Grace Sullivan’s stomach roiled. It had little to do with the thrashing sea tossing the ship as though it was nothing more than a ball being bounced between children.
It had everything to do with the man who held her destiny in his cold-blooded hands.
Roche Santiago wasn’t known for his mercy toward his crew or his prisoners. Since the day he’d ripped her from the shores of Montserrat, Grace had been his prisoner and had been forced to endure his brutal ruthlessness. But until now, she hadn’t been locked in the brig.
Fear rattled inside her chest as every sort of awful fate she’d witnessed Roche deliver burst through her mind. He’d once flogged his boatswain and left him hanging off the bowsprit. Then there’d been the poor cabin boy who had been sliced open from groin to throat. Grace choked back the sickness charging up her throat. She’d lived through every atrocity he’d forced upon her. Somehow she’d find a way to survive this as well.
The barque pitched with the waves; water slopped over her shoes and sucked at the soaked hem of her skirt. Above her head feet pounded the deck as the crew struggled to control the sails. With only minimal light slipping through the hatch and closed gun ports, below decks was bleak as her future. Grace grabbed the bars of her prison, pressed her forehead to the cool metal.
She needed a plan. It mattered little that she had no weapon on her person, no allies willing to risk their lives for hers. She wouldn’t lie down and die, wouldn’t forget what she wanted from this life. What she’d wanted ever since being forced from Ireland—freedom.
There’d been a glimpse of it before Roche had taken her from one kind of hell to another and Grace vowed she’d have it again. With a crew of seventy men above decks, however, ’twas a lofty goal. And escaping wasn’t her only dilemma. Once she was free she had nowhere to go and no currency. She had nothing to barter with but her body.
Grace tightened her grip on the iron bars, turning her knuckles white. She wouldn’t trade her body. She hadn’t a choice with Roche, but she would from this point forward. If she survived.
“I’ll do more than survive,” she declared, even as she wondered how she’d manage it.
Ever since she’d first tried to gouge out Roche’s eyes with a hairpin, he’d seen to it there was nothing within reach she could use against him but her fists. They’d proven ineffective against his brute strength.
Grace peered beyond her prison. He’d never put her in the brig before and she knew what it meant that he did now. He had tired of her and meant to rid himself of her. There was one advantage she intended to use in her favor. Roche loved to torture. He could have killed her in his cabin, but instead he’d brought her here. No doubt to let fear build, to give her plenty of time to fret over her fate.
However Roche’s depravity was such that he wouldn’t simply fire his pistol through the bars. He would be after terrifying her further, which meant he’d be opening her cell. And when he did, she needed to be ready. Pulling an Irish ballad from her memory, Grace hummed as her mind worked quickly to form a plan, as her eyes darted about for something, anything, which would help her escape alive. The music calmed her, helped her think, and kept the hopelessness from overwhelming her. She reached for song whenever all seemed lost as it not only took her back to the best parts of home, it reminded her of what she was fighting for; to go back.
The hatch lifted. Dull grey light accompanied the man who stepped onto the ladder. The bottom fell out of Grace’s stomach and the music died in her throat. She needed more time! Her eyes hunted the dimness but fear blinded her and no amount of blinking helped. She shoved her thick mass of ebony hair over her shoulder and moved to the corner of her cell—as though Roche couldn’t reach her there.
He approached with determined purpose. Neither the swaying of the ship nor the water creeping over the toes of his boots slowed his long strides. Her gown, which had once been a simple and modest garment until Roche had hacked open the bodice until it barely contained her bosom, offered as little protection as it did modesty. With nothing else to hold onto, Grace wrapped her arms around herself.
Roche’s meaty fingers closed over the bars. Soulless eyes raked her from the tip of her shoes to the crown of her black hair. He sniffed as though he smelled her terror and his lips twisted beneath his mustache. One hand snaked around his back.
Grace pressed herself harder into the corner. She was all too familiar with what Roche kept in the small of his back. Terror assaulted her when he brought his arm round. Even in the limited light, the blade of his dagger gleamed ominously. He pressed it against the pad of his thumb and drew a drop of blood.
Digging into the pocket of his vest, Roche withdrew the key. “If it’s any consolation, wench, I will miss plunging my cock between your thighs.”
Grace had lived through her share of indignities as in indentured servant, but it was Roche who’d shown her the true meaning of horror and shame. He’d thrust them upon her despite her screams and struggles. Even now her skin shriveled at the thought of his hands on her.
Lord, if she had but a weapon she’d be showing him the same mercy he’d shown her.
The key slid into the lock and clicked open. Only an act of sheer will and a hand pressed firmly over her mouth kept Grace from retching. But a plan, such as it was, had come to her and she needed to keep alert and focused on the pirate.
The door swung inward and Roche prowled toward her.
How she’d love to throw herself at him, carve her nails into his face and leave permanent scars, just as his touch had done to her. But she couldn’t reveal her intent, not yet. Best he think her weak and completely at his mercy.
“Roche, please.” The tremors in her voice, at least, were real. “I’ll be doing anything you want. I won’t—” She swallowed the lie along with the panic. If this didn’t work… “I won’t make any further plans to escape.”
“You expect me to believe the word of a whore?”
He raised the blade, twisted his wrist from side to side. In a whirl of movement, he lunged and the dagger sliced across her sleeve.
Grace yelped, yanked her arm away. She expected pain but there was none. He’d only cut the fabric.
“Next time you won’t be so fortunate.”
Sweat trickled into her eyes, burning. Grace swiped her palm across her forehead. She braced her legs, even as she pleaded, “I’ll do anything, if you spare me life.”
His gaze was lecherous. “You already have.”
Blood roared in Grace’s ears but her attention was on the dagger. When next he moved, she’d be ready.
Earlier in the morning she’d overheard Roche speak of Cartegena and his intent to intercept Spanish ships leaving with mountains of gold. Despite two ships worth of plunder already filling his hold, Grace knew where he was heading. She couldn’t know how close they were to shore, however, not with the fog that had thwarted her hope of seeing Cartegena when she’d been dragged from Roche’s cabin to the brig. Yet if she could only get past Roche and his crew, if she took her chances by jumping overboard and if another ship were to see her, she’d stand a chance.
It was a staggering amount of ‘ifs’ but they were Grace’s only hope. For sure as she was trembling in her sodden shoes, she wouldn’t be alive by day’s end unless she managed to escape. And unlike her da, she was willing to do fight for her freedom, for her life.
A burst of noise came from above. Booted feet, what sounded like hundreds, thudded overhead. Raised voices shouted from bow to stern and every point in between.
Someone yelled through the hatch, “Ship, Captain! She’s flying a pirate flag.”
“How far?” Roche asked, his attention still solely on Grace.
“She’ll be within firing distance in minutes.”
“Bloody hell, didn’t you see her coming before now?”
“She was tucked around an island, sir. And with the fog…”
Roche growled. He loathed incompetence. He shifted his eyes toward the hatch. “Load the guns. Every man to his station.”
The distraction was better than Grace’s feeble plan and she didn’t hesitate. She kicked out, catching Roche’s wrist with the heel of her shoe. He cursed as the blade tumbled from his hand, splashed into the water. Shoving into Roche as hard as she could Grace knocked him aside. She grabbed her heavy skirts and raced for the cell door, her only chance at survival. She cleared the opening. Roche wasn’t far behind. His boots slapped the water, each splash louder than the first as he gained on her. Grace bolted toward the stairs and the hatch.
If he caught her…
Suddenly the opening filled with men and the light dimmed along with her chances.
“Stop her!” Roche bellowed.
Her blood ran cold as she realized the futility of her efforts and yet she couldn’t stop. Life was worth fighting for. Freedom was worth the risk. Without slowing her pace, she charged ahead. The men, hardened by years of hard work, proved impenetrable barriers. She shoved, ducked, dug for purchase and thrust with all her might. She gained nothing.
They pinched her arms, pawed her breasts. Someone grabbed a fistful of her hair. Her scalp exploded in pain. The smell of ripe bodies pressing in on her suffocated her as much as her fear.
“Out of my way,” Roche roared and the men dispersed like a flock of birds scared off a carcass.
He grabbed her from behind, spun her round. Rage pulsed red in his eyes.
“Nobody escapes me. Ever,” he said and before she could do more than lift her fingers to claw at him, his fist flew, slamming against her cheek.
The blow sent Grace reeling. Her ears rang and her eyes struggled to focus. Roche ordered the men who’d stopped to gawk back to their stations. Gun ports thrust open. Cannons were wheeled into position and loaded. Noise throbbed throughout the hull.
“Captain!” someone shouted from the mouth of the hatch. “She’s gaining!”
“Bring us about, and, when ready, give the order.” Roche untied the sash from his waist, wrapped an end around each fist and stepped toward Grace. “This shouldn’t take long,” he muttered.
Grace swallowed hard, a difficult task with a mouth gone dry as sand. Unblinking, her gaze latched onto the sash and what Roche intended to do with it. The cacophony of noise faded in the face of Grace’s distress. She was fast running out of time and options.
Fear had a taste. A metallic, tinny flavor that coated the roof of her mouth and numbed her lips. Roche licked his own as he savored her plight. He took a sudden leap toward her. Grace spun to the left. He’d anticipated her movements. He looped the silk around her throat and yanked her against him.
Grace’s hands flew to her neck but no amount of clawing eased the pressure. Soon her lungs burned. Her vision clouded. Her mouth gaped open but no sound came out.
Roche thrust his hips forward and his shoulders back, lifting Grace off the ground. Silent tears streamed down her cheeks as consciousness began to slip from her grasp.
Dimly, she heard a shot. Mere seconds later, an explosion ripped into the brig behind them. Debris went flying. Roche stumbled and lost his balance. The pressure on her throat eased and they tumbled down. She braced herself above the water and gasped for breath.
“Fire!” Roche yelled. “Now, you blooming idiots!”
Thunder roared around her. Water soaked her, chilling her skin. Grace had never felt anything so wonderful in her life. It meant she was alive. Still wheezing, she searched for Roche. In the melee of men loading and reloading the guns and the smoke hanging in the air, Grace couldn’t locate him. She could kiss whoever had attacked them, for he’d given her an escape when she’d feared one had been hopeless.
Struggling to her feet, Grace sought the hatch. Walking a straight line proved impossible. The battle, combined with the already turbulent sea, had Grace weaving like a drunkard. Cannon fire exploded in rapid succession, blasting her ears. The smoke and Roche’s attempt on her life had her throat burning. Grace wiped her mouth on her sleeve, scrambled for balance when the ship pitched to the side.
Her hands curled around something warm.
“Think you’re going somewhere, do you?”
Before she could answer the blade arced toward her. Grace screamed, the force if it searing her already raw throat. She curved her body away from the weapon but the blade drove through her skin as another round of shots tossed the ship hard to its starboard side. Grace fell amid the debris, the chaos. The blood.
Standing on the quarterdeck of his sloop, wheel firmly in hand and wind slashing through his dark hair and beard, Sam Steele braced his long legs and called for another round of guns.
He didn’t think of himself as Cale Hunter any more, hadn’t since he’d assumed the role of Steele four years ago. It was simpler to be the fearsome pirate. Steele didn’t have any worries other than his ship and crew. Steele wasn’t mired in memories and a lingering guilt, which refused to wane despite the passage of time.
“She’s coming about!” Aidan shouted. While Steele usually referred to his first mate as a boy, though he was in his twentieth year, he couldn’t deny Aidan was a born sailor.
Steele watched the barque begin its turn. She was a bigger ship, three-masted as opposed to his sloop’s one, but she was heavier and it would take her longer to turn.
“Prepare to jibe.”
“Prepare to jibe!” Aidan called as he leapt off the quarterdeck, the tails of the black bandana he wore over his blonde hair fluttered behind him.
Unlike the barque, which was heading into the wind bow first, his maneuver would take them through stern first. It was a trickier move and it wasn’t near as smooth as a come about, not to mention it could do damage to the sails and the rigging, but Steele preferred it. The challenge got his blood pumping.
The sea crashed around them, shooting saltwater up and over the gunwale. Steele tasted the brine on his lips, smelled it in the air. He watched, heart rate accelerating as Aidan and the crew tightened the mainsheet. It would help control the boom during the jibe. He looked further to the bow, ensured there were men handling the jib sheet.
Bracing his feet even further apart, he called, “Jibe, ho!” and turned the sloop across the wind.
The jib was blown backward and the boom and mainsail swung fast across the deck. Men ducked, lest they be caught and thrown into the turbulent sea.
“Hurry with the jibs!” he shouted as one was hauled in while another was released.
Hands moved quickly and effectively. Aidan let out the mainsheet and trimmed the mainsail for the new heading. They’d accomplished their turn and the barque was still in mid-process.
“Fire the guns!” Steele shouted before the other ship could come across for a full broadside.
The sloop shuddered and recoiled as its starboard guns blasted the other ship.
“Swivel guns!” he yelled and the smaller guns mounted at the bow and stern roared.
Every shot that plunged into the belly of the other ship brought Steele a grim sense of satisfaction. His sloop might be outgunned and outmanned but it was unmatched in crew and agility. Still, theirs wasn’t the only ship with swivel guns.
“Watch yourselves,” Steele hollered, though he doubted he was heard over the shot blasting from the other ship.
The cannonball tore through the gunwale, shook the deck below his feet. The next missed, but the whistle of it as it flew past set his teeth.
“Captain?” Aidan called.
Down the deck, Aidan already had a hand and foot on the rigging. He had a bow in one hand, two muskets in the other and a quiver full of arrows strapped to his back. Neither Steele nor Aidan were foolish enough to rely on arrows alone, not when every other miscreant carried blunderbusses, muskets, and pistols, but those took time to reload. And so, while Aidan also had muskets, once his shots were spent he turned to his arrows. He was bloody fast and accurate with those.
“Get up there.” Steele pointed. “And don’t come down until you’re out of shots and arrows.”
Aidan was halfway up the rigging before Steele’s orders were fully given.
The barque, in a better position now, let her guns loose.
Screams plunged into his head as they always did, and echoed louder than any cannon fire. He could handle the battle, never turned away from a fight, but the agonized cries of his men were one of the few things that bit into his soul.
Because every time he heard one, Cale Hunter broke through Steele’s defenses and taunted him. Are you going to fail to protect them as well?
Steel tossed his head. Cale and his damned guilt had no business on the Revenge. He yanked the wheel, and the sheets snapped and strained.
“Reload the guns. We’re bringing the wench down.”
With a single-minded purpose, Steele handled his ship, evaded as best he could, and showed no mercy in countering every attack that blew into the Revenge. He came at them hard from the cannons and, once closer, the muskets and Aidan’s razor-sharp arrows. Sweat slid down Steele’s back but he kept at them, pushing his men to the point of exhaustion.
His sails were peppered with holes from the pistols and muskets and the mainsheet had a gaping tear where a cannon ball had ripped through. Arrows protruded from the deck and gunwale. Their opponent’s archer wasn’t much of a threat, but the man handling the swivel guns was. With a blunderbuss in hand, Steele extended his left arm, aimed down the barrel and fired. The recoil hadn’t finished when a musket shot blew into the poop deck behind him.
“Goddammit!” He dropped, exchanged weapons from the ones at his feet. Grabbing a pistol he peered over the wheel.
The man on the other ship’s swivel gun was no longer standing but another was scrambling through the smoke and flying debris to replace him at the bow. Steele came up, hand steady, and ensured he wouldn’t be fired upon again.
“They’re dropping the longboat on the starboard side!” Aidan yelled from his perch in the rigging.
Since they were hammering the barque’s port side, Steele hadn’t noticed. And, in truth, he didn’t care who got away. The devil could have their crew for all he cared, so long as he got the spoils of the ship and none of them tried to stop him. If they did, they’d die for their troubles.
With Aidan hurling arrow after arrow, each amazingly accurate, and the rest of his men firing grenados, stinkpots, and any weapon they could get their hands on, Steele kept the guns belching. He didn’t let up until the masts on the other ship were shattered and poked through the fallen sails like broken bones protruding from skin.
With no means of escape, it wasn’t much longer before a sailor, oozing blood from his temple, staggered to the gunwale of the listing ship and waved the white flag. Only then did Steele allow himself to breathe.
“Hold fire!” Steele shouted. He called for the sails to be brought in. “Aidan, shoot anything that moves,” he said, calling up to his first mate, who had yet to climb down to the deck.
With the guns quiet, Steele could once again hear. The slap of the water seemed especially loud as it smacked the ship and spat upward. Seawater dripped from his beard.
Seeing Smoky nearby, Steele called him over. “Take the wheel.”
Smoky, who was only ever seen without a cigar hanging from his mouth when he was asleep or eating, stepped over shards of wood, jumped over a large hole in the deck and took the steps to the quarterdeck. Not only did the man love his cigars, he resembled one as well. Stocky and thick, his arms were like sausages and his legs were sturdy as tree trunks. Smoky and Aidan shared the same fair hair, a complete opposite to their captain, whose hair was black as pitch and whose eyes, he was told, were blue as ice.
“Keep her steady. I’ll ready a party to go over.”
Steele reloaded his pistol and ensured he had plenty of extra shots as well as two dirks and a sword. He chose a fistful of men and waited for the grapple hooks to be thrown over. The churning sea made lowering a plank impossible, so they used ropes and swung over onto the barque.
The deck of the other ship appeared as something a dog had chewed and spat out. Twisted and torn sails lay ravished among the clutter of timbers which used to be the mainmast. Two-dozen men stood motionless, their hands in the air, their countenance distrustful. He didn’t blame them; he’d be leery in their position as well.
“Gather and secure the prisoners.”
Wounded sailors shuffled and limped as they were herded toward the bow. They were tied to the base of the fore and mizzenmast while Steele kept a wary eye to ensure knives weren’t pulled from sashes or boots.
“Check the injured,” he said once the others were secured.
Because it was a plot he’d seen—and used—too often not to be guarded, he waited until the men lying bleeding amidst the devastation were accounted for.
Only when all had been checked—fifteen corpses in total—and the threat above deck was gone, did he lower his pistol and step to the gunwale. The fog remained thick. Even so, he saw the longboat fade into the gray as it made its escape. Counting the shadows, three men had escaped. He didn’t give them another moment’s thought.
Maneuvering through the wreckage, Steele made his way to where the main hatch should be. It was completely hidden underneath the thick heavy canvas that had once been the foresail. He tucked his pistol into his waist. His men, seeing what needed to be done, stepped to help. Other than some heaving and grunting, the task was accomplished without sound.
With the hatch now accessible, Steele nodded. Two of his crew lifted the access while their captain once again ensured his pistol was at the ready. With the weapon firmly in his palm, he signaled his men to follow him down.
The hold was equally as battered as what they’d seen above decks. Holes in the hull let in sickly light, allowing them to see without benefit of lanterns. The walls of the hold had been decimated and barrels which had once been secured now bobbed and rolled on the water covering Steele’s boots. The smell of burned gunpowder and seared flesh shoved its way to the back of Steele’s throat. A few cadavers floated in the brackish water, their skin unusually pale in the dim light. But there was too much clutter; too many dark shadows to be certain if there were any survivors. With weapons in hand, they fanned out.
Wet air crept through the gun ports. The smell of death, the silence—other than the water splashing as he and his men walked through it—added an eeriness to the scene. Normally, Steele didn’t pay much heed to that sort of rubbish. If he found a ship, he plundered it, sank it, and moved on. Yet, as he walked around the barrels, as he poked the floating bodies with his boot, he couldn’t escape the uneasiness sliding around his mouth like soured wine. Glancing behind him, he saw nothing but the three men he’d brought along doing the same thing he was. Turning round, he noticed the brig ahead, its door gaping open. It didn’t mean a prisoner was loose. He had no way of knowing whether they’d even had a prisoner. But Steele wasn’t taking any chances. His finger curled a little tighter on the trigger. Inching toward the door of the cell, he raised his weapon.
And heard someone humming behind him.
He whipped around, dropped into a crouch and aimed the pistol. He’d expected a ragged sailor, a no-good pirate clinging to what was left of his sorry, wretched life. He’d never expected this.
The gun went slack in his palm. Holy Mother of God.
End of Excerpt