18th century St. Pierre harbor on Martinique
- In 1759, a French Caribbean widow risks her sugar plantation, her children's futures, and her heart to save a smuggler's crew.
- (Historical romance, 325 pages; 68,000 words)
- First Place, Romance, Pikes Peak Writers Fiction Contest, 2012
1759 – Guadeloupe Archipelago
Sand oozed between her toes as Marie Galante walked down to the cove, the gnarled limbs of dwarf trees snatching at her thin muslin shift. Cross gusts of wind either flattened her flimsy nightdress against her calves or billowed the garment above her knees.
In spite of the clear pink and turquoise dawn, despair swallowed her like fog rolling over the island from the sea. She’d endured hurt and loneliness in her marriage for over twenty years, but the final betrayal still had taken her by surprise.
She gained a small, secluded crescent of sand sheltered by the headland and peeled her gown up over her head. She tucked it beneath a bush before diving beneath the foam on the waves. Pure pleasure swept over her with the saltwater.
Beyond the drop-off, Marie circled her arms and kicked her feet to tread water. The morning sunlight revealed exotic gold striped fish and coral several fathoms into the depths below. The prism of the cool, blue-green water showed her arms and legs as pale, distorted appendages. She hung suspended for a moment to gauge the pull of the tide and then swam out beyond the point.
When her husband fell dead at her feet of a seizure the week before, his last words were: “I’m sorry, Marie.” She’d assumed he referred to his unfaithfulness. A few days later, even that minor comfort eluded her.
Their advocat told her the man had gambled away her family plantation in a card game. Now Marie was the only one who could save their home for her children.
ean Blanchard raised a spyglass to his eye and squinted at a creature knifing through the water out from the headland. A dolphin? No, couldn’t be. Not the right shape. Wait. As the animal rolled a bit, the unmistakable curve of a breast broke above the surface. After a sharp intake of breath, he forced himself back to the business at hand.
He reluctantly shifted his line of sight to a crowd of workers gathered in front of the main house on the island. Jean lowered the glass for a moment to rub at the stubble of beard on his jaw. Merde, but the hair on his face grew as fast as the sea weeds in the cove. Was it just the night before he had taken a razor to the stubborn growth?
He raised the glass again and noted the number of workers had grown to surround the light pink, two-story house. All of the white shutters swung open to the morning breeze, with sun glinting off the red-tiled roof. The compact planter’s home sat atop a bluff that overhung the ocean below. Jean couldn’t resist swinging the spyglass back toward the headland where the mysterious woman had appeared. No sign of her now.
Jean gave the wheel a gentle turn with one hand to maneuver his ship into a shallow cove on the leeward side of the island. He wove his way in through a narrow cut in the reef and eyed the hand signals of one of his men. The smuggler crewman lay flat on the bow and pointed toward the depths revealed in the morning sun. Jean gave the order to strike the mainsail and let the ship’s momentum head them into the wind.
“This is as good a place as any. Throw out the lead line and wait for five fathoms before you drop anchor,” he said. This would be a quick and easy run. How hard could it be to overwhelm a few plantation workers and take the island’s old healer? He ignored a twinge of guilt and reminded himself he was out of options.
“I don’t like the feel of this.” His first mate, Francois, frowned and took the glass from him. “One of her people could go to the garrison at Guadeloupe and alert the English.”
“By the time the soldiers get here, we’ll have her back.”
“If only I were as confident as you.” Francois moved to supervise placement of the anchor and muttered under his breath.
“Wait,” Jean called.
The man pivoted mid-stride and looked back toward his captain.
“Once the anchor is secure, have all the men join us here. I don’t want anything to go wrong. This should be a simple attack – we can be in and out of here with the old woman in a few hours if everyone heeds my words,” Jean said.
“Whatever you say, Captain.” His first mate nodded and went to help the men with the capstan. When they released the anchor chain, the heavy links clattered as they unwound into the depths.
Jean shifted back to the wheel and threaded a bright coin through the fingers of his free hand. He would trust Francois with his life, and often did, but lately something in his second-in-command’s manner and tone of voice caused little ripples of unease to skitter along his spine. That familiar niggling had kept him alive over the years, because Francois was not the first crewman to challenge him, nor would he be the last. He laughed out loud and tucked the coin inside his shirt.
n a few minutes, Jean surveyed his crew as they gathered in front of him. Misfits one and all, but they were loyal and had sailed half the night with him from their smugglers’ outpost on the rocky north coast of Dominica.
“Men, we’re here this morning just to frighten the plantation workers. Francois will issue pistols, but no shots will be fired.” He gave the circle of crewmen a steady, dark stare until heads nodded and grumbling ceased. The damned illness had decimated his crew, and he was determined to discover the cause of the strange ailment disabling them, one by one.
“Any of you could be next to fall victim.” He swept his view around the circle while his mate handed out the store of weapons from locked chests. “We need this old woman to come along without force. No one is to be injured and no looting.”
A few more mumbled complaints followed his last orders, but when Jean gave the command to lower the shore boat, his men followed him over the side. He dared not fail them.
Yancey rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stretched. A lazy fly inched across the palm leaves on the ceiling of the sleep nook in his grandmother’s cabin.
He jumped from his pallet and stood on tiptoe to splash water onto his face from a cracked basin on a table in the corner. He tossed on threadbare pants and shirt and ran through the tiny cabin before being stopped short by Grandmere who pulled him outside to the communal fire pit.
“You must put something in your stomach, mon petit.” She speared a roasted plantain from the coals and wrapped it in leaves. “You run too fast and eat too little.” She laid a calloused hand on his head and patted him as she tucked the food into his hand.
“Oui, Grandmere.” He tried to squirm away from her embrace but she gathered him into her arms for a tight squeeze.
“Let us catch up with the others.” A warm smile belied the stern tone of her voice. She waggled a finger at him and led the way up the well-worn path to Galante House.
The scene at the plantation house was grim. Jean’s men had rounded up all the workers, but no one would talk to him. He had been unable to force them to reveal the whereabouts of the healer, even after the offer of a substantial reward.
He understood their reluctance. Jean could imagine what frightened the islanders. Most of his men were scarred from the many battles they’d survived and carried many weapons. Bathing was an infrequent occurrence, and there were few clean-shaven faces among them.
After a long silence, a fierce old grandmother stepped forward. “We know nothing of any healer,” she said, and the expression on her face defied him to contradict her. “You are mistaken. Leave us and search one of the other islands.”
Jean did not miss the brief stare of censure she passed to the others. Maybe she was the one he sought. He hoped not. A sour harpy was the last thing he needed on board his ship.
Jean slipped a coin through his fingers faster and faster until it disappeared. He pantomimed a search for the lost disc and showed his empty hands. While his audience was at rapt attention, he darted toward the boy who clung to the disagreeable old biddy, scooped him up, and produced the errant coin from behind the child’s ear. Wide-eyed, the boy was torn between delight and wariness as Jean walked with him into a copse of scrubby trees.
“Yancey,” the old woman cried in a strangled voice and rushed toward Jean as Francois stepped forward blocking her way.
Jean hoisted the boy onto his shoulders and slipped through the trees. “Now, my fine young man, you know where the healer is, don’t you?”
The boy tightened his hold around Jean’s neck.
“All right, then. If you take me to her, the coin is yours to keep.”
“Will you show me how to make it disappear?”
“Of course,” Jean said, in solemn assent.
Yancey slithered to the ground with a thud and took off through the underbrush toward the beach on the headland. Jean followed close behind and prayed the healer he sought would not prove as stubborn as the rest of the islanders.
“There she is.” The boy jarred to a stop and pointed toward the surf rolling into the cove. “Now, can I have the coin, and will you show me how to make it disappear?”
“All in good time, my young friend. First, I must speak to her.” After Jean flipped the coin to the boy, Yancey rounded and ran back up the hill, with Jean left to gape at a sea creature as it emerged from the waves. Perhaps the legends of mermaids and sirens were true.
She caught sight of him and jerked arms across her breasts before moving her hands lower. This was no sea goddess, but a flesh-and-blood woman. Her murderous glare sent a clear message.
Creamy skin gleamed with a heated flush from the sun, sand, and anger. Hatred boiled from her eyes as she advanced on him. He doubted Calypso first greeted Ulysses this way, but Jean could understand how the feel of curves such as these in one’s arms would obliterate any desire to return home.
To his surprise, the mermaid straightened and abandoned her modest stance, dripping dark ribbons of hair over her shoulders. She stomped toward him until she was close enough to poke him hard in the chest.
He stumbled and took an awkward step back. “You’re not the old healer?” Jean faltered for words. He ignored his conscience and stared hard as he swept his eyes from her full, firm breasts to the sweet flare of her hips and the well-formed legs below.
“I am Marie Galante — this is my land. Why are you here?”
“I need a healer.”
“There is no healer here,” she said with a low growl. “Leave before I have you thrown off the island.”
“But I can pay, and pay very well,” Jean said, in a half babble as he struggled to mollify the fierce she-devil. If she was the one he sought, he was in trouble. Why was she not a frail old woman?
Jean struggled to gather his thoughts as he drank in the full, soft bow of her lips and warm, brown eyes. The delicate brows above them were like the wings of the exotic birds that swooped through the trees at the edge of the beach. The stubborn set of her mouth and forward jut of her chin, however, didn’t bode well for his purposes.
Head held high, she brushed past him and strode toward her crumpled shift near his feet. She grabbed for the flimsy nightdress, but he was quicker.
“Are you mad? Scores of my people await me over that rise. They will beat you within an inch of your miserable life.” Marie swatted at the stranger’s hand as he held her shift above his head and then wadded the flimsy material into a ball behind his back.
Jean halted his awkward retreat and leaned over with a sigh. “You make this too hard. All I want is your help.”
“I would die rather than go with a monster like you.” Her voice quavered as she swung from revulsion to curiosity. The smell of man, sweat, saltwater, and a faint whiff of sandalwood tickled her senses.
When he pulled Marie close and produced the shift, she tried to push him away and batted at his hands as he slipped the flimsy covering over her head and stole a kiss. As he forced open her lips and she tasted his essence, Marie’s fickle body reacted to him in spite of the rage burning inside.
She bit his lower lip, angered as much by the feelings he brought forth as by his outrageous behavior. He jerked back, and she leaned into him with a push of curled fists. He had to wave his arms to keep from toppling onto the sand, and before he could react, she lifted onto tiptoes and delivered a stinging slap to his face.
Jean reeled from the attack and dabbed at the blood trickling from his lip. Pain still radiated from his cheek where she’d struck him.
She experienced a short pang of regret at the hurt expression on his face, but the memory of her dead husband’s betrayal hardened Marie’s heart.