ll fetch the doctor.” Captain Bushwell rose.
Anton lifted Vivian and pushed his way through the concerned and curious people on his way to their room. Mrs. Summers waited there, ready to assist. She ushered Anton and the others out of the room to undress Vivian.
Anton paced in front of the door, praying Mrs. Summers would hurry. He didn’t like that the rose color had vanished from Vivian’s face, leaving dull pale skin. He wanted her back in his arms so to bring warmth to her. When he held her moments ago, she had shivered so hard, it wrenched his heart.
Finally, Mrs. Summers opened the door and Anton rushed in. Vivian lay in bed with blankets piled on top of her. Her trembling ceased ever so slightly, but the bluish color of her lips worried him.
“She will be all right,” Mrs. Summers said softly.
Without taking his eyes off Vivian, he answered, “How can you be so certain?”
“Because she has a strong will.”
“Sí, she does.”
“I think you need to change out of your wet clothes as well.”
“I will.” He finally looked at the other woman. “Gracias, Mrs. Summers. I am most grateful for your assistance.”
“Please send for me if you need more help.”
Once she left and closed the door, Anton turned his focus back to Vivian, who lay shivering in bed. She hadn’t opened her eyes yet, so he quickly stripped off his own wet clothes and replaced them with something dry. He sat on the bed and rubbed his hands over her arms which were still under the blankets, but it wasn’t controlling her shivering. Not knowing what else to do to keep her warm, he climbed into bed beside her to share his body heat. Slowly, her shaking subsided and unconsciously she snuggled against him.
Once he relaxed, he gave a silent prayer of thanks. The strange pain in his heart meant he couldn’t contemplate what life would be like without her. She’d become so important to him in such a short time. Never before had he felt this close to a woman. He kissed her forehead, wishing her temperature would return to normal, so he snuggled her closer against his chest.
Someone knocked on the door. “Señor Contreras? I’m Doctor Lewis, and I’m here with Captain Bushwell.”
Grudgingly, Anton tore himself away from Vivian and out of the bed, keeping the blankets wrapped tightly around her. “Enter,” he called.
Anton stood back as the doctor checked Vivian’s breathing, and then did a series of tests to judge her reflexes and body’s temperature. Not for one second did Anton take his eyes off her, even when the captain questioned him about the attack.
“Do you know those men, Señor Contreras?”
“Can you tell me what exactly happened, then?” the captain asked. “How did they board my ship in the middle of the sea, and why would they do that?”
Anton shrugged. “I suppose they were in the ship Miss Wentworth spotted earlier and they used row boats to get nearer so they could climb aboard, but I do not know why they are here.”
“But they singled you out amongst all the other passengers.”
“Can you explain?”
Anton took a quick glance at the captain. “Not yet.”
Captain Bushwell exhaled in exasperation and ran his fingers through his hair. “Señor Contreras, you’re not making any sense.”
“I know. That is because I am just as confused as you.” He looked back at Vivian.
“Do you know of any reason they had for finding you?”
Anton remained silent for a few moments, then nodded. “I think my uncle sent them to kill me.”
“Why would he do that?”
Anton tore his attention away from Vivian for a brief moment when he looked at the captain again. “Because I am the sole heir to a large inheritance, and my uncle wants it.”
Captain Bushwell sucked in a quick breath. “But I don’t understand—”
“Captain,” Anton spoke, but returned his attention to Vivian. “Can we discuss this at another time?”
“Yes, of course. I need to question my crew to find out why nobody knew about those other men.” The captain turned and left the cabin grumbling.
“Well,” the doctor said, standing. “I think she’s going to be fine. We’ll have to keep a close eye on her in case she catches pneumonia, but if you remain by her side and take care of her—”
“I plan on it,” Anton interrupted.
“Good.” The doctor placed his tools back into his little black bag. “Keep me informed on her progress.”
Anton nodded to the doctor as he left.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Anton sat on the bed beside Vivian. Her lips had a little more color, but she still looked more like a corpse than the exuberant woman he knew.
The strenuous activities of the evening wore on his exhausted body, so he turned down the lamp and crawled into bed, taking Vivian back in his arms. Once he rested her head on his chest, her ragged breathing turned soft.
With a smile, he realized how well she fit next to him. He’d always enjoyed the way she felt in his arms, but now as he lay beside her, he knew their bodies molded perfectly together.
He kissed her forehead. “Sleep well, my little kitten. No need to fear any longer.”
And he would make certain of that.
Vivian’s weak body lay still as death, but her chest rose and fell with life. Anton remained by her side and nursed her, but uselessness grew inside him. She’d gained consciousness a few times, but she mostly slept. On a few occasions, her eyes drifted open and he cajoled her into eating a bite of hot soup or sipping water from a cup.
Soon, fever consumed her body as coughing wracked her, and Anton summoned the physician. Doctor Lewis diagnosed her with pneumonia.
Fighting for control over his own panic, Anton kept his words calm. “Are you saying she is going to die?”
Doctor Lewis shook his head. “On the contrary. I know many people who have lived.”
“And I, Señor, have known people who died.”
The doctor moved beside Anton and patted his shoulder. “She will live, because you won’t let her die.”
Emotion welled in Anton’s chest, his eyes stinging with tears, so he quickly turned away and hurried back to Vivian’s side. He took hold of her hot, weak hand and gently stroked her skin.
“You are correct, Doctor Lewis. I will not let her die.”
“Make certain she drinks plenty of fluids, and keep her as warm as possible. If her temperature rises, we’ll have to place cold rags around her body to bring it down.”
Anton nodded and returned his concentration back on Vivian.
The physician left the room without delivering any more instructions. Sighing, Anton ran his fingers through his hair. Death was not an option, yet what could he do to stop it from happening? So far, nothing he’d done had helped.
A light knock came upon the door before it opened. He looked back to see who had entered. Mrs. Summers smiled as she brought in a tray of food.
“The cook fixed some special broth for Vivian.” She set the tray on the table. “And I brought you some food, as well.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Summers, but I am not hungry.” He turned back to Vivian.
She touched his arm. “But you need to keep up your strength if you expect to help her.”
He glanced at the lovely brunette and smiled. “You are correct. It is hard to think about myself when I am so worried about her.”
“Yes, I can see how concerned you are. It’s evident in your eyes.” A blush stained her cheeks. “But can I ask you a question?”
“You give the impression you and Vivian are distant relatives, but I think she means more to you than that. I’ve seen the way she looks at you, and she’s not looking at you like a woman who looks upon her uncle.”
He chuckled. “Indeed?”
Her cheeks grew darker. “Yes, and you don’t look upon her as a niece, either. You’re not really related, are you?”
He smiled. “No.”
“Do you love her?”
He glanced at Vivian on the bed, and his heart twisted again with that unknown emotion. Is it love?
He quickly dismissed the notion. Although he cared deeply about Vivian, he wasn’t in love with her. “I do care about her very much.”
Mrs. Summers dropped her hand and stepped away. “You men are all alike,” she muttered under her breath as she turned.
Anton reached out and stopped her by grasping her wrist. Her pleasant smile had been replaced with a scowl.
“Why do you say that, and in a sarcastic tone?” he asked, releasing her.
“Because men like you ignore your true feelings. You’d rather follow your head than your heart.” She stopped, looking like she fought an inward battle. “At one time I loved a man, but he didn’t return my feelings—at least he wouldn’t allow himself to return those emotions. So, when Mr. Summers offered for my hand in marriage, I accepted. I could tell George loved me, but because I still harbored feelings for my young gentleman friend, I couldn’t let myself love George the way he needed. Three months after I married George, my secret love finally admitted he loved me, but it was too late.”
With the back of her hand, she wiped a tear away then straightened her shoulders. When she looked back at Anton, her smile wavered. “All I’m saying is don’t hide your feelings. If you love her, let her know or it will be too late. Good day, Señor Contreras.” She turned and left the room.
Anton blinked in a daze. Did he really feel that way about Vivian? His heart ached with that familiar emotion he’d been experiencing lately.
Could it be love?
When Vivian stirred on the bed, Anton momentarily put aside Mrs. Summers’ words. Vivian’s eyes fluttered open, and she focused on him. Her pretty grayish-blue gaze darkened with fever, and his gut twisted.
“You’re here,” she rasped.
“You doubt I would stay with you? I am wounded, my dear.” He smiled, hoping to give her the impression he was emotionally strong. “Are you hungry?”
She nodded. “Just a little.”
He quickly moved to retrieve the broth Mrs. Summers’ had brought then came back to sit beside Vivian. He propped a few pillows behind her before feeding her.
While he carefully placed the spoonful of broth in her mouth, she kept her eyes on him. She offered a weak smile, and his chest ached from the tenderness displayed.
“How do you feel today?” he asked.
She gave him a one-shoulder shrug. “My chest feels like a horse is sitting on it, and my whole body hurts when I cough.”
“This broth will help you become well.”
“You are so kind,” she whispered.
He shook his head. “You forget. If not for me, you would not be in this condition.”
“No, you mustn’t blame yourself.” She coughed, and her chest rattled. “It was my choice to leave the room and wander on deck to find you.”
He fed her another spoonful. “Why did you come up on deck?”
Her smile widened slightly. “To catch you in a lie.”
“The one I thought you had told Mr. Summers when he came to fetch your revolver.”
He fed her again. “Why did you think I was being untruthful?”
She shrugged. “Because I’ve thought that since we met. I know I told you I trusted you, and I apologize for that. But the truth is, I doubted your story.”
It pained him to hear those words. “What about now? Do you still doubt me?”
Her smile disappeared. “No.” She opened her mouth and leaned forward for more, so he fed her. She relaxed back on the pillows. “I would still like to know more about your birthright, but I do believe men are trying to kill you for one reason or another.”
She coughed again. “Did you kill them all that night?”
“Only a few. Captain Bushwell tied up Raúl and took him away, but some of his friends were fortunate enough to escape to their ship. Sadly, the captain was too busy tying up those wounded and trying to help the ones who fell overboard at the same time.”
She lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry about Raúl. A good detective would have known he was a fake.”
“But my dear, you did know.” He stroked her cheek. “You were wary about him, which is why you searched his room. That tells me you are very skilled. I am just saddened because I know you wanted to be his friend.”
She met his stare and gave him a weak smile. “I never thought I’d hear you say that. Thank you for having faith in me.” She took a deep breath mere seconds before she had a coughing fit. When she gained control, she shook her head. “As for wanting to be his friend… I used Raúl to distract me, that’s all.”
“Distract you from what?” He offered a glass of water, and she sipped.
He grinned and brought another spoonful up to her mouth. “Did it work?”
Laughing, his heart skipped a beat. He had suspected she was falling in love with him. She’d practically confessed to him the other day.
Without another word, she finished eating the broth then weakly sank into the bed. “I don’t know why I feel so very tired.”
“You are sick, mí dulce. As soon as the illness passes, you will return to your perfect self.”
“What does the doctor say I have?”
She nodded. “As a young girl, my father became ill with that. It was a rocky two weeks, but he eventually recovered.”
“My maternal grandmother became sick with it, and after a week, it took her life.” He reached out and stroked Vivian’s hair.
“Don’t worry, Anton. That won’t happen to me. I’m strong.”
“No, you are not, but you are stubborn.”
Snuggling into the blankets, she closed her eyes. “I’m so tired and I ache all over.”
“Then sleep.” He kissed her forehead.
Fevered eyes opened and met his gaze then she smiled. The impulsive sensation to kiss her lips became strong, but he resisted. She was still too ill, plus he couldn’t break her heart again.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
He waited until her breathing became even and her lips fluttered with each exhalation before he moved to the table and ate his meal. He really wasn’t hungry, but he needed to keep up his strength, especially for the days ahead. This illness would get worse before getting better, and he wasn’t looking forward to that.
Vivian awoke in the middle of the night, heated moisture sopping her gown. Yet at the same time, an icy coldness penetrated every bone in her body. Anton lay beside her with his back turned, so she curled up behind him to feel his warmth. The moment she wrapped her arms around his middle, he jumped and turned.
“Vivian?” he questioned groggily.
“Anton, I’m—I’m—so cold.”
He gathered her in his arms, and she pressed her face against his bare chest.
“Díos, Vivian, you are as hot as fire.”
“No.” Her body shook. “I’m cold.”
He mumbled a few words in Spanish as he moved off the bed.
“Anton?” She reached for him.
“Querida, I have to fetch the doctor. Your fever is out of control, and we need to bring it down.”
After pulling on his shirt, he knelt on the bed and took her in his arms. “I will be right back,” he told her in a tight voice then kissed her forehead.
Vivian curled in her blankets, but remained still. Invisible knives stabbed her everywhere, and her body ached. She sobbed from the sheer torture it brought. It even hurt to breathe.
Slowly, a cloud filled her mind, and she saw a peaceful place, a place where no pain could reach her. Emotionally, she grasped for that haven, hoping to escape her sickness.
Anton rushed through the hallways before he found the doctor’s door. He pounded frantically until the older man opened it. “Doctor.” Anton breathed heavily. “Her fever is very high.”
The doctor quickly slipped on his robe and ran with Anton back to the room. When they entered, Anton noticed something different. Vivian lay still as death. His heart dropped, and he ran over to her.
“Vivian?” he shouted, shaking her. “Vivian!”
The doctor pushed him aside. “Let me look at her. Go fetch a porter and have him bring buckets of cold water.”
“Tell me she is alive,” Anton demanded, his voice as shaky as his heart.
“She is, but barely. Now go.”
Anton would have awakened the whole ship if he had to, but he found people who would help. Captain Bushwell even offered his services, and soon the room filled with buckets of water.
The physician moved off the bed and soaked a towel. “Anton, please help me. We should lay as many wet rags over her body as we can.”
Between Anton and the physician, they covered every inch of her with cool cloths. On her forehead and around her face they laid a few more.
The doctor cursed. “Well, this is better than nothing, but it doesn’t seem to be working.” He swiped the moisture off his temples with his forearm.
“I am wondering if that is not the proper procedure,” Anton said.
The doctor gave him a quizzical look. “Explain yourself.”
“I remember when I was young and had a high fever, mí niňera put rags filled with ice in my armpits and between my legs. These are the hottest spots on your body, and so with the ice packed there, it cools the body quicker.”
The doctor scratched his head, his gaze jumping between Anton, the captain, and Vivian. He heaved a sigh and nodded. “Although we don’t have ice, I think we should try it with the cold rags.”
Putting aside his own panic, Anton forged into his work until the wet cloths had been placed against certain parts of her body and a whole sheet had been soaked in cold water and placed over her. She shook violently. Her lips faded to that terrifying blue color again, her breathing became shallow, and her chest rattled.
Anton swallowed the lump of fear lodged in his throat and wiped at the tears that had crept upon him. He had to stay strong for her.
After a few minutes had passed, Anton asked, “What else can we do?”
“We’ll keep her covered until her temperature drops.”
“But she is unconscious. That cannot be good.”
“No, in fact, I think it’s better that she is unaware of her condition right now.”
“Not if we’re lucky.”
Anton groaned and bunched his hands into fists. “And what if we are not?”
The doctor hung his head without answering.
Anton paced the small room, wanting to let his frustration out, but not knowing how. Vivian looked white as death. Her breathing frightened him, and he wished he could take on the fever for her. She was too frail to suffer this way. And to think it was all because of him.
Beside her bed, he touched her burning cheek.
Within time, the cloths dried and needed to be replaced. Tears, Anton refused to spill, stung his eyes. He fought to keep the turmoil building inside of him in check, looking for another way to express his frustrations.
Taking a deep breath, he turned his thoughts to performing at the opera—songs that Vivian loved. He cleared his throat and began humming, creating a theatrical stage in his mind. Not bothered by what those in the room thought, he burst into song. Each lyrical stanza released pent-up emotions, until at the end, he felt totally drained.
He slumped next to Vivian’s bed and took her hand in his. Her skin didn’t feel like fire to the touch. Her chest didn’t rise and fall as rapidly as before. When he touched her cheek again, the coolness met his skin.
The doctor rushed to her side, inspected her eyes, and listened to her heart. “I don’t know what you’ve done, my good man, but keep it up. It’s making her better.”
Driven by the doctor’s prognosis, Anton garnered strength for another song. He sang until his voice turned hoarse while the doctor and Captain Bushwell continued replacing dry clothes with ones soaked with cool water from the buckets. It wasn’t long before the doctor announced Vivian’s fever had broken.
Cheers echoed from the hallway. Anton turned to see it filled with spectators. Unfazed, he brought his attention back to the patient, wanting to be alone with her.
The captain quickly ushered the crowd away, urging them to return to their rooms—all except for Mrs. Summers.
The captain shook his head. “You’ll need a different bed. This one is soaked.”
Anton met his stare. “What do you suggest?”
“We’ll have Mrs. Summers dress Vivian in drier clothes, then you can take her to my room and finish caring for her there.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes. I’ll have my cabin boy make it ready as soon as possible.” He left the room and closed the door.
The doctor stayed to help clean up, then he took the buckets and left. Mrs. Summers had Anton leave the room again so she could dress Vivian. Within a few minutes she opened the door for him. He lifted Vivian against his chest. Her body hung weakly in his arms, and he treated her as if he held a precious crystal that could break at any moment.
He thanked Mrs. Summers for her assistance, and then she left. Draping several blankets around Vivian, Anton carried her to the captain’s quarters. The cabin boy had the room ready and the bed turned down. Gently, Anton laid her down and covered her with clean, dry sheets and blankets.
The captain came up behind him and placed his hand on Anton’s shoulder. “I think you should get some sleep yourself.”
“No, I cannot rest.”
“She’s going to be fine. She’ll sleep peacefully, so I suggest you do the same.”
Anton smiled. “Gracias.”
The captain nodded, left the room and closed the door.
Exhaustion consumed Anton, his limbs felt like great weights. But he mustered the strength to change his own clothes before climbing in beside Vivian. He took her in his arms and held her tight.
Sleep beckoned. After kissing her forehead, he closed his eyes. Unbidden tears drizzled down his cheeks. He turned his face into the pillow and sobbed out his relief, thanking the Almighty for sparing Vivian’s life, once again.
“Vivian, you’re looking healthier and seem so much stronger today,” Katherine Summers commented as she helped Vivian dress. “In fact, I hardly helped you with your bath this time.”
Vivian chuckled as she crawled into bed. She wished she felt as strong as she led people to believe. Strange how being ill with a high temperature had taken so much out of her.
“I may look healthier, but I’m not making as much progress as I’d like. I’m still very tired.”
“Your strength will soon return.”
“It’s been a week. Shouldn’t it have returned by now?” She sighed dejectedly.
“But the point is, you are getting better by the day.”
“Katherine, I want to thank you for helping me. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
The other woman smiled. “All I’ve done is to help you with womanly things. Anton should be the person you thank. He’s done everything else.”
Vivian glanced down at her hands folded on her lap. “So I’ve been told by almost everyone who has come to see me.” She met her new friend’s gaze. “But for some reason, I don’t believe it. I’m not saying everybody is lying, but Anton doesn’t seem like the kind of man who’d do something so selfless unless there was an ulterior motive.”
Katherine laughed and moved to the bed and patted Vivian’s leg. “I know he’s not your uncle. I also know he’s changed, because the man I saw taking care of you worried less about himself and concentrated on you. Isn’t his love for you obvious?”
The comment brought a burst of laughter from Vivian. “Love? That’s an emotion he’ll never have for me.”
“You are wrong. I can see it in his eyes when he looks at you. He loves you, but refuses to admit it to himself.”
“No, he doesn’t love me, and even if he did, he cherishes his freedom more.”
Katherine shrugged. “Perhaps he’s changed his mind since he thought he had lost you.”
“I seriously doubt it.”
A light knock interrupted their conversation. Both women looked up as Anton stepped into the room. When Vivian beheld his magnificence, she couldn’t halt the sigh from escaping her throat. In his casual shirt and trousers, he radiated masculinity. Long sideburns and trimmed goatee made him look more sensual, which caused her heart to skip in double-time.
Realizing her thoughts had strayed, she shook herself free of the trance his presence caused. She had to control her desires. No, she had to make them disappear forever.
“How is my patient today?” he asked cheerfully as he sauntered to the bed.
“I think she looks healthier,” Katherine replied. “What do you think?”
When Anton stroked her cheek, Vivian’s heart flipped again. She mentally cursed her weakness.
He nodded. “Yes, her complexion is back to its normal beauty.” Then his thumb dropped to her lips and caressed them lightly. “And the raspberry color on her lips nearly tempts me.”
Vivian smiled, and noticed Katherine’s cheeks darken with embarrassment over Anton’s very intimate comment. Turning her head, Vivian pulled away from his touch.
“But I do have good news,” he continued.
“What is that?”
“The physician says you can start eating solid foods.”
She sighed. “Oh, that is excellent news. I’m getting rather bored of broth.”
Katherine stood. “Well, I should return to my husband now.”
Anton faced Mrs. Summers. “Thank you again for your help, Señora Summers.”
“Please call me Katherine.”
He nodded, and then like a gentleman, showed her to the door. Rather than coming directly to Vivian, he lingered while picking up the articles of clothing and towels she and Katherine had left on the floor. It surprised her to see Anton doing such a task, but she quickly squashed the hope rising inside of her. She had to remember he would not become the man she wanted.
“It was very thoughtful of the captain to let us use his cabin until our mattress dried. But now we can move back into our room,” Anton mentioned casually.
“Yes, I appreciate his kindness very much.”
He dropped the clothes in a pile by the door for the cabin boy to take care of, then walked to the bed, and sat by her side.
“You worried the captain,” he said.
“So I’ve heard.”
“And the physician told me you have made a quick recovery.”
She smiled. “Thanks to a certain man’s singing talent, I was told.”
He held her hand. “You do not remember?”
“No. I only remember being cold and that my body ached, but that is all.” She paused. “But I do recall dreaming I attended your opera, watching you sing.”
“I was extremely worried about you.” His thumb stroked her knuckles. “A lot of people were.”
Shyly, she glanced at their joined hands resting in her lap. “It pleases me to have so many people concerned on my behalf. But I fear I don’t deserve it.”
“You definitely made an impression on most. Many people have asked about your welfare. One woman, in particular.”
Her gaze bounced up and met his. “Indeed? Who?”
He shook his head. “I know not, my dear. But she says she must speak with you, posthaste.”
“Did she give her name?”
“No, but she hinted that you two know each other.”
Unease washed over her. “Then perhaps I should see her and discover what is so important that she needs to meet with me.”
“She is here now. Are you up for company?”
She shrugged. “I suppose.”
“Do you wish me to stay?”
Vivian had mixed emotions. How dangerous could the woman be? Vivian needed to rely on her detective instincts, but they’d steered her wrong on previous occasions. Did she dare risk being alone with a stranger, especially when just getting over pneumonia?
“Perhaps you should be right outside the door, just in case.”
Anton leaned forward and kissed her on the nose. “I will not be far, querida.”
Vivian scooted up straighter, fluffing the pillows behind her then making certain the sheet and blankets covered her. Anton left, and after a few minutes, the door opened again and in stepped a woman.
The same woman from up on deck that had stared so boldly at Vivian those few times.
Except now, she saw the stranger better. Silver strands heavily streaked her once golden hair, and age lines coated her face. Vivian felt certain this woman would have been very beautiful at one time in her life, but her sad eyes and tight lips told a different story, one which most certainly held a lot of pain.
The woman closed the door and stood silent. Her piercing stare made Vivian uncomfortable, and she fidgeted beneath the covers. The woman scrutinized her in an unnerving way.
The longer the woman stared, the more her eyes filled with tears. Emotion tugged at Vivian’s heartstrings, yet the woman hadn’t even said a word. Curiosity nearly killed Vivian, so it appeared she’d have to make the first move to create conversation.
She cleared her throat and smiled the best she could under the circumstances. “I recognize you.”
The woman’s gasp surprised Vivian.
“You do?” The woman’s voice shook.
“Yes. From up on deck. I noticed you staring at me a few times during the journey.”
The stranger’s shoulders relaxed. “Oh, yes. Up on deck.”
Vivian motioned her hand to the empty chair beside the bed. “Would you care to sit?”
The woman’s gaze bounced back and forth between the chair and Vivian a few times before she shook her head.
“What is it that you need?” Vivian asked.
From the stranger’s tight expression, Vivian knew something heavy weighed on the other’s mind. The woman’s bottom lip quivered slightly.
Finally, the stranger pulled herself straight and lifted her chin. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
Vivian creased her forehead. Hadn’t they just covered this? “Yes. From up on deck.”
The woman shook her head. “I’m not talking about that. I mean in your life while you were growing up.”
Vivian narrowed her eyes, wariness filling her. “You know me from my childhood?”
“Yes, Vivian.” Her voice softened. “I was the woman in labor with you for twenty-seven hours. You were a difficult birth, since you had turned slightly in my womb, so the mid-wife said.”
Memories Vivian wanted to keep buried resurfaced. Images of her childhood floated through her mind, and the woman standing beside her resembled her mother perfectly. Reality crashed in around her, making her body cold again, and her heart numb.
What was her mother doing here?
Vivian blinked in stunned silence. Suddenly, the woman’s eyes seemed familiar, the tilt of her nose, and her pointy chin. Memories resurfaced, and in her mind she could imagine this woman in her home sitting on the couch reading a book, in the kitchen cooking, then again at night tucking Vivian into bed. All the pain and suffering she’d experienced those days, months, and even years after her mother left, crept into Vivian’s chest and weighted it with emotion.
Her mind flooded with heartbreaking memories of her father pacing the floor in their house and staring out the window for days on end. Nights she’d stayed awake listening to her father’s sobs, and many of those nights she’d also cried herself to sleep.
She had waited every day, every month, every year for the moment her mother would come back into her life. As each year passed, Vivian hardened her heart against the woman who loved her family so little that she’d abandoned them.
Back then, Vivian had the perfect words to tell her mother if the chance ever presented itself. Now the woman stood before her, and Vivian’s mind drew a blank. Shock held her tongue prisoner.
Scrunching the blankets with tight fingers, she kept her gaze on the woman who proclaimed to be her mother…a title the other woman didn’t deserve now. Vivian cleared her throat, forcing herself to speak. “How do you know I’m your daughter?”
“Over the years, I’ve hired detectives to search you out and inform me of my family. Then, not too long ago, I decided to see you for myself—to finally talk to you. That is how I knew when you and Mr. Romero were going to sail to Spain. I overheard Anton’s name at the ticket booth.”
Vivian swallowed the lump of emotion caught in her throat. “Then it’s very unfortunate that you had so many hours of labor with me. Could that be when you decided you were not fit to be my mother? Or did that time come after Matthew was born?”
Nora Wentworth’s eyes filled with tears. She brought her hand to her mouth and covered the gasp that sprang forward.
“You…misunderstood. That’s not—”
“Please don’t.” Vivian held up her hand. “I don’t want to hear your excuses.” A sob rose to her throat, but she willed it away, refusing to show any outward emotion. “I recall the day you left. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I remember every tear, every heartache, and every sleepless night. That will be implanted in my mind forever. There’s nothing you can do to change it.”
Nora shook her head as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Please let me explain.”
“No. You’ll be wasting your breath. Besides, I don’t have the patience right now to hear it.” Vivian flipped her hand in the air. “I would like you to leave. Now.”
Her mother remained standing for a few moments longer as she stared at Vivian. Sorrow filled her heart for the obvious grief her mother experienced right now, but it didn’t come close to the grief Vivian’s family had suffered.
Finally, Nora spun around and walked out the door. Vivian’s chest tightened, filling the silent void with the sound of deep breathing. It wasn’t until Anton stepped inside when she released her pent-up tears.
He rushed to her side and took her in his arms. “Querida? What is wrong? Who was that lady and why did she leave crying?”
“Oh, Anton.” She buried her face in his neck, clinging to his silk shirt. “You won’t believe it. I still can’t.”
“Tell me,” he coaxed as he stroked her hair and placed a kiss on her forehead.
He hitched a breath and pulled back, meeting her stare. “Your mother?”
“Yes. After all these years…” She sniffed and wiped the back of her hand across her nose. “She’d been watching me, even before we boarded the ship. She knew I was her daughter.”
“Did she tell you why she left her family?”
Vivian shook her head. “I don’t want to know, Anton. It won’t change a thing, anyway. She’s been dead to me for years.”
He gathered her in his arms once more and rocked her gently. Her heart swelled with love for this man. Yet she wondered if she should allow these feelings for him at all, especially when he didn’t return them.
She pulled away and swiped the moisture from her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Anton. I shouldn’t have broken down like that. I suppose the shock of seeing her…” She held her breath before the tears returned.
Anton cupped her chin. “You do not need to apologize. I understand perfectly. Thank you for being open with me.”
She shook her head. “It’s just that I’ve been a burden to you of late, and I don’t want you to take that responsibility any longer.”
“It is my own fault. I should not have brought you with me.”
She shrugged. “It’s too late to look back. We have to move forward with no regrets.”
“But I should not have brought you.” He dropped his hand. “Because of my own selfishness, you could have died. Twice.”
Anticipation bloomed in her chest, yet she dared not become too excited and read too much into his words. Could Mrs. Summers have been telling her the truth? Could he really love her, too? Vivian dared not hope for fear her heart would be crushed again.
“Actually,” she said, “it’s been three times, but who’s counting.”
“Three times? When was the third?”
“At my house when that stranger followed us home.” She softened her words with a smile.
The corners of his mouth lifted in a smile she thought adorable.
“Will you ever forgive me?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t decided.”
“I have something to show you.” He stood, walked to his trunk—the one that didn’t have the jewels—and dug deep inside. Pushing his clothes aside, he soon disclosed a secret opening in the lining. She sat forward and narrowed her gaze. He withdrew an object, then came back to the bed and sat.
“I want to show you something given to me by mí padre two days before he died.” His hand opened to display a man’s large ring resting on his palm, a heavy band of gold with an eagle crest encircled in diamonds and rubies.
Another piece of the missing jewels, perhaps?
Inwardly, she scolded herself for thinking such a thing. To know the truth, she must ask him this time before jumping to conclusions. “It’s very lovely.”
“This was handed down from generation to generation, from father to first-born son. I think mí padre knew his brother wanted to kill him, and that is why he gave it to me when he did. Usually, the father hands it over on his son’s wedding day.”
She took the ring and studied the engraved name on the inside. Antonio Romero. “Why does it have your name?”
“Antonio Romero is a family name, handed down to each new generation. When I was but a lad, mi madre called me Anton. I think she did that so she would not have to think of mí padre.”
“Would you mind explaining that?” She shook her head, confusion filling her once again. Out of all the questions she had about his past, this one ate at her, causing doubt about his true identity. “Why wouldn’t your mother think that about your father?”
“You once suggested I was an illegitimate child, but I am not. However, my parents were separated for fourteen years.”
“Are you jesting?”
“No.” Anton’s hand rubbed her leg. Warmth spread through her, but she couldn’t let her hopes run away with her thoughts.
“My uncle,” he continued, “twisted the truth when he talked to your employer. My parents were married. When mí madre was five months pregnant with me, she discovered mí padre had been unfaithful. Without thinking or confronting him, she left and returned to her family in Italy. Padre was told that mí madre died in childbirth.”
“Eventually we moved back to Spain and lived with my niňera, but we lived nowhere near my father’s house. Fourteen years later, Mother decided to go back to him for my sake because I was becoming unruly and needed a father.” He stopped and chuckled. “She arrived on the very day my father was to remarry. She walked right into the ceremony, in fact. My memory of that day is so vivid. You should have seen his face—and hers for that matter.”
“But to shorten the story,” he continued with another laugh, “Father welcomed us back into his home. It did not take long before my parents were happy again.” He shrugged. “I assume that’s why my uncle thinks I am a bastard child. Since he and Padre were not very close, my uncle did not know about mí madre’s pregnancy.”
Vivian nodded. “I can see why your mother didn’t want to think about your father. But why are you showing me the ring?”
“Because this is what Juanito is after. If he shows the King of Spain this ring, he will inherit my father’s island and all the money that goes with it. If he has this ring, the King of Spain will know I am dead.”
“What about that thing you said you had buried in your father’s yard? Will that not convince the king?”
“That is my certificate of birth. It will help, but so will this ring.”
She took Anton’s long finger and slipped on the band. Softly, she rubbed his knuckle. “It’s a perfect fit.”
“Yes, I have the same build as mí padre.”
“It looks good on you.”
He cupped her face, his thumbs gently stroking her cheeks. “Querida, do you believe me now?”
Her smile wavered. Now was the time to ask him about the jewels. “I actually have another question.”
“What is it? I will tell you anything.”
She took a hard swallow. “Anton, if you didn’t steal your uncle’s jewels, then…why are they hidden in that trunk?” She looked at the trunk—still locked.
He swung his gaze in that direction. “The jewels?”
“Yes. There are several pieces in there.”
Anton met her gaze again and grinned. “I see you are back to picking locks again.”
He took a deep breath, still smiling. “Those are not my uncle’s jewels. What you saw in that trunk is what belonged to my father and mother. I think I told you once that I only had a few things of theirs. Well, those are the few things. That is all I have left that my parents possessed.”
She studied his now serious expression, and her heart clenched to think she hadn’t trusted him enough before to believe he had been telling her the truth all this time. And to think if she would have believed him earlier, she wouldn’t have gone through a lot of her doubt and heartache.
“Now do you believe?” he questioned.
She smiled. “Yes. I have no reason not to.”
Taking her hand in his, he lifted it to his lips and turned it over to kiss her palm. Warmth spread through her, and she cherished the feeling, if only for a moment.
“Actually, I do have another question.” Her voice shook slightly.
He placed her hand back on her lap with great tenderness. “I will tell you anything.”
“What will your uncle inherit for being the second-born son?”
“Nothing as long as I am alive. If I am dead, he inherits everything. Although Juanito and my father had two different mothers, they had the same father, so the island would go to him.”
“I just don’t understand why he’s so determined to kill you when you’ve been away from home for so long.”
“Because for seven long years he acted the part of lord and ruler in my father’s house and on the island, telling everybody I had been killed in the war just so he could receive the money. Before his men attacked me last week, I received the impression during the conversation I had with them, that the only thing my uncle was lacking to legally make himself King was the ring. When I returned from the war, he asked me about the ring, and I told him I did not know what he was talking about. I think he assumed at that time that I was not the true heir. When I left Spain several days later, I took my personal belongings, and my father’s ring, not knowing what power it held. Then last week, my uncle’s men demanded I hand it over. When I refused, one of his henchmen let his fists talk.”
She touched the small bruise barely visible on his cheek. “I know. I saw.”
He took her hand again, and brought it to his lips, kissing her fingertips. “It was then when I realized what kind of danger I have put you in.” He turned her hand over and kissed her palm. “Which is why I am sending you back to New York once we dock in Spain. I have already talked to the captain and he will set sail as soon as he can. He will protect you. I have also written to your employer to inform him of everything that has happened, so you will still have a job when you return.”
Her heart sank in a sea of confusion and sadness, yet at the same time, anger filled her soul. He wanted to send her home? Without him? Helpless frustration built inside her, making her chest ache.
Strange, because this was what she’d wanted all along, wasn’t it? Finally, Anton could relieve himself of her.
She swallowed the lump of emotion lodged in her throat. “Are you certain I’ll be safe?”
“I have devised a plan in case somebody is waiting on shore and watching us. After we dock, I will take you with me to the nearest hotel. The captain will have his cabin boy come later and meet us in the room. The boy is about your height and coloring, so you can dress in his clothes to leave, and our watchers will think it is the servant.”
She shrugged. “It sounds plausible, but how are you going to remain safe?”
“I have not figured that out, but I will be extremely cautious. I will not let my uncle win.”
“So, you think if I am by your side then, it’ll make your mission more difficult to complete?”
“No, but I will be putting you in danger.” He cupped her chin. “If you met with another accident or illness, my heart would not be able to take it.”
How could she understand this man? Did he really want to be free of her? Was he saying these words just to alleviate her worry?
“Oh, Anton, you do care,” she teased with sarcasm.
He gathered her in his arms and kissed her forehead. “Yes, querida, I do. More than you will ever know.”
Her heart beat wildly, and she fought for control. But there was a different tone in his voice that made her pause, one she hadn’t heard before. She pulled away and gazed up at him. “I don’t understand.”
“When I thought I had lost you in the sea, heaviness grew in my chest so much I could have suffocated. Then, when your fever was so very high, and the physician’s methods were not working, I could not stand the massive pain of losing you.” He pressed the side of his face against hers. “I would have died for you. If Díos would have let me, I would have taken your place.”
His confession tugged at her heart, weakening her resistance against him. Dare she believe he held some feelings?
Cursing her premature enthusiasm, she found her anger once again and pulled back. “Thank you for your concern, but once I leave with the captain, I won’t be your problem any longer and you won’t need to worry about me.”
His forehead crinkled. “Vivian, I have never thought of you as my problem.”
With a shrug, she snuggled into the bed. “I’m tired now, Anton. I’d like to sleep.”
Gathering the blankets around her, she turned to her side and fought the tears welling in her eyes. She didn’t know what bothered her most, his evident change of guilty emotion toward her, or his readiness to dispose of her the first chance he got.
The sun had set into a tranquil sea, and a soft dusk slowly captured the day as Anton stood at the rail of the ship and gazed out on the water. Darkness intruded upon the blue-green depths of the ocean, splaying a million stars overhead on the dark velvet backdrop of a clear night sky. His thoughts carried him back to a time when he was a different man.
Until recently, he’d been satisfied with his life, not bothering to question fate. His parents had died at the hands of his merciless uncle when they were gunned down in broad daylight, but after a grieving period, Anton realized it was their turn to join Díos in heaven.
He had enlisted to join his fellow countrymen in fighting for what he’d believed in, and he hadn’t regretted any decision made during those seven years. Even when he left his home and inheritance, he hadn’t looked back, rather he’d anticipated the adventures in his new life.
Things were changing again, and he was helpless to stop fate. His twenty-seventh year approached fast, and for the first time, he thought about settling down and starting a family.
The idea scared him to death.
Yet when he imagined spending his days with Vivian, holding her in his arms, his fear eased. From the very first time he had spotted her sitting in her balcony box watching him with great interest, he hadn’t been able to think straight. Like a moth to flame, her beauty lured him, and he couldn’t find the strength to pull away. But he had no other choice but to let her go. She’d be much safer in New York where the detective agency could protect her.
Agonizing pain twisted in his heart. It would be extremely hard to see her sail away without him. He released a deep sigh and scrubbed his face. He must not falter in his determination. Thankfully, the end of the voyage was near, and although he had mixed emotions, he looked forward to seeing his homeland once more.
Heavy footsteps creaked on the deck behind him, tearing him from his dismal thoughts. He swung around to see who ventured his way. Captain Bushwell sported a full uniform, looking very commanding in his sailor’s attire.
The older man smiled. “It’s a pleasant evening, is it not?”
“Sí. The warmer climate tells me I am home.”
“The voyage has passed quicker than I expected. We’ll reach land first thing in the morning.”
“Are you still planning on sending Miss Wentworth back with me?”
“Sí. I have not changed my mind. I want to follow through with the plans we made earlier. I would feel much safer with her away from my uncle. I also need you to deliver that letter to Mr. Pinkerton.”
He nodded. “I’ll prepare for a quick departure tomorrow.”
“May I ask what will be done with Raúl? What kind of trial will he get?”
“Unfortunately, I will have to turn him over to Spain since he is one of their citizens, unless of course, they allow me to take him back to the states for the trial he deserves.”
“I want justice to prevail, but I suspect Spain will protect the traitor.”
Anton bunched his hands into fists and slammed them hard on the railing, holding back the vile words ready to spring from his mouth. “Then the sooner we get Miss Wentworth home, the better.”
Taking a calming breath, Anton feigned a smile. “Gracias. I will be forever grateful.”
Captain Bushwell leaned against the railing, took a cheroot from the inside of his jacket, and lit it. The scent from the expensively rolled leaves drifted in the air around Anton.
“Anton? How does Miss Wentworth feel about your arrangement?”
Anton drew his brows together. “Why do you ask?”
The captain kept his gaze focused on the sea. “Since her miraculous recovery, I’ve not seen a smile grace her lovely face, especially around you.” He glanced over his shoulder and met Anton’s stare. “Every time I have seen her, I get the impression she is upset.”
A sigh of defeat came from Anton. “Sí, the little vixen is not pleased with my plans. She refuses to believe how ruthless my uncle can be and believes she can be of help to me while in Spain.”
Captain Bushwell chuckled. “I’ve seen her temper a time or two on the voyage. She is certainly a stubborn woman.”
“Sí, but I would not change that for anything.” Anton smiled. “Her stubbornness defines who she is, and I admire her for that.”
“You’re going to miss her, I can tell.”
Anton’s smile quickly faded. “Again, you are correct.”
“She’ll miss you, as well.”
“No. I think she will be happy to be away from me. The few times we have talked since her accident, we have done nothing but argue.”
“Perhaps she doesn’t want to go back?”
Anton laughed. “Oh, no. She wants to return to New York, I assure you.”
“How do you know?”
“She never wanted to come with me in the first place.”
Captain Bushwell straightened and clapped his hand on Anton’s shoulder. “Anton, I must say you don’t read women very well. The way I see it, her stubborn streak intensified when she found out she was being sent back. The girl wants to stay. It’s obvious.”
The captain’s opinion bothered Anton, only because he hesitated to believe. Just thinking about the possibility that Vivian might want to stay with him sent his heart into a frenzied beat. But he quickly stopped his whirlwind of emotions. It didn’t matter what he wanted, Vivian would be safer going home.
“No, Captain. Vivian has to go. I do not know what I would do if my uncle got hold of her. He would not think twice about torturing her.”
Captain Bushwell nodded and stepped away. “I understand. But will you do me a favor before you say your last good-byes?”
“What is that?”
“I’ve known since the accident that she is not your niece. Tell the poor girl you love her. Don’t send her back with a broken heart.”
Silence filled the air as the captain walked away. Anton scratched his chin. Strange, but two people had made the same comment about this very thing. Katherine Summers had also mentioned the word love.
Did he love Vivian? Perhaps that was the gripping ache inside his chest that wouldn’t leave. How could it be so obvious to others but not to him?
Yes, he finally realized love described his feelings perfectly. It wasn’t easy to confess. His life was too complicated for love and marriage right now. He struggled with this thought as he walked back to his cabin.
If he told Vivian he loved her, would it make her happy? She’d told him once that she was falling in love with him, so could her feelings be as strong? Especially now? If she did return his love, she’d not want to go back home to New York. He couldn’t have that.
Quietly, he turned the doorknob and entered the room. Vivian wasn’t asleep as he had expected, but sitting in bed reading. Her gaze lifted for a moment when he entered, but then lowered back to the book.
He closed the door and walked to the spot on the floor where he’d slept. Without a word, he pulled off his shirt in front of her. She raised the book to block her view, and he couldn’t stop his smile from widening.
He decided not to retire to bed just yet, and left his trousers on. He dug through one of his trunks to find a book to read that would settle his turbulent thoughts, but nothing looked interesting, nothing except the beautiful woman sitting on the bed.
He gazed over her. Knees pulled to her chest, her cute toes peeked out from underneath the nightgown she wore. Her hair was just how he liked it; unbound, cascading over her shoulders in beautiful waves. Sighing deeply, he walked back to his corner of the room and plopped on the floor.
Her gaze lifted from her book again and met his stare. “What’s wrong?”
“That irritable grunt you just made sounded like something troubles your mind.”
He grinned. “All right then, there is something, but I do not think you would like to know.”
She laid the book on her lap, but kept her knees hiding her chest. “Tell me anyway.”
“The captain talked to me a few minutes ago and said that we will be docking in Spain tomorrow.”
A frown tugged at her delicate lips, turning her expression sour. “I bet that bit of information had you dancing with delight.”
“Actually, no.” He shrugged. “I will admit I am looking forward to seeing my homeland again, and yes, I cannot wait to put an end to my uncle’s tyranny, but…” He hesitated in telling her the truth.
“But I shall miss you when you leave.”
She lowered her head to her knees in contemplative silence, her arms wrapped around her legs. Patiently, he waited for her response, wondering if she’d verbally lash out at him again.
“Stop saying things you don’t mean,” she whispered.
He moved to the bed and sat beside her. “I do mean it, Vivian.” He stroked her shoulder. “I will miss you terribly.”
She sucked in a ragged breath before raising her head. Tears swimming in her eyes stabbed at his heart like a knife.
“I will miss you, too. We’ve been through a lot together these past weeks.”
“I will never forget those times.”
Her slender throat contracted into a swallow before she nodded. “I shall not forget them, either.”
He slid a lock of her hair between his fingers, but his gaze stayed on hers. “Do you want me to write your employer another letter to tell him that he needs to promote you to Class A Agent? Will that make things easier for you?”
“No. I’ll think of some way to climb to the top by myself. I only hope Margaret isn’t too vexed with me for leaving her alone. After all, you did practically kidnap me without a word to her.”
He chuckled. “Now you will admit to the attempted kidnap, eh?”
“I wish you the best fortune in this endeavor. I am positive you will become an even better detective after this.”
She gave a weak chuckle. “Thank you. But I must be honest and tell you…I was never really a detective at all. I wanted to prove to Mr. Pinkerton I could find you in hopes that he would make me an agent.”
He grinned. “I think you have proven your point.”
“Actually, I know most of the things I have done were wrong. Perhaps Mr. Pinkerton was correct to keep me working inside the office instead of being a field agent.”
“Do not sell yourself short, my dear.”
Satisfied with gazing into her eyes, he remained beside her, but the ache in his chest kept urging him to say more…to confess his love. He wouldn’t. Maybe he’d send her a letter in a few weeks and tell her his feelings, but now was not the time.
Regrettably, he dropped her silky hair and pulled away. “I better get some rest tonight. Mañana will be a busy day for both of us.”
Her mouth trembled when she nodded.
“Buenas noches, querida,” he said as he lay on his makeshift bed.
When she didn’t respond, he turned on his side, away from her. The bed creaked as she moved, and the lamplight turned very low. In the stillness, her muffled sobs floated in through the air. His heart ached for causing her pain, but he remained on the floor. Going to her now would only cause more damage, because he’d take her in his arms and comfort her with tender kisses, which he was certain would turn into more.
And in the end, he’d still send her home.
Vivian walked off the ship with her arm hooked through Anton’s like a grand lady. The rich silk of her black and white dress with balloon sleeves, made her feel like royalty. She sauntered proudly, knowing the deep cut of the bodice enhanced her gentle curves. Feeling very feminine, she lifted her bonneted head as the wind blew the few carefully-coiffed ringlets she left hang by her ears.
Through the crowded docks of Seville, Spain, she held herself erect as she glided beside the perfect looking man. She glanced at Anton and studied him closely. For somebody who wasn’t trying to be noticed, he didn’t accomplish that feat very well. He was the most handsome man she’d ever beheld, and judging from the way he turned heads, other ladies agreed with Vivian. Clean-shaven now, he produced more magnetism than she’d seen before.
Black trousers hugged his legs, outlining their muscular build. The dark fabric of his coat pulled tightly across his broad chest, and the crisp white linen of his shirt made him as regal as a prince. His hair had grown longer since before the voyage, and now fell to his collar in beautiful black waves. But this only enhanced his handsome looks and made her proud to be the woman on his arm. Unfortunately, she would lose that privilege by this afternoon.
Anton hailed a fancy carriage to take them and their trunks to the nearest inn. As Vivian sat waiting in the vehicle, she gazed out the window and admired the scenery. The land was greener than she had imagined; tall, full trees and shrubbery around almost every building. Ancient-looking structures made her gasp, and she yearned to take a stroll through each and every building, walk on every cobbled path, and lift up her skirts and race through the distant jungles that stretched for miles. Immediately, she fell in love with the old country.
The carriage shifted as Anton climbed inside, and once the door closed, the vehicle lunged forward into a steady ride. Anton looked at her and smiled, and her heart ached again with sorrow.
“Well? What do you think of my homeland?” he asked.
“It’s lovely. It’s unfortunate you won’t be able to take me on a tour. I’d really like to see more.”
He patted her gloved hands folded on her lap. “Perhaps another time.”
“If I’m ever back in Spain, I’ll call upon you,” she snapped, turning her attention out the window and remaining quiet for the short ride to the hotel.
When Anton registered them under Mr. and Mrs. Contreras, she tried not to appear shocked. After all, he had used this name on the ship. Anton was friendly to the porters who helped carry their trunks to their room, and he tipped the servants very well. One porter spoke to Anton in Spanish as the servant sneaked a peek her way. Anton chuckled and replied in his native tongue.
Vivian arched a brow. What were they talking about, and why did Anton laugh when he looked at her?
After the door closed and they were alone, Anton sighed heavily and sank against the wall. His gaze moved to her, and he smiled.
“What was that all about?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“The conversation you had with the porter.”
He grinned, making her stomach do flip-flops.
“He said that your hair resembles wheat fields at harvest time on a bright, sunny morning.”
“I suppose being in the sun, my hair is lighter than before.”
“It is. The porter also said it is a rare pleasure to see such hair color in our country.”
She shrugged. “Then he needs to get out more.”
“Here in Spain, it is rare to see a woman with lighter hair. It is a good thing you are leaving. My uncle would be able to spot you immediately, and I would definitely have to keep my eyes on you every second of the day.”
“Thank heavens I’m leaving this afternoon, then,” she mumbled.
He took a deep breath and released it slowly. He slipped off his over-coat and draped it on the back of a chair. “I think we managed to leave the ship without any problems. You definitely make a beautifully regal señorita.”
“Thank you,” she said without feeling as she yanked off her bonnet. “And as always, you turned out an excellent performance.”
She sat at the small vanity and peered into the mirror. Her lips were pulled tight, and sadness had taken the spark out of her eyes. It hurt her to know Anton insisted on sending her home, yet she wanted to lash out at him and make him feel her pain.
She yanked out the pins holding her hair in place. As each one clinked on the table, her rage intensified. Once they were all out, her hair plummeted down her back and shoulders. Her fingers plucked at the styled curls around her face, loosening them in the process.
Anton walked behind her and stopped. Meeting her gaze in the mirror, he removed his cravat, laying it on the top of the table. “Why are you straightening your hair?”
“I’m supposed to look like a boy soon, aren’t I? I’m just readying myself for the part.”
Nodding, he touched one of the curls by her ear. “When I first saw you sitting in the balcony box at the opera, I thought you were the most beautiful woman I had ever beheld.” His hand dropped to her shoulder and caressed the small amount of skin exposed around her neck. “Then, when you reappeared night after night for two weeks, I could not wait to meet you. During the scenes, I peered through the stage curtains at you. I could not get enough of your beauty.” He moved his hand and stroked her cheek. “I still cannot get enough.”
She wished he’d quit making her heart ache with his tender words. “Yes, I can tell.” She laced her words with ice. “That’s why you’re sending me to New York.”
He knelt by her side, taking her hands in his. “I am sending you home for your own safety. Believe me when I say that deep inside I really do not want to let you go, but I worry about my uncle harming you in any way. I shudder to think what kind of torture he would put you through.”
“Thank you for caring, but I think you’re using your uncle as an excuse.” She yanked her hands away and stood. Pushing past him, she marched to the window. She parted the curtains slightly and peered out on the street.
He sighed heavily and stood. “You still do not believe me?”
She shrugged. “Not about this.”
“But I suppose it does not matter now. You will be leaving later today, anyway.” He stepped up behind her and stroked her hair. “I just want you to know how much I will miss you.”
She remained silent as she fought the tears threatening to spill down her cheeks.
“Vivian, I do not understand why you are so angry. If you recall, you did not want to come with me in the first place. Now I am sending you home, and you are still not happy.”
Huffing, she spun around and faced him, crossing her arms over her chest. “Yes, I’m still not happy. I’m beginning to think this was all planned.”
He shook his head. “What do you mean?”
“I think you go around the world setting out to break women’s hearts. I think it satisfies your male pride. You planned to make me fall in love with you, didn’t you? And yet, you’re going to send me back home anyway. You don’t care about my feelings, so quit pretending like you do.”
Large, but tender hands cupped her face as a smile touched his mouth. “You…love me?”
Another wave of pain yanked at her from the softness in his chocolate gaze. “Not anymore.”
He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “When did you lose this feeling?”
“During the carriage ride from the ship. As I looked out the vehicle’s window and realized you are truly sending me away. I lost all emotion where you are concerned.”
A twitch in his lip lifted to a grin. “Ah, but querida, you cannot turn loving feelings into hate that fast.” His thumbs stroked her cheeks.
“What’s the use of loving you?” Her voice broke. “I tried, heaven knows I tried not to give my heart to you, but you purposely teased me with your sultry kisses and made me develop strong feelings for you. I’m innocent, and you know it, yet you still played out your gentle seduction. Couldn’t you tell how you affected me?”
“Vivian,” he whispered, leaning forward as he brushed his lips over her cheek. “I wanted to affect you. I wanted you to love me.” He pressed his mouth over hers, but she turned her head and broke the contact.
“Why?” A sob tore from her throat. “So you could send me home? If you wanted me to love you, why are you being so merciless? Can’t you tell I want to be with you? Can’t you see I want to help?”
Anton groaned and buried his face into the curve of her neck as his arms wound around her. Heat surged through her body, and she trembled with desire, but tears continued to come.
“Oh, Vivian, you do not know what your words are doing to my heart.” He lifted his head and gazed into her eyes. “As much as I want to keep you near me and love you like you deserve, I am still fearful my uncle will find and kill you.”
“But Anton.” Her fingers threaded through the hair on his neck as she held onto him. “You’ve guarded me so far this trip, and when I’m in your arms, I feel so protected. How can your uncle get to me when you’ve been my hero since our first meeting?”
He groaned and covered her mouth with his, silencing her words. With a sob of pleasure, she clung to him and returned his kiss with urgency. Although her mind told her to stop, she didn’t. She couldn’t. This was her last chance to show him her love.
The thudding of his heart hammered against her chest, and she realized he must have also been struggling with an intense desire he couldn’t control. She could think of nothing else, for she burned with yearning beyond description.
As he kissed the pulse of her neck, he murmured tender endearments in Spanish. Smiling, she tilted her head, enjoying the sensations running amuck through her. While listening to his deep voice, chills raced over her arms. She loved this man, and nothing would change her mind about him now. If only she could change his mind about returning her love.
The mere thought of parting from his side, and never seeing his handsome face or feeling his intoxicating touch again, caused tears to gather in her eyes once more. She tightened her arms around him and met his mouth, hoping to show him how she felt through her kiss.
How she wished he’d confess his love. But, therein lay the problem. Did he love her as much as she loved him? Dare she say it aloud again in hopes that he’d repeat those words? Yet the way he kissed her made her think he did have those feelings for her.
She would say it again, and in doing so, would elicit the same response from him. She just knew it.
She broke the kiss and gazed up into his beautiful eyes, mentally preparing the words she would say.
Smiling, he stroked her cheek. “You have made me very happy.” He kissed her nose. “And I promise, we will see each other again, after all of this is over.” He stepped back and pointed to her satchel. “But I fear the captain’s cabin boy will be here shortly. You must get in your disguise.”
Ohhh… She wanted to hit him, or scream at him, or…just cry. Perhaps telling him she loved him again wasn’t the best thing to do. Obviously, he still planned on sending her home no matter what.
“I look ridiculous,” Vivian grumbled as she stared at herself in the vanity mirror. Her hair had been pulled tight against her scalp and stuffed in a man’s sea cap. The baggy gray coat hid her womanly figure, but she still didn’t think she resembled a cabin boy. Anton finished lacing up her heavy boots, another unflattering item she had to wear to hide her identity.
He stood and smiled. “You will pass. If my uncle’s men are watching, all they will see is a small lad.”
She glanced at Captain Bushwell’s cabin boy who stood against the wall, waiting for her. “Thank you for bringing an extra set of your clothes for me,” she told him.
“How are you going to get back to the cabin?”
“I’ll sneak in the back way. The captain will be here in a moment to come walk you to the ship.”
She nodded then turned her attention to Anton. Her heart had been lodged in her throat since their kiss not too long ago. Anton hadn’t said any words of love, and he still acted as if he couldn’t wait for her to leave.
“Well, I suppose this is it,” she said in a near whisper.
His mouth dropped to a frown. “It is.”
“Will we ever see each other again?” she asked with a catch in her throat.
“I will live through this, and after it is over, I will come back to New York and find you.” He drew her into his embrace and kissed her forehead. “After all of what we have shared, do you think I will let you out of my life so easily, querida?” His voice was rough with emotion.
Her heart hammered as she clung to him. “Anton,” she said softly, tears brimming in her eyes, “you’d better not be lying to me.”
He kissed her forehead again then looked into her eyes. “I am not lying. I have never lied to you.”
“I’ll miss you,” she said, her voice breaking.
“And I will miss you.”
She rose on her tiptoes and pressed her mouth to his. Anton’s arms tightened around her, and he kissed her with great urgency. As quickly as it began, he stopped and rested his forehead against hers, his breath ragged with pent-up emotion.
“Querida,” he said breathless, “before you leave, I must tell you something.”
“It is something I have been withholding from you for a couple of weeks.”
Her heart dropped. She didn’t want to hear bad news now. Not before she left him forever. “What is it?”
He looked into her eyes and smiled. “Strange, how others have noticed the way I feel before I realized it myself, but it seems you are not the only one who has fallen in love.”
She held her breath, and her heart picked up rhythm. Tears swam in her eyes again, but for different reasons this time. Happiness filled every inch of her soul, making her want to sing—and cry at the same time. “You love me?”
He nodded. “Sí. I think I fell in love with you that very first night we met.”
“Anton.” She sobbed, and a tear trickled down her cheek. She buried her face into his chest and relished the few earth-shattering moments before they were torn apart.
“Please forgive me for not saying it sooner.” He chuckled lightly. “I, too, am very stubborn.”
She lifted her face and smiled. “I love you, Anton.”
He crushed his mouth over hers for a kiss so wonderful that it made her want to stay in his arms forever. She had almost forgotten about the other person in the room until a loud knock sounded at the door. She jumped, and Anton’s arms tightened around her.
“Who is it?” Anton called out.
“It’s Captain Bushwell.”
Anton sighed, placed another sweet kiss on her lips, and pulled away. “It is time for you to go.”
She nodded, tears slipping from her eyes again. Using the back of her hand, she wiped them away.
The cabin boy opened the door. When the captain looked at Vivian, he nodded. “Your disguise will work, but you better splash water on your face to get rid of your swollen eyes…and lips.”
Vivian hurried to the washbasin and did as she was told. When she turned back to the other men, she squared her shoulders and held herself strong. “I’m ready.”
Anton came to her and held her hands. Smooth skin rubbed against hers, causing warmth to spread through her.
“I will return for you. I promise,” he said.
She gave him a weak smile. “Now that I know how you feel, I will wait forever if I have to.”
He kissed her again, and let her go. On stiff legs, she made herself move beside the captain. As they walked out of the room, she forced herself not to look back. If she did, she’d run into Anton’s arms. Although her tears threatened to spill again, she took deep breaths to keep her emotions from showing.
“I must admit,” the captain said after about five minutes, “you could pass for my cabin boy. If you’d like to stay in disguise until we’re halfway through our voyage, I’ll let you. Just a precaution, of course.”
She chuckled and swung her attention to him. “And will you expect me to clean your room, bathe, and dress you, too?”
“No, of course not. I’m only thinking about protecting you, Miss Wentworth.”
“Thank you. I’ll definitely consider your most tempting offer.”
He scratched his chin as his gaze wandered over her in a slow inspection. “You know, if you kept your hair covered, you could go unnoticed in this country for a very long time.”
Suddenly, an idea jumped into her mind. “Indeed?”
He shrugged. “Possibly. I’m certain that if you remain wearing boy’s clothes, your identity will be well hidden, also.”
Slowly a smile spread across her lips. Whether the captain knew it or not, he’d just given her a way to stay and continue to help Anton. He might not like it at first, but after the ship sailed without her, he would have no other choice but to allow her to remain to help him.
Two heads definitely work better than one. Didn’t the detective agency teach her that?
Anton stayed in his room until the early morning hours. The sun had not yet made its debut, and this time of the day gave him a great head start on his uncle. The first thing on Anton’s agenda was to search for his nanny—his niňera. Her testimony would certainly help prove his identity.
He dressed all in black, knowing this would help him move freely through town without being noticed. In haste, he removed his clothes from the trunk and stuffed them in a small satchel with a long leather strap, perfect for carrying. If, by chance, his uncle’s men searched through this room, they would find an empty trunk.
As he made a last inspection, a garment hanging over a chair caught his eye. The cloak belonged to Vivian. Her sweet jasmine scent drifted from the material to his nose. Inhaling deeply sparked memories of their times together. Her love for him showed in every touch, every kiss, and every caress.
His heart twisted, and a knot formed in his throat. He missed her terribly, and it hadn’t even been eight hours. They hadn’t been apart this long since they’d met, and his arms ached to hold her again.
Cursing his weakened state, he folded the garment and gently placed it in his satchel on top of his clothes. First, he’d get the information needed to confirm his identity to the King of Spain, have his uncle arrested, and then sail to America to claim the woman he loved.
He smiled. And then…he’d ask her to marry him.
Instead of using the door to leave, he opened the window and climbed out. The peaceful pre-dawn morning made him hesitate, not wanting to disturb the chirping crickets or belching frogs near the seaside.
As his feet hit the ground, he stilled, listening for anything out of the ordinary. Once the early morning sounds picked up again, he crept along the shadows, glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone followed. After about a mile, he relaxed, knowing his uncle’s men had not been hiding by the hotel. And if they were, they were still there.
Cautiously, he walked along the road, watching closely so he didn’t step on anything that made a noise or kicked a rock by accident. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted an old farmer’s sombrero lying on the side of the road. He stopped, glanced both ways to see if anyone watched, then bent and picked it up. After close inspection, he dusted it and placed it on his head. This would help to shield the glare when the sun made its appearance in another hour.
As he passed an orchard, he spied fresh red apples dangling from the trees. His mouth watered and his stomach growled. He’d skipped breakfast, and the last meal he’d eaten was with Vivian.
He jumped the fence, hurried to the nearest tree, and snatched the fruit. Sinking his teeth into it, he sighed aloud while the sweet juice trickled down his chin.
It’d been a long time since he’d been fence hopping in orchards to steal food. As a boy, he and his friend would sneak away from Anton’s niňera and rob their neighbors of whatever fruits were in season. He chuckled softly from the memory and picked a few more apples for later, stuffing them into the pockets of his jacket before he continued on his way.
The farther he walked, the greener the land became. A rush of contentment overwhelmed him, and he smiled. Spain was in his blood, and no matter how far he traveled, this would always be home. From his calculations, the next town was only a few miles away. If his niňera lived in the same place he remembered, he was within hours of finding her, and his heart yearned to see her once again.
The sounds from farm animals in the pasture he passed intensified as the sun hovered in the sky, announcing its awakening. It had seemed a lifetime since he enjoyed the refreshing sounds of farm life. He observed the large barn, the owner and his two young sons wearily moving about the yard, throwing feed to the animals as they hid yawns behind their hands. They glanced at him as he passed. He acknowledged them with a wave.
It seemed strange when one of the boys kept moving his attention to something behind Anton. The little boy’s neck stretched to get a better look, and curious, Anton glanced over his shoulder in hopes of seeing what caught the boy’s interest. At first, he didn’t see anything, but soon he noticed the shadowy figure hiding behind a tree.
Anton’s gut clenched, and he balled his hands into fists. Had someone been following him since he’d left the hotel? If so, why hadn’t he noticed it before now? Prickles danced over his skin, making the hairs on the back of his neck rise in alarm.
Acting as if he didn’t see, he continued on his way, this time his ears alerted him with the different sounds. Once he passed the farm, he slowed his pace, hoping to give the stranger enough time to catch up. The loaded pistol anchored in the waistband of his trousers eased him slightly. He patted the weapon for reassurance. He’d not hesitate to kill any man that stepped in his way of reclaiming his inheritance and taking back his life.
The clump of trees to his left were the perfect place to hide, so without hesitation, he quickened his step and crept through the thicket, searching for a tree large enough to hide him. When he found one, he flattened himself against it, listened, and waited.
Leaves rustled on the ground as the light wind teased them, making it harder to detect footsteps. Even the birds’ singing gnawed at his nerves. Couldn’t they keep quiet for five minutes?
A twig snapped. Slowly, he withdrew his pistol. Unease washed over him, but he kept calm, ready to pounce at first chance. When the crunch of leaves disturbed the field, his scalp tingled with fear. The sound grew closer.
Anton held his breath until he spotted the figure not more than ten feet away. The sun glared in his eyes, not allowing him to see the person. But from what he could see, the stranger, a lad, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, crept past, darting behind one tree to the next.
Without revealing himself, Anton studied the boy. Also dressed in black, the boy’s clothes practically hung on his slender frame, his hair and face concealed by the wide-brim sombrero. Anton breathed easier knowing this mere boy would be easy to deal with. He replaced the pistol in his trousers.
Should he let the boy wander through the trees until he disappeared, or should Anton pounce on him and force some response from the lad? Anton knew that answer. He had to know why the boy followed. Did he work for Uncle Juanito?
Once the boy turned his back, Anton jumped and wrapped his arms around the slender frame like bands of steel as he pushed both of them to the ground. The moment they hit the earth, a painful high-pitched cry came from the young boy. Beneath Anton’s hands, the softly curved body became noticeable.
Quickly turning the stranger over on her back, Anton pinned her to the ground, holding the thin shoulders down.
When the sombrero rolled off her head, cascades of black hair fanned the ground. Wide eyes surrounded by dark lashes flashed at him. He sucked in a quick breath and cursed.
A sheepish grin appeared on her face. “Good morning, Anton.”
It took a full minute for it to register, and when he finally realized Vivian was really lying beneath him, his anger kindled. He rolled off and jerked up to a sitting position.
“What are you doing?” he practically yelled. “You are supposed to be on the ship.”
She gave a half-shoulder shrug as she sat next to him. “I changed my mind.”
Cursing again, he squeezed his eyes closed, quickly thinking of how he’d get her back on the ship. Impossible. The ship was probably ten hours away.
The touch of her hand on his face made him open his eyes. A soft smile graced her face as she caressed his cheek. “Aren’t you even a little bit pleased to see me?”
Try as he might, he couldn’t stop the happiness from expanding in his chest. He grinned. “I ought to be very annoyed with you for deceiving me. In fact, I may never forgive you.”
Both of her hands wound around his neck and pulled his face to hers. “But you’ll kiss me, instead, won’t you?” she asked before touching her mouth to his.
Immediately, the kiss turned wild as he pushed her back to the ground. He slid his fingers through her silky hair as he met her demanding mouth.
With a growl, he tore his mouth from hers. This was definitely not the place to become intimate. “Vivian, we cannot do this here.” He breathed in slower.
She kissed his jaw. “I missed you, too,” she said with a light laugh in her voice.
He smiled. “I really ought to reprimand you for what you did.”
“I’d rather be here with you than on the ship with the captain. I figured you needed me more than he did.”
He glanced at her hair and groaned, rubbing her locks between his fingers. “What have you done to your beautiful hair?”
“I colored it. Do you like it?”
“I prefer the other color, querida.”
“So do I, but this color doesn’t stand out. Now I won’t be spotted as an American so easily.”
He shook his head. “What am I going to do with you?”
He brushed tender kisses over her mouth. “You know I do.”
“Let me be with you.”
“You know I cannot.”
“No, you just won’t.”
“And you know why.”
“Because of your uncle.”
“But Anton, I’m safer with you. I trust you’ll not let anything happen to me.”
He nuzzled his face against her neck. “I will kill anybody who tries to hurt you.”
Her fingers played with his hair, and heated tingles shot through his body from her gentle touch.
“We make a great pair, I think,” she said.
Pulling back, he gazed into her shadowed eyes, warm with desire. “We make a wonderful pair.”
“So, can I come with you? Please?”
He chuckled. “It would be foolish of me to turn you away now.”
She laughed and kissed him again, this time keeping it tender and passionate. His body relaxed, and it satisfied him to just savor her taste, the feel of her, and those caressing fingers moving over his neck and around to cup his face.
They really shouldn’t do this here, his mind reasoned. Then again…they were alone in the group of trees, out of sight from anyone who happened to pass by and far enough away from the main road to not be noticed.
He kissed her harder, enjoying the closeness they shared, but behind him came quick footsteps, crunching in the leaves and breaking twigs along the path. Fast as lightning, he jumped to his feet. Clumsily, he withdrew his pistol, wishing Vivian’s drugging kisses hadn’t affected him so.
He aimed the revolver toward the sound and tightened his hand on the butt, praying to the Almighty it wasn’t one of his uncle’s men.
When the stranger made an appearance, confusion washed over Vivian, and she blinked. A woman stood in the sunlight, wearing a plain brown gown with her hair pulled back in a knot. Familiar eyes gazed down at Vivian, and she gasped.
The older woman’s eyes widened, but she rushed to Vivian and grabbed her arm. “You and Anton must hurry. Señor Ballì’s men are not far behind me.”
Vivian’s heart hammered to a different rhythm. Panic surged through her as she stood, embarrassment burning her cheeks. What could her mother be thinking right now? Then again, did it really matter? From what her father had told Vivian, Nora Wentworth knew a lot about passion.
Anton picked up the sombrero and stuffed it on Vivian’s head. “Tuck your hair inside,” he commanded before grabbing her elbow, leading them through the thicket of trees.
“I apologize for interrupting your…umm, private moment,” Nora stammered, “but when I recognized two of your uncle’s men, I knew I must warn you.”
Anton stopped, bringing Vivian to a jerk as she stumbled into him. She steadied herself as she held onto his arm.
He threw a glare at the older woman. “How do you know my uncle?”
“I have lived in Spain for five years. I know a lot about your uncle and his men.” She glanced behind them before meeting Vivian’s stare. “Now are you going to believe me and let me help you?”
Vivian swallowed the lump of doubt in her throat. She searched for the detective skills she’d tried to develop, and for her ability to read people, but strangely enough, they had disappeared. Perhaps she was too emotionally involved this time.
“Why should we believe you?” Anton snapped.
The thin woman stood tall, placing her hands on her hips and lifting her chin in defiance. “Because, I love my daughter—no matter what she believes—and I want to prove my devotion to her.” Her bottom lip quivered. “I want a second chance,” she whispered.
Vivian’s heart hammered, and her hands moistened. Should she allow this woman back into her heart? Yet now was not the time to argue. They needed to hide themselves from Juanito’s men.
“Fine,” Vivian said. “I will put my trust in you right now because I have no other choice.”
Nora smiled, making her blue eyes twinkle. “I know the perfect place to take you.”
“Where is that?” Vivian asked.
“To my home.” She glanced behind her again then motioned for them to follow. “Come quickly.”
Anton grasped Vivian’s hand as they hurried behind the older woman. “Gracias, Mrs. Wentworth. I will be truly in your debt if you can get us out of here in one piece.”
Not another word was spoken as Anton held onto Vivian, running through the woods, dodging the trees and bushes.
Her mind spun in a whirlwind of confusion. Was her mother truly helping them, and not leading them into a trap? After their time with Raúl, Vivian was leery of trusting anyone. Anton had taught her that nobody could be trusted.
Twelve years ago, she had believed her mother would always be there, to be the kind of mother all of the other girls had. And she trusted Nora to return and reclaim her family. The family that needed her so desperately.
As hard as it was, Vivian had to believe her mother was not working with Juanito. Yet, she confessed to living in Spain for five years. Coincidence, or had fate lent a helping hand?
Anton squeezed her fingers, and she glanced into his soft eyes. His smile warmed her heart and spread comfort throughout her body. Here was one man she could always trust. A man she would love forever.
They took a different path up a knoll, and Vivian tried to keep pace beside Anton, even while wearing men’s boots. Tonight, her muscles would scream from exertion, but she’d worry about that when it happened. Now, she had to show Anton that she could keep up since he still thought of her as a woman with tender sensibilities. Inwardly, she chuckled. She’d make him proud.
They climbed up and over, only to find a cliff, which thankfully, wasn’t very steep, but it was someplace to hide, nonetheless.
Anton stopped and looked over. “We shall hide down there.”
He jumped over the bush and into the small ravine. Vivian stopped suddenly, and glanced at him for reassurance.
“It is not far. I will catch you,” he urged and held out his hands.
She nodded then hopped over the bush and into his arms. He put her down and helped her mother into the gully.
Anton pressed himself against the wall of the earth as he withdrew his pistol and cocked it. Vivian and Nora stood beside him, waiting and listening.
Vivian shivered. Immediately, Anton’s protective arm wrapped around her shoulders and pulled her next to his hard body. She rested her face against his chest.
The wait seemed forever, of course, trying to keep quiet made the time creep by, but soon came the heavy hooves from the horses. Vivian held her breath and squeezed her eyes closed, praying the riders would look past them.
Anton’s arm tightened around her. Beside Vivian, her mother’s hand clasped her shoulder, causing Vivian to look at Nora. Wide, frightened eyes met her gaze, so she offered a tentative smile and clutched her mother’s hand.
Within minutes, the thunder of galloping horses riding away soothed Vivian’s fears. Soon, the men were gone.
Anton exhaled a heavy breath. Releasing his hold on her, he placed his pistol back in the waistband of his trousers. He looked down at her then switched his gaze to her mother. “I think we are safe. For now.”
Vivian nodded. “At least for now.”
“Yes,” Nora agreed. “But let’s not stay here any longer. I think you two will be safe at my house.”
“Where is that?” Anton asked.
Nora smiled. “Not too far from here. If we hurry, we will be there by the lunch hour, and my cook is the best around.”
Vivian scrunched her forehead; confusion working its way into her heart again. Her mother had her own servant? After a slow inspection of the other woman, Vivian’s confusion grew deeper. Why did she not look wealthy now, yet she had on the ship?
Giving a nod, Vivian allowed Nora to lead the way. The truth would soon be uncovered, and frankly, Vivian thought it was past due. After twelve years, she was ready to know.
Vivian stared wide-eyed at the three story, red brick building; the fanciest establishment she’d seen since arriving in port. Green grass surrounded the place, along with a tall black iron fence.
Nora led the way while Vivian and Anton walked side by side behind her. As they neared, women dressed in beautiful silk dresses stood on the wrap-around porch and scattered the lawn, all accompanied by a well-dressed man.
Vivian eyed each one carefully. They must have walked into some kind of soirée. But so far, nobody questioned them, or their attire, since neither she nor Anton were dressed as elegantly. However, the women called out greetings to Nora and appeared genuinely happy to see her, welcoming her back from her trip.
Nora walked up the steps to the porch to the front door, opening it as she hurried inside. As soon as Anton walked in, he grabbed Vivian’s hand, bringing her to a halt. She glanced into his eyes in silent question. His hooded expression didn’t tell her anything, just that he needed to observe the people in the room before they proceeded.
She tore her attention away from him and took in everything from the hard wooden floors, to the beautiful colorful designs painted on the walls of meadows and the sky, then to the very expensive furniture scattered around the floor. The white open lace curtains allowed the afternoon sunlight to pour through, making everything appear shiny and new.
All the people in the room were dressed in silks and satins, but it was the way they paired off that made Vivian curious. Usually at soirées people stood together in groups. So why had every woman been paired with a man? The ladies giggled as they whispered something in the men’s ear, or they cuddled next to them in an almost indecent display.
Nora started up the staircase, then stopped and turned toward Vivian and Anton, who still stood in observation.
“If you’ll follow me, I will show you to your room.”
“Forgive me, Mrs. Wentworth, but I must protest,” Anton stated loudly.
An uneasy feeling washed over Vivian. Something in the tone of his voice made her alert, and suspicious.
Nora squared her shoulders and faced them. “What is it?”
Gently, he squeezed Vivian’s hand. “Please do not think I am a simpleton, Mrs. Wentworth. Although your daughter has not been to places like these, I certainly have, and I highly doubt she will feel comfortable here.”
Pink highlighted the older woman’s cheeks, but she remained standing firm. “My apologies. I don’t think you’re a simpleton at all. I brought you here only to hide you. I don’t think your uncle will look for you here.”
Pain welled in Vivian’s chest. What were they talking about, and why was Anton so leery? Once again, she took a quick look around the hallway, then into the nearest room. The only thing out of the ordinary was the couples who cuddled up to each other in an improper fashion.
Laughter from up the stairs drew her attention. Another woman and man came into view. The man’s shirt hung open as he stuffed his shirttails into his trousers, and the woman…the woman wore the most indecent nightdress Vivian had ever seen. The very short gown exposed the woman’s bare limbs, and the deep cut in the bodice displayed most of the woman’s full bosom.
Vivian gasped as her hand flew to her mouth. Heat rushed to her cheeks, and finally pieces fit together in her mother and Anton’s conversation.
Jerking her head around to Anton, she blinked. “Is this a…whorehouse?”
His lips stayed in a thin line when he nodded. “Actually, this facility is considered a brothel since it is fancier, and the clientele are on a higher scale, as well.”
She hissed and swung her focus to her mother, still on the stairs standing proud and rigid. “How dare you!” Vivian accused.
Nora’s mouth tugged into a frown as tears glistened on her eyelashes. “Please come with me, and I will explain. We need not air our discussion in front of these people.”
Anton leaned down to Vivian’s ear. “She is right,” he whispered. “We need to go to a room posthaste. We should not give these people a reason to ask questions.”
Stiffly, Vivian nodded. “Then make it quick, because I wish to hear my mother’s explanation for this very soon before I give her a piece of my mind.”
Grabbing handfuls of her skirt, Nora lifted it to her ankles as she hurried up the stairs, Anton and Vivian close behind.
Agony wrenched from her chest and disappointment settled in her stomach. Her mother had lowered herself to this kind of life? What happened to the wealthy man she’d run away with and left her family for? Then again, Vivian’s father had mentioned passion ruled her mother. Did he know she’d been reduced to living in a brothel before he had died?
Nora led them all the way down the hall then opened a door with a key. Vivian half expected to find a man and woman on the bed. Instead, an empty room greeted her. The furnishings looked to be as expensive as the ones downstairs. Everything had been straightened and dusted. The large bed in the far corner against the wall had beautiful covers and matching pillowcases, and red scarves draped along the posts. Armoires and trunks lined the walls, and nearest to the door sat a mahogany desk with a Chippendale chair.
Obviously, her mother lived in luxury. Why would she regret leaving her poor family when she had all this?
Nora closed the door behind them and leaned against the solid oak. Silence filled the room until Anton cleared his throat and shifted in his stance, obviously uncomfortable.
“Why…why did you bring us here?” Vivian asked.
“This is the only place I could hide you.”
Vivian glanced around the room again. “Do you actually live here?”
Nora lowered her head. “Yes,” she whispered. “I actually own this house.”
Emotion clogged Vivian’s throat, and she dared not to speak, but she needed answers. The pain of betrayal cut a hole in her heart that had to be fixed.
“Well, I appreciate your help, Nora,” Vivian said with a tight voice, “but we won’t be staying long. As soon as it gets dark, we’ll be gone.”
Nora’s bottom lip trembled, but she didn’t lift her head.
Anton rubbed Vivian’s arm, and she looked up into the comfort of his gaze. He offered a soft smile. “I think you and your mother need to talk. I shall wait outside.”
She grabbed his arm. “No, don’t—”
“Not to worry, my love. I will keep a sharp eye for any of my uncle’s men. Right now, you and your mother need some privacy.”
He kissed her forehead before stepping out. Emptiness gathered in her heart from his absence as worry tried to fill the space. She really didn’t want to be alone with her mother, yet, how else would she know the reasons her mother left all those years ago?
Heaving a ragged breath, she turned and walked to the window, looking out into the yard. Green bushes and a rainbow of flowers colored the lovely landscape. Too bad appearances were so deceiving.
“I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you,” Nora said.
Vivian shrugged. “I would think you’d worry about disappointing yourself.” She looked over her shoulder at the woman. “This is not the kind of profession one is proud of.”
“Don’t you think I know this?” Nora walked closer, but stopped at the foot of the bed. “Do you honestly believe I chose this lifestyle?”
Vivian let out a short, unladylike snort. “Are you trying to tell me you were forced into it?”
Sighing heavily, Nora sank to the bed and covered her face. “No, I wasn’t forced. I just didn’t have any choice.”
“I beg to differ, Nora. Everybody has a choice.”
When Nora lifted her head, tears gathered in her eyelashes. “As a young girl, my family was very poor. My father died, and my mother had a hard time keeping the family fed. She worked as a maid for a wealthy family, but she still struggled.”
From her pocket, she withdrew a white handkerchief and wiped underneath her nose, then dabbed her eyes. “One day, the man who my mother worked for approached me. He said he knew a way I could make money. Lots of money. He said I was the perfect age.”
“How old were you?”
“He took me to a brothel, grander in fact than this one.” She swept her hand through the air. “He introduced me to the Madame, who then explained to me that because of my class, I would never make enough money—the kind to help out my family, that is. But if I worked for her, she would dress me in silks and jewels, and men would fall at my feet. I agreed. At the time, my brother was very sick, and we had no money for a doctor.”
Nora sniffed and wiped her eyes again, still keeping her gaze on the floor. “Little did I know at the time, but the man had sold me to this Madame. Once I realized what they expected of me, it was too late. I was already one of Madame Patricia’s girls.”
She waited a few minutes. Silence surrounded them, except for her sniffles. Then she lifted her head and looked directly at Vivian. “I made a living doing that for two years. I hated every minute of it, but I couldn’t leave.” She shrugged. “I didn’t know how. One day while in the marketplace, I met a man passing through town. He didn’t know about me, and I wasn’t about to divulge the truth. After that, I met him secretly for two weeks, and he proposed. I lied and told him I didn’t have a family. I also told him I worked as a maid.”
Nora took a deep breath. “So I married him and left with him that very day, back to where he lived, which was far away from the brothel. That was the happiest time of my life. I was thrilled when I had his children, and I loved my family completely.”
Tears threatened Vivian’s eyes, and she quickly blinked them away. Her throat tightened with sorrow, so she swallowed, not allowing her emotions to take over. Turning, she leaned against the wall and folded her arms across her chest. “Then why did you leave us?”
“My world came to an end when one of my former customers recognized me with your father. The man walked up to us on the street and asked where I’d been all these years. He asked if I was now giving my favors to your father. I tried to cover it up with lies, but your father’s curiosity got the better of him, and he sought answers. It nearly killed me to have your father look at me with accusing eyes. He was ashamed of me. He told me I didn’t deserve to be his wife and the mother of his children, so he ordered me to leave.”
Vivian’s heart slammed in her chest, and she bolted away from the wall. “What?” At her sides, she fisted her hands. “You’re telling me Father instructed you to leave your own children?” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Nora, but that’s hard to believe. What father would do that to his children?”
Sobs took over Nora, and she cried into her handkerchief. “It’s the truth,” she muttered. “I never wanted to leave you.” She lifted her head and met Vivian’s eyes again. “In fact, I wouldn’t leave, but your father became very forceful, and his words crushed my heart. He was right. Because of what I’d done, I wasn’t good enough to be a mother to my children.”
Vivian’s head throbbed as confusion filled her. Who should she believe? Then again, her mother’s story did sound plausible. Vivian never understood why her mother had chosen to leave the family and run off with a wealthy man. And her father had been very angry with his wife. Hearing her mother’s story, it started to make sense. Even her father’s words had meaning. No wonder he’d referred to her mother as a whore.
Vivian covered her ears and closed her eyes. Tears built up behind her eyelids, but she refused to shed them. Pain burst in her chest, crumbling her defenses and making her heart ache even more. She wanted to rush to her mother and have her hold her like she used to a long time ago. She wanted to return to yesteryear before her mother left…before Vivian’s life had been ripped apart.
“I’ll give you some time to think,” Nora said. “I need to make certain our lunch is prepared anyway.”
Soft footsteps padded toward the door, and it wasn’t until the door shut that Vivian allowed the tears to come forth. She fell on the bed and cried her heart out.
Suddenly two strong hands lifted her and pressed her against the solid chest of a man. She breathed in Anton’s scent of spice and wrapped her arms around his waist. Together they lay on the bed. He stroked her hair as she sobbed into his shirt. His soothing strokes calmed her, and soon she felt as weak as a newborn lamb.
Heaviness weighed her eyes, and she let sleep consume her.
The soft woman in Anton’s arms moved against him, bringing him awake and very alert. He pulled back enough to look at Vivian’s face. Her eyelids lazily fluttered open as she met his stare. Thankfully, the puffiness had disappeared from her tears last night. Poor girl had been through so much, and holding her was the only way he could think to comfort.
She smiled and snuggled closer. “Morning.”
“Good morning, querida.” He kissed her forehead. “How do you feel today?”
It took only a few moments before her memory returned because soon her gaze clouded over with hurt and anger. She glanced around the room and her smile turned into a scowl. “Where are we?” She pushed away and sat up on her elbows. “We are still in my mother’s room?”
“Where is my mo—um, Nora?”
“She slept in another room.”
Vivian cringed, and then quickly hopped off the bed. Swiping her hands up and down her arms, she shivered. “I can’t believe I slept in her bed, knowing she’s done…those things on this very mattress.”
Anton rolled to the side of the bed then stood. He stretched his cramped arms and legs before walking toward Vivian. “Querida, let me tell you something I am certain you do not understand about brothels.” When he reached her, he cupped her chin, and her eyes met with his.
“Your mother is a Madame, which means she does not sleep with men for money any longer.”
Vivian’s forehead creased. “Are you certain?”
He shrugged and pulled away. “From what I have seen from other brothels, that is the way it works. By the time a woman makes it to Madame, she does not need to make a living in this way. This is now her business, and she runs it like an owner of an establishment would. Most women I have met who are like your mother are very professional.”
Vivian grumbled, turned away, and stormed to the window. “It doesn’t matter how professional my mother is. The fact remains, she’s still a whore.”
Anton released a heavy sigh. Vivian hurt inside, and he knew not how to help. It was understandable she would be so upset over the news of her mother’s profession. He only hoped Vivian would soon soften her heart and find room to forgive.
He had known several whores in the past few years, and they lived a very hard life. Women did not choose this, they were forced into it. If only he could help Vivian see this. But, now was not the time, and he couldn’t push. Her wounds were still too fresh.
Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he stepped to the small washbasin on the oak drawers. Water had been added to the pitcher, probably when they were still asleep, so he poured a generous amount in the basin and splashed the cool liquid on his face. Washing his hair was important, but that might have to be put off for a while. He needed a bath, but that too, would have to wait, at least until after he talked with Nora about their room and board.
He didn’t know how staying at a brothel could be that safe. True, most men who came here were not looking for people on the run—Juanito’s men or not—so Anton might be safe for a few days or even a week. Either way, he’d keep a sharp eye on the men who frequented the brothel.
As he scrubbed his hands over his two-day old beard, he looked in the mirror. Time to change appearances, again. While they stayed at the brothel, he couldn’t wear his fancy clothes or dress like he wanted. Instead, looking like a peasant might work better. So, as much as Vivian loved his clean-shave the other day, he would have to grow out his beard and have the scruffy look.
He glanced over his shoulder at her. She would have to change, too. He didn’t want her in a boy’s disguise nor did he want her dressing like a whore and having men think she’d give them her favors. That might cause a brawl, with Anton doing the punching. She would have to be a peasant just as he would.
It was better that way. They’d both be able to get out of the house and walk around in peace, as long as he made certain his uncle’s men did not spot them. Didn’t need others to become curious, either.
In a couple of days, he had to search out his niňera, Lucinda. Now that he knew Juanito’s men were looking for him, he had to stay low and out of sight. Anton prayed they didn’t find Lucinda first. Then again, not many people knew about her.
Soft hands touched his back and caressed up to his shoulders. Smiling, he turned and looked at Vivian. Sadness still marred her beauty, which made his heart wrench.
“Anton? I would rather not speak to my mother right now, but I fear my stomach is eating a hole through my backbone. Would you be so kind as to get us some breakfast?”
He cupped her face and kissed her sweet lips briefly. “Sí, my love. I, too, find myself very hungry. I will wander downstairs to the kitchen to see what I can throw together.”
Her eyes widened. “You are going to make breakfast?”
“Sí. I am not afraid of cooking.”
She cuddled her face against his hand. “You continue to amaze me.”
“Good. I hope I will never stop.”
As he made his way downstairs toward the kitchen, the house remained quiet. As it should be since everyone would be sleeping off their wild nights of spirits and passion. Not too long ago, he’d been one of these men who’d visited brothels much too often. Never again. Now he wanted more out of life. He wanted Vivian to be his wife and bear their children. He wanted to share their lives together. Forever.
He entered the kitchen to the heavenly aroma of scones and eggs. Nora stood by the oven stirring a spoon in a pan. Her shoulders slumped, and the wilted expression on her face tore at his heart. Because he’d known whores and he’d seen the way they lived, he could sympathize with them. If only Vivian would forgive her mother and mend the ties.
But it wasn’t up to him. Although he wanted nothing more than to take the pain away, Vivian had to deal with this on her own.
The floor squeaked, and Nora swung around, her eyes wide. Then she relaxed and smiled.
“Good morning. Are you and Vivian hungry?”
“That is why I am here.”
“Let me prepare your plates. I’m afraid my cook has come down with a cold, so I’m helping her.”
“No, Mrs. Wentworth. You do not have to wait on me.”
“Anton,” she said as her smile disappeared, “please call me Nora. I haven’t been called Mrs. Wentworth since…” Her eyes misted with tears. “For quite some time.”
“As you wish.”
She fixed the plates of food. Silence only lasted a few minutes then she cleared her throat. “Did you and Vivian sleep well last night?”
“Sí. Your hospitality has been most generous.”
She turned with two plates in her hands. “I’m grateful you think so, although my daughter may have a different opinion.”
Nora handed him the plates, then shrugged. “I’m very happy you let me talk with her, though. Now she knows the truth.”
“I am very sorry for what happened. I know Vivian was hurt terribly, and I pray she forgives you soon. I know what it is like to carry a grudge for a long time. My mother did that with my father, and it kept them apart for almost fifteen years.”
She smiled and touched his arm. “You are good for my daughter. I can tell she loves you very much.”
His heart melted. “I love your daughter with all my heart. I will try to make her happy.”
“You will.” She nodded.
“Nora, we will need clothes for our new disguises. Both Vivian and I will need to dress as servants. Can you get these clothes for us?”
“Yes. I’ll get them right away.”
“Feel free to take a walk around the estate. It is very secluded, and there’s a pond out back a ways. I must say it’s very lovely.”
He nodded, then turned and carried the plates of food back to the room.
Neither he nor Vivian said anything while they ate, but through her tender smiles and twinkling eyes, he knew she loved him. Before they had finished eating, Nora brought up their clothes. Vivian stared at her plate, refusing to even look at her mother, so Anton thanked the other woman and closed the door as she left.
He’d have to take Vivian with him to find his niňera. Juanito knew Anton was close. Soon it would be a battle of wits between them, and Anton prayed he would turn out the winner.
Without exchanging words, they both dressed in their new disguises. Vivian used combs from her mother’s vanity table to fix her hair. He shook his head. Vivian was definitely not supposed to be a servant. She was too graceful, and had the natural beauty that spoke of a higher position for her. She’d look well on his arm as his wife.
As he finished buttoning his shirt, his gaze fell on the cupboard where the washbasin sat, and next to it, a bar of soap. He needed a bath, as did Vivian, but he didn’t want to stay in this room another minute. Taking a walk would do them both good.
Suddenly, he recalled when Nora mentioned the secluded pond out back. He grinned. Perfect!
Vivian’s worried voice had him swinging his gaze to her. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, her head tilted as she looked at him through narrowed eyes.
“What is on your mind, Anton?”
“What do you mean?”
“You have a grin stretching across your mouth, which tells me something is cooking in that brain of yours that’s not good.”
He swaggered to her and gathered her in his arms. “And why would it not be good? What if I tell you it is indeed, very good?”
She toyed with the top button of his shirt. “Well, don’t keep me in suspense. Tell me what it is.”
He shook his head. “I’ll do one better.”
He stepped back and took her hand, pulling her toward the door. As he passed the basin, he grabbed the bar of soap. She didn’t ask what he had in mind, but followed him down the hallway, down the stairs, and outside. It was his goal to take Vivian’s mind off her mother, and he’d do anything to accomplish that.
After Anton took them to the watering hole and allowed Vivian to bathe while he gave her some privacy—and she returned the favor for him—he walked with her hand in hand through the glade of trees. Being with him like this filled her with love, and she realized she wanted this always and forever.
“What shall we do now?” she asked.
“I want to find mí niňera.” He squeezed her hand. “I know my uncle’s men are watching for me, but I will not let them take me—or you. I will protect you.”
The darkness of his gaze and softness of his expression told her he was telling the truth. “I believe you.”
His brows crossed in confusion. “You do? When did that change?”
She bumped her arm against his. “I’ve been utterly foolish since meeting you, and I’m regretting not trusting you from the start. Anton, you’ve never lied to me, and I see that now. Actually, I’ve known for a while, but my stubbornness argued with my heart.”
He nodded, bent his head, and kissed her lips briefly. “My heart grows warm from your words. I have never lied to you, and I never will.”
“So tell me, do you have a title, like Your Grace or King?”
He laughed loudly. “No. You may call me Anton. Besides, I enjoy hearing my Christian name roll from your lips. It has always been like music to my ears.”
“That’s because I say it with love.”
He stopped them, took her in his arms and covered her mouth for a wonderful, passionate kiss, but soon he pulled away and continued on their walk.
“Tell me about your nanny,” she encouraged.
When he talked about the older woman, he held so much emotion in his voice. Vivian could feel the love he had for the older woman. Regret for not having a mother figure in her own life stabbed at her heart again.
How long had she waited for her mother to return when she was a child? She’d lost count. Day after day, week after week, and then months blended together, but the heartache never disappeared. Her father had never remarried, and now Vivian wondered why. Could he have longed for his wayward wife as she had longed for her mother?
Life wasn’t fair. How could her mother have been a whore…who still worked as a whore? Yet, from what she’d seen so far, her mother did still love her. Why else would Nora try to protect her and Anton?
“I do not think mí niňera will remember me.”
Anton’s voice brought her out of dark and confusing thoughts. She glanced at him. His smile had disappeared.
“It has been many years since we have seen each other,” he finished.
Vivian patted his arm. “We shall make her remember. Do you resemble your mother or your father?”
“Most people say I take after mí padre, but mí madre told me once I have a lot of her traits.”
“Then I’m quite certain your nanny will remember. From the stories you’ve told, it sounds like the two of you had been very close. I’m certain she hasn’t forgotten.”
His jaw hardened. “I pray my uncle has not found her first. If he knew…” He took a deep breath. “She may be dead.”
Her heart knocked against her chest. She prayed for the nanny’s safety, too. “How much farther?”
“We are nearly there. I think perhaps another ten minutes at the most.” He glanced down at her feet. “Why? Are you tired of walking?”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll be fine as long as I’m by your side.”
He grinned and winked. “You still think I am your protector?”
“No, I don’t think. I know.”
Anton’s niňera was within miles…unless she moved residence since he’d seen her last. The small town where he’d been raised as a young boy hadn’t changed much. The church stood erect, but definitely needed a good painting. The haciendas were as rickety as he remembered—perhaps even more now. And the cantina was still packed.
Many people looked at him and Vivian as they walked through the street, but nobody acknowledged with a wave or nod of greeting. This was their way. They had always kept to themselves. Besides that, he didn’t want to draw any undue attention.
He turned down a side street, Vivian followed close beside him. Although he wanted to hold her hand to openly proclaim his love, everybody needed to see them as servants…to keep suspicion away.
From up the street, a small adobe hacienda grabbed his attention. The familiar fence, the same shutters, and the crooked windows made his chest swell.
Home. When his mother took them from Italy and returned to Spain to live, they stayed here.
Several children played a game in front of the house, laughing as they ran after each other. Memories tugged at his heart. Life had been good while he and his madre lived here. At times it had been better to be poor than after they moved back with his padre and had all the money they could ever hope for.
When Anton reached the gate, the children stopped. He smiled. “Does Lucinda still live here?” he asked in Spanish.
A few of the children exchanged glances, then met his gaze again.
He breathed a deep sigh. Thank the good Lord. “May I speak with her?”
A boy, who looked to be the oldest, stepped forward. “Who are you?”
“I am a friend of Lucinda’s. She used to be my niňera.”
All the children’s eyes grew wide. One little girl gasped. This was not the reaction Anton had expected.
The boy stepped closer. “What is your name?”
Gasps circled the group of children, and some lost coloring in their face.
Anton gulped as ice ran through his veins. Obviously, his uncle had visited his niňera first. “Is she here? It is most important I speak with her.”
“She does not want to talk to you,” snapped a girl who couldn’t have been much younger than the boy.
Anton scrunched his forehead. “What do you mean? She was my niňera. I loved her like a mother.”
The boy turned to the children and whispered something, then they scattered, running in all directions. Anton’s heart clenched. Something was not right.
He cleared his throat. “May I see her, please? It is most important.”
The boy shook his head. “You are not wanted here.”
Anger surged through Anton. It wasn’t in his nature to throttle a child, but he was most tempted to turn this one over his knee and show him some manners. Squaring his shoulders, Anton walked to the gate and opened it. “Forgive me, but I insist on speaking with an adult.”
The boy ran to him and yanked on his jacket. “Please, Señor Romero,” he whispered in broken English. “If she talks to you, she will die.”
Beside Anton, Vivian sucked in a quick breath. Anton’s heart hammered. “Why will she die?”
“Because that mean man will kill her.”
Anton didn’t need to ask whom the child spoke of. This had Uncle Juanito’s signature all over it. Squatting to the boy’s level, Anton lowered his voice. “Is that man watching now?”
“No, but he knows everything.”
Anton nodded. “What if you give Lucinda a message for me? Tell her I need to speak with her. Tell her I will return after dark and go to the back door.”
Tears welled in the boy’s eyes. “Will that man kill her?”
Anton tousled the boy’s hair as he stood. “No. I will not let her die. I promise.”
A weak smile crossed the lad’s mouth. “Then I will tell her what you said.”
Giving the boy a nod, Anton turned and walked away from the hacienda with Vivian by his side.
Vivian tugged on his sleeve. “Do you think Lucinda is safe?”
“For those eyes watching, we will leave town, but after dark we will sneak back. I will not let my uncle’s men touch her,” he ground out. “That kind, selfless woman has done nothing but befriend me and my mother, and treat us like family.”
He glanced at Vivian, whose expression twisted as pain touched her face while she kept her eyes on the road.
“What worries you?” Anton asked.
Vivian blinked and shook her head, turning her attention to Anton. “Nothing.”
“I’m worried about all of this. What if Juanito has taken everything? What if you cannot prove your identity?”
“I have the ring, remember?”
“Yes, but…what if the King of Spain wants more?”
“I know not what will happen. All I know is I must stop my uncle.”
“I’ll never forget the fear in that boy’s eyes,” Vivian whispered.
Anton’s heart wrenched. He stopped and turned toward Vivian. “Sí, Juanito is very powerful. If you fear for your life, then perhaps it is best I leave you with your mother and come back to meet Lucinda by myself.”
Vivian clung to his arm. “Don’t say such things. We will be stronger if we stay together. One person alone cannot fight your uncle.”
Pain weighed on his chest, but he smiled through the confusion. He wanted to be strong for her. But he also feared for his life, which in turn put hers in danger as well.
He lifted his hand to stroke her cheek, but remembering their disguise, he dropped his hand by his side. “Vivian, you are a very stubborn woman. But we are in danger. If you remain by my side, there is that chance—”
“Shhh…” She stepped closer. “I will not leave you, Anton. Wherever you go, I shall follow. You protect me, and I shall protect you.”
His heart warmed. The urge to take her in his arms and kiss those sweet lips was strong, but he fought it. They couldn’t be seen embracing. Juanito would certainly see through her disguise. “Come. Let us leave and return after dark. Perhaps we can compile a plan in the meantime.”
Vivian walked close beside him, her arm occasionally bumping into his. He missed breathing in her exhilarating scent of jasmine and burying his face in the tender curve of her neck. Holding her made him feel like a man. It completed him. He’d move heaven and earth if he must, but his uncle would not harm a hair on her body.
They walked back to the brothel to wait. He really didn’t want to take her with him, mainly because he worried Lucinda wouldn’t want to see him if someone she didn’t know came along. He couldn’t take that chance. She was his only hope right now. He needed her badly.
The brothel had not yet started the evening ritual, and Vivian didn’t want to be anywhere near the whores or their guests when that happened. Anton was out back by the fence repairing something her mother had asked him to do, which gave Vivian a lot of time on her hands.
Still upset about Nora’s way of life, Vivian didn’t want to talk to any of the painted ladies, but when she walked into the kitchen, a few sat at the servant’s table chatting. One jumped up and motioned to the chair.
“You may sit here if you wish.”
Vivian nodded and sat. One of the women placed a plate of steak and potatoes in front of her. The other women in the room stared at her, so Vivian proceeded to eat, hoping they’d look elsewhere. Vivian didn’t like that they peered at her as if she’d grown two heads.
The whore across from her leaned back in her chair and folded her arms over her ample bosom. Although the gown she wore displayed a lot of skin at her neck and chest, at least the red silk material covered more than what Vivian had seen last night when they first entered the brothel. The color of her dress matched her fiery hair perfectly.
“Miss Vivian, I hope you don’t mind me saying, I’m very happy to finally meet Nora’s daughter. Your mother has spoken of you quite a bit.”
Vivian had lifted a bite of her potatoes to her mouth, but paused as she glanced at the woman. “She has?”
“Oh, yes.” The brunette who had offered her chair earlier, sat beside the redhead and nudged her friend’s elbow. “Nancy here has known Nora longer than the rest of us. But even I have heard your mother speak of you.”
Bile rose in Vivian’s throat, but she shoved the potatoes in her mouth and forced herself to eat, nonetheless.
“Did you know she had an investigator keep track of you for many years?” Nancy asked.
When Vivian swallowed, the potatoes almost stuck. “Yes. Nora mentioned that.”
“She wanted to know everything you and your brother were doing, how you were growing up, and what you looked like. Whenever mail arrived from the investigator, it brightened her day.”
The brunette reached across the table and touched Vivian’s hand. “She loves you and your brother very much, and missed you greatly.”
Irritation stiffened Vivian’s spine, and she arched an eyebrow. “Well, she had a poor way of showing her affection. Both of her children never knew what happened to her, except that she’d left them to live with a wealthy man.”
Both whores gasped. Even the cook whirled from the stove with her hand covering her mouth.
“Oh, dearie,” the cook said, her double-chins wobbling as she shook her head. “You couldn’t be more wrong. Your mother loved you unconditionally, and wanted to show her children how much she missed them, but her husband—your father—wouldn’t allow it.”
Suddenly the food wasn’t appealing any longer, and Vivian pushed the plate away. “Yes, my mother told me he was ashamed of her…er, career choice, and rightly so. What decent man would want a whore for a wife?”
Pink covered the faces of the women across the table as sadness coated their expression. The cook huffed and shook her head.
“But she wasn’t a whore then, Miss Vivian. She had changed herself and wanted a new life. She married a caring man and had two wonderful children. Changing our life is one thing all of us whores want.”
Pain gripped Vivian’s chest and made her head throb. She scooted her chair out and stood. “I appreciate your words, but I have had many years of hatred built up in me. I cannot change how I feel.” She straightened. “If you’ll excuse me, I must leave. I have a terrible headache.”
Thankfully, the other women didn’t try and stop her. She marched out of the kitchen, hurried through the parlor, and darted up the stairs before anyone could see the tears building in her eyes. She refused to cry, although confusion swam in her head, making her want to believe that her mother had cared for her all of these years.
She walked into the room and closed the door behind her. Emotion clogged her throat as tears continued to prick her eyes. She sat at the vanity and looked at herself in the mirror. For so many years, she’d carried the guilt that her mother left because of something she may have done as a child. Then, when Vivian met Anton and realized she had the passion her father hated her mother for, it left a sour taste in her mouth as fear gnawed at her gut. She didn’t want to become like her mother.
Of course, back then she hadn’t fully understood what her mother had become. All this time, could it have been her father who was in the wrong? Nora loved her children enough to have an investigator follow them throughout their years of growing up. Apparently, Nora had wanted her family after all.
Vivian groaned and pressed her palms against her forehead, praying the confused pain in her skull would leave. She hated feeling this way.
The squeak from the door opening pulled her attention to her visitor. Nora walked in and stopped when she saw Vivian.
“I need to get something.” She pointed to her armoire.
“Of course. After all, this is your room.”
Her mother smiled, even while pain still etched in her eyes. Vivian’s heart tugged with confusion again, squeezing her chest tighter.
“I declare if Polly’s head wasn’t attached, the poor girl would lose that, too.” Nora shuffled through her shoes. “I don’t understand how that girl can misplace so many things in one day.” She pulled out a red pair of satin button up booted heels. “It’s a good thing we have the same size feet.”
She smiled at Vivian, and then turned to leave, but Vivian reached a hand out and grabbed her arm. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Certainly, my dearest.”
“Do you know what Matthew did when he was sixteen that put him out of commission for a few months?”
Nora stared at Vivian for the longest time in silence, her eyes filling with tears. She nodded. “He broke his arm when he fell out of the tree. Apparently, he’d been watching a girl in her bedroom window like a Peeping Tom and was discovered when he accidentally fell out, breaking his arm in the process.”
“Do you know what happened when I turned eighteen?”
Keeping her smile, Nora stepped closer. She shifted the shoes under one arm as she stroked Vivian’s cheek with her fingers. “You were offered a teaching position at the school once you graduated, but you turned it down to take care of your sickly father.”
A dam of tears leaked through Vivian’s eyes, those she’d wanted to keep hidden. Her lips trembled when she nodded. “You…you really kept track of us?”
The shoes dropped from her mother’s arms when she gathered Vivian against her bosom. Nora stroked her daughter’s hair with a loving hand.
“Every day of your lives. Since your father wouldn’t let me near, I needed to know how you fared. I missed you so much—” A sob stopped her words.
Years of anguish and unhappiness poured from Vivian as she clung to her mother and cried. How she wanted to erase the past and have her mother in her life every day, but it was impossible. For now, she must savor the moment and cherish it.
“Please forgive me, my darling daughter.” Nora kissed Vivian’s head. “I wanted to be with my children, but couldn’t. Your father knew how to rip my heart out and punish me for lying to him, but I knew my children suffered along with me.”
“We did.” Vivian raised her head and looked at her mother through a teary vision. “Every day you were gone.”
“But I’m here now.” She smiled with trembling lips, as she wiped the tears from Vivian’s cheeks. “I want to be here from this day forward. I want to be your mother…if you’ll allow me.”
“Oh, Mother.” Vivian cried harder and hugged her, burying her face in her mother’s bosom.
Vivian didn’t even realize her mother moved them to the bed until she laid on soft pillows as a blanket was thrown over her. Her mother gathered her in her embrace again and held her until Vivian fell asleep.
Anton slowed the horse Nora had given him as he neared the sleeping town he and Vivian had visited earlier that day. He prayed there would be a good excuse not to take Vivian with him this time, because he didn’t want to upset Lucinda or have her worried. Thankfully, when he checked on Vivian, she was resting peacefully. Nora had told him they’d talked, and Vivian forgave her, which made his heart light.
Now, if everything would work out perfect with Lucinda, his future might be getting better, as well.
Clouds covered the moon and didn’t give him much light as he crept back to Lucinda’s hacienda. Every few feet he stopped and surveyed the area, keeping a sharp eye out for his uncle or the ruthless men who worked for him. A small wind blew against his face, slightly cooling his heated cheeks. Trying to keep hidden was more work than he’d anticipated.
Finally, he made it to the yard, then through the gate. He stopped again and listened. In the distance, the gentle strum of a guitar and familiar folk song from one of the neighboring homes drifted through the air, bringing back the reminder of his lost years as a boy…years that had been filled with joy and love. Although his padre loved him, the love was stronger with Lucinda’s familia.
Through the kitchen window, a low burning lantern sat on the table. Resting his hand on the doorknob, he took a deep breath and prayed all would go his way. He turned the handle and the door clicked open. With his heart beating in a fierce rhythm, he stepped inside. A cinnamon scent wafted through the air and shook his memory. He grinned. She had made his favorite sticky buns.
“Niňera? Lucinda? Are you there?” he spoke in Spanish.
The rustle of material came from the far corner of the darkened hallway, and he sucked in his breath. From the shadows formed a figure of a round, short woman, waddling closer.
“Lucinda? Is that you?”
“Stand by the light,” the familiar voice commanded.
Anton smiled as tears stung his eyes. With a chest tight with emotion, he kept his stance straight as he walked to the table to stand next to the lantern.
From the quiet room came her gasp. Through the semi-darkness he saw her hand fly to her throat. “Anton.”
Tears of joy filled his eyes. “Lucinda? Please do not deny my presence. I need you now.”
The older woman took another step closer, still not quite into the light. Her hands twisted against her middle as she shook her head. “It is very dangerous, my boy. Men want to kill you, and they will kill me if I say I know you.”
“It is Juanito, the half-brother of my father. He is trying to claim Padre Island. I cannot allow him to do this. The inheritance is mine, not his.”
“He is a powerful man.”
“Sí, but he must be stopped. And I am the only man who can stop him.”
“Impossible,” she grumbled.
“No, Lucinda. All I need is to take my father’s ring and my certificate of birth to the King of Spain and prove my identity.”
“Juanito Ballí plans on stopping you.”
“I will not allow him this privilege.”
She stepped closer, the light barely touching her face. Wrinkles he had never seen before creased the older woman’s skin around her sad eyes and frown. Pain tugged at his heart.
“I believe you,” she whispered.
“Tell no one of our meeting. I have what Juanito wants, and I will not relent.”
Her hand moved up to swipe under her moist eyes. “May the Good Lord be with you, then.”
He walked to the door and stopped before opening it. “Lucinda?” He looked over his shoulder at the woman who was as close to him as his mother. “How did Juanito find you when he never knew about you before?”
“I do not know. But he has ways. He sent one of his men to warn me—a slender, young, handsome man that did not appear dangerous when I first talked with him. He was charming when he showed me your picture and asked questions about your past. I told him I was your niňera. He looked surprised at first, then he became angry. That was when he threatened me.”
Confusion swept over Anton and he shook his head. “There was only one man?”
“Very strange. I thought my uncle sent all of his henchmen to do his dirty deeds. How long ago did this happen?”
“Just the other day.”
He nodded. “My uncle knows I am here. Nonetheless, I will keep a cautious eye out for a man of this description.” He opened the door.
He met Lucinda’s gaze.
“Please be careful.”
A knot of emotion caught in his throat and made it hard to swallow. “I will.”
As he rode back to the brothel, his mind kept going over what she had told him. Things just didn’t add up. So far, all the men he had run across who worked for his uncle had all been large, powerful and middle aged. True, they’d all been charming, but the physical description Lucinda gave him just didn’t fit. Slender? Handsome? And younger?
Putting his confusion aside, he kicked his heels into the horse’s belly, pushing the animal faster. Apparently, his uncle was one step ahead of him. Anton couldn’t have that.
As he rounded a hill, a bright orange flaming light appeared above the trees surrounding Nora’s brothel. Smoke hung in the air. His heart dropped, causing his whole body to shake, but he pushed the horse faster. Screams and crying absorbed his ears as the whores and the servants rushed from the water well to the house, throwing water upon the flames. Most of the fire was out, thank heavens, but he couldn’t breathe—and the thick smoke had nothing to do with it.
He jumped off his horse and ran to the nearest whore. “Nancy? Where is Nora? Where is Vivian?”
She wiped her tear-stained face and pointed toward the tree. Leaning against it was Nora while the cook tended to her wounds. He rushed to her and knelt by her side. Both eyes had been bruised and swollen, and her lip cut and bleeding. The cook wrapped a bandage around her dainty wrist.
“Nora, what happened?”
The older woman cried and shook her head. “I tried to stop them, but they wouldn’t believe me.”
He knelt beside her and grasped her shoulders. “Where is Vivian?” he demanded in a stronger voice.
Nausea rose to his throat, all the while his heart ripped apart. “They? Do you mean my uncle’s men?”
The older woman nodded and cried louder. “They were too strong for me. I couldn’t stop them.” She lifted her hand and held a folded piece of paper. “This is for you.”
With shaky fingers, Anton unfolded the letter and held it up to the light still coming from the fire. What would his uncle do to Vivian? All the letter said was they had Vivian. In order to get her back, Anton needed to come for her—and bring what his uncle wanted.
Invisible pain stabbed Anton’s chest, bending him over. He clutched the paper to his mouth, holding back the cries straining in his throat as tears stung his eyes. His uncle would use her as bait…and he’d kill her once he received what he was after.
The ring. It had to be. Juanito’s men had been after it on the ship, and they wanted it now. It was the only way his uncle could claim the island.
In today’s market, the price of Padre Island would be great. Juanito would live a life of luxury forever. The island was Anton’s rightful inheritance, and he should keep it for his sons and their sons. But was it worth risking and maybe losing the only woman he’d ever loved? He couldn’t hand over his ring, yet he couldn’t let Juanito torture Vivian, either.
Rocking back on his heels, he reached into his shirt and withdrew the ring hanging on a gold chain around his neck. His heart ached, and he closed his fingers around the jewelry in a tight fist. Curse his uncle for making him choose. Curse his father for not stopping Juanito years ago. And curse Anton’s tender heart for loving Vivian more than life itself.
Wiping the moisture under his eyes, he stood and took a deep breath. Whoever took Vivian couldn’t be that far ahead of him. Anton knew where they would go. Padre Island.
But, it was a two day trip to sail from Spain to the island. His uncle may do terrible things to Vivian during that time. Anton couldn’t allow that to happen. He must get to the ship before it sailed.
“Nora, I will get her back. I promise.”
He jumped to his feet and dashed toward the horse, his heart beat harder with each step. He wouldn’t have just let Juanito’s men take Vivian without a fight.
The dark night enveloped him as he rode toward the main town. Shops had closed. People were nowhere in sight. Juanito planned this kidnapping perfectly and knew when Anton would be gone.
As he rode toward the docks, he searched for signs of his uncle’s men. Heartache twisted in his chest from the thought that Vivian’s body may be lying somewhere, undiscovered. He couldn’t think this way. His uncle would use her as leverage. And until Anton handed the ring over, Vivian would be safe.
The clouds moved away from the moon, helping him see the road better. But, something out of the ordinary captured his attention. A cloth hung on the limb of a tree, and flapped in the breeze. He slowed his steed, snatched the white fabric, and rubbed it between his finger and thumb. Felt like part of a woman’s shift. He lifted it to his nose and took in a deep breath. The faint hint of jasmine hung on the cloth.
He smiled. Vivian. She must have ripped this off and left it for him as a clue. He’d have to remember to tell her she thought like a great detective in helping him to find her.
Along the path, she’d left other small objects for him to notice. The tie from her bonnet, and closer to the docks, he found her bootlace. That’s my girl.
Anton urged the horse faster. He’d find his uncle and personally tear the man’s heart out. Juanito had killed too many people, and it was time his power came to a stop.
The pink tint on the horizon let him know the sun would make its appearance soon. Anton must sneak on his uncle’s ship before that happened. After he had Vivian safe in his arms, then and only then would he put a stop to his uncle’s tyranny.
Amongst the ships docked, Anton recognized the one that had been following them during their travels to Spain…the same ship Raúl had tried to take Vivian on.
Anton ducked behind a crate. Peering through the slats of wood, he noticed a group of men standing near the gangplank. All dressed in the expensive clothing his uncle insisted his men wear, and all drinking out of their own bottle of whiskey.
Anton gritted his teeth. None had a care in the world. They were all protected by Juanito’s powerful hand.
One man clapped another on the shoulder, and then walked onto the ship. When the other man turned and looked toward town, Anton sucked in his breath. Dios Mio! By all that was holy, what was Anton’s manservant, Pedro, doing with Juanito’s men?
Bile rose in Anton’s throat, his heart breaking into tiny pieces. Betrayal’s ugly claws wrapped around him and squeezed tightly.
Pedro was the traitor.
No wonder Anton’s uncle had been one step behind him the whole time…because Pedro knew what Anton was doing. He fisted his hands and brought them to his pounding head, closing his eyes. How long had his so-called friend been in Juanito’s employ? Anton’s stomach lurched, and he clenched his jaw. Had Pedro been lying to him all this time?
Breathing slowly in through his nose and out his mouth, he tried to calm his anger, but the more he thought about Pedro’s treachery, the more upset he became. He must use this frustration and let it guide him on the ship. His anger would be his weapon—along with his pistol.
Within minutes, all the men who’d been gathered by the gangplank walked onto the ship. Anton crept in the shadows until he reached the water. Immersed in the cool liquid, he swam toward the ship. Every few strokes, he stopped, looked, and strained to listen for any sign of being discovered. His uncle would know Anton would do all he could to save Vivian, which meant Juanito would be ready for when Anton made his move.
This only meant he needed to be more cautious.
He reached the ship and held to the side as he listened for signs of alarm. Nothing. Although his heart told him to hurry, his mind told him to be careful. Juanito wanted to win—no matter whose lives were taken.
Vivian’s head pounded so hard it threatened to split her skull apart. What in the blazes happened? Since it hurt too much to open her eyes, she tried lifting her hand to her face, but found it useless. Somehow, her limbs had become heavy weights.
Through the intense pain throbbing through every inch of her body, she struggled to see. A familiar scent hung in the air and tickled her nose, but she couldn’t remember what it could be. Her body rested upon something soft, but for the life of her, she didn’t recall her mother’s bed being this uncomfortable.
Then her memory cleared, and she remembered being hit over the head. Three men forced her out of the brothel while two others beat her mother. Before they left, they set fire to her mother’s place. Through her groggy state, she still remembered to leave scraps of clothing along the way for Anton to see. She had no doubt he would find her.
The movement of her surroundings rolled like waves…just like it did when she sailed with Anton. Her stomach lurched, and she peeled her eyes open. They were on a ship! How long had they been sailing?
The bright light straining her blurred vision made her squint. She mouthed Anton’s name, but her voice only croaked. Cotton dryness lodged in her throat, and she swallowed. “Anton?”
A deep, unfamiliar, eerie chuckle came from within the room. She shivered. Blinking, she tried to focus and get her bearings. The light from the lamp fell on the man sitting in front of her only a few feet away. He had dark skin like Anton’s, but this man’s formal attire was far different than she had seen before.
He sat as regal as any prince. Ribbons and gold metals draped across the dark suit covering his broad chest. His arm rested on the table next to him as he drummed his fingers on the hard wood. Diamonds from his rings glittered in the light.
“Who…” She swallowed again. “Who are you?” She tried to move her hands, but the rope tied around her wrists burned her skin. She tested her feet, and they too were bound. “Why am I tied?”
He chuckled again, and the evil sound grated on her nerves. She grimaced and her stomach rolled.
“Pretty señorita. It is obvious why Antonio has taken a liking to you. Not only are you very beautiful, but you have a wild spirit most men would love to tame.”
She clenched her jaw. This must be Anton’s dominant uncle. He even dressed fancier than the King of England, for heaven’s sake. “Who are you and what did you do with Anton?”
He leaned forward, his face coming into view. She sucked in a breath. He did resemble Anton quite a bit. He had the same dark, wavy hair, except the older man had streaks of silver near his ears. But he had the same strong jaw covered with a trimmed goatee that enhanced his powerful appearance. It wouldn’t be hard at all to prove Anton was related.
Confidence built inside her. Juanito couldn’t prove Anton was illegitimate, especially if the all-and-mighty uncle didn’t have Anton’s ring. That could be why Juanito had kidnapped her. Perhaps he wanted to make a trade. Her heart sank. No matter what happened, Anton couldn’t do that. He had to prove his identity first.
“Who am I?” he asked. Leaning back, he linked his fingers across his stomach. “I may be your worst terror if you do not cooperate with me.”
He narrowed his eyes on her, and chills ran up her spine. “What do you want?” She tried not to let her voice waver or her body shake. But, inside her stomach her nerves rolled quicker than the waves outside the ship.
A low chuckle rumbled through his chest as he shook his head. “For now, I only require your company. Eventually, Antonio will come to rescue you…and I will allow it. But in the end, he will give me what I desire most.”
If she ever needed investigator skills, it was right now. She had to get out of this—or talk Juanito into letting her go.
She glared. “I take it you don’t know the man I know. Anton doesn’t care about me. He will go about his business now that I am out of the way.”
He arched a brow. “Indeed? Then why did he risk his own life to save yours on several occasions?”
“Where have you learned this, may I ask? Because you have been given false information.”
“Oh, I think not, my dear. I am well informed in matters that are important to me.”
Inwardly, she cursed. How could she sway him? Obviously, she couldn’t. But she couldn’t give up, either.
She let out a heavy sigh. “Believe what you want, then. I just thought to let you know your effort in kidnapping me was a waste.”
Chuckling, he stood and walked closer to her. She withdrew as much as she could into the mattress, but it would not hide her from his touch. When he stroked her cheek, bile rose to her throat.
“Ah, Señorita. The things I do are not a waste of time, just as I trust the men in my employ. It might come as a shock to you, but Anton’s manservant, Pedro, was not whom he appeared to be.”
She gasped, her chest clenching.
“That is correct, my dear. This is how I know Antonio’s feelings. Even if he does not come for you, I will make use out of you one way or another.” His gaze slid down her neck to her bosom.
“Over my dead body.” She jerked away from his evil touch and glared at him, her heart breaking with the startling news. Pedro? A traitor?
“No, my dear woman. I will kill you after I tire of you.” He grinned. “For now I will enjoy your company and the attributes the good Lord has given to you. I enjoy toying with women before I please them.”
She lifted her chin. “I’m quite certain you’ll be a great disappointment.”
His gaze narrowed, and his hand balled into a fist. He raised it to hit her, and she cringed, but he never followed through with the threat.
“I will get that ring one way or another. Before the month is over, I will be rightful heir to Padre Island. Mark my words, Señorita.”
He stormed out the room, slamming the door behind him. Tears stung her eyes, and she buried her head in the dirty mattress. Silently she prayed Anton would come for her, but as each minute turned into hours, her hope deflated.
Lying on her back, she stared at the shadowed ceiling as the waves slapped against the side of the ship. Tears didn’t come any longer, and probably wouldn’t for a while. Her heart still ached from Pedro’s deceit, and for the pain Anton would experience when he discovered the horrid news.
Soft footsteps stopped at the door. The knob turned and the door cracked open. A head peeked in and out quickly. Then came back—as did the rest of the body. Her heart leapt to life. Even in the shadows, she could see it was Anton.
“Anton,” she cried out as she struggled to sit up.
After closing the door, he rushed to her and took her in his arms.
“I…I can’t believe…you’re actually here,” she sobbed.
“Shhh, my love,” he whispered. “I do not know how or why, but thankfully, nobody knows I am here.” He fumbled with the ropes at her wrists.
“Anton, your uncle expects you will come. He might even know you’re here.”
“Then we must leave quickly.”
When the ropes came free, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Thank you for coming.”
He smiled. “I love you, Vivian. My life will not be complete unless you are in it.”
Tears came to her eyes, and she nodded, too choked up to say anything.
He released her to untie her feet, and then he pulled her off the bed. “We must hurry. I know you do not like the water, but that is our only way of escaping. We will have to swim to shore.”
She sniffed. “I’ll do it because you’re with me.”
At the door, he stopped. Pulling it open slowly, he poked his head out just as he’d done before he entered. He looked back at her and nodded. “I think we can go.”
Taking careful steps, she followed Anton, keeping her hand in his. They made it halfway down the hall before loud footsteps pounded on the floor, growing louder by the second. Anton mumbled something under his breath, then pulled her back into the storage room she’d been held prisoner in and closed the door softly.
“What are we going to do?” she asked.
He glanced around the room before his gaze rested on her. He cupped her face in his large hands. “My love, we must stay here a bit longer. Go lie on the bed and pretend to be tied up. I will hide behind one of the barrels.”
The footsteps grew louder, the beat of her heart hammered in a faster rhythm. She nodded and hurried to the bed, gathering the ropes to hide them before curling in the same position Juanito had left her.
Anton blew her a kiss before he ducked behind a barrel. She breathed slower, trying to steady her breath. She couldn’t let their unknown visitor know something was amiss…unless Juanito already knew Anton was here.
Anton kept himself still as he peeked between two barrels. Panic surged through him, and he tried to regulate his quick breathing.
His fearsome uncle entered, his large frame filling the doorway. Juantio’s gaze moved from Vivian and slowly scanned the room. Anton held his breath, silently praying his uncle would not see him.
When Juanito shut the door and walked toward Vivian, Anton curled his fingers around the butt of his pistol. If Juanito laid one finger on her…
“My pretty Señorita,” Juanito said as he neared her bed. “I must admit I am very disappointed in your lover. For reasons I cannot explain, he has not come to rescue you, and so you must sail with us to the island and wait for him there.”
Vivian lifted her chin in defiance. “Did I not tell you he wouldn’t come?”
Juanito chuckled and folded his arms across his middle. “Oh, my nephew will come, but we must sail as soon as possible, and so cannot wait for him to arrive.”
She shook her head. “It’s a wasted effort, I tell you. The island means more to him than I do.”
He pulled the chair away from the small table, closer to her bed and sat. Leaning forward, he linked his fingers across his knees. “I would have thought that, as well, but Pedro has been telling me very interesting facts about the nephew I never really knew. It is hard to believe he has a weakness for a certain little Señorita.”
“I still don’t understand,” she said. “Why can you and Anton not work out a bargain so you both can share the island?”
He shook his head. “That will not work. You see, the island has secrets even Antonio does not know about.”
Anton narrowed his eyes and strained to hear his uncle’s every word. Secrets? Very interesting.
“Indeed?” Vivian tilted her head. “And what might those secrets be?”
Juanito’s smile widened. “In the mid fifteen hundreds, a ship wrecked just off the island. The ship carried a treasure that was buried somewhere on the land. Many years later, gold pieces were found on the shoreline, which led the people to believe the rest of the gold may be nearby. But nobody has been able to find the Spanish treasure.”
“So tell me, Señor Ballí, what makes you think you can find it now?”
He leaned back in his chair and stroked his goatee. “The map to the Spanish treasure is on the ring.”
Anton’s lips twitched into a grin. An old wives’ tale. His padre used to tell him that story many times at night. Nobody believed it. Not anymore. Yet somehow Juanito believed in it and was desperate to find his treasure.
The fool. And to think he would kill for this.
Vivian chuckled as she squirmed on the bed, keeping her hands behind her back and feet underneath her. With any luck, Juanito wouldn’t notice she was untied.
“Señor Ballí, you are very humorous. There’s no way that map can be on that ring. I have seen the ring, and there’s no place for a map.”
Juanito arched an eyebrow. “Have you inspected it closely with a spyglass? I assure you, the map is there. Do you think I would go through all this for nothing?”
Anton had to admit his uncle would not do all of this without a reason. Perhaps Juanito knew something he didn’t.
“So are we sailing now?” she asked.
“Sí. I gave my crew the orders before coming to see you.”
“And now we wait?”
He laughed. “We wait, but we shall entertain ourselves during this time.” He scooted closer to Vivian. “And you can be assured I will pleasure you beyond your imagination.”
Vivian fell back into the mattress, her eyes wide with fright. When Juanito took a lock of her hair, she whimpered. Anger consumed Anton and he tightened his hand around the pistol. Dios be with me.
Swift and sure of his movements, Anton darted around the barrels without making any noise. Vivian’s sobs rose higher, which ignited his temper. Juanito had his back toward him, and Anton raised the butt of the gun as he neared, focusing on his uncle’s dark head.
Juanito’s large hands cupped Vivian’s head. “You, my dearest, will be mine. I will erase Antonio from your memory.”
She glanced over his uncle’s shoulder and met Anton’s gaze. Suddenly, her expression hardened, and she yanked her arms from behind her and pushed them against Juanito’s chest. He gave a sharp inhale mere seconds before Anton brought the pistol down against his skull.
The older man jerked around and met Anton’s gaze. Confusion and pain marked his creased forehead as he stood and stumbled toward him. Juanito blinked then steadied himself. He touched the blood oozing down the back of his head and looked at his stained fingers. He snickered.
Vivian scrambled off the bed and dashed around Anton, clutching his shirt as she stood behind him. He kept his aim on Juanito who was still laughing.
“My wayward nephew finally makes an appearance. And to think I had given up hope of your chivalry.”
“If I have to kill you in cold blood, I will,” Anton sneered. “I will not let you harm another person as long as I live.”
Juanito stumbled a few steps backward before regaining his stance. “Ah…famous last words, Antonio? You should know me better than that, dear boy.”
Anton glared at him. “I am not the boy you remember, but a man who has vowed to stop you—no matter what it takes.”
“You underestimate me.”
“And you underestimate me.” Anton squared his shoulders and stepped closer to his uncle. “I swear on the grave of mi padre, I will kill you. I will not let people on my island live in fear any longer. I will not allow you have control over my island.”
“You cannot win.” Juanito touched his fingers to his head again as more blood poured from his wound. “I have men out there who I have trained to fill my shoes.”
“They are lacking one thing, dear uncle. They are not the rightful heirs. Only I can hand over that privilege, and that is something I will not do.”
Juanito’s expression hardened, his lips curling in a sneer. “You have crossed paths with the wrong person.” Suddenly, he jumped at Anton and knocked the pistol from his hands.
Anton fell to the floor, his uncle landing on top of him. Strong fingers wrapped around his throat and threatened to choke him. Pain shot through Anton’s head from the sudden lack of air. He pulled at his uncle’s fingers while kicking his legs. The older man was stronger than he appeared, and for a moment, Anton panicked.
His lungs burned, his head throbbed, but he continued to fight. Using all of his strength, he rolled them both over until he lay on top. Anton fisted his hand and slammed it into his uncle’s face, which broke the hold Juanito had on his throat.
In one swift movement, Juanito reached into his boot and pulled out a knife. The blade swung very close to Anton’s neck, and he grabbed the weapon to hold it away.
Vivian screamed and crawled across the floor.
“Vivian…the pistol,” Anton bit out.
She scrambled to her feet, holding the loaded weapon as she aimed it to Juanito. “Stop, or I’ll shoot!”
His uncle bared his teeth in an evil grin. “Not until I kill you first,” he growled at Anton.
Juanito pushed the knife closer to Anton’s throat. His hands shook as he struggled to keep the blade from slicing his skin…or plunging into his flesh.
Vivian pointed the pistol at Juanito’s head. Anton jerked back just as the weapon fired. The wind from the bullet whooshed through the air as it passed near his face and lodged into his uncle’s head. His uncle’s body jerked then stilled as his hands dropped to his side, knocking over the lantern. Breaking glass echoed in the room. As quick as lightning, fire spread on the floor and up the wall.
Anton swore and jumped to his feet. Vivian stood shaking as she stared at the dead man on the floor.
“I…I cannot believe I killed…” A tear slid from her eye when she finally met Anton’s gaze. “He was going to kill you. I couldn’t let him do that.”
“Oh, my darling.” He pulled her trembling body into his arms and kissed her head. “You did the right thing.”
The fire was moving fast toward the barrels of gunpowder. He grabbed Vivian’s hand. “We must leave. Now!”
He led the out the door and up the hallway. Voices shouted on the deck and footsteps quickened. Anton’s heartbeat hammered quickly. They must not get caught.
Without another thought, he dashed into the nearest room, remembering it had a window. “Vivian, we need to go out that window.”
He met her wide, frightened eyes.
“We will have to jump out the window into the water. I know you fear water, but we must do this. I will not let anything happen to you.”
She nodded. “I trust you.”
Using his elbow, he slammed it into the glass until it shattered. He slipped off his jacket and blanketed the edge of the window.
“You go first. I will be right behind you.”
Vivian’s body shook as he lifted her to the window and pushed her through. He crawled up and hefted himself out and plunged into the water. Vivian had surfaced already, but as soon as he grabbed her hand, he pulled her close.
“Take a deep breath. The gunpowder is going to explode at any moment. We need to be under water. Do not let go of my hand.”
She nodded and sucked in a big gulp of air along with him. He held her tight and took them under the water, diving as deep as he could go. Within seconds, the blast from the ship knocked into them, breaking their hands apart.
Swinging his arms about, he searched for her, his chest burning with the lack of air. When he bumped into her, he grabbed her again and pushed them away from the explosion. He swam to the top, and when they surfaced, each breathed in a lungful of air.
Vivian threw her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. “Oh, Anton. I thought…I thought…”
“I know.” He kissed the side of her head. “Nothing will ever tear us apart again.”
He maneuvered them in the water to look at the burning ship. A great weight had been released from his chest, yet he mourned the loss of everyone who had suffered.
“Do…do you think they all died?”
“No. I am certain some lived.”
He wrapped his arm around her waist and swam back to the shore. As he neared the sand, a body struggled to crawl on land, his body burned, his ragged clothes charred from the fire.
Anton’s chest clenched. Pedro.
Keeping Vivian’s hand in his, he moved to his friend, turning him over on the sand. Weak eyes laced with pain met Anton’s gaze, and when his amigo recognized him, tears filled Pedro’s eyes.
“I—I did not want to,” Pedro rasped. “Juanito threatened to kill my family. Do you understand?”
A tear slipped down Pedro’s face and tugged at Anton’s heart. A knot tightened in his throat as his own eyes misted over. “Sí, mi amigo.”
“I am…sorry. I did not want to hurt you. I love you.”
Anton gulped back a sob as a tear leaked from his eye. Emotion choked his throat and kept him from saying anything.
“Anton…please forgive me?”
Swallowing hard, Anton nodded and touched his friend’s hand. “I forgive you.”
The corners of Pedro’s lips lifted as his eyes drifted shut. His chest stopped moving, and his body lay still.
Vivian sobbed and clung to Anton’s arm. Tears slipped freely down his cheeks now as he mourned. He leaned over and kissed his friend’s forehead. No more would Pedro be in pain.
Vivian snuggled next to Anton as they sat on the hillside and watched the burning ship sink into the water. Her limbs hurt from everything she had endured, but her heart ached more. Poor Pedro. Poor Anton. The Lord may look down on her for this, but happiness burst inside her that Juanito was dead. Pedro shouldn’t have had to choose between his best friend and his family. And Anton shouldn’t have had to choose between his island and her.
She looked at Anton, whose gaze stayed on the ship. A frown marred his handsome face and lines creased his forehead. As she reached up and swiped the wet lock of hair away from his eyes, he met her gaze.
“What are you thinking?”
He managed a small smile. “I am very relieved this is all over.”
“Me, too.” Her mother’s beaten face snapped Vivian out of her relief, and she clutched Anton’s hands. “My mother. We have to see if she is all right.”
“She is.” He cupped her face and placed a brief kiss on her lips. “She was being cared for by the cook when I left to find you.”
Relief surged through her again, and she smiled. “Thanks, Anton.”
“I am happy to know you have forgiven her.”
She nodded. “Me, too. I will have a mother again. I hope my brother, Matthew, feels the same.”
“It will be a shock to him, I am certain, but if his heart is as loving as yours, he will forgive her, too.”
She leaned up and kissed his lips.
“So, what are you going to do now?” Anton asked.
She pulled back and cocked her head. “You don’t know?”
“I’m going to accompany you to your island, silly.”
His smile widened. “You are?”
“What about your dream of becoming a Pinkerton agent?”
She flipped her hand through the air. “That’s nothing. I never knew adventure until I met you.”
He laughed and cuddled her closer. She slipped her arms around his waist and rested her head on his chest.
“I suppose you can come home with me,” he said.
“Sí. But I am afraid you will have to do something for me before we can travel.”
She lifted her head and looked at him. His chocolate, Spanish eyes twinkled along with his smile.
“What is it that I need to do?” She grinned.
“You must become my wife.”
Her heart melted, and she relaxed in his arms again. “Ah…marriage. Can you handle that?”
He laughed and kissed her forehead. “Keeping up with Vivian Wentworth will be worth every moment.”
“Our marriage will be the best adventure of all.”
He tilted her face up and brushed his lips across hers. “One I look forward to with every breath I take.”
As she kissed him, her heart filled with love. Should she tell him how many children she wanted…or wait until later? And what about the treasure? Then again, she’d already found her heart’s treasure. Being Anton’s wife would certainly be an adventure, but she looked forward to every moment.
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Ladies' man Anton Romero is smitten with Vivian Wentworth from the very beginning. He wants nothing more than to get to know the stiff Miss Wentworth—and perhaps make her relax so she’s not so uptight—until he learns she's investigating him for a crime he didn't commit. Innocent and naïve, Vivian is convinced that Anton is the outlaw her superiors have painted him. But her over-zealous determination puts both of them in danger and he is forced to play the honorable rogue. Sweeping her away to Padre Island off the coast of Spain seemed like a clever idea at the time. But how can he protect them both from his uncle's murderous games when Anton's heart falls victim to a woman as full of independence as she is desire.