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By Alana Church
Artwork by Moira Nelligar
Copyright 2017 Alana Church
~~ All characters in this book are over 18. ~~
The ship sailed west on a freshening breeze.
The Kestrel was no man-of-war. She was a merchant ship, but still a taut vessel, trim and well-ordered, if not particularly swift. White sails billowed out from the three tall masts, and the ropes on her decks were neatly coiled. The sailors shimmied up and down the lines, and the officer of the watch paced the deck regally, confident in his skill and the might of the British Navy to keep him safe. Her prow pointed a few degrees south of due west, making good speed through the waters of the north Atlantic. The sky was fair and the waves low and rolling, with only a slight rise and dip in the planks underfoot, something the sailors adjusted to without thought.
If only his own life was as organized, William Suffield thought glumly. Four weeks ago, he had wed. Three weeks ago, he and his wife and her maid had boarded the Kestrel, bound for New York, where he was to join the Royal Fusiliers as a regimental surgeon. As the third son of a poor baron, with little expectancy of inheriting his father’s titles and lands, purchasing a captaincy in the army seemed to be one of the few opportunities for advancement. He certainly had no stomach to join the church, or practice law, or to while away his days drinking and whoring like his loutish cousin Samuel.
America was touted as a land of opportunity, where a man could rise as high as his talents could take him. Unfortunately, a pack of be-damned rebels had seen the opportunities granted by Lord North’s weakness, and had actually declared themselves independent of the crown! The very arrogance of it staggered the imagination! Who did this rabble of fishermen and farmers and stable boys think they were, to challenge the mightiest empire on earth?
Well, a dose of cold British steel would soon put things to rights, he thought. He had no doubt when the garrisons in New York and Philadelphia were properly reinforced, General Howe would march out, crush the rebellion, and stretch the necks of many a traitor from an English rope.
He turned and made his way across the deck to the tiny cabin which was given over to himself and Constance and Molly, staggering only slightly as the ship gently heaved under his feet. He had been miserably seasick for the first three days of the voyage, but had gradually recovered. Molly, who had, she said, been to sea many times on her father’s fishing boat before she entered his father’s service, hadn’t batted an eye during the entire trip.
Constance, on the other hand…
“Hello, love,” he said, entering the cramped cabin. He had to duck his head to clear the low doorway. “Are you feeling any better?”
For answer, his wife gave a piteous moan, throwing her wrist across her forehead dramatically.
Constance Suffield, born Constance Forsythe, was a lovely woman. Or she would have been, had she not been bedraggled from three weeks on a merchant ship in the north Atlantic, fighting what she claimed to be a raging case of seasickness. Blond hair, now lightly streaked with perspiration, fell in golden waves past her shoulders. Her face was pale, but her lips were delightfully pink, and her blue eyes usually sparkled with a lively wit. Her limbs were long and shapely, and her waist was attractively narrow. And there was a welcome…plumpness…to her womanly curves that, as her husband, William had been eager to explore.
Unfortunately, his newly-minted wife had begged him to spare him his attentions during the first several days of their marriage, claiming that her womanly courses were upon her. Being a gentleman, he had no option other than to accede to her wishes. And her bout of illness aboard the Kestrel was now entering its fourth week. In anyone else, he would have begun to fear for her life, as the bouts of nausea usually associated with seasickness could kill a man through sheer exhaustion.
Constance, however, was eating heartily. Her problem, so she claimed, was waves of fatigue, headache, and dizziness, which confined her to her bed almost constantly.
“It’s a beautiful day,” he said, trying to sound cheerful. “Perhaps a turn on the deck would do you some good. The breeze is really most invigorating.” From her spot at Constance’s side, Molly gave him a grateful glance.
“Oh, no,” Constance moaned. “That sounds ghastly. All those waves, going up and down.” She huddled closer in to herself on the narrow cot.
William knelt down beside her, taking one of her hands. It was ice-cold in his grip, and he frowned as she fretfully tried to pull away from him.
“Come, Constance,” he said, trying to make his voice firm, taking on the stern tone his father used on his younger sisters when they were being recalcitrant. “If you spend the entire trip in this cabin, breathing this stale air, you’ll never begin to mend. And I’m sure that Molly would like to see more of the ship than these four bare walls, wouldn’t she?”
Constance frowned, but seemed to decide to humor him. “Very well,” she said, sitting up. She brushed futilely at her wrinkled dress, looking at the straw-filled mattress with distaste. “What a miserable place,” she said. “If I had known that Father would agree to let you drag me halfway across the world, I would have been quite cross with him.”
William smiled, and offered her his arm, smiling ironically. “Shall we, Madame?”
The faintest hit of a return smile curled her lips, and she set her hand on his elbow. “By all means, my lord,” she said looking up at him through her lashes demurely. The sight of her pink lips made his heart stutter in his chest. Perhaps tonight I can run Molly off, and Constance and I can finally lie together as husband and wife. I-
His thoughts were cut off by a hoarse shout from above, and the sudden pounding of feet on the deck.
“What on earth…” he exclaimed, but his low mutter was interrupted as the door of his cabin was rudely thrust open. One of the officers stood in the doorway.
“Captain Suffield. Lady Suffield,” he said, giving them a courteous nod of his head. “Captain’s compliments, and will you please accompany me?”
“What seems to be the matter, Mr. Pedloe?”
“We’ve sighted a ship. She isn’t flying any colors. It’s possible she might be a commerce raider or a privateer. Perhaps even a pirate.”
“A pirate!” Constance put her hand to her mouth, and Molly went pale. “Are you sure?”
“No, milady,” he said, ushering them out of the cabin. “But if we are boarded, it would be unwise to give the appearance that you were trying to hide.”
“Surely no ship would be so foolish as to fire on a vessel flying the king’s colors,” she replied heatedly.
“Your pardon, milady. But the king is…very far away. And at sea, only the law of the strong applies.”
In a few moments, they had joined the captain, a stout man with dark hair growing gray, his face ruddy from a lifetime spent on the ocean.
“What news, Captain Roswell?”
He smiled grimly. “We’re in trouble.” He pointed towards the north, where the approaching ship could be easily seen by them all. Lean and with a faintly predatory look, her bow cut through the waves, throwing up sparkling sheets of spume. “She’s faster than us, and has the advantage of the wind. Even if I fly every piece of canvas I have, she’ll run us down. And if I veer off to the south, I lose what speed I already have, and she’ll catch us all the quicker.” He shook his head. “If I had three hours, I could hope to lose them at nightfall. But I do not. No, Lord Suffield, we’re fairly caught. We just have to hope her captain is feeling merciful.”
“But who could it be?” William asked quizzically. “The colonists have no navy to speak of.” He peered at the mast of the approaching ship. “And it is not flying that grotesquerie they call a flag.”
Roswell shrugged, the merest twitch of a shoulder. “Pirate or privateer, then. And often there is little difference between the two. I beg you, Lord Suffield. Do not…antagonize…our guests. Whoever these people are, they have little respect for rank, and no patience at all with the nobility.”
The minutes dragged by as the strange ship drew inevitably closer. In less than an hour, it had drawn even with them, its sloping sides less than a hundred yards away. William could see the small, scurrying figures of the sailors aboard at their tasks. Worse, he could see the four open gunports in the port side, the black eyes of the cannon staring at them hungrily.
“Kestrel!” A lean, lithe figure lifted a speaking horn to its lips and shouted over the small stretch of water that separated them. “We have you under our guns! Strike your colors in the name of the Continental Congress!”
“Continental Congress be damned,” William growled under his breath. He shook his head as the flag came fluttering down from the mast. The sails soon followed, and the ship slowed and stopped, bobbing like a toy.
“My thanks,” came the shout, high-pitched and clear despite the intervening distance. “Prepare to be boarded. Do not try to resist. We would really rather not kill you.”
“Well,” said Captain Roswell, looking vaguely relieved, as a ship’s boat began to cross the choppy sea, oars dipping in and out of the sparkling water. “It seems we have had some luck, after all.”
“I beg your pardon?” Constance frowned. “In what way are we fortunate? Has not our ship been captured? Are we not at the mercy of a pack of villainous scoundrels?” She clutched William’s arm as if seeking his protection. Ah, yes, he thought with black humor. Now my touch is acceptable.
The captain shrugged, his face stoic. “It is the price one runs in wartime, Lady Suffield. We who sail the sea are used to the dangers.
“But there is one piece of good fortune. This ship appears to be a privateer, not a pirate. Her captain spoke of the Continental Congress.
“If it was a pirate, who knows what our fates might be?” At his side, he could feel a shudder ripple through his wife’s body, and Molly blanched, her fertile imagination doubtlessly throwing up possible horrors at the hands of a black-hearted crew of pirates. “But a privateer? They have to abide by the code of the sea. If they do not, these ‘Americans’ will never get the support they need from the other states of Europe.”
“Hah.” William’s lips curled bitterly. “So we will be treated with courtesy because the price for not doing so will be too high?”
The captain nodded. “Precisely.” He glanced towards the side of the ship, where the boat was coming alongside. “If you will excuse me, my Lord.”
With a courteous nod, he strode away, his shoulders bent. It must be a terrible thing, William thought, to have one’s ship taken away. He trailed in the older man’s wake, Constance and Molly close to his side.
In moments, the privateers came swarming over the side of the ship. William shook his head. There was something strange about them. He gasped as their leader removed his hat. Dark red curls tumbled loose, flowing down his…down her back. White teeth shone in a sun-browned face as her lips parted in a fierce grin of triumph.
“Dear God in heaven,” he murmured, as a grumbling roar slowly washed through the assembled sailors of the Kestrel.
“We’ve been captured by a woman.”
By an entire ship full of women, it turned out. William watched, horrified, as the back of Captain Roswell’s neck turned an angry red. He hoped the older man wouldn’t drop dead of an apoplexy.
Even dressed in a motley array of castoffs, it was impossible to conceal the fact that every damned person on the privateer was a female. They stood in smug array, daring the Kestrel’s crew to take offense.
Which would be a fatally poor decision, William decided, as they were all rather heavily armed. Almost unnecessarily so, in fact. The leader, who gave Captain Roswell a half-mocking bow, had no fewer than six knives in a bandolier, which crossed her chest in an x-pattern. A longer knife, almost a sword, hung from one lean hip, and a pistol was thrust through her belt.
“Captain Grace O’Leary,” she declared, setting her tricorn hat back on her head with a flourish, the faintest trace of an Irish brogue accenting her voice. “Of the privateer Pink Pearl. I bear letters of marque from the Continental Congress, giving me authority to raid British merchant vessels. Your name, Captain?”
“Captain Ethan Roswell, of the Kestrel,” he sighed heavily.
She nodded, but her voice was polite. “And do I have your surrender, captain?”
“You do. My crew are not soldiers. We will…” his voice broke, then firmed. “We will not resist you.”
She nodded again. “It is never easy to lose a ship, sir. We will treat you and your crew with all proper respect.” A note of warning entered her voice. “As long as that courtesy is returned in kind. My crew may be…unusual. But we will not hesitate to protect ourselves. What is your cargo?”
Another deep sigh. “Household items, for the most part. Cloth. Pins and needles. Knives and cutlery. Paper” A brief, black grin crossed his face. “Tea.”
“Tea?” Captain O’Leary perked up at the word. “That would be…quite a prize to come home with.” She jerked her head at the door leading to the hold. “Baker. Riordan. Go down there and make sure he’s telling the truth. Arms and ammunition would be even better, but the damned British blockade makes tea something we can trade for hard coin.
“I’ll be leaving a crew to sail this ship to Boston,” she said to Roswell, who nodded glumly. He seemed unaware, as William was not, of the rising noises of protest behind him. “The ship and its contents will be dealt with by a prize court. You and your men will be returned to Britain at the earliest convenience of the Continental Congress.”
“You can’t do this!” a sailor pushed his way through a crowd of his fellows, red with fury. One of the older men, his beard was streaked with gray, and his nose bore the signs of a lifetime of drink. “We’re not going to take orders from some traitorous bitch who dresses like a man! Are we, fellows?!”
Quick as lightning, Captain O’Leary pulled her pistol out and aimed it at the sailor’s head. Her companions followed suit, and the sailor found himself surrounded by a ring of death.
A dead silence fell over the ship. William could hear every flap of the canvas overhead, and the slow groans as the boards of the ship flexed under his feet.
“One step closer,” O’Leary said, her voice very soft, “And I kill you.”
“You’ve only got one bullet,” he snarled.
“You’ve only got one brain,” she replied, cold as ice. “Can you afford to lose it? Although,” she mused, “I might have made a mistake in my arithmetic. I was never the most able student.” William bit down on his lip to stifle an involuntary laugh.
“Dammit, Hayes, stand down!” Roswell barked.
“How many of these bitches are you going to leave here with us?” Hayes asked instead. He leered unpleasantly, and rubbed his crotch. A low laugh rose from the sailors of the Kestrel, while the women of the Pink Pearl narrowed their eyes in anger. “Women can’t fight. We’ll take them, one dark night, when their guard is down. By the time we sail into New York Harbor, they won’t be able to sit down.
“What do you say, sweetheart?” He grinned at a dark-haired sailor-woman, revealing the stumps of black and rotting teeth. “Miss having a man in your bed? I’ll keep you warm tonight. I’ll-“
The retort of the pistol was shockingly loud.
Though not as loud as the screams.