Prologue

Galveston Island, Texas

Spring, 1835

The moon that night was enchanting. Rose Langley walked barefoot on the beach, looking up at the splendor in the sky. She had no idea what had caused this beautiful spectacle; she just knew she’d never seen anything like it. It was a large and shimmering half crescent, and behind it, like a silent and glowing echo, was a second half crescent. Once upon a time, she might have gone to her tutor, Mr. Moreno—so old, soft-spoken and wise—and asked him where such an intriguing sky had come from. He would have studied it and perhaps told her that one of the other planets was aligned with the moon. Or, perhaps, he might have said it was an illusion created by cloud cover or by tiny dewdrops in the air that didn’t quite become rain.

But, of course, she couldn’t ask Mr. Moreno anything. She’d given him up, along with anything that resembled decency and a respectable life when she’d become convinced that her father was cruel and unreasonable, incapable of seeing what a wonderful, illustrious man Taylor Grant would prove to be.

She’d run away from the gentility of her home in New Orleans, certain that Taylor loved her and that her world with him would be wonderful.

She tried to think only of the moon and feel its enchantment. But she could hear the men back at the saloon. Pirate’s Cove—an apt name for a saloon, since Galveston Island had first been settled by the pirate Lafitte. Lafitte was long gone. Older men, remnants of the pirate’s day, still sat in the bar, where they drank and cursed and spoke of the days of Spanish rule and French rule, Spanish rule again and the coming independence of Texas. It was all talk. Galveston was a rising port city, and there were plenty of ill-gotten gains to be found here. Maybe a few of the men would be leaving to take up arms for Texas, but for the most part, they were lecherous miscreants who seemed to sit around all day drinking, smelling worse and worse by the hour. And they’d get Taylor drinking, and he’d have no money, and he’d convince them to pay for her services—and convince her that they’d pass out as soon as they were alone with her. They generally did, though not always quickly enough… . She winced, staring up at the moon. She would feel sweaty and horrid, and the stench of them would stay with her long after they’d passed out, and even walking into the waters of the bay would not erase that stench.

She could hear the laughter and the curses and the bawdy remarks. And sometimes, she could hear the feigned laughter of one of the saloon whores—women who were mostly old and used up, who poured on the perfume and accepted small amounts of money and whiskey or rum for their quick services.

Taylor had turned her into one of them.

Tears stung her eyes. She tried to pretend she’d never left home and she was just a young woman walking on a beach beneath a whimsical moon. But it didn’t change a thing. And it couldn’t ease the pain that suddenly filled her.

She still loved Taylor. After everything he had done to her. She was such a fool!

“Rose!”

The sound of his excited cry made her turn. Taylor had come out of the saloon, and he was running toward her. She saw, as he breathlessly reached her, that his eyes were glittering.

His excitement, however, was no longer contagious to her.

“What is it, Taylor?” she asked him.

“Finally! Finally, I’ve made the play that will get us out of here. Rose, my darling Rose, look at this!”

He produced a ring.

She remembered jewelry. She remembered good jewelry, like the cross her father had bought on a business trip to Italy, and the beautiful little pearl-drop earrings her mother had given her on her fourteenth birthday. She’d never owned magnificent pieces, just the gold and semiprecious gems that were the cherished items of a young girl on a working plantation.

Still, she knew good jewelry.

And this piece was far more than simply good. It was probably worth her father’s entire plantation. The glowing illumination of the strange moon picked up on the brilliance of the diamond in the delicate gold setting. The diamond was multifaceted, shimmering with an assortment of colors; it had to be five carats, if not more.

And it seemed to have a life of its own. It was almost as if the fiery brilliance of the gem burned in her hand.

Rose stared at Taylor. He’d been drinking, but he was sober. His beautiful blue eyes were on her with tenderness, and his lips—weak lips, in a beautiful but weak jaw—were curved into a loving and tremulous smile.

Yes, despite all that he had done to her, he loved her, really loved her.

“Where did you get this?” she asked.

“I started playing poker, and the other fellows had taken their winnings and moved on, and I was still playing with old Marley—you remember, the decrepit old man who says he sailed with Lafitte. He put this on the table, and he said Lafitte himself had called it the Galveston diamond. Once upon a time, it belonged to the Habsburg kings! It came off a Spanish ship Lafitte took in the days before the War of 1812. Rose! Marley swears Lafitte gave him the diamond, although he likely stole it. But that doesn’t matter. He had it—and we have it now. It’s the key to our salvation. We can go anywhere. You never have to be with those old bastards again, and we don’t have to sleep on a beach. We can get married, buy horses, join the Texans, make a land claim—”

“Taylor, Texas is going to war! We have to get out of here. And we’ve got to do it tonight—before someone realizes you have this.” Rose felt his excitement, but despite its beauty, there was something about the gem she didn’t like. She wanted to go—right then. And she wanted them to sell the stone—at whatever price. They’d have to be paid enough to get by, but after that… The most important thing was that they escape now. Quickly. She was willing to leave what paltry items they had in the tiny room that was all they could afford and just run down the beach. Along with her own growing excitement, she felt a growing sense of danger.Was it the diamond? Was it warning her—or was it causing her fear?“Oh, the others don’t know about it, and even if they did, the thing is supposed to be cursed,” Taylor said. “It seems the princesses or whoever had it died young. I’ve got a bit more in winnings. We’re going to buy horses and get out of here. We’ll leave at first light. And if we can’t buy land, we’ll go back east. We’ll go to Virginia or maybe all the way to New York!”For a moment, the curious moon appeared to be luminescent, shining down on them with the sweetest of blessings.And then she heard a commotion, coming from the saloon.“Taylor, what’s happening?” she whispered.There were men running toward them. She started to back away, but there was nowhere to run. This was an island. The beach stretched on for miles here and headed into bracken.Nowhere to run.“There he is. Get the bastard!” one of the men shouted.She felt pressure on her hand. Taylor was thrusting the ring into her grasp. She took it. And she knew that if these men were after the diamond, they would strip her down and search her on the beach. She pretended to push back a stray lock of hair and stuck the diamond in her chignon.Her heart thundered. Five men had come out; one was Matt Meyer, known for scalping Indians in Tennessee. He was surrounded by his henchmen—rough frontiersmen who’d seen better days, but who had never lost their talent for brutality.She stepped forward. “Gentlemen, what is the problem?” she demanded. She moved past Taylor, praying they’d hesitate before actually offering physical violence.She was forgetting herself. And them.Meyer grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her on the sand. “Cheater!” he said to Taylor. “Where the hell is my watch and fob?”“What?” Taylor shrieked. “I didn’t cheat, and I don’t have your watch and fob! I swear, I swear on all that’s holy, I—”“Men,” Meyer said quietly.They descended on Taylor. They beat him as they stripped him naked and left him half-dead in the sand. Rose cried out in horror, but her one attempt to stop them was quickly diverted as one of the men backhanded her in the face and sent her down again, her mind reeling.“He ain’t got it,” another of the men finally said to Meyer.And then, of course, they looked at Rose.“He was telling the truth!” Rose screamed in fury and despair. She staggered to her feet and stood as proudly as she could, with all the old disdain she could summon. “He doesn’t have your watch or fob, never had it, and neither do I.” She knew, however, that her protest would be in vain. And she was worried sick about Taylor. He lay bleeding and naked in the sand. She’d heard him groan once; now he was silent.“You’ve murdered him,” she accused Meyer.There was more commotion coming from the tavern. Others, hearing the fracas on the beach, were spilling out of the saloon.“Take the whore,” Meyer said to his men. “Let’s move out of here.”“Wait! You can’t just leave him!” Rose sobbed. “He could be alive!”Meyer, who was a big man, perhaps forty, and strongly muscled, walked over to her and jerked her toward him. “How did you wind up with such a pathetic excuse for a man?” Suddenly he smiled. “All those airs, my dear Miss Southern Belle! Well, well. I’ll find out later if you’ve got my property. Come on, boys, time to leave this island and move inward. If there’s going to be a war, I think we’ll be part of it. Hmm. And, Miss Southern Belle Rose, I guess you’re going to be my whore now!”“Let go of me, you bastard!” She had to play for time. People were streaming out of the saloon and she had to tell them Taylor was innocent and that these men had halfway killed him. It was one thing to have a fight, or even shoot at a man, but to do this, to gang up on someone and beat him so badly…Meyer hauled back and hit her again with such force that she would’ve fallen if he hadn’t grabbed her. The world around her was whirling as Meyer tossed her over his shoulder. She tried to free herself, tried to protest, but his voice grated in her ears. “You want your boy to have a chance to live? Then shut up! You’re with me now, Rose. Ah, yes, Miss Rose, you’re with me. Think of the glory! We’re on to fight for Texas!”