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Forever

Forever

Now Available!

Book #4 of the FOREVER series

Fall in love with CHERYL HOLT all over again as she delivers the thrilling conclusion to her FOREVER series!

Hayden Henley left England at age twenty, whisked away by his parents after a deadly duel that nearly cost him his life. In the intervening years, tragedy repeatedly pummeled him, and it’s taken him an entire decade to return home. He arrives to find he’s lost everything: his title, his lands, his fortune, his good name. He’s bitter and driven to reclaim what has always been his…

Helen Barnes is a penniless spinster whose life—despite her best efforts—has never moved in the direction she planned. While she only ever hoped to marry a stable, kind fellow and live a normal life, she’s been forced to care for her scandal-ridden father instead. She would give anything to obtain the home and family of her dreams, but when she meets dashing and dangerous Hayden, she begins to wonder how she could have ever assumed a common man and ordinary existence would ever be enough to make her happy…

Hayden would never shackle himself to her though. He’s determined to make up for lost time by marrying as high as he’s able. But some connections are simply too potent to ignore and—sometimes—Fate has other ideas. With love in the balance and family secrets finally laid bare, Helen might just turn out to be the woman Hayden has always been so desperate to find…

An Amazon “Top 100 “ author…

“Best Storyteller of the Year”

Romantic Times Magazine

Link Premise

“I have just finished reading FOREVER, and stayed up all night because I just HAD to finish it! “

Maria

Forever Cover Flat

Now Available!

Book #4 of the FOREVER series

Fall in love with CHERYL HOLT all over again as she delivers the thrilling conclusion to her FOREVER series!

Hayden Henley left England at age twenty, whisked away by his parents after a deadly duel that nearly cost him his life. In the intervening years, tragedy repeatedly pummeled him, and it’s taken him an entire decade to return home. He arrives to find he’s lost everything: his title, his lands, his fortune, his good name. He’s bitter and driven to reclaim what has always been his…

Helen Barnes is a penniless spinster whose life—despite her best efforts—has never moved in the direction she planned. While she only ever hoped to marry a stable, kind fellow and live a normal life, she’s been forced to care for her scandal-ridden father instead. She would give anything to obtain the home and family of her dreams, but when she meets dashing and dangerous Hayden, she begins to wonder how she could have ever assumed a common man and ordinary existence would ever be enough to make her happy…

Hayden would never shackle himself to her though. He’s determined to make up for lost time by marrying as high as he’s able. But some connections are simply too potent to ignore and—sometimes—Fate has other ideas. With love in the balance and family secrets finally laid bare, Helen might just turn out to be the woman Hayden has always been so desperate to find…

An Amazon “Top 100 “ author…

“Best Storyteller of the Year”

Romantic Times Magazine

CHAPTER ONE

Canary Islands, Santa Cruz, Tenerife, 1814…

“Let me by, sir.”

On hearing the woman’s request, Hayden Henley stopped in his tracks.  Her voice was firm and commanding and confidently displaying a perfect command of the King’s English.  She might have been raised in the snootiest boarding school in London.

He was gaping, completely unable to continue on by.

It was an odd occasion when he stumbled on a person speaking English.  In his lengthy journeys around the globe, he’d rarely met anyone from his home country.  He’d been too far away for too long, to the point where home was a distant memory that didn’t seem real.

In his current location, it was especially strange to encounter a Brit.  He was on the island of Tenerife, located in the Canary Islands.  The main harbor was in the town of Santa Cruz, and it was a rough-and-tumble place filled with traders, smugglers, slavers, and African pirates.  There were hotels and restaurants dotting the waterfront, but they were tucked between saloons and bordellos.

Reputable ships with reputable captains docked occasionally to load supplies before heading across the Atlantic.  But nearly everyone else was dodgy and dangerous, and they’d slit your throat for a penny.

What was she thinking to be out and about in such desperate company?

“Let me by!  At once!”

As her voice rang out again, he scanned the busy area, searching for her.  He found her on the boardwalk over by a tavern.  She was tiny, five-foot-four or so, slender but shapely, with brunette hair and big green eyes.  Dressed like a Puritan, she was covered in a black wool gown with long sleeves, high-necked bodice, petticoats, corset, shawl, and bonnet.

You could take a British girl out of London, but you couldn’t take London out of the girl.  In the sultry heat, how did she breathe?  How did she keep from passing out for lack of air?

She was alone with no maid or chaperone, which was incredibly reckless.  Didn’t she realize how hazardous it was to be out by herself?  Didn’t she understand the perils?  The only females in the despicable spot were whores and other doxies, and the only males were criminals and cretins.

She was so obviously out of her element, and she would be too great a temptation for any miscreant to resist.

Three Spanish sailors had her surrounded, and they were leering, touching her bonnet, pulling on the ribbon to remove it.  She was swatting at their fingers, but not having much luck at pushing them away.

She had a black parasol, and when one of the reprobates grew particularly odious, she swatted him with it very hard.  The whack had to have smarted, and his temper flared.  He grabbed the offending item, yanked it away, and tossed it into the street.  A carriage was rolling by, and the horse stepped on it and crushed it.

Her jaw dropped in astonishment, and for a moment, she looked as if she might burst into tears.

“That was mine, you rude oaf!”  She sounded like a schoolteacher, like a nanny who minded unruly children all day and had no patience remaining.

He sighed with exasperation.  Once in his life, he’d been the kind of young man who would have leapt to help a damsel in distress.  He’d been the kind who’d always behaved as was appropriate to his name and station, but at the ripe old age of thirty, he’d suffered through too many grueling years and had survived too many ordeals he shouldn’t have survived.

He’d learned not to intervene in another’s quarrels or problems.  In the seedy world where he’d been stuck for the prior decade, it was a quick way to get killed.  He watched out for himself and nobody else, focusing his concentration on the prize at the end of his road.

He didn’t have time to fuss with a ridiculous Brit who didn’t have the sense God gave a gnat.  But when the sailors leaned in, when the burliest one slipped an arm around her waist—as if he was about to carry her off—Hayden had to intercede.

He stormed over and seized the lout, lifting him off his feet and flinging him away.  His companions whirled about, fists up, hoping to brawl, but they didn’t dare.

He was tall and muscular, and he resembled the bandit others assumed him to be.  He was armed to the teeth, knives at his belt, pistols on his hips, a sword slung over his back.

Wearing tan trousers, knee-high boots, and a flowing white shirt, he had a gold earring dangling from his ear.  His blond hair hadn’t been barbered in an eternity, and it curled around his shoulders.  His blue, blue eyes blazed with fury.

He appeared deadly and dangerous, and they hesitated.

They were drunk, their reflexes slow.  In a flash, he had a pistol in his hand, and he clasped one of them by the neck, the barrel pressed to his forehead.

Both men froze.  The brute he’d hurled to the ground froze too, then slithered off into the crowd.

“You’re bothering the lady,” Hayden said in perfect Spanish.  His travels had left him fluent in six languages, and he could curse, barter, and haggle in a dozen more.

“We were just having some fun,” one claimed.  “We meant no harm.  There’s no need for violence.”

“Isn’t there?” Hayden caustically inquired.  “Apologize to her.”

His demeanor was lethal, and his tone brooked no argument.  They nodded in an obsequious fashion.  “Perdone, senorita.  Perdone que le moleste.”

He released the man he was holding, but he didn’t lower his pistol or return it to his holster until he was certain they’d vanished.  Then he spun on the hapless ninny he’d just rescued.

Up close, she was very pretty.  She was twenty or maybe a few years older.  Her cheeks were rosy as a dairy maid’s, and freckles dotted her nose.  Her lips were rosy too, full and lush and created for kissing so that any fellow who stared at her for more than two seconds would start considering all sorts of things he shouldn’t consider.

But Hayden was made of sterner stuff.  He had no use for foolish, innocent maidens, and he was irked by her stupidity.  Because of it, he’d have to constantly be on guard while he was on Tenerife.  The three curs, accompanied by their chums, would likely attack him in an attempt to redeem the power they’d surrendered when he’d chased them off.

He was tired of fighting, tired of dealing with idiots, and he had no desire to put himself in jeopardy over a woman.  A woman!  It was never worth it.

“Thank you, sir,” she said.  He was too aggravated to respond, and she frowned.  “Do you speak English?”

“Yes, I speak English.”

She smiled a smile he felt clear down to his toes.  “You’re from home!  How lovely!  I’m very grateful for your assistance.”

He should have simply replied with a polite, you’re welcome, but somewhere during his protracted tribulations, he’d lost his ability to display any courtesy.  Instead, he asked, “What is your name?”

“Miss Barnes.  Helen.  Helen Barnes.”

“What the hell were you thinking?” he snapped.

“Ah…what?  And don’t you dare curse at me.”

“We are standing at the docks in Santa Cruz, a town that is notorious for its criminals and slavers, yet you are strolling about as if you’re in the park in London.  It’s not safe here for you.  Not under any circumstance.”

“I know that.  If I had a chaperone, don’t you suppose I would have brought her with me?”

“How can I guess?  If you’re deranged enough to strut about in such a treacherous place, you might engage in any insane conduct.  I ought to take a switch to you.”

“A switch!”

“It’s probably the only way I could get your attention.”

“Trust me, sir, you have my attention.  Now then, it’s obvious you’re an important fellow who’s been delayed by my paltry troubles, and I have errands to complete.  If you’ll excuse me…?”

“I don’t excuse you.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but I’m far past the day when I’ll be scolded by any man, especially one who is a stranger to me.”

She marched off the boardwalk and down into the dusty street where her assailant had tossed her parasol.  The sticks were broken and jutting out at odd angles, but she was determined to retrieve it anyway.  She bent down to scoop it up without glancing in either direction.

A heavy cart was lumbering toward her, the horse not noticing her presence, and she didn’t notice the horse.  She was about to be run over.

The woman was a menace!  It was no wonder she was single.  She was the type who would need to be saved from repeated disasters.  He pitied the man who was ever rash enough to become involved with her.

Again, he nearly continued on, but she had no capacity to take care of herself.

He jumped like an acrobat, leaping over and wrenching her away just as the horse’s hooves crashed down on the parasol.  The cart’s wheels rolled over it, squashing it even more.

She didn’t realize who had grabbed her, and as he set her on her feet, she squealed with dismay and clenched her fists.  At her bravado, he wanted to laugh.  She was such a petite sprite.  How could she expect to inflict any damage?

He clasped her wrist to prevent any blow, but his quick move had her off balance.  She stumbled forward so, suddenly, she was leaned against him, the front of her body pressed to his all the way down.  He had to admit—for her being so thin—she was quite shapely.

Her breasts and hips were rounded, her stomach flat, her thighs curvaceous and alluring.  Lewd images flashed in his mind, and he was abruptly curious as to how she’d look without her clothes.

She gazed up at him, and it was very peculiar, but for a moment, his surroundings faded away.  The hectic sounds of the harbor vanished.  Time seemed to stop, the sea breeze waned.  They might have been the only two people in the world.

The universe was providing an imperative message, but he was too stubborn to figure out what it might be.  He felt connected to her, as if he’d always known her, as if they’d always been friends.  But if the last decade had taught him anything, it was that bonds were pointless.

A scowl marred her brow, as if she too had noted the unusual episode.  Then she tried to jerk away, but he was still clutching her wrist and not inclined to release her.

“Unhand me!” she demanded.

He never listened to women, so he didn’t obey.  “Do you ever watch where you’re going?”

“Always.”

“You could have fooled me.”

She assessed her ruined parasol and sighed with genuine regret.  “I don’t have many belongings.  I can’t afford to lose one of them.  I’m hoping I can repair it.”

She pulled away and stepped into the street again.  Was she mad?  Very likely so, and he couldn’t deduce why he was dawdling with her.  He yanked her to a halt as if she were a dog on a leash.

Glaring, she whipped around.  “I could have sworn I told you to unhand me.”

“I’m ignoring you.  You’re a danger to yourself and others.  There’s no telling what damage you might cause.”

“I have to fetch my parasol!”

“Give over, Miss Barnes.  It’s ruined and can’t be fixed.”

In fact, as they’d been talking, it had been run over several more times.  She stared at it, appearing morose and dejected.

“It’s definitely wrecked, isn’t it?”  She peeked up at him.  “Thank you again.  I’ll just be off, and I’m fine.  You needn’t waste a precious minute fretting over me.”

“I’m not fretting over you, Miss Barnes.  I simply wish you’d be more careful.”

“Oh, I will be, sir.”

Was that sarcasm in her tone?  Probably.  She was precisely the type who would disregard a man’s wise counsel.

Without another word, she started off, proceeding by all the brothels and saloons where, no doubt, unscrupulous brigands would be eager to accost her.

Hadn’t he just warned her to be careful?  Didn’t the blasted female know how she ought to behave?  She needed an entire cadre of guards.  She needed a father or husband who could make her act as was appropriate.  It would serve her right if she encountered further difficulties.

But he shook away the despicable notion.  Bitter experience had forced him to recognize that the world was a very precarious place.  A person could easily be swept into a quagmire beyond comprehension.  She had no clue of the predicaments that could arise.

Women were sold and enslaved, prostituted and killed.  It didn’t matter if they were from a high spot in society.  When they fell in with corrupt men, any vile conclusion was possible.

He huffed after her, and with his tall height, broad shoulders, and long legs, he swiftly caught up.

At his arrival, she frowned ferociously.  “I thought I was shed of you.”

“Apparently not.  What is your destination, Miss Barnes?  I’ll escort you.”

“I don’t require an escort,” she vehemently stated as they went by the door to a tavern and a drunk staggered out and collapsed at their feet.

“Of course you don’t,” Hayden facetiously agreed.

He steered her by the inebriated sot, and mercifully, the incident silenced her protests.  She stopped though to peer into the tavern.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m looking for someone.  What do you suppose?”

“How could I guess?” he told her again.  “I have no idea what crazed scheme might be bouncing around in that flighty head of yours.”

“I’m not flighty.”

“Miss Barnes, flighty is in the eye of the man beholding it.”

She scoffed.  “Spoken like a vain male who assumes he knows everything.”

“I know more than you.”

“Shall we bet on it?” she muttered.

Evidently, she didn’t see who she sought, and she continued on.  He strolled with her, determined to deliver her safely to a location where she wasn’t alone and unprotected.

“Who is it you’re looking for?”

“If it was any of your business, I would tell you.”

“Don’t be snotty.  I don’t like it.”

“Then pardon me, your royal highness, for not conducting myself as you were expecting.  Me being flighty and all, I’m not smart enough to converse with your grand self.”

“Shall I leave you to your own devices, Miss Barnes?  We’ve already established that you have no ability to be cautious.”

“If I tiptoed around being cautious, I’d never get anywhere.”

“Or you might meet with foul play, and you’d never get there either.”

“I’m perfectly capable of managing my own affairs.”

The boast had him laughing aloud.  “I witnessed how adept you were with that trio of brigands.  Are you aware of what might have happened if I hadn’t intervened?”

“Naught would have happened,” she staunchly declared.

“Your misguided confidence has me shuddering with alarm.”

“I hardly need a nanny to watch over me.  I’ve been on my own my whole life.”

“That news does not surprise me.”

“I’m still here, and I’m unscathed.”

“So far, you’re unscathed.  What if someday you become scathed?”

The comment dragged a chuckle out of her, and she glanced up at him, those green eyes of hers practically knocking him off his feet.  She had a strident affect on his masculine sensibilities.  Why would that be?

It had been an eternity since he’d crossed paths with a female from London.  Was that it?  Were time and distance making her seem exotic and unusual?

He studied her and decided no.  He wasn’t wrong about her.  She was extraordinary:  beautiful, poised, and shapely.  Even decked out as she was in her horrid black clothes, she was a thrilling sight.  Who was she?  Why was she on Tenerife?

They passed another tavern, and again, she paused to scrutinize the customers, but whoever she was anxious to find, he wasn’t there.  They kept on and reached the end of the block.  It was a scorching afternoon in March, the tropical sun directly overhead and barely casting shadows.

There was a bit of a breeze off the ocean, but it didn’t cool anything that ought to be cooled.  She missed her step, tripped, and nearly fell.  He leapt to catch her or she’d have wound up face down in the dirt.  He steadied her so she didn’t topple over.

“It’s so hot,” she murmured.  “I understood it would be warmer than England, but I had no idea.  It was winter when we sailed.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Almost a month.”

“You should purchase suitable attire.  It’s hazardous to be cloaked in all this wool.  You’ll perish in this heat.”

“If I had a purse full of money,” she said, “wouldn’t you imagine I’d do exactly that?”

She was swaying, as if she was weary and disoriented, and a niggling suspicion dawned on him.

“How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”

She pondered the question, then wrinkled up her pert nose.  “Last night?”  She nodded.  “Yes, it was last night.”

“And before then?”

“I believe we ate the day before.”  Her brow creased, then she nodded more vigorously.  “In fact, I’m sure of it.”

“Who is we?”

“My sister, Becky, and I.”

“How old is she?”

“Sixteen.”

“Please tell me you have a man traveling with you.”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Why not?”

“Because we don’t—have a man traveling with us that is.”

He sighed.  She was a walking, talking disaster, who blatantly signaled her dilemma to the world.  In a port town filled with rogues and criminals, what sort of miscreant might notice and take advantage of her plight?

“Where are you staying, Miss Barnes?”

She pointed down the street.  “We have a small suite at a hotel.  It’s in the next alley.”

“Let’s go.  I’ll see you there.”

“I probably should get back.  Becky will be worried.”

They started off, and he linked his arm with hers in case she lost her balance again.  He would send her a basket of food once he returned to his camp outside town, but as he realized he would, he had to tamp down his aggravation.

He had no desire to be embroiled in her problems.  He was busy, his own plans finally coming to fruition.  He wouldn’t be distracted by a deranged Londoner who was in the one place on the globe she shouldn’t be.

But she exuded an aura that made a man want to assist her, and he was a gullible idiot when he stumbled on a pretty face.

“Who are you looking for?” he said.

“My father.”

“It’s the middle of the afternoon.  Why are you searching for him in the taverns?  Is he a drinker?  A gambler?”

“No, he’s a vicar.”

“A vicar!  Is he in there saving souls?”

“I wouldn’t think so.  He’s not very pious.”

Hayden snorted.  “So he’s not preaching to the sinners?”

“My father?  No, definitely not.”

“In this desperate spot, people wouldn’t listen.  He’d end up with a knife in his back.”

They arrived at a corner and turned down an alley.  Shortly, they approached a decrepit building.  The windows were boarded over, and it leaned slightly, as if the foundation was gradually giving way.

He supposed poorer, reputable occupants stayed there occasionally, but he predicted the rooms were more likely to be rented out by the hour.  By whores.  Miss Barnes was so straitlaced.  Had she recognized the dubious characters who were sneaking in and out?

“Is this your hotel?” he asked, somewhat aghast.

“Yes.”

“It doesn’t look very safe.”

“It’s safe enough,” she claimed.

“Could I convince you to move?”

“As with my clothes, if I had the money for better accommodations, wouldn’t I have retained them?”

He stared down at her.  Her bonnet had slipped off when she tripped, and it was hanging by the ribbons.  She’d lost a comb, so her brunette locks were tumbling down too.  She appeared bedraggled and miserable and adorable.

“Are you in trouble, Miss Barnes?”

“Not yet.”

“Are you intending to remain in Santa Cruz?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“I’m relieved to hear it.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to offer her funds, advice, information.  He was rich now, richer than he’d ever been.  He could open his purse and give her all the gold coins in it, and he wouldn’t miss them, but…he would not involve himself.

A fellow who tried to aid her would be sucked into the mud of her life and would never be able to climb out.  But she stirred every chivalrous impulse, all the ones he’d presumed had been drummed out of him during his lengthy ordeal.

“I’ll just be going then,” he said.

“Goodbye.”

He grinned.  “Will you thank me again for chasing off those brigands?”

“No.”

“Why not?  You have to shower me with a bit of gratitude.  If you won’t, how will I have fond memories of our meeting?”

“You’re a very vain man, and I can’t abide vanity in a male.  I won’t stroke your ego anymore than I’m sure it has always been stroked.”

She’d judged him correctly, but she hadn’t too.  The first twenty years, he’d been spoiled and cosseted and constantly told he was wonderful, but the previous decade hadn’t been all that great.  He wasn’t wonderful anymore, and it was the reason his nickname was so apt:  Nine Lives.

In light of the perils and catastrophes he’d suffered and survived, he should have been dead a hundred times over.  Yet he’d muddled through, and he was finally heading home.  Nothing could be allowed to delay him.  Especially not a reckless woman who didn’t have any sense.

She turned to step into the dilapidated hotel, and the oddest wave of regret swept over him.  Though it was bizarre, he couldn’t bear to part from her.  Apparently, he was a tad besotted, which meant the heat of the day must have addled his wits.

“Be careful,” he said.

She glanced at him over her shoulder.  “I will be.”

“Watch out for yourself.”

“I’ll try my best.”

“You shouldn’t tarry in Santa Cruz.  Can I persuade you to sail for England?”

“If I could afford to purchase a ticket to England, I would depart tomorrow.”

Buy her a ticket!  Buy it you fool!

The words rang in his mind, but he ignored them.  He would not enmesh himself in her petty predicament!

Instead, he said, “Maybe I’ll see you before you leave.  Or before I leave.”

“Maybe.”

She didn’t look as if she’d like to see him again, and she was right that he was very vain.  Women fawned over him.  They always had.  They’d pursued him in his prior life, when he’d been young and wealthy and exalted, and they pursued him now when he was simply a handsome rogue with no past or history.

Miss Barnes didn’t seem impressed in the least, and he was irked that he hadn’t charmed her.

“You didn’t even ask me my name,” he said.  “Aren’t you curious?”

“Not really.”  She was so insolent!  “Goodbye.”

She went inside, the dark shadows swallowing her.

He stood on the dusty street, sincerely considering marching in after her, announcing his identity, demanding she be awed.  But years earlier, he’d learned to shut up about who he’d once been.  In the world of pirates and criminals where he’d been trapped, people scoffed with derision, and he was never believed.

By her being so rude, she’d saved him a ton of exasperation.  She was beautiful and gutsy, but capricious and erratic too.  What man could tolerate a woman like that?  Not himself certainly.

He was busy, and he didn’t need to bother with her.  She didn’t want to be bothered.  So…to hell with her!  He had better things to do than rescue a damsel who didn’t wish to be rescued.

He spun away and stomped off.

 

Fan Comments

“I have just finished reading FOREVER, and stayed up all night because I just HAD to finish it! “

Maria

Cover Flat
Forever Cover Flat
Read a Chapter

Now Available!

Book #4 of the FOREVER series

Fall in love with CHERYL HOLT all over again as she delivers the thrilling conclusion to her FOREVER series!

Hayden Henley left England at age twenty, whisked away by his parents after a deadly duel that nearly cost him his life. In the intervening years, tragedy repeatedly pummeled him, and it’s taken him an entire decade to return home. He arrives to find he’s lost everything: his title, his lands, his fortune, his good name. He’s bitter and driven to reclaim what has always been his…

Helen Barnes is a penniless spinster whose life—despite her best efforts—has never moved in the direction she planned. While she only ever hoped to marry a stable, kind fellow and live a normal life, she’s been forced to care for her scandal-ridden father instead. She would give anything to obtain the home and family of her dreams, but when she meets dashing and dangerous Hayden, she begins to wonder how she could have ever assumed a common man and ordinary existence would ever be enough to make her happy…

Hayden would never shackle himself to her though. He’s determined to make up for lost time by marrying as high as he’s able. But some connections are simply too potent to ignore and—sometimes—Fate has other ideas. With love in the balance and family secrets finally laid bare, Helen might just turn out to be the woman Hayden has always been so desperate to find…

An Amazon “Top 100 “ author…

“Best Storyteller of the Year”

Romantic Times Magazine

CHAPTER ONE

Canary Islands, Santa Cruz, Tenerife, 1814…

“Let me by, sir.”

On hearing the woman’s request, Hayden Henley stopped in his tracks.  Her voice was firm and commanding and confidently displaying a perfect command of the King’s English.  She might have been raised in the snootiest boarding school in London.

He was gaping, completely unable to continue on by.

It was an odd occasion when he stumbled on a person speaking English.  In his lengthy journeys around the globe, he’d rarely met anyone from his home country.  He’d been too far away for too long, to the point where home was a distant memory that didn’t seem real.

In his current location, it was especially strange to encounter a Brit.  He was on the island of Tenerife, located in the Canary Islands.  The main harbor was in the town of Santa Cruz, and it was a rough-and-tumble place filled with traders, smugglers, slavers, and African pirates.  There were hotels and restaurants dotting the waterfront, but they were tucked between saloons and bordellos.

Reputable ships with reputable captains docked occasionally to load supplies before heading across the Atlantic.  But nearly everyone else was dodgy and dangerous, and they’d slit your throat for a penny.

What was she thinking to be out and about in such desperate company?

“Let me by!  At once!”

As her voice rang out again, he scanned the busy area, searching for her.  He found her on the boardwalk over by a tavern.  She was tiny, five-foot-four or so, slender but shapely, with brunette hair and big green eyes.  Dressed like a Puritan, she was covered in a black wool gown with long sleeves, high-necked bodice, petticoats, corset, shawl, and bonnet.

You could take a British girl out of London, but you couldn’t take London out of the girl.  In the sultry heat, how did she breathe?  How did she keep from passing out for lack of air?

She was alone with no maid or chaperone, which was incredibly reckless.  Didn’t she realize how hazardous it was to be out by herself?  Didn’t she understand the perils?  The only females in the despicable spot were whores and other doxies, and the only males were criminals and cretins.

She was so obviously out of her element, and she would be too great a temptation for any miscreant to resist.

Three Spanish sailors had her surrounded, and they were leering, touching her bonnet, pulling on the ribbon to remove it.  She was swatting at their fingers, but not having much luck at pushing them away.

She had a black parasol, and when one of the reprobates grew particularly odious, she swatted him with it very hard.  The whack had to have smarted, and his temper flared.  He grabbed the offending item, yanked it away, and tossed it into the street.  A carriage was rolling by, and the horse stepped on it and crushed it.

Her jaw dropped in astonishment, and for a moment, she looked as if she might burst into tears.

“That was mine, you rude oaf!”  She sounded like a schoolteacher, like a nanny who minded unruly children all day and had no patience remaining.

He sighed with exasperation.  Once in his life, he’d been the kind of young man who would have leapt to help a damsel in distress.  He’d been the kind who’d always behaved as was appropriate to his name and station, but at the ripe old age of thirty, he’d suffered through too many grueling years and had survived too many ordeals he shouldn’t have survived.

He’d learned not to intervene in another’s quarrels or problems.  In the seedy world where he’d been stuck for the prior decade, it was a quick way to get killed.  He watched out for himself and nobody else, focusing his concentration on the prize at the end of his road.

He didn’t have time to fuss with a ridiculous Brit who didn’t have the sense God gave a gnat.  But when the sailors leaned in, when the burliest one slipped an arm around her waist—as if he was about to carry her off—Hayden had to intercede.

He stormed over and seized the lout, lifting him off his feet and flinging him away.  His companions whirled about, fists up, hoping to brawl, but they didn’t dare.

He was tall and muscular, and he resembled the bandit others assumed him to be.  He was armed to the teeth, knives at his belt, pistols on his hips, a sword slung over his back.

Wearing tan trousers, knee-high boots, and a flowing white shirt, he had a gold earring dangling from his ear.  His blond hair hadn’t been barbered in an eternity, and it curled around his shoulders.  His blue, blue eyes blazed with fury.

He appeared deadly and dangerous, and they hesitated.

They were drunk, their reflexes slow.  In a flash, he had a pistol in his hand, and he clasped one of them by the neck, the barrel pressed to his forehead.

Both men froze.  The brute he’d hurled to the ground froze too, then slithered off into the crowd.

“You’re bothering the lady,” Hayden said in perfect Spanish.  His travels had left him fluent in six languages, and he could curse, barter, and haggle in a dozen more.

“We were just having some fun,” one claimed.  “We meant no harm.  There’s no need for violence.”

“Isn’t there?” Hayden caustically inquired.  “Apologize to her.”

His demeanor was lethal, and his tone brooked no argument.  They nodded in an obsequious fashion.  “Perdone, senorita.  Perdone que le moleste.”

He released the man he was holding, but he didn’t lower his pistol or return it to his holster until he was certain they’d vanished.  Then he spun on the hapless ninny he’d just rescued.

Up close, she was very pretty.  She was twenty or maybe a few years older.  Her cheeks were rosy as a dairy maid’s, and freckles dotted her nose.  Her lips were rosy too, full and lush and created for kissing so that any fellow who stared at her for more than two seconds would start considering all sorts of things he shouldn’t consider.

But Hayden was made of sterner stuff.  He had no use for foolish, innocent maidens, and he was irked by her stupidity.  Because of it, he’d have to constantly be on guard while he was on Tenerife.  The three curs, accompanied by their chums, would likely attack him in an attempt to redeem the power they’d surrendered when he’d chased them off.

He was tired of fighting, tired of dealing with idiots, and he had no desire to put himself in jeopardy over a woman.  A woman!  It was never worth it.

“Thank you, sir,” she said.  He was too aggravated to respond, and she frowned.  “Do you speak English?”

“Yes, I speak English.”

She smiled a smile he felt clear down to his toes.  “You’re from home!  How lovely!  I’m very grateful for your assistance.”

He should have simply replied with a polite, you’re welcome, but somewhere during his protracted tribulations, he’d lost his ability to display any courtesy.  Instead, he asked, “What is your name?”

“Miss Barnes.  Helen.  Helen Barnes.”

“What the hell were you thinking?” he snapped.

“Ah…what?  And don’t you dare curse at me.”

“We are standing at the docks in Santa Cruz, a town that is notorious for its criminals and slavers, yet you are strolling about as if you’re in the park in London.  It’s not safe here for you.  Not under any circumstance.”

“I know that.  If I had a chaperone, don’t you suppose I would have brought her with me?”

“How can I guess?  If you’re deranged enough to strut about in such a treacherous place, you might engage in any insane conduct.  I ought to take a switch to you.”

“A switch!”

“It’s probably the only way I could get your attention.”

“Trust me, sir, you have my attention.  Now then, it’s obvious you’re an important fellow who’s been delayed by my paltry troubles, and I have errands to complete.  If you’ll excuse me…?”

“I don’t excuse you.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but I’m far past the day when I’ll be scolded by any man, especially one who is a stranger to me.”

She marched off the boardwalk and down into the dusty street where her assailant had tossed her parasol.  The sticks were broken and jutting out at odd angles, but she was determined to retrieve it anyway.  She bent down to scoop it up without glancing in either direction.

A heavy cart was lumbering toward her, the horse not noticing her presence, and she didn’t notice the horse.  She was about to be run over.

The woman was a menace!  It was no wonder she was single.  She was the type who would need to be saved from repeated disasters.  He pitied the man who was ever rash enough to become involved with her.

Again, he nearly continued on, but she had no capacity to take care of herself.

He jumped like an acrobat, leaping over and wrenching her away just as the horse’s hooves crashed down on the parasol.  The cart’s wheels rolled over it, squashing it even more.

She didn’t realize who had grabbed her, and as he set her on her feet, she squealed with dismay and clenched her fists.  At her bravado, he wanted to laugh.  She was such a petite sprite.  How could she expect to inflict any damage?

He clasped her wrist to prevent any blow, but his quick move had her off balance.  She stumbled forward so, suddenly, she was leaned against him, the front of her body pressed to his all the way down.  He had to admit—for her being so thin—she was quite shapely.

Her breasts and hips were rounded, her stomach flat, her thighs curvaceous and alluring.  Lewd images flashed in his mind, and he was abruptly curious as to how she’d look without her clothes.

She gazed up at him, and it was very peculiar, but for a moment, his surroundings faded away.  The hectic sounds of the harbor vanished.  Time seemed to stop, the sea breeze waned.  They might have been the only two people in the world.

The universe was providing an imperative message, but he was too stubborn to figure out what it might be.  He felt connected to her, as if he’d always known her, as if they’d always been friends.  But if the last decade had taught him anything, it was that bonds were pointless.

A scowl marred her brow, as if she too had noted the unusual episode.  Then she tried to jerk away, but he was still clutching her wrist and not inclined to release her.

“Unhand me!” she demanded.

He never listened to women, so he didn’t obey.  “Do you ever watch where you’re going?”

“Always.”

“You could have fooled me.”

She assessed her ruined parasol and sighed with genuine regret.  “I don’t have many belongings.  I can’t afford to lose one of them.  I’m hoping I can repair it.”

She pulled away and stepped into the street again.  Was she mad?  Very likely so, and he couldn’t deduce why he was dawdling with her.  He yanked her to a halt as if she were a dog on a leash.

Glaring, she whipped around.  “I could have sworn I told you to unhand me.”

“I’m ignoring you.  You’re a danger to yourself and others.  There’s no telling what damage you might cause.”

“I have to fetch my parasol!”

“Give over, Miss Barnes.  It’s ruined and can’t be fixed.”

In fact, as they’d been talking, it had been run over several more times.  She stared at it, appearing morose and dejected.

“It’s definitely wrecked, isn’t it?”  She peeked up at him.  “Thank you again.  I’ll just be off, and I’m fine.  You needn’t waste a precious minute fretting over me.”

“I’m not fretting over you, Miss Barnes.  I simply wish you’d be more careful.”

“Oh, I will be, sir.”

Was that sarcasm in her tone?  Probably.  She was precisely the type who would disregard a man’s wise counsel.

Without another word, she started off, proceeding by all the brothels and saloons where, no doubt, unscrupulous brigands would be eager to accost her.

Hadn’t he just warned her to be careful?  Didn’t the blasted female know how she ought to behave?  She needed an entire cadre of guards.  She needed a father or husband who could make her act as was appropriate.  It would serve her right if she encountered further difficulties.

But he shook away the despicable notion.  Bitter experience had forced him to recognize that the world was a very precarious place.  A person could easily be swept into a quagmire beyond comprehension.  She had no clue of the predicaments that could arise.

Women were sold and enslaved, prostituted and killed.  It didn’t matter if they were from a high spot in society.  When they fell in with corrupt men, any vile conclusion was possible.

He huffed after her, and with his tall height, broad shoulders, and long legs, he swiftly caught up.

At his arrival, she frowned ferociously.  “I thought I was shed of you.”

“Apparently not.  What is your destination, Miss Barnes?  I’ll escort you.”

“I don’t require an escort,” she vehemently stated as they went by the door to a tavern and a drunk staggered out and collapsed at their feet.

“Of course you don’t,” Hayden facetiously agreed.

He steered her by the inebriated sot, and mercifully, the incident silenced her protests.  She stopped though to peer into the tavern.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m looking for someone.  What do you suppose?”

“How could I guess?” he told her again.  “I have no idea what crazed scheme might be bouncing around in that flighty head of yours.”

“I’m not flighty.”

“Miss Barnes, flighty is in the eye of the man beholding it.”

She scoffed.  “Spoken like a vain male who assumes he knows everything.”

“I know more than you.”

“Shall we bet on it?” she muttered.

Evidently, she didn’t see who she sought, and she continued on.  He strolled with her, determined to deliver her safely to a location where she wasn’t alone and unprotected.

“Who is it you’re looking for?”

“If it was any of your business, I would tell you.”

“Don’t be snotty.  I don’t like it.”

“Then pardon me, your royal highness, for not conducting myself as you were expecting.  Me being flighty and all, I’m not smart enough to converse with your grand self.”

“Shall I leave you to your own devices, Miss Barnes?  We’ve already established that you have no ability to be cautious.”

“If I tiptoed around being cautious, I’d never get anywhere.”

“Or you might meet with foul play, and you’d never get there either.”

“I’m perfectly capable of managing my own affairs.”

The boast had him laughing aloud.  “I witnessed how adept you were with that trio of brigands.  Are you aware of what might have happened if I hadn’t intervened?”

“Naught would have happened,” she staunchly declared.

“Your misguided confidence has me shuddering with alarm.”

“I hardly need a nanny to watch over me.  I’ve been on my own my whole life.”

“That news does not surprise me.”

“I’m still here, and I’m unscathed.”

“So far, you’re unscathed.  What if someday you become scathed?”

The comment dragged a chuckle out of her, and she glanced up at him, those green eyes of hers practically knocking him off his feet.  She had a strident affect on his masculine sensibilities.  Why would that be?

It had been an eternity since he’d crossed paths with a female from London.  Was that it?  Were time and distance making her seem exotic and unusual?

He studied her and decided no.  He wasn’t wrong about her.  She was extraordinary:  beautiful, poised, and shapely.  Even decked out as she was in her horrid black clothes, she was a thrilling sight.  Who was she?  Why was she on Tenerife?

They passed another tavern, and again, she paused to scrutinize the customers, but whoever she was anxious to find, he wasn’t there.  They kept on and reached the end of the block.  It was a scorching afternoon in March, the tropical sun directly overhead and barely casting shadows.

There was a bit of a breeze off the ocean, but it didn’t cool anything that ought to be cooled.  She missed her step, tripped, and nearly fell.  He leapt to catch her or she’d have wound up face down in the dirt.  He steadied her so she didn’t topple over.

“It’s so hot,” she murmured.  “I understood it would be warmer than England, but I had no idea.  It was winter when we sailed.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Almost a month.”

“You should purchase suitable attire.  It’s hazardous to be cloaked in all this wool.  You’ll perish in this heat.”

“If I had a purse full of money,” she said, “wouldn’t you imagine I’d do exactly that?”

She was swaying, as if she was weary and disoriented, and a niggling suspicion dawned on him.

“How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”

She pondered the question, then wrinkled up her pert nose.  “Last night?”  She nodded.  “Yes, it was last night.”

“And before then?”

“I believe we ate the day before.”  Her brow creased, then she nodded more vigorously.  “In fact, I’m sure of it.”

“Who is we?”

“My sister, Becky, and I.”

“How old is she?”

“Sixteen.”

“Please tell me you have a man traveling with you.”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Why not?”

“Because we don’t—have a man traveling with us that is.”

He sighed.  She was a walking, talking disaster, who blatantly signaled her dilemma to the world.  In a port town filled with rogues and criminals, what sort of miscreant might notice and take advantage of her plight?

“Where are you staying, Miss Barnes?”

She pointed down the street.  “We have a small suite at a hotel.  It’s in the next alley.”

“Let’s go.  I’ll see you there.”

“I probably should get back.  Becky will be worried.”

They started off, and he linked his arm with hers in case she lost her balance again.  He would send her a basket of food once he returned to his camp outside town, but as he realized he would, he had to tamp down his aggravation.

He had no desire to be embroiled in her problems.  He was busy, his own plans finally coming to fruition.  He wouldn’t be distracted by a deranged Londoner who was in the one place on the globe she shouldn’t be.

But she exuded an aura that made a man want to assist her, and he was a gullible idiot when he stumbled on a pretty face.

“Who are you looking for?” he said.

“My father.”

“It’s the middle of the afternoon.  Why are you searching for him in the taverns?  Is he a drinker?  A gambler?”

“No, he’s a vicar.”

“A vicar!  Is he in there saving souls?”

“I wouldn’t think so.  He’s not very pious.”

Hayden snorted.  “So he’s not preaching to the sinners?”

“My father?  No, definitely not.”

“In this desperate spot, people wouldn’t listen.  He’d end up with a knife in his back.”

They arrived at a corner and turned down an alley.  Shortly, they approached a decrepit building.  The windows were boarded over, and it leaned slightly, as if the foundation was gradually giving way.

He supposed poorer, reputable occupants stayed there occasionally, but he predicted the rooms were more likely to be rented out by the hour.  By whores.  Miss Barnes was so straitlaced.  Had she recognized the dubious characters who were sneaking in and out?

“Is this your hotel?” he asked, somewhat aghast.

“Yes.”

“It doesn’t look very safe.”

“It’s safe enough,” she claimed.

“Could I convince you to move?”

“As with my clothes, if I had the money for better accommodations, wouldn’t I have retained them?”

He stared down at her.  Her bonnet had slipped off when she tripped, and it was hanging by the ribbons.  She’d lost a comb, so her brunette locks were tumbling down too.  She appeared bedraggled and miserable and adorable.

“Are you in trouble, Miss Barnes?”

“Not yet.”

“Are you intending to remain in Santa Cruz?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“I’m relieved to hear it.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to offer her funds, advice, information.  He was rich now, richer than he’d ever been.  He could open his purse and give her all the gold coins in it, and he wouldn’t miss them, but…he would not involve himself.

A fellow who tried to aid her would be sucked into the mud of her life and would never be able to climb out.  But she stirred every chivalrous impulse, all the ones he’d presumed had been drummed out of him during his lengthy ordeal.

“I’ll just be going then,” he said.

“Goodbye.”

He grinned.  “Will you thank me again for chasing off those brigands?”

“No.”

“Why not?  You have to shower me with a bit of gratitude.  If you won’t, how will I have fond memories of our meeting?”

“You’re a very vain man, and I can’t abide vanity in a male.  I won’t stroke your ego anymore than I’m sure it has always been stroked.”

She’d judged him correctly, but she hadn’t too.  The first twenty years, he’d been spoiled and cosseted and constantly told he was wonderful, but the previous decade hadn’t been all that great.  He wasn’t wonderful anymore, and it was the reason his nickname was so apt:  Nine Lives.

In light of the perils and catastrophes he’d suffered and survived, he should have been dead a hundred times over.  Yet he’d muddled through, and he was finally heading home.  Nothing could be allowed to delay him.  Especially not a reckless woman who didn’t have any sense.

She turned to step into the dilapidated hotel, and the oddest wave of regret swept over him.  Though it was bizarre, he couldn’t bear to part from her.  Apparently, he was a tad besotted, which meant the heat of the day must have addled his wits.

“Be careful,” he said.

She glanced at him over her shoulder.  “I will be.”

“Watch out for yourself.”

“I’ll try my best.”

“You shouldn’t tarry in Santa Cruz.  Can I persuade you to sail for England?”

“If I could afford to purchase a ticket to England, I would depart tomorrow.”

Buy her a ticket!  Buy it you fool!

The words rang in his mind, but he ignored them.  He would not enmesh himself in her petty predicament!

Instead, he said, “Maybe I’ll see you before you leave.  Or before I leave.”

“Maybe.”

She didn’t look as if she’d like to see him again, and she was right that he was very vain.  Women fawned over him.  They always had.  They’d pursued him in his prior life, when he’d been young and wealthy and exalted, and they pursued him now when he was simply a handsome rogue with no past or history.

Miss Barnes didn’t seem impressed in the least, and he was irked that he hadn’t charmed her.

“You didn’t even ask me my name,” he said.  “Aren’t you curious?”

“Not really.”  She was so insolent!  “Goodbye.”

She went inside, the dark shadows swallowing her.

He stood on the dusty street, sincerely considering marching in after her, announcing his identity, demanding she be awed.  But years earlier, he’d learned to shut up about who he’d once been.  In the world of pirates and criminals where he’d been trapped, people scoffed with derision, and he was never believed.

By her being so rude, she’d saved him a ton of exasperation.  She was beautiful and gutsy, but capricious and erratic too.  What man could tolerate a woman like that?  Not himself certainly.

He was busy, and he didn’t need to bother with her.  She didn’t want to be bothered.  So…to hell with her!  He had better things to do than rescue a damsel who didn’t wish to be rescued.

He spun away and stomped off.

 

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