Dark Covenant

GillianDoyle_DarkCovenant_HR

 

Dark Covenant

 

He was the baron who has sworn to fulfill
the marriage covenant between their two mystic families.
She was the woman he could not have.

“A unique tale of sensuality with fascinating characters in an intriguing plot.”
– Jill Marie Landis  NYT Bestselling Author
“…an imaginative tale of romantic suspense,
combining the atmosphere of Victoria Holt’s Judas Kiss,
with dashes of “new age” romance and steamy sensuality.”
– RT BOOK REVIEWS

An ancient prophecy. A dark family secret. A promise to a dying sister.

On a Pennsylvania mountain road, young Caroline Hartmann encounters the mysterious Baron Merrick von Hayden, who has traveled from Germany to wed her older sister in a marriage contract between the two families. The beautiful Ilse allows herself to be swept off her feet and taken to Europe, only to learn the Hartmanns and von Haydens possessed dark powers that had faded over time. Convinced she has conceived the spawn of the devil who will cause death and destruction with supernatural powers, Isle slips into madness as she pleads for her sister to take her baby back to America.

Unaware of the sinister maze of dark secrets and forbidden passions around her, Caroline devises a clever scheme to pass the baby off as her own and escape. But terrible secrets are revealed and dangerous threats are made against her life.

Previously published by St. Martin’s Press (1989)  as RAPTURE’S LEGACY by Susan Phillips also known as Gillian Doyle.
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Excerpt:

Prologue

GERMANY, 1883

Candlelight flickered in the windows of the small stone church nestled beneath a stand of evergreens. From the broad, moss-covered trunks of the black pines to the rustic gray walls laced with flowering vines, there was a feeling of eternal tranquility. Inside the church, before a gilded altar, a white-haired clergyman sat behind an ornately carved pinewood table and smoothed his gnarled fingers across a parchment document lying before him. His black clerical cassock, with its close-fitting sleeves, was in stark contrast to the ashen pallor of his skin. Watery eyes, pale blue with cataracts, strained to see the words on the tanned sheepskin, and he nodded as if he were reading each letter with perfect clarity.

Across the table, two gentlemen stood in patient silence, facing the white-collared old man. Both were noticeably younger than the clergyman. The older of the formally dressed men displayed grayed temples and a weathered face that reflected more than sixty years. The broad-shouldered second gentleman was easily a head taller and visibly half the age of his companion, his ebony black hair and taut olive skin a testament to his vigorous health.

Crowded into long, wooden pews, the villagers kept reverent silence in respect for the occasion. Watchful eyes of all ages witnessed the momentous ceremony being performed for Herr Johann Hartmann and the young Baron Emmerich von Hayden, a ceremony that would bind together the two most powerful families in this region of the German Empire known as the Black Forest. Like the centuries-old legends of the dark woods, the history of these families was filled with stories of power, both real and mythical. For it was believed they were direct descendants of medieval mystics, people with inexplicable knowledge of things yet to come and other such unusual gifts of the mind.

The words on the parchment spelled out a promise between the Hartmanns and von Haydens, not only for the prosperity of the Church of the Mystics, but also for the rejuvenation of their own unique psychic powers. Since the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, members had been forced to denounce their beliefs and intermarry with the foreign conquerors, a submission that led to diminished powers, as well as the decline of the church. Though some families had tried to remain deep in the Black Forest where their lineage would not be threatened, only two of these families still claimed a small degree of their inherent spiritual gifts.

Now, despite the heavy rains of late spring, no one in the tiny hamlet dared stay away from the single event that was sure to change their lives—if not that day, certainly some day in the years to come.

The seated patriarch of the church lifted his quill pen and solemnly extended it toward the two gentlemen standing respectfully before him. The new Baron von Hayden accepted it with a formal nod, then leaned over the pinewood table and signed the agreement.

In the final act that would seal the covenant, the gentlemen grasped palms in a binding handshake as the clergyman slowly rose and stepped around the narrow table. He gently placed his chalk-white fingers over the two hands gripped firmly together and raised his other palm in a silent blessing. Ageless wisdom shining in his pale blue eyes, the black-robed figure lifted his gaze beyond the men to the gathered crowd.

Although his outer form gave the appearance of frailty and weakness, his deep, resonant voice demonstrated an inner vitality and strength.

“Seven days we have mourned the passing of Baron Friedrich von Hayden, a great man and gifted member of our order,” he said. “In the last moments of his life, His Excellency spoke of a dream in which these two special families joined together through marriage of their firstborn children. From this union, a son was born with gifts of prophecy and divine knowledge. In this vision, the boy grew to be a strong and able leader of our people.

“Today,” he continued, “we have gathered together to witness the signing of this marital agreement between the Hartmanns and von Haydens. Before us and our omniscient God, Merrick has vowed to honor his beloved father’s final wish. Soon he will leave for America where Johann’s son now lives. There Merrick will find and marry the firstborn granddaughter, Ilse.”

But not every villager welcomed the cultivation of a new leader among them. There was no assurance that the gifted child of this union would be kind and generous to his people. With the signing of the covenant, the seed of dissension had begun to grow.

*  *  *

Hours later, Merrick approached the front of the now-empty church, bowed reverently, then stepped into the first pew. He glanced around the rustic interior of the church, his vision blurring from the tears that threatened to overflow. Deep within, his soul felt torn open again as when he’d sat here years ago, shortly after his mother’s death. Tears came easier for a boy of five than for a man of twenty-four. But the searing pain was just as real.

Dropping his face into his hands, he gave way to quiet sobs for the father he would never see again, a reality he still couldn’t convince himself was true. Even as his shoulders shook, he expected his father’s strong, supportive touch on his shoulder.

After several minutes, the cleansing sobs subsided, replaced by an inner peace that glowed with reassuring warmth. Instinctively, Merrick sensed the change had somehow come from his father’s spirit, transcending the earthly barrier to comfort him. Though physically exhausted, Merrick’s mind cleared of the mists of pain, like an early morning fog dissipated by the heat of the rising sun.

His thoughts focused on pleasant memories, instead of the tragic loss of a great man. His father’s forty-seven years had been full and prosperous, filled with many friends. Now the vast land holdings had passed to Merrick, as well as the profitable vineyards, a responsibility he’d earned from countless hours at his father’s side.

Yet, unlike his father who had continued to honor his mother’s memory, Merrick had never lacked female companionship, a fact he attributed less to his wealth than to his mystical abilities that tantalized the curiosity of society fräuleins.

Merrick sensed somewhere deep in his mind he’d known all along that this day would come, a day when he would be called upon to put his obligation to family ahead of his selfish pursuits. Despite his independence, his deep devotion to his father and those who were born under their protective barony compelled him to agree to this preordained marriage.

But winning the granddaughter of Herr Hartmann would prove difficult. Twenty years earlier, Johann’s only child, Ernst, had walked away from the old world culture with its myths and legends. He’d found a new life in western Pennsylvania, where his friends had accepted him as one of their own kind, not a man of mystical ancestry. Ernst had turned his back on the religion of his forefathers. In a disquieting sort of way, Merrick understood the defiance of this man he’d yet to meet. He also knew that, because of this defiance, his quest to marry Ilse Hartmann would not be an easy one.

The mustiness of the old church building mingled with the scent of pine, then gave way to the light fragrance of lavender, so delicately faint as to almost not exist.

A vision of a young woman standing with an adolescent girl wavered before his eyes—the older one fair and delicate, the younger one dark and robust. Though he knew in his special way that the golden-haired woman was Ilse, it was the large emerald eyes of the young girl that stirred a fleeting response from deep within his soul.

Chapter 1

OCTOBER 1889

The sky was cloudless. The Atlantic rippled blue-green, speckled with froth. Gulls cried out as the promenade deck of the White Star liner Teutonic teemed with restless passengers bemoaning the effects of their first five hours at sea. As the waves lapped against the armor-plated hull below, Caroline Hartmann slowly made her way beyond first class. Her chaperone, Miss Mathilde Landau, had remained below in their formal stateroom, not quite adjusted to the swaying surroundings.

Baron von Hayden, her brother-in-law of six years, was also in his cabin, but Caroline doubted his reason was attributable to a poor stomach. The probability of a man with such cold, iron will having the constitution of anything less than an ox seemed highly unlikely. Instead, she envisioned the worldly baron lying in his berth with his hands cupped behind his head of black curls, his long muscular legs crossed at his ankles.

She wondered if he would be snatching a moment of sleep before dinner. Or would those dark, penetrating blue eyes be staring at the ceiling boards above his head, perhaps lost in worried concentration over her sister Ilse and his unborn child in Germany? More likely it would be business matters that concerned him rather than his wife’s delicate condition. He hadn’t spoken of her once during their entire train trip to Philadelphia unless Caroline broached the subject. Even then, his curt replies had discouraged any further discussion.

The steady, biting wind whipped her long hair against her cold cheeks. Turning her head into the direction of the strong breeze, she pulled a strand away from her mouth and braced her hands against the wooden railing, locking her elbows as she leaned back and drank in the exhilarating salt air.

Far more than six years seemed to have passed since she had met the black-haired baron on the mountain road outside Sabula, her small hometown in western Pennsylvania. She had been heading back to her parents’ logging camp when a wheel had broken on the supply wagon.

Only fourteen years of age, she had been a rowdy, pigtailed tomboy demonstrating her frustration with a quick kick to the wood wheel, followed by a yelp of pain.

A sudden thunder of hoof beats tore her away from her misery. Bearing down on her was a magnificent black horse being rode hard by a man she’d never seen before. Expecting to be run down, Caroline flattened herself against the wagon box before the stranger made a swift dismount a few paces short of her sore toes.

“Are you hurt?” He had a thick German accent like her father.

She watched him glance at the broken wheel, then at her dirty shoes. His gaze rose, assessing her from the hem of her skirt to the top of her head. Never before had she feared traveling alone on the road or walking past the mills and lumberyards. But there was something about this man that prickled the hair on the back of her neck.

With spunk as her only defense, she lifted her chin.  “I am perfectly fine, sir. Though I may have aged five years, thanks to you.”

She turned and hobbled on her painful foot to her mare, Becky. Leading her out of the rigging to the sawed-off stump of a pine tree, Caroline wished she could lift her skirt to climb onto the horse’s bare back. But she didn’t dare in front of the stranger.

He walked over to her. “Perhaps you should take my mount.”

She stroked Becky’s neck. “No, thank you.”

“You must admit I am better dressed for riding without a saddle.”

Caroline looked down at her long skirt, noticing the soiled hem above the toes of her dusty, black catalog-order shoes. His boots, planted uncomfortably close to hers, were a sharp contrast in the highest quality leather, polished to a bright shine.

His soft brown trousers were the color of doeskin, matching the cutaway jacket, tailored to fit his narrow waist and broad shoulders.

His chin and jawline were sharply defined, as was his fine, straight nose. Thick black hair rippled with soft curls over his shirt collar. His eyes were a deep shade of blue, darker than any she had ever seen, penetrating her, unlocking a sense of familiarity as if she had known him forever.

A shudder swept though her. I’ve got to get away.

“I mean you no harm,” he said with a softness that almost convinced her.

“I should think not.” She turned back to her horse. “And if you are a true gentleman, you will turn around now.”

He had a smirk on his face as he nodded regally and did as she asked.

Grabbing Becky’s mane with one hand, she hiked her skirt thigh-high with the other, then stepped onto the stump, swung her bare leg over the horse’s broad back and dropped her skirt. “Now, if you will please excuse me, I will be on my way. Good day, sir.”

“If I am not mistaken, I believe my destination is the same as yours.”

“Oh?” She narrowed her eyes.

He returned to his horse, reached for the saddle horn, slid his boot in the stirrup and seated himself as the leather creaked. As he passed her, he gestured with a sweep of his hand toward the road ahead. “I have business with Herr Hartmann.”

“My father?”

“Yes.”

In the short distance back to the camp, the stranger rode beside her in silence. Not until dinner did she learn he was a nobleman, Baron Emmerich von Hayden. He had travelled all the way from Germany to claim the hand of her older sister, Ilse, as decreed by a covenant between their two families. This pronouncement infuriated her father, though he did not deny knowledge of the long-standing agreement. However, her spoiled sister was immediately enamored with the dark stranger, thrilled with the prospect of marrying into European wealth and high-standing. Their father’s refusal to give Ilse’s hand in marriage led her to set their town abuzz by circulating stories of improper behavior with her family’s handsome guest. Within two weeks, Ilse and the baron stood before the minister in an empty church with only Caroline and her parents as witnesses.  Immediately afterward, the newlyweds had departed for Germany.

In nearly six years, Ilse wrote letters frequently in the beginning, filled with giddiness and delight in her grand new life. As time passed, the Caroline had begun to have dark, vivid dreams about her sister and the baron.

A blustery ocean breeze pressed her black skirt against her ankles as she reflected on the past. She had felt an uneasiness similar to other experiences over the years—a niggling in the back of her mind that kept her on edge. The same sensation as in the hours preceding Grandfather Hartmann’s passing. Eventually she grew to recognize the bothersome niggling as the beginning of her second sight that would become shadowy visions, an ability that frightened her.

Soon after, Merrick had arrived with Ilse’s request to bring Caroline back to Germany. His wife was having difficulty carrying their child and had asked to have her sister at her side in the final bedridden months. With a matronly chaperone in tow, he’d arrived never doubting Caroline’s willingness to accompany him.

Aside from her devotion to Ilse, she wasn’t quite sure why she had come with the baron and the thin, motherly chaperone, Miss Landau, whom he’d acquired in Philadelphia. An inner voice seemed to be beckoning her to step out in blind faith.

“YO! YOUNG LADY!” A middle-aged seaman hollered from several yards away. “You best get below. Someone’s looking for ya!”

Caroline touched the brim of her straw hat as she raised her eyes and waved acknowledgement. She took one last look at the mid-October sun as it sank below the western horizon. Her first day at sea had passed quickly. The excitement of inspecting the newest White Star liner had brought Caroline topside. Long and uncluttered, the Teutonic was one of the first steamships to abandon mast-supported sails in favor of short masts that served merely as flagpoles. Consequently, the ship’s silhouette was as meticulously modern as her interior refinements.

*  *  *

Merrick stepped outside through a door sheltered beneath a set of metal stairs. The wide landing overhead served as a protective shelter from the weather, creating a shadowed alcove from the sun-washed deck. A man’s loud voice had drawn the baron’s attention toward the bow where he saw Caroline, her head tilted back as she waved.

Folding in the lapels of his outer coat to cut the chill at his throat, Merrick shook his head at the sight of his young sister-in-law. Now a woman of twenty, she wore a plain white blouse and black skirt. He thought she ought to at least have worn a sweater but he was impressed with her indifference to the cold. He wondered if she owned anything besides conventional skirts and amply cut blouses. She was so very different from Ilse.

If young Caroline wore a starched, white bonnet, she would seem no different from the Quaker women they had seen from the train passing through York County. But her lustrous head of hair ended any similarity to the plain people. While he watched, a cascade of glistening red-brown curls fluttered over her shoulders by the cold sea wind she seemed to defy.

“We were worried you’d fallen into the sea,” he said, standing directly behind her.

As she turned toward the sound of his voice, the roll of the ship tipped her against the railing. She grabbed hold for support.

“From the way you snuck up on me, Herr Baron, I might think you were trying to help me overboard.”

He could hardly blame her for her resentment toward him for taking her sister away and destroying the serenity of her parents’ lives. To his credit, he had traveled all the way back to Pennsylvania for his wife’s sake. Certainly that said something about his character.

He stood stolidly against the stiff breeze. “I think it’s best if you learn not to make any sudden moves until you’re more sea-oriented. Miss Landau called upon me to find you. She’s grown quite concerned. You have been exploring the ship most of the day.”

“I was just coming to my cabin.”

He read the defiant look in her eyes and knew immediately she hated being treated like a mischievous child. Oddly enough, this was exactly what he had been thinking.

Did she possess the same gift as he? Was it possible?

Glancing down at her clenched fists at her side, he stifled a smile of amusement. Again, as if reading his mind, she relaxed her hands and crossed her arms as casually as possible, trying to convince him she was not the spoiled little sister of Ilse, trying to convince them she did not possess the very same hot temper and sharp tongue as his wife.

“For a girl who is not accustomed to the teasing of an older brother, you hold your composure fairly well. I would swear you were about to hit me.”

“I would never think of striking you.”

He was almost certain she was lying. “Come, it is time to return to Miss Landau.” He stepped aside and motioned with a sweep of his arm for her to lead the way.

*  *  *

Caroline listened to his footsteps behind her on the sea-scrubbed teakwood deck as they walked in silence to her cabin. He reminded her of a ship’s captain from a children’s picture book. Although, to gain command of an enormous vessel such as the Teutonic, the baron would have to be much older. Still, he looked very much like a man of the sea. His strong slim body and square shoulders could easily withstand the years of hard sea duty. Those fine lines gathered at the outer edges of his deep blue eyes could have been etched by the salty winds.

When the baron opened the door for Caroline, Miss Landau was lying in her berth, her forearm draped over her face.

“Perhaps I may be of some assistance,” he said with genuine concern. Stepping around Caroline, he approached the bedside and addressed the pale woman. “Come, Miss Landau. Let’s get you some fresh air.”

Prim Miss Landau moaned and expressed her embarrassment, but obliged the rescuers. Shortly thereafter she repeated her apologies after an indelicate performance at the railing. Although Caroline began to feel queasy herself, the baron continued to cajole the chaperone back to her predeparture spirit of adventure.

*  *  *

Once again in the stateroom, Mathilde Landau lay limp against her pillow, holding a cool, damp cloth to her forehead. Although the walk had added some color to her cheeks, the motion sickness had left her feeling like a wrung-out old rag.

Though any movement took extra effort, Hilde slowly rolled her head to the side to see what was keeping Caroline so quiet. Sitting cross-legged in a terribly unladylike manner on her mattress, the girl’s head was bowed over a small, black leather-bound book. Her dark hair, drawn back and secured at the crown of her head with a black velvet ribbon, swept down over her far shoulder just past the tip of her bodice. Her long, slender fingers twisted and untwisted a thick strand of her hair as she studied the book in her other hand. Hilde thought Caroline was a lovely young woman, made more so by being completely unaware of her natural beauty.

Mindful of the girl’s rustic upbringing, Hilde saw beyond the remnants of the rough-edged tomboy to the woman of grace and elegance waiting beneath the surface. In the days since they’d met at the Hartmann house, she had often wondered whether Caroline would have discovered the lady within herself had she stayed in that small logging town. Perhaps. More than likely Caroline would have gone on being Caroline and been married in a year. This line of thought always led Hilde to the inevitable question—why did this American girl leave her parents to follow a German baron halfway across the globe?

Hilde doubted the answer was less complicated than her own reason for accepting the position as chaperone. After twenty years in Philadelphia in the employ of a German immigrant family, the baron’s timely offer afforded her the excuse and means to finally return home.

Caroline lowered her book and closed her eyes, tilting her head back to stretch her tense neck muscles.

“Tired?” Hilde asked.

Caroline half smiled just before she opened her eyes and looked across the room. “Just stiff,” she said, lifting her head, then tilting it forward. “Feeling any better?”

“A bit, but I couldn’t dance a jig.”

“Then I wouldn’t dream of leaving you again just to stand around all night in the ballroom,” Caroline said. Hilde noted the obvious relief in the way the girl settled back against the wall of her berth, opening the book again.

“I find it hard to believe a pretty thing like you would refuse a chance to dazzle everyone in one of your new gowns.” Hilde was curious about Caroline’s relationship with the baron. When he had hired her, he had needed a matron to chaperone a young girl to his home in Baden, near the town of Karlsruhe. Until the last-minute change in shipboard accommodations put Hilde in the same stateroom with her charge, she had assumed she’d never know the whole story. It wasn’t any of her business, and prying was not her way, but there was something about Caroline made Hilde feel maternally protective. In her years as a governess, she had learned to curb this emotion that blurred her role as a paid servant. But, she told herself, every rule asked for an exception.

“I find it hard to believe the baron would waste good money on a new wardrobe for me. My clothes serve my needs and my needs don’t include ballroom dancing. What am I going to do with those gowns when I get back to Sabula?”

Hilde shifted over to her side to get a better look at Caroline.

“Back to Sabula?” Had Hilde misunderstood the extent of her services? She didn’t realize she might be expected to return with Caroline. The baron had never mentioned it.

“Of course. As soon as possible.”

“I thought that, maybe, you and…I mean…I’m not really sure what I thought about you two. But His Excellency only said he’d need me to accompany you on the trip over. I wondered if you were to marry him there.”

“He is already married.” Caroline was appalled. “To my sister, Ilse. She wants me with her when she has her baby.”

“Ah, I see. Everything is beginning to make a little more sense. His formality. Sending us on the shopping excursion. He merely wanted you to feel more comfortable in his customary surroundings.”

“I should be grateful.” Caroline shrugged.  “But I find him difficult to…like.” Or trust.

She described her initial encounter with the baron and the way he had swept Ilse off her almost immediately. Her parents were not happy with the whirlwind courtship but did nothing to stop the hasty marriage, which still puzzled Caroline. The departure of her beloved older sister had felt more like a death than a joyful celebration of a new life in Germany. She sensed the same stoic grief in her parents. When the baron returned to escort Caroline, her tearful mother gave her Bible to Caroline as a parting gift.

“Mama knows I have my own, but she insisted I take hers.” She raised the small, black leather book she had been reading. “She specifically said she wants me to study it thoroughly and return it when I get back home.”

“Do you think she is afraid you will stay in Germany with Ilse?”

Caroline nodded. “I could see the worry in her eyes, even after I swore on this Bible to come home. I am not sure what my duties will be when I am with my sister, so I intend to study before I see her.” She lightly shook the Holy Book with determination.

“Quite an undertaking, reading the entire Bible in such a short time.”

“Yes, but I am already wondering if my mother had something else in mind with this Bible. She underlined words, willy-nilly.” Caroline moved to sit next to Hilde, then pointed to a yellow-edged page. “Look. Here. And here.”

The older woman’s gaze dropped to the words at the tip of Caroline’s finger. “Perhaps you should jot them down. Perhaps your mother meant to entertain you with a riddle about virtues she would want you to maintain.”

“A riddle?” Caroline giggled, shaking her head. “If you knew my mother, she is hardly one for such things.”

“You will never know if you do not try.”

“True.” She shrugged. She walked over to a narrow secretary against the wall, sat down, and copied words as she turned page after page.

Minutes later, she spun around. “Listen!—

Amid your battles you have fought,
Stand strong with spiritual thought.
While you walk this earthly ground,
In this book your hopes are bound.

Hilde clapped her hands once, her eyes wide. “So it is a riddle!”

Caroline studied the piece of paper, shaking her head. “Mama is a very devout woman, always saying true fulfillment is only found in the Bible. No, I don’t think she meant anything more.”

“Then why did she underline those specific words?” Hilde countered in an effort to be helpful. “Why not write the poem inside the front cover?”

“I am not sure.”

A quiet knock sounded at the door.

“Yes, who is it?” Caroline called out as she lowered the paper to her lap.

“Baron von Hayden.”

Caroline unlatched the door and stepped back. The sight of him in his formal black evening attire gave her heart a little flutter. Quelling the odd sensation, she allowed him into the cabin while Hilde sat on the edge of her berth. He dipped slightly as he passed beneath the low beam, nodding a silent acknowledgment at Caroline before turning this gaze at her chaperone.

Hilde self-consciously smoothed her modestly coiled hair.

“You look much improved from when I left you. Miss Landau. Will you two be joining me for dinner and dancing?”

“Thank you, no, Your Excellency. Perhaps Caroline would like to—”

Caroline stepped up, “After this afternoon, I owe it to Miss Landau to stay. Perhaps you could send someone down with some beef tea for her.”

“And something for you?”

“A small plate—”

“Nonsense, child,” Hilde scoffed. “I will not allow you to waste a perfectly beautiful evening playing nursemaid to me. You mustn’t refuse the baron’s escort to dinner.” She nodded humbly to him. He returned the gesture then he shifted his gaze, with an added look of amusement,  to Caroline.

She sighed heavily. “Very well. I can be ready in one hour.”

“I will return in half the time. I’m famished.” Ignoring her protests, he bid good-evening to Hilde and quickly departed.

*  *  *

The walls of the dining saloon were draped with upholstered tapestries of bucolic pasture images depicting picnics and fox hunts, the colors muted as if a pale mist drifted through each scene. The ceiling was aglow with vibrant oil paintings of cherubs and .

Merrick pulled the chair out from the captain’s table, his hands gripped tight around the turned knobs on the high back. With a rustle of taffeta, Caroline took her seat on the rich burgundy-colored velvet cushion, barely pausing to acknowledge his gentlemanly gesture with only the slightest nod. In less time than seemed imaginable, she had transformed into a breathtakingly beautiful woman, dressed in a royal-blue gown that followed the curve of her breasts, down to her narrow, corseted waist and over the swell of her hips.

He was well aware of the eyes in the dining-saloon, especially those of the men, were riveted on Caroline with her mahogany curls pinned up off her long, slender neck, set off with a small blue hat. A delicate heart-shaped locket drew admiring attention to her décolletage, a thought Merrick found irritating somehow.

Even without his uncommon perceptiveness, he knew Caroline’s welcoming smile hid a timid awareness of her shapely endowments. An appreciative stare from the gentleman seated next to Captain Werner annoyed Merrick. He glared at the presumptuous younger man, who swallowed nervously and turned his attention to the Captain. Caroline noticed the exchange with a puzzled expression. Merrick felt at a loss for words to explain his behavior, especially when her green eyes seemed to dance like emeralds in the evening light. He could only hope she interpreted his action as a protective act of a brotherly nature.

Fighting back the possessiveness toward her that he had no right to claim, Merrick walked around to his chair and seated himself. Almost immediately, two lovely ladies joined him, eagerly introducing themselves.

*  *  *

The elegant squab dinner was wasted on Caroline. Pushing a baby carrot about her Meissen dinner plate, she was preoccupied with playing the role of a sophisticated debutante, while praying no one could see through her charade. What ever induced her to buy this gown in Philadelphia? The baron, of course. He’d insisted she have a few things so she would not feel out of place among the first-class passengers. Admittedly, she was a bit excited about owning this exquisite gown, one of four she had found on such short notice. But in her haste, Caroline allowed herself to be swayed by the dressmaker who swore the revealing dip of the neckline was relatively conservative.

From the general reaction around the table, the clerk seemed to have been right. Still, she kept wanting to cover herself. Her modesty, she’d concluded, was hers alone. The other two women seemed quite proud of their tantalizing display of flesh. With their delicate gestures, they would touch their jewels or draw their fingertips across the swell of their breasts. They seemed delighted to draw the men’s attention. Particularly the golden-haired woman to Merrick’s left.

More often than not, Caroline found herself stealing glances at the casual interplay between the baron and his European lady friends. He seemed to enjoy their gaiety immensely, occasionally throwing his head back as he laughed at a comment whispered into his ear. Though he didn’t return their bold advances, these highbred women worked hard to keep his attention rapt by constantly touching his hands and his sleeves.

As the blonde teased, pressing the bodice of her white satin gown against his forearm while she cupped her hand to his ear and whispered, Merrick’s mirthful eyes met Caroline’s and froze there, his amused expression fading. Although she still resented the baron for taking Ilse away, she no longer felt years of pent-up anger. What she felt now was hurt. For Ilse’s sake, she told herself. He should not be so gay and carefree while her sister took to her bed to assure the safety of his unborn child.

*  *  *

Merrick sensed Caroline’s disapproval and tried to convey in his gaze that all was not as it seemed. His young sister-in-law didn’t understand the socially acceptable behavior of his society. How could she? Living in a small Pennsylvania logging town didn’t expose her to this kind of living. Thinking back on his wife’s introduction to these social games, he remembered how quickly Ilse had assimilated into the peerage. Unlike Caroline, his wife not only approved of the playful repartee between the sexes, she quickly became the queen of double entendre and vampish friskiness. Inevitably, talk circulated about possible infidelity. Nonsense, he was sure.

“It appears my sister-in-law needs rescuing from boredom.” Merrick placed his napkin on the linen tablecloth. “If you will excuse me, I will see you ladies in the ballroom.”

“You will save me the last dance, Your Excellency.” The blonde traced a fingertip down his sleeve to the top of his hand, ending her caress with a light, suggestive squeeze. Merrick smiled recklessly at her decadent tease, pushing his chair back as he stood.

“I’d prefer to go back to my room,” Caroline told the baron, feigning a smile as he led her from the dining salon.

“Which will give the scandalmongers material regarding the two of us,” he murmured in her ear.

“What are you talking about?”

“If I disappear with you now, the entire room will be wagering on our whereabouts.”

Flushed with a mixture of anger and embarrassment, Caroline stopped short of the ballroom entrance and turned to the baron. “You are an arrogant, perverted—” His chuckle added to her frustration. “Don’t laugh at me!”

“My dearest Carrie, I have so much to teach you.” Merrick tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, mildly astonished at his own proclamation, and turned them into the already crowded room. The sea of colorful gowns and dark formal suits parted when the baron and Caroline entered, and a hush fell for a moment before the music started once more.

*  *  *

His endearment took Caroline by surprise, leaving her with no resistance as he swept her out. His palm grasped hers. His other hand slid to the small of her back, pressing through the blue taffeta. Moving to the music with rigid formality, Caroline could not have felt more uncomfortable than if the baron’s body were a red-hot branding iron close to her skin. She didn’t dare look into his eyes, the eyes as dark as midnight. He would certainly see her confusion written on her face and there were no words that could explain or question what was taking place. All she knew was her heart was pounding so hard she thought her chest would burst from the pressure.

“I don’t belong here, Your Excellency,” she finally said when she found her voice. But she spoke so quietly into the center of his crisp white shirt she thought he hadn’t heard her over the music. Swallowing hard, she tilted her head back and found his deep blue eyes, lined with thick, spiked lashes, gazing down upon her.

“You are extremely perceptive.” Merrick felt her tense under his graceful lead, yet he continued to tease. “A princess belongs on a castle balcony overlooking her kingdom on the Rhine.”

“You know full well I didn’t mean—”

“To sound pompous?”

“I am not pompous, Your Excellency.”

“Are you implying I am?”

“At times.”

“And what about these other people who are simply having a good time of it?”

“I would hardly call open solicitations the proper manner in which to ‘have a good time of it.’ “

Though he obviously tried to hide it, the corners of Merrick’s full lips curled into a bemused smile. “I’m sure you wouldn’t.”

“You’re mocking me.”

Merrick grew sober. “No, Carrie. I think your resentment has more to do with my conduct than a particular lady’s at the captain’s table.”

Caroline quickly looked out onto the dance floor, avoiding his pointed gaze. “You are married, Your Excellency.”

“In name only.”

She looked back at him sharply. “Unless I am mistaken, Ilse’s child is yours, is it not?”

“You have a fast wit, little one. Thankfully, not as caustic as your sister’s. She would have reeled off her favorite epithets and stormed off.” He laughed, but Caroline sensed a trace of bitterness. “No, there is no denying the child is mine. I’m as certain of that as I am the sun will rise tomorrow.”

“Do you love Ilse?” she asked with a bluntness that startled him.

“Yes,” he said after a slight hesitation. His gaiety vanished. “But in a way that I’m sure you can’t understand.”

“Perhaps if you gave me a chance, I could understand. I feel like you still think of me as a pigtailed tomboy. I’m not a child anymore, Your Excellency.”

I am only too aware of the fact. Deep within his body, Merrick felt a tingling warmth building, defying his practical reason. To his relief, the music stopped, curtailing their private conversation as they joined in the polite applause.

Now he would have to decide whether to guide her into the den of young wolves who anxiously waited their turn with her, or to escort her out and leave them all curious about his position with her. Caroline deserved to be admired, to be enjoying a taste of this gilded life. Yet, whom would he choose to introduce her to the subtleties of such a decadent style of living?

The thought agitated him. No, it infuriated him. He wanted Caroline to remain fresh and untainted.

Why? For whom?

For him. The idea hit him as sharply as if Caroline had slapped him, and his reaction to his tumultuous thoughts was as if she’d actually done so. He stared incredulously at the young woman in his arms for one long moment, then took her arm and walked her toward a gathering of gentlemen. The possible social harm these men could inflict upon Caroline in the short span of their voyage was minimal compared to the irreparable damage he could do to her if he didn’t bring his feelings under control.

“We’ll discuss this later,” he said.

Caroline’s fingers dug into the sleeve of the baron’s black evening jacket, feeling the hard muscles of his upper arm as each step drew them nearer to the cluster of young gentlemen who eagerly watched their approach. Her mind raced over the brief exchange on the dance floor. What had she done that angered Merrick so suddenly? Without warning his expression had grown dark, his jaw clenched. Now she was being led over to these men as though His Excellency was ready to toss her into their midst.

After a brief introduction, in which Merrick conveniently left out his marital connection to Caroline, he withdrew her gloved hand from his arm and offered it to a pale, red-haired gentleman with a thick Scottish burr. “Please entertain Miss Hartmann while I tend to some business.”

“Be more than happy to, sir,” Hugh MacKenzie replied.

Despite the baron’s abrupt departure, Caroline made the best of the embarrassing situation and returned the gentleman’s warm smile, allowing him to lead her in a waltz.

Preoccupied with the manner in which the baron had just rid himself of her, Caroline felt a polite indifference to Hugh MacKenzie’s firm but gentle grasp of her hand and waist. Dancing with Hugh was like dancing with any of the lumbermen or local boys back home. Nothing remarkable. Caroline found her attention wandering to the couples around them.

There was a fascinating assortment of first-class travelers: American, German, Danish, French, Russian, Swedish. Some were on business but many were on a holiday.

“Who is that?” Caroline asked as an elegant woman danced past in the arms of an equally dashing partner. More than once that evening, Caroline had turned to see the woman’s eyes on her, only to quickly glance away.

“Countess Reinhart. She’s quite a lovely one, she is,” he said, adding, “but not as bonny a lass as y’ be.”

Caroline gave him a skeptical smile. “You flatter me, Mr. MacKenzie.” She turned her attention back to the beautiful woman, drawn by a curious niggling in the back of her mind. “A countess, you say. Is she German or is Reinhart her husband’s name?”

“Both. But there is no longer a husband. Rumor has it he died penniless.”

Caroline’s eyebrows lifted questioningly. There was no doubt the woman didn’t fit the description of a destitute widow. Besides the cost of the voyage, her gown alone had to have cost a great deal.

The Scotsman shrugged, saying, “It seems her background prior to her marriage is only a bit more mysterious than the name of her… benefactor. I’ve only heard he’s a generous sort but not likely to leave his wife for the Countess.”

“Leave his wife?”

Mr. MacKenzie studied her with a twinkle in his eye. “I believe that is what I said. Does that shock you, Miss Hartmann?”

“No,” she lied, trying not to appear judgmental of such arrangements. Perhaps among the continental elite it was perfectly acceptable for an elegant woman to be kept as a mistress. From the endless line of dancing partners, it appeared Countess Reinhart didn’t want for acceptance, despite her scandalous lifestyle.

Upon the conclusion of their dance together, Caroline’s curiosity got the best of her and she asked to be introduced to the Countess. The dark-haired woman, dressed in a plunging gown the color of spun gold, was quite visibly titillated by the mention of Baron von Hayden. Her lips curved into a wistful smile as she sipped a glass of champagne. “The von Haydens are from an old family. Very powerful. Very respected. Though I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the Baron, I have met the Baroness on several occasions. Unfortunately, it was always at a time when His Excellency was away on business.”

“Then you know my sister—Ilse!” Caroline beamed proudly to the small group of ladies and gentlemen gathered around them. The older woman, however, had simply lowered her glass just enough to study Caroline with a scrutinizing look that confused her. “Is there anything wrong?”

Hugh MacKenzie, standing with Caroline, patted her hand on his arm. “No, Miss Hartmann, I donna believe we realized ya’ to be related to such… nobility.”

Whispers filtered through the circle, causing Caroline to wonder about the passengers’ reactions and to vow silence on the subject again.

*  *  *

Two hours passed before Merrick appeared to escort Caroline back to her stateroom. The ease of his gait as he crossed the room showed him to be more relaxed than when he’d left her in the hands of Mr. MacKenzie, a fact she attributed to the faint masculine scent of tobacco she smelled on his jacket when he reached her side. While she had danced with almost every eligible male on the ship until her feet were sore, he had apparently been wiling away the time in the gentlemen’s smoking lounge.

With a multitude of curious eyes watching, Merrick offered his arm to Caroline. “I believe your chaperone said you had to be back at midnight?”

Though Hilde hadn’t imposed a time limit on her evening, Caroline understood the baron intended to clarify publicly the existence of a chaperone to the doubters. Too exhausted to retaliate for his earlier desertion, she stepped closer and took his arm.

“Thank you for a lovely evening, Mr. MacKenzie. Remember—tomorrow morning at nine.” Caroline gave him a bright smile and wave over her shoulder.

Walking out into the night, away from the noise and lights, Merrick asked, “What are you doing tomorrow morning at nine?”

“He invited me to play a game of shuttle board,” she said proudly.

Shuffle board,” Merrick corrected irritably.

Once on the open deck, Caroline stopped and faced him, waiting to speak until a strolling couple was beyond range of hearing her. “What have I done to make you so mad at me?”

Merrick wanted to deny it, but even if he masked his emotions, Caroline would see through him. He sensed—no, he knew she had some mind-reading capabilities. When he’d met her at fourteen, he’d denied his intuition about her. But six years later, even though she did not acknowledge her abilities, he knew she was like him.

As fate would have it, of the two sisters, Caroline—not Ilse—possessed the special gifts. Precognition. Mind reading. Telepathy.

No doubt she denies them, probably even considers them evil.

Merrick stepped over to a bench, gently pulling Caroline down beside him. “It’s time you knew about our families.”

His dark brows lowered as his expression grew serious and he told the seemingly incredible story of her gifted ancestors, of her own special powers and of a baby yet to be born.

 

Chapter 2

Eight days later, the night before their arrival in the Dutch port of Rotterdam, Caroline strolled the deck with Miss Landau and the baron, her mind wandering from the polite conversation concerning German politics. The knowledge of her ancestry Merrick had imparted to her was like a key unlocking the shackles of condemnation. Better than that, she decided. It was as if he had given her a key to a room full of treasure. But she must never forget everything good has a dark side to guard against. Since she’d learned her unusual mental abilities were not to be feared, she thought of little else but the awe of it all. If only she had known there were others like her, she would have been spared the anguish, the fear of eternal retribution.

The threesome paused at the starboard rail and gazed at the full moon rising above rolling swells to the east.

“It looks like an enormous lighthouse lantern signaling land is ahead,” Caroline noted of the bright yellow moon-glow illuminating the Atlantic with opalescent whitecaps.

“It also signals the end of Miss Landau’s misery,” the baron said.

“I have certainly had been a memorable voyage, Your Excellency,” Hilde responded. “We appreciate your kindness.”

“My pleasure, Miss Landau. Now I must tend to a few details before docking tomorrow. I’ll escort you back to your stateroom and be on my way.”

Hilde fell in step beside him and called over her shoulder, “Coming, Caroline?”

The young girl had become lost in her thoughts as she watched the rhythmic dance of the iridescent waves amid the slow, shallow roll of the swells. The multitude of small white crescents appeared like giddy pixies popping from the dark depths in a private game. Come play, Caroline imagined they whispered to her. Don’t go away. Come play.

A penetrating warmth spread through Caroline at the touch of a hand on her shoulder. She stiffened and an odd sensation swept through her, a sensation was similar to the tormented feelings she experienced the last several nights when she’d had dreams of the baron. For the time it took to breathe one breath, reality seemed entwined with fantasy, and fantasy with reality. What was real? What was an illusion? But I’m not dreaming now. I’m awake. On deck. Watching the waves—and pixies?

“Are you all right?” The baron’s voice sounded concerned and his hand on Caroline’s shoulder slightly shook the girl.

When her head came around, she was transfixed by his dark eyes. Her senses were so acutely attuned to him, she felt completely surrounded by his presence. The subtle masculine fragrance of his cologne filled her. His light touch radiated from where his fingertips lay, kindling a confusion of desires and self-denials.

“I’m fine.” She smiled and hid her disorientation of the moment. “Just enjoying the beautiful moonlit ocean.”

“With your eyes closed?” The baron cocked his head quizzically. Caroline forced a calm shrug.

“Falling asleep at the rail. That won’t do,” Hilde Landau chided, making her presence known. “I think it’s best if you get to bed.”

As Hilde and the baron led the way back to the cabin, Caroline glanced back at the water. Pixies? She shook her head and turned her attention ahead of her. Perhaps Hilde was right, she concluded. She was tired.

*  *  *

In their stateroom, Caroline lifted her mother’s Bible from the walnut writing desk and walked to her berth. “I think I’ll read awhile, if you don’t mind.”

Hilde gave her a worried look, “After nodding off at the railing, don’t you think you should get your rest? Tomorrow is going to be a long day.”

“I promise I won’t stay awake long.” Caroline immersed herself in her reading while Hilde changed into nightclothes and slipped into the berth on the opposite wall. Before long, Hilde’s slow, even breathing drifted across the room. Coupled with the gentle roll of the ship, the relaxing sound of deep sleep played upon Caroline’s heavy eyelids, pulling them lower and lower.

She imagined the moon outside, climbing the night sky, keeping watch over the restless ocean and its seafarers. It was an intoxicating night of shadows and light, of elusive colors defined in shades of gray and white. The allure of one last look beckoned Caroline. She pondered the idea for a brief moment, tangled in the indecision of accepting sleep or pursuing the magnetism of some mystical presence.

Drifting, Caroline’s thoughts turned to the baron. Once again his face hovered over hers. His dark blue eyes were the color of the night ocean—the ocean that beckoned her. He moved closer, creating a heart-pounding anxiety she only knew in her dreams of him. She felt his warm breath upon her as he slowly lowered his mouth to hers. But when he raised his hand and caressed her hair, she struggled and pulled back.

“Someday, Carrie,” his eyes told her. Then he was gone.

She sat up abruptly. Her breath came in shallow gulps. Her pulse throbbed within her temples. Perspiration beaded on her forehead. The strange chill was upon her again, just as with her other dreams. She felt the walls closing in on her.

You could use a bit of fresh air, a voice echoed in her mind.

Caroline glanced at Hilde sleeping soundly.

A nice walk on deck would clear your head.

She frowned and rubbed her temple.

The beautiful moon. The sea air. Remember the baron said you have powers that can protect you.

She sighed heavily and put the book down, certain the voice would not leave her be until she acquiesced. But only a short walk. Hilde would never know she had been gone.

Before she could change her mind, Caroline quietly hurried from the cabin.

Familiar with the boundaries of the passenger area, she was careful to stay within them. In the daylight she hadn’t realized the similarity in the passageways. After their evening walks, she had always followed the baron and Hilde back to the cabin, too preoccupied with conversation to pay attention to the nuances of the dark halls.

She turned a corner and heard men talking and laughing behind a cabin door.

As she passed, she heard a gruff voice. “Where’s Bates tonight?”

“Off hiding somewheres, drownin’ his sorrows.”

“Somethin’s eating ’im. That son of a bitch ain’t fit to live with.”

“I seen him at odd hours in first class near the Countess’ cabin.”

“Naw. He’s been eyeing the young plum with the baron.”

She clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle her gasp of disbelief. Certain she had been mistaken, she moved closer and turned her head to listen.

“Is he crazy?” A distinctly different voice of another man. How many where there? Three? Four?

“Somethin’ about that girl has got to him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he…” The words became too quiet for her to hear but soon the others whooped.

“If the captain hears about this, Bates will be chain-whipped.”

“Forget the cap’n. From what I hears, that baron is a bloody warlock!. Lots of talk about his magic. Black magic. Anyone cross him and he’ll cast ya’ dead sure as I’m sittin’ here.”

“Yer daft, man. There’s no such a thing. Warlock? Magic? Ha! Next thing you’ll be sayin’ the girl is a witch.”

“Maybe she is!”

“Sound like a couple of gossipy ol’ biddies,” another man snarled. “Doesn’t matter what they are. Bates is a scrawny devil you don’t want to mess with. I sure as hell don’t plan to tell nothin’ to nobody.”

Caroline spun around and retraced her steps, hoping to find her way back to the cabin before being discovered. The voices echoed in her mind as she quickened her pace. Each shadow threatened her. Nothing looked familiar. Finding her way to the bridge might be a better option. Captain Werner could help her back to her cabin.

*  *  *

Thatcher Bates squatted low in an alcove on the main deck where he often hid to drink through the night. As he stared blankly out at the ocean, he shoved his wind-blown hair from his face. Obsessive thoughts of the voluptuous dark-haired girl brewed in his liquor-soaked brain. The rounded breasts beneath her prim blouses excited him. The full curve of her hips beneath her dowdy skirts teased him. The schoolgirl bows at the crown of her head created a beguilingly innocent image to him. The girl in first class was like a tempting apple, ripe for the picking. He couldn’t resist the temptation, no matter what the risk.

He shifted his position to relieve the growing tightness of his trousers. Each night of the voyage, he fantasized about the girl, claiming her virginity as he had done to all of the others before her.

A surge of excitement stabbed in his loins. He stifled a chuckle of pleasure in his conquests in ports around the world. He raised his near-empty bottle of whiskey in a smug toast to himself and polished it off, drinking more than his usual.

He would have her, he thought. He would follow her from the ship after she left in the morning. And when the moment was right, somewhere in the streets of Rotterdam, he would steal her away from her escorts. Until then, he’d have to wait, not an easy task for a man who was used to taking whatever he wanted.

Two levels below the drunken sailor, in a first-class stateroom with the finest luxuries the steamship line had to offer, Merrick was unaware of the malicious kidnapping plot developing as he slept. Deep in his mind, another disturbing dream invaded his peaceful rest, one of many he’d had since leaving Sabula.

In each, he saw his young sister-in-law with realistic intensity—first, as the feisty child on the road six years earlier, then as the young woman he had taken from the security of her home. But this night the vision he saw before him was the Caroline he had come to know every evening across the table, on the dance floor, and on the promenade deck.

Her long tresses were pulled up off her slender neck and secured with diamond-studded pins that reflected twinkling candlelight. A golden heart-shaped locket rested against her satiny skin, calling tantalizing attention to the generous rise of her breasts in the high-waisted, emerald-green gown.

Merrick longed to take the locket in the palm of his hand and let his knuckles brush casually against her, feeling the warmth of her silken skin. He wanted to grant himself one brief touch, a touch that wouldn’t threaten her and drive her farther away than she already seemed, and yet would satisfy his inexplicable need to be close to her. But he knew such liberties were forbidden to him.

For the aristocracy among whom he was raised, Merrick knew sex was considered nothing more than entertainment. Marriage was for appearances and prestige. Prior to his own betrothal, he, too, had taken carnal enjoyment in the arms of a number of beautiful wives who were fully aware of their own husbands’ dalliances. But he’d long ago vowed to make a solemn commitment to his marriage, as his father had once done.

Besides which, circumstances warranted a monogamous commitment to Ilse, if not in soul, at least in body. When she’d learned of his formerly rakish reputation, her jealous tirades had indeed tempted him to return to old habits. As their once-promising relationship deteriorated under Ilse’s unsubstantiated accusations of infidelity, she’d threatened to have any man of her choice, wherever and whenever she pleased.

As much as Merrick sensed Ilse’s declaration was her bitterly pained response to their faltering marriage, he also knew her vengeful tactics would place grave question on the parentage of any child she would bear.

Shackled by the prearranged covenant between their families, Merrick was determined to keep close watch on his spiteful wife. He hadn’t come so far, relinquishing his own personal freedom, to fail in his promise to his father and his family to produce the mystical child. If Ilse hadn’t become pregnant, he’d never have trusted her to be left behind when he went to America. Then again, if she were not so ill with his child, he’d never have had reason to bring Caroline back to Germany.

For some inexplicable reason, he welcomed the opportunity to bring the young girl into their lives. She was like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle he turned around and around in his hand. There was a place for her. A reason for her to be with him. Or he with her. But, hard as he tried, he couldn’t figure out how or where she fit in. Somehow, he sensed, he would know the answers when the time came.

Accepting this rationale, however provisionally, eased the inner turmoil over this vision of Caroline before him. As if she were quietly acknowledging her presence in his dream was no longer necessary, she turned and walked away from him, disappearing into the dark recesses of his mind.

In her place, another image wavered like a heat mirage, then cleared into sharp focus. A dark silhouette of a man squatted low, watching something… someone… with beady-eyed intensity. Without diverting his gaze, the figure wiped the palm of his hand across his mouth, then rubbed it against his thigh dipping inward in a quick, but noticeable gesture to relieve his discomfort.

Experiencing his dream as though it were reality, Merrick felt a black hatred harden inside his chest. His body responded with clenched jaw and labored breaths. Who was this man who skulked in the shadows? What was he eyeing with a perversity that disgusted Merrick? Then he saw her. Caroline. Dressed in her familiar, simple clothes, her tentative steps told him of her fear and indecision.

His heart hammered against his ribs. He could no longer believe this was some hideous nightmare. He knew Caroline was up on deck at that very moment, blindly walking into a trap. He had to stop her. The fear for her safety gripped him, tearing him from his sleep.

His eyelids blinked wildly. The stateroom remained as he’d last seen it—quiet and still. Yet instead of calm, the feeling of peril intensified threefold. Merrick swung his feet onto the floor. Yanking his trousers over his hips, his thoughts turned to one possible way he could help Caroline before it was too late. With her mental capabilities similar to his, there was a slim chance she would be receptive to his telepathic warning.

In theory, it should work. Certain she possessed the gift of mind control, he had little, if any, doubt she could be as diverse in her unusual abilities as he.

Grabbing his shirt from the back of a chair, he ran from the room. Despite his excellent physical condition, the hard muscles in his legs seemed leaden as he darted down the passageway. The distance between cabin doors appeared far longer than he remembered. He wouldn’t reach Caroline before the man in his dream made his move. Merrick was certain of it now, and the knowledge hit him square in the stomach with a sickening fear that sent nauseating bile to his throat.

CAROLINE! YOU ARE IN DANGER! RUN! He concentrated with all the mental strength he possessed while his limbs pumped harder in their full-out effort, taking the stairs by twos. With his shirt hastily pulled onto his back, the unbuttoned front panels fluttered at his hips with each bounding stride. Already the sweat of exertion and fear had spread across his thick chest muscles which rose and fell with each gasp of air.

*  *  *

Caroline stopped for a moment on the top deck to get her bearings, breathless from her quick retreat after hearing the sailors talk about the man named Bates. A thick layer of fog had rolled in, cloaking the ship in a veil of opaque mist. As far as she could tell, she was still too far toward the back of the ship.

In her mind, the feeling of danger intensified along with a powerful urge to run. But where do I run? Which way? What if I run right into Bates?

She couldn’t be sure whether the answer came aloud, from some obscure corner, or was inside her mind. But it was clear, just the same. GET AWAY! NOW!

A gust of wind churned and lifted her skirt hem above her knees, exposing her legs below her underclothes. She tamed the bedeviled cloth with a quick motion and glanced about to see if anyone was around. Suddenly aware of a distinct odor, Caroline touched her fingertips to her lips. The pungent scent of alcohol followed on the tail of the breeze, mingling with the sea air.

“Does the princess blow a kiss to me?” Bates whispered lecherously, excited by the sight of her bare skin.

With a firm grip on her shawl, Caroline whirled around and faced the direction of the voice. “You are mistaken, sir.” She backed away slowly. The conversation she’d overheard was still fresh in her thoughts, telling her this drunken sailor must be the man called Bates. Her mind tried to plot a quick escape. If she turned and ran, the man would surely chase her and, in this thickening fog, a careless stumble could very likely send her over the side.

“Nope, I’m not mis…taken. Yer perfect…the princess of my dreams.” Bates grunted as he pushed himself up against the metal wall and studied her full, round curves.

In the dim light, Caroline could see the man weaving in drunkenness. She hoped he was too inebriated to give chase.

God, help me, she pleaded as she turned and bolted for safety.

“Oh, no, you don’t.”

She could hear the man’s footsteps pound against the deck behind her.

The ship’s foghorn blasted directly overhead, startling Caroline and drawing her attention upward. The distraction cost her dearly. She tripped over a deck chair that had not been stowed for the night. Collapsing over the obstacle, she tried to gather her feet beneath herself, ignoring the pain in her shin and hands. A large rent in her skirt tangled itself on a loose nail and thwarted Caroline’s efforts to stand. The shawl lay forgotten in her desperate attempt to crawl away. She clawed at the deck with her fingers. Ripping the material further, the nail caught her underclothes, tearing both garments high on her thigh. Damp air chilled her skin but was instantly replaced by the hot, sweaty warmth of a massive hand.

Scream, her frightened mind begged but when her voice obeyed, the blast of the ship’s foghorn drowned out her efforts. Left with nothing but her own strength to save herself, she flung her elbow around as she rolled to her back and lashed out at her attacker.

His forearm caught the blow across the bone, sending a sharp pain up Caroline’s arm to her shoulder. Using his one arm as a shield against her fists, he slid his other hand under her torn and twisted garments.

Hoping to scream during the brief silence between the foghorn signals, she drew a deep breath. But the man’s hand quickly moved from the folds of her naked thigh to her mouth. The foul stench of sweat and whiskey filled her nostrils.

When the sound returned, his hand dropped from her mouth only to be replaced by the repugnant slime of his saliva as he sought her lips with drunken passion. His body crushed her beneath him while one hand reached down and squeezed her breast tightly.

In pain, she tried violently to squirm free. “Stop! NOW!” she screamed in his ear, forcing her will upon him.

Never had she deliberately tried to wield her powers of control. She prayed Merrick was right about her abilities.

Bates jerked upright as if an unseen hand had yanked him back by his collar. Eyes wide, he stared at her, his knees straddling her hips, pinning her skirt to the wooden deck. She garnered her strength, determined to focus her thoughts on the man’s weak mind, to will him to release her.

“Caroline!” Merrick’s faraway voice came between blasts, distracting her efforts to control the attacker’s thoughts. Bates blinked, as if shaken back to reality, then immediately pinned Caroline’s arms with his knees. As he fumbled with his belt, the crotch of his dark blue pants hovered inches above her chin.

She closed her eyes and tried to force herself to concentrate on her power. Somehow she knew her strength lay in a centered calmness.

Say it slowly.

But her heart pounded and her mind raced, unable to think of anything but the eminent violation.

The man suddenly fell off her with a deafening scream of pain. She didn’t have time to wonder what had happened before she rolled to her stomach, pushed herself to her knees, and scrambled away, glancing over her shoulder. In the darkness, she could only see two men fighting. She tried to stand and run but her trembling legs wouldn’t support her. In frustration, she slumped onto the damp deck and sobbed convulsively.

The sound of cracking wood broke through her muffled cries. Her head snapped up as she choked back the tears. She strained to see through the fog and made out the shape of what appeared to be Merrick as he wrestled with her attacker. The two men had fallen on the deck chair. As her attacker raised his fist to finish the baron, Merrick closed his hand around a piece of the broken chaise and swung hard. The piece of wood landed square against Bates’s cheek, smashing bone and flesh in a muffled snap.

Except for the blowing foghorn, all was still. Saliva from the drunkard’s kiss felt cold and sticky on her checks. She rubbed her face aggressively with the cuff of her white cotton blouse, trying to scrub away the foul slime.

*  *  *

Merrick stumbled over to Caroline, exhausted from his battle. The sight of her collapsed on the deck filled him with an intense protectiveness mixed with murderous hatred for the bastard who’d done this to her. His sorrowful gaze took in the scratched and battered skin of her lower legs before she tugged her torn skirt to cover herself. Quickly approaching her, he noticed her once-white blouse was soiled with dirt and missed two buttons at the high-necked collar and one just above her breasts. From his quick discernment came a wave of relief; it appeared he’d saved her from the worst of the attack, though God knew she’d always remember the brief hell she’d just experienced.

He bent low at her side and placed one arm around her back. When he gripped her shoulders to bring her to her feet, she drew away defensively, a reflex he should have expected but one that stung just the same. Until this night, she had only viewed him as the man who had stolen her sister away, and shattered her close-knit family in the process. Now, after such a terrorizing attack, why should she stop to think that it was he who’d saved her? He wanted to tell her about seeing her in his dream and the fear he felt when he knew she was in danger. But he couldn’t. Telling her of such visions would only make her more wary of him, if that were possible.

He dropped to both knees, commanding her attention with a quiet firmness. “Carrie, it is me, Merrick. You are safe now.”

Her gaze slowly rose to meet his, then turned toward the man lying motionless a few feet away. Blood ran from a gash over his right eye and cheekbone. Squeezing her eyes shut, she whimpered.

Pulling her into his arms, he kept his own tears at bay as his throat tightened. Thankful for her willingness to be comforted by him, he held her close as she continued to cry. She spoke no words, but her mind conveyed to him  the humiliation of being attacked and the frustration of being unable to stop it. He felt all of her fear and pain as surely as it were his own.

After several moments, she pulled back slightly and opened her mouth to speak but another another blast of the foghorn filled the air.

“Shhh. You don’t need to explain.” He stroked the back of her head as she sunk against him, sobbing. He Mental images of the man touching her enraged him beyond anything he had felt before. He told himself  he would feel the same for any victim of such an assault. At the same time, he was all too aware of an intimate connection with Carrie…in mind, if not in body.

As her trembling subsided, he loosened his hold. She stiffened, grabbing the lapels of his shirt. Merrick dropped his gaze to her upturned face. Desperation filled her eyes. He cupped his hands at the curve of her jaw and brushed the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs. Her eyelids closed as her body relaxed. Her long, dark lashes, glistening wet, formed lacy crescents against her flushed cheeks.

Caroline felt her heart-pounding fear slowly ebb. Gradually her thoughts turned toward Merrick. He had saved her. Mentally, she pushed back the horrifying thought of what would have happened. Her gratitude toward Merrick suddenly seemed endless. She owed him so much. She owed him her life.

The soft strokes of his thumbs against her skin eased her frayed nerves. She felt safe and secure with him—an odd juxtaposition to her previous feelings about him. But he was a face she knew and she felt protected. No different than if Captain Werner had come to her aid. No doubt he would have comforted her as well. And she would have grabbed his shirt just the same.

She glanced down to her hands clutching the fabric. Crimson stains covered his shirt. Blood smeared his neck and exposed chest. With a gasp, she dropped her hands. “You’re hurt!”

Pushing aside the material, she searched for a wound. Her fingers splayed over black curls across his muscular upper chest, following the pattern of hair as it arrowed downward to the waistband of his pants. Despite the drying blood on his dark skin, there was not a wound in sight.

He encircled her wrists with his long fingers and firmly pulled her hands from his body. “It is you who’s hurt, little one.”

He turned her hands over gently and cradled them in his own. Her fingernails were broken and jagged. Her fingertips were scraped raw with tiny splinters embedded in the skin. He tried to remove one from her index finger.

“Ow!” She sucked in a breath, biting her lower lip.

His thick black eyebrows knit together in a worried look.  “I’m sorry.”

“No, It wasn’t you. I didn’t feel the pain before you showed me my hands. Now all of my fingers feel like they are on fire.”

“It doesn’t look serious, but I’ll find the ship’s doctor after I take you back to your cabin.” He lifted her into his arms to carry her, glancing back at the fog-shrouded figure, inert on the deck several feet away.

“Is he—?” Her voice sounded raspy, strained from all of her screaming.

“Dead?” Merrick finished her question. “No, but near enough. When he comes around he may wish I finished it.”

*  *  *

In her stateroom an hour later, Caroline lay the ship’s doctor concluded his examination and called the baron and Miss Landau in.

“There are no physical injuries except her hands. Ilse this salve on them when needed.” The doctor handed Hilde a stout, white jar. “I’ve given her a dose of opiate serum that should take effect soon so she can sleep through the night.”

Miss Landau accepted a small brown vial from him, placed it in a drawer, and walked over to Caroline’s berth. Sitting awkwardly on the edge of the bed, she held her young friend’s bandaged hand.

“Thank you for your services, doctor,” Merrick said in a low voice, taking only a moment to shake the man’s hand before he looked back to Caroline and gave her an encouraging smile.

“I’ll have the purser check by hourly. If there’s anything you need, leave a note on the door so he won’t have to knock if you’re sleeping.” The doctor snapped his bag shut, tipped his hat, and let himself out the door.

Hilde nodded and smiled. Turning her attention back to Caroline, she gently brushed a tear from the girl’s cheek. “You do as the doctor says and get some sleep. I’ll be right here.”

Almost envious of Miss Landau’s position, Merrick fought to keep his feet firmly planted where he stood instead of sending everyone out so he could sit with her himself. Adding an extra gruffness to his voice in an effort to mask his true emotions, he said, “It appears you must forgo shuttle board for a few weeks.”

“Shuffle board,” Caroline corrected as she drifted off to sleep.

*  *  *

Before dawn on the ninth day out of Philadelphia, the Teutonic made port in Rotterdam, but the passengers were allowed until noon to depart. Hilde had woken early to pack their trunks, leaving time to attend to Caroline.

A tap on the door startled Caroline’s already shattered nerves.

“It is probably the baron,” Hilde assured her, patting her hand as she passed to answer. “Who is it?”

“Baron von Hayden.”

Hilde unlocked the door and stepped back to allow him admittance.

“How is she?”

“Please, you may see for yourself, Your Excellency.” Hilde waved him toward Caroline.

As he approached her berth, Caroline could barely muster the slightest smile. Her bandaged hands lay at her side.

He knelt on one knee and touched her forearm. Even though his fingers were warm, she felt a chill ripple through her. She gazed into his dark eyes and knew something was terribly wrong.

“I am sorry to bring disturbing news but Bates is missing.”

She sucked in a breath. “How?”

“The doctor believed he would not survive the night. But when the authorities came on board to arrest him this morning, he was gone. They believe his shipmates smuggled him off the ship.”

“Will we be safe traveling?”

The baron glanced at her and turned back to Caroline. “Bates is gravely injured and cannot hurt you. However, if he dies—and the doctor is certain he will—I am not sure about his friends. We must take every precaution.”

She swallowed hard, then nodded.

“I understand you have been through a terrifying ordeal, but you must put this behind you. Ilse is too fragile to risk the slightest upset. If she were to become overwrought….” She could lose the child.

Caroline knew he was right. The attack was a horrific memory she would never forget, but she must appear strong and confident for Ilse’s sake. She also realized her fear had come a valuable discovery.

Her unique powers—however disturbingly intimidating—were gathering intensity. She wondered how much more powerful the baron was than she. Could he have been warning her just seconds before the attack? Perhaps in time her own abilities would equal his.

She looked up from her cloth-wrapped hands, studying his dark eyes and the hidden fire behind them. But he is married to Ilse, a voice inside warned. Still, she could not help but wonder what her own mind could accomplish if joined with his.

Shaking herself out of her dark mood, she smiled weakly at him.

“You’re right, Your Excellency,” she began, unconsciously toying with her bandages, “I must be strong for Ilse and whatever awaits me in Germany.”

 

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