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Jasabel Buchanan had yet to scream.
She had not screamed when she heard the thundering feet charging toward her bolted cabin door, nor when the simple wooden panels had splintered and pirates had surged into her cramped quarters. Nor did she yell when a particularly fearsome--and malodorous--pair of those men had dragged her up on deck, despite her desperate struggle to scratch and kick them. Screaming would have done no earthly good. And Miss Felicity was screaming enough for both of them.
Miss Felicity looked like a heap of clothes on wash-day as she lay sobbing and pounding her palms against the planks. Her blonde ringlets, whose curled perfection Jasabel had labored long to create this morning, were now a tangled shambles. With gratuitous force, her captors hurled Jasabel forward, then shoved her to her knees at Miss Felicity's side.
Jasabel crouched low, protecting her head, expecting a blow from somewhere. But none came. In fact, the men's shouting and raucous laughter seemed to be farther away. She glanced up. The pirates had moved off to appropriate more plunder. Miss Felicity raised her reddened, tear-stained face to the sky and wailed. Internally, Jasabel wailed right along with her.
When she had first seen the sloop on the horizon, she had thought it such a jaunty ship. Its triangular, gray sails were rakishly slanted back, almost like fins, as if the clean-lined ship were a denizen of the seas, sprung fully-formed from the waves themselves. It came up on them swiftly. Never had she imagined it would raise the red flag. Never had she thought such a beautiful craft could be possessed by pirates.
Trying to assuage her achingknees, Jasabel rolled onto her hip and, jaw clenched, surveyed the defeated crew. None of the Rebecca's sailors seemed injured, which tallied with the fact that from her cabin she had heard a distinct lack of cannon fire. After Captain Walters had ordered Miss Felicity and herself to seek shelter behind their rooms' locked doors, he had apparently surrendered the Rebecca to the pirate vessel without resistance. How did Captain Walters think mere locks would keep them safe when an entire ship could not?
Murmuring soothing words to Miss Felicity, Jasabel attempted to huddle close and was coldly rebuffed for her troubles. No matter how horrendous the circumstances, Miss Felicity apparently found familiarity from her servants intolerable. After almost a year in her service, she shouldn't have been surprised. That was typical of Miss Felicity.
The pirates finished rounding up the men of the Rebecca. Bright sun bore down on them as they stood in a long, tense row, from her captain to the lowliest member of the crew. Most were staring up at the quarterdeck, from whence the captain would normally command.
Jasabel swiveled, following their gaze, as one of the sailors gasped, "It's the Devil himself." Her breath caught in her throat. She would not have argued the point.
The raven-haired man standing on the quarterdeck, imperially surveying them all, certainly seemed capable of striking fear into the doughtiest of hearts. He was tall, lean, with broad shoulders, and dressed entirely in black from his boots to his plumed, three-cornered hat. Silver lace at his throat, silver buttons down the length of his coat and ringing its wide cuffs, and silver embellishments along the leather baldric from which his sword hung provided the perfect foil for his dark aspect.
"I am Captain Neil Devlin, and well pleased I am you've heard of me."
Even his voice was dark, like smooth port wine, but it was also surprisingly cultured and possessed a lilting cadence. He strode a few paces along the quarterdeck. Sunlight glinted off his silver as he moved. He wore no fashionable wig, nor the surfeit of ribbons gentlemen generally sported, yet he struck her as more well-bred than the average male of her acquaintance, let alone amongst pirates.
"You may also have heard that afore I depart I offer to those who want it a chance to turn pirate."
"Do not listen to that Irish rogue," Captain Walters bravely interjected. "The wages of piracy is Hell."
The pirates froze in a terrible hush, as if they expected their leader to take ruthless offence at the words, but he simply chuckled.
"Damnation may well await us, but those who join us shall be our equals, with a vote in our doings and a share of our spoils. I make this offer to slave and free man alike." His words boomed across the expanse. "Step forward now and hazard your life for your own gain rather than your masters'."
Two black men and one white slowly separated from the line of crewmen. Since slavery in the islands encompassed all colors, each of them might be a slave. Having been waylaid so soon out of St. George's Town, Jasabel was not yet acquainted with the crew's situations but she hoped for their sakes they were going to a better life. One of the pirates beckoned the men to follow and they headed for the sloop. Then another of the dark captain's minions called out the successful transfer of the best of the Rebecca's cargo to the pirate ship's hold.
Jasabel's heartbeat quickened. Their ordeal was almost over. Perhaps they were mere moments away from being allowed to return to the shelter of their cabins. She swiped at the perspiration trickling down her temple. The air felt close and thick. This was decidedly not a day for loitering in the harsh sun. Gathering her torn, cotton skirts together--blue dress, white petticoat, and white shift, she wished there was a way to fan her stockinged legs without attracting male attention.
"Move them across, as well." It was Captain Devlin's voice. The words sent a jolt of fear through Jasabel's frame and her eyes darted to the dark pirate in time to see him pointing in her and Miss Felicity's direction.
"You cannot mean to seize the women," Captain Walters exclaimed. His face had reddened with anger, although his vehemence was undermined by his powdered wig slipping slightly askew.
"Regretful I am to be telling you this, but they are part of the cargo, and as such we'll be taking them with us." The pirate did not sound regretful in the least.
"If you have a shred of decency, man...."
Captain Devlin grinned. "I'll not be knowing that word, sir. I'm a damned pirate, am I not?"
Rough hands snatched Jasabel's arms. She could hear Captain Walters sputtering in indignation as she was dragged across the deck. Miss Felicity was screaming again. But nothing could stop their forcible departure from the Rebecca. The pirates were in control, and they were far stronger than either woman. Conserving her energy for whatever the dark captain had in mind for them, Jasabel mounted the shrouds. As she carefully climbed around to the outside, the tar-stiffened ropes chafed her palms. The menacing creak and bump of the hulls as they collided together with the rhythm of the waves, warned her she would be crushed between the two lashed ships if she fell now. She tried not to look down.
Then again, perhaps it would be better for her to fail in her leap? Being ravished by a pirate was supposed to be a fate worse than death. He would most likely murder them when he was finished. She sucked the salt air deep into her lungs. There was an outside chance she could survive this. It would be a sin to give up now.
Jasabel gathered her strength and jumped. She landed heavily on the deck of the pirate vessel. Before she could even recover, a series of cruel hands heaved her further down the planks. She ended up in a hunched, bruised ball near the stern.
A high-pitched shriek and a burst of male laughter heralded Miss Felicity's arrival onboard. Jasabel glanced up to see one of the pirates carrying Miss Felicity to the stern, her yellow silk gown with its frilly underskirt in disarray, her bustle askew, and her limbs limp as if she had swooned. When he placed her on the deck next to Jasabel, she caught Felicity peeping through narrowed eyes. Her sham discovered, instead of commiserating with her fellow prisoner, Miss Felicity quickly squeezed her eyes shut, persisting in her pretense of unconsciousness. Nevertheless, Jasabel patted her hand and mumbled some deferential reassurances.
"We'll be saying good day to you now." Captain Devlin's words floated across from the Rebecca. "You'll soon discover we've done a bit of mischief to your ship--take heart, boys, it isn't much--just enough so you'll not be running off to warn the authorities about us afore we're well out of their road."
"You'll hang one day, 'Devil' Devlin." She had never heard Captain Walters so enraged. "And I'll be there to watch."
"Well now, I cannot promise to look for you. I daresay I rate the attendance of too many admirals to spot a lowly captain." She heard the dark pirate laugh, then suddenly he appeared at the Rebecca's rail and leapt across to his ship with an agile grace that defied the waves rocking the two vessels.
With all the pirates back aboard, it was not long before the grappling irons were retracted, the two ships unlashed, and the sloop, now parted from its victim, was under way. Wooden creaks and groans accompanied the ship's gentle sway and plunge with the waves. In any other circumstance, the sounds might have been soothing. Jasabel tried not to watch as the Rebecca gradually receded into the distance. She might never see proper civilization again.
Apparently finished with her ruse, Miss Felicity sat up. She toyed with the tatters of her yellow ribbons and bows, all undone, and then looked at Jasabel. Fear ran naked upon her face. "I have heard tales.... "Her voice quavered and she bit her trembling lip before continuing. "They desire to have their wicked way with us, do they not? We shall be utterly ruined."
If we survive. But Jasabel refrained from voicing the thought. No need to terrify her further.
Miss Felicity's eyes suddenly brightened. "Oh, but perhaps they will not want me if you exhaust them first."
"As you say, miss," Jasabel replied through gritted teeth. Why she wasted an ounce of compassion on that woman....
In an attempt to distract herself, she turned her attention to the ship. Made of lovely, red cedar, it was smaller than the Rebecca had been, with an upward slope to the stern where the door to what was most likely the captain's cabin was set within the raised quarterdeck. On top of the quarterdeck, she could see at least one man standing beside the long pole of the tiller. Other than the raised quarterdeck, the sloop's deck was all one level. No raised forecastle, no raised half-deck, just one even level inhabited by cannon, five on each side.
As far as she could tell, the pirate crew functioned much the same as the Rebecca's crew. Men were doing things with ropes and sails, moving purposefully about the deck. Then Jasabel noticed that two pirates crouching on the planks with a sail were muttering and snickering, heads together, instead of sewing. Suddenly their heads turned as if by one accord and they caught her gaze. Her stomach took a sickening plunge. Their smirking expressions fair screamed they had been speaking of their female captives and in the most vulgar terms.
The larger of the two men stood. He was built like a prize bull. Jasabel climbed to her feet as he started sauntering toward them, a leer curling his lips.
"Stand up, miss," she whispered, helping Miss Felicity rise while keeping a wary eye on the approaching man. The least defensible position they could be in was kneeling before a pirate.
Miss Felicity whimpered.
The pirate was almost upon them and from his lascivious expression he obviously found her frightened sounds exciting. "Aye, sing for me, wench. You'll sing even louder when I...."
"You do not want me, sir," Miss Felicity interrupted, spreading her hands imploringly. "I am too frail for your sport."
The lout laughed, revealing large gaps between his rotting teeth. "Ladies always is." In a lewd gesture of his intentions, he grasped the front of his breeches.
Miss Felicity shrieked and fell to her knees, clutching Jasabel's arm. Jasabel resisted the urge to throw off her pinching grip. How could she alone possibly thwart this foul brute?
Nevertheless, she curled forward--and was caught completely off-balance when, instead of hiding behind her shielding body, Miss Felicity shoved her in the pirate's direction. She tumbled. The skin on her outstretched palms burned as she attempted to break her fall and ended up skidding on the deck to collide with the man's dirty, bare feet.
"Take her," Miss Felicity screeched. "She's sturdy."
Jasabel's mind was almost too appalled to function. This was a new low for Miss Felicity. Luckily her limbs responded to instinct and she found herself scrambling away from the pirate before she even realized she was moving. She didn't hear him coming after her. Desperately, she hoped he would continue to ignore her--and not notice she was heading toward a set of belaying pins.
"Servants I can have," the man growled. "It's a lady I want."
The instant her fingers touched the solid, wooden rods, Jasabel jumped to her feet, pulling two of them up and free from the pinrail as she went. Heart pounding, she turned, a belaying pin in each hand. The wood felt smooth beneath her clenched fingers, smooth and heavy. Surprisingly heavy. She could do this. She must do this. Now or never.
Her legs seemed uncommonly sluggish as she propelled herself forward. The pirate was stepping toward a cringing Miss Felicity, his eyes only for her. He was too tall, and her stays' straps too restrictive, to aim for his head. But his kneecaps were right there waiting. In one swift motion, Jasabel bent and clubbed him. He struck the deck like a felled tree and howled in agony.
Miss Felicity scrambled to rise. Jasabel tossed a pin to her. "Defend yourself!" Even if their stand were doomed, at least they could inflict a little damage on these brutes. The pirates wouldn't have it all their own way, not if she could help it.
But Miss Felicity made no move to catch the pin. It smacked onto the deck at her dainty feet and clattered against the planks as it rolled away.
Jasabel mutely pointed after it. That weapon was their only chance at averting a fate worse than death. Struggling to draw air into her constricted lungs, Jasabel dredged up the words, "What means this?"
Miss Felicity folded her arms. "You shall simply anger them by resisting."
In that moment Jasabel could have gladly clubbed Miss Felicity.
By now the shock of her assault had worn off, and a horde of pirates pounded up the deck toward them. Jasabel whirled and backed to the rail so that none of the grimy, cursing fiends could get behind her. Perhaps because the man she had struck still lay groaning upon the deck, caution laced their advance.
Jasabel swung at them, attempting to maintain the distance between her and the enclosing human wall. Though they blocked her view of the rest of the deck, from somewhere behind them she could hear Miss Felicity busily disavowing her actions. A mirthless grin twisted Jasabel's lips. An evil day it was when Miss Felicity had bought her indenture. What a vile fate, to die in such company.
"Away with you now!" The black-clad pirate captain strode through the wall of men as they hastily made way for him.
As he entered Jasabel's defensive space, she raised her arm threateningly. He did not seem to even notice. Instead of approaching, he turned his back on her, the tails of his midnight coat flying like his ship's fearsome pennant as he swiveled to face his men.
"This baggage is not for you to unwrap." His voice clearly conveyed his displeasure. "Back to your work, all of you."
Standing between his crew and her, his fists resting upon his hips, he cut an impressive figure--even from behind. His back was straight as a mast and his long legs braced for action.
"You can't order us about, Devlin," a big man wearing a blue bandana growled. He looked like he would happily eat his own grandmother. "We're not facing battle now."
"That, Eagan, is a matter of opinion." The captain glanced back at Jasabel. She caught his wicked grin before he turned back to his men. "Yon maiden clouts terrible hard."
"All the better," Eagan retorted. "She's part of the prize, ain't she? That means we each gets a piece of her."
Captain Devlin shrugged. "Faith, do as you like, if you've a mind to disregard the Articles."
A wave of silence rippled through the crew. With hunched shoulders and bowed heads, they stood, discontented but cowed.
At that moment a young man with flame-red hair pushed his way through the disgruntled men and moved to stand by his captain's side. "Aye, the woman must be willing, remember?" He turned his face away from the crew and Jasabel only just caught his whispered words, "What are you doing, Neil?"
"It's upholding the Articles, I am," he responded, loud enough for all to hear.
Then Captain Devlin pivoted on his boot heels and sauntered forward until he was within an arm's length of Jasabel. As he gazed down at her, her mouth felt suddenly dry. She had noted his dangerous, saturnine countenance before, but not his breathtakingly blue eyes. "Are you willing, colleen?"
She shook her head and swallowed. "No."
A general, angry rumble issued from the pirate crew. "Perhaps she means it not?" asked Eagan.
"I said no," Jasabel bellowed, her voice deepened with anger. "Surely the word's definition is not obscure."
Captain Devlin chuckled. "Haughty as a countess, you are. But the matter is settled. An unwilling woman is to be left unmolested. Now if you'll be giving me back my ship's pin...."
Slowly he reached out to her. She held perfectly still, the belaying pin still clutched in her partially raised fist, not giving it to him nor whisking it away. His long fingers closed loosely about her wrist. The contact was brief, just enough for her to register the warmth of his skin, yet sparks seemed to emanate from his touch. Her breath quickened, but his hand was already skimming lightly over hers and up to close around the pin's circumference.
His intense blue eyes trapped hers. Never had a man looked at her so. But then, never had she seen a man the likes of him. This man could keep her safe from anything. From pirates, from Miss Felicity, from simply anything.
Keep her safe? What was she thinking? This was the pirate captain. He must be the worst of the lot in order to command. And here she was about to surrender her only weapon to him.
She tried to jerk the pin away but her stab at self-preservation came too late. He wrenched the pin toward himself, pulling her off balance, and before she realized what was happening she was trapped against his unyielding chest with his strong hands pinning her arms down at her sides. She still held the belaying pin but it was useless to her now.
"Unhand me, you filthy beast." Although she was proud of the way she managed to keep any hint of trembling from her tones, Captain Devlin did not seem impressed by her imperious command. He simply chuckled in response.
She tried to wriggle free from him. His silver buttons jabbed her breast. Frustration hissed between her teeth.
"I'll not mind if you scream." He said it almost solicitously.
"Release your grip on me," she growled. "And I'll offer you the same courtesy."
He chuckled again. "Haughty as a countess."
"How come you gets a piece of her and not us?" one of the pirates yelled.
"I shan't. I'm after abiding by the Articles, as well."
Grumbles from the crew plainly conveyed their disbelief.
"But I'd not think of cheating you, boys," Captain Devlin added. "Alright, then. I'm willing to pay for the privilege of sole possession of both girls. In trade, I forfeit my share of the Rebecca to be split amongst you all, plus you shall still be included in the division of what ransom I obtain."
"You're keeping both tarts?" complained a grubby man Jasabel recognized as the other pirate who had been leering instead of sewing.
"Aye, that I am, Roberts. But mind, the money I'm giving in exchange will get you each five women in Port Royal. Is that not fair dealing?"
Scattered nodding and general shouts of praise for the captain followed, which he apparently accepted as his crew's consent.
"McCrea, if you'll be helping me with this," the captain suggested.
Jasabel just had time to realize that the unceremoniously referred to 'this' was herself before his flame-haired friend grabbed her shoulders. As the pirate captain released her to McCrea's clutches, she started to squirm.
"Behave," Captain Devlin warned her, and the dangerous edge to his tone convinced her to be still. "Escort the women to my quarters, McCrea."
She allowed the red-haired man to march her away. She could hear Miss Felicity's prim footsteps following them. Traitorous wench.
The captain's cabin turned out to be relatively luxurious, with room for a table, several chairs, and a sideboard. A bed, larger than she had expected to find onboard a ship, was built into one wall. McCrea pushed her toward it as he released her. Although the wooden furniture was unadorned, the rumpled bedclothes looked as if they had been stolen from a rich plantation owner's bedroom.
There was also a large trunk in the cabin, which McCrea opened. He pulled some lengths of cord from it and turned toward the girls. This did not bode well.
"What do you mean to do?" Jasabel asked, her eyes alighting on a pewter tankard that might make for a defensive weapon.
"The captain can't be running after you. Sit nicely and the cords shan't be too uncomfortable."
Miss Felicity promptly sat in one of the chairs. Jasabel backed away, shaking her head. As long as she was free she had a bit of negotiating power. A bound woman was already lost.
"Fight me and I'll tie you to the captain's bed, so help me I will."
When was this nightmare going to end? Heart pounding, Jasabel assessed the distance between herself and the tankard on the sideboard.