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Jonathan Hale carried his burden easily. He took the narrow stairs two at a time, and then strode along the deck to where half-a-dozen of his men were standing guard over the assembled passengers and crew of the "Anna Greer." The girl was a dead weight over his shoulder. She seemed to be subdued at last. Jon grinned to himself with wry amusement. He wanted her more than he cared to admit, even to himself. If circumstances had been different he would have greatly enjoyed taming her. But he had managed to elude capture during his eight years under the black flag partly by following one guiding principle: never take prisoners. They were more trouble than they were worth. Maybe, though, he would make an exception regarding this girl.
Jon stopped abruptly, heaving the slight body off his shoulder and dumping it unceremoniously on the hard boards of the deck. She struggled to a sitting position, raising her tear-drenched eyes to his face and glaring at him defiantly. Her hair was dishevelled from the rough treatment she had endured, and hung in a coppery tangle down her back. Tears had traced dirty paths down either side of her face, and she pressed her lips tightly together to keep them from trembling. The lush swell of her breasts was clearly visible even though she was clutching the torn front of her dress together with both hands. Jon thought he had never seen a woman look more desirable.
"Watch her," he said briefly to a sailor standing nearby, then crossed the deck to supervise the transfer of the "Anna Greer's" cargo into the hold of the "Margarita."
That cargo consisted of thousands of dollars worth of silver ore, partial payment from thePortuguese government to England for six English-built frigates. Jon had learned of the proposed shipment through a paid informant who worked as a clerk in the Portuguese embassy in England. The interesting part of the information was that the silver was to travel virtually unguarded. Although it would be carried on a military vessel, the ship would sail alone. The customary flotilla of guardian ships would be left behind.
Jon had been incredulous when this news was passed on to him. He could not believe that any government would be foolhardy enough to send so much silver out unprotected. But he had the story checked out carefully and could find nothing to contradict it. The reasoning of the Portuguese government, as they had gradually pieced it together, had been that less attention drawn to the shipment would mean greater safety from attack. The original idea had been to place the silver on board a passenger ship with no heavy guns at all. But this had been deemed too risky, and a compromise had been reached: the silver would be shipped out on a lone military vessel, unguarded, as though the ship was making a routine voyage. The "Anna Greer" had been selected as the carrier ship, and had even been instructed to take on a few passengers to make the voyage seem as innocuous as possible.
Taking the "Anna Greer" had been a dangerous piece of business. The "Margarita" had tailed her for days, watching for anything unusual. They had spotted nothing. It seemed as though his information was correct, but Jon still felt uneasy. Something about the situation just did not feel right.
He had come to a decision only that morning. They would take the "Anna Greer." Late afternoon would be the best time, when the lulling effects of the sun and water had dulled the senses of the "Anna Greer's" crew. The whole operation should take less than an hour, and the "Margarita" would be away. With luck, none of the "Anna Greer's" passengers, and few of her crew, would be harmed.
So far, the operation had gone without a hitch. Of course, it was unfortunate that the "Anna Greer" had not surrendered at the outset, but then he had not really expected her to. The "Margarita's" own losses had been minimal, and at this moment most of the men were happily engaged in gathering up all the plunder they could carry. It would be divided among them all as soon as they reached port safely, with each member of the crew receiving an equal share. As captain, he was entitled to one-fifth of the whole. The taking of the "Anna Greer" would make this voyage extremely profitable for him.
"Get a move on it, Harley, Thomeon!" he roared, annoyed at the slowness of their efforts. The two men, who were carrying a load of silver across a makeshift bridge between the "Margarita" and her prey, almost fell overboard in their haste to obey his command. Jon watched the loading crew at work for a while, then turned to survey the passengers who had been segregated from the crew and were being loosely guarded by two of his men.
Except for the girl, they were an unattractive lot. There was a middle-aged man and his fat, sobbing wife, who were obviously members of the wealthy merchant class; a foppish English lord and his poker-faced valet; the girl's stout nursemaid, who had come around and was peering anxiously at her charge; and an elderly woman in an ugly lavender gown that had been in fashion twenty years before.
"Not much to look at, certainly," thought Jon, making a mental exception of the girl. But each and every one of them had to have money, or be in some way connected with it.
"They'd bring a fat ransom," he thought, regretting as he sometimes did his iron-clad rule concerning prisoners. He shook his head thoughtfully. They were just too much trouble, especially if they were female. Liable to cause trouble among the crew. It was a pity, though. He would have liked to have had a little time with the girl.
"God, Cap'n, look to starboard!" a seaman gasped. "It's a bleedin' navy!"
Jon whirled, staring out to sea. Ship after ship appeared on the horizon, heading grimly for the "Anna Greer." Jon mentally cursed himself for being every kind of a fool. He had ignored the tiny inner voice that had tried to warn him, and so walked right into a trap. It was painfully obvious that the "Anna Greer" had been a carefully thought-out lure.
"To catch some damn fool who couldn't resist the honeypot!" Jon thought angrily, then turned to issue sharp orders to his crew.
"Finish loading that silver! Fast! For your lives!" His voice was grim with determination, and the men rushed to do his bidding. Jon turned to Harry, who had come up beside him and was looking at him anxiously.
"Find the "Anna Greer's' captain and bring him to me!"
Jon's mind worked furiously as he waited for the captain of the captured ship to be brought before him. The "Margarita" could undoubtedly outrun the frigates if she could only get enough of a start. But they were less than an hour away, and closing rapidly. And it would only take one of the mighty ships to blow the pirate vessel clean out of the water. Guile was what was needed to bring them all through safely. Jon came to a decision abruptly, just as Harry approached with the captain of the "Anna Greer."
"Harry, get that fat couple over there, the old lady, and the girl. Put them on board the "Margarita." They'll be hostages for the good behavior of the frigates!"
"Aye, aye, Captain!" Harry saluted smartly, then grinned. Jon would bring them through. He had never failed them yet!
"Sir," Jon said politely to the spluttering captain. "I very much regret the necessity of taking any of your passengers as hostages. However, they will not be harmed as long as the frigates keep their distance and their guns remain covered. If not--well, you have my word that the hostages will be executed immediately if one shot is fired. One shot. I depend on you to carry this message to the captain of the frigates."
The captain of the "Anna Greer" looked appalled.
"Sir, you cannot hope to escape with such hostages! The elderly lady is the Duchess of Kent, and the young lady is the daughter of the ambassador to Portugal! I implore you not to take them! Take myself, and my crew, instead!"
Jon laughed, turning away.
"Carry my message, Captain!"
He gave low-voiced orders to another crew member and within minutes the "Anna Greer's" outraged captain was being lowered in a gig with a crew of six to row.
"Pull! Pull for the frigates!" Jon bellowed over the side at them. "Pull, damn your eyes, or I'll blow you out of the water!"
Thus admonished, the oarsmen fell to with a will. The little boat fairly skimmed through the water towards the frigates.
Jon leaped on board the "Margarita" just as the last of the hostages was escorted over the makeshift bridge.
The ropes that tethered the two ships together were axed, and they began to drift slowly apart.
"Square the yards!"
The huge main sail was hoisted up the mast and flapped wildly for a moment before filling with wind.
"Lie to windward!"
The "Margarita" seemed to take on wings as the wind sent her clipping through the waves.
On deck, Cathy held back frightened sobs as the "Margarita" picked up speed. A hard knot of unshed tears formed in her throat. She had never felt so helpless, or so alone.
The hostages had been herded into a compact group directly under the main sail, and a rope had been twined loosely about their waists and legs to keep them in place.
"So we can get to ye quick," the man who tied the ropes told them, and his sly grin left them with little doubt as to his meaning. If the frigates misbehaved their lives would serve as forfeit.
"We won't be harmed. The frigates will never open fire as long as we are on board," said the Duchess in a clear, strong voice. She took pity on Cathy's obvious fright and patted her hand reassuringly. The merchant was too busy coping with his fat wife's hysterics to argue with this statement, as he seemed to want to do.
The deck of the pirate ship was a swarm of activity. Men darted about, obviously in their element. The mongrel band of pirates turned before their eyes into experienced, disciplined seamen. Cathy caught an occasional glimpse of the captain, who seemed to be everywhere at once, shouting orders and lending a hand where needed. His men appeared to hold him in considerable respect. From all sides Cathy heard mutters of: "Cap'n will get us out of this. He ain't never let us down yet!"
The "Margarita" was built for speed, and fairly flew through the water. The frigates lost ground behind her, but they were always there, just a little further in the distance. The sun went down and a stiff wind began to blow. Cathy was shivering with cold in her place underneath the mast, and the old Duchess was turning blue around the lips. The merchant couple apparently had enough layers of fat to keep them warm.
The moon was a pale ghost floating high overhead when the captain came to stand before them. He looked them over in silence, a grim expression on his face. Cathy's heart began to pound uncomfortably.
"You can all thank whatever God you believe in that the frigates didn't open fire. It looks like they value your lives more than silver. If I were you, I'd pray that they don't change their minds."
He called sharply across the deck to Harry, who hastened to his side.
"Have a couple of the men take them below and lock them up. In the hold, I think. Tell them to make sure the man is chained--we have enough problems without him taking it into his head to be a hero."
The hard, gray eyes rested for a moment on Cathy, who hastily looked away. She blushed hotly under his regard. He hesitated, staring at her as though he had something on his mind. Finally he spoke in a low voice to Harry.
"Take the girl to my cabin."
"Sir?" Harry squeaked in surprise, unable to suppress his astonishment. Jon's voice was rough when he answered.
"You heard me. Take her to my cabin. And see that she's locked in."
"Yes, sir!" Harry said woodenly, flustered by his own loss of control. The captain scowled blackly at him before striding away.
Harry carried out his orders quickly, unable to keep from wondering what was going on in Jon's head. Jon liked women, but it wasn't like him to resort to rape. And rape it would have to be with a girl as obviously innocent as this one was. In spite of her lovely face and seductive figure, she was little more than a child, and a frightened one at that. Besides, she was a lady! She wasn't the type Jon could tumble casually, then just as casually dismiss when he tired of her. Her family would be out for blood!
Harry shuddered to think of what would happen to Jon if the "Margarita" were captured, the hostages rescued, and the girl were found to have been ravished! He doubted they would even wait to hang Jon properly. More likely shoot him down on the spot. Harry shook his head in disbelief. The girl was a beauty, no doubt about it, but, hell--no woman was worth dying for! As Jon would have been the first to agree less than twenty-four hours ago! But as Harry knew from experience, there was no stopping Jon once he had made up his mind to do something. And it certainly wasn't for a member of the crew like himself to attempt to tell the captain what to do!
Still vaguely troubled, he saw to the safe movement of the other prisoners before returning to untie the girl. She was as cold and still as a piece of white marble, and his conscience smote him as he had to practically drag her to where the captain's cabin nestled under the quarterdeck. She stopped stock still in the doorway, and Harry could feel her arm shaking under his hand.
"Don't do this," she breathed, her eyes wide as she looked at him.
"Captain's orders, ma'am," Harry replied uncomfortably, wishing the deck would miraculously open up and swallow him. He started as she placed one small hand on his arm entreatingly.
"Please put me in with the others. Please. My father is a rich man, he will pay well to have me back . . . unharmed. Or if I could just be lowered in one of those little boats. . . ." Her voice trailed off. Harry swallowed, unable to meet that beseeching gaze.
"There's nothing I can do, ma'am. I'm sorry. Cap'n would have me clapped in the brig, or worse, if I was to disobey an order."
He put a hand to the small of her back, urging her gently inside. She took a few reluctant steps into the room, then turned to face him. Harry was touched by the fright in those huge eyes.
"Look, ma'am," he said almost desperately. "Captain Hale is no saint, but he's not a fiend either. I've been with him for eight years, and I've never known him to hurt a woman. You'll be all right."
"No thanks to you," she said, suddenly bitter, and turned her back, obviously waiting for him to go. Harry looked at her helplessly, then stepped back, closing the door and bolting it from the outside.
Cathy listened numbly as the bolt slid into place. She could not believe that this nightmare was really happening. She sobbed, a hoarse dry sound deep in her throat. But tears would not help her where there was no one to hear or care, she reminded herself grimly. Squaring her shoulders, she turned to examine the room for a possible means of escape. It was very dark and she could barely make out the outline of a box