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Off the Florida Coast, 1727
"Abel, please, I'll drown. Don't leave me!"
The ship's desperate sighs and quaking hull masked any hope of Gilly's shouts carrying beyond the walls of the muggy cargo hold. Snaps and tremors vibrated beneath her feet. Each crashing wave, each jolt warping the bulkheads, jarred her knees and spine. Water spit through the seams of the planking, a sinister prelude to what surely was to come. Panic leached into her mind as the cool water pooled on the floor at an alarming rate. The Rowena was breaking up.
Gilly floundered her way around a row of barrels toward where Abel stood at the hatch door.
"I'm sorry, Miss Gilly."
What was he saying? Even in the darkened hold, she saw the shadows shift across the ship cooper's face.
He reached for the metal ring handle. "The captain will see me hang from the yardarm if he found out I stowed ya."
His words, his meaning, were crowded out by her need to reach him, to get out.
The ship bucked and Gilly smashed her hip into the rim of a cask. She winced at the sharp pain radiating into her bone. Another crack split in the ship's belly, spewing more water inside. The humid air grew stifling with the tart smell of brine. Eddies swirled around her ankles, seeping over the tops of her boots and soaking through to her toes.
Abel cast a worried glance behind him. "I'm sorry," he said again.
"You can't do this!"
He shook his head before yanking the handle and shutting the door, closing off her only way out, her only way to survival.
She raced forward through the maze of barrels stocked with provisions, sails and drinking water. Fallen kegs rolled across her path. The floor tilted violently beneath her and she stumbled over a wayward cask, landing on all fours. Seawater splattered up on her face. She choked on the salt caught in her throat. The brine tingled on her lips and stung her eyes. Frantic from the burning, she swiped at her lids squeezed tight.
The depth of the water lapped at her elbows as she crawled ahead until she reached a cluster of secure kegs. Grabbing a barrel for leverage, Gilly pulled herself upright. Her waterlogged bag, hanging from her wrist by the drawing string, was burdened by rivulets dribbling off the velvet fabric. Its weight put her at ease, if simply to remind her she still possessed it. It was the one thing she had left, the one thing that remained of Hyde and the last four months of her life. And inside, the contents held her fondest memories and darkest secrets.
With an unsure foot, she struggled to keep her balance as the vessel pitched.
Four hours had passed since the ship sailed into the gale. Gilly had remained wedged against the wall, out of sight, in the same spot she took up when she stowed away on the Rowena. It didn't take long before she decided no occasion would have her sailing again. Her queasy stomach roiled along with the churning sea and she took great pains to keep her last meager meal down. The creaking boards and ominous howls of windunlike any she'd heardwere frightening. The only comfort to be had she found by pulling her knees to her chin and knotting her arms around her legs.