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Tempting the Pirate
A Love on the High Seas Novel
By Tamara Hughes, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Tamara Hughes
All rights reserved.
New York City, August 1721
Must move faster. Faster.
The city around her a blur, Charity Goswick stumbled down the dark, deserted street, one hand brushing along the building to keep her steady, the other clutching her mother's satchel. Pressing a clammy palm against her forehead, she stopped for a moment and fought the dizziness that engulfed her. Blast her uncle and his bitter sherry — the only explanation for her state. He was to blame for all her troubles. No, not just him. Another man seeped into her thoughts, a tyrant with a cruel, hungry gaze, and a scowl that struck fear into her very soul. Indignation burned, hot and bright. The way Captain Shevington had treated her ...
Speeding carriage wheels rumbled from behind, and she twisted toward the sound. The sudden movement made the world spin all the more. Darkness crowded her vision. No. Not now. Not now. She forced her legs forward and staggered into an alley. A pack of rats scattered, scurrying past her to disappear into the shadows. With a low moan, she slumped against the brick as her vision cleared. The vehicle raced by. On its side was her uncle's coat of arms. Icy tendrils of dread clawed into her skin. Escape. Her only hope.
She pulled her cloak tighter and stepped from the alley, trudging east, away from the direction the coach had gone.
Charity shuddered at the memory of the captain's eyes, calculating eyes that had raked down her body with unveiled interest. His hand had gripped her chin. You'll put a smile on your pretty face and do as I bid. If I have to force the vows from your lips, I swear I'll beat you with a strap this very night.
Her feet burned in her heeled slippers, and exhaustion hampered her steps. She spotted a sign. The Seaside Inn. So tired. She headed toward the door, the building dancing and shifting before her. Boisterous laughter and wild shouts echoed from the entrance.
A shadowy figure on the front step moved. A slovenly man rose to his full height, several inches over her head. "What's a fine lady such as yerself doin' walkin' alone at night?" he asked, eyeing her up and down.
"What?" She peered at him, straining to understand. Giving up, she shook her head and continued past, her stomach rebelling, as if feeling faint wasn't enough.
He seized her arm. "Yer much too comely to be sellin' yer wares in there."
Sellin' wares? "No," she slurred, pulling back. She wrinkled her nose. Stale rum and tobacco tainted his breath. Her mind struggled to put words together. "S-sleep," was all she could manage.
"Stay wi' me," he insisted, his eyes red and bleary. "I got plenty o' coin to spare and ya won't have to share yer profits with the keep." His hold tightened, and he dragged her along as he staggered from the step. "Come. I'll take good care of ya."
She yanked harder against his grip, but he wouldn't let go. "Stop," she shrieked. She swung her leather bag, hitting him alongside the head.
He lurched to the side as if he might tumble, and she twisted her arm up and away, breaking loose from his weakened hold. Hurrying past, she tottered on her heels along the cobbled street, almost losing her footing as she fought to run faster.
"Come back, sweeting," he called out. "We'll have some fun."
Gulls screeched in the distance as she kicked off her shoes and rushed around a corner. The docks lay straight ahead — ships moored side by side in orderly rows. She ran to the first pier, the wood damp and slippery. Too slippery. With a sharp inhale, she fell to her knees. Her open palms slapped against the slick boards. Losing grasp of her mother's satchel, she nearly cried out when it slid off the dock and she heard a soft splash. A sob squeezed her throat, making it impossible to catch her breath.
The man raced into the street, and she crouched deep in the shadows of the tall ships. A nearby tavern provided the only light. He squinted into the darkness around him. "Where are you, sweeting?" he called as if they played a game. He left the dim glow, and the crunching of his boots grew closer.
No. Stay away. Charity backed from the noise and climbed the plank to board the ship beside her. She reached the smooth deck only to flinch when she heard low voices near the far rail. Her pulse fluttered as she crept across the decking and slipped behind the main mast.
Peering into the moonless night, she barely made out the shapes of two men looking out over the water.
"These night watches are as dull as ditchwater," one complained with a subtle Southern twang in his voice.
"Won't be long now," the other replied. "Supplies are all stowed and the cap'n will be back by morning."
"There's nothin' like goin' home," the first agreed as they crossed to the side where she'd boarded. "Now what's that blighter doin'?"
Another wave of dizziness rocked her, and she swayed on her feet.
"Wait a tick. Is that Fisher there? Ho, Fisher," the sailor bellowed down to the pier. "What's your trouble?"
Clutching the mast for support, her fingers dislodged a coil of rope hanging from a peg. The line slipped to the decking with a light tap.
"Did you hear that?" One of the watchmen stepped her way.
She stifled a gasp and crept off, keeping to the darkest shadows until she reached an open doorway.
The sailor advanced, finding the rope on the decking.
"Lookin' for a girl that run by here," the drunk yelled from below. "Seen her?"
Charity slipped inside and shut the door, enclosing herself in darkness. Within two steps she bumped into a metal surface. Rubbing her abused hip, she ran her other hand along the object, following its length to a rounded end.
Footsteps approached from outside the door, and she rushed ahead, stumbling deeper into the room, her hands held out. Three of the solid structures jutted from one wall. She discovered another door at the farside of the room and passed through. Barrels and crates were stacked high all around, their surfaces rough against her fingertips. She squeezed her hooped gown through the piles and found a space in the back just large enough to sit down.
Sinking onto the hard floor, she listened for any sound of the sailor. Nothing. Only the gentle lapping of waves against the hull and the slight creaking of wood.
Her head heavy on her neck, she lifted a hand to her throbbing temples, and a glint of gold caught her eye. A ring encircled her finger. His ring. She shrank lower to the floor in the shelter of the crates and shivered as the good Reverend Baker's words echoed inside her head, What God has joined together, let man not put asunder.
* * *
The crowd at the Seaside Inn smoked their pipes and swilled ale as if the freedom to do so would soon be lost. James stood at the bar, with a whiskey in hand, and studied one man to the next. These men were crew from the ship Neptune's Mercy. One of them had to know where he could find David.
His gaze settled on a solitary man at a corner table, a drink before him and a woman at his side. The Judge, or so he'd been told. In a black leather jerkin, The Judge sat with a stony expression, his meaty arms bare and his bald head smooth as a billiard ball. The strumpet brushed her shoulder against his arm with a coy smile that was both confident and determined.
"Any word?" Thomas returned from his inquiries and set his drink on the bar. He leaned back to face the room.
"Nothing," James admitted, "save for the fact that they're looking for a navigator to add to their crew." He took a sip of his whiskey and frowned, finding the flavor harsher than what he'd become accustomed to. "You?"
Thomas's shoulders tensed, the restless edge they'd all been feeling apparent in the set of his chin. "Everyone here claims they've never heard of David Lamont."
Nothing but lies. James contemplated his first mate. Perhaps the two of them stood out too much amongst this crowd to get the answers they sought. Despite his tanned skin and sun-bleached hair, Thomas didn't have the begrimed, rumpled look of these men.
He could say the same for himself. While he wore typical sailing garb, his clothes lacked the stench and threadbare quality of those around him. Still, he'd gained some insight. "Interesting how every person I ask glances toward that one before they answer." He motioned toward The Judge. The man in question looked as stern as a preacher mid-sermon, even as he slid his hand down the strumpet's side and pulled her closer.
"I've noticed that, too," Thomas agreed. "They're afraid of him. He's their quartermaster, and not a man to be crossed." He nodded toward a group on the other side of the tavern. "We can only hope Whip has learned more than we have."
James spied the old coot. An aging doxy on his arm, he stood near a table of card players, beating his gums as if all those around him were his best of friends. His weathered face and stooped back played to their advantage here. He had no problem fitting in with the likes of this crew. The doxy kissed Whip's cheek, and a pink glow traveled up his neck. When he spotted James and Thomas watching, the shade burned a red hue. His stare directed at James, he shook his head. He'd discovered nothing.
Damn it. David had been forced aboard Neptune's Mercy months ago when these cutthroats had attacked the largest of Lamont Shipping's vessels. David had been taken, along with all the cargo.
Of course, that shouldn't be a surprise. After all, musicians were highly valued at sea for entertainment and the like. Still, James smothered a humorless laugh at the irony. Finally, David had found those who appreciated his music. Too bad they'd been bloody vermin who'd make him play whether he wanted to or not.
Thomas turned back toward the bar and hunched over his drink, draining his cup and gesturing to the barkeep for another. "What now?"
David wasn't here with the crew, which meant he was most likely locked aboard the ship. If only he knew which ship to search, he'd hie off and do it right now. But with the harbor full to brimming, and the pirates' colors safely hidden away, the crew would likely be back aboard before they could locate the right one. As it was, his own crew had been preparing to shove off to the next port come morning when Whip had caught wind that Neptune's Mercy had docked and its men were tearing up the town.
His gaze returned to The Judge. The strumpet distracted the man, his hand in her bodice and hers in his lap. "Now I'll have a talk with The Judge."
Thomas looked over his shoulder at the quartermaster. "This might not be the best time."
James grabbed his glass from the bar. "Nonsense. It's the perfect time."
"James," Thomas warned.
He'd heard that tone from Thomas before, used whenever he was about to do something idiotic. Like now. As usual, it didn't stop him. He strode forward, his blood surging and his senses on full alert, ready for a fight.
They'd come too far and searched too long to let this man stand in their way. That bastard had David locked up, and James wasn't leaving until he got his brother back.
Although The Judge nuzzled the woman's neck, he spotted James approaching. His head jerked up, and he stilled the strumpet's hand. "What's your purpose?" he demanded.
James drew nearer, close enough to see the pistol balanced on The Judge's leg. "I'm looking for a sailor by the name of David Lamont."
Hard eyes, black as death, returned his stare. "Who's asking?"
"James Lamont, his brother."
The Judge's brows rose for an instant, before he pushed the doxy off his lap. Her glare could have melted wax. Poor thing. Time wasted meant less pay. The Judge didn't give her a second glance.
He pointed to The Judge's empty glass. "Buy you another?"
"No need. Speak your mind."
James pulled out a chair and sat, setting his drink on the table. His hands rode the weapons on his belt. "My brother was last seen on your ship nine months ago. Is he still on your crew?"
"What's your brother worth to you?" The Judge's lips crooked up a degree. Something agreed with him.
As it should. He was about to become a rich man. "How much do you want?"
"Neptune's Mercy needs a navigator."
What was this? A joke? James waited for a sign of humor. A laugh, a smirk. None was forthcoming. So he contributed a chuckle of his own. "An odd ransom demand. Did you have anyone in mind?"
The Judge leaned back in his chair and stroked a hand along his jaw. "You're just the man."
"How do you know I can navigate?"
The smirk he'd expected before showed itself now. "Your brother told me."
James's stomach clenched at the thought of his brother under this man's authority. "I can offer a ransom, a large sum that I'm sure will satisfy both you and your captain."
"A bag of blunt would have been good enough before, but our needs have changed." The scoundrel tucked the pistol away and raised a sizable dagger, testing its edge with his thumb. "We need a navigator."
Bloody devil. What was the quartermaster playing at? Every pirate had a price. "Would I be treated as a prisoner forced to navigate or a pilot in the full sense?"
"Captain Payne considers himself a fair man," The Judge said with a grim twist of his lips. "You'll receive your due — a cabin of your own and share and a half of all plunder."
From the disagreeable look on The Judge's face, he was none too pleased by the captain's generosity. Yet, James understood. Navigators could be hard to find, their skills valued. "For how long would I be needed?"
"You want your brother, you come with me," he growled out, pointing his blade at James. The Judge's meaning was clear. James could be taken aboard by force, or he could play The Judge's game.
If they had any other way to get David back, he'd tell The Judge to go to hell and fight his way out of here. His worst nightmare tickled the back of his brain. What if David was dead? Could that be the reason The Judge hadn't accepted the money? Then again, if that were true, James would enjoy making The Judge pay. He had only one choice. They'd finally caught up to Neptune's Mercy, and he would find out the truth even if it meant joining this devil's crew.
The Judge wasn't a patient one. The dagger still clutched in his hand, he prompted, "What will it be?"
"If I agree to act as navigator, you'll release David?"
The Judge nodded his bald head once. "Aye. He'll be released into your care when we find a new navigator to replace you."
This could very well be a trap. Still, James suppressed the smile that threatened. "Sign me up." Trap or not, he was up for the task. Adventures like these were what he lived for. He liked to play games, and he was good at them. The Judge had no idea who he was up against.CHAPTER 2
Charity awakened with a start, her temples pounding with the intensity of a woodpecker tapping on her head. Where was she? She squinted at the wall of crates around her, and last night's events came back in a series of tangled images and sounds. A ship. She'd hidden in a storage room.
Light seeped through the spaces between the stacks, illuminating a narrow strip of her lavender petticoat. Dimly she remembered this gown, the finest she'd ever worn. Used for a wedding. Her wedding. She bolted upright. Dear God. Was she married? No, she couldn't be. Absolutely not.
Something rustled on the other side of the stacked boxes. A rat? She eased off the floor, inching her way closer to the source of the sound, and light. Light? Her heart pounded a few extra beats. A rat with a lantern? If only that could be true. She peered through a crack in the wall.
A grating creak rose up as a dark-haired man wrenched off the top of a crate with a knife of some kind. He shook his head with a brooding glare and grumbled, "Searched everywhere on this damnable ship. Well, almost everywhere."
He sheathed the vicious-looking dagger he'd used, and she pressed a hand to her mouth to quiet her stilted breaths, her attention turning to his other hip where a heavy pistol was tucked into his belt. What would he need with such weapons?
His tanned skin bronze in the candlelight, he rifled through the contents of a crate. "They wouldn't keep prisoners in an officer's cabin. Although I wouldn't put it past The Judge. Or maybe they have a secret compartment somewhere."
Prisoners? And who is The Judge?
"Never fear, brother. I'll tear apart this whole bloody ship if I have to," he murmured. The man wore no coat or waistcoat, but rather a light-colored shirt rolled up at the sleeves, its opening at the neck showing a great deal of broad chest while a green scarf hid much of his ebony hair. He exuded confidence in his stance and his angular features. Dark lashes framed eyes she'd almost call pretty, although nothing about this man was feminine.
"At least I can take something from you bastards." He lifted a glass bottle from the protective straw, and a satisfied smile spread across his face. "Did you sleep well, love?"
Panic jolted through her, and she staggered back a step, a loud gasp escaping her throat. He'd known she'd been watching all along?
His focus shifted, and his gaze turned sharp as he peered through the cracks in the wall of boxes. "Who goes?" he demanded, his hand drawing the dagger at his waist with lightning speed. His eyes widened for an instant. "David?"
Excerpted from Tempting the Pirate by Tamara Hughes, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2015 Tamara Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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