An extract from My Lady Pirate:
He was the scourge of the Spanish Main.
Nearly a century before, the pirate Blackbeard had taken some sixteen lovers in New Providence alone, and Gray, not to be outdone, was determined to best that score in the Caribbean that he now ruled.
Tonight, the lucky lady was one of his particular favorites—the delightfully wicked, carnally creative, Lady Catherine Fairfield, daughter of the richest sugar merchant on Barbados.
No pirate who'd ever swung a cutlass in these lawless waters ever looked more formidable. A hoop of gold pierced his ear and a patch covered one eye, though there was nothing amiss with the dark orb it concealed. To his other eye, Gray held his night glass, a heavy, brass and leather-bound instrument that he steadied against his arm and now, trained on the blaze of distant light that marked the palatial residence of Lord Fairfield...
And—the pirate smiled wolfishly and closed the glass with a snap—his beauteous and willing daughter.
The breeze, as warm as the bedmate who awaited him, as sultry as the charms of that lovely lady herself, frisked over the dark Caribbean and pushed the little pinnace hard over on her beam. Waves crested white in the darkness, and the pirate's long hair rode in the wind like a wild, untamed banner, black as the night itself.
"Fetch her up a point to starboard, Bones," Gray commanded, and the cadaverous man at the tiller did as he was bid, hiding a smirk as did his mates. Tolerant and loyal tars, they were well used to their leader's nightly sojourns. This raid on Lady Catherine's bedroom would be the pirate's last before duty called them all home and the Caribbean was once again safe from his roguish appetites.
Now, the pinnace skated across the dancing waves, aligning its nose on that distant mansion of light. The pirate hooked an elbow around a shroud, propped a foot atop the gunwale, and, ensconced in this lordly pose, leaned far out over the waves that licked greedily at the toe of his big jackboot. "Ah," he murmured, seeing the single light glowing in an upstairs bedroom, "the prize awaits me..."
"Boarding in darkness is never honorable," grumbled Bones at the tiller.
"And rousing my temper is never wise," answered Gray with a chuckle. "Hold your course, helmsman, or I shall seize you up to the mainyard 'pon our return and dangle you like a puppet on a string. Then you may talk to me of honor!"
The boat crew laughed, right along with him. Their leader was in good spirits, and why not? Soon they would be heading home, tonight he was going ashore to live his favorite pirate fantasy and the most wanton lady in the Windwards was standing a secret watch in that upstairs bedroom.
But Fate has a way of upsetting even the most carefully laid plans, and on this late spring night in the Year of Our Lord, 1805, it did just that.
Gray the pirate would never know what spilled him into the warm embrace of the Caribbean and thus changed his life forever. A freak wave? A slip of his booted foot atop the gunwale? A shove from a mischievous spirit? One moment he was the proud commander of a pirate ship embarked on a dangerous raid; the next, he was the sorry victim of shipwreck, floundering in heavy seas that threatened to drag him down and lock him in the hold of Davy Jones forever.
Gray quickly recovered from this odd mishap. He surfaced, cleared the salt from his eyes, and trod water for a moment, unafraid of the depths beneath his booted feet nor the embarrassment a lesser man might have felt after being so disgracefully dumped in the sea in full view of his subordinates. He heard them calling for him, saw the muted shape of the pinnace's sail as a dim glow in the windy darkness. For a fleeting moment he considered striking off in its direction, but his blood was up, his appetites lusty, and damn him if he wouldn't make the raid after all!
But his jackboots—his prized, precious jackboots—they would have to come off.
The pirate took a deep breath, reached down, and allowed himself to sink while he tugged furiously at the boots with heel and toe and, then, frantic hands. One came off. His breath burst out in a spray of hissing bubbles and he clawed upward, clutching the boot like a prize and damning it for its weight; a similar maneuver and he made a prize of the other, too, while his bare feet thrust him back up to the dark surface.
His head broke water and he blew air out of his bursting lungs. The breeze was warm, sultry, skimming over the salty chop and carrying with it the distant, island scents of roasting meat and blossoming flora. He couldn't be far from his destination.
But the problem of the boots still remained.
He trod water as best he could with his free hand and strong, powerful legs. His breeches, wicked and daring and far more boastful of his masculine attributes than his usual attire, fit him like a second skin. But damn him, he would not part with the boots, even if they were fouling his progress!
So what if that old London shoemaker had eyed him quizzically when he'd brought the print of Henry Morgan to him; he'd certainly paid the man well enough to fashion a pair of boots after those the long-dead buccaneer had been portrayed in. After the trouble he'd gone through to get them, he'd be damned if he'd surrender them to the fish. Ingenious as always, he tore the knife from its scabbard, slashed a hole in the fine leather at the top of each boot, dragged off his knotted, sopping sash, and wove it through the holes, effectively snaring both boots before once more tying the sash around his waist to anchor them.
Now, he was ready to make his raid, and the devil take any who dared try to stop him!
Grinning heartily, he struck off with powerful strokes of his muscled arms that drew him closer and closer to the island, where the twinkling lights of Fairfield's mansion stabbed the darkness. Already, he could smell the aromas of roasted pork and beef drifting toward him on the breeze; already, he could envision the more succulent delights of the flesh that awaited him in that upstairs chamber. Aaah, the pleasures of working in the Caribbean! Balmy weather year-round, and free rein to live his life as he damn well pleased. Savory meals by day, and erotic pleasures by night ... the Lady Catherine being his fairest, and most recent, conquest.
The Lady Catherine... She too would be in proper dress, in deference to his fantasy of taking a lady pirate to his bed' Catherine, of course, was only a nobleman's bored and beautiful daughter, but her carnal appetites were as insatiable and imaginative as Gray's own and she was willing to go along with any sexual games he sought to play with her. He grinned in anticipation. While her papa moved his corpulent bulk among the revelers at his grand banquet this evening, toasting the king and damning the emperor, she would be upstairs and waiting in her bed, her decks scrubbed down and damp, her rigging strung tight, and her entry port ready and willing to receive him...
He couldn't wait to drop anchor in that harbor.
And thus encouraged, he put his mind to the swimming, the current washing his skin, the waves buffeting his face. The water was obscenely warm; salt stung his eyes and with a curse, he finally tore the eye patch loose, allowing it to trail from around his neck and lose itself in the sodden, floating folds of his shirt.
Fatigue, however, was catching up with him. He paused, treading water while he gave himself time to catch his breath. Unlike most sailors, he was a good swimmer, and a strong one at that... but surely, he had swum far enough that the shallows should be near at hand.
Blinking, Gray wiped the sopping hair off his brow, knuckled the salt from his eyes.and saw that the lights of the island were not growing closer, but moving away from him at an alarming speed.
God's teeth and blood.
He was no fool. He was a powerful man, a good commander—but first and foremost he was a sailor, and as such, he respected the laws of the sea. To try to swim against the current and toward the island would only be folly, for his strength, great as it was, could not hold out forever.
He allowed himself a brief moment to lament the forfeited rendezvous with the Lady Catherine. Then, motionless in the water, his keen mind began to plot a strategy, while the receding tide and swift ocean current bore him away to God-only-knew where.
And still the jackboots trailed from his waist, heavy, sodden, dragging behind him like a foul-weather anchor.
He did not cut the sash.
The lights of the island dimmed, faded. The riding lights of his great ship, mounting eighty guns, dropped toward the horizon, then under it, as the current bore him farther and farther away.
He was alone.
But still, he did not panic—nor did he consider loosing the jackboots.
There was nothing to worry about, really. At dawn, Colin would bring the mighty Triton in search of him. There would be laughter, some thumps on the back from his men, a few snide and obscene comments, but nothing more.
Something splashed in the darkness off to starboard.
Gray froze, all thoughts of the Lady Catherine instantly vanishing from his mind.
Above, a ceiling of stars. Below, blackened fathoms. And around him, nothing but the soft wash of tumbling waves that glittered, diamondlike, in the night.
He began to relax.
And then, the splash again.
His hand groped for his knife, yanking it free of its swollen scabbard. Something passed beneath him, pushing him upward on a great swell of current; he felt its size, its power, its total adaptation to a sea on which mankind was only an ill-equipped visitor.
And Gray, in his loose linen shirt, tight black breeches, kerchief, eye patch, and yes, jackboots—was ill-equipped indeed.
The creature plunged beneath him again, and he was dragged downward for a brief instant by the rush of water that went with it. Flailing to say afloat, he raised the knife, his feet kicking savagely at the threatening depths.
"Sheer off, you blighty devil, you!"
A fin, glistening in the starlight, cleaved the surface, circled him, and was gone.
Steady as you go, man, he told himself, fighting to control his rising panic. Wait .til it comes close and then fire as you bear'
The fin broke the water.
It came toward him, the sea parting from it like the bow wave of a man-of-war.
He gripped the knife, determined not to go down without a fight, and shook it at that approaching wedge of death.
"Come on, you bastard!"
"Come on, damn you!"
He drew back his fist, and then the great sea creature burst from the surface, expelling a fountain of misted breath and water straight up to the stars before plunging gracefully back into the warm embrace of the sea.
"Bloody hell," Gray swore, on a shaky breath.
And then the animal's wake smashed him in the face and sent him into spasms of coughing.
Cursing, he grabbed the dolphin's offered fin when it came to him again and, shoving the knife back into its scabbard, allowed the animal to drag him forward through the night.
From around his waist, the jackboots still trailed.
She liked sword-fighting, ships, and a stout mug of ale. She was suntanned and lean and not above ruthlessness when it came to getting what she wanted. She loved sharks, fancied herself a monarch, and now, stood as a reluctant participant to Celtic magic after a recent prize had yielded an old book of spells that keenly intrigued the lot of ex-prostitutes, barmaids, refugees, and slaves-turned-pirate-women who stood with her.
Her hair, caught in a thong of tough leather at her nape, was heavy and straight and of the darkest shade of red, a shimmering fall of polished chestnut threaded with strands of ruby. Her temper was fiery and her stance warlike as only a gleaming dagger, a set of pistols, and a necklace of sharks' teeth could make it. Two large hoops of gold hung from her ears and kissed the bare tops of bronzy shoulders. Her clothes were garish, her tongue sharp, her face clever, hardened, and deeply tanned after seven years in the Caribbean sun. But when Maeve Merrick smiled, her teeth made a startling contrast to such darkness of skin, and her laughter was full-blown and hearty, as blustery as a reefing wind.
But the Pirate Queen of the Caribbean was not laughing now. A quick-running tropical storm shook the palms and slashed against the roof of the abandoned planter's mansion that was now home to her and the crew of the schooner Kestrel. It was not the gale that annoyed her, for she loved storms and could sail her ship through the eye of a needle, if necessary; the dangerous passage between the coral reefs that guarded her private lagoon would not have stopped her if she had wanted to go a-raiding. But the wishes of her crew did, for she was a pirate captain, supreme in battle but otherwise subject to the rules of majority, and majority ruled that this unlikely damsel should have what the spell book called, her "Gallant Knight."
Gallant Knight, indeed, Maeve thought" What sort of spell book was this, anyhow? Any fool knew that there were no "gallant knights" beyond the tales of King Arthur.
And yet Maeve couldn't bear to spoil the fun for Aisling and Sorcha, the two youngest members of her crew. The Irish sisters had lost their da and mama when their ship had gone down in a storm a year ago, and Maeve, who had come across the orphans crying their eyes out in a small boat in the wake of the storm, had a soft spot for the two girls. Their little faces were eager, their eyes bright with excitement. Once, she had been young and foolish and full of romantic nonsense, too. Once, she had also dreamed of a prince charming to come and sweep her off her feet.
But "once," of course, was a long time ago.
Seven years, to be exact.
And so, she sighed with resignation and allowed them to drag her to the hastily built altar and what would have to pass as their cauldron—a pot, borrowed from the kitchen and framed on the right and left by twin pink candles that sputtered and spit in the drafts as though they, too, held this silly exercise in high contempt.
"Ready, Majesty?" chirped thirteen-year-old Sorcha, aglow with the innocent enthusiasm of a child who still believed in fairy tales.
"As ready as I'll ever be," Maeve said, opening the book of spells and dramatically turning up her nose at the pungent scent of mold that issued from it.
The girls laughed. Beyond them, some of the other crewmembers exchanged smirks.
Aisling, just twelve years old, handed Maeve her cutlass. "Here, the book says that you have to be the one holding the Magic Wand when it touches the cauldron, since you're the one we're going to conjure a Gallant Knight up for."
Laughing, Maeve handed it back" "Sweeting, you should hold the wand, not me. After all, you have a far better chance of snaring a Gallant Knight than I ever will!"
"Oh, Majesty, everyone has a Gallant Knight, somewhere! Even you!"
"And you shall marry him and live happily ever after!"
"Bah, I'm too old, too cynical, and too rough around the edges. Even if there were such things as gallant knights, I can assure you that they wouldn't be marrying the likes of me!.
The girls were too young to note the sudden pain in their captain's golden eyes. But Maeve's quartermaster and longtime friend, Orla, was not, and as a sudden gust of wet wind drove through the tall, open windows, shaking the gilt-framed portraits on the walls, she quietly took the spell book from Maeve's hand, found the proper page, and handed it back to her.
She alone knew why Maeve did not believe in Gallant Knights.
And she alone knew why Maeve was starting to look like a cornered animal.
But the Irish girls were not as observant, nor did they know the full story of what had brought the woman who had taken them under her wing to this remote Caribbean island. Now, they pressed close, and Maeve, with a wry twist of her lips, looked down at the spell book to try and hide her growing impatience. "Why are you two so eager to see me married?" she grumbled, tossing a handful of black gunpowder into the cauldron; some of it missed the pot and trickled down the sides, causing the crew to cringe, fearing an explosion. "It would mean the end of our life together. I've fought hard to gain respect and independence and a name for myself in these lawless waters, and I've no wish to give it up, or share it with some sneaking, skulking, dog who'd only want what I have and not what I am. Marriage? Bah! We have everything we could need or want, right here on our island. There is no need for me to marry, and nobody who'd want a sunburnt old maid like me, anyhow."
"You're not old!"
"You're only three and twenty!"
"And you deserve your Gallant Knight!"
Maeve laughed, just a little too loudly. "There are no Gallant Knights, girls, and when you get some age under your keels you'll know I speak the truth! Men are all rascally blackguards, every last one of them, all intent on one thing and one thing only, and that's satisfying the itch between their legs! Love? Bah!" She dismissed the idea with an scornful wave, shut the book, and handed it to them. "Love is nothing but a cruel hoax played by nature to entice two people to rut like dogs and so continue the miserable existence of this species. I do not believe in Gallant Knights, I do not believe in spells, and I damn well do not believe in wasting time in fruitless nonsense when we could be out stealing something!"
Her words echoed in the silence, and no one spoke. The two sisters hung their heads, looking crestfallen. "It's just a game, Majesty,." whispered Aisling.
"Yes, just a game..."
Instantly, Maeve regretted her harsh words. She took a deep breath, and laid her hands on the shoulders of each girl. "I'm sorry, too. You're right. It is just a game." She picked up her cutlass, and gripping the savage weapon that would have to act as the Magic Wand, mustered a grin. "Right, so, tell me what I'm supposed to do so we can end this lunacy."
The crew exchanged glances, knowing how difficult this was proving to be to the woman who led them. Enolia, her lieutenant, ebony-skinned and exotic, her tall, lithe form banded with muscle and flattered by African jewelry. Karena, blonde and blue-eyed and the finest gunner this side of Jamaica. Tia, the boatswain, sultry, and mischievous, Jenny, the sailing master, and of course, loyal Orla.
"You're supposed to tell us what sort of man you want for your Gallant Knight," Sorcha said, pushing her hair behind her ear as she peered earnestly down at the ancient text. "Then"—she frowned, trying to decipher the words—"then, you're supposed to tap the Magic Wand against the cauldron three times and—ta da!—your Knight will appear, just like that!"
"Ta da, just like that," Maeve scoffed.
"Yes, just like that."
Rolling her eyes, Maeve gazed out the open window, through the sheets of rain and toward the distant horizon. "Well... He would have to be a sailor," she mused, her voice softening somewhat, "tall and lion-hearted, and strong as an oak. He would be a prince of the sea, a fearless warrior with courage to rule his every deed..."
"Yes? Go on!"
She tapped a ragged fingernail against her chin, her eyes beginning to gleam as she warmed to the fantasy. "He would be dark and handsome, masterful and brave. Clever. Strong. And of course," she added, with a fleeting smile, "he would be an officer... a courageous and noble officer, a worthy man of purpose and honor and decency."
"A man like your papa, then?"
Abruptly, her smile vanished and a cloud as dark as the one outside passed over the Pirate Queen's face. "Aye," she said bitterly. "Like my father."
An uncomfortable silence ensued. Swift glances were exchanged, and Aisling flushed crimson at her ill-chosen words as the Pirate Queen turned to stare out the window, her eyes hard, her mouth an unbending slash of pain. Orla, who seldom spoke, made as if to do so now, but Maeve quickly recovered. Prideful as ever, and forcing aside the pain of the second, and most savage, betrayal of her life, she snatched up the spell book and affected an air of humor that fooled no one.
"Blast it all," she muttered, "why do I stand here wasting time? My deeds are too black, my heart too hard, for such a worthy man to ever take notice of me. Besides," she added, in the haughty tone of the All-Knowing, "I had one of my Visions last night. I already know what manner of man I shall have, and he is no better than I am—a pirate, a thieving blackguard worthy of the gallows and nothing more." Her voice rose with suppressed hurt. "That is what the Sight has shown me, and it is never wrong!"
"It is sometimes," Aisling taunted.
"Well, it.s not this time!" Maeve snapped. "Enough of this madness, Kestrel has not been out in three days and my palm grows itchy for want of good, stolen coin."
"Oh, no, Majesty. We can't leave without first completing the spell!"
"Damn the spell!"
"But there are other things that must be added to the cauldron!"
"I'll tell you what I'll add!" Snatching up a gold drinking cup, Maeve stormed outside and returned, her hair wet from the rain, her eyes blazing, and flung the contents into the steaming cauldron. "Gull shit! Add this to the damned spell and see what you conjure up! There are no Gallant Knights in this world, there is no magic, and there is no man who will ever love me!"
And with that, the Pirate Queen's arm savagely scythed down and cutlass met cauldron with a ringing crash, once, twice, three times.
The explosion rocked the room. It may have been a resulting spark and the black gunpowder that caused it; or maybe it was the spell itself. The cauldron went up in a burst of pink-and-orange flame, exploding outward with the force of a warship's broadside. The crew dived for cover, their captain was slammed backward against a wall, furniture went flying, and windows blew apart. A piece of metal ripped the spell book from Orla's hands and missed hitting her by an inch. Thick slime blasted against the white walls and trickled down in unholy torrents. And somewhere amidst this shattering melee of noise and fear, a commotion filled the doorway and a man was hauled unceremoniously forward by two pirates who contained him with pistols held at either side of his set and stubbled jaw.
Too stunned to notice, the Pirate Queen lurched to her feet, her eyes still on the spot where the cauldron had been, where the two pink candles had stood, where there was now nothing but a blackened spot of singed flooring and an ugly mess of iron and sludge and stench. Her hands shaking, she reached up and touched her cheek.
"Orla? Aisling? Sorcha? You ... all right?"
But they were all frozen in place and staring fixedly toward the door, their eyes as round as shot.
Maeve knew, even before she took a deep breath and slowly turned to follow their gazes, what she would find.
A man. Not just any man, but a tall, gloriously handsome one whose black hair streamed in rampant disarray past mighty shoulders and down a broad back; a man whose great hands were bunched into fists, a man with the devil's own fury blazing from eyes as darkly blue as an empty midnight.
Not the gallant officer she pined for ...
but a pirate.
Maeve stepped forward, and gathered herself for a question that needed no answer.
"Who the hell are you?"
His gaze bored into hers. Furious, he reached up and flung an offending clot of slime from his dripping brow. Then, he pushed his captors aside and stepped forward, over six feet of towering male purpose, muscle, and rage.
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