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In the Year of Our Lord 1716 Jamaica
"Way I hear tell it, that one's so bad, he whups his own arse thrice a week."
Eyes wide, Cameron Amelia Maire Jack burst out laughing at the unexpected, dry comment she overheard above the raucous tavern voices and music. Until she caught sight of the man it was directed toward. That sobered her quick enough.
Holy mother of God ...
There was no way to miss that giant mass of human male as he swept into the crowded room like the living embodiment of some ancient hero.
Nay, not a hero.
A pagan god.
At least six and a half feet tall, he towered over everyone else there, and had a shoulder width so great he was forced to turn to the side to come through the doorway, and stoop down lest he decapitate himself with the thick, low-hanging beam. A feat he accomplished with a masculine grace and swagger that said he'd done it enough that it was habit from years of experience.
Which made her wonder how many times as a boy he must have whacked his head afore he learned to instinctively duck like that.
With a quick swipe of his massive hand, he removed his black tricorne hat and tucked it beneath his muscled arm, exposing a thick mane of unbound, wavy sable hair that gleamed in the dull candlelight. He held a set of rugged features that appeared chiseled from stone — in perfect masculine proportions.
Never in her life had she beheld his equal in form, strength, or grace, but it wasn't just the unexpected sight of him. He possessed that raw, commanding presence that was unrivaled by king or commander. An air of noble refinement that was offset by an aura of bloodthirsty intolerance, cool indifference, and utter ennui.
He was lethal, no doubts there. Beguiling. More than that, he was an enigmatic study of warring contradictions that quickened her heart a lot more than she wanted to admit to anyone, especially herself.
In a festering den of inhospitable inequity and evil, this man reigned as its supreme emperor. And while his two companions were dressed in brightly colored brocades — like the other vain occupants of the room — this one, in stark contradiction, wore a somber black wool coat, breeches with plain brass buttons, and an unremarkable dark brown waistcoat. Even his cotton shirt and neckerchief were as black as his hair and boots. Like a Quaker ... and yet his demeanor and weaponry said he didn't partake of their religion or peaceful ways.
The only color on his body was the bloodred hilt of a barbarian-styled cutlass. And a flashing ruby signet ring on his pinky that caught the light.
But for his fierce stance, deadly demeanor, and the firm hand that stayed planted on the hilt of that sword, he could easily pass for a respectable man. Nobleman even.
Until one met that cold, dark, intelligent gaze that saw everything around him to the most microscopic detail.
She could literally feel him tallying the strengths of everyone in the tavern and sizing them up for their every weakness of character and physical flaw....
As well as their caskets.
He was exactly the kind of unnerving male that caused her and Lettice to draw straws on his entrance back home in the Black Swan to see which of them would be stuck for the night waiting on his table.
And Cameron always cheated to make sure she wasn't the one left with it. Something that would bother her conscience a lot more but for the fact that it was Lettice's father who owned the Swan, and while Nathaniel Harrison would guard his daughter's reputation and well-being, he wasn't nearly as circumspect when it came to hers. Especially when placed against his need for profit. He'd sell all but his daughter for that.
Even his own mother, and probably his wife to boot.
Not wanting to think about that, Cameron scowled at the men flanking the newcomer. His companions were much more the typical pirate or privateer fare one would expect to find in such a sordid place. The one to his right had a mane of long brown hair he wore tied back in an impeccable queue, along with a well-trimmed beard, and eyes so light and merry a blue they glowed in the dim light. Each of that man's fingers held an ornate ring — no doubt plunder from some unwary ship he'd raided — if not some unfortunate corpse. Still, he seemed amicable enough.
While many Caribbean pirates had a tendency to pierce their earlobes, this one had chosen to place a small gold hoop in his left eyebrow, just off its arch. His elaborate burgundy and black coat was widely cut at the waist — in the latest fashion craze. And where the beguiling and dangerous captain had chosen a plain black neckerchief to wear, this pirate's cravat was stark white silk, and trimmed in layers of decadent lace.
The man on the left was dressed in a peacock blue silk coat that covered an insanely ornate gold waistcoat. One so fine a silk that it shimmered in the light like water. He wore a small white wig that concealed his hair color, but judging from his skin tone, dark eyebrows, and the careless whiskers that dusted his well-sculpted cheeks and jawline, she assumed his hair was as dark as his captain's. Yet where the captain had a set of coal black eyes, his were a deep shade of hazel blue.
While his mood and countenance weren't as dark and sinister as his captain's, he was nowhere near as jovial as their companion, either. She'd guess him as the quartermaster.
Or a hangman.
The three of them swept past her without so much as a glance in her general direction, letting her know they saw her as no threat whatsoever — which was fine by her. Last thing she wanted was to be crossed up with such terrifying and deadly men.
They made their way to the back of the tavern to an empty table. The large, burly guard who'd been keeping it reserved for them inclined his head, then went to fetch their drinks.
Something he returned with so quickly that it no doubt set a speed record for the inn. From her years of working in such an establishment, she knew it said much about his fear of angering the three newcomers, and even more about their temperaments and personalities. These men did not like to be kept waiting, nor did they want to be interrupted once settled.
For the first time, Cameron's courage faltered as she watched the men begin a private and intense whispered conversation.
What are you doing, Cam?
This was what she'd come for — to speak to Captain Devyl Bane and enlist his aid.
Maybe it's not him.
She knew better. He was just as he'd been described. Darker than sin and more dangerous than dancing with the devil's favored handmaiden. There was no one else it could be. The witch-woman had told her to look for a captain who'd take her breath and leave no doubt in her mind that he was the bane of the devil himself.
That definitely described the man in the center of the other two.
No one could be deadlier or more sinister.
"Greetings, governor. You be wanting some company, like?"
Cameron winced as an attractive prostitute plunked herself down on her lap. Because Cameron was dressed as a man and passing herself off as one so that she could travel unmolested and with ease, the prostitute had no idea she was wasting her time there.
Grinding her teeth, Cameron caught the woman's hand before it drifted to a part of her body that would scandalize them both. Cameron shook her head sharply.
"What? You mute?" She reached to touch Cameron's face and smiled wide. "That's all right, love. Don't be needing no words for what I do best, no ways. Fact is you be getting more your money's worth if'n we don't be speaking no how."
Cameron caught the woman's wrist again and reminded herself to toughen her voice and lower it an octave. "Not interested, me sweet. You're not me type." She cast her gaze meaningfully toward the three men.
The prostitute laughed. "Ah ... can't says I blame you there. They each be so fine you can't help but crave a bite of those backsides and pray for lockjaw." With another winsome smile, she sighed. "Best of luck to you, mate. Way I hear tell it, though, you don't got a chance with none of them."
And with that, she left Cameron's lap to pursue another, more probable client.
Taking a deep breath, Cameron debated the sanity of seeing this mission through. It was obvious that the three men had no desire to be approached by a stranger.
In fact, they appeared to be arguing.
This is all kinds of insanity. ...
But Cameron Jack was not a coward.
Maybe a little?
She shushed the voice of reason in her head that told her to run for the door before they gutted her. Jacks aren't craven. Now get in there, me girl.
Scared and breathless, she forced herself to her feet and crossed the room, trying to exude a confidence she definitely didn't feel. Her legs trembled as sweat beaded on her forehead and upper lip.
For a moment, she feared she'd faint.
You can do this. Don't you dare back out now. Patrick needs you. You're all he has in this world. ...
The moment she neared them, they fell silent and all three pairs of eyes pierced her with a malevolent glare she was sure had turned lesser beings into stone.
Or, at the very least, caused them to soil their breeches.
Captain Bane took a drink of his ale before he spoke in a voice so deep, it rolled out like thunder over a dark, stormy cove. "May I help you?"
She took a nervous step forward.
The brown-haired man pulled his sword and angled it at her neck. "That be close enough, lad. Declare yourself."
She cleared her throat and met the captain's gaze levelly. "I was told that you're Captain Bane?"
Without confirming it, the one she was sure was he brushed his thumb over his bottom lip. "Why do you seek the good captain?"
"I was told that he ... or you, rather, were part of the salvage for the Plate Fleet that went down?"
His mate stood and, with his sword, forced her to step back. "We know nothing of what you speak."
Too late, she realized that they probably mistook her for one of the king's pirate hunters who'd been tasked with going after the raiders of the sunken ships and their cargos. "It's not what you're thinking. Me brother was on one of the ships."
Bane reached out to touch the man's hand and force the point of his companion's sword toward the floor. "And?"
"I was told he went down with his ship." She choked on her tears that threatened to overwhelm her. Ever since she'd heard about her brother's fate, she'd been unable to cope. Unable to breathe. Not after all the two of them had been through together. "Please. I have to know the truth."
The wigged man spoke with a degree of sympathy in his voice. "Only one ship made it out."
"Aye," she whispered. "The Griffon. He wasn't on that one. His ship was the San Miguel. He was the captain of it ... Patrick Jack."
Bane's gaze softened. "Sorry. The captain didn't make it out."
As they began to ignore her, it angered her to be dismissed so casually, and Cameron stepped forward again. "If what you say is true, then can you explain this to me." She tossed the bit of salvage that had been delivered to her door with a note from her brother.
It skidded across the table to land beneath the candle in front of Bane.
He and his companions froze for a full minute as she held her breath, waiting.
It was a worthless trinket that made no sense whatsoever. A strange bit of a charm designed in the shape of an ornate cup, with a pair of wings rising over the rim and a stake with ribbons that fell from the bottom of it. And marked with a fleur-de-lis in the center of its bowl. While it was pretty enough, she had no idea why her brother would have sent such to her. Why he would even bother.
Never mind anyone else. It would be all kinds of cruel were it a hoax.
The captain scowled at the necklace charm, but made no move to touch it. "Is this supposed to mean something to me?"
She shrugged. "No idea." Slowly, she approached the table and held out the note that had been wrapped and sealed around the item. "This was what he used to hold it and send it to me."
Bane took the crumpled parchment from her hand and read it. The letter was simple and heartbreaking. One she'd committed to memory.
Forgive me for leaving you as I have. Know that me loyalty is with you. Always. Listen not to anyone. Keep your weather eye to the horizon and this to your bosom. Tell no one that you have it. Not even Lettice. Trust none at your back.
With a gruff countenance, Bane returned it to her. Again without touching her or the necklace charm. "And so what's the first thing you do with this?" he mocked.
He was right. She'd done exactly what her brother had instructed her not to do — she'd handed it over to someone she didn't know. "True, but I have to find me brother, sir." She turned the letter around and pointed to the top of it. "Note the date. It's months after they went down, and he supposedly drowned by all accounts. Yet if he drowned, how did he send it to me?"
A peculiar light flickered in Bane's dark eyes. One that made them appear almost red in the candlelight. Surely an optical illusion of some kind. "Who told you to come here?"
"A witch-woman named Menyara. She said that you'd be able to help me find me brother."
He let out a fetid curse under his breath. It was so foul and guttural that it caused the man on his left to snap to his feet and step away from him, as if fearing an imminent attack of some sort from his captain.
"Who's Menyara?" the man asked.
A tic started in Bane's jaw. "Don't ask questions you don't want answered, Will. And pray to your God that you never meet that bitch." With a dark, deadly grimace, he finally took her trinket into his hand to examine it more closely.
His expression unreadable, Bane met her gaze. "Did she see this?"
"Nay. Only the letter."
"Why did you show it to me, then?"
"I ... I'm not sure."
He flipped the trinket through his fingers several times while Will slowly returned to his seat.
"What are you thinking, Captain?" the one in the wig asked.
"All kinds of folly." He paused to meet the man's curious gaze. "I commend her to you, Mr. Meers. Take her to the ship."
"Beg pardon?" He scowled fiercely. "What she be this?"
The captain screwed his face up at him. "Are you dafter than a doornail, son? Our little Cameron Jack here be a lass as sure as I be your devil's bastard seed."
Both of his companions gaped at him, then her.
And she returned their slack-jawed stares without blinking or flinching. "How did you know that?" No one could ever tell she was female whenever she disguised herself as a lad. It was a ploy she'd been using ever since her parents had orphaned them when she was a small girl. A ruse Patrick had insisted on to keep her safe from harm, and under his nose so that he could watch after her.
Bane scoffed as he reached for his ale. "Never try to fool the devil, love. I can see right through you. Besides, no man has an ass that fine. If he did, he'd serve to be changing my religion on certain things." He took a deep drink, then inclined his head to his companion. "See her to the ship, Bart."
Bart hesitated. "Are you sure about that?"
"Aye, and settle her in private quarters for now. Make sure the others know to leave her in peace or face my full wrath."
Bart saluted him. "Aye, sir."
"And Mr. Meers?"
He paused to look back with an arched brow.
"I expect on my arrival to the ship to find the lass as virginal after parting your company as she is on leaving mine right now."
Bart let out an irritated growl. "I hate you, Bane. You live only to suck all the joy out of me death, don't you?"
He snorted. "Pray that joy is the only thing I ever strive to divest from you, my friend. The day I seek greater entertainment than that is the day you should live in absolute terror of."
"Duly noted, and me testicles have adequately shriveled back into me body so as to pose positively no threat whatsoever to the fair maiden in boy's clothing."
"Eunuch, you mean."
"And well you should remain, lest I make that condition a permanent one."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
Terrified by the thought of being alone with them and their crew, but too desperate to let her fear interfere with her need to find her brother, Cameron reached for her letter and medallion, praying with everything she had that this wasn't a mistake.
Please God, protect me.
Swallowing in nervous apprehension, she nodded, tucked away her possessions, then followed the captain's mate.
Excerpted from "Deadmen Walking"
Copyright © 2017 Sherrilyn Kenyon.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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