Chapter the First
“Margaret, I will not have you defying me,” he warned.
Captain Ambrose Price glanced over the shoulder of his reflection at the woman being cinched into a new corset on the other side of the room. Her platinum hair was catching the dying light from the window and reflecting it in deeper shades of gold and red. He decided he did not like the colour on her. Though, with the silhouette she was cutting in her undergarments as the maid worked, he was tempted to forget her mission and ravage her himself.
“Jeanette, tighter,” he ordered. “I want to be able to wrap my hands around her waist and meet my own fingers.”
Margaret gasped as the girl pulled back hard in response to the order, nearly lifting her off her feet. She thought she was going to be cut in half. “But, sir, I can hardly breathe as it is,” she protested, as the new steel boning forced her body into the shape he desired.
He turned away from adjusting his wig and crossed the room to her. He shoved the small black girl out of his way and began to manhandle Margaret’s breasts into place to present the most appealing vision. “Get the dress,” he ordered, without looking at the slave girl. “Now,” he said, his voice deceptively pleasant, “I have told you to call me Captain, haven’t I?”
She hung her head, “Aye, Captain,” she breathed.
He touched her chin in what began as a tender gesture, then moved her head rudely out of his way. “Now make certain that you bring up the subject of my promotion with subtlety and a casual, but calculated glimpse of this,” he said, giving her decolletage a light pat. He set his hands around her waist until his middle fingers touched and frowned to note the quarter inch gap between his thumbs. “It will have to do …for now,” he added with considerable menace.
Jeanette wisely approached from behind and climbed on a short stool to be able to get the dress over the girl’s head without messing up her elaborate hair. Margaret wiggled to help, but frowned as the bloomers chaffed against her thighs.
“Must I wear these accursed things between my legs?” she pouted.
He cupped her chin and squeezed hard enough to hurt, but not enough to leave a mark. “One: Do not frown, it mars your beauty. Two: You must be wearing knickers when he undresses you or you will be seen as a wanton and all my carefully laid plans will be for naught, which will cause you considerable pain. Three,” he added, cutting off her next thought, “you will not question me. You do remember your dear brother, don’t you? And what your obedience to me means to him?”
She lowered her silvery blue eyes in submission, and it seemed to please him. He let her go and paced back to the vanity and allowed Jeanette to finish working her magic. He opened a drawer and returned with a three strand rope of pearls spread between his hands set with a brilliant sapphire the size of a Spanish doubloon surrounded by diamonds. He set it at her throat and handed the clasp back to Jeanette to fasten.
Margaret ran her slim white fingers along the gleaming ropes. They were breath-taking, and they made her think.
“Captain,” she ventured.
“Yes,” he mused, as he adjusted a curl that was blocking the view of her earrings.
“What news of my pearl?” she asked.
He glanced down at her, and then went back to making his minute adjustments. “It never made it.”
“Sir? Captain?” she corrected quickly.
“The ship was attacked by pirates,” he answered, as if its loss meant nothing to him. “It was the Mercy’s Ransom. No doubt it is even now gracing the neck of some pirate’s whore. I wonder if she knows what she has?”
His smile was cold and cruel.
From outside there came the sound of a carriage and he shooed Jeanette away and pulled Margaret into the hallway.
“But… the Mercy’s Ransom takes no survivors. How do we know it was her?”
He paused on the top of the stairs, his hand tightening on her elbow. “Because another ship saw her leaving the wreckage and was unable to catch her before she vanished. She was sighted, and you will drop the matter. I have not allowed you to use that pearl for some time now. Its absence will hardly be missed. You will forget about it, and keep your mind on the task at hand tonight. Vice Admiral Trask will be waiting for you.”
With that he half dragged her down the stairs to the front door. He stopped in front of the butler and got himself under control, his face once more the nonchalant mask it always was, looked her over for signs of dishevelment, then looked back at the butler. The man nodded minutely, serving as mirror in absence of one, and only then did the Captain signal him to open the door. He was the picture of gentility as he handed her into the black coach and watched them drive into town.
Captain Jack Wyndlam stood up in the rough native dugout and reached for the underside of the bridge. He steadied himself, then began climbing precariously up the side. He had gotten one bare foot up on the plank arches and was pulling himself over the rail when a black carriage charged over the narrow bridge and veered too close to the side. He felt the lantern glass shatter against his hand and lost his grip, falling back into the water cursing.
He tried again, looking both ways before throwing his leg over the rail and standing rather unsteadily on the stones. The ground was painfully still, but his head insisted it wasn’t. He swayed, tried to steady himself, cursing dry land. He did not wait to get his land-legs. That was a pointless endeavour. They were something he had never in his life been able to reacquire, not even in the four years he had languished on that damned island. The sooner he got moving, the sooner he could ‘acquire’ a ship and be back on water. Sopping wet and wringing out the tattered gold sash at his hip, he rolled into town.
He passed a fruit vendor folding up his wares for the night and handily filched an apple, slipping it up his sleeve as he volunteered to help the man pull down the heavy planking that closed up his cart. The old man thanked him, then got a look at his tattered clothes, bare feet, and questionable appearance and hustled away with his cart without another word.
Jack shrugged and walked the other way, taking a deep bite of the russet apple. He savoured it, sucking on the bitten piece to get the most of the flavour before chewing it. He headed toward the docks and the taverns that were livening up as darkness approached.
Vice Admiral Trask was a portly man, getting on in years and heavily pock marked. “So tell me,” he was saying, “what your relationship is with Captain Price?”
Margaret swallowed her distaste for the man, and smiled coyly at him over the dinner table. “He is a friend of the family,” she beamed shyly, tilting forward as if she had no clue the view this presented her host. “When my father died and my brother went off to sea he took me in.”
“You are what, seventeen?” he asked.
She blushed, and responded with a diversion of long practice. “Not quite, Vice Admiral. But that is not exactly a proper question for a lady.”
“I apologize, Miss Margaret, truly. I was just curious why you have not been married off as of yet.”
She toyed with her food, staring at her fork as she turned it. “I suppose he is waiting for word from my brother before he makes such plans. I… I really would not know of such things. He has never discussed it with me.”
The Vice Admiral seemed to approve as a servant entered with a stack of documents on a plate. “Thank you, Morton. Now, I know you came here with an eye out for your benefactor. You want to know how he stands for my job, seeing as I’m retiring fairly soon.” Margaret looked up in shock. “Oh, don’t play coy, my dear. I know how this game plays. Come, sit closer whilst I go over these papers.” He waved for Morton to clear away the remains of the meal, and reached over to pull Margaret’s chair close. “That will be all, Morton. …Unless, of course, you want dessert?” he asked, turning to her.
She shook her head. “No, thank you. I… couldn’t eat another bite.” It was not really a lie. Though she was still quite hungry, the corset’s tight laces guaranteed she could not eat a single grape more than she had. “What, what are these papers? If you will forgive my rudeness?”
“Oh, it is not rude in the slightest. This is what you came here for, after all. These,” he said, leaning in uncomfortably close, “are Captain Price’s records of service.”
“All of them?” she asked, seeing the thickness of the stack. She was aware where his eyes were and could almost feel the heat of his pheasant-laden breath on those ivory mounds, though he made no move to touch her.
“Yes. I can’t even think of taking his offers into consideration if his records do not come close to justifying him for the position. I would love to recommend the man, but I need to cover my own assets. You understand, my dear. Now, let us see…. Here’s the list of pirates he’s hung, both here in Port St. Charles and at sea…” he muttered as he set it aside.
“Personally?” she asked, her eyes widening. The list was long.
“Yes. While under his command, anyway. Those hung when he was on board, but not in command are over here.” He fished for another document.
Margaret picked up the parchment and glanced down its length. There were nearly sixty men, along with ships and dates on the first page alone. As he turned back to her with the other list he knocked over a glass of wine and she jumped back with a squeak, the papers clutched to her for safety. The chair clattered as it fell over and she tripped on the outstretched leg as the dark red liquid ran across the table and splattered onto the floor. She managed to catch herself before she fell, but the papers scattered. She began apologizing, and dropped to her knees to pick them up.
The Vice Admiral bellowed for Morton to come and clean the mess, then pulled Margaret gently to her feet, away from the scattered papers. “Are you hurt?”
“I am sorry, I… I’m…” she began, still trying to rescue the documents.
He gave a dry chuckle. “It’s all right, my girl. I spilled the wine, not you, and I have servants for that. But thank you for saving them. You did not get any on your dress, did you?”
Margaret did not hear him. She had seen the name on the bottom of one of the pages in her hand: Marcus Taft. The date next to his name was four years ago. She felt weak. She became aware of hands on her, arms wrapping around her. “Miss Margaret! Are you all right?”
She looked dumbfounded up at the Vice Admiral. “Pardon? I … I am sorry, I… I must have eaten far too much of your fine dinner than is good for me.”
“If you ask me, you ate far too little, but no matter.” He took the papers gently from her and passed them to the servants who were cleaning up. “Come, sit down. You look faint.”
“I think… I think I shall be sick,” she said, managing to think again. Her mind raced.
“Oh, dear. Henrietta!” he bellowed. A tall weed of a woman answered his call. She bobbed a curtsey without a word. “Take Miss Margaret to the privy. She is feeling ill. Then find her a place to rest a moment.”
The woman bobbed another curtsey, and took hold of Margaret. Henrietta was almost strong enough to carry her as she helped her down the hall and into to the small room where chamber pots were kept for the convenience of guests.
“Just… leave me a moment,” she gasped. “I’ll be fine. I’ll… let you know when I am done.”
The woman nodded and left. The moment the door closed, Margaret looked about for a way to escape. There was nothing, not even a window. She leaned back against the door and tried to breathe. After a moment she heard a noise down the hall followed by shouting. Another moment passed and she heard footsteps walking away and ventured a peek out the door. The hall was empty and she took the opportunity to slip out the other way and began searching for another door.
Everyone was headed to the front of the house in a hurry. It took her a few moments before she found the servant’s entrance in back and slipped out into the streets, pausing to snatch a cloak from a nail by the door.
Jack sat in a tavern with his head over a mug nursing his fourth pint of sour, watered beer. He had managed to pick a pocket or two, ‘acquired’ a pair of ill-fitting boots off a man in an alley too drunk to need them any more, and a new coat to cover his weather worn shirt. The coat was a faded blue and set off the blue part of his eyes nicely. The brown rims faded into near nothingness as he stared through the dimness at the denizens of the tavern. At the moment, all he had to do was not call attention to himself, and he should be able to commandeer one of the smaller ships in the harbour without too much trouble. He flexed his injured hand, wrapped in a dirty rag and soaked in the bit of whiskey he allowed himself to buy. The light burn hurt more than the cuts, but the pain gave him focus.
Around him sailors talked of their ships and their women and he kept a mental tally of which ships’ names he heard the most, telling him which ones were most likely to be easiest to take having less men on board. He was also listening for word of a particular ship, but was disappointed to hear nothing of her. He flashed a grin that was less sober than his head at the wench who brought him a fifth beer. When she smiled back he reached out and pulled her into his lap. She giggled, and seemed more than willing.
“Cor, yer’ an ’andsome one. Though a bit worn. Whatcha need, duckie? A bit of company?”
“Mmm,” he rumbled, deep in his throat. “Maybe later,” he purred, slurring his speech, though it did nothing to change the warm, silk-like quality of his voice. It was huskier than it used to be from long disuse and abuse by the sun and sea, but it was sultry and seemed to inflame her to genuine desire.
“Are you sure? I might not even charge you,” she cajoled.
“Don’t tempt me, luv. I’m lookin’ more to… information, you might say, rather than company.”
She snuggled into his lap, laying her head on his shoulder and her mouth next to his ear, and played with his hair. “So, tell ol’ Darla what you want to know.”
He rubbed his unshaven cheek against her expansive breast, and placed a light kiss on the high swell. “Ah’m lookin’ fer a ship.”
“There are quite a few hirin’, luv. What are ye lookin’ fer, merchant, man o’war…?”
“Pirate,” he whispered with another kiss.
She gasped, both from the touch and the words. “Oh!”
He grinned, continued to wrap around her, his hands wandering quite artfully. “Oh, not just any pirate ship, luv. One in particular.”
He moved to her ear, and whispered a name. She was off his lap in seconds, knocking over his mug, whether by accident or intent he could not be sure. While she was picking it up she hissed hastily at him.
“Ye best be fergettin’ that death ship, luv. Ye’ll live longer. An’ ye’d best be makin’ ye’self scarce, and quick. I’m thinkin’ ye’ll not be wantin’ naval attention?” She waited until he gave her a minute nod. “Captain Wellington’s men’ll be comin’ off the evn’in’ watch shortly.”
Jack nodded, doing a quick calculation of how long it had been since the seventh bell. He stood, hoisted his breeches, swept Darla into a passionate kiss and walked out of the tavern leaving her breathless with three pence in her cleavage and no idea how it got there. He sauntered down the walk toward the docks with someone else’s unattended mug, staggering from time to time. He did not get far when he saw a troop of off-duty navy men headed straight for him and spun on his heel, hiding his face in his cup. They went past without incident.
Unfortunately, turning back toward the docks, he slammed into the back of a man who tumbled over a packing crate and spilled a pint of sour grog all over a lieutenant’s uniform. He grinned, and spread his arms in way of a drunken apology. However, the lieutenant was brighter than most, and noted his attire beneath the pilfered coat.
“In a bit of a pickle, aren’t we, thief?” he snarled.
Jack gave a half chuckle, wavered on his feet. “That would be dependin’ on what you may think was stolen what was borrowed, actually, …from a close… personal friend.”
“Well, why don’t we go find this friend and ask him, shall we?” he suggested and reached for Jack’s arm.
“Certainly,” he crowed. “He’s right down there by the bridge thingie in the—hic— dinghy,” he slurred, pointing toward the bridge where he had left his makeshift dugout.
The moment the soldier turned his head a fraction Jack tossed the remaining contents of his mug in his face and bolted in the opposite direction down an alley. Behind him, he heard the lieutenant yell for back up. Risking a glance back, he tripped over a drunk who complained unintelligibly, as he ducked and dodged and bobbed and shot out of the back end with both batches of soldiers in pursuit. Ever cagey, he doubled back up the next alley toward the docks instead of the way he had been running and shucked off the coat, throwing it to a surprised and pleased rummy who had been sleeping there.
The docks were busy and well lit. He darted in and slowed down amid the crew of a merchantman that was unloading its cargo into a warehouse. The men were grumbling it could wait until morning. He scooped up a small crate and began helping. Someone complained it was just as well, as they would not get paid until the next day anyway, and Jack couldn’t resist commenting.
“Aye, we can’t be drinkin’ on credit, now can we? Or we’ll be dealin’ in dead horses b’fore mornin’ fer sure.”
There were mutters of assent and the grumbling grew quieter. Jack was able to blend in amongst them with fair ease, and though he had to dodge a few more soldiers, he aimed haphazardly toward the smallest boat in the harbour. Occasionally, he would walk on board unloading ships and walk off with boxes and crates, marching them into the warehouses, or loading supplies onto soon to be out-going vessels.
He slowly manoeuvred toward a less well-lit part of the docks where no ships were moored, only small dinghies. He was carrying a large bundle of bananas he had removed from one of the warehouses when he heard a voice calling out, “Hey, you there!”
He spun to look, hitting something with the bundle. As he realized the caller was speaking to someone else further down the dock, he heard a feminine grunt and then a dull splash. He looked down off the edge of the dock and saw the long white arm flailing in a mass of dark cloth, and then slowly sink from view. There were few sailors on this end, and no one seemed to notice. He set the bananas down, and started to curse just as a sailor halfway down the dock saw him looking in the water and asked him what he dropped.
“Me hat,” he said, without thinking. “Me favourite, lucky hat.”
“Bad bit of luck, that,” he muttered, then looked up, hearing a disturbance further down. “Wonder what they be lookin’ fer?”
Jack did not even stop to look. He just dove in.