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Thief of hearts, p.1
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       Thief of Hearts, p.1

           Teresa Medeiros
 
Thief of Hearts


  Claremont rose from the bed, taller than she remembered, all traces of both mockery and amusement erased from his face. “You don’t need to read fiction, Miss Snow. You’re living it. Despite your tender and hopelessly romantic fantasies, this fellow Doom is a desperate, ruthless bastard who has nothing left to lose and everything to gain.”

  “You speak as if you know him.”

  “I know many like him. It’s unavoidable in my profession.” For the first time since she’d known him, Claremont’s speech was underscored by the harsh cadences of the London streets. “And not one out of the bloody lot of them would let some lonely brat—”

  Stung by his unfairness, Lucy cried, “But I’m not—”

  His next words robbed her of her defense. “—no matter how breathtakingly beautiful, stand in the way of what they wanted.” Claremont caught her chin in an implacable grip. “If your path ever crosses Doom’s again, God forbid, don’t make the mistake of underestimating him. He might not be such a gentleman.”

  Lucy blinked back tears. “So you think me a sentimental fool?” she whispered.

  His grip softened. His palm wandered up to smooth a wing of damp hair from her cheek. Her breath caught at his scorching tenderness. “On the contrary, my dear Lucy. I think your noble Captain Doom a fool. If I had a woman such as you at my mercy, I’d never let her go.…”

  THIEF OF HEARTS

  Bantam Books by Teresa Medeiros

  A WHISPER OF ROSES

  ONCE AN ANGEL

  HEATHER AND VELVET

  THIEF OF HEARTS

  FAIREST OF THEM ALL

  SHADOWS AND LACE

  BREATH OF MAGIC

  TOUCH OF ENCHANTMENT

  NOBODY’S DARLING

  LADY OF CONQUEST

  CHARMING THE PRINCE

  THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST

  A KISS TO REMEMBER

  THIEF OF HEARTS

  A Bantam Book / October 1994

  All rights reserved.

  Copyright © 1994 by Teresa Medeiros.

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  For information address: Bantam Books.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-78514-5

  Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.

  v3.1

  For Rebecca Hagan Lee and Elizabeth Bevarly. Just when I thought I was too old to make friends like you, there you were

  To Tim and Cindy Noel for loving Terri instead of Teresa

  To Doris Knight, for being there when it counted most

  And for the captain of my own heart, the most uncommon man I know—my husband, Michael

  Contents

  Cover

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Part One

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Part Two

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  About the Author

  PROLOGUE

  London

  1780

  HIS MOTHER’S SCREAM SLICED THROUGH the fabric of the night.

  Its agonized timbre went unheeded amidst the rattling cart wheels, bawling street vendors, cooing prostitutes, and clamor of voices outside the narrow crib. The boy crouched beside a pile of quilts and pressed a rusted dipper against his mother’s lips. Brackish water trickled down her chin.

  “There now, Ma. Try to drink a bit,” he urged.

  As she attempted a feeble swallow, the boy’s nervous gaze flicked to her distended abdomen. Its bloated contours were an obscene contrast to her flaccid skin and prominent ribs.

  She was too old to be having this baby, he thought frantically. Nearly a month past twenty-eight. Her fingernails dug into his knuckles as another bout of agony seized her. The dipper slid from his hand. He clenched his teeth against his own cry of pain and held fast to her hands, fighting the despairing litany that drowned out even her screams. Too old. Too thin. Too poor.

  Her fingers slowly relaxed as she lapsed into exhausted stupor. Her silence frightened him more than her screams. It was as if she’d surrendered her last pathetic hope of relief. He was reaching to shake her awake when the door behind him burst open.

  A man stumbled in, his rumpled uniform marking him as a sailor. “Molly!” he bellowed, his breath reeking of gin. “Where’s my pretty girl?”

  The boy leaped to his feet. “Out, damn y’! Y’ve no right to burst in here like y’ own the bloody place!”

  The boy was shocked by his own virulence. The man might even be the father of this child, he thought, before realizing bitterly that it could be any one of a dozen men.

  The sailor blinked stupidly at him, more addled by gin than given to petty cruelty. “Damn your insolence, whelp! I been at sea for ten months without so much as a kiss from a comely chit.” He lifted his fist to cuff the boy out of the way. “No need to be jealous, lad. There’s ample room ’tween thighs as willin’ as Molly’s.”

  Futile rage tinged the boy’s vision with scarlet. Without even realizing the gravity of what he was doing, he snatched up the paring knife his mother had laid out to cut the baby’s cord. His ears roared with the remembered grunts and groans of all the men his mother had bedded to put bread in his mouth.

  He brandished the knife like a sword. “Out of here, mate,” he said softly, “before I carve y’ a new gullet.”

  The sailor lowered his fist, sobered by the unflinching light in the boy’s eyes. He’d sailed in the Royal Navy for over twenty years as an able seaman, thumbing his nose at the death-spewing cannons of both pirates and Frenchies, but now his nostrils twitched as if he could already scent his own spilled blood.

  Before he could retreat, a hoarse whimper, more animal than human, arose from the shadows behind the boy. The lad spun around and dropped to his knees beside the tattered quilts. The sailor peered over his narrow shoulders, catching a glimpse of sunken cheeks, stark eyes, and the tortured contractions of a swollen abdomen.

  His stomach rebelled. Most of his mates were eager to spill their seed, but only too happy to be at full sail when it took root. He clapped a hand over his mouth and stumbled out of the hovel, knowing with a sailor’s instinct that he had witnessed not only impending birth, but impending death.

  “The babe’s comin’, lad,” Moll
y whispered through cracked lips.

  The intruder forgotten, the boy fumbled with the things she had commanded he fetch. A basin of cloudy water. A nest of rags. A length of dirty twine. Swallowing his fear, he drew back the sheet that covered her legs.

  She arched off the quilts and bit her bottom lip until it pearled with blood, but she did not make another sound until the tiny creature spilled into her son’s waiting hands. A groan of pure relief broke from her throat.

  The boy followed her whispered instructions, refusing to look at the cause of her pain, already hating it for what it Would cost him. He swaddled it in the rags, then laid it in the crook of her arm.

  As she gazed into her baby’s face, the echo of a smile trembled on her lips, giving her son a heartbreaking glimpse of the beauty that must have once enchanted his father.

  When he would have turned away from the sight, she clutched his arm, searching his fine features as avidly as she had searched the babe’s. “Y’re a good boy, son. Just like y’r pa. Don’t ever forget it.”

  He closed his eyes against the bittersweet refrain. If his pa was so fine, why had he left them for the sea? Why had he chosen her salty grave over the adoration of a wife who would have waited forever for his return?

  A wisp of a sigh rose from the quilt. He lifted his head to find his mother’s eyes as barren as his hopes. A burning knot tightened in his throat. He leaned over and kissed her cool brow.

  “Night, Ma,” he whispered, gently closing her eyes.

  The alien creature was beginning to squirm in her limp arm. The boy eyed it with distaste, then reluctantly reached for it as he knew his mother would have wished. It. He refused to think of it as anything else. As he drew it toward his chest, his trembling legs folded beneath the weight of responsibility.

  He would have to find a girl to nurse it. He should have no trouble there. Births were as common as deaths in this twisting warren of alleys. His disgruntled gaze lingered on the thing’s face. He supposed he should wash it. It was dirty, but when had anything clean ever come from this place? It would be coughing up soot like the rest of them soon enough.

  He stroked a finger down the babe’s cheek, marveling that anything so chubby had emerged from his mother’s wasted flesh. Their gazes met, the baby’s unfocused, his sullen. Curiosity overcame his disgust and he unwound the rags.

  Amazed at the miniature perfection, he felt his lips twitch in bemusement. “Well, lad, it seems y’ve got all the right equipment.”

  Lad. Boy. Brother.

  His brother. A wave of protectiveness crested in him as his arms tightened around the tiny bundle. The poor creature had no mother. Tears of grief welled in his eyes; he dashed them away. At least he’d had a pa to give him a name. This little bugger had no one. No one but him.

  From outside the crib, a roar of drunken laughter mocked his fresh emotions. He couldn’t bear another moment trapped with the empty shell that had been his mother. Cradling the baby awkwardly against his chest, he rose and ducked into the chaos of the night.

  No one paid him any heed as he rushed down the cobbled alley, blindly seeking the one place where he might wash the stench of birth and death from his nostrils. The graceful spars of the docked ships soared into the night sky, drawing him like a beacon.

  Was this what had drawn his father? he wondered, dropping to his knees on the rough planking. The siren song of the waves lapping gently at the pilings?

  He knew what he had to do. He had to take his brother away from here. To a place where the scent of the sea wasn’t befouled by the oily stench of the river.

  He drew back the rags to gaze into the puckish face God had entrusted to his care. “I’ll take y’ away, lad,” he whispered. “I swear I’ll find a place where we both can breathe.”

  His little brother’s flailing fist struck him square in the nose. The boy threw back his head and laughed, his misgivings tempered by a fierce surge of joy.

  PART ONE

  Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.

  Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.

  WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

  CHAPTER ONE

  The English Channel

  1802

  “AYE, THERE’S SOME THAT SAYS HE’S THE ghost o’ Captain Kidd come back from the dead to revenge hisself on those who betrayed him.”

  Lucy Snow peeked over the top of her book, finding the lure of such torrid gossip more irresistible than the modestly titled, self-published memoirs of Lord Howell: Nautical Genius of the Century her father had provided for her journey. The creeping shadows of twilight had made reading nearly impossible anyway.

  Unaware of her scrutiny, the sailor leaned against a barrel, his ancient bones creaking in harmony with the deck of the HMS Tiberius. His audience consisted of a handful of sailors and a starry-eyed cabin boy. “None’s ever seen him and lived to tell of it. Some say only a glance from his evil eye’ll skewer you to the deck like a bolt o’ lightning. Aye, bold and ruthless is Captain Doom.”

  Lucy sniffed back a derisive snort. Captain Doom indeed. This mythical pirate was beginning to sound like a character in one of the dreadful Gothic novels Lord Howell’s flighty daughter Sylvie insisted on reading.

  One young sailor was of like mind. Lucy wrinkled her nose as he spat a wad of tobacco on the freshly scrubbed deck of the modest frigate. “Balderdash! I heard the stories, too, but I says it’s nothin’ but rum talkin’. There ain’t been true pirates in these waters for o’er seventy-five years.” He tilted his hat to a cocky angle, underscoring the brashness of his youth. “We ain’t livin’ in lawless times like Captain Kidd. This bloke’d be more likely to get his timbers shivered by the Channel Fleet than not.”

  Knowing her father would not have approved either her eavesdropping or interrupting what was meant to be a private conversation, Lucy bit back an agreement. The war with France had lapsed into tentative truce with the Peace of Amiens, but the quieter the winds blew from Napoleon’s burgeoning empire, the more nervous the Royal Navy became. This Captain Doom would have to be either foolhardy or foolish to put himself in their eager cannon sights.

  “Not if he truly is a ghost,” the cabin boy whispered, startling Lucy with his precise reply to her musings. “Then he’d have nothin’ to lose. Nothin’ at all.”

  Lucy shivered in spite of herself and huddled deeper into her shawl. Now, Lucinda, the Admiral admonished from perfect memory, seafaring men are a superstitious lot, but you’re not a girl given to fancy. For once, his chiding voice brought comfort instead of humiliation.

  A sailor in a worn peacoat drew a whalebone pipe from his pocket. As he struck a match and touched it to the capped bowl, the flame cast wavering shadows over a face leathered by sun and salt spray. “I seen him,” he announced curtly, earning all of their attentions, including Lucy’s. “I was on lookout in the foretop on an eve much like this one. There weren’t nothin’ but sea and sky for miles, then suddenly the sea opened up and out she sailed like a demon ship cast from the bowels o’ hell.”

  Lucy suspected her own eyes were now as round as the cabin boy’s.

  “I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. ’Twas as if the very sight o’ her froze me blood. Before I could pry me mouth open to shout a warning, the sea swallowed her without so much as a billow. I never seen nothin’ like it in all me born days.” He shuddered. “Never hope to again.”

  A pall of silence enveloped the men, broken only by the eerie creaking of the spars and the lazy flapping of the sails against the wind. Full dusk had fallen as they spoke. Tendrils of mist came creeping out of the darkening sea like the tentacles of some mythical beast. Lucy saw one of the sailors glance over his shoulder and sign an unobtrusive cross on his breast. As if to banish the spell of foreboding, the men all began chattering at once.

  “I heard he carves his mark on his victims just like the devil he is.”

  “Won’t tolerate babblin’, they says. The lass wouldn’t stop screamin’, so he up
and sewed her lips together with sail twine.”

  “Cleaved the poor bloke in two, he did, with one mighty stroke of his cutlass.”

  The young sailor who had earlier dared to express scorn for the spectral captain wiggled his eyebrows in a mocking leer. “I’ll wager that ain’t nothin’ compared to the cleavin’ he does on his lady captives. One o’ my mates swears this Captain Doom ravished ten virgins in one night.”

  “Ha!” scoffed a grizzled tar. “I done as much after seven months at sea and nary a glimpse o’ stocking.”

  The young sailor elbowed him in the ribs. “Aye, but them weren’t hardly virgins, was they?”

  The men roared with laughter. Lucy reluctantly decided she’d best make her presence known before she learned more than she ever wanted to know about the romantic foibles of sailors. She extracted herself from her seat of coiled ropes and stepped into full view. The men snapped to flustered attention as if Admiral Sir Lucien Snow himself had marched onto the deck of the ship.

  Lucy was not impressed. She’d been receiving such welcomes since she’d been old enough to toddle up the gangplank of a ship. Her father’s reputation as one of the most revered admirals in His Majesty’s Royal Navy had preceded her every step.

  She favored them with a benevolent smile. “Good evening, gentlemen. I do hope I haven’t interrupted your charming discourse on the merits of piracy.” She nodded toward the young sailor, whose tanned skin had flushed a becoming peach. “Do go on, sir. I believe you were about to treat us to more of your speculations on Captain Doom’s romantic exploits.”

 
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