Authors: Jennifer Bray-Weber
Tags: #Romance, #Historical
“Hardly worth saving the damned rice,” Valeryn said. “The pittance those bastards handed us is a fucking insult.”
“Aye,” Drake agreed. “But one third of these goods to keep a favorable relationship with the Bahamians will allow us to continue open trade with them. The boys will be happy with their shares.” He patted down the pouch laden with coins under his waistcoat. “I do admire the treasury’s lack of moral virtuousness by profiting off the unfortunate. Divvying up the profits with the townspeople somehow makes them feel less like thieves and more like philanthropists. They’re no better than us.”
“At least we admit our villainy,” Valeryn said.
They exited the courthouse onto the porch. From the steps, Drake scanned the square all the way down the avenue to the docks. No less than six taverns separated him from his ship. He had a good mind to stop at each one on his way back to his refuge.
“Do you plan on paying Lizzie a visit?” Drake asked.
“Heighho,” Valeryn declared. “I’ve wanted to tup that sweet piece since we last dropped anchor here.”
“Do so quickly, mate. I want to be under sail by nightfall.”
“Ha. You give me too much credit, Thayer. It’s odds I’ll be done in less than a half glass. But the gal will likely have me up in the boughs and riding St. George for being away so long.”
They shared a laugh. Drake didn’t doubt the truth of it. Lizzie was well-known for her passion and longevity.
“Rosa will be disappointed if you don’t come along,” Valeryn added.
The thought of the pretty Spanish doxy brought him a passing smile. “Not this time.”
“That little songbird muddled you up, did she?”
“I’ve no idea what you mean.”
“I think you do, brother.”
“Nightfall, V.” Drake patted his shoulder. “Be back by nightfall.”
Valeryn smirked, that maddening grin—one that meant Drake had amused him when he hadn’t meant to. His quartermaster took the steps by two.
He laughed and called after his friend. “Don’t spend the lads’ money!”
Drake donned his plumed tricorn and scanned the crowds. A commotion down by the marketplace drew his attention. A vendor’s fruit stand had been toppled. The huckster threw limes at three men. They were looking for something. No, they were looking for someone. They stopped in front of a private coach and argued before parting ways. Two rushed into the market. One ducked into an adjacent store.
“Abel.” Drake snarled under his breath. “What is that little sneak up to?”
In truth, he didn’t care. A cup of ale waited for him at The Black Dog. Aye, he was mighty fond of the tavern. ’Twas a fine place to start drinking. He took a step down, but then he saw her. Gilly jumped from the carriage and fled across the square.
“What the devil?”
Drake tried to catch up to her, but he lost the lass in the throngs of people.
Damn. The Black Dog would have to wait.
He turned around and went in search for the prick and his pals. He would get to the bottom of this. Perhaps he would lure Abel into a side alley and end his harassment of Gilly once and for all. Drake took up a spot on the edge of the square. Leaning against a lantern post, he waited, tipping his hat to the ladies who walked by. Before long, the two men emerged and Abel rejoined them.
Drake observed Abel shrugging his shoulders. One of the other men, a lean but strapping fellow, jabbed an angry finger into Abel’s chest. Heated words were exchanged, a flash of pistol, and, with palms up, Abel acquiesced. The two men left, heading straight toward Drake. Abel watched their departure until he sighted in on Drake. His eyes rounded. The riffraff turned and ran off into the crowds.
Another time, rodent.
It was apparent which of the men walking down the sidewalk was in charge. The lean fellow had a cold, pale stare and he walked with an easy, yet confident, gait. He kept his fair hair cut very trim and neat. For all his assurances, he had a notable, menacing twitch. His tongue continuously darted out the side of his thin-lipped mouth with a jerk of his head. No doubt this unusual spasm manifested when he was angered.
The bastard just looked plain mean.
His companion, with a mop of black curls on his head also trimmed short, didn’t have the controlled poise as his leader. He was distracted by every noise, and suspect to every passerby. That one likely did his boss’s sloppy work.
As they neared, Drake overheard the lackey comment to his mate. “We’ll get your singer, boss. We’ll get her.”
Drake’s blood ran cold.
The rogues crossed by Drake and the blond took notice of him. Why wouldn’t he? Drake, dressed in his black finery, boasted an impressive brace of pistols, his cutlass and a dagger within his waistband. He dressed to strike fear into landlubbers and sailormen alike. People were wont to see things his way when they were fearful. He was a bloody walking arsenal.
Drake nodded once, granting that he was watchful. The scoundrel, not breaking his stride, stared for a moment longer and folded into the rabble of people.
His intuition told him these men were after Gilly. They’d been speaking to Abel, and they were looking for someone, a singer. Drake took a deep breath. Could this be the man Gilly was fleeing from? Her “intended”? He had more questions than answers—how had they found her? What did they want with her? By all accounts of the last few minutes, these men were dangerous and not looking to reunite with a dithering bride-to-be. If they were after Gilly, that girl was in trouble. What kind of trouble was the question.
Bah! ’Twas not his problem. She was a resourceful one. Whatever she had gotten herself into, she’d get herself out of. Furthermore, ’Twasn’t his place to meddle in another’s estranged relationship.
He pushed off the post and soon he sat in a darkened corner of The Black Dog deep into his first glass of tipple. He tried to think of his voyage to his beloved Havana. He tried to concentrate on the satisfaction he would get from ransoming Machete’s goods. But, damn it, he couldn’t get Gilly out of his head. His mind revolved around visions of Gilly in the arms of her groom, of Gilly’s lips, Gilly’s tongue kissing him, of his hands roaming over her body. The bastard!
He signaled the serving girl to bring him another glass.
The lass had three men combing the port town for her. Whatever the mess she was in with the ruffler, it was substantial enough for hiring a ship to search the Main for her. That alone nagged at him. There had to be something else going on.
Let it go, Drake.
* * *
Of course it crossed her mind to slip away on another boat. This time Gilly had nothing to offer a sailorman to help her escape. Nothing she cared to barter with, either. She had only one logical course of action and she preferred torture by thumb screws than to ask Captain Drake for help. Another option proved risky. Tarry around the docks until Abel and the murderers spied her and then board the
They wouldn’t dare follow her onto the ship. When her pursuers were gone, Gilly would slip off the ship before she weighed anchor and hide among cargo along the wharf. If the scoundrels followed her to Nassau, they would follow the
to the next port in hopes of snagging her there. It wasn’t a very good plan, horrible, in fact, but it might keep her alive.
What would she say to the
crew once she boarded? She hadn’t worked out those details. And she was a terrible liar. Perhaps, she would announce she wanted to speak to the captain. Oh, but what if he was on board? Mercy.
She lingered outside the ship chandler. A medley of scents assaulted her nose. A sneeze threatened to erupt on the strong leather, turpentine and pitch odors. The midday sun had long since crested and the afternoon heat drifted up from the stone street in waves. Men coming and going from the supply business stared and a few ventured to speak. Some politely bid her a good day while others offered more vulgar suggestions. The longer she stood there, the more she became uncomfortable. After all, she was baiting those who would do her harm.
The winds blowing from the seas offered little relief from the heat. Dizzy from sharp smells cooking in the high temperature, she closed her eyes and put a hand to the wall to stay steady and clear her light-headedness. When she opened them, it was all but too late. One of the men after her, the fair one, strode up the sidewalk toward her. A sinister leer broke across his stony face. She veered around and hustled to the docks. Faster and faster she walked. Faster and faster he gained. She was almost to the end of the street, almost to the dock. Gilly stepped off the footpath just as the man’s accomplice swung around a building cornerstone and blocked her way. Her heart leaped into her throat. Steely blue eyes bore down upon her and he nabbed her arm.
“Ay there, lass,” he said. “Me boss be wantin’ a word with ye.”
“Let go!” She struggled against his hold.
He yanked her to be still. “Nothin’ doin’.”
“Miss McCoy, is it?”
Gilly froze with the blond man’s address of her by name.
“That’s right, Miss McCoy. It should come as no surprise I know your name. Your friend, Abel, has been quite accommodating in helping me find you. Indeed, I had luck on my side to happen upon the
shipwreck and Captain Lynch. ’Twould have taken me much longer to locate your whereabouts.”
Gilly got her first good look at the man she’d been running from for more than a fortnight. Deep blue eyes, aquiline nose and blond hair so light it appeared white, made for a man of good stock. Yet his cool demeanor and detached voice belied he was a nasty villain.
“You know my name, but I don’t know yours,” she said.
“How terribly disrespectful of me.” He gestured they move clear of the walkway. “My name is Lowell Mather and this is my, well, let’s just say, my assistant, Turk.”
“I would say it was a pleasure to meet you both, but I’m certain you didn’t come all this way to make acquaintances.” Gilly resisted moving farther into the side street.
He smiled, rather charmingly. “No. I suppose not.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Why don’t we find a quiet place to talk,” he suggested.
Turk pulled her into the depths of the alley.
She dug in her heels. “No!” She punched Turk in his chest and jerked to free her arm, but to no avail.
“Stop fightin’ me,” Turk said. He grabbed for her other arm, picking her up.
Blind panic sliced through Gilly. She clawed and kicked wildly, mostly missing her mark, but managing to land a good whack or two to his shins.
“Ow! Stop, ya bitch!”
Mather grabbed a handful of Gilly’s hair, yanking her head back. She yelped. Twinges of pain ripped across her scalp.
“Miss McCoy. I find this behavior to be unrefined coming from a girl of genteel education. Yes, I know many things about you, Gillian. Set her on her feet, Turk.”
He held her hair tightly but angled his face so she could see him. His gaze prowled over her face in such a way she could almost feel it.
“Hyde, God rest his soul, spoke highly about you. I know of all your secrets, my dear.” He lowered his voice. “I even know how he pleasured you.”
Shock speared her soul. Mather had to be lying. Hyde would never talk of their intimacies.
“Men in the cups like to boast of conquests. It makes them feel more like men to trump one another with stories of battle scars and bedding wenches. Oh, don’t look so surprised. Hyde was a mountebank. His rooking finally caught up to him.” He ran the back of his fingers down her cheek. “You are as beautiful as he claimed you to be.” His breath landed on her ear. “Pity.”
Dread tightened in her chest and she tried again to jerk free from Turk’s hold.
Mather tugged harder on her hair. “Now, give me what I came for.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“I know Hyde gave it to you.” His face was a mere inch from hers and his hostile snarl frightened her all the more.
“Gave me what? Hyde didn’t give me anything.”
“Turk. Her bag, will you.”
Turk clutched her forearm and wrested the drawing strings off her wrist. It pained Gilly to watch him handle her bag with such roughness. She treasured the only thing of Hyde she had left.
“Ain’t nuthin’ in here but this here bottle.”
“What?” Mather frowned, trying to see for himself. “Are you sure?”
“Tellin’ ya, that’s it.” Turk stuffed the bottle back inside and threw the bag to the ground.
Gilly closed her eyes, praying the bottle didn’t break. She cried out as Mather snapped her head back farther. Her neck ached under the angled strain.
“Where is it?” he growled.
“I reckon you fellas need ta let the lass go.”
Gilly recognized the gruff voice. Relief, and confusion, addled her thoughts.
“What’s this?” Mather released his grip on her hair. “A dwarf with man-sized gallantry?”
“I ain’t no dwarf, ya gallows bird!” Henri spat. “Now let the girl go.”
“Or what, pray tell?” Mather laughed. “You’ll tie little bows into my hair?” He took a confrontational step toward Henri.
“Ya find me bows amusin’, do ya?”
What was Henri doing? He was a churlish squab, but he was no match for these men.
“Let’s see if you find him amusin’, too.”
Sam stepped into the alley, blocking out much of the light. He leveled two pistols at them.
Turk shoved Gilly back and went for his flintlock. Mather stayed him from firing.
“Alack, it seems we are at a deadlock.”
“That we are,” Henri said.
The four of them eyed one another, waiting for the slightest excuse to pull their triggers. People beyond Henri and Sam strode by, oblivious to the death lingering near. Gilly wanted to scream out to them, alert them to the malice in the alley surrounding her. Instead, she inched to the left, out of the line of fire.
“Join your friends, Miss McCoy.” Mather flicked his hand toward the pirates.
Gilly plucked up her bag, feeling that the bottle inside was still intact, and sprinted behind her unlikely rescuers.