the Sequel to Secret Harbor
Is bad blood a myth, or is Alex really the devil incarnate?
Rum heiress Honore Blanchard vows Alex Duchamp de Chastaigne will never get his hands on her family’s business. When she works at the quay dressed as a young man, he shows up to pry. The bastard grandson of a Martinique shipping patriarch, he’s haunted by his father’s sins of seduction, thievery and murder. After years with a French privateer, he’s returned, a wealthy captain. He’ll stop at nothing to succeed, but he’d rather get his hands on Honore.
Scroll down further to read an excerpt from Rhum Bay.
Copyright © 2016 by Andrea K. Stein
Excerpt: CHAPTER ONE
December 12, 1778
St. Pierre Waterfront, Martinique
Honore Blanchard leaned against an old barrel on the sandy shore and squinted at a heavy ledger balanced on top. She'd kicked off the boots borrowed from her cousin Gerard and dug her bare toes into the sand. His old muslin shirt and well-worn trousers finished off her disguise. She'd wound her long, dark curls tight to the top of her head and shoved them beneath a slouchy hat.
Her family's three ships bobbed at anchor out beyond St. Pierre harbor, the deeper water a dark blue with white foam-tipped waves rippling in the channel. Soon the shore boats would come to collect the barrels of sugar, molasses, and rum for the long trip to their warehouse in France.
There wasn't much time to ensure the barrels were truly full and that the count was exact. The refinery manager in France had sent a letter complaining of mysterious shortages. She meant to see if the shortages occurred at the warehouse in St. Pierre, or somewhere along the voyage to France. She wanted to be certain of her suspicions before she confided her worries to her father.
Honore leaned back and rolled the stiffness out of her neck. When she lifted her head toward the sun to enjoy the morning sea breeze, a shadow fell across her face. A very tall shadow.
"Bonjour, Monsieur," the tall one said.
"Bonjour," Honore parroted back, pitching her voice as low as possible. She swung back to her counting task and bent her head to the ledger. She hoped the stranger, whose face remained in the shade of his wide-brimmed hat, would take the hint and move on.
"Are you employed at the Blanchard warehouse?" he asked.
She nodded and then bent back to her work, hoping he'd take the hint. Better to finish soon and get out of the late morning sun. Sweat already dripped beneath the thick binding flattening her breasts.
"I'm curious about what they send to France," he said, and bent low in an obvious ploy to capture her attention.
Damn the stupid man. She'd never get the count right if he kept interrupting.
She slammed down the lid on the last barrel she'd checked and straightened to face him squarely. "I'm sorry. I am employed by the Blanchard family, but I'm very busy. I have to finish the count on the barrels before we release the shipment to be loaded aboard our, that is, the Blanchard ships." She pointed to the merchant barques at anchor near the channel. She tried to inject a husky, arrogant tone into her voice to keep him from asking further questions.
"Let me help you," he said, leaning easily against one of the barrels. "Then I could buy you a drink later in exchange for some information about the Blanchard warehouse."
Two loud alarms went off in Honore's head. The first was a consequence of the sun shifting on its ascent to a high noon zenith. The midday glare now revealed the stranger's face. His eyes were deep-set, dark, and dangerous-looking. The rest of his long, lanky figure reminded her of the scarecrows Cook put in the garden to ward off the birds.
His shoulder-length hair was mussed and wind-blown, suggesting he did not worry overmuch about outward appearances. But his black, neatly trimmed beard said otherwise. And then, unfortunately, there were those lips. Sensual, beckoning lips. They were out of place in that forbidding face.
She wondered why he was trying to pry Blanchard family business details from someone he assumed was a warehouse worker. She didn't have time to deal with an interloper, but she wanted to know why he asked so many questions.
"All right," she said. "I'll have that drink, but I don't know what I can tell you about the Blanchards. I work for the man who runs their warehouse." Pausing for a moment, she remembered with a start what two men would do upon meeting. She stared at his large, tanned hands with slender, ink-stained fingers and then sneaked a glance at her own pale, delicate hands, similarly stained with dark blotches. She extended her hand and said, "I am Gerard Loupe, and you are?"
"Alexandre Duchamp de Chastaigne," he said, "but, please, call me Alex."
"All right, Alex," she said, "you can start at the far end of the line of barrels, and I will finish from here. We should be done in half the time, no?"
"Of course," he said, and walked toward the far end. Halfway there, he turned with a puzzled look on his face. "Tell me again what we're looking for?"
"It's simple. I need a count of how many barrels are here, and if each one is full. You'll have to pull off the lid to see, and then reseal each barrel." At the question still lingering on his face, she gave a cautious, half explanation. "We want to make sure our customers are receiving full barrels." She hefted the ledger again and said, "Let me know if they're full as you go, and I'll make a note."
"I can remember and fill in the numbers at the end," he said. "We'll finish faster that way."
His answer annoyed her, but she decided to trust him after he gifted her with a blazing smile, the first she'd seen from the serious young man since they'd begun their strange encounter.
Alex had counted on single-mindedness to get him through his search for some weakness in the Blanchards' shipping business. Unfortunately, the young warehouse worker he'd hoped to bribe for information was more difficult to crack than he'd hoped. The lad seemed unusually loyal to the Blanchards and hesitant to talk about his employers. Alex suspected the islander was holding something back. Once he filled him with drink, the young man would reveal all.
He was determined to consolidate and own all Martinique rum shipping by spring. He picked through his recollections of the Blanchard family and thought the name, Gerard, was familiar. But then Gerard was a common name among French families in the islands.
The clerk seemed a bit pallid and weak to be a warehouse employee, but perhaps he normally did only accounting. The Blanchard warehouse venture was large enough. He might not have to help with heavy lifting.
After Alex sped through the barrel counting and inspection, he trotted back up the shore. The young man still leaned over the heavy ledger while he wrote down numbers.
In less than an hour, they'd finished the task and were headed toward the closest tavern. A set of narrow, unsteady wooden steps led up to the harbor district where shore entertainments for sailors were offered. When they'd started toward the steps, the young clerk pulled his floppy hat down low over his face and turned away. What was he trying to hide?
When Alex motioned for the lad to precede him up the steps and followed close after, the mystery of young Gerard became apparent. No young man had ever filled trousers like that. A sweet rounded rump with a slight flare at the hips gave her away. And Alex would be damned if he'd ever seen a swab from one of his ships sway his hips that way. She'd fooled him when walking on the flat, sandy shore, but the farce had been too hard to maintain on the steep steps.
He smiled for the second time that day. Alex now was certain of the identity of the clerk — the only beautiful young woman who would work as a clerk for the family had to be Honore Blanchard, Jean Blanchard's fiery daughter. Jean, a former pirate, was the founder of the family rum business.
Alex hadn't enjoyed this much excitement since leaving the Carolinas. He would take as much time and as much rum as necessary to extract all the delicious secrets of the beautiful young woman disguised as a man.
Honore had climbed only three or four steps when she realized her mistake. She sensed a subtle change in the breathing of the man behind her. Even without turning to look at his face, she could feel the shift in his demeanor. Damn her idiocy. Giving the stranger a clear view of her backside had turned into a disaster. It was nigh well impossible to duplicate a man's gait when ascending stairs.
She had a long stretch of climbing to come up with a plan. Should she bluff or throw herself at his mercy and admit her deception? A good bluff, she finally decided, was the best way to go. If he confronted her with the failure of her disguise, she would deny everything and insist they continue with their original plan. Nothing more than a drink and a discussion about the Blanchard family business. And for her part, she planned to find out as much about the mysterious Alex as he hoped to steal from her.
Finally, they reached the street level and made their way to a nearbytavern. She pulled her hat down even more tightly and kept her face hidden. Alex was quiet, but insisted on opening the door to the establishment for her to enter first. He knew. Of course he knew.
Inside, the crowded room was blessedly dark and cool. He put a light hand on her elbow and steered her to a secluded corner table. When they sat across from each other, he stared intently for a minute and, in a move so fast she didn't have time to react, he pushed back the brim of her hat and stared into her eyes for a breathless moment.
Neither of them spoke. When the bar wench came to their table, he ordered. After the woman left, he turned back and stared again, his gaze steady.
She broke away from his intense regard and peered out through the bars at the window, adjusting to the sun's glare. When she turned back, she asked, "What would you like to know about the warehouse?"
"Whatever you can tell me. How much raw sugar do they ship out of the islands? And how much rum?"
"Why do you want to know?" she asked.
The woman came back with a heavy metal jug of watered rum balanced on a tray with two cups. She placed the items on the table and bustled back to other customers.
"You do not need to know why," he said. "You must reveal everything you know about the Blanchard family business."
"And why would I tell you?"
"I think you will tell all, because if you don't, I will announce to everyone in this lowly tavern you are a woman pretending to be a man in borrowed clothing, Honore Blanchard."
"You wouldn't," she said. Her voice betrayed her with a childish squeak, and her stomach crawled up into her chest before dropping back down with a thud.
"Why wouldn't I?"
"What do you want to know?" Honore snapped, and cursed her earlier failed assessment. There was nothing remotely attractive about this foul scarecrow.
"Everything," he insisted.
She made a frantic search of her brain for something harmless to reveal to the obnoxious man so he would leave her alone and go back to whatever level of hell he belonged. Mon Dieu. He expected her to betray her family. If only she had a weapon.
Her temper spiraled toward the point she dreaded. The point where she'd lose all control and fly into a rage. Her family had faced the brunt of her tantrums over the years, but only her father had been able to soothe her back into calm. He would laugh, take her out sailing, and say she'd inherited his own frightening tendencies.
"I'm waiting," Alex said, his voice and demeanor exuding infinite patience and arrogance. He leaned across the table, close to her face. "Shall I enlighten these rough sailors as to your real name?" He tipped back in his chair, a smirk on his face. That was an enormous error in judgment.
He opened his mouth again, probably to threaten her, when she stood with the heavy pitcher and slammed it against the side of his head. Rum slewed onto the floor along with Alex who cracked the other side of his head against the wall on the way down.
Honore fled the tavern through a rickety back door hanging from its hinges. She leapt over a fence enclosing the tiny back kitchen garden and raced down the steps to the shore as if the devil himself were at her heels. She didn't look back.