THE WARM WATERS of the Caribbean Sea washed over Arabella Baines as she knelt on the shore, shaking like a leaf in the wind. She was chilled to the bone, as if her heart had turned into a ball of ice pumping arctic waters through her veins. She hardly registered the height of the tide as it swept over her. The gentle waves that had lapped at her skirts that afternoon now crashed high enough to splash her bodice, sending tiny crystalline droplets through the air and scattering over her neck and face. She wished the waters would rise high and strong enough to drag her into the depths of the cruel sea. Hot tears splashed her cheeks, her throat hoarse and raw from weeping. She’d been out here most of the day, mourning what had once been and what would never be now that the love of her life had been taken away. “Oh, Drew,” she moaned, burying her face in her hands. “How can I be expected to live without you?” On this very beach, bathed by silvery moonlight, she had lain in his arms and pledged her heart and soul to him for eternity. A vow whispered in the night, an oath sealed with blood, a promise that could never be broken. Had it only been two years since she’d stood here with him, whispering her hopes and dreams for the future—a future in which he would be her husband the father of her children? This morning the moment had felt like only yesterday, but that was before she’d received the devastating news of the death of Andrew Reeves. Now, it seemed like a lifetime stretched between the hopeful girl she had been and the broken one she was now. An eternity ago, she had pressed her cut and bleeding palm against that of another and spoken words that bound her to him for life. It hadn’t mattered to them that their little ritual could be considered pagan and sacrilegious, that their union was no real marriage and it meant nothing to anyone but them. But, Arabella wouldn’t have cared, for on that night she and Drew had been the only two people in the world.
If it was real and true to them, what did it matter what anyone else thought? He was supposed to have made her his wife by now, after earning the funds needed to purchase shares in his uncle’s shipping company. With those shares and the security of owning part of a business, he would be ready to approach her father with an offer of marriage. The man had refused Drew twice before, insisting that he would not give his daughter over to a landless, penniless carpenter’s apprentice no matter how much he claimed to love her. So, Drew had made it his mission to change his circumstances. “Your father is right to want a secure future for you,” Drew had told her after the second refusal. “My dowry is more than enough to provide such a future,” she’d argued. “He is simply being unreasonable.” He had chuckled, the sun creating prisms of gold in his honey-hued eyes and glinting off brown skin baked to deep umber by the sun. He reminded her of a lion sunning itself on the sand, all golden skin and eyes and a wide, plush mouth. The most beautiful man she’d ever seen.
“It isn’t unreasonable. He wants to keep the fortune hunters at bay by ensuring the man who weds you has something to offer. It is no more than I would want for my own daughter, if I had one.” “Someday you will have daughters of your own, and sons too,” she had vowed. “I will give you as many of them as you like.” That had led to him tumbling her onto her back, laughing as she’d put up a fuss over the sand in her hair but paying her no heed as he’d bent his head for a kiss. As always, the joining of their lips had led to the caress of his hands, his deft fingers pulling her garments loose and searching out the parts of Arabella that sent pleasure spiraling through her body. Now, he was gone, leaving her to grapple with the loss of her hopes and dreams. There would be nothing for her but this yawning pit of grief and abandonment that had opened up within her. Arabella wished it would consume her, obliterating her very existence in the same way the treacherous sea had wiped Drew’s away.
She could not exist without him. Reaching down into her cleavage, she took hold of the wooden talisman she kept tucked out of sight. The smooth, carved surface of the circular pendant had been carved with the face of a lion in startling detail—a luxurious mane surrounding a majestic face, complete with a snarling mouth and sharp, pointed teeth. Drew had made it himself, taking painstaking care with the delicate carving tools—so different from the instruments he employed as a carpenter’s apprentice. It didn’t matter whether a task required the brute force of his back and shoulders, or the finesse of his slender, dexterous fingers, Drew had worked magic and miracles with wood. When he’d finished whittling the piece, she’d begged him for it—a part of Drew to always carry on her person. She had taken to tucking it into the space between her shift and her skin, the tight cinch of her stays keeping it pressed against her sternum. With every breath, she could feel that circle of carved wood, and with every beat of her heart she was reminded that she belonged to him, body and soul. Only now, she belonged to a dead man, a ghost. Arabella would never hear the smooth, deep tones of his voice, feel the touch of his callused hands or the tight bands of his strong arms around her.
She would never become his wife or bear his children. Closing her fist around the talisman, she gritted her teeth around a sob, the sound akin to that of some wounded animal. How fitting, for that was how she felt—like a felled beast torn open from gullet to groin and left drowning in agony and blood. A warm, firm hand fell on her shoulder, and the stroke of a thumb along the back of her neck had her going stiff. Swiveling on the man who had intruded upon her solitude, she parted her lips to give him what for. But, when her gaze collided with a familiar one, the fight went out of her. She came swiftly to her feet but then stumbled, and the man caught her up, his arms comforting but nowhere near as strong as Drew’s. “William,” she mewled into his coat, shoulders shaking as sobs overtook her again. “Please tell me it isn’t true … tell me he isn’t dead?” William Throckmorton’s hand touched her back, rubbing in a slow, circular motion meant to sooth. All it did was remind her that she’d never again feel the touch she most craved.
“I am so sorry, Bella,” he murmured, his accents smoothed, cultured, and distinctly English. “But it’s true. He is gone.” Her knees gave out, the weight of her soaked skirts dragging them both down to the sand. Will went down on one knee, keeping a tight hold on her as she wept into his shirtfront. She squeezed her eyes shut to keep from looking at him, for he looked far too much like Drew. While there were many marked differences caused by William’s mother being the lawful British wife of their shared father, and Drew’s mother having been a mulatto slave, there were far too many similarities. The hazel eyes rich with golden prisms and flecks of green. The strong features giving them the same prominent cheekbones and sharp jaw. The width of their mouths was similar, though Drew’s lips were decidedly fuller than his half-brother’s.
Even their voices were alike, deep and a bit gravelly, though William’s refined accent and succinct manner of speech proved just one other thing marking the differences between him and Drew. Both men had been friends to her since she was a girl, her father’s plantation bordering the Throckmorton’s. While she had been raised in luxurious surroundings and catered to in the same manner as William, Arabella had been closer to Drew. Both born of slave women and the men who had taken them as mistresses, they shouldered a common burden. Set free due to the consciences of their fathers and offered lives far better than others with their brown skin and African features, they might be considered fortunate, privileged even. Particularly Arabella, who had been moved into her father’s grand mansion following the death of his lawful wife. No lady of the house had been there to stop him from bringing his black mistress and mulatto bastard into his home, or to protest Arabella being taught to read and write by one of the best tutors on the island, as well as being instructed in ladylike comportment, various ballroom dances, art, literature, French, and Latin. But only Drew knew what it was like to not be wholly English or wholly African, and have no defined place in the world. They’d felt it as children, even if they hadn’t understood it as they had once coming into adulthood. Even as William treated Drew as a beloved brother and Arabella like a little lady, the clear differences between him and them had become more and more clear with time.
She and Drew had clung to one another, an island unto themselves, united in the differences setting them apart from most of the island’s inhabitant’s, who stood clearly to one side of an invisible line bisecting two very different worlds. Drew had known what it was like to live in Arabella’s skin, to see the world through her eyes, and now … now he was gone. “The hour grows late,” Will murmured. “Let me see you home before you catch a chill.” The soft breeze of the early evening had begun to quicken, the air cooling as the sun disappeared on the horizon. Still, Arabella couldn’t bring herself to move. “Leave me alone. Let me die here by the sea, near him.” It didn’t matter that Drew’s ship had gone down half a world away. All the oceans met somewhere.
And so my soul shall meet yours, Drew, she thought. Somewhere over the water, we shall meet again. “Is that what you want?” Will murmured, fishing a handkerchief from his breast pocket and using it to dry her cheeks. “Will you further drive the dagger into my heart by allowing yourself to die? Will you leave me alone in the world without my brother, and without the dearest friend I have left?” Staring into his eyes, Arabella felt like the most selfish creature in the world. William’s mother had only been able to bear one son, and his father’s mistress had given him the only sibling he possessed. It hadn’t mattered to him where Drew had come from, or how his presence in Falmouth enraged his mother to no end. He was, perhaps, the only person in the world who could claim to love Drew as much as Arabella. They’d both suffered a devastating loss this day. “Forgive me,” she murmured, allowing him to help her to her feet. “I cannot imagine how this must hurt you, Will.
” The ocean sucked at their feet, dousing their shoes and stockings. Will kept a tight hold on her, not allowing the tide to drag her out to sea by her sodden skirts. “We have only each other now, Bella. We must carry on, and … we must have hope.” She closed her eyes against another onslaught of tears. “When he was taken by that press-gang and forced into service, you told me to have hope. When we received the rare letter from him about the harsh conditions and horrid treatment by his officers, you told me to pray for him and not allow my hope to die. He would come home someday, you said. Your father would find a way, or his ship would eventually make its way back. I had hope then, but no more, Will, none at all.
How can I when Drew … he is …” She choked on the words, unable to say them aloud. It was difficult enough to think them. “We must carry on,” William insisted, giving her a little shake. “It is what he would have wanted … for us to find comfort in each other and live. How much do you think it would hurt him to know you were willing to throw your life away, to lay down and die?” Drew cannot feel anything, Will, she wanted to argue. He is dead. But, he had a point. Drew had loved them both. He would never want them to spend the rest of their lives bemoaning his loss. Of course, she couldn’t even think of moving on now, with the news of his death still so fresh.
But, in time, perhaps she would find the strength to do it. Her mother had been a woman of great strength, enduring the hardships and complexities of a life such as hers with grace and dignity until the day she had died. She’d taught Arabella how to navigate a complicated world that didn’t seem to have a true place for her, and to do it with her head held high. Leonora Baines was gone now, but she had given Arabella everything she needed to carry on without her. “You are right,” she said, reaching up to lay a hand over Will’s, which rested on her cheek. “We will get through this together, won’t we?” He gave her a smile, but it never reached his eyes and his lips trembled as if he did his very best not to cry. But, he remained strong for her, one hand tight at her waist, the other soft and gentle at her jaw. “Yes,” he whispered. “Together. I do love you, Arabella.
And now you are all I have left in the world.” Affection for him filled her, swelling her bosom and warming her insides. “And I love you, Will, like the brother I never had. Thank you for coming here to find me … for being here for me, I … I am so grateful for you.” She hugged him tight, taking comfort in his nearness and warmth, and the crisp smell of his starched linen mingling with that of bay rum. It wasn’t the distinct bergamot and clove that always clung to Drew, but it brought her succor all the same. “You’ll never have to be alone, Bella,” he whispered against the crown of her head. “I’m here … I’m not going anywhere.”