The Black Lion – Victoria Vale

The blazing orange sun cast its rays over the deserted patch of beach along the coast of Falmouth. Undulating palms swayed with the stirring of balmy air, hiding the pair who ran and played in the sand from the world. Beyond the overgrowth of forest lay the oppressiveness of life as they knew it; but here, they were alone and happy. The world was theirs, and they were free. Arabella Baines giggled as she ducked under the arm stretched toward her, giving a coy smile to the man chasing her along the shore. On dry land, mounds of muslin and silk lay strewn in patches of snowy white and powder blue. Her sister would turn her nose up and huff at the sight of Arabella wearing only her shift, stays, and a single petticoat, her feet bare and sand-speckled, curls falling loose of their coiffure. The man romping along the sand with her was similarly underdressed, his coat, waistcoat, stock, shoes, and stockings abandoned. Upon returning home, she would turn herself back into the perfect picture of a lady. Out here, however, she was not the daughter of one of the island’s largest plantation owners. Away from the eyes of others, she was an ocean goddess, a bird free to fly where she pleased, a feather blown on the wind. Stumbling over a mound of sand, Arabella pitched forward but was caught up by a pair of hands at her waist. She fell against a firm male body, his warmth seeping through her clothes and exacerbating the humidity of the air. “Caught you,” he rumbled in her ear before sweeping her off her feet. Arabella’s squeals and laughs echoed over the water as he turned and tumbled them onto the sand, rolling to lay atop her.

His bulk blotted out the sun, its rays framing him like a halo as he loomed over her, chest heaving with heavy breath and a wide smile lighting up his face. Andrew Reeves was the most beautiful man she had ever lain eyes on. Tall and broad in the chest and shoulders, he was sturdily built from years of manual labor. The afternoon light glinted 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. His damp hair had been brushed into soft waves and clubbed into a queue when they first arrived on the beach, but now rebelled into a form more akin to lamb’s wool. Biting her lip, she gazed up at him, caressing his stubble-roughened jaw with one hand. “What are you going to do with me?” Long, dark lashes lowered over his eyes, and he dipped his head to capture her mouth with a groan. His kiss was fiery, desperate with longing and need. Arabella answered him with equal ardor, her skin flushing hot and the tips of her breasts going to stiff points as he pressed her into the sand.

Bending her knee, she allowed his hips to fall into the cradle of her pelvis, whimpering at the feel of the hard organ between his legs. Andrew’s fingers tangled in her hair as he stroked her tongue with his, deep sounds of desire emanating from his throat. The kiss ended as abruptly as it had begun when he tore his lips from hers with a ragged sigh. “Drew?” Dropping his head against her shoulder, he took a slow, measured breath before replying. “Bella, we can’t. We’ve waited this long … what’s another year or so?” He rolled, landing at her side with a sigh. The sound was heavy with the frustration. To hear him say it might be another year before they could wed made her heart sink. “Will it take so long? Surely, Father—” “Has refused me for the third time,” he interjected with a grimace. “If I cannot meet his approval, we’ll simply have to wait for you to come of age.

I just need a little more time.” Turning on her side to face him, she rested a hand on Drew’s chest, stroking bare skin through the opening left by his loosened buttons, the coarse rasp of dark hairs tickling her fingertips. “Of course I will wait, as long as it takes. There is nothing more I want than to be your wife.” It was their hope to be allowed to wed once Drew had earned the funds to purchase shares in his uncle’s shipping company. With the security of owning part of a business, he would be ready to approach her father with an offer of marriage. He had refused Drew three times now, insisting 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,” he insisted. “My dowry is more than enough to provide such a future.

He’s simply being unreasonable.” Drew chuckled, the sun creating prisms of gold in his hazel eyes. “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 vowed. “I will give you as many of them as you like.” He laid his hand over hers, pressing it tighter against his chest. Its cadence was steady and sure as he held her gaze, using his other hand to stroke her cheek and leaving behind a streak of sand. “You deserve the best of everything life has to offer, my Bella.

I intend to give you the world.” “You are my world.” He was on her again, lips seeking, hands roaming to the flesh constricted and pushed up by her stays. The usual flux of desire flared between them, and Arabella arched into him, silently begging for his hands on her, for what small pleasures they could share without the benefit of marriage. Drew had been adamant about saving the most irrevocable of intimacies until after they had wed. Though, he made that vow before knowing how long they would have to wait. Neither of them had counted on her father’s continued resistance because Drew was incapable of offering her the life she was accustomed to. It didn’t matter to Archibald Abbot that she loved Drew, and had since girlhood. He didn’t care that as the half-caste daughter of a slave, her options for marriage were slim enough as it was. Her father insisted that having been bred as any other highborn lady in Falmouth, she could do better than a carpenter’s apprentice.

He had introduced her to several men of means, the sons of his friends and business contacts, but Arabella had shunned them all. She was determined to hold out until Archibald either relented, or she grew to her majority and no longer needed his permission to wed. She refused to consider a future in which she didn’t become Mrs. Arabella Reeves. THE HOURS PASSED them by in a haze of slow, drugging kisses and heated caresses. As the sun began to dip toward the horizon, Drew and Arabella had no choice but to rinse their hands and feet as best they could, then help one another dress. Their stolen moments were fewer and farther between these days. Drew was much in demand as a carpenter, the plethora of ships coming and going from port requiring parts for repairs and barrels for storage. They trekked through the wild overgrowth of jungle toward Greenhill Plantation, hands joined and comfortable silence stretching between them. Arabella’s skin still tingled from the aftermath of Drew’s attentions, her nipples tight and heat lingering between her legs.

How she longed for the day they no longer needed to run off and hide to be together, when Drew would come home to her at the end of each day. She squeezed his hand with a happy sigh, and he glanced down at her, mouth cocking in a half-smile as if he shared her thoughts. The crunch and rustle of underbrush drew Arabella’s attention to the man heading toward them from the direction of the house. His strides were long, his face pinched into a mask of worry as he came into view, then seemingly relieved at the sight of them. William Throckmorton shared a father with Drew, though his mother had been the lady of the house while Drew’s had been a mulatto slave. Despite this, they were uncannily similar in appearance. The hazel eyes rich with golden prisms and tiny 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. 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.

“There you are,” Will said, shoulders sagging. “Bella, I was just visiting with your father and brother and overheard a servant mention that no one had seen you since breakfast. I thought I’d come warn you that someone will come looking if you don’t return soon.” Bella offered him a smile, feeling no shame that he’d nearly caught them in a compromising position. The Throckmorton brothers had been friends to her since childhood, her father’s lands bordering their father’s plantation. While she had been raised in luxurious surroundings and catered to in the same manner as William, Arabella had always 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.

Drew was the only person she knew who understood what it was like to not be wholly English or wholly African, and have no defined place in the world. They had felt it as children, even if they hadn’t understood it as they did now. Though William treated Drew as a beloved brother and Arabella like a little lady, the clear differences between them had become clearer with time. She and Drew clung to one another, united in the differences setting them apart from most of the island’s inhabitants, who stood clearly to one side of an invisible line bisecting two very different worlds. Drew knew what it was like to live in Arabella’s skin, to see the world through her eyes. Even while the two of them had grown closer, the nature of their relationship changing from friendly to romantic, William had always been there—a brother to Drew and a dear friend to Arabella. “Thank you, Will. If anyone asks—” “I found you out for a walk on the beach by yourself, and offered to escort you back to the house,” Will replied, flashing her a soft smile. “Worry not, Bella. If you are ever caught, it will not be because of me.

” “A man couldn’t ask for a better brother,” Drew said, releasing her hand to clap Will on the shoulder. “How are you, Will? I haven’t seen you in a while.” Will fell in step with them as they continued along the rough path through the trees. “Estate affairs have kept me busy. Father left for England a fortnight ago and we don’t expect him back for several months.” Drew’s mouth tightened at the corners, and their trio lapsed into an awkward silence. Will’s involvement with the plantation he would someday inherit was almost never discussed between them, as the lands he stood to gain would come with hundreds of slaves—people who very much resembled Drew and Bella, their mothers, the families they had been separated from by their elevation in status. Clearing his throat, Will smiled again, only this time it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Anyway, I am actually free this evening. Care to join me at the Bull’s Head for dinner and drinks?” Drew squeezed his brother’s shoulder and gave him a little jostle.

“I’d love to. If you see Bella home, I’ll meet you there in … say, two hours?” “That will do.” “Am I not to be invited?” Bella quipped. She giggled at the outraged expressions on both their faces. The Bull’s Head was a male domain, and the only women who ever set foot inside were barmaids and lightskirts. Will uttered a foul oath under his breath, and Drew narrowed his eyes at her. “Do you want to start a riot? Because that’s what will happen if any of the men in that place so much as look at you askance—which they are certain to do.” “Out of the question,” Will agreed. With another laugh, she wriggled her way between the two men and looped her arms around their waists. “Oh, but I should be perfectly safe with two big, strong men there to protect me, shan’t I? Or … I’ve got it! I could dress in breeches and pose as a man for the night.

With a little binding and the right waistcoat—” “Bella,” Drew growled. Will’s neck flushed scarlet as he gave her a sidelong glance, his eyes dipping toward her bodice. “I think we can all agree that no waistcoat is going to conceal … those. You do love courting trouble, Bella.” Tickling Will’s ribs and producing a grunted laugh, she then turned and pressed her lips against Drew’s shoulder. “I’m only joking. Calm down, both of you. Though, I do find it endearing that you’re both so protective. My knights in shining armor.” “Always,” Drew replied.

The massive structure of the Abbot family home showed through the palms in the distance, so she released her hold on the two men. They paused, Drew turning to face them both. “I’ll part ways with you here. Will, I’ll see you shortly. Bella …” He took hold of her hands and pulled her into him for one last kiss. She went up on tiptoe to meet Drew, something within her rebelling at the idea of being parted from him. Who knew when they might see one another again? Will remained silent as they whispered their farewells. “I love you,” Drew murmured, smoothing one of her loose, corkscrew curls through his fingers. “My Bella.” “And I, you.

” Then, Drew was gone, disappearing toward where he’d tethered his horse. Will offered his arm with a grim expression. “Shall we?” They continued toward the house, Will keeping his gaze riveted to their surroundings while Arabella studied her friend with a furrowed brow. His forearm was tense beneath her hand, jaw wound tight and worry lines bracketing his mouth. “Is everything all right, Will?” His expression softened as he cut his gaze at her, and he patted her hand. “Of course. I just … I do not wish to upset you.” “It will upset me for you to keep secrets. Would you have me worry about you?” “It is I who worries … for you and Drew.” She came up short, forcing him to halt and face her.

“What do you mean?” He braced his hands on his hips and issued a sigh. The waning sun glinted off his dark brown hair with an orange glow, the long strands caught back by ribbon. “You brother told me Drew called on Mr. Abbot yesterday afternoon.” “He did,” Arabella said cautiously, uncertain why Will had broached this subject. “He spoke with father about a potential marriage between us.” “And was rejected, yet again.” Arabella shrugged, though disappointment roiled through her at the reminder. “Father is simply being protective. Once he’s been made to see that Drew is more than capable of taking care of me—” “Bella, you cannot be so naïve.

I’m sorry, I do not wish to be harsh, but surely you understand Mr. Abbot has plans for your future.” She scowled. “What sort of plans could he possibly have for me? He has his legitimate daughter through which he can gain more power, prestige, and money.” Reaching up to stroke her cheek, he gave her a true smile this time. “You sell yourself short, my dear. You are a lady in every way, and beautiful as well. Mr. Abbot can see this and will seek to make the most advantageous marriage possible. I love my brother, and I know how the two of you feel about each other.

I certainly cannot tell you not to love him, or tell him not to do everything he can to secure a match. I just … I don’t want to see either of you hurt if your father has his way in the end.” Arabella returned Will’s smile, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze. “You are a good friend, and I do understand your concern. But I won’t be forced into an unwanted marriage. Drew will not give up until father sees things our way, or I become old enough to wed without his permission. Either way, we be together. I have faith in us.” “Your unending optimism is one of the things I love most about you, Bella. Forgive me, I meant no harm.

” “I know you didn’t. Of the three of us, you’ve always been the most reasonable and pragmatic. We need that balance sometimes. Thank you.” She went on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. He clutched her arms and bent his head to accept the chaste peck. “Anything for you, Bella,” he murmured. Will then tucked her hand back in the crook of his arm, expression placid as he led her across the lawn toward the home she had grown up in. With a resigned sigh, she prepared herself to step back into a role she loathed, a place she’d never quite felt she belonged in. Just one more year, she told herself.

When measured against the rest of her life, it seemed like a paltry amount of time. For Drew, she would wait as long as it took. TWO YEARS LATER … The warm waters of the ocean washed over Arabella 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. Had it only been two years since she’d stood here with Drew, 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 his death. Arabella had only to close her eyes to remember the last time they were together, the details burned into her memory like an indelible brand. “I don’t need your father’s permission or the words of a priest for you to be mine,” he said.

“In my heart, you belong to me in every way that matters. No one can take that from us.” “Yes, Drew. I am yours and could never belong to another. I need no outside force to approve or make our love more real.” Opening his palm, Drew met her gaze while unsheathing the stiletto he always carried in his belt. Arabella gasped when he dragged it across his palm, but he didn’t so much as flinch as a thin slash appeared through the skin and blood welled within. “Now you,” he murmured, his voice low but heavy with meaning and purpose. She understood what he asked for without explanation, and suddenly Arabella wanted this too badly to worry over fleeting pain. A moment of oneness, a ritual grounding them in the moment and to one another, was more important than the possibility of a leftover scar.

Offering her hand, Arabella kept her gaze on Drew’s face rather than the place where his sharp blade slid across her palm. The brief sting faded to a dull annoyance as he pressed his palm to hers, his fingers tight against the delicate bones of her hand. Arabella gripped him back, trembling with the weight of the moment as he looked deep into her eyes and spoke the words that would bind them together for eternity. “Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh … I am yours and you are mine. Only death can part us now, Bella. No matter who or what may try to come between us, know that I will not allow it. If I can draw breath, there is no force in this world that can keep me from you.”

.

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