"That's him," Percy whispered. "I'm almost certain of it."
Raeven Russell glanced at Percy. There was a fine sheen of perspiration on his pale, freckled skin, and his white-blond hair stood up in all directions as though he'd run a hand through it half a dozen times. Which he probably had. Percy Williams was purser for the HMS Regal, and while Raeven knew Percy adored her, she also knew he abhorred any action that violated her father's rules.
She reached over and slung an arm around him in the jaunty way she had seen men do time and time again. "You look nervous," she said under her breath. "People will wonder why."
"I am nervous," he hissed. "You're going to get yourself killed."
"That's my problem." She shifted away from him and scanned the men around her. Which one was Cutlass? There were several likely candidates.
Raeven stood like a man-legs braced apart and hands on hips-to survey the seedy Brest tavern. Dockside taverns the world over were the same, she mused as she studied the crowd. They were filled with sailors looking for wine and women, ships' captains hiring additions to their crews, beleaguered serving girls skirting men's too-free hands, and whores working to entice any man with the coin to pay.
She didn't know why she should feel so at home. She certainly didn't belong here and had gone to considerable trouble to disguise herself as a young man before sneaking off her father's ship and onto a cutter with the crew members going ashore legitimately.
If her father knew she was here... She shook her head. She could hear his booming voice in her head. The daughter of a British admiral should behave with more decorum, in a manner befitting her station in life.
But what was her station in life? Her mother had died days after her birth, and from the age of four-when the last of her relatives had given her up as incorrigible-she'd been sailing with her father. This certainly wasn't the first tavern she'd visited. It wasn't even the first time she'd sneaked off the HMS Regal.
It was the first time she'd found Captain Cutlass. After six months of searching for the murdering bastard, she was about to meet him... face to face.
"It'll be my neck when your father finds out." Percy swallowed audibly, and she suppressed a smile.
"Then you won't be long in following me to meet our maker. I'll put in a good word for you."
He gave her a horrified look, which she supposed indicated he didn't think she'd be a very good envoy. He cleared his throat. "I prefer a little more time on this earthly world."
"I'm in complete agreement. Now, tell me which one he is again, but don't look at him or gesture toward him."
"Let's go sit at the bar," Percy said. "You can see him better from there, and we'll be less conspicuous."
"Fine." Remembering to play her role, she swaggered to the bar and leaned against it, trying to look belligerent. Percy ordered ale, and she did as well, though she had no intention of drinking it. She needed all her wits about her.
When the barkeep moved away, Percy studied his mug and murmured, "See the man in the far corner?"
Raeven allowed her gaze to roam lazily over the tavern until she focused on the corner he indicated.
"He's dressed as a gentleman in a navy coat, white cravat, buff breeches."
She saw him now and nodded. "A gentleman pirate." She shook her head. "Contradiction in terms."
"The rumor is he's a deposed marquis whose family fled France during the revolution."
She scowled at him. "Don't tell me you believe that rubbish. All the pirates concoct romantic stories. Just because one claims he's a duke doesn't make him any less of a thief and murderer."
"Of course I don't believe it. I'm telling you the rumor."
But she could hear in his voice he had believed the story, and now that she'd set her eyes on Cutlass, she could see why. The man did have the air of the aristocrat about him. It wasn't simply his clothes-any man could dress up as one of the quality, but there was something in Cutlass's bearing. He was sitting at a table, his back to the wall, facing the door to the tavern. That much told her he was no fool. There was a man seated across from him, and Cutlass was listening in a leisurely fashion to whatever the man was saying. Cutlass's arms were crossed over his chest, and his expression was one of mild interest. He had a glass of something on the table before him, but she hadn't seen him drink from it. Nor had she seen any whores approach him.
He was doing business then. It would have better served her purposes if he'd been drunk and whoring, but she didn't have the luxury of choosing when to strike.
Her gaze slid back to Percy. "He's handsome," she remarked and watched the purser's eyebrows wing upward. "I hadn't expected that."
The reports she'd had of him rarely mentioned his appearance. Captain Cutlass was known for his stealth, his agility, and his slippery escapes. It was rumored he'd boarded over a hundred vessels. That was obviously exaggeration, but even if his record was a quarter of that, it was an impressive feat. Of course, he claimed he was a privateer, and she knew he sailed under the Spanish flag and with that country's letters of marque. She didn't care for privateers any more than she cared for pirates, and made little distinction between them. Neither pirates nor privateers should dare attack ships of the British Navy. Neither should dare to kill a British naval officer.
She felt the anger and the blood pump through her and took a deep, calming breath. She couldn't afford to be emotional right now. She had to put emotion away. And she couldn't afford a schoolgirl crush on the man either. Yes, he was handsome. His dark brown hair was brushed back from his forehead and would have grazed his shoulder if not neatly secured in a queue. His face was strong with a square jaw, plenty of angles and planes, and a full mouth that destroyed the hard effect and hinted at softness. But the eyes-the eyes did not lie. There was no softness in the man. She couldn't quite see the eye color from this far away, but under the sardonic arch of his brow his eyes were sharp, cold, and calculating.
A worthy adversary, and she'd spill his blood tonight.
"I don't like the look in your eyes," Percy said. "Now that you've seen him, you can't possibly mean to challenge him. He's not a small man."
Raeven straightened her shoulders to give herself more height. She was well aware of her short stature, but size and strength were not everything. She was small and quick and deadly. "I do mean to challenge him," she said, brushing her hand against the light sword at her waist. "I'm only waiting until his business is completed." Though if it took much longer, she would have to interrupt. She wanted this over and done.
"I don't think that's wise. Perhaps if we wait-"
"I'm not waiting," she snapped. "I've waited six months, and that's too long."
"Timothy would not have wanted..."
Her glare cut him off. "Timothy is dead, and his murderer is sitting over there having a chat and sipping wine. Timothy would have wanted justice."
And because she knew Percy's next comment would be about justice versus vengeance, and because she did not want to hear it, she pushed off the bar and arrowed for Cutlass's table. It was a short trek across the tavern but long enough for her heart to pick up speed and pound painfully in her chest. She tried to calm herself with a deep breath, but she exhaled shakily. Her hands were sweating, and she flexed them to keep them loose.
When she stepped in front of Cutlass's table, he glanced up at her briefly and then back at the man seated across from him. Before she could speak, another man was beside her.
"Move away, lad. The captain's busy at present." The man was tall and lanky with a shock of red hair and pale, freckled skin. He was well dressed and spoke to her in fluent, if accented, French. English, she thought, and well bred. Probably Cutlass's quartermaster.
She stood her ground. "I think the captain will want to hear what I have to say." She said it to Cutlass, but he didn't acknowledge her.
"I'll tell him you wish to speak with him. In the meantime..." He made the mistake of taking her arm, and she responded with a quick jab to his abdomen. He grunted in surprise and took a step back.
"Problem, Mr. Maine?" Cutlass said smoothly. He had one brow cocked and a bemused smile on his lips. Obviously, he didn't see her as any sort of threat. "Is the lad giving you trouble?" He also spoke in French, but his was sweet and thick as honey. A native speaker, she surmised, and one with a polished accent. No wonder he played the deposed French marquis.
"No, Captain," Maine said, stepping forward again. "I'll get him out of your way."
Raeven put a hand on the small dagger at her waist. "Touch me again, and I'll slice your hand off." Her gaze met Cutlass's. "I want a word with you."
"Obviously." He lifted his wine, sipped. "But you'll have to learn some manners first. Come back when you've mastered the art of patience."
In one lightning-quick move, she drew her dagger, rounded the table, and pressed it under his jaw. "You want to talk about patience?" She pressed the blade into the bronze skin until a small bead of blood welled up. "I've been waiting six long months to slit your throat."
"Is that all?" he said, setting his glass of wine on the table. With annoyance, she noted his hand did not even tremble. "There are some who've waited far longer."
"I'm going to kill you," she said, looking directly into his eyes. They were cobalt blue and framed with thick brown lashes.
He raised a brow at her. "I don't think so." She should have seen it coming, should have seen his eyes flick down or his jaw clench, but he gave no indication he would move. And before she could react, he had her wrist pinned on the table, the dagger trapped and useless. Slowly he stood, his hand warm steel on hers. She watched him rise and rise and had never felt as small as she did in that moment. She realized the tavern had grown quiet as the patrons drank in the scene.
Percy's voice broke the silence. "Captain, the boy's had too much to drink. He's young. If you don't mind, we'll just be taking him back to the ship now."
Raeven scowled. She could imagine her father's men lined up behind her, Percy in the middle, his hands spread in a placating gesture. She kept her gaze locked on Cutlass's, saw him shrug and exchange a look with one of his men. Devil take her if he wasn't going to pat her head and shoo her away. She couldn't allow that. This was her last chance. Even now her father might have noticed her absence, and it could be months-years-before she had another opportunity to confront Cutlass.
"Coward," she said loud enough for her voice to carry through the tavern. "Too afraid to fight me, a mere boy?"
She saw the surprise in his face and then the irritation. "Look, lad, I don't want to kill you."
She laughed. "What makes you think you can? I'm good with a sword. Very good, and I challenge you to a duel." Now she did look away from him; she swept the room with her eyes, making sure everyone heard the challenge.
"Now you've done it," she heard Percy mutter. And she had. Cutlass could not back down from a direct challenge.
She heard a snort and whipped her gaze back to Cutlass.
Or could he?
"Go back to your ship, boy. I don't have time to play sword fighting with you. Come back when you've grown a whisker or two"-he traced a finger over her cheek before she could jerk her head away-"and kissed a pretty girl." With that, he released her hand and shoved past her.
Raeven spun and drew her sword. She wasn't surprised when, at the sound, he drew his own and faced her again. "Stupid little brat. Are you really going to make me kill you?"
"Not if I kill you first, you pirate bastard." She thrust her sword, but he parried easily, the weight of his heavier blade throwing her slightly off balance. She was in the corner, while he had the open space of the room in which to maneuver. She needed to push him back, to give herself more room. She was fast and agile, but those strengths required space.
She stumbled into a stool and kicked it back and out of her way. It didn't help much, but it was something. And not a moment too soon. Cutlass took advantage of her distraction to lunge, and she was almost too late in blocking him.
Not that the thrust would have done much more than scratch her. He was playing with her, still not taking her challenge seriously. Why should that irk her so? He'd see how serious she was when she gutted him.
"Go back to your ship, enfant," Cutlass said with a roguish smile that showed off a row of white teeth. For some reason, his perfect smile irritated her even more. The man should have some fault. Rotten teeth or a gap or... something! "Before you cease to amuse me."
"Oh, but I've only begun to amuse you, pirate." She made as if to lower her sword but jerked it up at the last minute, catching the sleeve of his coat and ripping a gash in the fine material. It was a move she'd perfected over the years, and she was not surprised it succeeded now. What did surprise her was that when Cutlass should have been gazing in astonishment at his torn coat, he was ready for her when she slashed at his throat. His blade connected with hers, the screech of metal against metal resounding through the stillness of the tavern. "Not laughing now, are you, bastard?" she ground out. Cutlass was strong, and it took most of her strength to keep his sword from slicing her own away.
"Do you think your little parlor trick impressed me, enfant?" he asked. "Now you owe me ten pounds for my coat."
"Ten pounds! Don't be ridiculous." She pushed back on his sword and leaned to the right. She could feel the walls behind her, crowding her. She needed to get out of this corner. Cutlass gave way, edging to her right, and she felt a small measure of victory. If she could just get him to circle...
He gave her borrowed clothes a distasteful perusal. "I assure you that you will pay me ten pounds for the damage you've done." His eyes narrowed, and she actually felt a shiver run down her spine. "One way or another."
"You'll have to pry the blunt out of my cold, dead hands, pirate bastard." She was sweating now and breathing heavily, but she'd managed to make him edge a little more to her right. Their swords were still locked in a stalemate, but she knew he was waiting for the right time to strike. She kept her weight on the balls of her feet, ready to defend.
Around her, she could hear the crowd exclaiming, could hear bets being placed and feel the men crowding in to observe. She wondered if anyone bet on her.
"I know we've not formally met," Cutlass said, "but might I ask why you keep referring to me as a ‘bastard pirate' when I'm neither a pirate nor a bastard? It's rather impolite."
"I'll show you impolite!" She stepped back, moving quickly as his blade came down with a swish of hot air before her face. But before he could raise it again, she feinted to the left and skirted around him.
Ha! Victory! Now she had the open room to her back!
But Cutlass, quicker than she anticipated, spun around and thrust, forcing her, stumbling and pinwheeling, back into the crowd. One of the men caught her by the arms and shoved her forward again. She ducked and fell into a somersault as Cutlass's blade swooshed above her.
That was no swordplay. Cutlass was finally serious.
She sprang to her feet and, whipping around, paired her sword with his. The blades scraped together as she thrust and parried, and he followed suit. He was a good swordsman, she realized, as he matched her move for move. He'd studied the art, didn't just act on instinct. She too had studied, and mentally she went through her list of offensive maneuvers.
But the frustrating man blocked her every attack. He seemed to know what she would do before she did it. And the worst part was she was growing tired. When she'd left her father's ship, she'd been fueled by excitement and revenge. Now, Cutlass systematically wore away at her reserves. He defended but did not attack. And she couldn't help but notice he did not seem even slightly winded.
The crowd cheered at each of their advances, and she had the distinct impression they were rooting for her. But Cutlass would have his supporters as well. If she killed him-no, when she killed him-she needed to be ready for another attack.
"Devil take you!" she swore after another forceful lunge merely resulted in the two circling each other again.
"Not tonight." He smiled again, but she could see a faint sheen of perspiration on his upper lip. So he was not made of steel. He was tiring.
And that was the last thought she had before he attacked. Without warning and with great finesse, he switched stances and drove his blade toward her heart. She parried, of course, but it was a near thing. And then he was on her again, forcing her back into the throng, crowding her until she had little choice but to defend with quick, small movements instead of larger, more powerful ones.
"You're not going to win," he said, pressing her back.
"Then I die trying," she gritted out. She swiped at him to prove her point and had the satisfaction of seeing him jerk to the side to elude the sharp steel of her blade.
"And what are you dying for?" He struck back, and she struggled to hold her position.
"Revenge." She met his blade high, then low, then high again. She pushed hard, and he pushed back, and they stared at one another for a long moment.
"A noble cause. How did I offend?"
She opened her mouth and closed it again, unsure whether or not she wanted to answer. Finally, she said, "You killed my... friend."
"Doubtful. I kill far fewer than the rumors would have you believe."
The anger rose inside her like a tidal wave, and she brought her blade down hard on his. "You dare to mock me?"
His answer was a quick, triumphant grin, and just as she realized his intent, he brought his sword up and drove her back.
Into the tavern's support beam.
Frantic at the feel of the scratchy wood on her back, she tried to skirt around it, but Cutlass's blade caught her sleeve and drove into the wooden beam.
She was trapped.
Her right arm, that with the sword, was incapacitated, but she had enough presence of mind to toss her sword to her left hand and make a jab at him. She'd never been very good with her left hand-unlike those fencing masters who could fight with either hand-and he easily evaded her blade.
"I've beaten you," he said, leaning close. "Admit it, enfant, and I let you go."
"I'd rather choke on my own blood when you slit my throat."
He raised his brows at that, obviously not expecting such a vehement response. "Well, as appealing as that sounds, I don't want a reputation as a child killer." He gave her a speculative look. "But there is the matter of that ten pounds you owe me." He glanced at his torn coat, and she doubled her efforts to escape, but her sleeve would not tear. If her shirt had been made of fine linen, as Cutlass's was, she'd already be free. But this coarse homespun was not easily damaged."I don't have ten pounds, so you'll have to kill me."
"Or..." He gave her a triumphant smile. "I've been looking for a new cabin boy. I think you might be right for the position. I'd enjoy seeing you empty my chamber pot each day."
The crowd hooted with laughter, but she was not amused.
"Never!" She tried again to strike him with her sword, but he plucked it out of her hands. She clenched her fist. If she lost that sword, there would be hell to pay. Her father had it made especially for her, and it had not come cheaply.
"Tut-tut." Cutlass grinned at the crowd, who were enjoying this little play. "You'll have to learn some manners. And we'll start with removing your cap when you speak to me." He reached for her.
But she was too late. Before the words were out of her mouth, he'd snatched the cap from her head and was staring in shock as the mass of black curls tumbled down her back. She'd secured her hair tightly, but he'd ripped the hair pins loose when he tore the cap away. Cutlass stared at the cap, then at her, then at the cap again. For the moment, he appeared speechless. Then, slowly, he reached forward, wrapped a lock of her hair around two fingers, and tugged.
He leaned close, peered into her face, and shook his head. "I must be an idiot. I can't believe I didn't see it sooner." She noted his blue eyes slid over her face with what looked to be appreciation. His gaze slipped down, and heat crept into her cheeks.
"So I'm a woman," she said, standing straighter. She managed to spare a glare for the patrons who were staring at her with expressions that ran from contempt to hilarity. "It doesn't mean I can't fight." She met Cutlass's gaze directly and ignored the spark of heat flooding into her. "It doesn't mean I won't kill you."
He raised a brow, glanced at her sword, which he held in one hand, then at his own sword, which still held her pinned to the tavern's wooden beam. The crowd chuckled.
"Devil take it!" She tried once more to free her shirt from his sword, but the material and the steel held fast.
"Such language from a woman. You really do need to learn some manners." He reached for her face, and she jerked away, but his touch was tender as he skated a finger down her cheek. She felt more heat burn across the skin he touched. Why was she reacting this way? He was a killer. He'd killed Timothy.
"I suppose I could hire you on as a cabin girl," he was saying, glint in his eye. "Though your duties might differ somewhat."
This brought cheers from some of the tavern's patrons, and, from the corner of her eye, Raeven could see the uneasy shuffling of her father's men. She did not want them to step in and save her. She'd rather let Cutlass take her and escape later than have to be rescued. She caught Percy's eye and shook her head. His white face paled further, and he looked ready to toss his accounts.
She glanced back at Cutlass, who was watching her. Had he seen her exchange with Percy? Doubtful. Even if he had, he wouldn't make anything of it. "I'll be your cabin girl," Raeven said, her voice low and husky. She leaned forward, flirting, and Cutlass shook his head.
"I imagine you'll empty my chamber pot... right before you slit my throat."
She gave him a winning smile. "You know me so well."
"Well enough to make sure I don't turn my back on you." He gestured to his men. "Mr. Maine, see that she makes it aboard the Shadow and finds her way into my cabin. Untouched." He extracted his sword from the wooden beam, freeing her, but not before his man grabbed her arm. She could have fought, but Cutlass was playing right into her hands. She would kill him. Unaware of the danger he was in, Cutlass turned his back and strode for the tavern's exit.
"You're going to regret this, Cutlass!" Raeven called after him. "In more ways than you can count."
He waved a hand without looking back, clearly dismissing her.
"Let's go," Mr. Maine said, pushing her forward. Percy was instantly at her side, hissing in her ear.
"I can't let them kidnap you. Your father will kill me." He gestured to the other men of the Regal. "Kill all of us."
"If you intervene, I'll kill you," Raeven hissed back. "I'll be back on my father's ship before morning. You know I can escape anything and anyone."
Percy looked dubious.
"Besides," she added, "if you intervene now, everyone will know who I am. How do you think my father would like it known about Brest that his daughter was sword fighting in a tavern?"
"More than he'd like her kidnapped and-er-assaulted by Captain Cutlass."
"Enough talk!" Maine said, pushing her forward and separating her from Percy. Cutlass's men held the purser back.
Raeven called over her shoulder, "Give me six hours. If I'm not back by then, you know what to do."
Maine shoved her into the crisp, dark night, and quite suddenly she realized she was alone with half a dozen of Cutlass's men. A shiver ran up her spine as, one by one, she perused the seedy crew. One man with an earring and tattoos all over his face winked at her. Raven bit her lip.
What had she gotten herself into?