Authors: Jennifer Bray-Weber
Tags: #Romance, #Historical
Drake glanced over at his helmsman, Willie, who was holding the ship’s wheel steady and shaking his head. Beside Willie, old Henri stood atop an overturned crate, having a devil of a time keeping his balance against the lolling ship.
Henri nodded his head. “Shouldn’t be in the Straits if they can’t stay off the reefs.”
His scraggly gray beard whipped in the wind. Red ribbons the little man had a fondness for tying within his whiskers had come loose and tangled.
Drake laughed to himself. The pair was something to behold. Willie stood tall, his shoulders hunched from years of hardship. He’d lived most of his life at sea. Tired lids hung over keen eyes and thickset scars marred his hands. A wise and sturdy tar, Willie could steer a ship in a gale just as this blind. Henri, the crusty barnacle, on the other hand, hardly reached the seadog’s chest. Once a brilliant navigator, the squab now prided himself as the ship’s cook. A damn good cook, he had to admit. Drake would swear Henri was older than the sea itself and much more moody. Probably would cause even Neptune fits of aggravation. Strange that the churlish curmudgeon had fancied ribbons to wear in that wiry gray beard of his.
“Stow your gab, lads,” Drake said. “Where’d you gents be without fools in this miserable world? A pauper among men, I’d say. There is fortune to be found among lubbers and beachcombers. Let us profit from their ignorance.”
“Aye,” Henri said. “Be it crown, doubloon or stiver, a profit turned is tipple and rum.”
Drake patted him on the shoulder. “A worthy cause too, when filling our tankards and bellies.”
“What’d ya suppose she’s carryin’, Capt’n?” Willie asked. “Dry goods?”
“Most likely. Should we be lucky, she stows naval stores.” Any weapons salvage would make tidy reward. Of course, some of those guns might not find their way back to their rightful owners and instead end up in Drake’s own arsenal.
“Ah. Rum and a new flintlock.” Henri grinned. “Brings a tear to me eye.”
“Don’t matter what she carries,” Drake said. “These loggerheads will be grateful to us for saving their arses. I’m certain they’ll be more than willing to hand over whatever we want. If not, well, a little persuasion never hurts. At least it doesn’t hurt us brethren.”
They shared a laugh as the men from the first of several longboats stepped on board his ship.
Drake climbed down the ladder to midship to greet his guests. One by one, they clambered over the rail, haggard and drenched like scared wet dogs. Valeryn, Drake’s best mate, joined him.
“Pathetic scabbards, the lot of them,” Valeryn said.
“Ah, mate. An oyster is ugly and coarse on the outside. ’Tis what we may find once we pry it open that bestows merit.”
Valeryn smirked. “Indeed.”
“Let us find out what these fellas are doing in our waters.”
Valeryn nodded. “Open your lugholes, men, and give the captain your attention.”
Drake scanned the crew before him. Ordinary tars, by his account. Not a one of them did he deem a threat. A good thing, for them, too. Be that as it may, Drake would keep a close eye on the boy with the ratlike features. Pointy nose and insidious eyes naturally made the laddy suspect. But it was his nervous glances at the doomed wreck that grabbed Drake’s attention. That whelp was hiding something.
“Tell me, men. Who among you do you call captain?”
A lanky fellow, long of face, stepped forward and removed his hat. His large ears protruding from the dark hair flattened against his wet head made for a comical sight. He spoke, but the winds swept his words away on the roar of the cross sea.
“Speak up, lad! You ain’t in confessional. Who’s your captain?”
The fellow’s chest expanded and he hollered to be heard.
“That’d be Captain Mott, sir.” He pointed to the last longboat still traversing the tumultuous waves.
A captain who stays with his ship until the last moment. Commendable.
“Your name, son.”
“Well, Harris, where do you anchor?”
“A merchant from the New World, eh? What’s in your hold?”
“Indigo, sir. And rice.”
“Is that all?”
“Forgive me if I don’t take you for your word, Harris.”
The lad glanced over his shoulder at his mates, and then cast his eyes downward and nodded. When the storm blew itself out, Drake fully intended to personally have a look in the wreck’s hold.
Well, well. Havana.
Havana. How very fortunate. Saving these bastards would bring him easy money, for certain.
“So, your master is looking to trade for sugar, eh? I’m afraid this journey ends with empty pockets.”
Drake strode to the starboard beam. Below, the final longboat smacked against the ship with the churning swells.
Drake waited, clasping his hands behind his back. The driving rain soaked his clothes and spat in his face. The gale lashed at his body, pressing in on him from all directions. But he remained fixed in place and hardly noticed the ache in his thigh muscles from standing steadfast on the bucking vessel. The tempestuous sea was his to conquer. When she would swallow his ship in her fury, he defied her, riding upon her as if a tamed mare. Drake was at his best when the sea was at her worst.
He grew eager for the rest of the crew to embark. Would this captain of the ill-fated wreck be a challenge? Or would he yield to Drake’s terms? Either way, Drake would have a sport of it.
“You enjoy this far too much, mate.” Valeryn peered over the edge. The last of the wreck’s men scaled up the ship’s entryway.
“How’d you come by that conclusion?”
“Your mug says it all. A wolf’s grin.”
Drake shrugged. “What’s not to smile about?”
“When the sheep graze at your feet.” Valeryn finished his thought. His friend knew him all too well. After eight years on the back of the ocean together, they had become like brothers, shoulder to shoulder in battle, suffering and celebrating mutually.
Crewmen worked to bring up the longboat as the final man boarded.
A lean fellow, he stared out toward his disabled vessel stranded on the serrated reef. The man shifted his focus on Drake and came forward. Not a stupid cove for recognizing Drake as the ship’s master.
“Captain Mott, I presume.”
“Aye. That I am. Captain of the
“I’m Captain Drake.” Here came the part Drake delighted in. “Welcome aboard the
Lightning flashed at the very moment recognition flared in Mott’s pale eyes.
” Mott repeated.
Damn, how he feasted on the fear of men.
“Aye. You’ve heard of us, then. Good.” Any tar in the Caribbean worth his salt knew of his ship. “The
has taken to salvaging shipwrecks. Now that you have carelessly gone aground—”
“Not careless,” Mott interrupted. “We saw shore lights and were steering clear of them.”
Drake let a smile slip. “Shore lights. Of course. Nonetheless, I reckon you’ll want to relinquish your cargo to me.”
Surprise passed over Mott’s expression. “But, sir. My cargo is to be delivered to Havana.”
“Your cargo is sitting inside that ship breaking up on the reefs. By the looks of her, her hull is breached and your cargo is submersed in water. How will you manage getting to Havana? You won’t. And there is not a salvage wrecker in sight.”
“You’ve not the mind to take shares on a salvage? An honest wrecker’s reward for your efforts?”
“Careful, Captain Mott. It sounds as if you are suggesting piracy.”
“Nay, Captain Drake. The
’s rotten reputation alone suggests as much.”
“Ha! That’s the verity of it. Nonetheless, the cargo is at task. Not the
” Drake waved a dismissive hand. “Indigo and rice, correct? ’Twould hardly be an even trade for saving your lives.”
“And for that I am indebted to you. But the cargo is not my own.”
“Ah, but when you took the commission to sail it to Havana you took on the responsibility of the cargo. I am now renouncing you of that responsibility. And for your cooperation, I will see you and your men safely to port. If not, well then, I can put the batch of you in a jollyboat and you can chance the sea. Either way, your cargo is mine. Do you agree to my terms?”
Anger twitched at the corner of Mott’s mouth and his brow knit, his reluctance clear. “Agreed.”
Drake smiled. “Splendid. I’ll have you at my table and we’ll drink to our new arrangement.”
“I’d be honored,” Mott said.
Of course he would. He’d be foolish to deny Drake’s hospitality.
He turned to Valeryn. “Get them settled in.”
Valeryn marched to the
’s crew crowded together midship. A pathetic bunch, they were. “Take your ease, men.” Valeryn motioned to Jack, the cabin boy, standing by with a small keg and tankard. “A tot for each of you to warm your blood.”
“Capt’n!” Willie shouted down at Drake from the quarterdeck. “Capt’n, come take a look at this! Someone is still on that ship. A woman.”
A woman? Did Drake hear him right? What was a woman still doing on that ship? Why hadn’t she been sent over in the first boat?
“What? Impossible!” Mott declared.
“Are you certain, Willie?”
“Aye. Henri saw ’er, too, Capt’n.”
Drake ascended the ladder with Mott following behind. Taking the spyglass from Willie, he wiped the moisture from the lens and peered out at the wreck. He waited for the lightning to illuminate the ship.
“I’ll be damned.” He brought down the scope, stunned, then back up to his eye. By thunder, his deadlights did not deceive him. A woman hung precariously from the rigging and flailed against the gusting winds. Whitecaps lashed at her, showing her no mercy as they reached up to bat her. She fought to keep a hold of the ropes and signal with her free arm. Should she slip, she would fall into the gnashing water to her death.
He spun around on the
’s captain. “What is the meaning of this?”
“We had no lady on board the
” Mott said.
“The bloody hell you didn’t.” He shoved the scope at the captain.
Mott peered through the spyglass. Confusion marred his face. “Oh my God.”
“What say ye now?” asked Willie.
“She must be a fugitive.”
Henri crinkled his distrustful squinty eyes. “Rubbish.”
Willie and Henri wore menacing scowls and pressed in close to Mott.
“We don’t take too kindly to liars,” Willie said.
Mott stiffened at their implied threat.
“I speak the truth,” Mott said. He backed away. “I carried no passengers.”
“Truth or lie,” Drake said, tucking a gully knife into breeches, “if anything happens to the woman, you
be held accountable.”
Drake dashed to the ladder and jumped down to midship.
He didn’t care much for what happened to others. Hadn’t for some time now.
He’d grown calloused to human suffering. Life, his life that is, was far less complicated that way. But something in the woman’s silent screams caught in his fabric of dead compassion. Eerie dread lodged in his chest. He couldn’t just stand by and watch her die.
He grabbed the nearest hand by his shirtsleeve. “A longboat in the water. Now!”
* * *
A moment ago, Gilly couldn’t have been more relieved that a longboat had been dispatched to rescue her. But against the backdrop of the cresting swells, waves jostled and tossed the small craft. Perhaps she fared better on the sinking ship. At any moment that little boat could snap in two. Men would be lost. Men who had returned to save her. Nausea double-knotted in her gut.
The sea lapped across the deck now. Gilly hesitated to climb down from the rigging and stand in the surging water. A nasty wave might wash her overboard. Safety came in the taut ropes she held fast to. As long as they held. She glanced up to the yardarms. Egad, the driving rain stung. Blinded, she tucked her face into her arm and blinked until she could see again.
The longboat drew near, cutting through the sheets of sea spray. Flashes of lightning offered her a look at the men inside. Determination etched their rigid faces. That determination drove her to hasten her descent and return to the deck. She stepped down, carefully, and edged away from the greedy waves rising up and over the ship. Rushing seawater made standing too arduous, necessitating that she hug the slick, wet mast.
A sudden surge slammed the longboat into the side of the ship. On a swell, a man in the front of the vessel grabbed at the railing where a rope ladder hung. He clung to the ladder and jumped, climbing the rest of the way into the ship.
The man staggered forward, buffering the wind and daring the gale. The tempest flattened his black clothes against a hardened body, and long dark hair, fallen from the bind at his neck, whipped freely around his shadowed face. He wore a rather large knife at his waist and Gilly’s instinct barked danger. Run from him. Scale the mast. Jump overboard. Do whatever it takes, but get away from him.
Lightning flashed. She gasped. The bright light did nothing to bleach out the darkness of his eyes.
His voice cleaved through the constant roar of the gale; she flinched under his commanding tone.
Gilly looked down at his large hand extended toward her. Should she listen to her intuition and flee? Or should she take the hand of the dark blackguard? For surely that was what he was, a blackguard.
Where had this indecision come from? He came to save her. What other reason would he have to risk his life to board this ill-fated ship?
Bedad, Gilly. Not everyone is after you.
“What the devil, woman. Let go of the mast. Take hold!” He shook his hand at her.
Past his intimidating form, the longboat bobbed in the violent surf. Getting inside would be suicide. Clinging to the mast of the hopeless ship would only offer her more time in the face of the inevitable. Her upset stomach weakened further. What good came from waiting on the claws of death to snatch you from the world of the living? None.