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Her fingers itched to touch it. They flexed midair, hovering over the smooth curve of steel blade. The long dagger's jeweled hilt flashed and sparkled, taunting her, daring her to stroke over the intricate gold weaving of the guard. It looked perfectly balanced, just waiting for someone who knew how to wield its dangerous beauty. She slid a practiced gaze over the blade. Somehow she knew the sturdy hilt would sit perfectly in her hand. If there was one thing she knew, it was fencing—and she had the fencing-championship trophies at home to prove it. The only way she'd been able to squeak by in graduate school was to give lessons. She sighed. Education didn't come cheap, and fencing sure beat prostitution. Not that any man in his right mind would pay to sleep with a short, brown-eyed, brown-haired, girl-next-door type.
Rebecca Small fisted her fingers and withdrew as she had every day for the past week. The museum had recently acquired the dagger as part of a collection that had belonged to an eighteenth-century pirate. A distant relative had donated everything. As a lowly intern, she had to prepare the collection for display. She could never touch the artifact with her bare hand. And the gloves she had to wear frustrated her because she wanted to feel the cool metal against her skin.
She turned away and pulled on a pair of gloves, intent on finding something else to occupy her. She glanced up. Captain James Morrow. The name echoed in her mind, made her shiver.
"Hello, James." The man was a mystery, which probably contributed to her fascination with him. He was born in England in 1684, made lieutenant in the British Navy during Queen Anne's War, became a privateer, then his thirst for adventure led him to piracy after France and England negotiated a peace agreement in 1711. He fell off the face of the Earth in 1720. No historian had ever found out what happened to him. Had he died? Given up the life of a pirate? There were no answers, and her curiosity about James Morrow burned unquenched.
She ran a gloved finger down the gilt frame that edged his portrait. She wondered what color his eyes were. In the painting they appeared a laser blue shade that couldn't be real. They seemed to follow her as she worked. She often stopped to stare at him.
He was gorgeous. His inky black hair hung in a neat queue. The painting showed the tall, broad man lounging against a large chair. Treasure chests lay open at his feet, spilling jewels, silks and furs. A model of his ship, The Dark Fortune, rested on a table to his left.
A half smile pulled at his full lips. The wicked glint in his eyes made her wonder if he was any good in bed. Heat pulsed between her legs, and she squeezed her eyes closed. She could see them together in her mind, rolling on the plush furs depicted in the painting. Pleasure rushed in her veins. Guilt flashed through her—she was at work. This wasn't the time to get hot and bothered. And yet…she was alone in the museum. What could it hurt to indulge herself? She discarded her gloves, bit her lip, and let her head fall back. Dropping her hand, she stroked her fingers over her pussy. The man in her fantasy thrust his hand into her hair, tugging her head back to nip and suck at her neck. He forced his leg between hers and rode her cunt on his muscled thigh. Wetness soaked her panties, and her clit bloomed against her fingertips. Gasping, she shuddered as her hips worked faster and faster.
Her harsh moan echoed in the large storeroom and startled her out of her lustful daydream. She jerked her hand away, her body still shrieking for orgasm.
Blushing hard, she shook herself. "Get a grip, Becca. It's a painting."
It was insane, the fantasies she had about him. She had a perfectly nice guy who kept asking her out, and she always turned him down. For what? A pirate. A painting of a pirate.
She'd say yes to Steve the next time he asked. She nodded. That was that. No more lusting after Captain James Morrow.
Tonight, she got to open the slatted wood carton that held the painting of his wife. That should cool her fantasies off. She'd never gone for married men. "Especially not dead-for-three-hundred-years married men," she muttered.
The concrete floor froze her toes, and she wriggled them against the rough surface. She'd kicked off her shoes as soon as she arrived. The museum director, Dr. Cuthbert, would have a seizure if he saw her this way, but she hated wearing shoes. And since she was the only one here this late, she figured she should get comfortable. It would be a long night. The things she was willing to do to finish her Master's degree in History amazed her. At least this collection was free of bugs and other pests. She shuddered just thinking about the last acquisition the museum had received. What a nightmare.
She was stalling. Rambling in her own head to avoid opening the wife's portrait. Once she did, it was real. No more pirate booty for her. Not even in her dreams. It was the last piece in the collection and she'd avoided it as long as possible. Everything was going on exhibit in the morning, so she couldn't put it off any more.
This was it.
Shoving a few empty boxes out the way, she uncovered the mystery woman's crate. A few sharp tugs and the lid came off. Straw-covering protected the painting from the elements. She carefully lifted the straw away to reveal the bottom of the painting. All she could see was James's wife from the neck down. Rich red silk made up the bodice of the dress the woman wore. A long string of fat black pearls hung from her neck to pool in her lap. Becca loved pearls. An envious sigh slid from her lips.
Impatient to see the rest, to know what the rest of the woman looked like, she scooped out the remaining straw.
"Huh." She blinked down at the portrait.
The painting had seen better days and the woman's picture had sustained heavy water-damage. Someone with obvious skill had repaired it, but her face looked…smudged. Out of focus. Becca sighed. What a let-down. From what she could make out, James's wife wasn't a gorgeous woman. Her chin was lifted and in profile, but she glanced out of the painting from the corner of her light brown eye. Dark hair was piled on top of her head. Still, there was something about her that Becca couldn't put her finger on. Like she'd seen her somewhere before. Perhaps in one of her history textbooks? She couldn't be sure. She made a mental note to look into it.
Her lips twisted. Discontent settled in her belly. It was always this way. The past was the only thing that made her heart pound. And even her ardor for that had begun to cool. Deep down she knew she never quite…fit. Not with her colleagues, her friends, her classmates, her love interests. Nowhere. She wished she could be satisfied with herself, her life. But it never seemed right to her either.
God, she must be tired. She never let herself think about this kind of thing. It just depressed her. She shouldn't dwell on what she couldn't change, but she was building her career on looking backwards. Obsessing over the past had always been her escape from a world she didn't fit into. Stretching her stiff shoulders, she sighed.
Turning away from the painting, her gaze again landed on the dagger. It drew her to it, and she found herself standing over it, staring. Her fingers shook, clenched in an effort not to touch. The guard spun in intricate whorls studded with tiny rubies and sapphires. She appreciated good craftsmanship in blades. This one was a beauty. On an irresistible whim, she gave into temptation. What could it really hurt? No one would know. A single finger followed the sensuous curve of the blade and up over the delicate jewels.
Since she'd already broken the rules, she curled her hand around the handle and lifted the dagger. She sighed. Perfect. Just as she suspected.
She snapped into the familiar fencing pose, swung the dagger experimentally. For someone as short as her, it served as a short sword. Block, riposte, parry. She thrust forward into a deep lunge and the blade sank into a man's chest. A thick, silencing fog surrounded the two of them. His gurgling death scream pierced the silence and was echoed by a dozen other shrieks of agony. The warm, unnatural fog rolled back to leave her in chilled evening air. Her shocked gaze followed the man's sickening slide off her sword and to the blood-slicked wooden deck. Smoke surrounded her, choked her as a wild cacophony slammed into her ears.