1668—Porto Bello, Panama
Captain Edmund Merrick propped his head in his hand and gazed at the angel lying next to him. Reaching over, he eased a curled lock from her face and smiled as she squirmed, snuggling her head deeper into the pillow. How many nights had he spent without her these past three years? Too many to count. Now that he was back in the Caribbean for good, he found he could not keep his eyes off his precious wife.
Charlisse stirred, and her eyes fluttered open. An ocean breeze floated in from the veranda and danced playfully through her golden curls, then drifted over her nightdress, creating waves of shimmering silk in the candlelight. The alluring nightgown was a gift he had brought her from France—a token that in no way could make up for the many months they had spent apart. Now, as he gazed at the way her feminine curves filled out every inch of the silky fabric, he was beginning to think it was more a gift for himself than for her. He smiled and saw her cheeks redden under his perusal. Married for nigh three years, he could still make her blush with only a look.
She shifted her gaze. “What are you thinking, you cad?”
“What this cad is always thinking when he is near his beautiful wife.” He caressed her cheek.
An explosion shattered the thick night air, sending violent tremors through the sleeping city. Merrick bolted from the bed. Musket shots cracked like fireworks in the distance. He shoved his legs into his breeches, then barreled onto the veranda. The blaze of torches and the flash of gunfire coming from Fort San Lorenzo, lit up the night sky. From the second story of the hacienda, he scanned the dark waters of the bay swirling below the fort. No enemy lurked there, only the gloomy hulks of dozing ships.
Soft fingers touched his arm. “What is happening?”
A cannon blast boomed across the sky. Charlisse jumped. Merrick took her in his arms. “The fort is under attack.”
Charlisse stepped toward the railing and stared into the night. A scream pierced the darkness, followed by another volley of musket shot. She faced him with a look of terror. “Who is it?”
“I don’t know.” Merrick led her inside. Fear snaked up his spine. He’d nearly lost Charlisse once before and had no intention of ever putting her in harm’s way again. Placing his hands on her shoulders, he kissed her forehead. “I want you to get dressed and pack our things.” He turned and grabbed his clothes that were strewn about the room. Who would dare attack such a well-defended port? The Dutch? Surely they would not risk a war with Spain when they had just ended one with England. The British? They preferred more surreptitious means of attacking their enemies. He could think of no alternative save pirates—and that option disturbed him most of all.
After buttoning his cotton shirt, he slipped on his waistcoat and plopped into a leather chair to pull on his boots.
“Don’t leave me here, Merrick,” Charlisse said with a crack in her voice. “In the middle of an enemy town. You know what these Spanish will do if they find an English woman in their midst.”
Merrick stood and saw the fear skipping across her wide eyes. He strapped on his baldric as the clang of a distant sword fight and the roar of a cannon blared through the window. Charlisse flinched and turned to face him, swallowing hard.
He approached and lifted her chin. Her crystal blue eyes sparkled with admiration as they shifted between his. “You are my wife, milady. I will never let anything happen to you.” Leaning down, he kissed her, exploring the softness of her lips and enjoying the taste of her—a taste of which he knew he would never tire.
Charlisse stepped back and lowered her head. “I’m afraid, Merrick.”
Following her gaze, he placed his hand over the slight swelling of her belly. “I won’t let anything happen to either of you.”
Musket fire erupted outside, and the rank stench of gunpowder drifted in with the breeze.
Merrick grabbed his sword and sheathed it. After checking his pistols, he dropped them into the slots on his baldric. “Get dressed, Charlisse.” He took her hand in his. “I’ll return soon.” He marched toward the door, cursing himself for bringing his wife to this dangerous Spanish city.
Charlisse stared at the door, feeling a sudden chill at Merrick’s departure. What had happened to the brave girl who had left the comforts of London three years before and risked everything to sail to the Caribbean alone? Maybe it was the child she carried that caused her courage to falter. Placing her hand over her stomach, she closed her eyes, remembering the sparkle in Merrick’s eyes when she’d told him that he was going to be a father.
Pistol shots sliced through the darkness, shattering Charlisse’s blissful thoughts. Scrambling to her open trunk, she removed her nightdress and threw on her petticoats, bodice, and a turquoise gown trimmed in satin lace. She pinned her hair up in a loose bun and gathered Merrick’s scattered things from around the room, placing them into the trunk before she slammed it shut. They hadn’t unpacked yet—they hadn’t expected to stay at Don Diego’s hacienda for more than a day or two while Merrick sought his latest prey.
Loud voices from the hall drew her attention, and Merrick crashed through the door, followed by Don Diego de Acala. “We must leave quickly.” Merrick marched to the bed and grabbed Charlisse’s cloak.
Charlisse’s insides quivered at his harried tone. “Why? Who is attacking the fort?”
Merrick looked down at her with his piercing dark eyes. He seemed hesitant. His ebony hair had escaped its tie and fell in disarray around his handsome face.
Don Diego stepped forward into the light. The spurs on the heels of his boots rang like warning bells when he walked across the room. A Spanish saber, its golden hilt glittering in the lamplight, hung at his side. “It’s the pirate Captain Morgan. The outer fort has fallen, and he now attacks San Lorenzo. Our courageous governor has barricaded himself within the fort’s stone walls and has left his city defenseless.”
Charlisse swerved to face her husband. “But don’t you know Captain Morgan?”
Merrick helped Charlisse on with her cloak. “ ’ Tis true, my love, but it won’t matter. I’m told he has near five hundred vicious men in his company, and they will give neither care nor concern as to whether I know their captain.”
Stepping toward the open window, Don Diego peered out. A tortured scream rose above the tumult, followed by a crisp pop, pop, pop of pistol and musket fire—louder this time. “After they take the fort, they will swarm through the city like locusts.” The commanding Spanish don turned on his heels, his sword swinging behind him. “If you leave now, you may escape them.”
“But you will not. You must come with us, Diego,” Merrick said. Don Diego waved his hands in the air. “And leave my home? No, I’m tired of running.”
Charlisse knew little about Don Diego de Acala except that he had once been a pirate and although Spain held his foremost allegiance, his ties of friendship with Merrick, formed long ago, remained strong. He had taken Merrick and Charlisse into his hacienda at great risk to himself. Merrick approached his friend and clasped his arm. “I’ll get my wife safely aboard the Redemption, and then return to help you.”
“No need, mi amigo. It is too dangerous for you. I am well armed and have many servants who will fight with me.”
Merrick released his hand. “You would do the same for me.”
Don Diego sprang for the door and shouted something in Spanish down the hall.
Leading her from the room, Merrick picked up his pace. Another blast from the fort’s cannons shook the stone walls of the hacienda, loosening dust that rained down on them from the beams overhead. Charlisse coughed.
“My things.” She pointed back toward their room.
“I’ll come back for them.” Merrick hurried her down the marble stairs, through a tiled entryway, and out the front door into the main gallery—a beautiful garden open to the starry sky and surrounded by thick adobe walls spiked with iron. An iron gate guarded the only entrance, and on the other side of its rusty rods, slaves and commoners dashed through the street while caballeros on horseback raced by, ordering them to move aside. A sense of urgency overcame Charlisse. This was no small attack. These murderous vermin would soon overrun the city, and people would surely die.
Charlisse turned for one last look at the grandiose mansion of Don Diego de Acala, a two-story hacienda of wood and stone with exquisite balconies overhanging the gallery. She feared for the people inside and for Don Diego himself. How would they survive such an assault?
From around the corner a servant hurried, leading a magnificent black horse. Don Diego took the reins, and the animal snorted and stomped his hooves into the dirt, stirring up a cloud of dust. “This is my fastest horse,” he told Merrick. “A rare Andalusian stallion.”
A barrage of musket fire cracked the darkness not far from them, followed by a woman’s strangled scream. Charlisse’s insides clenched.
“The pirates have already reached the city.” Don Diego handed the reins to Merrick. “You must hurry.”
Charlisse’s breath came in quick spurts. How would they ever make it to their cockboat tethered at the Manzanillo Bay, when five hundred drunken pirates scoured the city? She faced Merrick—suddenly angry with her husband for his insatiable quest for adventure. “If we had only settled in the colonies like I wanted, our child would not be in such grave danger.”
Merrick’s lips pressed into a somber line as he assisted Charlisse up onto the saddle, her skirts billowing around her. He turned to his friend. “I’ll return soon.”
Don Diego nodded. “Now hurry.”
Taking two full strides, Merrick swung himself up behind Charlisse on the horse’s back. The stallion bolted, and Merrick reached around her and grabbed the reins. His warm breath floated down her neck. Despite her anger, she leaned back onto his chest, hoping his strength would ease her fears.
He gave the horse a kick. The powerful stallion neighed and clawed the air with his front hooves, then charged from the courtyard and through the iron gate held open by one of Don Diego’s servants.