Santo Domingo, Caribbean
From the time Aidan was five years old, he had only known two worlds, the plantation where he’d been a slave from the ages of five to eight and the life he’d made with the woman who’d taken him from that hell. The woman who’d not only given him freedom, but also a family. Samantha.
In the years he’d sailed with her when she was the notorious captain Sam Steele, he’d come to love her as a mother and when she’d given up piracy and married an equally infamous pirate, he’d come to think of Luke Bradley as a father. Without knowing his own family name, he’d adopted Luke’s and, since the age of twelve, he’d considered himself Aidan Bradley.
Now, not only did he remember his first five years and the truth behind how he came to be a slave, he remembered his name. His real name. He was bleeding with it. How could it be? How the bloody hell could it be?
Behind him, Luke thrashed through the jungle, trying to keep up.
Aidan didn’t slow his pace. His head was full of the recently remembered images of his past, not to mention the fact he’d sailed with his father—his father!—for four years and neither of them had known it. The fact his own father hadn’t recognized Aidan, no matter the amount of time that had passed since they’d last seen each other, stung bitterly. But he didn’t want to think about it. It was taking everything in him to keep the memories and truth from suffocating him. He’d deal with it; he wasn’t a man to avoid things. But at the moment all he could think of was making Roche, the man responsible for it all, pay.
Aidan clamped his jaw. Aye, since he’d been five he’d been Aidan. Now he knew his true name was Caden. Caden Hunter. Was he still Aidan? He sure as blazes wasn’t thinking of himself as Caden. Nor was he thinking of Cale Hunter as his father, no matter that he now remembered the man was, indeed, just that. Did it matter which name he chose? Did it change who he was? And who was he, exactly? Aidan, the person he’d been since he was five, or Caden, the boy he’d been before then?
His thoughts and emotions spun faster and faster. Just when he thought of one thing, another shoved its way into his mind only to be overpowered by the next. It was like a maelstrom gathering momentum, going faster and faster, trying to pull him under. Aidan pressed a hand to his throbbing head. There was too much to consider, too much to take in and, if he stopped now, the truth was sure to bring him to his knees.
Luke caught up to him, grabbed Aidan’s arm, and spun him round on the nearly overgrown trail. The moon was out. Even waning, it cast a delicate silvery light on the foliage surrounding them. Yet there wasn’t anything delicate about Luke’s expression. His lips were thin beneath his mustache; his right eye gleamed. The other lay hidden behind a black eye patch.
“What are you going to do? The man you sailed under for four years is suddenly calling you by another name, all but begging you to forgive him.”
Aidan yanked his arm free. “That’s not what’s important right now.”
“That’s all that’s important right now.” Luke countered.
“Luke, Roche is out there and he can’t have gotten too far away. We need to move before he gets out of reach.”
“Dammit, boy, Roche can wait. You got him in the arm with your arrow and Cale shot him in the leg.”
Earlier, their family celebration had turned violent when Roche Santiago and his gang of miscreants flooded Nate and Claire’s yard and attacked. Crewmen had been lost but those Aidan considered his family had escaped mostly unharmed. It wasn’t only Sam and Luke who were here, but Sam’s sister Alicia and her family. There was Nate, Claire, and their children. What remained of Nate’s home continued to smolder in the night but it wasn’t the only thing left beyond salvation.
“He’s wounded.” Luke reasoned, though the last thing Aidan felt like doing was listening to reason. “He’ll need some time, enough that we can take a moment.”
“We can’t afford to wait! Either he’ll come back and finish what he started this night or, worse, he’ll get away.” Aidan fisted his hands. “I have no intention of letting either happen.”
Luke was silent a moment as he considered and finally gave a sharp nod. “He won’t get another chance to hurt Samantha, of that you can be sure.”
“Good. Then let’s get back to the others.” Aidan’s mind was already working ahead to just how they’d give chase but Luke wasn’t finished talking about Cale.
“Are you sure? About Cale?”
“Yes, damn it. I always knew I wasn’t your son but now there’s no pretending.” He wondered how Luke couldn’t see how the truth was tearing him apart.
Luke scowled even as his hand curved protectively around Aidan’s shoulder. “You are my son in the only way that matters. From the time I met you, I loved you as one, treated you as one. I don’t bloody care it’s not my blood in your veins, it’s my name you carry, isn’t it?”
“Only because I couldn’t remember my own!”
“You’re still Aidan.” Luke’s voice was firm.
Aidan’s laugh was mirthless. “And just who is that?”
The armada of gold chains Luke always wore around his neck tinkled as he pointed at Aidan’s chest. “That man. The man who loves to sail, who has always wanted to be the next Sam Steele. The man who loves those people over there.” Luke shifted the direction of his hand to the glow of the fire rising over the treetops.
‘Those people’ meant everything to Aidan and he’d been a part of their lives longer than he’d ever been a part of Cale’s. They’d laughed together, fought together, and he considered them family. Their children called him uncle and, for a man who’d believed himself an orphan, that meant everything. Certainly more than Cale meant to him. A man who hadn’t bothered searching for his son, who hadn’t even recognized his own blood, would not be raised above those who had loved him and taken him in as part of their family. As far as Aidan was concerned, he had the only family that mattered in Luke, Sam, and the others.
And he wouldn’t let anyone rip apart the life he’d built, not the vile pirate who had threatened them all nor the man who’d suddenly decided he wanted his lost son back.
“You’re right, those people are my family.” Aidan believed those words to the depth of his soul and knew he’d said what Luke wanted to hear when the rigidity fell from Luke’s stance.
Yet Aidan couldn’t help feeling his words might not be what his mother would have wanted him to say. He sighed as the throbbing turned to pounding. It was all so damn complicated. But one thing wasn’t. Getting to the man who was responsible and making him pay. He’d deal with the rest later.
“Roche may be wounded, Luke, but he knows we’re vulnerable. He will come back and we need to be gone when he does.”
Luke looked up the trail toward the fire and Aidan knew his thoughts had shifted to Sam and the child he’d only learned tonight she was carrying.
“We will be,” Luke agreed as he fell into step behind Aidan.
The smell of burnt wood and death thickened as they stepped into the clearing. Made of brick, the shell of Nate and Claire’s house remained but it was clear by the already collapsed roof and the fire raging inside that everything within it would be lost. Sam, her sister Alicia, Alicia’s husband, Blake, and their five children gathered in a tight circle. Grace—the woman Cale had taken off Roche’s ship then fallen in love with—stood with Nate and Claire and their three sons off to the side, closer to the house. The rest of the men from the combined crews sat well back, giving the families their space.
As he and Luke walked closer, the sobbing grew louder. The children were the loudest but it was Claire pressing her face into Nate’s shoulder that hurt Aidan the most. He knew the house was more than a home to Nate and Claire. It represented a dream. A dream they’d shared together when they’d met in an orphanage. A dream Nate had pursued on his own when he’d thought Claire was lost to him forever. Yet despite the obstacles, hurts, and years in between, when they’d finally come together, they’d made the house a home. Now it lay blazing before them. Aidan’s fury burned hot as the flames.
Luke stopped to gather Sam in his arms, but Aidan marched until he reached Claire and Nate. He took a deep breath and shook the fists from his hands. The need for revenge snarled within him, a rabid beast desperate to be set free, but he fought to contain it. He wasn’t the only one who’d lost tonight.
“Claire,” he said, setting his hand on her arm. “I am so terribly sorry.”
“Oh, Aidan.” She turned to him and he pulled her closer when her tears soaked his shirt.
He rubbed her back and looked over her head to Nate. Nate had little Will in his arms while the twins hugged his leg. “Had we known Roche was trailing us, we never would have led him here. I swear we never would have put you, your home, and everyone else at risk.”
Which was yet another reason to go after Roche. Willingly or not, it was because they’d attacked Roche’s ship to begin with and taken Grace from it that the man had set out after them.
“It’s just a house, Aidan. It can be replaced.” Yet the loss was evident in his every feature, in the drooping of his shoulders.
Claire sniffed, patted Aidan’s arm, and, with a shattered expression, went back to her husband’s side. The twins reached for her, sobbed into her skirts. Will’s chin wobbled, likely more due to the emotions he felt around him than any real understanding.
Beside Nate, Grace’s silent tears trailed down her face. Aidan knew she took the blame for what had happened tonight. But she, like the rest of them, hadn’t anticipated the lengths Roche would go to in order to get her back. Once she’d realized the extent he would go to, however, Grace had risked her life to spare the others.
“You saved us, Grace.” Aidan hurried to reassure. “We’re all alive because of you.”
“Look about, Aidan. There are dead on the ground and ’tis be my fault.”
“You are not responsible for Roche’s actions and there would be plenty more dead had you not risked yourself to save us.”
With the house burning around them, with Roche outside waiting to shoot as they escaped the flames, Grace had refused to come out until he’d let the others reach the safety of the trees. It was God’s truth more would be dead if it hadn’t been for her.
It weighed on him to see her hurting, to know they were all hurting, yet the soothing and comforting would have to wait. He glanced over his shoulder, struggled not to react when he saw Cale heading toward them. Their eyes met but Aidan looked away. He focused instead on Luke, who’d also noticed Cale’s approach. Luke’s glance jumped from Aidan to Cale. Aidan gave a slight shake of his head.
Turning his back on Cale, Aidan leaned in and said to Nate, “If Roche decides to come back, we are ripe for the picking. Our weapons are depleted and we’ve nowhere to hide.”
It didn’t take long for grief to give way to anger. “He won’t get another chance at us, of that you can be sure.”
“You live on this island. Is there somewhere safe you can take the women and children where they won’t be at risk?”
Claire wiped her tears. “How about Vincent’s House?”
“Go Vincent’s House!” Will exclaimed, his mood brightening as fast as only a child’s could.
Vincent’s House was the name of a trio of orphanages Claire and Nate ran. Besides Santo Domingo there was also one in San Salvador and Port Royal.
“You think it wise to go to the orphanage?” Luke asked. Apparently, the others had heard Will’s outburst as they were gathering round. Nate, Claire, Aidan, and Grace stepped back allowing everyone to form a large circle.
“I’ll not put children in danger on me behalf,” Grace said firmly, her Irish accent coming through thick.
“We have more weapons stored there,” Nate answered. “Under lock and key, well away from the children,” he added when Grace looked horrified.
“It’s not nearly as remote a location as this is,” Claire explained. “Vincent’s House may be on the edge of Santo Domingo, but it is still within the city’s walls.”
“If Isaac led Roche here, he may have also told him about Vincent’s House. It may not be safe,” Aidan continued.
“Who’s Isaac?” Claire asked.
“One of my crewmen,” Cale said. “After he tried to attack Grace, I marooned him for his efforts. Roche must have been trailing us and somehow managed to find him. It had to have been Isaac who led Roche here, as how else could he have known where we were?”
“There was a ship that kept weaving in and out sight but it never came any closer and both”—Aidan stumbled on the name and had to swallow before continuing—“both Cale and I dismissed it as a threat.”
“Obviously, we know now it must have been Roche’s ship and Isaac was definitely on it as he’s the one who shot me,” Cale said, drawing attention to the bandage the doctor amongst his crew—Jacques—had placed over the wound. He looked apologetically to Nate and Claire. “Isaac threw the firepots that started the fire. By the time I saw him, it was too late to keep him from tossing the second one, but I ensured it was the last thing he ever did.”
“Well, that’s something at least,” Nate muttered.
“Still, wouldn’t have been necessary if he hadn’t led him straight to us.” Luke taunted with a jab toward Cale.
Cale’s eyes glinted. His mouth hardly moved when he snarled, “You weren’t there, you don’t know. About any of it.”
Before Luke could answer, something shifted in the woods. Everyone sprang into action. Husbands and crew alike grabbed children and hoisted them off the ground or from their mother’s arms to hasten the group’s retreat. Then, fast as their feet would take them, everyone fled toward Santo Domingo.
Despite the fact they did not appear to have been followed, they took no chances. The moment they were inside the orphanage, doors and windows were reinforced, women took the children to the cellar and weapons were gathered. Once they were armed, a dozen of their crew was sent outside to keep guard while another dozen was sent back to Nate’s. If indeed Roche came back through the clearing, they needed to cut as many pirates down before they could reach the orphanage.
Aidan understood the reasoning and he agreed it all needed to be done, for he would die before he let any more harm come to his family. Yet every time he was called on to move this or help here, he envisioned Roche sailing further and further out of reach. The bastard couldn’t get away with what he’d done to Aidan’s mother. Taking a plank of wood from the pile at his feet, Aidan slapped it over a window.
“Damn it man, you almost crushed my fingers!”
“Get them out of the way, Chunk, or you deserve to lose them,” Aidan stated.
His comment earned him a glare from the burly man but that was the least of Aidan’s concerns. He hammered in the nail, then another, imagining they were Roche’s face. The clang of metal on metal was not as satisfying as the crunch of bone, but he swung with the same intent. He never missed. With the last board nailed in place, Aidan tossed his hammer aside.
Whatever remained to be done now the others could do. The orphanage was fortified enough that Aidan could leave without feeling he was leaving them vulnerable. After what felt like days, though couldn’t have been more than hours, he was finally ready to go after Roche and the Revenge.
The orphanage was a sprawling structure and despite the fact Aidan had been there a few times, he never failed to get lost in it. Hallways, arms of them, mocked him. Every time he rounded a corner thinking he would come upon the stairs, he simply found another corridor lined with bedrooms. Bloody hell, he’d just finished nailing boards on these very bedroom windows, why the devil couldn’t he find his way to the stairs? He was near ready to rip the damn planks off a window and take his chances jumping from the second story.
Finally, he heard the unmistakable sound of boots on steps. Aidan heaved a frustrated breath. Coming around the corner he nearly collided with Cale.
“There you are, I’ve been looking for you. I wanted to talk to you before –”
“Where is everyone?” Aidan’s words rolled over Cale’s and if the man didn’t get out of his way, his body would as well.
“In the dining room downstairs. I’d hoped –”
“You hoped wrong.” Aidan’s shoulder clipped Cale’s as he hastened past.
Cale was a solid bulk of a man. He grabbed Aidan’s arm and held tight, forcing Aidan to stop. They may have been father and son but where Cale was thick through the shoulders and chest, Aidan’s frame was long and lean. He may not have Cale’s bulk, but he wasn’t weak either. And he was taller. He used that fact to glare down at the man who’d sired him. “Let me go.”
“Will you listen to me if I do?”
Aidan’s lip curled. “It’s a bit late for explanations and excuses.”
Cale lowered his hand. “Clearly you’re not ready to talk to me yet, but you’ll have to one day. I won’t give up.”
Aidan glared at the man he’d considered friend for the past four years. Now he knew Cale was so much more. Yet despite his conflicting emotions, despite the hurt and the longing, there was one fact he simply could not get past.
“Funny that. I thought you already had,” Aidan said.
It was a somber group that greeted Aidan when he strode into the room, Cale directly behind him. Although it was night and the windows would have been dark regardless, the room felt dimmer, more confined with the boards covering them. The fact that they all smelled as though they had bathed in smoke helped little to ease the oppressiveness hanging in the air. Not even the flickering lamps or the thick columns of candles burning on the table chased away the gloom.
Faces were long and stark, eyes troubled, mouths curved downward.
The dining room in the orphanage could easily sit fifty children. Two long tables sat next to each other, benches on each side. Three sideboards, which would be laden with food come morning, rested against the far wall. The way Aidan saw it, there were likely children with parents who had less food than Claire’s orphans.
As far as Aidan knew, there had never been more than two-dozen orphans sitting at these tables at one time, but that hadn’t stopped Nate and Claire from building it large enough so no child in need would ever be turned away. With the share of Steele’s plunder given to them, acquiring supplies was never a problem.
Holding tight to Sam’s hand, Luke slid over on the bench. Aidan took his seat next to Luke while Cale settled on the opposite side next to Grace. Cale looked at Grace, gave her a reassuring smile. He took her hand, held it close. It only took seconds for his eyes to lock onto Aidan’s.
“I’m going after Roche,” Aidan stated. “It makes the most sense, as I have neither children nor a wife. Luke, if I take the Freedom and a crew and we leave now, we can catch Roche before he gets too far.”
“If you’re going after Roche, I’m going with you,” Cale stated.
Aidan’s spine stiffened. “Absolutely not.”
“I’ll be the one going with Aidan.” Luke growled at the same time.
Nate held up his hands. “Nobody is going after Roche tonight. I understand you want him, but there is no way to know which way Roche is headed.”
Envisioning Roche sailing away had Aidan seeing red. The man had killed his mother and destroyed his family. He’d turned Aidan’s life upside-bloody-down and he’d be damned before he let the scoundrel get away with it. On the ship that was meant to be his no less.
“How do we even know he has left the island?”
“Because we’re alive,” Cale answered Alicia. “Had it been Roche in those trees, he would have followed and caught us and we would not be sitting here now.”
“I saw him sail away and he’s getting further the longer we sit here and talk about it.” Aidan slapped his hands against the table. The candle nearest him wobbled, the flame danced crookedly before righting itself.
“Leaving now will not guarantee you catch him. There is still no way to know where he’s headed.” Blake repeated.
“And he has the Revenge now as well. You plan on attacking two ships with one?” Nate asked.
“If I have to, yes. The man nearly killed us all tonight, not to mention what he’s already done to me. I won’t have him sailing away free as a bird.”
Sam leaned forward in her seat. “What did Roche do to you?”
“What?” Aidan took a deep breath, wiped his mouth. His heart was banging around his ribs. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead and he wiped them away as well. “Not to me, to us I meant. He stole the Revenge. That ship meant everything to you, me, and Luke.”
The worry never left Sam’s golden eyes but she reached out a hand. Helpless to deny her anything, Aidan took it.
“Luke and I can build another Revenge. We only have one of you.”
Ignoring Cale’s stare boring into him, Aidan squeezed her hand, overwhelmed as always by the love this woman had shown him over the years. But she, like the others, had nearly been killed tonight. Like a festering wound, they needed to cut out Roche before the cur inflicted more damage.
“I do not intend to die at Roche’s hand, but nor am I willing to stay here and wait for him to attack us again.”
“But with no idea where he is, what do you propose to do?” Cale asked.
Aidan contemplated Cale’s words. The man, he admitted grudgingly, was right. At this moment Roche held the power. They needed a way to alter the odds into their favor.
“What we need is leverage,” Aidan said. “If we don’t know where he’s going, then we need something that will draw him to us.”
Across from him Grace—who’d been Roche’s prisoner prior to Cale rescuing her—looked about the group of them gathered and said, “If ’tis leverage you be needing, I know just where you’ll find it.”
End of Excerpt