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A Pirate's Revenge
A Secrets of the Bayous novel
By Meg Hennessy, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Meg Hennessy
All rights reserved.
New Orleans, 1817
She was dressed like a man for a reason. In spite of the tonic-induced sleep imposed upon her by her brother, she hadn't forgotten why, at least most of it.
Rayna de la Roche tucked the dark cotton shirt into her black breeches before stepping above deck. The night had become increasingly warm. The salty breeze over the gulf waters had picked up slightly, encouraging her to venture out of her stuffy cabin.
Wearing men's clothing was incredibly more comfortable, though she'd never admit that to anyone. In this heat, it was a relief not to feel perspiration pooling between her breasts that normally would have been locked under the short stays of a rigid corset. With not even a chemise underneath, she allowed the collar of her shirt to stand open and catch the slight wind to cool her heated skin.
To the west of the ship, the sun had begun to sink below the horizon, sweeping brilliant hues of red and orange across the silently rolling waters. Above her, large square sails rippled in the captured wind, and a flag of Spain topped the mighty mast. Surrounded by men loyal to Donato de la Roche, her brother, the ship sailed through the churning water toward her destination.
She climbed the stairs to the forecastle and wrapped her fingers around the top of the gunwales, watching the faint images of a shoreline coming into view. Rámon, her brother's most trusted man, walked up next to her. She waited, knowing he'd again attempt to persuade her from doing this, but her mind had been set. Her brother had placed a challenge before her. She had to accept for two reasons.
One, because that was the relationship she had with Donato, and a challenge like this could not go unanswered. But more importantly, she wanted to go back to Spain. Since Donato had refused her passage home, this mission, if she could call it that, would give her the means to return to Spain. She so wanted her life back where she had order, luxury, prestige, and a place of refuge. Her father's estate rivaled that of the king. The world in which she lived was conducted through a code of behavior, a protocol, where the staff knew their positions, her rank, and understood her power over the ruling class of Spain.
Her life wasn't necessarily easy, but it was hers and she survived it. This world of Donato's, this America, with no nobles, kings, or ruling class — just men with laws — made her yearn nearly every moment to return to her known order. Rámon faced her, but she didn't look his way. Instead, she kept her focus on the shoreline creeping closer. "He has sent me to New Orleans."
She couldn't hide the disappointment in her voice. This new country was known throughout Spain as barbaric and undisciplined. Donato had not disclosed her destination before the tonic had taken effect, but she recognized the coastline of the river. She had been here before when she had taken Donato's son from his French wife. She should have known he'd choose this very city to exact his revenge.
Rámon drew a deep breath. "Sí Lady Excellency, New Orleans. But por favor, he is reasonable, a good man. He will send you back to Spain in good time, even if you do not do this."
"I will do it. I will do as he bids." She didn't want to talk ill of her brother to his greatest supporter, but Donato was serious about this mission. He was equally serious about allowing her to linger on his island if she declined the challenge.
"But it is dangerous, Lady Excellency."
Rayna broke her concentration on the rapidly approaching shoreline, shifting her gaze toward Rámon. "Danger? My brother said nothing of danger."
"You are a woman of the highest nobility, traveling with no personal maid and no escort."
Rayna returned her gaze to the land. "That is why I'm disguised as a man."
The lack of a ladies' maid was her brother's doing. She could imagine his smiling face when he had ordered Nadia off the ship. Yes, that was a bit of mischief on his part, more revenge. He wanted to punish her for abducting his son and taking him to Spain, but his family had been safely returned to his island together. Without her, perhaps he and his French wife would still be separated.
But Donato didn't see it that way. As much as she'd like to dismiss his feelings, Rayna understood his sense of violation and his need for retaliation. She had no regrets for what she had done. Her actions had been not only to save her father, but her brother and the Roche estate.
She had known Rámon for years, before he and her brother had left Spain. With his silvery-tinged hair and skin leathered from the sun, he was more than a companion to Donato. He was a confidant, a father, and she understood Donato's faith in him.
Images raced her mind of the little muff gun she had placed in one boot, and the dirk pressed to her waist. She was as prepared as a woman could be. "I'll be fine, Rámon."
She balanced herself with one hand to the gunwale and the other wrapped around the wet riggings and watched as the sails were furled to slow their approach to the United States mainland and the mighty river protecting her Louisiana boot.
A breath caught in the back of her throat as they sailed into the mouth of the river, toward New Orleans. It was late, nearly dusk, but she remembered it well. She had never left the ship the last time she was here but had taken a long perusal of the American coast. It had been nearly a year since the abduction, but it appeared nothing had changed.
There were tall ships filling both lanes of the river and several levees with longboats tethered off pier poles with some broad enough to off-load a large ship. But she would take the longboat. There was no reason for the ship to anchor so close to shore. When they glided to a still position, the anchor was dropped. The sounds of the grinding chain put her nerves on edge.
A lump formed in her throat as she turned back toward her cabin.
This was it, her last chance to back out.
In her cabin, a small trunk had been packed with her things. Nadia had been assigned that task, but Rayna had explored it enough to know it contained all she'd need for three months in America, because that was all the time she had. If she failed to complete her mission in three months, Donato would arrive and take her back to the island to await another challenge to earn her way home.
"Are you ready, Lady Excellency?" Rámon appeared in her doorway. His expression couldn't look less pleased with the situation. But he was loyal to Donato and would do his bidding, even if it meant leaving his sister in the depths of New Orleans.
"Sí you will bring my trunk?"
"Sí Your Lady Excellency." He bowed, then skirted around her to pick up the trunk. "I will accompany you to the hotel and ensure you have a room. My orders. You remember your safe word, Lady Excellency, the one to say if you are in need of help?"
"Whom would I say it to?"
"You will know."
She dropped the conversation, refusing to familiarize herself with that word, because that would mean failure.
Together, in a strained silence, she and Rámon climbed the stairs to the open deck, making her feel like a condemned woman on her death march. The men quietly lowered a longboat and she was assisted over the side of the ship and into the smaller vessel. Her heart hung in limbo, waiting for her to breathe before it dared take another beat. An icy wave flooded her muscles, making her body feel tight and rigid.
They pushed away from the ship. Rámon's dark expression fixed ahead.
As the large hull of the ship faded into the darkening sky, Rayna de la Roche slowly turned her head to watch the approaching shore.
With no other options to get back to Spain, she'd soon be in a strange land, strange city, whose people spoke an array of bastardized languages, armed with nothing more than a muff shooter, a small bag of gold, a treasure map, and a safe word she couldn't remember.
Zachary Nash watched as the longboat that had carried Rayna de la Roche to the shores of Louisiana slowly worked its way back to the ship. He had waited, as instructed, for their return. He knew Rámon would ensure the princess had been lodged and settled, as were his orders. And Zach had learned one thing while working with Donato de la Roche: his orders were followed. He respected Donato, or His Excellency, for without him and his father, Zach would have been hanged from the yardarm of a British ship two years ago.
Still, this mission of Donato's sister's was a mystery. After seeing her in Spain, dressed in her royal gowns of silks and satins, sparkling jewels to match, decorative combs holding up her radiant black hair, and satin slippers on her dainty feet, seeing her dressed as a mere boy tonight intrigued him.
But even the breeches, loosened shirt, and dirk at her waist hadn't diminished her beauty, despite that she'd lost her royal facade. While waiting to disembark, she had held on so tightly to the riggings, her slender knuckles had turned nearly white. With a black wool cocked hat atop her head, laced up on three sides to form three corners, hair tucked beneath it and a red bandana around her forehead, she looked more the pirate then her pirate brother.
Donato had pledged revenge on his sister. Zach understood, having watched her go over the side of the ship at night dressed in men's clothing, that this was truly a pirate's revenge.
Zach didn't exactly know what this was about, except that Donato's sister was to believe she was alone, and that he was to make sure that while on this mission, or whatever it was, she remained safe.
He didn't need to know more, nor did he care. It was a job. A wanted man had to eat. It was a job that had led him back to New Orleans, allowing him the chance to once again start his search for Alexander Clarke, the man who had signed Zach's death warrant and the only man who could clear his name.
With the shifting wind, the waves inside the breakwater had begun to roil, tossing the small boat atop their crests. Zach watched Rámon's blokes hunker down a bit and put their backs into the oars. He couldn't help but tap his fingers atop the gunwale, waiting out his impatience to get into New Orleans.
Since the second war with Britain, the pirates and smugglers had been put out of work. Much of the corruption from those days had moved to a colony named Campeche on Galveston Island, or up the Natchez trace. For those who didn't leave the city, pockets of crime lords had developed. From what he had learned, Alex had become one such a leader.
Zach's eyes canvassed the waterfront, seeing a sea of tiled roofs, iron-laced galleries, and lighted windows, spanning off into the distance like a fallen starlit night. Somewhere within that menagerie hid his only chance to clear his name.
"Let down the net!" someone shouted in Spanish.
Zach's attention dropped down to the longboat, waiting for the ladder to be thrown over. He picked up his pistol and attached it to the leather brace he wore over his shoulder and around his waist. His dirk was tucked inside the leather waistband. Over his head, he wore a leather skullcap, and he pulled a gilet on over his loose-sleeved shirt. What he had packed to take with him paled when considering the size of the trunk that had been off-loaded for the princess. His clothes were mainly Spanish. He'd need to change that.
It felt good to be out in the air, atop the ship, and not have to be concerned as to where the princess was, for his orders had been not to let her see him. She was not to recognize him as working for her brother, should they meet in New Orleans. To maintain his secret identity, he had often been forced to hide below deck, which he hated. Doing so made his stomach churn with the waves.
He adjusted his pistol on his brace while watching Rámon and the others board. He still remembered the long journey from Spain to Donato's island and then to the United States coastline.
Admittedly, it hadn't been the waves that had churned his stomach while below deck. It had been the memories of the past, of all he'd had, and all that he had lost. The memories he hoped to set straight once he found Alex and forced the truth from him.
Having captained his own ship for years and through the war with the British, Zach had spent many hours below deck. In those days, the waves hadn't churned his stomach like they did now. Because now he was nothing more than a wanted man, a mercenary hired to protect a spoiled princess on a mission.
"Capitán!" Rámon approached the moment he climbed over the gunwale. "I have left Her Excellency at the Hôtel de la Marine, room thirty-two. Your room is across the courtyard, where you can see hers."
Zach nodded that he understood and started toward the netted ladder when Rámon reached out and stopped him with a hand to his arm. "Do you know her safe word?"
Zach nodded that he did.
But that didn't seem to relieve Rámon's concern. "The moment she says it, you will send for us."
Zach nodded again, anxious to get to shore. He didn't know what all of this cloak-and-dagger business was about, but as experienced as he had become, how hard could it be to guard a princess? He guessed the most she'd do was venture out for meals and wait out the ninety days, which was another peculiar thing. Why ninety days?
Rámon didn't let go. "There will be a man posted on shore, right there, every day."
"By the market. Got it." Zach had to pull his mind back to the job at hand, having occupied his brain with plans to search out Alex, not protect a princess. But Rámon's concern brought out Zach's interest. "I know my job. What is it she is to do in ninety days?"
"I don't trust Americanos, but Donato does." Rámon's arm fell away. "She knows her job. You, do yours."
The gravity of that statement hung in the air then settled possessively around Zach's shoulders. He hadn't thought protecting a princess in New Orleans would be difficult, but seeing the man's hardened eyes and furrowed brows reminded Zach what following orders from Donato de la Roche meant. Though her mission remained a mystery to him, he'd do just that, keep her safe until that ship arrived to take her back home.
As a mercenary, he had a reputation in New Orleans. Since the war he was wanted by both the Americans and the English, so he had been forced into hiding. Hiring out as muscle, protection, firepower, and a thief — anything that offered a payday — had earned him the nickname Death Before Dishonor.
A hefty bounty had been placed on his head, but capturing him would not be easy and certainly not for the faint of heart. Zach had learned the necessary survival skills of the shadowy, dark world in which he now lived, having gained a reputation as a man not to be tampered with and who always delivered.
He had allowed his reputation to spread through New Orleans like wildfire, hoping someday he'd smoke out Alexander Clarke. So far, Alex had remained as elusive as the fog that curled around the masts of a tall ship and disappeared in the morning light. Though Zach's reputation made him a living, the cunning, ruthless reputation of Alex made him a legend in the crime-filled mires of New Orleans.
Both were reputed to be dangerous men. Zach knew their fates would again cross paths.
Finding Alex was a priority.
Keeping a princess safe was simply a side job.
Bloody hell ...
He glanced back at Rámon before slipping over the gunwale.
How hard will it be to guard a princess?
The room was nothing like where she had ever lived, minus the cabin on her ship, but it would suffice for the short duration she intended to stay in New Orleans. Her one and only goal was to figure out the mystery of the treasure and be on her way, long before her time expired.
The hotel was called the Hôtel de la Marine and it was on a narrow, muddy road that smelled damp and foul. Connected to the hotel stood a café with the front doors opened wide, exposing a dirt floor, tables, and chairs. From the sounds of the patrons, it never closed.
Her room was on the second story with a door that opened onto an ironwork gallery lined with lanterns. It was a small room, but had a water basin and pitcher in one corner and a surprisingly large secretary in the other. A small three-corner chair sat at the end of the four-poster tester bed. There was a connecting salon, with a glass door between the two, that sported a small settee and a view of the courtyard.
Excerpted from A Pirate's Revenge by Meg Hennessy, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2016 Meg Hennessy. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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